“The war is over, but Vietnam is forever.”
There is not a moment during Randy Short’s time serving as a combat fighter in Vietnam that he does not remember.
Short, who was drafted to serve in 1967 at the age of 20, had never even heard of Vietnam prior to his basic training.
As a kid living in Southern California, coaching skiing in Big Bear, he had never watched a news broadcast. He had never read a paper.
“I was all about having fun, playing during the day and partying at night. I sincerely did not know what Vietnam was until I was drafted and shipped off to Louisiana for basic training,” said Short.
“Once I got there, people were talking about how we were going to be shipped to ‘Vietnam’ and be shot at. I remember thinking, ‘Are you kidding me? First the government was taking two years out of my life, and now they’re sending me somewhere where I’ll be hunted every day and might not survive?’” exclaimed Short.
Out of the 200 draftees from Short’s basic training company in Port Boat Louisiana, only 6 were placed into the combat infantry.
Short was one of them.
“To this day, I have no idea how I was selected for the infantry. Only 1 out of every 10 men in Vietnam was in combat,” said Short.
Although his assignment to combat was an unlucky circumstance, Short felt that he had a sense of control in his role in the war. “I was the one on the front lines. If a superior back in the rear was telling me on the radio that he wanted me to do something not smart, I would tell him to come out there and do that himself. There’s nothing they could’ve done to punish me or make my life harder. What were they going to do? Send me to Vietnam? I was already there. So I’d say, ‘You can tell me when to pull the trigger, but only if you’re standing next to me.’”
He was eventually promoted to the leadership role of Sergeant after less than 12 months in the military. He credits his quick promotion to the fact that so many leaders were getting injured and killed.
“To be responsible for men whose lives depend on you changes you. Nobody ever died when I was in charge, and looking back at it, that’s amazing,” he said. “It taught me what leadership really is, and how important it is to do a good, thorough job at whatever you do. And I grew up real fast. I found out that there is pure evil in this world, and that there better be people willing to do something about it.”
Short recalls a particularly touching memory from the war.
“We got what was called ‘r and r’- a week off from the war. You’d get to go off to a choice of several different places: Hawaii, Thailand, Australia, and a few others. I went to Hawaii,” said Short.
At the end of his week-long break, he had lunch with his girlfriend at a restaurant right before boarding his plane back to Vietnam.
“In those days, every restaurant in America had the same water glass; they had little ripples on the sides and that’s what they served water with,” said Short. “I took the water and drank it from my glass and then asked my girlfriend to put it in her purse. She was like, ‘You’re going to steal a water glass?!’ But she did put it in her purse,” said Short, smiling.
He ended up taking the water glass with him back to his unit in the jungle.
“When I got back, I pulled out that water glass and poured the water from my cantine into it and drank out of it. The other guys were enthralled, because, ‘Oh my god, a glass’. So I finished my drink and I said, ‘Here, it’s yours. You keep it for a week and pass it on.’ Those guys protected that water glass with their lives. It was our only connection, just some little connection, that we had to the world,” said Short.
“I’d look and someone would be brushing their teeth out of that water glass, and then the next guy would have it, and he’d be doing something else with it, and it was just really special. It got us through a lot,” he said.
Short returned from Vietnam in 1969 after serving for two years.
“When I came home, I had scrambled eggs for brains. I couldn’t make sense of things. To be plucked out of the jungle and cast back ‘into the world’ was a jarring adjustment; it’s confusing to the mind, it’s a completely different context,” he said.
He returned back to his friends in Big Bear, whose lives were not affected at all during his time serving. “They were just skiing and partying the entire time, living the life that I used to have. So that was also really hard to come back to,” said Short.
Short cannot name a single combat veteran from Vietnam who does not have lasting issues from the war – whether they be physical, mental, or both.
Their reception upon returning to America certainly didn’t help these issues.
“When we landed, people were calling us baby killers and spitting on us. To go through what we went through, and then to come home and not be welcomed by the public, was absolutely terrible,” said Short. “Nowadays when I wear my hat, people take the time to thank me for my service. I think it’s a sign of this country trying to make up for what it did to us.”
Short went on to emphasize not passing judgement upon service members: “I think it’s really important for the younger generation to keep this in mind especially, whether it comes to Afghanistan or Iraq or whatever the next place is: There is no right to pass judgement on the things that the people sent to protect the country do. Not unless you are right there next to them,” he said.
Short eventually made his way to the Eastern Sierra where he worked for Mammoth Mountain under founder Dave McCoy, with whom he became close friends.
Eventually, he took on a leadership role at the mountain. Short attributes his success at his job to the discipline he learned while in Vietnam.
“I remember I had to be in charge of 70 guys. And I remember being like, ‘None of us are getting shot at? This is easy’,” he said.
Years later, Short went back to Vietnam as a tourist. He was among some of the first Americans to be able to visit.
“I could picture the whole thing, the giant green landscapes, but I couldn’t picture Vietnam without us, the soldiers, there. I was really nervous to go back, but I felt like I had to,” he said.
Before he left for the trip, Short digitized and restored the photos he had taken during the war with his Kodak Instamatic. He hoped that once he got to Vietnam, he could juxtapose his old shots with new ones for a “Vietnam Then and Now” slideshow, which would be set to music from the times.
“I arrived with the idea that I was going to add a bunch of new photos to the slideshow. But, after a few days of trying to put it together, I stopped. It didn’t work because Vietnam is not a ‘place’. Vietnam is an experience. So I left the title of the slideshow the same but took out the new photos, because Vietnam then and now is the same exact place to me,” said Short.
There was a specific moment during Short’s return to Vietnam that made his experience come full circle; it happened during the first day he was there.
“We came into the country at night, and started up the Saigon River. I said to my wife that I was going to be on deck first thing in the morning with my binoculars because I had to acclimate myself,” he said.
That morning, Short walked onto the deck and found a spot to use his binoculars.
As he was sitting there with his binoculars, the first thing he spotted was a Mama-san riding her bike peacefully, wearing the traditional hat and black pajamas.
At that moment, his wife came up behind him, surprised him by slipping headphones over his ears, and said, “You’re back.”
“By some crazy coincidence, the song that was playing in the headphones was the song that I made my girlfriend many years before promise me she would play at my funeral if I died in Vietnam. The song was ‘The End’ by The Doors,” said Short.
“That was when I knew the war was over.”
Short is the man behind the wheelchair-accessible path leading to the water at June Lake, which he built in honor of his friend Dick Noles who passed away. Short got funding from Dave McCoy and others to build this Wounded Warrior Path, for which 40 wounded warriors attended to celebrate its ribbon cutting.
To this day, June Lake is the only wheelchair-accessible lake in the Eastern Sierra.