From army to local veteran advocate Charlie Poulton at his home south of Staples, holding the plaque he received after retiring from the U.S. Army, showing a photo when he entered the army before Vietnam and when he retired after 34 years in the service. He now acts as a veterans coordinator with Lakewood Health System and is a member of the Staples All Veterans Park Board. (Staples World photo by Mark Anderson)

Poulton helps veterans talk about Vietnam

“ It’s not me personally, but God has been very good to me,” Poulton said. “When I was there, I thought I was in charge of everything, but I began to realize I wasn’t in charge of anything.”
Charlie Poulton experienced many of the problems of being a Vietnam veteran including being a forgotten soldier and experiencing hatred once he got home. He understands why a lot of Vietnam veterans are reluctant to talk about their service. He also is a witness to the changing racial relationships in the army and in our country.
 
Being in the thick of a lot of issues is one reason Poulton enjoyed his army career. “For me it’s a positive thing in my life,” he said. Poulton met his wife Estelle while they were both in the army and she influenced him to give up alcohol, which he admits may have become a problem in his life.
 
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Poulton told his Vietnam story as part the Staples Veterans Park video project, and is helping other Vietnam veterans tell their stories.
 
“I told my story because I do want people to know,” he said.
 
As a veterans coordinator with Lakewood Health System, a new program that Poulton helped start, he helps veterans at the care center and the hospital. “ With Dr. ( Julie) Benson, we’ve done a lot of good work with veterans and the hospital backs it up,” said Poulton.
 
“I’ve worked with a lot of Vietnam veterans the past three years,” Poulton said about moving to the Staples and Motley area a few years ago. “I have found that Vietnam veterans were treated so poorly when they came home, I never heard one positive story from a veteran coming home.”
 
That is one reason Vietnam vets have been reluctant to tell their stories. Poulton said it is also a matter of trust, as veterans often felt the bureaucracy of the army and government has been hurting them their whole life.
 
One thing he found that helps is simply talking to another veteran.
 
He makes sure he wears his Vietnam veteran hat when he sees a new person, and the veterans recognize it right away. “They won’t talk to the doctor, they won’t talk to the nurse, but they’ll open up to me,” said Poulton.
 
They almost always start with their common experiences, asking “where were you” and “when were you there?” Then they move on to the things they did in Vietnam.
 
“I tell them my story and then bam, the door’s open and they’re talking,” said Poulton.
 
That works with most veterans but Poulton said he also respects one veteran who still didn’t want to talk about his experience.
 
“The good part is that they start talking, the bad part is some of the stories they have to tell. Some of these guys saw death every day, some have never recovered,” said Poulton.
 
Some of the veterans agree to be interviewed for the veterans history project. “I tell them that if they do this video, it will be seen by your family, probably people in the town. So far they say ‘no problem,’” said Poulton. “They want a way to tell their story and this is a way to do it.”
 
Sharing his own story for the Staples Veterans Park video project was the second time Poulton has told his story, the first time was after he had been in the army for 34 years, 12 as an enlisted man and 22 as a warrant officer. He said he was the first warrant officer to be asked to do an oral history, usually generals get that distinction. Poulton told about some of the things he talked about when he was interviewed for the video project.
 
Vietnam
 
As a 119 pound 19 year-old, Poulton’s first experience in Vietnam was landing on an airfield under attack. “We had no guns and we had been travelling for days,” Poulton said about that flight to northern Vietnam. “The sergeant said it’s going to be a ‘hot land,’ they’re going to open the tailgate and we’re all going to dive out the back,” said Poulton. The new unit did as they were told and ended up in the ditch next to the airfield while the airplane escaped. When the mortars stopped 45 minutes later, they were able to get up and see their new base.
 
Soon after that, Poulton said a Green Beret showed up and asked for two volunteers for a special mission. “I’m thinking ‘special mission, wow’...I’ll do it,” said Poulton. His uncle in the navy had told him to always volunteer if he had a chance because it could lead to promotions.
 
Poulton and another person in his unit were selected and were helicoptered out for 30 days of training. “Our job was to go into Cambodia, even though we weren’t allowed into Cambodia, and look for POWs,” said Poulton. It was frustrating work because they never rescued any American soldiers, although they kept coming close, finding remains of POW camps. “They were always three days ahead of us,” Poulton said.
 
Poulton took the role of the unit’s sniper, which led to one comical moment early on. The first time they came under fire from an enemy sniper, Poulton was sent around to flank the shooter and take him out. Poulton saw some motion in a tree and fired at it. He heard limbs break but when they went to check it out, they found only a monkey had been shot. They never found out what happened to the sniper, but Poulton was known as the monkey-killer after that. “It was awesome, we didn’t have any meat so we ate the monkey,” said Poulton.
 
Travelling with Green Beret soldiers on a covert mission was actually comforting, compared to being on a base. “I felt safe with those guys because I knew they wouldn’t let me get killed,” said Poulton. “They knew what they were doing, they spoke the language, they were really good.” They also had the best weapons in the world at the time, AK-47s, said Poulton. If they encountered any resistance, they would have to make sure there were no loose ends, since they were in territory where the army was not allowed. They had no radios, just a predestined meet-up time and place with a rescue boat.
 
“That was my life for 18 months,” said Poulton, with POW search missions interspersed with eight to ten days out of the country to regroup. “All 12 of us knew we were going home together and we did,” said Poulton. When their Navajo Indian tracker was shot in the shoulder, they just slowed down for a few days while he recovered and they went back to it.
 
Leaving Vietnam, Poulton suffered from the bureaucracy of an airline strike but also from lack of recognition. Since his unit wasn’t supposed to have been in Cambodia at the time, Poulton said they were not given any awards or thanks. “ We didn’t exist,” said Poulton. However, when they got back the United States, a special recognition ceremony was held. “They took care of us,” said Poulton.
 
Race relations
 
Entering Vietnam, Poulton said there was a racial problem that may have led to his first company commander getting killed. His tent was blown up by a claymore mine, with some people suspecting it was racially motivated since he was known to speak to the African Americans in racist terms. That racial problem was one of the reasons Poulton volunteered for the special unit, to get away from it.
 
It wasn’t the first time racial problems led to fratricide. During training in the United States, Poulton said one of his black soldiers was beaten to death and a short time later a white soldier was killed in the same way. “This is way worse than I thought it was,” Poulton remembers thinking. He asked to terminate his training. “Send me to Vietnam or Korea, just let me out of here,” he said.
 
It was a bad time for race relations, Poulton remembers. During World War II, racism may have been worse, but the soldiers were segregated with separate bathrooms. But because of Vietnam, “The army learned it was something they needed to work on, things started to change, we had classes, we had to learn why different races thought the way they did,” said Poulton.
 
“We have come so far, it’s not perfect, but the military is now a leader (in race relations). You rarely see it in the military today, you have to fight with that guy.”
 
Back home
 
“The Vietnam thing was positive, except for the part where we came home,” said Poulton.
 
Poulton tells his story about getting hit by tomatoes thrown by protesters when he got off the plane returning from Vietnam. That also has a racial angle as he was going to stay with an African-American soldier from Chicago.
 
The anti-soldier fervor soon got to Poulton, after hearing from people, even family members, who labeled them all as murderers and baby-killers. “I was so happy to be home, then I didn’t even want to be in the country,” said Poulton. “There were some places you couldn’t wear your uniform” without being harassed, he said.
 
He applied to be reassigned to Germany, just to escape his own country. He stayed with the army and returned to the United States to become a paralegal, paratrooper and special forces soldier, and eventually a warrant officer .
 
Poulton’s POW searching days came back to him when he was assigned to a new unit. He walked in and was face to face with Nick Rowe, a former POW who wrote a book called “Five Years To Freedom” about his captivity in a bamboo cage and his escape from the POW camp.
 
“I told him ‘you’re a legend,’” said Poulton. “He said ‘I’m not a legend, I’m just a man.’”
 
Poulton said “I was on the POW team looking for you, I know who you are.” He still had Rowe’s photo in his wallet and gave it to him as proof. Rowe asked to keep the photo and Poulton said “with honor, it’s yours.”
 
Poulton and Rowe became friends and he was saddened when Rowe was assassinated in the Philippines in 1989.
 
Poulton said he never had any problem with nightmares or other war-related problems, but it does get to him emotionally when he sees where a Vietnam veteran has died or he attends a funeral and Taps is played.
 
“ It’s not me personally, but God has been very good to me,” Poulton said. “When I was there, I thought I was in charge of everything, but I began to realize I wasn’t in charge of anything.”
 
His first clue was after the first fire fight in Vietnam. “I realized there is a God, because I shouldn’t have lived,” said Poulton.
 
He said it is common for soldiers to make deals with God “when you are in trouble.” But some people filter those deals when they return. “Me, I still live that way,” he said.
 
Poulton understands Vietnam veterans who have not been able to move on and he has hope for them. He has a brother who is still bothered by his war experiences.
 
Poulton takes some of his attitude from the professionals he has worked with, who leave the battle on the field.
 
“ I speak to veterans groups and tell them you can change if you want to,” said Poulton. Some of them don’t like it, pointing out that he has special circumstances.
 
“I changed my lifestyle, maybe you didn’t, but you can,” said Poulton.

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