HURON – On the only day Roger Decker saw his friend and fellow Marine Craig Tschetter in Vietnam, at first glance he didn’t know who he was.
“My recollection is that I was sitting on my bunk facing the back door of the hooch,” Decker said, referring to his unit’s living quarters.
“The door opened and in walked this rag-tag, dirty, tattered marine,” he said. “He was looking for Roger Decker. I didn’t recognize him.”
Tschetter had just graduated from Huron High School and Decker was at Huron College when they took advantage of a marine buddy program and enlisted at the same time so they could go to boot camp together.
But after that, their paths went different directions.
When they eventually got to Vietnam, Tschetter was assigned as a combat radio operator and Decker was a scout sniper in another regiment.
At the military recruiter’s office, then in the post office in Huron, Tschetter signed up as soon as he turned 18. The recruiter told him about the buddy program, and Tschetter asked Decker to consider it.
It may not have been that big of a decision for the farm boy from Yale.
His mother had a cousin she called her brother. He had been a Marine in the South Pacific in World War II.
“I thought Loren was 10-foot tall and bullet proof,” he said. “I really thought he was something. And, from that, and the fact I always liked army stuff, soldier stuff, I wanted to be a marine.
“I thought about it and I realized that Huron College was not the place that I wanted to be at that time,” Decker said.
When he told his family of his enlistment, he said they were incredulous.
“Vietnam was going on at the time and I remember my uncle said, ‘Roger, what were you thinking? You know where you’re going to go.’
“And I said, ‘I know exactly where I’m going to go.’ I had a full expectation that that’s where I was going to be. But I did it anyway, and I never looked back and regretted it.”
Both reported to the induction center in Omaha for processing, and then were on a train for two days to the Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego.
After boot camp, it was on to Camp Pendleton to the infantry training regiment and then they flew home for a 20-day leave.
“That was the last time I saw Craig until sometime during our tours in Vietnam,” Decker said.
Back in California, Tschetter was shipped out to Vietnam while Decker remained stateside for a time because he had scored as the second highest shooter at the rifle range and was assigned to go to scout sniper school.
When Decker realized who that dirty, tattered marine standing in front of him was on that day in the regiment’s quarters, they talked for awhile and then Tschetter was given the opportunity to shower.
“If the sun shone that day, the black water bladder on top heated the water and you could take a warm shower,” Decker said.
Tschetter was given clean gear, and the unit’s soldiers opened their foot lockers to offer him whatever else he needed. But Tschetter declined, saying while he appreciated it he couldn’t accept it because none of the other guys in his outfit would have it.
Tschetter had known Decker was with that outfit as a scout sniper, but it was still amazing that the two were reunited.
“Just by luck of the draw,” Decker said. “His regiment showed up on our regiment CP (command post) and he wanted to look me up and found me.”
Decker said it was understandable why his friend from Huron looked the way he did that day.
And why he suffered for so long later with post traumatic stress disorder.
“Their regiment, it seemed like any time there was bad stuff happening their regiment would be right in the middle of it,” Decker said. “They got in a lot of stuff, and he looked like it.”
But, he too, had some problems for a short time after he came home.
“When you see enough of certain kinds of things and experience some things it stays with you, even today,” he said.
“I have very vivid memories of certain incidents, but I know that by virtue of what their regiment was involved in, all the operations and all of that, it would have been far worse,” Decker said.
“I can say that my experiences were not to the level of severity that Craig’s were, and other people,” he said.
Decker said he has been asked if he and other snipers were shot at.
“Well, no,” he said. “If we’re doing our job correctly, no one knew we were there until it was too late for them, and then we disappeared.”
Decker said it was more difficult for him to accept the reception he got when he was coming back home.
On Christmas Day in 1968, he was at Los Angeles International Airport, in his winter uniform with Vietnam ribbons, when he looked for a place to sit to await his flight and no one would get closer than 10 or 15 feet of him.
“It was like Moses parting the Red Sea,” Decker said. “People just moved aside.”
He remembers a little boy who excitedly told his mother of the soldier he saw.
“He started coming my way and his mother grabbed him by the arm and jerked him and went the other way,” Decker said.
“I was 19 years old,” he said.