November 11 is Veterans Day, and it’s a day full of meaning for Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community veterans like Burleigh Saunders. In the late 1950s, at the age of 17, Saunders was working in engineering for the City of Phoenix when he decided to enlist in the Army. He made the decision to willingly join the military rather than waiting to be drafted.
“I knew if I were drafted they would put me in a line company, a straight-leg infantry,” said Saunders about why he enlisted. “I didn’t want that. If I enlisted, I would have my choice of duty station.”
Saunders attended basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia. He continued on with Jump School and Ranger School while there. He later went on to Fort Bragg in North Carolina for Special Forces training.
“I remember my first jump,” said Saunders. “[It] was in Fort Benning. They took us up 250 feet in the towers. It’s a big tower, and as soon as you reach the top, they let you go. You have to steer away so you don’t hit the tower. That was to get you familiar [with] what it feels like.
“The first real jump is at 1,200 feet, and you have to make five jumps to be jump qualified,” he continued. “We made high aerial jumps, which is at 6,000 feet and it’s about 40 degrees below zero. When you come down, you had to have your oxygen on because there is no air. It’s scary because a lot of times you’re looking down on the clouds.”
Today, Saunders likes to go to the parachute dives. “It’s so precise now,” he said. “They have great big targets out there, and they try to hit that target and they are pretty accurate.”
Saunders eventually was sent to the Vietnam War, assigned to the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), where he helped the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) train in tactics. Then the war escalated.
Saunders did two and a half tours in Vietnam. On the first tour he was there for 13 months, and his second tour lasted for 18 months and continued on with special operations.
“We didn’t really understand what was going on. We knew it wasn’t just going to be a ‘conflict’; we knew it was going to escalate,” said Saunders. “When we first got there, we were just overwhelmed, and [the Viet Cong] just took us down like nothing. We knew the United States was not going to allow that, and they brought in more and more people. Before we knew it, there were over a million troops there: the 173rd [Airborne Brigade], the 82nd Airborne, 4th Infantry, the 4th division out of Hawaii, an Australian Unit, [and] we had a Thai unit with us from Thailand.”
Starting out as Airborne, Saunders did a number of duties. He had the opportunity to take part in sentry dog training school and work in demolitions.
Saunders and his dog guarded a maximum-security area. “He was a German shepherd; I remember his serial number, 9F18. He was from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.”
Saunders’ specialty was demolitions; he was called on to clear pathways for helicopters to drop off equipment and supplies.
“[The helicopters] don’t land on the ground, they hover about three feet in the air in case there are mines on the ground,” said Saunders. “We would go out there and put explosives on the trees and measure it all out. When we set it off, it would cut like a hacksaw went through all those trees. From the air, they can see that was the landing zone. I was good at it. I never made any mistakes, and I still have all my fingers.”
Saunders learned how to make nitroglycerin and everything explosive; today, at the age of 75, his hands are still steady. Back then, he explained, if one drop spilled it could explode. One soldier carried the explosives and walked in front of the unit, and another had the detonator at the back of the unit. If they were too close, an accident could occur and set the explosives off.
All through the service, Saunders was called “Chief,” except when a very dangerous matter came up. “Then they called me Saunders.”
Making the Right Decision
One time he did find himself in a dangerous situation.
“There was this guy who wanted to run patrol. I always ran patrol in the front or in the rear,” said Saunders. “I said, ‘Go ahead, run patrol.’ I knew he wasn’t going to be as cautious as I was, but I gave him a chance and let him lead. We stopped, and they called me up front.” The other soldier was standing on top of a mine.
“This guy was always hassling me and calling me derogatory names, but I made the decision to help him out. I got him off the mine, and once he was off, I detonated it.”
Afterward, Saunders said the other guy owed him one. “I just asked him to stop calling me names and respect me, and I would respect him.”
Home at Last
On his trip home Saunders went from Vietnam to Japan, from Japan to Korea, made his way over to Ulsan, South Korea, and then flew across the Pacific to Anchorage, Alaska. Then he made his way to Travis Air Force Base in Solano, California.
“I just thought ‘home, home, home, home,’” said Saunders about his journey back to the United States. When he was in California, and the other Vietnam soldiers were advised not to wear their uniforms outside the gates of the Air Force base. Saunders wondered why. They did not realize how strong the anti-Vietnam War protests had become in this country.
“I was proud to wear [my uniform],” he said. “I didn’t know how bad the reactions of the people were about the war till I got here. It was bad; if we would have known how it was here, we wouldn’t have come back. We were treated better back in Vietnam.”
Some of his fellow soldiers told him not to do it, “but I went outside the gate, and there was a big demonstration out there. They yelled and called us pigs and baby killers, asking us how many people we killed over there. A woman spit in my face. All I could think was, ‘You don’t know me and I don’t know you; why is this going on?’ I thought I left all that back there in Korea, but here in the U.S. it was really bad.”
After another long journey, Saunders finally made it back to Phoenix. When he arrived, he cried and hugged his parents and told them he missed them. He still felt the backlash from the war, along with other Vietnam veterans who didn’t get to wear their uniforms proudly. They were forced to travel and go out in groups to keep each other safe because there was so much hatred towards them.
“We were only doing what we were supposed to do,” said Saunders. “But I was always glad to get home. I don’t care where you go, there is no place like home.”
The transition back to civilian life was difficult for Saunders, just as it can be for any veteran. It was tough to find a job without much other job experience besides the military. Even though he worked for the City of Phoenix before enlisting, employers didn’t give him a chance because he had been out of work so long.
Eventually, with help from his uncle, he got a job with the State of Arizona. He worked there for seven years, then he worked in the Community as a police officer. After that he was assistant director for Public Works alongside the late David Easchief, and building maintenance supervisor for the Housing Division.
Again he worked for the state, for the Arizona Department of Corrections for 12 years; he returned to Salt River, working at the Court as a bailiff and process server. He ended his working career at the Career Center. He had to stop working due to his back, which was injured after 87 parachute jumps during the service.
“The service was a good experience for me. It taught me how to be independent and take care of myself,” said Saunders. “I do miss the camaraderie, and even the adrenaline rush when working with explosives.”