Content starts here
AARP AARP States Wyoming Veterans

How My Military Experience Shaped Me

Billy Montgomery
Courtesy Billy Montgomery

At 17 years old, I had dropped out of school and like most teenagers I thought I had all the answers in this life. In 1968 I volunteered to serve three years in the United States Army where I was trained as a Field Artillery crew member. Basic training was definitely an eye-opener because that’s when I realized that I needed to grow up and grow up fast. I acquired new skills while in basic training, things like shining shoes and ironing my uniform. I find that I still shine my shoes every day and I still prefer heavy starch in my clothes. I learned how to be part of a team and took pride in myself and my country. It turns out I wasn’t old enough to serve in VietNam after Advanced Individual Field Artillery training like the others in my class, so I was assigned to go to Germany. During my service, I learned to respect and appreciate each and every person I met, regardless of how they looked or where they came from. A philosophy that has continued to serve me well throughout my life.

In 1970 I volunteered for Vietnam. This was the year that I found most influential to my life. Never would I have imagined that this one year could haunt me for the rest of my life, but it has.

I thought my Vietnam experience was over when I was able to return home and I believed that everything would be fine, only to learn that even though I left VietNam, it never left me. It started with the guilt I felt for leaving my buddies behind in that world as I was heading home. One early memory of the effects of my tour happened while I had been in country less than 6 hours and was waiting for my connecting flight home. I stopped in at a little coffee bar to buy a cold coke. It wasn’t a busy place, only a few people were there. I remember a couple of older men talking and drinking their coffee while a young lady was working the counter. I ordered a coke and when she sat the can down in front of me I lost my mind for a moment. I was enraged and told her that I was not going to drink that because I didn’t see her open it.

I realized that she was baffled by my behavior and just stood there staring at me. I could feel the two older gentlemen staring as well. I paid for the coke and left a tip but did not take it with me. I walked away and found a dark part of the airport where I sat alone, until my flight arrived. Over the years I have had other experiences where I found myself having bursts of rage over things being said or done that seem pretty minor in hindsight.

There hasn’t been a day that goes by that I do not think about Vietnam or the men I served with. Sometimes it’s a smell, or it could be a sound that will send me back to that year. Even while sleeping my time in Vietnam would often creep into my dreams. Quiet mornings became the hardest time for me. It was during my morning ritual, as the rest of the family was still asleep, I would sit down to have my cup of coffee and my mind would drift back to my tour of duty. Through the years, I discovered if I kept myself busy I could keep my mind from reeling back to this time and my memories of my time in Vietnam.

My wife pushed me to talk to someone at the VA, so during one of my routine VA check-ups I told the Doctor about my not sleeping and the dreams I had been having. It was really hard to talk to her about it but she suggested I talk to a therapist. It was even harder to talk to the therapist because I had to admit that I needed some help. Eventually I became more comfortable talking to my therapist even though most sessions consisted of my sitting and crying in front of her.

During my last session she asked me what I was thinking, I told her that I finally felt at peace with my life and I wished I hadn’t waited until I was in my 60s to seek help.

During my time in Vietnam It was during this time that I learned the true meaning of honor, duty and country. I learned to be grateful for the simple things that I had taken for granted such as having a hot meal, clean clothes and a hot bath. I also learned the value of life itself. This tour taught me one of the most important lessons, which was to care for my fellow soldiers. My time in Vietnam gave me essential skills that I utilize today in my service as a deputy corner when consoling grieving families.

The life lesson I want to share with my brothers and sisters is this; if you need help, please seek it and do it now, don’t wait until you’re in your 60s.

I continue to volunteer with many nonprofit organizations such as AARP, Campbell County Prevention Council and work with suicide prevention and serve on the Gillette City Council. I believe we each need to take time to look out for one another and help out wherever we can. I guess you can say my service in the Army taught me many lessons that were crucial in making me the man I am today.

About AARP Wyoming
Contact information and more from your state office. Learn what we are doing to champion social change and help you live your best life.