U.S. Army veteran Michael Lavin wanted to put Vietnam behind him, but after all these years, the soldiers who served under him are never far from his mind.
“It’s a mission,” he said of his efforts to re-connect the 155 men who were part of the transportation company he led during the last major offensive of the long drawn-out war. “If you haven’t served, you don’t understand that bond.”
Lavin, now 73, has devoted many hours to tracking down the members of the 515th Transportation Company. As part of the 39th Transportation Battalion, the truck drivers of the 515th played a major role in moving supplies to the Laotian border in support of Lam Son 719, the South Vietnamese military’s 1971 invasion into Laos.
In all, the trucks of the 39th hauled thousands of pounds of cargo and encountered more than 20 enemy ambushes over the 2 1/2 month operation. Twelve men were killed, 35 were wounded and 40 vehicles were damaged or destroyed.
“Living like moles from day to day in formerly abandoned camps along the North Vietnamese border, the truck drivers rose to the challenge and pushed their vehicles and supplies forward,” wrote Richard Killblane in “Lam Son 719, The Cargo Must Get Through,” a book Lavin contributed to about the Lam Son convoy operations.
Hoping for an easier path
When Lavin graduated from Brentwood High School in 1963, there were already thousands of young men serving in Vietnam. He didn’t want to be one of them. He enrolled at Westminster College and completed ROTC, hoping that entering the military as an officer “would make my life easier.”
For a while that was the case. After officers’ basic training, Lavin was sent to Germany where he served as a platoon leader with a mechanical maintenance battalion responsible for jeep and truck repair.
For two years, life was good. Lavin spoke fluent German thanks in part to his studies at Westminster, lived off base and traveled around the country in a 1967 Mustang Fastback he had shipped from home.
“All I did was drive around Germany and have a good time,” he said. Then at the end of 1969, orders came for Vietnam. “I knew it was coming, but to be honest I liked my life the way it was. I prolonged leaving Germany as long as I could.”
Capt. Lavin was sent first to Camp Eagle in South Vietnam, where he served on the headquarters staff with the 39th Transportation Battalion. In December 1970, he was ordered to take charge as commanding officer of the 515th — a group of guys who were used to doing things their own way.
The 515th and its 67 five-ton flatbed trucks were tasked with hauling ammunition and food to the fire bases of the 101st Airborne. When Lavin arrived, the company was not meeting military standards, he said.
“I was a paper pusher, and now I’m around a bunch of guys with loaded guns,” he said. “There were two heroin addicts, potheads, alcoholics and a pimp.”
Lavin immediately passed out 13 Article-15 disciplinary actions, maximizing the punishment to show he meant business. Six weeks later the company was sent into the field as part of Lam Son 719. During those weeks of hauling cargo along the Demilitarized Zone, the company jelled into a cohesive group that took care of any problems “our own way,” he said.
“We knew what our mission was and we will achieve it all costs,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a private or a captain, I’m watching your back and you’re watching mine.”
When Lavin returned home after Lam Son, he rarely spoke about his experiences to family and friends. About 15 years ago, something changed.
“I saw the movie “Platoon” and it somehow struck a nerve,” he said. “And then I watched “Born on the 4th of July.” I watched that movie three times in a day and all I did was sob. There was so much in that movie that bothered me.”
Long interested in World War II as an amateur historian, Lavin began to talk to high school students about Vietnam. And then a few years ago he decided to track down all the men who served in his company. He found that almost 50 of them were already dead; some didn’t respond.
“I talked with 70 on the phone,” he said. “It was amazing. Most of these guys had never talked to anybody. They were crying on the phone. I said, ‘I’m not going to hang up. I’ll talk as long as you want.’”
Then he invited all of them to a hotel near his Kirkwood home for a two-day reunion. Out of 70, 38 showed up, he said.
Lavin made notes as men shared their memories. The Army sent someone to interview them for the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis in Virginia. Today, Lavin has five boxes filled with notes and records and memories stored in his office. Using those notes, Lavin helps fellow veterans fill out paperwork for disability claims. He wonders how many of his men were affected by Agent Orange, the defoliant the United States used in Vietnam now known to cause health problems. During Lam Son, Lavin and his men were surely exposed as they bathed in the streams and slept on the ground. He said he and his own children have health issues he believes could be traced to the chemical.
He continues to speak at area high schools about his experiences. It is stressful to relive the memories, but it’s important they understand the realities, he said.
“It does me good, even though it makes me suffer,” he said. “At the end of the day I am emotionally and mentally spent.”