Anxiety in the AirSeptember 14, 2017
By JASON RECKER
The coffins were stacked four across and four high and the only way Dave Vogler could get around them was to walk close enough that his shoulder brushed against them.
Often, Vogler was alone at the back of the plane, the loadmaster as part of a U.S. Air Force crew that flew into and out of Vietnam time and again. Often, the men delivered troops prepared to fight. Sometimes, they returned with hundreds of troops who’d given their lives. Always, Vogler tried to digest something so raw about war: Inside any of those caskets, that could have been him.
It’s been more than 40 years since the 71-year-old Jasper native served our country, but the memories still cut. The Vietnam experience is something for which Vogler is thankful even though post-traumatic stress disorder overtook his life. He still isn’t in the clear — he sees a psychiatrist, doesn’t like driving over bridges and isn’t comfortable in front of crowds. There’s a sense that something bad lurks nearby. Some days are worse than others.
“Anxiety and depression,” he declares, “will never leave me.”
Vogler entered the Air Force in 1964, an eager 18-year-old three months removed from his Jasper High School graduation. The seventh of Edwin and Eleanor Vogler’s dozen kids, he yearned to hit the road.
He returned from active duty in 1968 a hesitant man in his early 20s and spent chunks of his adult life wandering.
War changed him. Some for the better. Some for the worse.
“I had no clue what the hell I wanted to do with myself (when I got back). I was completely messed up,” Vogler says. “One of my brothers said, ‘Dave you aren’t near the same as when you left.’ Now, if I had to do it over again, I’d sure do it. But the bad (days) outweighed the good ones. No matter how dangerous the situation, you’re still in war. You could have got killed.”
For years as a civilian after Vietnam, Vogler took back roads from Jasper to Huntingburg because the highway scared him. The only way he attended any church service was by sitting in the back and scanning to see if he knew a doctor sitting nearby. He shuffled jobs, drank too much, extinguished two marriages and endured bankruptcy.
He no doubt suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder but hadn’t waded into the Veterans Administration health care process and wasn’t diagnosed — and subsequently wasn’t properly medicated — until nearly 20 years ago. By then he was in his 50s and it was too late to suppress what he’d witnessed standing at the back of a C-47.
As a loadmaster, Vogler’s primary duty was a puzzle of mathematics and logistics. Playing a game of “Tetris” with cargo, he had to formulate the best way to place items so weight aboard the aircraft was distributed properly enough to support flight. He never really liked math, but he learned to use a slide rule (each plane had a different one) and after training in Texas (San Antonio then Wichita Falls) was certified to lock pallets of cargo into place at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey and later at a trio of American bases in Vietnam. When the planes weren’t transporting troops or supplies, they dropped flares to provide light for troops on the ground and dispensed propaganda leaflets in a bid to coax Vietnamese citizens to see the good in the American mission.
From his post at the rear of the plane, Vogler saw things he didn’t care to see. It wasn’t just the coffins.
One night, a fighter jet screamed toward the aircraft and Vogler swore up and down the two planes’ paths would intersect in a fiery death for all.
During the Tet Offensive (the calculated attack against Americans and their allies in January 1968), Vogler and his peers were alerted and prepared for takeoff when rockets and mortars began cascading into the base. Vogler stood in the back of the plane surrounded by flares that supported 1 million candle power apiece; should anything have exploded nearby, it wouldn’t have been pretty. Airplanes criss-crossed the base that night and the pilot didn’t have clearance for takeoff. He did anyway.
“I heard the pilot say, ‘I’m getting the (heck) out of here,’” Vogler recalls. “How we didn’t get hit and knocked out of the air, I don’t know. That was a rough night. Where are we going to land? Am I going to get killed? We kept flying around and landed at two or three more bases to get flares.”
According to Air Force records, “despite the hazards of extensive friendly artillery, airstrikes and intensive ground fire, Sgt. Vogler accurately set and physically dropped flares to provide continuous illumination in defense of the besieged air base.”
That’s the night he won the Distinguished Flying Cross, an honor for which he was formally recognized in Indianapolis in 2010.
The applause was part of the payoff for Vogler’s 169 air combat missions and more than 500 hours airborne over Vietnam.
There were other close calls.
He was scheduled to fly from New Jersey to California to pick up Marines but was taken off the flight because of mandatory rest time; the plane crashed before it reached California and everybody on board died. The funeral for the men killed was the first time Vogler really heard taps. There were tears.
Through his time in Vietnam, he tried to snag living quarters at the back of the huts because those were the beds closest to the bunkers, though the bunkers were comprised only of sandbags and “I knew if a rocket hit, sandbags wouldn’t keep me from getting whacked.”
One time, when Russian rockets landed within a few yards of Vogler, he was close enough to collect shrapnel he still keeps as a memento. Another time, rockets hit and Vogler later emerged from cover to see a backhoe scouring the soil in an attempt to locate body parts of men who’d been hit.
“That’s how bad everybody got blown to smitherines,” he says. “I didn’t have it near as bad as Marines and guys in the jungle and all that. They had it rough. ... But ... many times I put my head between my legs and kissed my (butt) goodbye.”
Vogler spent a year in Vietnam (March 1967 to March of ’68) before returning stateside to Dover, Delaware. He contemplated more service but declined, coming back to Jasper instead.
He grew up modest but happy in a home on what is now Division Road west of town (it was Pennyville Road back in the day). His father was part of leadership of Dubois Machine Co., his mother raised the children and the kids delivered newspapers for various publications to help stay busy and draw some cash. When he got back, the same peace eluded him. Engaged before he left for war, Vogler got married but that ended in divorce. Same for his second marriage. His jobs went about as well as his wedlock.
“I had no idea what the hell to do with myself,” he says.
Though it took years for Vogler to steady himself, the PTSD diagnosis — and the stream of medication and treatment that followed — provided a cushion.
He met his current wife, the former Phyllis (Schmett) Oser, in 2000 and started his regular connection with the VA. He retired nine years ago after driving a night route for Meyer Distributing, hauling goods to Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.
Retirement made time for golf; he’s the leader of a group that hits a course somewhere in the area each Tuesday and he’s also good enough that he’s sunk three holes in one. He’s written his own life story with guidance from former Herald editor Martha Rasche. He’s still got his children (sons Craig and Scott Vogler, daughter Carey Craighill and stepsons Eric and Jamey Oser) and siblings (Jim is deceased but Bob, Denny, Joan Smith, Bernie, Mary Ann Taber, Mike, Donna Werner, Tom, Ron and Allen are still around).
Without some of those pieces — reflection, recreation, doctors, medication, family — he acknowledges he’d struggle like he used to. With them, he’s strong enough to carry on.
“To this day, I still have problems,” he says. “I have to cope with it.”
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