Larry Gunter was the next to youngest of five siblings and the thinnest when he volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army in 1971. He was barely 18 years old (a month and ten days) when he was sworn into the military on April 13, 1971.
Gunter went through basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He remembers being in barracks which WWII soldiers had once been in before him.
Let us back up just a little bit before his basic training for a fun fact. Prior to entering the service, he knew his future wife, Elizabeth, from going to school together. She remembers he was 118 pounds, and that was only one pound more than she was in the early 1970’s. Below is proof, documentation done at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, that he gained weight before going overseas to Vietnam. It also states at one time his height was 5’7″. “I still am 5’7″!” Gunter exclaims during his interview.
While in Vietnam, he had an instance where he proved Timex wrong on “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” During crossfire, shrapnel stuck in the watch’s face instead of going through his left wrist. He has a scar from it that is still visible today. He sent the watch back to his family while he was still overseas, but they did not know the significance of it and it was thrown away.
Although he does not like to talk much about his experience in Vietnam, he said, “I liked the military. For all of the hardships that life threw at me, it helped me to keep my temper.” He believes serving in Vietnam helped him to face life’s twists and turns which he faced when he returned home.
Above is a photograph he made of the Marble Mountains in the distance. At one point, his unit was on top of what the Vietnamese call Ngũ Hành Sơn; “Five elements mountains”. These mountains are full of tunnels. Despite how scenic they are today, these mountains were not safe for our American soldiers.
One story he shares while in Vietnam involves the refrigerator which he is posing with in the above photograph. The television sitting on top of it only had one channel, and it was only available for eight hours a day. Gunter bought the refrigerator from his battle buddy, Glover, and kept a lock on it. The contents were always cigarettes, beer, and Ritz crackers. They did not always have electricity, so the fridge was a good way to keep bugs out. One day, he noticed the lock was broken with the door removed and some cigarettes were missing. A guy who served with Gunter, known for his striking red hair, admitted to stealing the cigarettes boldly stating, “I needed some cigarettes” (Side note: Gunter has never liked things stolen from him, whether it be in a foreign country or in his own home). After the soldier did not understand him feeling slighted, Gunter took his M16 and put it next to his head saying, “Those are my damn cigarettes, and that is my damn refrigerator. You touch these again and I’ll blow your head off.” He never had his cigarettes stolen again. After the service, he stopped smoking because the price of cigarettes was too high. Imagine thinking twenty-five cents a pack is expensive for your nicotine fix.
When he returned to the United States, it was 3 a.m. in San Francisco, California. He remembers protestors lining the fence outside the tarmac. When the soldiers walked from the airplane, rotten fruit was thrown at them with negative comments. Even the taxi driver was not welcoming, dropping him off a mile and a half away with his heavy military bags to carry.
Gunter spoke some blunt truth about how difficult it was to integrate into the workforce after Vietnam. “I came back to the same darn job I had when I was a teenager. Nobody would hire you or nothing because at the end of Vietnam, you could not find a job for almost a solid seven years until Reagan came in and changed the economy,” Gunter explains. “What I lived on from ’74 to ’76 (when he was in college) …..gas money. If I had a drink and a honey bun I was doing good. I lived just a little above minimum wage.”
After college, he tried to find a decent job. He was hired at Fiberglass in South Carolina. “They said they hired me as an electrician, but I did not get the electrician job.” After some time passed, he asked when he was going to get a job in the field he studied for, and the company had said they wanted people with a college degree and at least ten years of experience. Gunter replied with, “Okay, I’ll give my letter of resignation tomorrow.” He stayed true to his word, and quit the following day.
“Then I went to work with the city of Columbia. They were going to hire me as an electrician. Well, I went to work at the water department where I worked on transmitters and receivers that everybody had hated me because they wanted that job and couldn’t do it. They would sabotage things because I was working on it. I come back from having it fixed and it would be burned up. I worked there for a year and a half. Then, I went to a machine and tool company. I learned a lot of electrical stuff.” Gunter explained how he went to Boston for this particular company, and since they would not pay for him to stay in a hotel he stayed in the airport all night until the next available flight home the following morning.
“Finally, I got a job at the Savannah River Site (in Augusta, GA), in September of 1981.” When asked how he got the job, he earnestly said, “I put in for it for seven years.” After a year, he got another job within the company and saw his work report. The report stated, “Would not hire.” Gunter further describes, “”Vietnam Vet. Combat experience. Would not hire: Think he would be a problem due to his experience in the military.”” When he read this, he asked, “What does it take to be hired here? I was told you hire veterans.” The woman he was speaking to said, “Well, we’ll look into it.” It took an additional thirteen months for Gunter to be hired.
Gunter worked as a Senior Electrical Instrumentation Technician at S.R.S. for almost twenty years, retiring in 2000. He invented numerous things for the company, but was acknowledged as the inventor for two. He invented the safety harness (patent found here) and the catwalk grate lifting tool (patent found here).
Today, he is a farmer. He says confidently, “Farming gives me peace of mind. As much aggravation as it gives me, it still gives me peace of mind. With all of the people who have done me wrong and all of the combat experience, when I’m with the animals it gives peace of mind. It also drives me crazy. It is a better crazy than what I had to put up with.”
VPP Blogger’s Note: What viewers may not know is Larry Gunter is my dad. Talk about Vietnam was hush-hush with me, and interviewing him was the most I had ever heard about his service. He spoke more about it than I thought I would, and it was difficult to narrow down what to put in his feature. I am hoping if there are viewers out there who are Vietnam Veterans, they aren’t feeling as alone before they read this. As I grew older, I learned the nightmare of what was called the Vietnam War. When I started assisting the VPP, I got to meet numerous veterans to understand (even a little) further of why my dad is the man he is today. If I needed to describe my dad, he is a George Bush-look-alike who speaks the same as him. He’s a great business man who watches some military movies and western television shows too loud. He’s a lover of guns, and feels the need to have them around him even today. Last but not least, he makes the best boiled peanuts I have ever had, and despite being old-fashioned leaving the cooking to my mom, he takes great pride and time to make that southern summer food. Thank you, Daddy, for your service.
© Veteran portrait by Stacy L. Pearsall, story by Des’ola Mecozzi