CURT SYNNESS For independent recording
Helena’s John Zavalney fits comfortably into the Vietnam veteran creed: “Everyone gave. Some gave their all.
“My story is not that of a great hero,” says Zavalney, 77, “just survival as a conscript, and I was able to help save lives as an army lab technician .”
His parents came from Russia, and Zavalney is “the proud son of immigrants” and very happy to be “born in the United States” and not in Russia.
Her father fought in World War I and came back with a slightly injured leg. His stepfather, John, was in Patton’s tank brigade during World War II. And his mother was part of the VFW Ladies Auxiliary and sold poppies every Veterans Day.
After graduating from Glasgow High in 1963 and a failed attempt at college, Zavalney was drafted into the army on April 4, 1968. He attended boot camp at Fort Lewis, Washington, and the medical school at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. And he remembers worrying about being qualified enough to save lives.
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Because one of Zavalney’s two older brothers, Harold, was an Air Force navigator in Vietnam, he was initially not among the 80% with orders for Southeast Asia. Instead, he departed for Fort Polk, Louisiana, as part of an ambulance squad. Duty was very boring, consisting of watching the occasional parade or rounding up weaker guys from long rides. Zavalney’s commandant considered him an ambitious soldier (he washed his ambulance every day to beat boredom) and he was recommended for the hospital laboratory.
“I felt so blessed to be out of the ambulance racket that to start doing all the crappie work just felt wonderful,” he wrote in his memoir “Fortunate Vietnam War Story.” “I remember bleeding the sheep and making all the culture plates with the blood of the sheep.
“Blood draw day was Friday, for the blood units sent to Vietnam, and I got pretty good at sticking the big needle into the arms of about 30 guys. We had a lot of volunteers because the soldiers had the rest of the day off to donate their blood.”
On-the-job training and some good appraisal marks resulted in his military occupation specialty (MOS) being changed to a lab technician. And soon enough, his brother finished his Vietnam tour, and Zavalney was sent overseas.
After about three days of training – he jumped on the M16 rifle shot, thinking “If I were to die it would be by a bomb, or I’d miss hitting the Viet Cong and they wouldn’t” – he landed in the Republic of Vietnam on March 15, 1969. Zavalney was assigned to the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh, about 80 km from Saigon.
The 24th Evac Hospital specialized in head injuries and had “several high-level doctors”. When John learned that there was also a tennis court there, he packed his large green duffel bag with his racquet sticking out of the top. He described the facilities as a group of Quonset huts sheltered by sandbags.
The job involved 12-hour shifts and the most critical job was comparing blood, in an effort to save lives. There wasn’t a lot of equipment to do the blood test, so the microscope became their main tool. Zalvaney learned to identify the different types of malaria and created a whole collection of microscope slides of these types.
The hardest part of his job was drawing blood from wounded soldiers. “A lot of guys would rather be dead than paralyzed and ask me to kill them,” he recalled. “In one case, the only place I was able to get a good blood draw was from his ear due to an IV and missing body parts.”
He said their free time was spent “exercise, drinking beer, playing a lot of volleyball” and listening to a Vietnamese band sing with an accent at the hospital bar. His tennis racket has gathered dust in the corner, for lack of tennis balls and opponents.
And just because Zavalney wasn’t a combat veteran doesn’t mean he never met the enemy. Next to the hospital was a prisoner compound that housed about 200 captured North Vietnamese, and lab technicians had to do blood tests on the sick.
“The first time I had to go I asked the guard, ‘Won’t you come with me?'” John wrote. “When he slammed the door behind me, he said, ‘No, you can handle it!’ So there I was just holding a lab tray with only a needled syringe to protect me, surrounded by a few hundred enemies staring at me in the open yard I… looked at the guard in a pleading manner, but he just smiled and walked away.
“But after a few passes in ‘enemy territory’, I recovered my strut and greeted them in Vietnamese.”
On another occasion, he discovered that the local barber who had shaved him was with the Viet Cong after he disappeared, so he could claim the enemy “had a straight razor to his throat” and he survived for talk about. Then there was the moment when Zavalney and another lab technician were helping to take the dead to their makeshift morgue, and after setting it on the floor and walking away, the bag jumped off. But when they investigated to see if the soldier was still alive, they discovered the movement had been caused by a loose plank they had stepped on.
A memorable event happened when he and four other guys from Glasgow met for a beer. The photo of the rally hangs in the museum in Glasgow.
Zavalney received a Section VIII, Chapter 5 “AR 635-200 SPN 413 school release rad” and left Vietnam on January 4, 1970, after nine months in the RVN. He was honorably released from service the following day. The next day he boarded a plane for Billings, to enroll in Eastern Montana College (now MSU-Billings). Once they landed in Magic Town, after a quick trip to the airport bathroom, John grabbed his gym bag and rushed for a cab ride to college.
“So about two days out of the war-torn country, I was still wearing my army green clothes, signing up for classes, where I got a lot of stares from the students who were also signing up,” he wrote. “Standing in front of a table offering lessons in philosophy and sociology, the college professor on the other side was staring at me for a long time. I thought, Oh my God, here are my first comments of protest against the war.
“He finally said, ‘Your zipper is down.’ That’s the closest I came to being harassed about my role in the Vietnam War.”
Zavalney graduated from Eastern in 1972 as a business major. Most of his career he worked for the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, doing economic research, for 29 years. John has three children – Nathan, Matthew and Katrina – and one grandchild. Among his hobbies are photography and managing the Governor’s Cup.
“To a large degree, the responsibility of being a lab technician in a war zone, saving and healing lives, changed me for the good,” he concluded, looking back on his service in Vietnam. . “I worked my way up to an E-5 (sergeant) in less than two years, and realized I could be successful in life.”
Curt Synness, a Navy veterinarian, can be reached at 406-594-2878 or [email protected] He is also on Twitter @curtsynness_IR