Vietnam veteran Jerry Peterson has always been extremely patriotic, so much so that his truck is decked out with a number of stickers and decals.
After local sign shop Feathers saw a shirt he had made with an American flag and bald eagle design, which read, “All gave some, some gave all,” they created a decal for his truck that matched.
“Since then, there’s been like three other trucks that have gone down there and got the same (decal),” Peterson said, proudly.
Though Peterson is a proud veteran, like many other veterans, he struggled with anger after the war.
Still, his patriotism has never faltered, as can be seen by his truck, which can often be seen driving around the Santa Clarita Valley.
Peterson was born on June 27, 1945, during World War II on base at Langley Field, West Virginia.
“My dad was in the Air Force, and he was in the whole duration of World War II,” he said.
Peterson was just a baby when his family left West Virginia, and he grew up primarily in the Midwest, specifically Illinois and Wisconsin.
He grew up on a farm, and his father taught him how to shoot when he was just 4 years old.
After high school, Peterson went straight into Washburne Trade School in Chicago for three and a half years, specializing in wall coverings and murals.
In 1967, he had to put his work on pause, as he had received a draft notice.
Peterson was sent to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for basic training, then to Fort Bliss, Texas, for two months of advanced individual training.
“I did so well in there, I was at the top of the class, that they sent me to leadership training school for two more months,” he said.
Though they then wanted to send him to Officer Candidate School, that would have meant he would have had to extend his enlistment for another year, which he did not want to do.
“Meanwhile, Vietnam is going on and I’m seeing all these body bags coming back, and I’m going, ‘Oh my god, I hope I don’t get called,’” he said, adding that sure enough, he soon received orders to Vietnam. “My heart stopped. Even though I had the training, it’s still a lot different.”
Peterson remembers arriving at base camp in Vietnam like it was yesterday, noting that there were big sandbags piled quite high near his tent.
“All of a sudden (I hear) this noise, and the concussion lifted me probably 2 feet high off of my cot,” he said. “Well, next to us (behind the sandbags) were 175-millimeter, big cannons, that our artillery was firing at night. Boy, I went, ‘I’m here.’”
As a gunner, Peterson was assigned to both the “Dusters,” an M42 40mm self-propelled anti-aircraft gun, and “Quads,” M55 Quad 50s, in the 4/60th artillery group.
His group provided on-point security, convoy escort and perimeter defense, among other things, throughout Vietnam with various military units.
“My job, unfortunately, was to search out the enemy,” he said. “To get into a base camp was heaven for me … And whatever we had in military weapons and stuff, the enemy had the same.”
Peterson was also chosen as a squad leader, “so I was responsible to keep myself alive and my guys,” he said. “It was nerve-wracking.”
Even so, there were plenty of other things to worry about other than war, such as the Bengal tigers and bamboo viper, which they nicknamed a “one-step snake,” along with the monsoons, where they’d see it rain from the ground up. “In a 24-hour period, 55 inches of rain came down.”
The water brought the rats out, and Peterson was once bit, resulting in 13 rabies shots to the stomach.
“1968 was the worse year you could be in Vietnam,” Peterson said, referring to the Tet Offensive, a coordinated series of North Vietnamese attacks on various cities and outposts in South Vietnam in 1968.
During his tour, Peterson experienced the Tet Offensive firsthand and was in combat for all three of the major battles.
The first phase left his group in nonstop combat action, receiving fire from mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, artillery and machine guns.
At one point, Peterson was even wounded by shrapnel to his face during an enemy engagement.
By the end of the first wave, more than 45,000 enemy soldiers had been killed in action, while about 1,500 American soldiers had been killed and another 7,764 American soldiers were wounded.
After his 14-month deployment, Peterson went back to Fort Bliss to finish out the remaining couple of months of his enlistment.
“They put me on a typewriter, which I was never on a typewriter my life, so I learned a peck,” he said, laughing.
It took a long time for Peterson to get back on his feet after the war, and the war protesters definitely did not help.
“It was terrible — we were spat at and called baby killers,” he said. “But it was such anger, such anger … I just buried myself in work and fishing and whatever (else) I could.”
He returned to work doing wall coverings and began traveling all over the world to do jobs, including Japan and Germany.
In the early ’70s, Peterson moved to California for the better weather and a change of pace. He specialized in high-end, Zuber scenic wallpapers, and some of his California clients included Paul Newman, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and Johnny Carson.
By then, he’d been married a few times, but in the early ’80s, he married Jackie and is going on 39 years with her.
“She’s the only woman ever straightened me out — obviously,” he said, laughing.
He and Jackie enjoyed fishing and entered many fishing tournaments, even being named the No. 1 husband and wife team in California in the late ’80s.
It wasn’t until 40 years after Vietnam, when Peterson was nearing retirement, that he first stepped into the Veteran Affairs Medical Center for treatment.
“I thought the first psychiatrist I saw down there needed more help than I did,” he said, laughing.
The psychiatrist encouraged Peterson to join group therapy, “and that’s how it all started.”
Since then, he’s been able to really turn his whole life around and has even begun to help younger veterans.
“I couldn’t talk about it for years until I went through all these psychologists and psychiatrists, that really brought me around to educate young people,” he said. “I’m helping a lot of young guys now, so they don’t have the problems that I went through.”
Peterson hopes to continue helping his fellow veterans get through their anger as he did.