We need to get more veterans in the House and Senate.
For many years, Vietnam veteran Keith Harman resisted entreaties to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Today he is the national commander of the 1.2 million-member organization, which helps former service members obtain veterans benefits, lobbies the government on veterans issues and offers programs such as emergency financial assistance to military families and scholarships.
After his discharge in November 1969, the former crew chief of a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division worked at truck-maker Fruehauf’s factory in Delphos, Ohio. In 1983, Harman finally decided he would give the VFW a try and joined the Delphos post of the organization, based in Kansas City, Missouri.
Three years later, he was elected post commander, a position he held until he became a district commander in 1990-91. Harman was Ohio’s state commander in 2004-05. He also was the veterans services officer for an Ohio county from 1991 until his retirement in 2011.
In July 2017, Harman was elected national commander of the VFW for 2017-18. In his acceptance speech, he said, “Every member of our organization has walked the talk, and every member of our great Auxiliary has lived the fear of having a loved one downrange. I believe in what the VFW stands for—to take care veterans, service members and their families—and I am proud to be a part of it, and honored to help lead it.”
About half of the VFW’s members are Vietnam veterans, but Harman also addressed veterans of today’s military who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq: “Sixteen years ago, no one would have thought it possible for America to fight a nonstop, two-front war for so long without restarting the draft, but we have—they have—and they continue to do so magnificently, which is a testament not only to their patriotism but also to their character.”
Harman talked with Vietnam magazine Editor Chuck Springston about his days as a draftee manning a machine gun in the door of a Huey and his service with the VFW after the war.
What was it like to learn that you had been drafted? I had gone to Giffin Junior College in Van Wert, Ohio, for two years and then transferred to Kansas State Teachers College in Emporia. I thought I wanted to be a school teacher, but after I had been there a while I came to the realization that whatever I wanted to do, I was going to go home and marry my high school sweetheart. I let the draft board know that I was no longer in school and thought I would immediately get my draft notice.
It never came. I just kept getting questionnaire after questionnaire. I filled them out immediately. At the time there was talk of drafting 19-year-olds first. I turned 21 on the 21st of September . We got married the 23rd of September. We got back from the honeymoon. I went right to the draft board and said, “I’m 21, I’m married.” In late October, early November, I got my letter from the government saying you’ve been selected.
How did you become a helicopter crewman? I took my basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and then they sent me to Fort Rucker, Alabama, for aviation training. I was an aircraft mechanic. From there, I was sent to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, sometime in 1968, to be part of a new air cavalry unit that was to be formed. It took them a while to determine what our unit was going to be called. Finally, they decided we were Alpha Troop, 2nd [Squadron], 17th [Cavalry Regiment]. I did aircraft maintenance.
After we got to Vietnam, during the assault on Hamburger Hill in May of ’69, a friend of mine, Rob Morris from California, who was a crew chief, got shot down. Fortunately, nobody in the aircraft was injured. Two days later he was in a brand-new aircraft, and first mission out the aircraft got shot up pretty badly. Again, fortunately nobody got injured. He said, “I don’t want to do this anymore. Somebody want to trade places with me?” I said, “I’ll switch.”
My maintenance sergeant, Sgt. Osborne, told me, “The life expectancy of crew chiefs is not very long. You’re married, and you’re going to go out there and get yourself killed.” I said, “Sarge, my heart is telling me this is something I need to be doing.” I was a door gunner and crew chief for the rest of my tour.
What were your responsibilities as a crew chief? Know every nut and bolt and screw that was on that aircraft, to make sure it was flyable every day. The aircraft never left the ground unless I was aboard.
How many others were on the crew? A pilot, co-pilot and door gunner [a second machine gunner in addition to Harman].
Is there any particular flight that sticks out in your mind? Oh, absolutely. The very first one. We had hovered down into a big opening in a bunch of trees to insert an infantry platoon. We came back up to take off and they [the enemy] unloaded on us. You could feel the rounds coming, hitting the aircraft, coming up through the belly of the aircraft. They missed the center hub on the tail rudder by about less than an inch. If they’d have hit that, we would have been down.
How many combat flights did you make during your time in Vietnam? I don’t know how many flights, but probably 550 hours flight time.
You were home from the war almost 15 years before you joined the VFW in 1983. Why that long gap? My father was a World War II veteran. He and my mother were charter members of the VFW and the Auxiliary at Post 5803 in Van Wert. I grew up as a young boy in the VFW. Why did it take so many years to join? When I returned home, I went back to work and started a family. Our two children were in all types of school activities, including sports, and I wanted to be a part of them growing up. We had a small travel trailer and would go camping as often as possible. But every time my wife’s brother saw me, he had a membership application, and said, “Go fill this out.” I didn’t. And the next time I’d see him, he would say, “Did you fill it out? Here’s another application.” And then another one and then another. So I just said, “OK, you’ve worn me out.” I filled out the application and got accepted. I started attending meetings, and the more I became involved the more I fell in love with the organization.
Some Vietnam veterans have said they felt that initially VFW posts didn’t want them, that some World War II vets saw them as psychologically troubled druggies who didn’t win their war. I did not experience any of that, but friends that belonged to VFWs in the surrounding communities did experience it. I probably didn’t experience it at my post because my brother in law was well-established there. We used to go together quite frequently. The only incident I had was when I separated [was discharged from the Army] at the airport in Oakland, California. I’m standing in line to get my airline ticket, and a lady comes up to me and says, “Are you just returning from Vietnam?” I said, “Yes,” and she said, “Why? I said, “I don’t understand.” She said, “Why are you coming home? My son didn’t.” There is no answer for that.
Do you think anything could have been done that would have brought a better ending to the war? Keep the politicians out of it. Let the military do what they do. We would go out on what they called sniffer missions. Another company would put in our Huey a machine that picked up body odor. We would attach flexible hoses to it and run them out on the skids. Then we would go to an area where they said there were no friendly troops. We would set the aircraft just above the treetops and follow the contours, while this machine picked up body odors [indicating possible enemy locations, information that would be provided to U.S. commanders].
The first time I went on one of those missions my pilot told me that if we take fire I was not permitted to return fire until he called our CO [commanding officer], who called our flight operations, who called the flight operations of the AO [area of operations] we were flying in, who called the CO over that AO. I thought he was joking and laughed. He said, “No, I’m serious.” I said, “Well, the stripes that are on my shirt, you might just as well take them right now because I’m telling you if someone shoots at me I don’t care where we’re at. I’m going to return fire.”
The 1960s and ’70s are marked not just by the Vietnam War but also by the music of the times. Is there a song from that period that you particularly remember? “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” [by The Animals in summer 1965]. That’s absolutely at the top of the list.
Any clothing styles from those years that you would be embarrassed to wear today? Oh golly, the bell-bottoms. I remember my wife and I went to an amusement park with her sister and boyfriend. I had on a pair of red, white and blue bell-bottoms. My hair was a little longer than it is now, and it was a heck of a lot redder. I had a natural red beard as well. We walked into a bar to have lunch, and boy did I get some strange looks. I was 25 at the time, probably.
Is there a military or civilian leader you especially admire? Colin Powell. There used to be a number of politicians who were veterans and extremely supportive of veterans issues. The vast majority of the House and Senate used to be veterans. Very few are today. And we need to get more veterans in the House, in the Senate, somebody that understands what’s going on in the military.
Residence: Delphos, Ohio
Education: Attended Giffin Junior College and Kansas State Teachers College
Military service: U.S. Army, December 1967- November 1969; highest rank: sergeant
In Vietnam: March-November 1969; Alpha Troop, 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division
Career: Fruehauf Corp., 1967-91; Van Wert County, Ohio, veteran services officer, 1991-2011
Today: Veterans of Foreign Wars, national commander