El Paso County Commissioner Recounts Vietnam Experience
There was daytime, and then there was wartime.
Even when he was no longer in the U.S. Army, the moonless skies over Vietnam bred a deep darkness that brought Daniel Haggerty within earshot of the enemy.
On this horrific night Haggerty was on his third tour in Vietnam, this time as a civilian working for Federal Electric Corporation (F.E.C.) in Bac Lieu, a southern coastal province. Haggerty and his co-workers had taken up residence in trailers abandoned by military officers.
“The war was winding down,” Haggerty recalled, “and the country was being overrun.”
The familiar blackness – endured night after night when Haggerty came to the country as a 19-year-old soldier years earlier – had settled in, and Haggerty had fallen asleep. He was jerked out of slumber by an explosion that seemingly sheered the top off of his trailer. Haggerty glanced down; the white of his boxer shorts illuminated the inky blackness, so he quickly removed the shorts and dove under another trailer.
Haggerty lay naked among ragged, bug-infested sandbags and watched the enemy as they crouched and ran and jumped over sandbags, shooting to kill.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God! I’m watching them overrun our compound.’ It was the most frightening thing I had ever seen. There were at least 20 of them, Vietcong dressed in their trademark hats and black pajamas.”
Haggerty’s friend and co-worker Francisco, whose hometown was San Francisco, was killed that dark night, as were two others. F.E.C. eventually dispatched a helicopter to retrieve their employees, which, Haggerty remembers, barely touched down giving the men seconds to jump in.
Haggerty told F.E.C. that he wanted to return to the United States; however, the company told him he was too valuable and promised to send him to a safe place, Dao Phu Quoc Island.
“I was there with eight Americans and 36,000 VC prisoners of war,” Haggerty said. “They didn’t tell us about the prisoners when they first sent us!”
Some two to three months after his arrival, the airport was blown up and enemy prisoners began staging prison breaks. At one point the runway was restored, and Haggerty saw a plane touch down.
“I dropped my tools and ran across the runway. All I had was the shirt on my back.” He jumped on the plane and asked, “Are you Americans?”
“They said yes,” Haggerty continued. “So I said, ‘I’m not getting off this plane.’ ” They landed in Saigon, where Haggerty slept in doorways and wandered the streets for three days in search of the F.E.C. building. He finally came across the abandoned, ransacked office and began searching through overturned file cabinets for his passport, which F.E.C. had taken and filed upon his arrival.
“It was surreal,” Haggerty said. “The building was a disaster.” Unbelievably, Haggerty found his passport.
“I was so excited! I opened a drawer, and there it was! It was almost bizarre, but I found it!” From there Haggerty left for home; except for paperwork pertaining to taxes, he never heard from F.E.C. again.
As challenging as his civilian tour was, Haggerty’s first two tours endured as a young soldier are more difficult to reflect on and describe.
A draftee sent to war as a teenager, Haggerty’s background was nothing if not sheltered. He was one of 11 Irish Catholic children and had been sent to seminary after eighth grade with the priesthood as a possibility.
After graduating from an all-Catholic boys high school, he landed a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“I was planning on going to college,” Haggerty said, “but I got drafted. I thought, ‘What the heck. I’ll do my patriotic duty.’ ”
He landed in Vietnam in September 1968 and was assigned to the signal corps working on telephone communications and equipment repair.
“The signal corps was never worried about being overrun, but we were worried about being outrun,” Haggerty said. “We were constantly attacked and constantly losing people.”
The most difficult aspect of war was “this constant anticipation of being killed.” Haggerty remembered. “We would see the horrible things happening to guys around us, and for the first six months I was so frightened that I couldn’t sleep or eat, thinking I would die any minute.
“And at one point, you just surrender to it,” he recalled. “You accept it.”
Following his first tour the Army told Haggerty that if he would return for six months, they would shorten his enlistment commitment; Haggerty jumped at the chance.
When he returned home for the first time, Haggerty landed in Seattle and saw a group of civilians shouting and waving. He thought to himself, “ ‘Look! They are welcoming us home!’ But as I walked closer I heard them yelling obscenities, and they were screaming and throwing things.
“All those things you read in the books, that you heard about? They were true, very true,” Haggerty emphasized. “The truth of the matter is that we lost that war. The more we talked about it, the more we realized people didn’t want to hear it.
“Perhaps I was too young to be exposed to the things I saw. Back then we called it ‘shell shock,’ before post-traumatic stress was developed; no one was there to help us cope.”
Upon his discharge from the Army, Haggerty tried to fit into college, tried to land a job, but nothing seemed to work. He came across an advertisement in a newspaper for civilian jobs in Vietnam, electronics in particular.
“It was the same job I had performed as a soldier,” he said. “It was all I knew how to do. I thought, ‘That’s me,’ so I went back.”
Upon his third arrival home Haggerty attempted to sell real estate; success eluded him, and he could not find a niche in civilian life. After some 18 months of hit and miss, Haggerty joined the Marine Corps, and he turned a life-changing corner.
“They do something to you in the Marines,” Haggerty explained. “You become energized. You get up at 5:30 a.m. and you get out there and get your endorphins buzzing and pumping. When you do something, you do it like you mean it, or you don’t do it at all!”
Haggerty immediately earned the respect of his drill instructors (DIs) when he was asked to wear any previously earned medals on his dress uniform.
“I had all of these Army commendations and medals, but I had never worn them before,” he said. It turns out, Haggerty had more Vietnam experience and more medals than his DIs combined.
“The DIs looked at my uniform, looked at me, and then asked me to tell them all about Vietnam,” Haggerty remembered.
To this day, various civic groups and schools ask Haggerty to share his war experience, a task that is still difficult and somewhat emotional.
However, Haggerty continues to draw from his military training, in particular the commitment and discipline fostered in the Marine Corps. Following his stint in the Corps, Haggerty’s real estate business took off. In fact, Haggerty only recently retired from Century 21 Haggerty, launched in 1976.
He became involved in the community with his election to the El Paso Community College Board of Trustees in 1990. Haggerty, who never married, was further involved in politics through his brother’s campaigns for city council and state representative.
Several peers encouraged Haggerty to make a bid for public office, and he was sworn in as El Paso County commissioner in January 1995. Haggerty has since been elected four times, and if he is successful in November, he will be the longest-serving county commissioner in El Paso County Precinct 4.
“When I run or when I launch a project, I do it with passion,” Haggerty said.
For example, like counties across the state, El Paso County has a continual influx of mentally ill inmates in the county jail.
“We had to do something!” Haggerty said. “And I talked the commissioners court into $1.8 million for ongoing services and a $10-million building designed for children with mental illness.
“When I approach something now, I try and do it with 100 percent energy,” Haggerty said. “It’s a lesson I learned in the Marines.” And so far, that approach has worked.
By Julie Anderson