Infantry officer recalls sounds, smells of gunfights

John Reitzell went to Vietnam in the spring of 1970 as a 23-year-old second lieutenant in the Army infantry.

The year-long experience was as challenging as one would expect.

“It was not very pleasant. There’s nothing worse on Earth than a nasty gunfight, and I was in multiple combat close-quarter battles,” the now-retired colonel said.

He was a rifle platoon commander in the 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, in the central highlands, the mountain jungles. He spent the last eight months of his tour as an operations officer for N Company, a long-range reconnaissance patrol company, with the 75th Rangers, 173rd Airborne Brigade.

“I was actually wounded four times, but three of them were minor,” Reitzell, who received a Purple Heart, said.

He was wounded twice in the same fight about an hour apart in the jungle northeast of An Khe, Aug. 26, 1970.

“This was just a meeting engagement. Two forces just ran into each other,” he said.

Reitzell can give a vivid description of what it’s like to experience a firefight.

“The cacophony of sounds is debilitating,” he said. “And then you can turn to the smells. You begin to stink, and your mouth turns cotton. You’re always feeling for your ammo pouches. You can hear when a bullet hits a man. The smells are horrible, and everybody’s afraid.”

But as a young platoon leader, he learned that “it’s up to you to ensure that your men know that somebody’s in charge and you’re equipped to fight.”

“Everything went into slow motion,” he said. “And I made a valiant effort to touch everyone and let them know ‘Hang in there, Smitty.’ You learn how to lead by learning how your people respond to you in a gunfight.”

One of his men with N Company, Patrick “Tad” Tadina, became a jungle fighting legend. Tadina, the Vietnam War’s longest continuously serving Ranger, died May 29, 2020, at age 77.

“He had 109 kills. I can vouch for that many,” Reitzell said. 

Besides the Purple Heart, Reitzell has three Legions of Merit, five Bronze Stars (two with “V” for valor), the Joint Meritorious Service Medal, five Army Service Medals, five Air Medals and the Joint Service Commendation Medal. During his tour, he spent three weeks in the hospital recuperating from his wounds before returning to the field. He came home in the summer of 1971.

Retired Army Col. John Reitzell and his wife, Glenda, reside in Huntsville, Ala. Reitzell served in Vietnam in 1970-71. (Courtesy photograph)

He said he was treated “shabbily” when he returned to the United States. He didn’t get spat on, but he did get called “baby killer” by a female protester at the Seattle airport. Reitzell received a welcome reception when he got home to Monroe, Louisiana.

The son of a World War II veteran, Reitzell graduated from Northeast Louisiana State College, now called Louisiana-Monroe, in 1969 with a bachelor’s in pre-med with a specialty in chemistry. He was commissioned through the Army ROTC. He became a master parachutist in 1972.

“I wanted to serve my country because my dad had. That was in my DNA. I was going to serve my country at the point of the spear,” he said. 

His 28 years in the infantry included serving in Special Operations. He served in Vietnam, Korea, Germany and the Iraqi desert. In Tom Clancy’s book “Shadow Warriors: Inside the Special Forces,” Reitzell is depicted as “Maj. Johnny.”

Reitzell retired as a colonel in 1997 serving as chief of staff of the Army Infantry Center and School at Fort Benning, Ga. After working for 10 years at Dynetics Inc., he retired as the department head for cybersecurity and systems engineering in 2017. He received his master’s in systems management from Webster University in 1982 and a master’s equivalent in national security strategy from the Army War College in 1990.

He and his wife of 49 years, Glenda, reside in Huntsville, Ala. They have two children and four grandchildren. Their son, Mike, is a lawyer in West Palm Beach, Fla., and their daughter, Robyn O’Dell, is a senior executive for a large corporation in the Atlanta area. 

At 74 he hasn’t played golf for a year because of knee problems resulting from his nearly 1,000 parachute jumps. He is a life member of the Association of the U.S. Army, a former board member of the National Defense Industrial Association, a board member for two companies in defense contracting and he serves on the Huntsville Police Citizens Advisory Council.

Reitzell shared his thoughts on this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.

“Well I think it’s great,” he said. “Finally some recognition for so many people that got spat on and so many years we were called names and so forth.”

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