By Anthony T. Eaton | May 2020
The Vietnam war went from November 1, 1955 – April 30, 1975, and 2,709,918 Americans served with 58,276 soldiers making the ultimate sacrifice. In 1970 John Podlaski was one of the many drafted into the Vietnam war. Now retired from working in the automotive industry, John Podlaski spends his time managing a blog site about the Vietnam war and its warriors. A published author of two Vietnam War books about his war experiences as an infantry soldier, I had the opportunity to ask John about his experience in Vietnam, his thoughts on leadership, and his work as an author.
You were drafted into the Army during the Vietnam war in 1970 serving almost two years before being discharged at the end of 1971. Was military service what you thought it would be like?
Some of the people I had worked with were former military soldiers, claiming their tour within the military matured them and helped to organize their lives. I needed to grow up. I was still living at home and had no responsibilities, my attitude was lackadaisical, at best, and because of my attendance record, I was extremely close to being terminated. The timing was perfect.
In 1970 I was 3, so I have no concept of what the time was like from a personal perspective, how would you describe it?
There was still much confusion for high school students and graduating seniors during the late sixties and early seventies. Teens wanted to go out on their own and do something with their lives, but the world was abuzz with corrupt politics, war demonstrations, racial unrest, an upsurge in drug usage, disrespect for authority, and supposedly the peace movement and “free love”. Important people were assassinated, boys grew beards and long hair, music evolved into a psychedelic, angry and protest tunes which reflected the times. Even the Beatles evolved. The space race was on, and the United States was first to land a man on the moon in 1969 – that was an exciting day for all. All in the Family debuted on TV and censorship was challenged by the innuendos and discussions that took place on the show. It was a groundbreaking time and the beginning of many changes in society that were yet to come.
Did your time serving teach you anything about leadership?
In basic training, I developed the utmost respect for my drill instructors. Although they were belligerent, at times, they were great leaders and teachers with our best interests in mind. Everyone knew we were going to Vietnam in a few months, and they did all they could to teach us the skills needed to survive. I was so impressed by their leadership skills that I voluntarily enrolled in a leadership preparation course immediately after basic. I wanted to learn the “secret” of becoming a good leader. The basics were in place when I entered Infantry training at Fort Polk, which helped me to focus on and improve my teamwork and communication skills during the next eight weeks. Time and experience were now necessary in order for me to further grow as a leader.
After Vietnam, I was stationed in Ft. Hood, Texas, and placed in charge of the radio repair center for the company. It was my first official term as a supervisor and department head; my responsibility was to oversee three other technicians and maintain 100% communications on all the APC’s in the company. This only lasted for four months before I was discharged, but it set the stage for the future.
Did serving in the military and the Vietnam war teach you anything about yourself?
After Vietnam, I thought my life would be charmed because of what I had to endure during that one year. I thought nothing in life could ever compare. The experience also taught me to pursue those things that appear “out of reach” as I humbly learned that nothing was impossible.
Looking back at your time in the service, is there anyone that was a mentor or role model for you?
During my time with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam, I took on the role of carrying the radio for the company CP. The Captain and the First Sergeant were both instrumental in getting me promoted to Sergeant and bringing out my leadership skills, which impacted my future career after the service. As a result, my civilian career path took me into the ranks of management until this very day.
Even today, the Vietnam war brings up powerful emotions and is still very divisive. Unlike those who make the independent decision to serve, Uncle Sam made it for you. Did that affect your view of serving or the war?
I was ready for a change in my life, joined the infantry, and eventually ended up in Vietnam. My entering the military was quite traumatic for my folks as both lost family members during the Second World War. My father was a college student working on his doctorate degree in Poland in 1939 when Hitler threatened his country. As a result, the government drafted everyone into the military – training for a few months before Germany invaded Poland. It was over in three weeks as cavalry soldiers on horseback were no match against tanks and well-trained soldiers. He was captured and spent the next six years in a POW camp in Germany.
My mother secretly ushered Jewish families through the underground in Germany and their farm was near the POW camp. Eventually, my parents met one another and were married after the war. Our family immigrated to the US in 1952. Mom lost her first husband to the war and was raising her 3-year-old daughter during that time.
While in Vietnam, my parents contacted the government officials and pleaded their case regarding the suffering they already went through because of the war. I had severely sprained my ankle during my senior year in school and mentioned once in a letter home that it hurt periodically. They tried to claim that I was physically impaired and unfit for military duty in Vietnam. After a complete physical by doctors and shrinks in Vietnam, they found nothing wrong, and their congressional appeal was rejected.
I felt that I had to prove something to both of my parents. Not clear exactly what that was, but after surviving Vietnam, I felt like I achieved it, took an early out, and went back to civilian life. Both of my parents were relieved and extremely proud of me when I returned home from overseas.
You kept a diary while you were in the service and used that to write a memoir; what made you want to share that with others?
My diary was more of a daily summary of events…much of it mundane and wasn’t something that held my innermost thoughts or most guarded secrets. It was used, along with all the letters I sent home from Vietnam, to create an outline for my memoir. It did take several years to flesh out and complete the first-person manuscript. Back then, computers and word processing programs did not exist, and all the work was performed on a manual typewriter with carbon paper. Edits required a complete retype of a chapter, and it wasn’t uncommon to see marked-up pages piled two feet high on my office floor. When I finally completed the work, it was mailed to dozens of publishers for consideration. Only one showed an interest, but only if I were to re-write it to a 3rd person point of view and change the title, which was originally, The Ingenuous Soldier.
It was 30 years between your writing the original manuscript and the publication of the re-write, what was it like for you when the book was done, and you held the first copy in your hand.
First, let me explain why it took so long. While sending the manuscript to publishers, I also gave five copies to my friends and classmates at my 25th high-school reunion and asked them to pass them around. At the time, there was no mention of a re-write, and I was just looking for feedback. A year later, on the advice of a publisher, I began to rework the manuscript. This time, it was a little easier as Atari had recently come out with a word processor program and floppy disks for their game controller. So, before I could begin, I had to retype the entire memoir and save it to diskettes. Editing and re-writes were also a challenge because of the limited amount of available machine memory and disk space.
After a year, I was halfway through the re-write, the number of completed pages had already exceeded the original 1st person version, and I soon found that that I had very little spare time available to work on the project. At the time, I was working lots of hours, had a young child, and family time was at a premium. So, I finally gave up and stored everything in the garage – promising that I would get back into it sometime in the future. The next several years flew by, and the project collected dust.
At my 35th high-school reunion, former classmates asked about the status of my book. I told them that I was reworking the manuscript and eventually quit because there was no time available. The dozen or so that had read the original were devastated and claimed that the story needed to be told. All volunteered to help me with anything that needed to be done. This reenergized me and gave me the push I needed to get going again. By now, I had an IBM computer, and the work would be much easier (my daughter volunteered to retype both versions and saved them to a stick so I could begin working again).
Almost a year to the day of restarting, my first proof came back from Amazon. I was so thrilled that my grin lasted an entire weekend, we also took tons of pictures. Next to my wedding day and birth of my child – this was #3 on my all-time list of special events and happy, happy days.
“Cherries: A Vietnam War Novel” went live in April 2010 and then six years later in 2016. “When Can I Stop Running? – A Vietnam War Story” was published. What was the catalyst for the second book?
Between 2010 and 2012, I spent much of my free time converting Cherries to an audiobook. I found the perfect voice, and together we set out to make it happen. Neither of us had ever done this before, so we both spent time learning the trade and editing sound. We completed the work and published it in June 2012. Later that year, one of the network book clubs in which I belonged, awarded Cherries for both literary excellence and for the best audiobook of 2012.
When Cherries was initially published in 2010, I also created a website to answer questions about the book, added short stories, and provided other information and articles about the war. The feedback was tremendous. Readers enjoyed my stories and writing style and wanted more from me. The second book was a story that wasn’t detailed in Cherries, and I decided to pursue that storyline.
Was it easier to write the second book?
I was more confident in my writing and understood the ins and outs of self-publishing. I learned so much from getting my first book to market; it was easier and less stressful experience. I learned how to make book covers and designed my own. I utilized my “friends” on Facebook and solicited feedback – involving them in the decision-making process. Start to finish took less than a year. When Can I Stop Running? Recently won a silver runner-up award in the Rave Reviews Book Club 2019 contest – beating out 147 other entries.
It was a challenge for many soldiers returning from Vietnam, were there challenges for you moving back into civilian life?
When I returned to my former position as a machine operator in a major automotive supplier after my tour of duty, the HR Director was impressed with my file from the service and of those leadership positions I was in both in Vietnam and in Fort Hood, TX. I was promoted to supervisor, within a week, and spent the next eighteen years at the company in that position until it closed. Afterward, I spent the next thirty years working with several automotive suppliers in various management positions, twenty of them in Plant Manager positions in factories with up to 150 employees. I turned out to be a pretty good leader and became skilled in plant start-ups, closings, and financial turnaround. I finally retired in 2013.
Visit John’s website and connect with him.