By January of 1968, Wayne Daffron said there had been a sense that something was changing in the routine at Khe Sanh. The easy duty days were giving way to around-the-clock fire missions.
Wayne Daffron recalls being amazed at the natural beauty of the surrounding terrain when he arrived for an assignment at the United States Marine Corps outpost at Khe Sanh, South Vietnam, in August 1967.
“It was a really nice place. It was the prettiest little place you have ever seen... and it was fairly easy duty,” he said of the base, where he staffed a 105mm Howitzer as an artillery specialist.
But what happened at Khe Sanh in the early morning hours of Jan. 21, 1968, would change Daffron and his fellow Marines and South Vietnamese troops for the rest of their lives as a 77-day battle ensued with the People’s Army of North Vietnam for control of the highlands near the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam and the border with Laos. The battle is a story of perseverance and courage in one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the War in Vietnam.
And it is a story of coping nearly 50 years later for both Daffron and his wife, Gayln, and for thousands of other war veterans, from World War II to Vietnam and the Global War on Terror, who deal daily with the memories and trauma of war in the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. But more on that later.
Khe Sanh is a distant memory for many Americans of a certain age — while a total unknown for younger people, as is the Vietnam War. The battle created headlines in the states, but was soon forgotten — except for the Marines and handful of soldiers who defended the outpost for 77 long days.
By January of 1968, Daffron said there had been a sense that something was changing in the routine at Khe Sanh. The easy duty days were giving way to around-the-clock fire missions.
“We had couple of patrols that were sent out but didn’t return,” he said of the days leading up to the siege.
Then, on the night of Jan. 20, 1968, officers told their men of intelligence reports that suggested the North Vietnamese Army may be hitting the base in the next 24 hours. As most intelligence reports in a war zone during Vietnam, Daffron took the news nonchalantly. In the days before the attack, one of his friends wrote a letter to his wife and asked that it be mailed it he died in combat. Daffron agreed, never expecting to mail the letter.
“They told us we would get hit the next day,” Daffron said. “I learned most of what I know about Khe Sanh after I left Vietnam. Now what I learned later was that a North Vietnamese officer had surrendered at the wire and he had all the plans for the battle. He told us exactly what they were going to do.”
At around 5 a.m. on Jan. 21, 1968, the Marines of Khe Sanh learned that intelligence was correct this time. A barrage of Vietnamese artillery signaled an all-out attack on the base..
“A guy said that they were hitting the other side of the base,” Daffron said. “Then, rounds started landing near us and I said, ‘Other side of the base, hell.’”
During the first long day, the battle was intense with both sides conducting intense artillery and mortar attacks on each other, and riflemen and machine gunners repelling attacking troops.
After the first day of battle, Daffron made his way to the headquarters bunker where he learned his friend had been killed.
In Vietnam, most battles lasted a few hours or even a few days. Not Khe Sanh. A determined North Vietnamese Army wanted control of the highlands around the base, and the Marines were just as determined, said Daffron.
Khe Sanh had been a strategic breakpoint for the U.S military since it was first staked out in 1962. That’s when Army Special Forces built a small camp near the village, located some 14 miles south of the demilitarized zone, and about six miles from Laos. Marines built a garrison adjacent to the Army camp in 1966. In the fall of 1967, the People’s Army of North Vietnam began to build up its strength in the region, and U.S. officials began to suspect that Khe Sanh would be the target of an attack.
As the battle progressed — hours turning into days, days in weeks and weeks into months — Daffron said a routine set in with the expectations of shelling during the day and attempts by the North Vietnamese to penetrate the wire at night.
The Marines were cut off from the south, dependent on daily supply runs by C-130 Hercules aircraft to bringing in ammunition, water and food — mainly in the form of C-rations. Then, the North Vietnamese destroyed the air strip. Daily supplies had to be air dropped in dangerous missions that placed both air crews and Marines on the ground in danger. The Marines were aided by B-52 bombers, which dropped close to 100,000 explosives on the hills surrounding Khe Sanh over the course of the battle.
During the battle, life was austere – and intense.
“We lived underground. Literally underground,” Daffron. “We lived in a bunker – two of us. I would go in the bunker and my head would be about ground level…but there were times when it was a nice place to be located.”
Finally, after 77 days, the battle waned, and Army units arrived to relieve the Marines.
“They said they were there to save us, but the battle was over,” Daffron said.
That was the end of Khe Sanh, chapter one for Daffron. The next chapter came when he was reassigned in Vietnam. To this day, he has no memory of his last six months in country.
“I can’t remember a thing,” he said.
He came back to the states in August 1968, and was assigned to Camp Lejeune, N.C., and while on leave visiting in St. Louis, he met the woman who would become the love of his life, Gayln. They met on a blind date, and she was not impressed.
“He not good looking…. skinny and droopy…but I went out with him,” she said.
After a long-distance courtship, he proposed, and they were married in April 1969.
They settled into life. Gayln was a hairdresser and Wayne became a bricklayer, eventually rising to a construction superintendent, supervising more than 100 people. They raised three daughters.
His struggles with Vietnam surfaced in small ways — snapping here, ignoring there. Then one day when they were living in O’Fallon, Daffron suffered a blackout that he cannot explain to this day.
Gayln, who operated a beauty salon out of their home, sent Wayne to the bank with a deposit. He did not return home for hours.
“I only knew that it was raining, and this Vietnamese guy was hitchhiking. I picked him up and gave him a ride. I do not remember dropping him off, I do not remember anything,” Daffron said with his voice trailing off.
Gayln picks up the story: “Somehow, he made it home. His mother at the time was a live-in nanny and she had weekends off. She spent Saturdays with us, because I had work. When he got home, he went straight the table, sat down and I noticed that he had a cigarette with a huge line of ashes…I got an ashtray and put it on the floor. The I asked if he wanted a drink of water. He said, “No, we can’t drink water expect when we really need it. We do not have much water.’”
He was experiencing a flashback to Vietnam. He did not know his wife, his children it his surroundings.
“A few minutes later, his mom had given the children something to do, and the moment Wayne heard her voice, he snapped out of it,” she said. “He did not know me before Vietnam, but he knew her.”
An ambulance crew was called their house, but found him in good physical shape and told Gayln there had no idea what caused the behavior.
A few years later, Daffron had another blackout.
Meanwhile, over the years, he rose in his career, but he was always dealing with the stress, often stopping off for a few drinks on his way home.
“He would never drink around the children, saving that for the bar,” Gayln said. “I do not think he was an alcoholic, but he had a problem.”
They moved to Troy in 1998, and started going to church. Daffron quit drinking, but the stress caused by Vietnam was ever-present.
The current chapter started in 2007, when Wayne retired, and they moved to Monroe County, about eight miles from Paris, near Mark Twain Lake. They purchased a doublewide, placed it over a foundation that Wayne built himself and moved to celebrate retirement. Wayne finished the basement with a nice entertainment area, and even built a hair salon for Gayln.
But still, Vietnam was on his mind. He would to the basement for hours and sit alone.
“When we first finished the basement, he would go down there for hours listening to his oldies with all the lights off,” she said.
Meanwhile, Wayne was a patient at the Veterans Administration clinic in Mexico. One day, as he was preparing for an appointment, Gayln said that in addition to checking on his physical health to please talk to someone about mental health.
It was a day that changed their lives.
He had an appointment with a counselor who asked a series of questions.
“He then said to me, ‘You have PTSD,’” Wayne said.
Since the diagnosis, he receives therapy and takes medication to deal with the chemical imbalance caused by stress.
To this day, Wayne deals with the effects of combat. The day he was being interviewed, there was a sonic boom, likely from a B-2 bomber flying from Whiteman Air Force base near Kansas City. He briefly flinched and stopped talking while swallowing hard.
“We get those several times a week... this one was not that bad,” Gayln said.
And the stress over years has impacted Galyn.
“It was worse when the kids were younger,” she said. “I would get mad and take a walk.”
But through all the tough times of dealing with PTSD, Gayln said she never once considered leaving the marriage.
“I made a covenant and it said for better or worse,” she said as she tapped her index finger on a table.
Said Wayne: “She’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and I’ll tell anyone that. She put up with more than anyone should.”
They both credit faith in helping them deal with Wayne’s PTSD. They attend the First Baptist Church of Paris, where Wayne sings in the choir and serves as a deacon.
Dealing with PTSD is a daily struggle but now that he has reached out for help from the VA, he has better control although he still experiences moments of despair.
“I don’t how to explain it, but a lot of times you have triggers and a lot of times you don’t have triggers,” he said. “I will be sitting here watching TV and I have to get up. Got to get up. Do something. Stay at home and not see anyone. Then, I have to get out, have to see someone. Your body just gets tight.”
Nearly 50 years after the first artillery rounds that signaled the siege of Khe Sanh, Wayne Daffron and his family are living the effects of that intense 77 days. But they are coping and making progress.
Wayne urges fellow veterans to seek help.
“If my story helps one person, then it is worth it,” he said.
And Galyn says to loved ones of troubled veterans, do not give up.
“If I had not made it through rough times, then I would not appreciate what I have now,” she said.
There are thousands of veterans who needs treatment for PTSD, says the Veterans Administration. There are many resources available for veterans who need assistance. A good place to start is the Veterans Crisis Hotline at (800) 273-8255.