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May 28, 2022

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Two Vancouver veterans recount their service

Devotion to country and fellow service members vitally important, they say

By , Columbian staff writer
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Vietnam War veteran Bob Ferguson of Vancouver talks about one of his self-published books. He enjoys sharing his stories and sees them as a way to keep history alive.
Vietnam War veteran Bob Ferguson of Vancouver talks about one of his self-published books. He enjoys sharing his stories and sees them as a way to keep history alive. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Veterans Day pays tribute to American soldiers, both living and dead, whose experiences are complex and varied based on when, where and why they served. There is a sentiment, however, that weaves a common thread through these themes of war and peacetime: Their experience served as a valuable life lesson.

The Vietnam War

Bob Ferguson of Vancouver wrote a book about his experience in Vietnam, and a driving force behind this was answering his grandson’s question: Why did the U.S. lose the Vietnam War?

After graduating college with degrees in psychology, sociology and speech, Ferguson joined the Marine Corps at 21 years old.

During his first tour in 1968, Ferguson was a navigator in a reconnaissance unit. In his second tour, he worked in fort air control — the latter of which introduced him to the realities of war. He called in airstrikes if troops were being attacked, as well as recorded casualties. There would be conflict on the field, Ferguson said, but they would go out the next day ready to do it over again.

“It placed a great value on everyday life,” he said. “I learned the value of life at a very young age.”

Ferguson doesn’t believe everyone did. In his view, the Vietnam War wasn’t lost, because so many lives were saved. He witnessed this himself when he was stationed at the “Dog Patch” encampment, where he defended the Vietnamese villagers that lived near a hill.

When his troop vehicle hit a land mine, Ferguson was burned over 80 percent of his body. He spent nearly a year in and out of the hospital. While recuperating, he said he met many young troops who, although they lost limbs or faced other severe injuries, said being a Marine was one of the best things to happen to them — just as Ferguson did.

Soon after, he was medically retired from the Marine Corps and had a brief career in the nonprofit sector, then worked as a stockbroker. During this time, he wasn’t as involved in the veteran community, he said.

At least, not until he discovered a new talent.

In 2008, Ferguson discovered a love for writing and began to self-publish a variety of his quips, quotes and quandaries — some pertaining to his service, some not. Ferguson said he values sharing his stories, whether it’s in his books or at an open mic night, because it’s how he can write himself into history. He even hosts workshops to help others do the same.

“Without your witness, your story disappears altogether,” Ferguson said.

The Korean War

Kenneth Smith of Vancouver dropped out of college to join the Marine Corps with his friend. They volunteered to protect a country they loved, he said.

After boot camp and advanced combat training, he and 5,000 other troops were loaded onto a ship bound for South Korea in December 1953. After they arrived at Yokohama, they were transferred into smaller boats to the Bay of Inchon.

“You have no idea what the hell you’re gonna see (when you’re waiting on that boat),” Smith said.

He was instantly on high alert as he trudged through the cold water and reached the beach — all while under fire. Everything he needed to survive, from weapons to food, was in his pack. He became a 240-pound machine as he fought in the middle of many skirmishes. Smith also protected the Marines’ lifeline of food, weapons and other supplies.

After serving in the Marine Corps for four years, Smith moved home to Anacortes. He worked for a warehouser and, eventually, a manufacturing company. He said he’s still suffering from some of the fallout of Korea but it’s nothing he can’t handle, especially with the help of his wife and other veterans.

“I get emotional,” he said. “It’s hard to talk about, but I would do it over again because I love my country.”

After his service, Smith received supplies and medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. He was invited to events throughout the country through various programs honoring veterans, including an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. However, Smith said he feels like he doesn’t deserve those things — he didn’t ask for it. All he expected to get from his work, if anything, was being able to continue his education under the G.I. Bill.

“I joined the war to protect our country. It was all from my heart,” Smith said. “I didn’t do it for all of the accolades and stuff.”

The Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fidelis,” is what Smith will carry with him for the rest of his life, he said, because his loyalty to his fellow troops and the country is everlasting.

“I’ll always be faithful,” he said.

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