Phil Bisner

2023 Salute to Veterans

Community: Warren
Service Branch: Army
Rank: Sergeant


Warren veteran reflects on Vietnam War

Vietnam War veteran Phil Bisner says he finds himself thinking about the war a lot these days.

Bisner completed two years of community college in Eugene before he enlisted in 1966.

“I really didn’t have any choice because I was about to be drafted,” Bisner said.

Already a certified aircraft mechanic, Bisner enlisted for helicopter maintenance and served as a helicopter crew chief gunner.

“I wanted to continue my education in the Army, and that was the best way to do that,” Bisner said. “Little did I know that anybody who went to helicopter school was automatically going to Vietnam.”

Bisner served 18 months in Vietnam, ending his military career shortly after the Tet Offensive in late January 1968.

During the Lunar New Year, known in Vietnam as Tet, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched a series of over 100 attacks across South Vietnam. Nearly 100,000 soldiers and civilians died.

Not long after the offensive, Bisner took a plane to San Francisco, changed out of his uniform, and flew back to Oregon. Bisner had a 30-day leave before spending the last few months of his service at Fort Lewis — now Joint Base Lewis-McChord — in Washington.

Bisner went on to work for helicopter companies across the state, continuing his aircraft mechanic career.

Unlike many veterans of the war, Bisner said he didn’t experience hostility from those back home when he returned from Vietnam.

“I didn’t have any real bad experiences like a lot of guys did,” he said.

Many soldiers faced scorn from the American public, who knew the devastation of the war in more detail than some of the soldiers knew themselves.

Now 77, Bisner says he has a lot of time in his retired state to reflect on the war.

“When I first got out of the military, and I was working in the aircraft industry, the Vietnam experience, I kind of forgot about it. It didn’t bother me,” he said.

While in Vietnam, Bisner said he was only in combat a few times. He spent most of his service flying in a support unit, hauling people or recovery equipment around South Vietnam.

It wasn’t until he returned home that he began to realize the full extent of the casualties and chaos of the war.

“I didn’t realize how bad the Tet Offensive was until I got home and started reading articles about it,” Bisner said. “When you’re in the military, they only give you enough information to get you by. They don’t tell you everything that’s going on. I was really, really surprised when I got home.”

Bisner retired 25 years ago and now works on custom cars or doing work around his home in Warren.

“Now that I’m retired, and I have time to think about what happened and what went on, I get more bothered by it every day,” Bisner said. “I heard so many experiences from other people after I got back that just shook me.”

In particular, Bisner is disturbed by the use of Agent Orange — a form of chemical warfare.

Between 1962 and 1971, the Air Force sprayed millions of gallons of herbicide across Vietnam, trying to deny Communist guerrillas the jungle they used as cover. But it wasn’t just tropical plants that died under the withering spray. Heavy exposure to the herbicide has been blamed for high cancer rates and other diseases — some of them fatal — suffered by combatants and civilians alike.

“I view myself as very, very lucky for coming home without a scratch,” Bisner said. “I feel really remorseful for the people who didn’t come home and (for) the way that some of them were treated when they did come home.”

When Bisner steps out today in his “Vietnam Veteran” hat, he says people thank him for his service.

“At the time when we came home, it was just the opposite,” he said. “And it kind of makes me a little bit, for lack of a better word, bitter that now we’re being treated with respect, but when we came home, we weren’t treated that way.”