Andy Francis still isn't allowed to talk about some aspects of his year in Vietnam.
The Santa Maria resident served with the Army Security Agency — the branch responsible for the Army's signals intelligence gathering — and parts of the mission are still classified as top secret more than 45 years later, having fallen under one of the exceptions to the U.S. government's 25-year automatic declassification system.
Before going into the service, Francis was newly married and had moved to Santa Maria to work for a cable company and attend Hancock College at night after graduating from high school in Lompoc.
"I probably had only lived here less than a year when I received my draft notice — my greetings," he said.
After scoring highly on the entrance exam, Francis, then 19, was offered a position with the ASA if he would enlist for four years and could get a top-secret security clearance.
"I knew that I was leaving for a period of time," he said. "I was hoping to get some education through the Army that helped me further in life."
After basic training at Fort Ord, in the Monterey area, he was sent to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, for a year to learn how to maintain and repair cryptology equipment.
Francis arrived in Vietnam in mid-1969. His unit at Phu Bai Combat Base was assigned to Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and dubbed the 8th Radio Research Field Station to conceal their mission.
Security Agency soldiers worked in shifts, listening for North Vietnamese Army or Viet Cong radio traffic to record, translate and analyze it.
"We were the Army's version of the NSA," Francis said.
In fact, he learned later that National Security Agency agents were embedded with the unit, forwarding the intelligence they gathered to the Pentagon.
"I often wondered why these guys always wore civilian clothes," he chuckled.
After coming back from Vietnam in 1970, Francis went back to Fort Devens for further training. He then went to Fort Carson, Colorado, where he was let out of the Army six months early.
"I kind of regret not completing my career and retiring," he said.
As for hoping that his military training would pay off after he left the service, Francis was right. After returning to Santa Maria, he went back to work in the cable television industry for a time before parlaying his security clearance and electronics experience into a job working in communications with Quintron Systems Inc. at Vandenberg Air Force Base, first working on the Space Shuttle project and later on Atlas, Titan and Delta rockets.
Though he wasn't involved in heavy direct combat like infantrymen were, Francis did face enemy attacks while pulling guard duty, as well as mortar fire on base.
He also faced other dangers. Upon arrival in Vietnam, he was informed that the North Vietnamese had put a bounty on the capture of ASA personnel. On top of that, they were told that if the enemy overran their base, it would be bombed by the U.S. military to protect the intelligence that had been gathered.
"If the bad guys didn't get you, your own guys might get you," Francis said.
The secrecy of the mission also wore on him.
"We were not allowed to tell our parents or friends or relatives or anything what we did," he said.
Francis is still proud of his service, though.
"I feel like we accomplished good there by identifying positions," he said. "Hopefully, it saved lives out there in the field, because those guys were the ones that really had the toughest job."