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  • 'I believed in the commandment 'thou shalt not kill' '

    Images of Iraq evoke painful memories for Vietnam vet
  • When Larry Rupp watches news coverage of the Iraq war, it triggers thoughts of another conflict.
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    • Larry Rupp
      Age: 61
      Hometown: Medford
      Occupation: retired state police officer
      Military history: Army, 25th Infantry Division, captain, wounded Jan. 7, Jan. 9 and May 17, 1969, in Vietnam; awarded two...
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      Larry Rupp
      Age: 61

      Hometown: Medford

      Occupation: retired state police officer

      Military history: Army, 25th Infantry Division, captain, wounded Jan. 7, Jan. 9 and May 17, 1969, in Vietnam; awarded two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts
  • When Larry Rupp watches news coverage of the Iraq war, it triggers thoughts of another conflict.
    Some are good memories of the late 1960s, back when he was a young soldier leading a platoon in the jungles and rice paddies in what was South Vietnam.
    Others are painful reminders of dying friends, of bone-chilling fear, of killing to live.
    "It's bothered me more since Iraq than it ever bothered me prior to that war," he says of post-traumatic stress disorder. "We weren't seeing the news on TV like my wife was seeing in the '60s. We were there.
    "Now I'm seeing what my wife and other people saw in the '60s," he says. "When you start seeing real-life images of what's going on, seeing these soldiers put on litters, it's tough. It brings back old memories."
    Nearly 20 percent of Vietnam veterans suffer from PTSD, according to a 2006 study published in the journal Science. An anxiety disorder brought on by trauma, its symptoms include aggressiveness, alcohol and drug abuse, emotional numbness, irritability, nightmares, problems with employment and relationships, sleeplessness and violence. PTSD can start soon after a traumatic event or surface years later.
    Rupp, 61, of Medford, a retired Oregon State Police detective, is a highly decorated Army infantry officer who survived battlefield wounds, both physical and psychological.
    While the physical wounds were patched up by quick-reacting medics and military hospital personnel, the PTSD, reignited by news coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan, proved more difficult to cure.
    "I won't say everybody, but a lot of us who were there, if you saw any action, you had some problems to deal with," Rupp says.
    His PTSD symptoms involved sleeping disorders and other issues.
    "I had a little problem with some of the things I had to do because I was brought up in a Christian family," he explains. "I believed in the commandment 'thou shall not kill.' I believed in all that.
    "It's kind of hard to put that stuff behind you, to put it in the back of your mind and say, all of a sudden, 'If I don't do him, he's going to do me,' " Rupp adds. "It's kind of hard to rationalize. The priest would say, 'God forgives you for this.' How can he say God forgives me when I've been told all my life it's not right?"
    Rupp stops talking to consider the question. While he may not have found the answer, he says he found help for his delayed stress at the Department of Veterans Affairs' Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City.
    "People cope in many different ways," he says. "Some people hide it (PTSD) real well. Some people turn to different substances, alcohol or drugs or whatever. But some people just learn to use their own ways to manage it. Me, I think my family was a good way to help me manage it."
    He was referring to Marilynn, his wife of 40 years, who was back in the states when he was in Vietnam, and their two grown daughters.
    "We never questioned what he did or why he did it — we were always positive," his wife says. "We were very supportive of him.
    "But he wasn't one to come home and talk a lot about his experiences," she adds.
    In the mid-1960s, Larry Rupp was majoring in police science in college in Southern California. At 5 feet 51/2 inches, he was advised his stature would make it difficult to find police work.
    "I developed a bit of an attitude," he says. "That was back during the days of the draft. Uncle Sam decided to adjust my attitude. He drafted me."
    It was November 1966.
    After basic and infantry training, he qualified for officer candidate school, graduating in 1967 as a second lieutenant with newly minted gold bars.
    Just before he left for his first tour in Vietnam, his daughter, Shelley, was born.
    "When I climbed on that plane to leave, it was embedded in my mind that I was probably going to die in Vietnam," he recalls.
    It was no coincidence that OCS students were referred to as "fresh meat," he says, noting that infantry lieutenants were known to have a short lifespan.
    "We were expendable," he says.
    In September 1968, he joined the 2nd Battalion, 25th Infantry Division in South Vietnam.
    "To me, going to Vietnam was like one big campout — in a way," says Rupp, an Eagle Scout who always enjoyed camping.
    Of course, no one was shot when he was a Scout, he allows.
    "Vietnam is a beautiful country," he says. "It could be so nice, so serene. Then all hell breaks loose."
    His unit was deployed to Cu Chi, the division base camp about 25 kilometers northwest of what was then Saigon. Most of its operations were out of a battalion-size base camp known as Pershing at Trang Bang, some 15 kilometers northwest of Cu Chi.
    Pershing was resupplied via a road from Cu Chi. Some days would find Rupp and his men patrolling the road; others would find them being airlifted by helicopters to be dropped into a remote site to sweep the area.
    He tells of a region known as the "Hobo Woods" that had been denuded by bombs and Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant.
    "Everything was defoliated," he says. "There was nothing but craters and skeleton trees. It was real eerie."
    Unbeknownst to Rupp and his men, there were miles of tunnels just under the surface. The 2005 book "The Tunnels of Cu Chi" tells of an underground web of them.
    "Those tunnels covered just about every place our division was operating," he says. "We could never figure out how we could get hit and everyone would disappear."
    Most of the tunnels his unit found were relatively short. But they had to be secured.
    "I was the smallest guy in my platoon so I did the tunnels," he says, adding the job of "tunnel rat" was dreaded by most soldiers.
    Most tunnels were empty. But Rupp confronted an enemy soldier in one of them. "Scary" is the word he uses to describe the encounter.
    "To this day I have his ChiCom (Chinese communist) pistol — I was faster than he was," he says, then adds, "I shot him."
    He looks away for a moment, overwhelmed by the memory.
    Lt. Rupp was nearly six months in country before he suffered his first battle wound. Shrapnel from a mortar round fired at the Pershing base ripped into his arms and legs on Jan. 7, 1969. But he was patched up and returned to duty.
    Two days later, before his first wounds could begin to mend, his unit was again hit with mortars. He was struck in the left arm and was medivaced back to Saigon, where he spent several weeks in a hospital.
    "They decided to leave the shrapnel because it was embedded in the bone," he says. "It took a while to get the feeling back in my hand."
    He would have the shrapnel removed in Medford during the late 1980s after it became infected.
    His third wound came on May 17, 1969, when he was struck in the left shoulder by a rifle round while chasing down an enemy soldier. He would earn his first Silver Star for the incident.
    After his first tour, he was sent back to the states and promoted to captain. He was at Fort Ord, Calif., when his second daughter, Tessie, was born. Six weeks later he was again sent to Vietnam.
    When he arrived in 1970, he was assigned to Phu Bai near the city of Hue. But he became ill after a couple of months and was medivaced to Japan.
    "When I got back to Vietnam again, I decided I had enough of the 'John Wayne' stuff," he says.
    He applied to become a military police officer, and was sent south to become director of physical security at the provost marshal's office in Saigon.
    After his second tour, he was sent to the criminal investigation school at Fort Gordon, Ga., where he became an instructor. He was discharged from the Army in fall 1973.
    He joined the Oregon State Police on March 1, 1974, serving out of the Medford headquarters. He retired from full-time duty as a detective 25 years later in Medford. He still works part time for the state police.
    "I tried to take everything I experienced and have something positive come of it," he says. "The things I learned in Vietnam I brought with me. You had to make fast judgment calls in Vietnam. That's what helped me in my career in law enforcement."
    But he acknowledges it's difficult to turn battlefield experiences into something positive.
    During a reunion with comrades-in-arms last summer, he discovered a good friend he has served with was dealing with serious PTSD issues.
    "I found out I was not the only one," Rupp says, then adds, "He just sent me an e-mail — he just got out of treatment again."
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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