Jim Sysko in Phu My, the port for Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, in 1968. Sysko served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Central Highlands.

NEWRY — Newry resident Jim Sysko was attending the University of Alberta when he received notice he had been drafted into the U.S. Army. It was the winter of 1967.

He had transferred from Northeastern University to get away from the city life of Boston. Sysko had a student deferment while he was studying at Northeastern, but he thinks they must not have recognized the University of Alberta — in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada — as an “official” school.

His professors told him to ignore the notice, but his parents, although not wanting him to join the Army, reminded him that he may jeopardize his U.S. citizenship by staying there. Sysko was at a crossroads.

“I chose to do it. I showed up on time and I was drafted into the Army,” he said.

He did eight weeks of basic training and then went to Advanced Infantry Training in Fort Polk, La., whose hot, humid and swamp-like climate was similar to Vietnam’s. Afterwards he went to Fort Benning in Georgia for paratrooper school. He volunteered to do it.

“I figured if I’m in the Army I might as well go all out,” Sysko said. “I knew then I was going to Vietnam. All paratroopers went to Vietnam,” he said.

Sysko said he never made a jump in combat. He was put into the 173rd Airborne Brigade. A brigade typically numbered about 1,000.

Sysko was a squad leader, overseeing about a dozen men. One of Sysko’s strong points was reading maps. He was asked by the captain of the company (a company is about 250 men) to be his adviser on reading the maps.

“It was really important to know your location,” Sysko said.

He spent 17 months in Vietnam and experienced many “close calls.”

Sysko was part of the Raiders Platoon, which consisted mostly of people from the north. His platoon was put on the front lines often, especially when things got bad.

His captain was from Georgia, and did not want to put his other two platoons, the Headhunters and Marauders, which consisted largely of men from the south, in imminent danger.

Something that came to Sysko’s aid in one battle was a rock, no more than the size of a basketball. It was big enough for him to hide his head behind. He kept having to roll the rock forward because his captain kept yelling “5 more yards, 5 more yards.” Bullets were flying everywhere, many striking and tearing up the ground around Sysko.

“It was a firefight. It sounded like a crackling fire,” he said. “That rock saved my life, I could feel the rounds hitting the rock. I could feel it moving.”

Another close call was when Sysko was outside, going to the bathroom. All of a sudden he heard a “bang!” A bullet whistled by him hitting and killing a North Vietnamese soldier coming up the hill. It was Sysko’s mate in the foxhole who saved his life.

“I was very, very lucky,” Sysko said of surviving the war. “Luck had everything to do with me living through it.”

Jim Sysko took this photo of himself in 1968 on top of a mountain in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

Some people that Sysko knew did not have as much luck.

He recalled one man in particular who died in battle.

The soldier went by the name “Hicks.” Sysko referred to him as a “model” soldier.

“He was really good at everything he did,” he recalled of Hicks.

Hicks’ skill allowed him to carry a “special” rifle, given to him by the captain. It was a M14 sniper rifle with a starlight scope, which allowed him to see enemy soldiers at night.

One day, Sysko and his platoon were returning from a mission in the mountains. They were walking through a rice patty when they were ambushed from a tree line about 500 yards away. Bullets were being sprayed everywhere and Hicks was killed. Sysko believes the North Vietnamese may have targeted him because of his “special” rifle.

“We had a big service for him because everyone loved him,” Sysko said. “He was a good guy.”

Another story he remembers is the time his platoon’s Chinook helicopter got stuck in a rice patty. Sysko was with about 30 other men and they were headed toward the mountain. The helicopter was flying through a typhoon with heavy winds and rain. The pilot informed the platoon the helicopter needed to land. When it landed, the weight of all the men drove the helicopter wheels into the mud. When they tried to take off again, they soon realized they were stuck.

“We sat there for a couple hours,” Sysko said. “The wind was dying down and we were beginning to worry about getting hit by fire.”

The platoon proceeded to get out and circled around the helicopter. The soldiers put their hands underneath the Chinook, and the pilot started to give it gas. They were able to wiggle the helicopter free and all piled back into the helicopter.

He said they would usually spend 25 to 30 days out in the “boonies,” and then return to camp for a couple of days to resupply and get a new clothes.

“Everything would be rotting off you, we were a mess,” he said.

When Sysko returned home, things were far from normal for him.

He returned to Fort Lewis near Tacoma, Washington. His folks were supposed to pick him up there. Sysko had given them a specific date he was going to be there through a letter.

Sysko waited near the gate of Fort Lewis for his parents to arrive, but after standing there for a while, he realized they were not going to come that night. There was confusion because of the international dateline, so he went back into the fort and asked what he should do. Since Sysko was no longer in the Army, staying at Fort Lewis was not an option.

He found a hotel and stayed the night there. He put a chair up against the doorknob in his room and held a heavy object in his hand. He got no sleep that night. He sat up all night waiting for someone to break through the door.

“My mind wasn’t thinking because I had just been shot at, bombed and everything else,” he said. “I couldn’t control myself.”

After he powered through the initial impact of the war, the effects gradually became better for him as the years passed. Today, he is known throughout this area for many things, but some notable ones are his roles in constructing the largest snowwoman and snowman in the world, projects he said were partially inspired by his time in Vietnam.

“People did things in adverse conditions,” Sysko said. “If the Vietnamese can dig a bunker the size of a giant building underground in one night with little shovels, we can build the highest snowman/snowwoman in the world, no problem.”


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