Vietnam, a look back: Part I

By Michaela Judge | Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs | June 17, 2015

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. — Editor's Note: Mr. Michael Petersen's story is a four-part series that takes an in-depth look at the hardships, camaraderie and challenges of the Vietnam War and integration back into daily life once returning home. Petersen is a retired Air Force Reserve command chief master sergeant and currently works as a government civilian leading Joint Base Charleston's Equal Opportunity Office.

The burning of the Southeast Asian sun felt like a roaring furnace as he took his first step off the plane and onto Vietnamese soil; the excruciating temperatures and unusual, strong smells were a far cry from Orange County, Ca.; but then again, this was war.

Just weeks earlier, in August 1969, Private Michael Petersen, a student at Fullerton Junior College, was working as a summer hire for Pennzoil Company.

Born in Idaho and raised on the western shores of California, Petersen was the son of a U.S. Marine veteran, but never foresaw himself following in his father's military footsteps.

The draft, however, changed those plans.

"When I was 20 I served a two and a half year mission for our church in Norway. When I returned home, I was taking 13 college credit hours. I had a Chemistry class that was beating me up, so I dropped the class," said Petersen.

Just six weeks after dropping the class, Petersen had a draft notice on his doorstep because he had fallen below the 12 credit hour limit for school deferment.

"I have real issues with Chemistry classes," Petersen laughed. "They were that scrutinizing of students and their school status back then."

Admittedly naïve to the way the military operated, Petersen took his notice to report to Los Angeles for a physical. He told his parents he would see them that evening.

As fate would have it, Petersen left for his physical appointment and wouldn't see his family again until after he received the title of Army Private many weeks later.

"Really, if you were just breathing and warm, you were going to be inducted. So we went through [the physical] and toward the afternoon, when I thought we were about done, about 100 of us went into a room and the military police guys shut the doors," said Petersen.

An officer walked up to a podium and told everyone to raise their right hand to the square.

"So we raised our hands, looked around at each other like, "What's really going on here?" We were sworn in right there to the Army," he said.

Within a few hours, the new inductees were put on a bus to Fort Ord, Ca., San Francisco Bay bound for boot camp.

"I knew right then I wasn't going home that night. We arrived about four in the morning. These guys with these round hats got on the bus and starting calling us all kinds of names and our families names...and so there I was...in the Army now," said Petersen.

Following boot camp, Petersen was given the opportunity to choose his career field if he elected to take on an additional year of Army commitment - and so began his journey in Army aircraft maintenance.

"I decided to go to aviation school, because I'd always liked aviation and thought this would be a good deal. Probably most everyone then would have been infantry, so I thought it might be a good move," he said.

After three weeks of technical training at Ft. Rucker Army Post in Alabama, Petersen took leave for a short visit with his family. Saying his goodbyes, he made the trek across the country and around the world, ultimately landing on the dusty streets of Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam: War.