Decorah Memorial Day Parade Grand Marshal Jim McLain reflects on experiences in Vietnam

Memorial Day Parade Grand Marshal Jim McLain in front of a sign his wife gifted him in honor of his service to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Vietnam War. (Driftless Multimedia photo by Zach Jensen)

By Zach Jensen,

Memorial Day Parade Grand Marshal Jim McLain in front of a sign his wife gifted him in honor of his service to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Vietnam War. (Driftless Multimedia photo by Zach Jensen)

Originally, Vietnam Veteran Jim McLain was hesitant to be Grand Marshal for this year’s Memorial Day Parade in Decorah. For most of his life, he just didn’t like being the center of attention. But, the more his fellow Vets from VFW Post #1977 asked him, the more comfortable with the notion he grew.

“I was in 4-H and FFA, and I did leadership roles and learned parliamentary procedure, and I was on the co-op board for a few years,” said McLain, who turns 77 in June. “And, I was the president of the school board, so I got to hand out some diplomas. I don’t like doing all those things, but I did them, because that’s what was expected. We have a duty to our community is why I did it. So, the more these guys talked to me, the more I thought, ‘There’s a reason they asked me, so I will do it.’ It means quite a bit, because I haven’t known a lot of the guys at the VFW, but they’re all good guys.”

McLain grew up on a farm and graduated from Decorah High School in 1965, and the following year, he was drafted into the United States Army to serve during the Vietnam War.

“I wasn’t planning on doing anything before I got drafted,” he remembered. “I know a lot of people who got married so they didn’t get drafted, and some of them still got drafted. Getting drafted was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, because I was walking a rather crooked line in my youth, and they had a corner of a jail cell waiting for me, if I wanted to use it.”

After being drafted, McLain first reported to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, and it was there that he was first approached about becoming a paratrooper. 

“Down at Ft. Leonard Wood, someone came around looking for volunteers to go Airborne — to be paratroopers,” he said. “It was another $55 a month, and at the time, I was getting $95 a month, so I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do that.’”

In January 1967, McLain was sent to Vietnam as a member of the famed 173rd Airborne Brigade. After landing in Saigon, his unit was sent to the central highlands of Vietnam, including Dak To and the city of Pleiku.

McLain was drafted to serve two years in Vietnam, but his second tour was cut short by a grenade on Feb. 14, 1968.

“That’s when I lost my eye,” he said. “My own personal St. Valentine’s Day present. In the middle of the night, we were sleeping in a bunker, and a rifle grenade landed in the door, and I lost my eye, and the guy right beside me ended up dead, and a couple other guys got leg and arm injuries. As fortunate as my life has been, I didn’t feel nothing when I got hit, so I was thinking, ‘Maybe this isn’t so bad.’ But, when a buddy came up to look at me, he pulled my hands away from my face, and he couldn’t look at me, so I thought, ‘Well, this must not be all that good.’

Full article in the May 23 Public Opinion newspaper.

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