VIETNAM VETERAN HELPS OTHERS HOME
When Whitey Martin first stepped off the plane in Vietnam, he was hit by the unbearable heat.
It was 125 degrees that first day in Da Nang, Vietnam — a shocking difference for a young enlisted Marine grunt infantry machine gunner from East Multnomah County.
Then came the stench.
“The first two weeks, they have you acclimating, which includes taking on a ‘dirty job,’” Martin said.
In Da Nang, every recruit had to pull the drums from beneath the outhouses, pour diesel into them, and light the waste on fire.
“Every morning, we would salute the flag, then burn what was under those outhouses,” he said.
Martin spent 13 months in Vietnam, from 1969-70, which would eventually lead to a long career with the military — including a follow-up bout of active service, nearly two decades with the National Guard, and active membership with the Gresham Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 180.
“I don’t regret any of my military time,” Martin said. “They say a leader is not born but developed, but you have to have those instincts. Everything I did was as a leader.”
“I am proud of my service,” he added.
Martin was born in Portland and has spent most of his life living east of 148th Avenue — including 49 years in his current home near his alma mater Centennial High School. His name, “Whitey,” was because of his shock-white hair that he had even back in elementary school, a trait and nickname shared with his father.
As a kid, school came naturally to Martin, perhaps to a fault. He never had to develop study habits because of his good grades, which came back to bite him. He attended Cascade College but only lasted one term due to an overwhelming amount of extra-curricular activities like band, choir, class leadership, and the rally squad.
So with friends and advisors spurring an interest in the military, Martin enlisted.
“I told myself if I am going to do this, I wanted to be the best there is,” he said.
He set his sights on the Marines and was told no. He was 4F — unfit for service.
“I had a bad left eye, a wandering eye, and no one wanted me,” Martin said. “But the recruiter sensed I wasn’t going to take no for an answer, so he set up a meeting.”
The meeting was with a retired Air Force Colonel, who was an optometrist. After a lunch, the retired colonel wrote a waiver for Martin to clear him for boot camp.
“That was maybe the most stupid thing I ever did,” he said with a smile.
Marine boot camp lived up to its infamous reputation.
“It scares the living daylights out of you,” Martin said. “They are going to break you down and get you ready to react and follow orders to keep you alive.”
It was strenuous and regimented. He saw guys break down crying, and others get literally tossed out when they didn’t measure up. Every interaction with the drill instructor was an ordeal — including when Martin had to ask to use the restroom one day, and ended up putting a tin bucket over his head, banging it with a shovel.
“Those types of things stick with you,” he said.
That year-plus in Vietnam had Martin roaming the jungles with his platoon doing ambushes, setting up perimeters, and trying to keep his wits about him.
“You are so tuned in that you never really rest or sleep,” Martin said. “Your body might recover, but your mind is constantly going.”
He carried an M-16 rifle the whole time. In the evenings, the troops would check each other for leeches, using cigarette butts to burn them off. Despite his dedicated use of the Marine Corps’ “horrible” pills to combat malaria, Martin contracted the disease no less than three times and be flown out by medevac helicopter. There was gunfire and violence. He had friends seriously wounded, both physically and mentally.
Martin has buried a lot of the traumatic memories, using a technique suggested by an expert when he first got home. But things boil up, especially in that first year back filled with nightmares.
“Being in Vietnam changes you from one person to another,” he said. “When you come back, you respect life a lot more. You have a different perspective; thankful for what you have.”
“I must be a lucky one because some couldn’t handle it,” he added.
A robust support system made all the difference. While the public turned their backs on Vietnam veterans, spitting and cursing, his family was there every step of the way. Especially his wife Linda, who he had known for years but started dating after Vietnam, with the two getting married within the year.
At his lowest point, Martin attempted to commit suicide.
“Linda brought me back from the dead,” he said.
Now the pair are celebrating their 51st wedding anniversary. They had three kids, 17 grandkids, and four great-grandchildren.
“I am proud of every one of them,” Martin said.
Martin worked a dizzying amount of jobs upon returning home. He spent long stretches as a plumber, a role those smelly latrine mornings actually helped on his resume, he said with a laugh. He also worked for the rail company, initially as a bridge painter. He worked on the bridge spanning the Skookumchuck River, and on hot days would accidentally drop his tools to take a refreshing plunge 65-feet below.
After being laid off in 1975, Martin returned to active duty in North Carolina as a certified welder and the RAMP Chief inspecting Chrysler’s new line of M60 tanks. That two-year stint included a NATO tour across Europe, including shore rest in Copenhagen, exploring the fjords of Norway, sharing vodka with Russian sailors.
“It was the experience of a lifetime,” he said. “But I didn’t want to be away from my wife and kids.”
The family returned to Oregon, and Martin joined the National Guard in 1977 as a charter member of the 442nd Engineer Company out of Lake Oswego. The crew built most of the infrastructure at Camp Rilea in Warrenton. In the last few years, he also became an active member of the Gresham VFW.
“When I came back, we were spit on, and called baby killers,” he said. “I couldn’t wear my uniform, and I stayed away from all of that.”
“But I wanted to help someone else if they got deployed and had trouble coming home,” he added.