The following article on David Pristash, commander of American Legion Post #801
By Brian Albrecht, The Plain Dealer | Posted January 20, 2019 at 05:00 AM | Updated January 21, 2019 at 06:09 AM
BRECKSVILLE, Ohio – In some respects the life of David Pristash has been the stuff of movies.
In 1955, when Pristash was attending Brooklyn High School, a relatively unknown singer named Elvis Presley visited to perform along with Pat Boone and the Four Lads.
Pristash, 78, recalled, “He was good. I mean, all the girls liked him.”
There’s a film of that performance, somewhere, he said.
He grew up on the Near West Side and went to St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the same church used in the 1978 film, “The Deer Hunter.”
And like Robert DeNiro, the actor who portrayed an Army Special Forces soldier in the movie, Pristash – who also served as a Green Beret in Vietnam – could not bring himself to shoot a deer on a hunting trip after the war.
He still can’t.
Scene cut but meets John Wayne
While Pristash was training in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, his unit helped in production of the 1968 John Wayne movie, “The Green Berets.”
Pristash was part of a night parachute jump that was filmed for the movie but the footage was later cut.
However he did get to meet and share a drink with “the Duke,” and recalled, “He was a big dude. A nice guy.”
Joining the best of the best
In other respects, Pristash’s experiences in the service were nothing like a movie.
After earning a degree in business and finance from Ohio University, Pristash had the option of getting drafted or enlisting with a shot at officers candidate school.
In 1966, he’d married Darlene, who would become his wife of 52 years, and told her – “kind-of tricked her,” he recalled – that he could probably do something in the Army involving finance.
Instead, on a whim, he opted for Special Forces training. “Well, that was the best of the best,” he said.
But his wife still “reminds me of that [ unintentional deception] quite often,” he said with a grin.
Choking the Ho Chi Minh Trail
In September of 1967 he headed to South Vietnam where he and a small group of Special Forces soldiers would be leading and training a Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) that he described as “basically para-military people, Vietnamese, Montagnards, Cambodians.”
The force was located in a camp and airfield at Bu Dop on the Cambodian border, near the Ho Chi Minh Trail at one of the many points that the North Vietnamese used to infiltrate South Vietnam.
“We were involved in a lot of battles, pretty much from day one,” Pristash said.
Scary but you get used to it
Most of their combat came in small skirmishes in the jungle.
Pristash’s first firefight was, he admitted, “a little scary.”
But as he noted in his self-published book, “Diary of a Special Forces Trooper in Vietnam, 1967,” you get used to it.
“You feel you are either going to get it or not, it almost doesn’t matter what you do,” he wrote. “That’s not to say you don’t watch out for yourself, no one wants to be killed.”
He recently remarked with a chuckle, “Basically, if you do your job properly, you should theoretically survive.”
The sounds of war life-affirming
He also wrote about the sounds of war that became a familiar and almost exciting part of life.
“The thud of rounds impacting, the popping of automatic weapons fire or cracking explosions of a claymore mine were very real and exhilarating, for if you were hearing these things you knew you were still alive,” he wrote.
After a while, when it seemed as if every combat patrol he led resulted in enemy contact, his nickname became just that – “Contact.”
Lessons learned in life and death
He was also instructed in the ways of war along the way.
“I learned how to function and lead men in combat, and more importantly how to distance myself from death,” he wrote in his book.
During one operation he talked to a Special Forces NCO headed out on a combat patrol. Pristash recalled, “He just said, ‘I’ve got a bad feeling, I’m not coming back.’ And he didn’t.”
Pristash said he never got that feeling, nor even wondered if he was going to survive.
“I was maybe a little too arrogant,” he said. “I just assumed I was going to make it.”
Blasted by a fireball
Pristash’s camp had been overrun by enemy forces before he arrived, and it nearly happened again during his four-month tenure. A nearby American Army battalion fortuitously averted disaster.
But the camp continued to endure intense barrages, and during one such attack Pristash was manning a mortar in a shallow pit with two other Green Berets when something, a spark or shrapnel, set off a nearby ammo bunker.
“It was just like a huge fireball, and the blast that came through the position pretty much burned everything off me that I had on,” Pristash recalled.
He wrote in his book, “The blast either blew me out of the pit or I crawled out (I’m not sure which), the next thing I do remember a few seconds later was that I was laying on the ground just outside the pit and seeing that I was on fire.”
He threw dirt on the flames and was evacuated with the other two team members to a hospital.
Pristash had suffered third-degree burns to 23 percent of his body, mostly his legs, and second-degree burns to 44 percent of his body.
He was relatively lucky. The other two men who had been with him in the mortar pit died of their wounds.
An arduous recovery
But the horror was just beginning for Pristash when he arrived at the Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas for treatment of his burns.
Pristash said the doctors only gave him a 10 percent chance of surviving his trauma.
The treatment consistent of morning dunks in a tank of water where doctors used a scalpel to cut dead flesh from his body. “In effect, a person was being skinned alive,”Pristash wrote.
He recalled, “They don’t give you any pain killers because whatever they gave you, you would become addicted to, so basically, [you] just grin and bear it
“I was determined that I would never scream, because that’s all you heard in the morning was guys screaming from what they were going through,” he added.
“And I never did.”
The gift of life and a vow
A startling side effect of this regimen were hallucinations, according to Pristash.
“You would be in bed and then” (snapping his fingers) “you would be back in the jungle, just like that,” he said.
“And when you were in that state, you believed you were there, you didn’t think it was a hallucination.”
During his treatment, Pristash dropped from 180 to 98 pounds.
Skin grafts on his legs forced him to learn how to walk all over again. Surgery corrected burn-stiffened arms that to this day he still can’t fully straighten.
But he recovered, and would write, “As I contemplated this brush with death a few years later I came to the conclusion that my life after 1968 was a gift and that since I should have died then, but instead I had lived, that I would do something before I died to justify my existence.
“As a result I have been driven to accomplish something ever since and what I’ll do if I’m ever successful I don’t know.”
Life after the battlefield
Pristash was successful after the war in a variety of fields.
He got a job in research and development for General Electric; started a company, Lumitex, Inc., that developed a product for treatment of jaundice in newborn babies; and has worked in technical consulting and marketing for the past 30 years.
He and his wife raised four children, and have seven grandchildren.
Coping with misconceptions
Initially, Pristash was burdened with a lingering anti-war sentiment from the Vietnam era in his job search.
“I got it at job interviews, especially since I was a Green Beret,” he said. “I was a ‘baby killer’ and all that stuff. They’d ask if I had PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] or flashbacks [he doesn’t]. That stuck with me all the way until the mid-1990s.”
Putting things in perspective
The influence of his military service lingers beyond the mementos and artifacts lining the walls of his home office.
Pristash said he became the man that he did because of that service.
For one, it changed his outlook on life and the world.
“In appreciating life, for sure,” he said. “Understanding we’re mortal. Being able to look at things, and put things in perspective.
“I mean, you’re in a bad job, so what? There’s no one shooting at you.”
In his book, Pristash noted, “Prior to these experiences (the military and combat) I had a tendency to be naïve and liberalish in my beliefs. After this I was more pragmatic and realistic in my views of the world.”
Lessons that lasted a lifetime
He recently said that whenever he was in a supervisory position in business, he followed a lesson learned as an officer in Vietnam:
“As a company grade officer, your duty is to do the best for your men that you can, understanding some are going to die, but you try to minimize that.
“A good officer looks out for his troops. And I used that in business when I foreman or plant manager. No matter what, I took care of my employees.”
Additionally, he said that when “I ended up running companies it was pretty much impossible to get me excited over something, because my view was I’ve already gone through hell, there is nothing that you could do or say that would be worse.”
All in all, “everything worked out,” he said. “I didn’t get killed, I learned lessons, and so I think it was a net positive.”