According to Gary Whyte, the easiest way to describe war is to think about a carnival. If you ask someone performing at a carnival to describe the event itself, the description will be completely different from the description given by someone in the crowd.
“Somewhere in between is what the carnival actually is,” he said.
Veterans all experience war differently. For Whyte, war caused him to rethink much of what he thought he knew about his life.
Whyte was born in Sacramento, Calif., but was raised in Oregon. He now works at Aurora State Airport, a small airport a mile northwest of the small town of Aurora, Ore. Whyte volunteered for the Army in 1966. He would find that his wartime experiences would later set him apart from other Americans, but he started out with a simple desire to serve.
“It was general patriotism. I wanted to serve my country,” he said.
Whyte was a Specialist 5 and was ordered to Vietnam after a year of training. He worked with computers during the war, especially the UNIVAC 1005 and IBM 360, which would format input data and transfer output data to other equipment.
Whyte processed data for communications throughout his service in the war. At one point, he was stationed in Saigon.
“We didn’t know when we were going to be shot at,” said Whyte. “The base was insecure and not far from enemy lines.”
The local Vietnamese civilians thought of the war completely differently from Americans back in the U.S. Whyte felt that the locals valued the Americans’ presence in the war. Terrible things were being done to Vietnamese civilians. Women and children were being massacred, and cities were destroyed.
Whyte said, “Villages were being completely taken over. Innocent civilians were dying. We knew that this wasn’t right.”
Part of his job was to transfer data that accounted for the ammunition and supplies used in the war. However, there were a few incidents that called him to serve on the battlefield.
Whyte volunteered to help search for a soldier who had become a prisoner of war. He and a select group of soldiers scanned the perimeter of the base, hoping that the missing solider would return.
“I had no idea who we were searching for,” he said. “I never met the soldier before. I just volunteered to help find him.”
Whyte served two separate tours in Vietnam. He was sent to different areas of the country on each tour. After his first tour ended, he was sent back to the United States. The first time he came home was a difficult adjustment.
“Citizens had no support for us when we returned home. It wasn’t long before I decided that I needed to go back to Vietnam,” Whyte said.
After his service, he knew what to expect when he returned again.
“There were certain people that I went to high school with that treated me differently than before. And in some cases they didn’t even recognize me,” he said.
He explained that soldiers who returned home from the war were segregated from the rest of the community. It was difficult coming back to everyday life after what they had experienced in Vietnam.
“I have a much deeper appreciation for life after the war,” said Whyte.
Many veterans to this day cannot speak on behalf of their experiences in the war. Whyte said that if you want to know exactly what war is like, you have to experience it for yourself.
“Veterans are sometimes hard to talk to because they have seen selflessness and courage that is hard to find in civilian life,” Whyte said.
After his service in the war, Whyte enrolled at Reed College, a liberal arts college in southeast Portland, Ore.
He started to study mathematics and then transitioned into studying religion. The effects of war caused him to question his religious beliefs, he said.
Whyte is well-educated and is fascinated by science. He soon will travel to Europe to work on a saltwater distillation system that he helped design. He said that the distillation system uses a fraction of the energy of current models, which will save money and help alleviate water scarcity around the world.Though Whyte still feels segregated from the rest of American citizens, he is proud to have served his country. He now has a much deeper appreciation for life, religion and knowledge. One of his favorite quotes reveals his changed perspective: “For the sake of all living things, I will educate myself for all living things.”
Writing: Austin Denson
Photograph: Alex Ogle