La Verne Magazine
Vietnam Veteran Finds Purpose Through History
by Alisha Rosas
photography by Jason Cooper
A love for books becomes apparent when in Dr. Stephen Sayles' presence.
His lectures, conversations and office at the University of La Verne testify
to that. The professor of history has journeyed down life's path from Colorado
Springs to Chico to Vietnam to La Verne. He has matured from a young man
in uniform to a gifted professor in Western shirts.
A soldier skips to catch up when he realizes he is marching out of step.
He counts along this time, self-consciously, trying to stay in synch with
his fellow men's beating rhythms on the earth. One, two, three, four-and
again. He hears laughter coming from his normally solemn officers but sees
nothing particularly amusing. It is then that he realizes that the people
in his company's headquarters are laughing at him, the soldier who could
Stephen Sayles' mind was elsewhere. It was not thinking about marching
or training or even about the war that awaited him in Vietnam. Instead,
the young man from Colorado Springs, Colo., was thinking about history,
great leaders and books that took his imagination further than any war ever
In an office that appears to have history tombs for walls due to the
books covering the floor to the ceiling, Dr. Sayles sits. His loud green,
pink and white-striped Western shirt blends with the spines of the novels.
He leans back comfortably in his chair. Barbara, his wife of 23 years is
in the room, attempting to fix or reset her watch. Their 14-year-old son
Dan sits at his father's desk and plays computer games.
This is a different situation. The talented professor of history at
the University of La Verne is clearly more comfortable discussing the past
of the United States rather than his own. He begins with the day of his
birth-Aug. 18, 1945.
"Oh my gosh," Barbara gasps, "All these years I thought
you were born in 1946."
"I'm glad you came then Barb," Dr. Sayles says. After spending
his childhood years in Colorado, Dr. Sayles and his family moved to Chico,
Calif., where he attended his junior and senior years of high school and
later received a bachelor's in history with a minor in political science
at California State University, Chico in 1968. Instead of thinking about
his future and what he was going to do with the degree just placed in his
hand, at the age of 23, Dr. Sayles was drafted to fight in Vietnam.
"Twenty-four was the limit, wasn't it?" Barbara asks.
"That's right, it was," Dr. Sayles says. "If I had had
six more months, I would have met it."
During the years before Richard Nixon's presidency, the number system
used for drafting young men to war had not yet been used. Instead, Dr. Sayles
recalls how the army was "after" him in regard to the Vietnam
War. "It was just my time. The deal was that after I got my bachelor's,
I was going to go into the service. They wanted me for a long time.
"I was drafted because my time was up," he says. "I didn't
try to go into the Reserves or the Seals or anything of that nature. I just
felt that once I had my bachelor's that I should probably do it. After all,
I couldn't choose the wars I had to fight. My uncles fought in World War
II, and my dad served as a drill sergeant in that war, and they didn't choose
it; they just did it. I felt I had to do the same thing."
Immediately following Dr. Sayles' graduation, no calls were made to
him about fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. Optimistic, Dr. Sayles went
back to school and received his teaching credential to teach students at
the high-school level. No sooner did he stand in front of a chalkboard than
Uncle Sam ring.
"I had a doctor who offered me a way out," he recalls, "because
I had a heart murmur. It never stopped me from doing anything, but it was
good enough for him to tell me that; if I would let him, he would drive
to meet with the draft board and turn in the form to keep me out of the
army. He told me [the excuse] it was an honorable thing, and that it was
not going to come back and haunt me for the rest of my life. But I thought
about it and thought about it," he remembers with a smile, "and
decided that I couldn't do it-largely on the ground that if I didn't go,
somebody else would go in my place, and I didn't think that was right either."
On Nov. 6, 1968, Dr. Sayles was scheduled to go to war. "I remember
how long of a night the night before I left was. I just couldn't sleep.
I didn't sleep for about 48 hours, and then finally I fell asleep. It was
a long night I just didn't want to go.
When he arrived in Washington at Fort Louis for basic training, one
thing immediately was clear to Dr. Sayles. "I was too old," he
says. "These guys were teenage, young men who were from California
and South Dakota. Believe me, there is a difference between being 18 and
Barbara agrees. "He has a really great shot when he has a black
beret on and a monkey on his shoulder," she recalls. "There are
all these other guys around him, and you can tell that he was older, not
by his face or anything, but just by the way a man stands vs. a boy."
Besides being somewhat of an outcast, Dr. Sayles found other reasons
why he was not happy in Washington. The young men trained at Fort Louis
during the winter season to prepare themselves for the thick humidity of
Vietnam. "I always thought it weird that I would be trained to fight
in Vietnam at Fort Louis during their winter cycle. It was not fun. It was
nothing but mud and cold weather and things of that nature."
After training was completed, Dr. Sayles, wanting to go home and not
finding his place among the army's barracks, was sent to Maryland to learn
how to repair helicopters, which would be his primary duty in Vietnam. "My
official rank was MOS45J20, I think," he says. "I learned about
machine guns, mini guns, grenade launchers and all kinds of stuff. I was
not good in class because I simply could not keep my mind on it. When I
was physically out there, I could take an M-16 system apart and put it back
together again, but when it came to tracing circuitry, I really didn't do
well because it wasn't something that interested me."
His wife Barbara listens intently. "Ask him how he marches,"
she says quietly as a smirk slowly spreads across her face. Dr. Sayles'
face takes on a shade of scarlet. "I was poor as a marcher," he
admits. "It was because my mind was elsewhere, and I was always out
of step. I got in more trouble over that than anything else. I was thinking
about history, or something that I had read. I went to the library as often
as I could. I read the newspapers constantly," he says. "To me,
everything was completely boring. You stand in line, you do the same thing
day in and day out, and it requires no real thinking on your part. It's
just not challenging," he says in regard to the army.
Comparing the library he used as a resource then to the beautifully-stacked
books he owns now, he admits that he missed out on fine literary classics
while in the army. "Their idea of good literature was Jacklyn Suzanne
novels, and their libraries were very poor. I didn't know what was going
on with the country when I got into the army. There was a three-month period
when I didn't have a clue what was going on. Once I started reading newspapers,
I realized I had a real hunger to know more and more about what was going
on in the world."
He is silent for a moment. His clear, blue eyes stare off somewhere,
perhaps in thought, perhaps still lost in Vietnam. "I have no soft
spots for the military," he says, quietly. His focus appears to return
to the setting of his office. He glances toward where his son is sitting.
"I don't have any fond memories or anything of that nature," he
says. "I liked a lot of guys, but it's not those men I'd ever want
to go back to-ever.
His training completed, Dr. Sayles found himself on Vietnamese soil.
"It was hotter than blue blazes," he says. "I can't say that
I was scared, but it was like an oven there. I was struck by the humidity
and the heat of the place. I was always sweating when I first arrived and
was very uncomfortable, but after a while, you get used to it, and it doesn't
His duties in Vietnam centered on helicopters. "I was trained to
do that, and that's what I did," he says. "I had to unlearn a
lot of things I had learned. The way they teach you in school is the long
way and the right way [to do things], but sometimes you need to learn shortcuts.
I was pretty good at those things."
Dr. Sayles had his share of life-threatening moments in Vietnam. Once,
being stationed next to a Black Panther Tai Division, Dr. Sayles heard firing.
"Apparently one of the Tai soldiers got drunk and was shooting his
M-16. I remember hearing that as I was walking out of the door and stupid
me, I was silhouetting the doorway and the light was behind me. All of a
sudden, I heard something whiz above my head, and it hit the building, and
it turned out what the guy had done was shoot at me," he says as his
eyes widen. "I just dropped. I thought I was being attacked by the
Vietcong or something. He missed me by about six feet. I had only been around
for four or five weeks in the country at that time," he says. "I
learned from thereafter to keep myself in the darkness after that."
In addition to repairing helicopters, Dr. Sayles also flew helicopter
missions. "I was a door gunner," he says casually in regard to
one of the most dangerous positions assigned in the army. "The thing
about being a door gunner is you're up there with your crew chief and an
M-16 machine gun," he explains. "All you do is fly in circles
all day long. If you're lucky, that's all you do. After all, I was one of
those guys who didn't want a lot of action," he says and laughs. "I
didn't want the glory."
A memory of Vietnam that appears to stay with Dr. Sayles changed his
everyday sequence of "flying in circles" to a spilt second between
life and death. One afternoon, some Vietcong were seen running into a village.
As they flew over the village, Dr. Sayles recalls how someone in the helicopter
spotted three Vietnamese men with a boy riding a water buffalo. They were
targeted as members of the Vietcong.
"They called them 'eligible males,'" Dr. Sayles recalls. "So
we circled back to get those guys. The crew chief wanted me to have a confirmed
kill, and he wanted it to happen on my side [of the helicopter], because
he had already gotten a lot of confirmed kills, and he wanted me to get
one because then I'd get to wear a black bandana.
"They wanted to get permission to kill these people, and I'm looking
at these people, and, to me, they were just farmers. I kept thinking that
I would have to kill these people in a second," he says.
After getting permission to kill the men and child below, his helicopter
turned around so Dr. Sayles' could get a clear shot. "As we moved around
them, they got a call that the army's Vietnamese General told us not to
shoot these people. The guys were furious in that helicopter. But not me;
I was kind of glad that I didn't have to do it. I have often wondered if
I would have killed those people, and the odds are I probably would have.
That's what I think. I don't know what that means. I'd like to say, 'No,
I would never do that.' But if I had the orders and permission to do it,
I probably would have," he says.
"For the average person over there, a confirmed kill meant you
were bad," says Dr. Sayles. "You got to wear the black bandana.
I personally didn't care one way or the other. In fact, I didn't want it.
But you just can't say, 'No, I don't want that.' You just can't say that.
As far as I know, I have no confirmed kills. I shot a lot of things at places
where people were, but I know I don't have any confirmed kills, but whether
I killed somebody or not, I don't know. It does bother me from time to time
when I think about it," he says quietly and looks down at his hands.
For many of his fellow soldiers, Dr. Sayles noticed that things were
perceived differently. "A lot of them hated the Vietnamese," he
says. "One officer in my basic training would give us propaganda speeches
and tell us that the Vietnamese did not value life like we do, and that
they would kill you as soon as look at you. The younger guys learned to
hate them. A lot of them also wanted to be there and believed in the mission
of Vietnam. I was older than they were and was much more skeptical, but
I kept a lot of that to myself."
Dr. Sayles remembers many incidents in Vietnam when the people were
treated cruelly by American soldiers. On his first day in Vietnam, the bus
driver taking him to where he was stationed deliberately tried to run a
motorist off the road.
"Vietnam took the romance out of war for me as far as America was
concerned," he says. "I always felt that, through my educational
background, that we were always the good guys at wars. We did all the honorable
things, and the enemies did all the dirty things. I know that sounds kind
of naïve, but that's the way I felt in those days. But what I saw over
there, made it so I couldn't believe that these were Americans doing those
After leaving the jungles of Vietnam for everyday life in America, Dr.
Sayles says he noticed the power of such a transition. "It took me
six months to clean up my language," he recalls. "I was also very
callused about life. You see a lot of dead people and suddenly it doesn't
have that same impact anymore.
"When I was teaching at the New Mexico Military Institute, I got
in trouble with the Military Science Department because I had a section
on Vietnam. When I was talking about death I said that, 'Dying is not as
romantic as you think. Dying for your country is not a romantic thing. What
you become is a public sanitation problem.' That is literally true. The
human body is a grotesque thing, especially when it's chewed up by hard
weapons. You don't die neat deaths. You die mangled,' he says seriously.
"They weren't too happy with that. Needless to say, I only had one
Finding himself teaching at ULV, Dr. Sayles notes the irony of a Vietnam
veteran teaching at a college campus that promotes peace above all things.
"When I applied for a job here, Herb Hogan [professor of history] asked
me, 'Given your military background, how do you think you can relate to
such a passive campus?' or words to that effect, which I took as a hostile
question. I said right then to myself, 'You know what? This job ain't coming
to me.' So I leaned back in my chair and told him that a person with my
military background would know a lot better than a lot of people how valuable
peace is; then we went on to different things. I felt I had no chance whatsoever,
but, eventually, they did call me to work here," he says.
Whether he is a stronger or better man because of Vietnam, Dr. Sayles
appears neutral. He does, however, recognize a better understanding of what
war does to an individual. "People can do a lot of things they don't
think they can," he says. "I used to think I couldn't kill. I
remember my dad being so angry with me because I couldn't kill chickens;
I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Yet, when I think of those three
men and that boy, I think I could have done it, and I wouldn't have lost
a whole lot of sleep over it.
"It's because of the environment there. It's a different environment
where the ordinary standards just simply don't apply. You get praised for
doing those types of things."
Barbara believes that her husband is indeed different than the average
spouse, friend and man. "He is the finest human being I have ever met,"
she says. "That's the truth. He is gentle and kind. He is one of God's
gifts to humanity and is a fine man. He cares about his students and his
job he simply cares."