La Verne Magazine
Winter 2001


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 not march.

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 could.

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 23."

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 bother you."

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 things.

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 year there."

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."