Seeley Swan Pathfinder -


By Betty Vanderwielen

Sheppard served as artillery repairman

Veteran Spotlight


Photo provided

Young Robert Sheppard fresh out of Army Basic Training.

OVANDO – Bob Sheppard is a native Montanan but that doesn't mean he spent all his time in the same Montana town. Born in Conrad, Sheppard spent his early years in the western Hi-Line country – Cutbank, Shelby, Browning – and then high school in Helena. After that he spent a lot of time hunting, trapping and doing some outfitting in the wilderness parts of western Montana where there are no towns.

In 1970 the Army broadened his horizons.

With a draft lottery number of 60, Sheppard figured a stint in the military was inevitable and so he opted to enlist in the U.S. Army. After he completed Basic Training at Ft. Lewis, Wash., the Army decided Sheppard should become an artillery repair person. They sent him to the other side of the U.S. In Aberdeen, Md. he learned to repair howitzers, everything from the smallest and lightest to large tank-mounted versions.

With that kind of training it was predictable that Sheppard would be sent to Vietnam. He was ordered to Quang Tri and Dong Ha compound, just south of the demilitarized zone which formed the border between north and south Vietnam. From that base of operation, he went as needed to other firebases to inspect and repair the heavy artillery there.

Sheppard said the main thing they did was drop a large borescope down the barrel of the howitzer. The device allowed the operator to see defects and damage.

The reason Sheppard liked the job was, as he put it, "Us lowly little Spec 4s could tell the Company Commander whether or not he could get a new barrel."

Even though the second day after he arrived, the enemy blew up an ammo dump, Sheppard said he wasn't overly concerned for his safety, because "we was young and bullet proof – or thought we were."

Nevertheless, he recounted an early incident: "Me and this guy from Louisiana was down in the well because we had a hydraulic problem. We was really concentrating because one of the old timers was up there seeing if we could do this. They brought another [tank] out to exercise next to us and we weren't paying attention until they shot off the damn thing. Boy did we come out of that hole. That old timer he liked to died laughing. Both of us lit like about 20 or 30 feet, I swear, we was running and looking for a hole and he was just dying, the tears was coming out of his eyes."

Not surprisingly, work on some of the larger artillery could be very complex.

Sheppard said, "When you change one of them barrels, they weigh – boy I don't remember, but it wasn't nothin' that somebody just picked up. You had to have a crane. And it was kind of a precision thing settin' it back down into there, getting it to where it needed to be and getting the tolerances and the whole schmear so when you put the breach block on and this that and the other you didn't blow the end off and kill the whole battery crew."

One of Sheppard's least favorite things was filling out all the paperwork to justify the requisition of repair parts. Often, he also had to turn the old parts back in.

Sheppard said, "One time they flew me and another fella into a firebase. We had a breach block – weighed about 90 or 100 pounds – and they put us in a little Loach [nickname for a Light Operation Helicopter]. We put that in and then we had to carry the old one back out with us because the powers that be – the quartermaster, I guess – wanted to know that we didn't trade it for dope or somethin'. The pilot was kinda pissed because it was kinda heavy and it poked a little hole in the inside of his fuselage. We didn't have it wrapped good enough, or we hit a bump, – I don't remember – I just remember he was kinda grouchy."

The need for artillery repairmen decreased as the U.S. began pulling out of the war but the need for infantry did not. Sheppard was "voluntold" to switch to an infantry unit about six months before he was due to get out. He defined "voluntold" as what happens to you when the required number of people fail to volunteer and the superior officer counts off every third man and tells them they just volunteered.

For Sheppard, his stint with the infantry consisted mainly of endless rounds of guard duty, which he said was "boring as spit." However, that was sometimes interspersed by what he called, "minutes of intense adrenalin rush."

Sheppard said, "That's just how it was. It was like, holy shit! And then when it was all over, you could stop peeing your pants."

Probably one of the best things that happened to him in the infantry, according to Sheppard, was making friends with a former logger from Oregon, a man he is still very good friends with. Once out of the Army, the man returned to the logging industry and Sheppard ending up getting a job with him when his own military term expired. They logged in Oregon, Alaska, Idaho and Montana.

Eventually, Sheppard gravitated to the Bob Marshall Wilderness, with trips to Ovando now and then for "groceries." He spent three or four winters in the backcountry, which he called "a little cool-down period."

Now married to Terry Sheppard, he said they have lived in Ovando for about 40 years. These days his trapping is mostly confined to small wild animal damage control, mainly coyotes, and he also puts in underground sprinkler systems.

Betty Vanderwielen, Pathfinder

Bob Sheppard in 2019.

Because of his reputation hunting and trapping in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and his expertise with wolves, Sheppard has been asked to be one of the instructors at a summer wildlife management course taught yearly at Purdue University in Indiana. An intensive one-week course, it draws professionals from government and wildlife management organizations across the United States. Sheppard especially enjoys the course because it puts him in touch with people who have expertise in so many different specialties. He said, in the process of his own teaching, he has the opportunity to learn from everyone else.

As for the value of military service, Sheppard thinks everyone should do a stint. "Not necessarily in a combat zone," he said. "But I think it would provide a discipline that I don't think a lot of people are getting these days."


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