Something You Don’t Know About Me: Dave McTamaney

Dave McTamaney during his time in Vietnam

Dave McTamaney during his time in Vietnam (Photos provided)

In 1968, during the Vietnam War, Dave McTamaney graduated from Manhattan College with an English degree and enlisted in the U.S. Army rather than wait to be drafted.

By enlisting, he was able to request an assignment, and journalist seemed a logical choice. After 10 weeks of basic training, and 10 weeks of instruction, he was designated a photographer. 

“I didn’t want to be just a grunt with an M-16 and two pairs of boots,” recalls the lifelong Newburgh resident, now 76. “So they gave me an M-16, two pairs of boots and a Nikon.”

Before being deployed, he was allowed to return home for a few days, and during that time, he got married. He had met his wife-to-be, Mary, in the fourth grade. 

In April 1969, 10 days after his wedding, McTamaney landed in Saigon, assigned to headquarters for the 5th Battalion, 42nd Artillery Unit. 

He says most of the photos requested by superiors were not of combat, but of the results of combat. “Guys might have been driving down a highway and run over a landmine,” he recalls. “They wanted pictures of that.” 

But he also went into combat, such as during the bombardment of Viet Cong hillside positions. “It’s bad enough to see what an M-16 does to somebody, but what a 155-millimeter artillery round does when it explodes in the middle of a group of soldiers…” 

During one firefight, he recalls, he and the other soldiers hid behind tombstones. He also photographed Viet Cong prisoners, “with ropes around their neck, being marched off with their hands behind their back.”

He had the chance to take scenic photos in small places, too, he said, such as near the border with Cambodia at Núi Bà Ðen (Black Lady Mountain), where the troops encountered girls planting rice seedlings, he said. 

McTamaney said he was frustrated by editors who declined to use some of his better shots in Stars and Stripes, the military affairs newspaper. “I took a wonderful picture of a GI holding a baby while taking it to the medic,” he says. “They wouldn’t use the photo because he had cigarettes in his helmet!” 

In a photo that McTamaney was able to mail to a relative, Army medics treat local Vietnam- ese villagers during the war. His other photos were kept by the Army. (Photo by Dave McTamaney)

In a photo that McTamaney was able to mail to a relative, Army medics treat local Vietnam- ese villagers during the war. His other photos were kept by the Army. (Photo by Dave McTamaney)

McTamaney’s nickname in Vietnam was “The Professor” because he was a college graduate. He said he was often surprised by the lack of education among his fellow soldiers. “I met people in the Army who had never been inside a school building,” he says. He sometimes read them the letters they received from girlfriends.

“One guy opened his letter, and a ring fell out,” he recalls. “We knew what it was going to say.” 

When his tour of duty ended in April 1970, McTamaney was ready to board a plane to Germany, where he would complete his service with an office job. At the checkpoint, a military police officer asked him to hand over his negatives. 

“What negatives?” he asked. 

He had wrapped them around his ankles under his socks, a common ploy, apparently, by Army photographers hoping to take some of their official work home. He was told if he wanted to get on the plane, he had to throw the negatives into a burning barrel. 

During two much-quieter years in Germany, McTamaney taught English at a home for disabled children. He had never contemplated being a teacher; as a freshman at Manhattan College, he had joined the Future Lawyers of America, whose chapter president was Rudy Giuliani. “He was a very straight-laced kind of guy,” McTamaney says. 

When McTamaney returned to Newburgh in 1971, he worked as a substitute teacher at a public school known for its rough reputation. “They said they hired me because I had combat experience,” he says. He soon returned to school, enrolling at SUNY New Paltz to earn a master’s degree in teaching. “New Paltz was not a nice place for Vietnam veterans in 1971,” he says. “It was ugly, the things professors said.” 

With his degree, McTamaney was hired at Monroe-Woodbury High School in Central Valley, where he taught for 30 years.

McTamaney volunteers in Newburgh with Habitat for Humanity.

McTamaney volunteers in Newburgh with Habitat for Humanity.

Even with counseling, the impact of what he saw in Vietnam was not easily overcome. During his first night back in Newburgh in 1971, he was awakened by a siren. He rolled out of bed, crawled across the floor to a used Army locker his wife had bought and began searching among the coats and dresses for his rifle.

“It was a real panic moment until I realized I wasn’t over there anymore,” he recalls. “In Vietnam, you didn’t shower without your M-16.” 

In 2018, McTamaney helped bring a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to the Newburgh riverfront. While there one rainy night, he had a panic attack. “I had this awful feeling of being unprotected,” he says. “And I didn’t have my M-16.”

He now helps other veterans who exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome get professional help. Since retiring as a teacher in 2001, McTamaney and his wife, who is the City of Newburgh historian, have focused on community service, including work with Safe Harbors, a housing and arts redevelopment project, the Orange County Veterans Memorial and Habitat for Humanity. 

“I met people who joined the Army because there were bathrooms in the barracks,” he said. “At Habitat for Humanity, we’re making something possible for people who have nothing.”

McTamaney, who wore his front door key on a chain around his neck during his time in Vietnam, says he wouldn’t mind visiting the country again, as a civilian.

 “I’d like to see what they’ve been able to do, to see progress,” he said, “not to go just to say: ‘This is where my foxhole was.’”

One thought on “Something You Don’t Know About Me: Dave McTamaney

  1. In 1968, my favorite cousin, David, and I went on the same bus to take the U.S. Army physical. David passed. I did not because they diagnosed me with a serious heart condition that I have had treated for over the past 60 years. I went to law school. David went to Vietnam. It seems so insufficient to say, but thank you David for your service and for all you have done throughout your life for those less fortunate.

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