The autumn afternoon light casts a warm glow in the library where Jim Dykstra stands, holding a collection of yellowed, hand-written letters in his hand.
“These were from my sister,” he says with a kind tone. “She was in college at the time.”
“What did you write to her about?” I ask.
“Oh, you know, she was interested in boys, so discussed that a lot,” he says with a little laugh.
He sets the letters down on the wooden table, where carefully placed photos and strange sculptures are displayed. In a small metal frame there’s a picture of a young man with glasses, smiling cautiously for the camera. Jim smiles.
“That’s me,” He says proudly. “When I was younger, of course.”
The picture was taken in the summer of 1969, he tells me, when he was in his early 20s. He looks tan, the weather hot. His sleeves are rolled up, his bespectacled eyes squinting from the sun. But this is not a vacation picture. The palm trees were not swaying with a tropical summer breeze.
“This was when I went to Vietnam,” he explains. “When I was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.”
Being in the U.S. Army was not where Jim Dykstra had expected to end up after graduating college. A Wisconsin-born farm boy, his dreams of going to grad school as a literary critic were already breaking the boundaries of the familial norm. However, by the time he had his bachelor’s degree in hand, the government had removed grad-school deferments, and Jim found himself A1, or draft-ready.
“Instead of attending graduate school at the University of Minnesota to become a literary critic, I ended up scrambling, getting a job as a reporter,” Jim explains. “First at the Stevens Point Daily Journal in Wisconsin, and then at the Sheboygan Press, before getting drafted.”
He received his notice on his birthday, October 4, 1968. Twenty days later, Jim Dykstra entered the U.S. Army. The experience was something unprecedented. He went to Fort Huachuca, went through basic training, found himself with orders to deploy and the title of “information specialist”.
When he arrived in Vietnam in August of 1969, the phrase “culture shock” didn’t begin to describe it.
“I remember they got me and 15 other guys, and put us in the back of a deuce-and-a-half, gave us our flak jackets and M-16’s, and told us what to do if we were attacked,” he tells me. “So they’re going around and 14 of them were 11Bravo-infantry. Everybody’s saying, ‘What am I doing with the 82nd. I’m not jump qualified.’ And here’s me, and I said, ‘Well I’m an information specialist.’ And I’ll never forget, one of the guys said, ‘You mean you were an information specialist.’ So it was funny.”
It turned out that an information specialist in the Army in Vietnam had a lot of different jobs. From public affairs duties, to journalism tasks like editing, writing and photography.
“I edited the in-country magazine called Credibulus, and did a lot of hometown news releases,” Jim says. “We sent articles to the Stars and Stripes. With the 82nd we had the Pacific Paraglide, which was our in-theater newspaper that we had as well. We had information specialists who were at the battalion and company level, but we would take reporters out to the field.”
It was more than just sending out leaflets and hometown news releases, though. A soldier is a soldier, no matter what the MOS.
And in Vietnam, the war was all-encompassing.
“When we got mortared, that was a first time experience for me,” he says.
“We were up at Phu Ly about 2 o’clock in the morning [when it happened]. We scrambled; we’re put on the edge of a ditch and told to fire at the first thing you see moving that may be coming up on the other side of the ditch. That again, for a guy who had had only basic training and was ‘a writer not a fighter’, as I say, was definitely an experience that I will never, never forget.”
Soldiers had their fair share of heavy-handed duties…from both sides of the fence.
“There was no question that we were trying to prove that we were winning our part of the war. Nobody wants to admit things aren’t going as well as they could in your area. It was a tough time to be in the military.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, also a Vietnam veteran, was recently asked what he would have asked the defense secretary in his day, if given the chance.
“I might have asked, if I would have had the courage to ask, ‘what is our objective in Vietnam?’” Hagel said. This was a sentiment shared by many, soldiers and civilians alike, which, unfortunately, made being a veteran harder than it already was in some cases.
“The public confidence had waned and enthusiasm for the war,” Jim says. “The same thing was holding in Congress. And we were sort of betwixt and between, and especially the college graduates who got drafted and actually went in and served. People returning from Vietnam were being spat on. It was a very hard time to be in.”
But it was one that would change the life of Jim Dykstra forever.
“It was a real eye-opener for me,” he says. “Even though I was a college graduate, you know, I was from a little town in Wisconsin, grew up on a farm, and had never been outside of the immediate Midwestern states. So it really broadened my world view to bring me in contact with people I had never met before.”
After twenty-one months in the Army, Jim was honorably discharged from his service. A Vietnam veteran, with more life experience gained in less than two years than some might see in a lifetime.
Now, you might think that was the end of the story for him, but it was only just beginning. From there, Jim dedicated his life to bettering the lives of service members and their families.
“I came back from Vietnam in — I was back about a month, I went back to the newspaper I’d been working at, and got assigned to cover a day in the campaign of the local congressman, Bill Steiger of Wisconsin. I was at the Sheboygan Press, and was enormously impressed with him. But still I had never thought of coming to Washington,” Jim explains.
But life, it seems, had different plans.
The next summer Bill Steiger’s press secretary apparently left, and he offered Jim a job as his press secretary, to handle issues of particular interest to him. Rep. Steiger was a member first of the Education and Labor Committee and then later the Ways and Means Committee, and one of his pet interests was the all-volunteer force.
“There was still the draft going on, and he believed that we should move to an all-volunteer force. So, I ended up taking responsibility for that.”
“I really feel it was a bit of an irony as a guy who got drafted, that I then was able to help bring an end to the draft.”
Jim’s two years in the Army as a draftee paid off in this new role.
“Having a good grasp of the issues and having credibility as I was dealing with people at the Pentagon, and in military circles, and on the armed services committees of the House and Senate [was immensely helpful],” he says.
He was also instrumental in helping to move legislation that helped service members, veterans and their families, starting with improving pay and other quality of life items for the military.
“Many of the folks who were in Congress or [were] staffers at the time, had not served in the military,” he says. “There were very few folks who had actually served down in the enlisted ranks and knew what life was all about. So, we were able to significantly raise pay and improve benefits generally.”
He also encouraged his boss to introduce the first bill in the Senate to reinstate G.I. bill education benefits which had been ended after the Vietnam War. That became known as the Montgomery G.I. Bill.
In January of 1991, Jim Dykstra became the deputy assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs; the week Desert Storm broke out, as circumstance would have it. Jim spent the last two years of President George Herbert Walker Bush’s presidency in that position. He attributes part of his success to his military experience.
“I did, having never imagined certainly when I got drafted and when I got sent to Vietnam, that I would ever be in a nice, fancy office in the Pentagon,” he says with a smile. “It was a great job, and I felt it was again, I’d had the grooming for it because I was responsible for working on behalf of the Defense Department’s programs, so with the Senate, particularly with the Armed Services and Defense Appropriations Committees.”
Jim now spends his days working as a principal in the government relations firm of Edington, Peel and Associates, but that picture of himself as a young, tan, 82nd Airborne information specialist still sits in its frame, close at hand.
“I feel it keeps me grounded,” he says with a knowing smile. “To remember the roots from whence I’d come.”
Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed with Science. She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.
Disclaimer: The appearance of hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the Department of Defense of this website or the information, products or services contained therein. For other than authorized activities such as military exchanges and Morale, Welfare and Recreation sites, the Department of Defense does not exercise any editorial control over the information you may find at these locations. Such links are provided consistent with the stated purpose of this DOD website.