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Veteran mapped out lessons for students

Staff photo / Renee Fox Ronald Shaklee, of Liberty, who retired this year from Youngstown State University as a geography professor, describes his time in Vietnam while reviewing memorabilia from the period.

LIBERTY — A decision at the age of 20 that sent him to Vietnam had a profound effect on Ronald Shaklee’s life and career, long after returning from the war.

Shaklee walked into a recruiter’s office looking to select a job in the Army, instead of waiting for his draft number to be called. There was a yearlong waiting list for his top jobs, combat journalist and combat photographer, so he left disappointed.

“So I said, ‘I’ll just take my chances’ and left. When I went home, I got a call from the recruiter, and he said we have this thing called air photo interpretation. You might be able to go up in an airplane and take photos,” Shaklee said.

The job entailed analyzing the photographs taken over Vietnam.

“I had the easy job. Air Force and Navy pilots were the ones that had to fly and take the photos. I was doing damage assessment, looking at damage and trying to find troop movements, those kinds of things,” he said.

Shaklee was in Vietnam from December 1970 to December 1971 at the 45th Military Intelligence Company, a small outpost where intelligence workers were stationed outside of the main base.

“Maybe it’s urban legend, but they said that because we were in intelligence, we had a $10,000 price on our heads — which makes you feel good walking around Saigon, wondering why these people are looking at you strangely,” Shaklee said with a laugh.

Shaklee said he had it easy in Vietnam; he never saw a front line, though there were some mortar attacks.

Shaklee spent the time he had to himself by himself, writing his wife at the time a poem per day that he had bound for her as a gift titled “One Year.” He wrote short stories, letters home and read books — whatever he could find.

There was a bit of a generational divide between the younger guys like him and the older officers in charge.

“They were playing country western, good ole boys, while we were into Woodstock and anti-war,” Shaklee said.

After Vietnam, Shaklee had a year left and was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas, where he was able to enroll in the University of Kansas and get an “early out” in December 1972 to go back to college. He served a stint in the Army National Guard there but decided to exit when Ronald Reagan was elected, he said.

While in undergraduate studies, Shaklee got an incredible opportunity based on his training.

“I was lucky as hell. At the time, NASA had just put up their first photo imaging satellite,” Shaklee said.

Few people knew how to interpret the photos, but Shaklee did.

Twenty to 30 universities received grants to work on the project, including his alma mater.

“As an undergraduate, I was doing graduate-level research,” he said.

Shaklee stayed at the university to obtain a master’s degree and a doctorate, using his GI Bill to pay for most of it.

Shaklee taught geography at Missouri State University and then at Mississippi State University before moving to Youngstown State University in 1987. There he met his wife, professor Sharon Stringer, and he retired last month.

At YSU, Shaklee created a program that took students to the Bahamas each year to study geography.

“We probably took 1,000 students there over a 34-year period,” he said.

Shaklee said he took life lessons learned in the war back to his students, such as a willingness to learn about other cultures, to try their foods and respect their customs.

“I learned to look at war from both sides,” he said.

Shaklee said he encouraged students over the years to get out and meet people.

“It’s one thing to hate groups of people you don’t know. It’s hard to hate people you know,” Shaklee said. “My idea was to give students a broader world view and to respect the different religions and racial backgrounds.”

Shaklee said he was surprised to meet fellow veterans who harbored racist views after the war.

“They were in combat with people of different races, people they had to depend on, and it always amazed me that they could come back and still hold racist views,” Shaklee said.

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