Fire, water, no fear
Val Shaull is not a guy who's afraid of danger.
After enlisting in the U.S. Army and two tours in Vietnam, he came home to spend 27 years running into burning buildings as a Portland firefighter. And in his spare time, he shoots some of the scariest rivers around the world as a whitewater rafter and kayaker.
Shaull's two tours in Southeast Asia were spent as a bulldozer operator carving roads and landing pads from the dense jungle for American soldiers to use in conducting the war.
"When we got shot at, we couldn't hear because of the noise of the machines," said Shaull, 69. Although there were always soldiers protecting the excavators as they worked, "We were still vulnerable."
The lifelong Gresham resident enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1966 after graduating from Gresham High School and spent three years in the service. "I spent my 19th birthday flying to Vietnam," he recalled with a smile.
During his time in the jungle, Shaull, a sergeant, came under fire multiple times and was twice out of commission with tropical diseases. He still carries a bit of shrapnel in his leg."Mines were as much a danger for drivers and bulldozer operators" as gunfire, he said.
"Once I pushed up a 500-pound bomb," he said. He backed his machine away — slowly — and the ordnance experts came in and detonated the explosive.
Another hair-raising incident occurred when the battleship New Jersey was bombarding targets farther inland from where Shaull was working. Fellow soldiers related how the bombs sometimes went off mid-air, well short of their targets.
"We heard these whooshing noises overhead," he said, making a pulsing, whistling noise. "It was scary."
On one mission, Shaull and the other bulldozer operators were sent to an area to clear a spot for a truck convoy.His bulldozer was hit with a grenade-launching rifle "and all hell broke loose." He recalled "we were all on one side of the road in a ditch. There were 100 Viet Cong behind us. We brought in a medivac for an injured soldier. They thought it was a gunship and started firing. One soldier was killed."
After three years, the father of three and grandfather of two left the Army and came back to the Gresham area.
An unpopular war
As it went along in the 1960s, the Vietnam War grew increasingly unpopular with many Americans. The anti-war movement prompted huge protests and riots, notably at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Vietnam veterans, for the most part, were not celebrated on their return home.
Shaull is philosophical about the less-than-hero's welcome that veterans received at the time."We were told when I got back to Ft. Lewis to change into civies before we left," he said, referring to regular civilian attire. "I never talked about Vietnam for many years. It was just, people didn't like the war, and soldiers were part of the war."
However, he noted, people are talking more now about Vietnam and their service than when they first came home.
"It was sad," he recalled. "You almost felt dirty. Now, we're forgiven. I like it. But it's a little late. I put my service behind me. It is nice that people are treating the soldiers coming back from Iraq and other places with dignity."
"It was the first war we fought that wasn't liked," he added. "But the soldiers, we were just doing our jobs. But when people don't like what you're doing, you don't talk about it."
After his return from service, Shaull continued to work as a bulldozer operator, building logging roads around Estacada. Following that, he spent 27 years as a Portland firefighter before retiring in 2001. He received multiple awards as a firefighter including the Portland Fire Chiefs Gold Medal and the David Campbell Silver Medal.
Shaull also took up river sports and is well-known in the whitewater rafting and kayaking scene in the Pacific Northwest. He teaches the sports at Reed College.He has done the coveted "first descent" on multiple rivers in the region and covered the challenging Deschutes River's Denim, Dillion and Lava Island Falls in a raft in one day.
"Nobody had ever done that before," he said.
He's a key player with the local chapter of Team River Runners, a national organization that arranges river outings for veterans, many disabled, to learn and enjoy kayaking, rafting and canoeing.
He supports and helps other veterans learn to navigate rough waters — help that vets of his era did not often receive.Looking back, Shaull said he has no regrets about his service and the dangers he faced. The sense of loyalty and camaraderie with his peers has stayed with him through the years.
"I came from this little town of 3,000. I hadn't traveled much," he said. "I had a chance to meet people from New York, California, the midwest. It was a culture shock right there.
"But I'd have done anything for those guys."
Honoring our vets
This is the first of several stories The Outlook will run in upcoming weeks saluting our veterans.
To all vets, thank you for your service.