A couple of weeks. That was the difference between Rudy Evenson going to the Vietnam War and staying home.
On Dec. 1, 1969, the U.S. government implemented a lottery system for determining which men would be required to serve in the military. It was a system in which Evenson, a Montana native who had recently graduated from Northwest Nazarene College with a sociology degree, likely never would have been called upon to serve.
But it was mid-November 1969 when Evenson was drafted and ordered to report to the Army. Two weeks stood between him and the absence of war.
“I just remember thinking how unlucky I was,” he said.
He was unlucky, but not undutiful. Evenson served in the Army for 13 months — fighting humidity, boredom, the Viet Cong and for his life.
Later, he would spend 33 years helping others fend for their own future.
‘THANK THE LORD I WASN’T THERE’
The first half of his tenure in Vietnam was spent in an artillery command center. From a room in this “fire direction center,” Evenson would receive enemy coordinates, pinpoint the spots on a map, then relay specific directions such as shell type and powder amount to other soldiers.
The center’s only protection against the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies was 12 .50-caliber machine guns. A few times, enemy forces attempted to overrun the premises — mostly to no avail. However, one time several Americans were killed at point-blank range during a skirmish.
“Thank the Lord I wasn’t there,” Evenson said.
For the most part, Evenson and the crew at the fire direction center experienced Vietnam in a way not often portrayed on TV or in the movies.
Believe it or not, they were bored.
“As a result of that, we would get very complacent,” Evenson said, adding that the heat, humidity and daydreams of home were major factors.
It was a constant struggle. Men would fall asleep all over the place — even while on guard duty.
‘EVENSON, CAN YOU TYPE?’
“Evenson, can you type?” a commanding officer queried one day, about halfway through Evenson’s tour of duty. He could, and it got him out of the field and into a relatively safe position as a clerk at a large base.
“I took typing in high school. Probably when I did it I said, ‘I’ll never use this,’” Evenson recalled with a wry smile.
His new gig removed him from danger for the duration of his military service — that is, except for infrequent guard duty. His last time on guard duty was less than a week before he returned home.
Leaving nothing to chance, Evenson said he wore every layer of protection he could possibly find, “Knowing that next Saturday, I’d be at home in the United States.”
Despite his opinion that the Vietnam War was a waste of young lives, he said it was a good experience for him. However, he’s not sure he would feel that way if he’d gone through rougher circumstances, such as constant booby traps and surprise attacks.
“I didn’t have to worry about who was behind the next tree, so to speak,” he said.
Evenson’s experiences prior to and during the war intertwined to shape his life after it.
Within two months of arriving back in the U.S., Evenson began putting his sociology degree to good use as a juvenile corrections officer in Boise. He did that for about eight years before transitioning into adult corrections for the state of Idaho for the next quarter century. He retired 12 years ago.
His university studies proved useful, as did the lifetime’s worth of real-world education he received for 13 months in Southeast Asia.
“Drugs and alcohol were so rampant,” Evenson said. “You could buy a vial of heroin for five bucks from the little kids on the street.”
He recalled numerous instances of soldiers coming to work drunk — at times even with a beer in hand. It saddened Evenson, but it also uniquely prepared him for a long career of dealing with ex-inmates who struggle with substance abuse.
“That was first-hand knowledge for me.”
Now retired, Evenson’s day-to-day life has slowed considerably. But his energy continues to burst through in activities such as volunteerism, part-time work and road biking.
He also has ample time to spend with his family, which includes his wife, two sons and one grandchild.
“My one goal is to take them back to Vietnam and find places where I was,” he said — back to the place where he willingly served, but for what purpose he still wonders.
“We accomplished, in my opinion, nothing,” Evenson said. He doesn’t agree with the United States’ attempts to fight other countries’ wars and expect them to duplicate the American system.
Nonetheless, he is proud to be among the many who’ve served the country.
“The men and the women who are in the military still give me goose bumps,” he said.