Randal Winter has always been handy. At 18, he was stationed in Vietnam, where it was hot and humid in the summertime.
After he was able to acquire a portable air conditioner that was left behind, he and his bunkmates set to work creating a more comfortable bunker, or hooch, as he called it, for themselves.
“The rounds shot out of Cobra (helicopters) would come in styrofoam containers, which worked perfect to insulate this hooch of mine,” Winter said.
They also created divisions, so they could have some privacy, and somehow, they were able to get power to run the air conditioner.
This creative mentality continued throughout Winter’s life, eventually leading him to where he is today — the owner of his own construction company.
Winter was born in January 1951 in Long Island, New York; but he didn’t stay there long. At 8 months old, his family moved to Beverly Hills, then to Pacoima, where he spent the remainder of his childhood.
His parents split up quite early in his childhood, and he was raised primarily by his father.
“I was kind of restless in high school, so I ended up going in the service at 17,” he said. “That was an escape for me to get me away.”
Winter hoped going into the service would remove him from the path he was on with his friends, so with the help of his dad, he joined the U.S. Army.
“Just changing a young teenager’s environment when they’re not in a good one can help,” he added.
In February 1968, Winter went into the Army as “a pretty green 17-year-old,” he said.
“I couldn’t even drink,” he added, chuckling.
He was sent to Fort Ord, California, for advanced individual training to become a clerk typist.
After his training was complete, he was given orders to Vietnam, which he couldn’t accept as he wasn’t 18, so he became the colonel’s driver at headquarters battalion until they could re-assign him.
He was then sent to Fort Rucker, Alabama, to complete flight operations training.
“It was mostly helicopters,” he said. “I learned about different types of helicopters, size and weight.”
After he graduated, he was sent to Fort Carson, Colorado, and assigned to an air battalion where he did mainly administrative work, making sure soldiers who came into the company were processed in and out.
As soon as he turned 18, he volunteered to go to Vietnam.
“When you got to Vietnam, you’re put in a holding place,” he added. “I remember seeing the different patches that the guys were wearing, and thought, ‘Oh, I like that one, ‘Screaming Eagle.’”
Sure enough, when they called his name, that’s exactly where he was headed.
“101st — that’s airborne, so I’m running with all these guys that that’s all they did,” he said.
He was assigned to a helicopter support battalion that maintained various helicopters, including the Bell AH-1 Cobra, Hughes OH-6 Cayuse (Loach), and Boeing CH-47 Chinook at Phu Bai Combat Base, just 10 miles south of Hue, the old capital of Vietnam.
“I think it’s because I had the flight operations coordinator training that I got into the helicopter battalion, but since I was a fast typer, they put me in the company clerk position,” he added.
In this position, his administrative duties included maintaining all of the field manuals, processing paperwork for soldiers coming in and out of Vietnam, and keeping records of the helicopters in the battalion.
“All the field manuals, anything from breaking down a rifle to fixing a helicopter, was in my office,” he said.
Working in the helicopter battalion also had its perks, and Winter was able to hop in a Loach helicopter and ride copilot to the beaches in Da Nang every once in awhile.
Winter’s father, who was a ham radio operator, was able to surprise Winter with a phone call.
“He was able to telephone through a ship that was parked outside of Saigon, and then phone patch in and call me in my office,” he said. “That was cool.”
He also received a Bronze Star Medal with the rest of his battalion for meritorious achievement.
Though he mainly did administrative work, he also had to participate in guard duty that consisted of patrolling the perimeter and sitting in bunkers outside the perimeter overnight.
“Even if you weren’t chasing down guys, you still had fear while you’re there the whole time,” Winter said.
The base was also always on edge, as the soldiers never knew when a mortar could hit.
“I remember standing in line for chow at the mess hall and a mortar came in and one of the latrines was blown up — everybody dropped to the ground,” he said. “Here, you think about an earthquake, but you’ve got to let it go. There, it happens enough where you don’t let it go. Sometimes, they hit a hooch; and most of the times, they didn’t — but they always tried. It’s all about how it rattles your nerves.”
Yet, Winter said he made the best out of his time there.
“That’s how my life has been always — take it for what it is and make it better if you can,” he added.
After being in Vietnam for a year and 16 days, it was time for Winter to return home, and because he had so little time left in his enlistment, he was honorably discharged on Sept. 16, 1970, as an E-5 specialist at 19 years old.
Coming home, Winter said he began to “really appreciate what America is.”
“Once you were pulled out of your environment, you have the option to see the world in a different light,” he added. “You have a whole different perspective of what we have compared to what other people have. It was a good experience for me.”
He began taking classes at Los Angeles Valley College, working his way towards an associate’s degree in business, hoping to one day own his own.
He then transferred to University of California, Los Angeles, this time for a bachelor’s degree in economics as they didn’t offer one in business.
Though he was older than many of the incoming students, he chose to live in the dorms.
“That lasted, I want to say, one quarter,” he said, laughing, “so I got an apartment.”
Winter also became president of the United Veterans Association at UCLA, but going to college while his fellow students were protesting the war was rough for him.
“You didn’t feel welcome,” he said. “They targeted the guys that served our country rather than the government that sent us. We just did what were supposed to, and now you’re treating me like I did something wrong? They didn’t have any idea of the repercussions of what they were doing.”
After graduating, he tried his hand at various jobs in sales as a stopgap until he decided his path, which eventually lead to his position working for a contractor, where he was hired to expedite jobs from the office.
“I figured out how to get the jobs done, and that’s how I got into construction,” he added.
After working under various contractors, he got his license and began working on his own until he saw an ad for searching for instructors in contracting.
“The guy who interviewed me knew my dad, he was a ham operator, so he said, ‘I’m going to give you a try,’” Winter said.
He gave Winter a book to read and sent him to 10 weeks of classes in Panorama City, then told him he’d be teaching his first class in downtown L.A. They loved him, and he ended up teaching for seven years.
Winter still wanted to own his own business, but the construction industry was tough at the time, so he did various jobs, such as home inspections and commercial building.
In September of 1993, he and his family moved to Santa Clarita. It wasn’t long after that the Northridge earthquake struck, leaving the valley with major damages.
“From there, I started helping people. Next thing I know, I activated my license again, and I haven’t stopped since.”
Since 1978, Winter has remained in some way or another in the construction industry, eventually leading to the creation of Randal G. Winter Construction Inc.