In 1966 at 18, Stuart (Stu) Steinberg volunteered to join the U.S. Army and spent four and a half years on active duty. He spent 18 months, from September 1968 until March 1970, serving in Vietnam. That relatively short window of time shaped much of the next five decades of Steinberg’s life, for better and worse.
Steinberg, who has lived in Crooked River Ranch since 1995, recounts his wartime experiences in his gripping, poignant and at times shocking memoir, “This is What Hell Looks Like: Life as a Bomb Disposal Specialist During the Vietnam War.”
“I wanted to show people what Vietnam was like for me — what I saw and experienced,” Steinberg said. “I also had a particular point of view about the war that I wanted people to know. I came to believe it was a sick, demented war based on lies.”
As an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) specialist, Steinberg had one of the most dangerous jobs in the military. On a daily basis, he and his teammates were responsible for finding, disarming and removing deadly explosive booby traps set by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.
They were also tasked with disarming or destroying any damaged or unexploded munitions to prevent them falling into enemy hands and for the safety of any troops or civilians that might come across them.
During his 18 months in Vietnam, Steinberg participated in more than 300 ordnance disposal incidents with four different nine-man teams.
He survived multiple ambushes in the field and enemy assaults on bases where he was stationed or working.
In one harrowing incident, Steinberg and a teammate were checking an area for enemy mines when he felt something moving under his foot. He dug down a few inches with his knife and discovered a wire that was moving. When he looked up, he saw the wire was being tugged by a North Vietnamese soldier in a tree nearby.
Steinberg realized the wire was the trigger to a booby trap, so he grabbed it, yanked it back towards him and quickly cut it. Then he set off a smoke grenade to call in helicopter gunships which strafed the tree line, killing the hidden enemies.
“Afterward, we discovered I was standing on top of a huge artillery round that would have killed me and most of the American troops in the area if it had gone off,” Steinberg said. For his actions that day, he was awarded the Bronze Star with a “V” device for valor.
Not all of Steinberg’s assignments ended so well. In mid-1969, he suffered lower spinal damage, second-degree burns, shrapnel wounds and perforated eardrums when an ammunition round he was transporting to a demolition area exploded in the back of his truck. He was back at work four days later.
Despite the constant stress and horror of the situations Steinberg was immersed in, he voluntarily extended his tour in Vietnam by six months. Even then, he felt guilty about leaving in March 1970.
“I was worried that people would be hurt or killed because I wasn’t there doing my job,” Steinberg said.
After returning to the U.S. from Vietnam, Steinberg used his G.I. Bill benefits to attend college and then went on to law school. He became a public defender and later a defense investigator for capital murder cases. But alongside these professional accomplishments, post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from his wartime experiences and ongoing pain from his spinal injury contributed to increasingly severe alcoholism, cocaine abuse and an addiction to prescription pain killers that continued until he completed a 90-day rehabilitation program in 1987.
When Steinberg first sat down in 2006 to write a book, he planned to write a novel loosely based on one of the capital murder cases he had worked on. But after several months he tore up the pages he had completed and deleted the files from his computer. Instead, he decided to write a nonfiction account of his EOD experiences. He soon realized he couldn’t rely only on his memory and needed more documentation to help refresh and confirm his recollections.
“My work helping veterans with their benefit claims involves recovering a lot of historical documents from the National Archives,” Steinberg said. “EOD teams have to maintain daily logs of all their activities, so I was able to recover a lot of the after-action reports from the Ordnance Battalion — hundreds of pages — and really reconstruct my time in Vietnam.”
This process also prompted Steinberg to track down and organize a reunion with many of his former EOD teammates, who continue to get together each year. Until reading those reports and reminiscing with his fellow soldiers, time and trauma had caused Steinberg to block many of the events from his memory. Recounting the stories in “This is What Hell Looks Like” has helped him come to terms with his wartime experiences. Meanwhile, the enduring bond that was forged with his fellow EOD specialists and Vietnam veterans in general, is something Steinberg treasures.
“If you volunteered for Vietnam, you didn’t go to fight communists,” Steinberg said. “You fought for the other guys around you and the guys that had your back. These are the best people I’ve ever known in my life.”
Now in his 70s, Steinberg continues to work on behalf of military veterans. He is the chairman of the National Veterans Rights Association, a board member of the National Ordnance Disposal Veterans Association and helped found Central Oregon Veterans Outreach.