Bethel University College of Adult and Professional Studies student Brad Williams made it through active combat in the Vietnam War, 300 skin-cancer removal surgeries and 70 years of life to finally get his degree.
By Zach Walker
Brad Williams wanted to jump out of helicopters. After his class got out at the University of Minnesota in Sept. 1968, he drove to a South Minneapolis military enlistment office in his yellow 1948 Hudson Hornet with a black racing stripe down the middle without telling his mom. He asked the officer if he could be a paratrooper. “Oh, that shouldn’t be a problem,” the officer said as he scribbled Williams’ name on a pad of paper.
Eight months later, Williams was handed a green army uniform and an M-16 assault rifle and led into his barracks in South Vietnam. No degree and no parachute.
In Aug. 2019, Williams, 70, started college again. He enrolled in the business management program in the College of Adult and Professional Studies at Bethel University. He was handed a Bethel ID card and a couple syllabi, and, just like every day in Vietnam, he got to work.
“Any old person with a solid faith can do a lot,” Williams said. “God, what can I do next?”
He thought fighting in Vietnam would be better than remaining undecided for a third semester at the University of Minnesota, a school he slipped into with a high-school C-average because of the A’s he got in gymnastics and band. So, he enlisted in the Army and rubbed dirt on his blonde mustache before his photo to seem older.
At 19, he joined the Charlie Battery 7th Battalion, 8th Artillery where he fired 200-pound shells out of a self-propelled M-107 Howitzer to survive attacks from North Vietnamese soldiers.
He slept on battlefields under overturned metal culverts covered with sandbags, and, when enemies approached the base, the blast of the Howitzer propped against the culvert lifted him from his cot.
Back at base, he would douse rats with kerosene, light them on fire and toss them in a pond. He drank Budweiser out of metal cans and smoked Old Gold cigarettes with his fellow soldiers. He wrote letters to his wife and mother on the paper that the Army supplied along with the cigarettes and beer. And nobody wore shirts if they didn’t have to.
South Vietnamese dump trucks loaded with dead bodies drove outside his base so the driver could toss a few more on the pile. When he traveled to other bases after an attack, he’d see severed limbs and decapitated heads.
“You get numb to it,” Williams said. “People were just so used to death.”
He started as an ammo humper, an informal name for transporter, because he was a rookie. He moved hunks of lead and four-pound charges of gunpowder from storage sheds to the Howitzers. He worked his way to driver and gunner before being transferred away from the tank and into the back of a three-quarter-ton green jeep where he read coordinates sent in by United States military leaders stationed elsewhere across Vietnam.
Stationed at Bien Hoa Air Base, Williams caught glimpses of orange barrels filled with a freshly mixed concoction of vegetation killer commonly known as Agent Orange. The soldiers thought it was something like Round-Up weed killer, and it would seep into the pond where they sourced their drinking water.
When he had to go to the bathroom, he sat on a wooden plank with four holes cut into the top above a 50-gallon drum and talked about the Minnesota Twins with the guys sitting next to him. Soldiers who wanted to leave Vietnam would jump into the waste-filled drum to fake insanity.
South Vietnamese children often wandered into camp peddling marijuana. “I’ll get you what you want,” they told Williams. By the 10th month, he just wanted to go home.
When an adjacent base got attacked, Williams found out that a young man died with only one week left in the Army. Later, he learned that his childhood best friend, David, an infantryman in Vietnam who spent high-school summers at the East Rush Lake with Williams, was killed in a different attack by a hand grenade when he tried to save his captain.
“I didn’t die, but [58,000] guys did,” Williams said. “I got home thinking I did pretty good.”
Williams was routed through the back door of the airport after landing in Oakland, Calif. so Vietnam protesters wouldn’t spit on him. He bought Vietnam license plates but quickly replaced them with the generic alternative because he thought someone would trash his 12-passenger Chevrolet van.
“You did not want to mention to somebody that you were in Vietnam,” Williams said. “That’s changed, thankfully.”
After returning home, Xcel Energy, then Northern States Power, in St. Paul hired Williams as a manager of operations. He oversaw crews of workers as they cleared power lines of tree branches and provided maintenance to electrical transformers.
And it wasn’t long after his return that he started to notice blemishes on his skin. His doctor diagnosed him with skin cancer in 1979. To date, he has had more than 300 surgeries, from his legs to his ear canals.
In the top-floor office of his home in Woodbury, Minn., stacks of printer paper sit two feet high on top of grey filing cabinets and in front of a framed photo of a military battleship. Some pages hold online research about the health effects of Agent Orange such as his skin cancer. Others contain a Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment claim that Williams sent to the Board of Veterans Appeals in Washington D.C. as part of a three-year legal process that allowed him to receive financial assistance for his Bethel education.
“Sometimes, you have to be your own attorney,” Williams said.
After 37 years at Xcel, Williams accepted a director of operations position with Environmental Consultants Inc., or ECI, a consulting firm that sent him across the Midwest to help businesses with management and process issues. Eleven years later, in 2014, he stopped working to spend time with his wife, Vicki, five children and 22 grandchildren.
He served at the First Congregational United Church in River Falls, taught SCUBA diving at Square Lake, raced down ski slopes in a one-piece spandex suit at Afton Alps and backpacked among wolves through Isle Royale in the middle of Lake Superior, activities that he still enjoys today.
After five years off, he wanted to get back to work. So he applied to college.
The University of Minnesota accepted him again. So did the University of Wisconsin. But Bethel caught his attention with its Christian roots and adult studies program. In October, he enrolled with a major in business management.
He met John Morris next to a banner of Bethel’s core values in the Brushaber Commons. The words “salt and light” and “world changers” welcomed him to his new school, and Morris, Executive Director of Military and Veteran Services at Bethel, noticed his U.S. Army shirt.
Morris shook Williams’ hand and asked his age. When Williams said he was 70, Morris knew he was speaking to a Vietnam veteran, a title held by his own father. Williams told stories of enlisting and firing artillery on the Cambodian border and Morris added his own knowledge of the war from his biography research on General Jack Vessey, a Minnesota-born Vietnam veteran. But the conversation was cut short. Williams had to get to class.
“Veterans bring a lot to any school they’re a part of,” Morris said. “[They] bring a maturity. [They] have been to the edge of evil. I’m just so proud that he’s at Bethel.”
In his Foundations of Reading and Writing class on Oct. 8, Williams sat alongside his only classmate that week, Lisa Gangl, and listened to professor Joel Olson lecture about commas. He scanned the notes projected on the screen of his Dell XPS 15 laptop until Olson asked him about Vietnam movies. They discussed “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now” and Williams commented on their accuracy to real life.
Gangl asked Williams if he was ever near loud guns. He put his hand to his ear, shouted “What?” and smiled.
During break, when Gangl left the room after announcing her plans to “go get some very expensive coffee,” Williams and Olson chatted about church denominations and Williams’ childhood rock-bands and the Middle Spunk Creek Boys, Olson’s bluegrass group.
At 10 p.m., when class was dismissed, Williams drove 20 minutes to his home in Woodbury. A home where he researches Agent Orange and plays with his two-year-old Maltese Poodle mix, Molly, and walks through his living room adorned with a photo of his wife and him hiking in the mountains with backpacks on.
Despite his hearing loss and more than 300 skin-cancer removal surgeries, he can still hike and ski and SCUBA dive. He’s fortunate enough to not be like his Vietnam friends who never made it back. He’s fortunate enough to have five children and 22 grandchildren and to have worked for 48 years to make a life for them. And to have the opportunity to do even more.
“God has interesting ways of working in our lives,” Williams said. “Two years ago, I would have laughed if somebody said that I was going to go to Bethel. Here I am at 70, finally with the opportunity to do it.”
Williams joined the Vietnam war at age 19 and lived in rat-infested swamps and slept under sandbagged culverts and smoked Old Golds to relax. Back home, he worked for Xcel Energy and ECI, raised a family and hiked across an island packed with wolves. At age 70, he wanted to go back in time. Back to those two semesters at the University of Minnesota.
He wanted to graduate.
“I know there will be a lot of things I can do,” Williams said.