Back in 1966, with the war in Vietnam raging, Roger Irvan, 71, a Horatio High School Class of ’66 graduate, took a course of study at the University of Arkansas in Hope, which at the time was a trade school. For six months he learned heavy equipment operation and at age 19, upon completion, he joined the Navy, becoming a SeaBee and joining an outfit that would employ his skills in the jungles of Vietnam.
Irvan said the Seabees got started in WWII after Japan hit Pearl Harbor. The military took contractors that were already working for them there, gave them a commission and made them part of the Navy because they needed more control and supervision of the work they were doing. He said that while the Army Corps of Engineers is the better known of the two military construction companies, the Navy Seabees are a more “silent” and unknown unit of military engineering. Those that needed to know though, knew the reputation of the SeaBees.
“Ask any Vietnam veteran if they know what a Navy Seabee is and they’ll say, “yes sir, I do,” Irvan said.
In April of 1968, Irvan, a member of the SeaBees West Coast Mobile Construction battalion out of Port Hueneme, Calif., was put on a ship to Vietnam, arriving as the Viet Cong’s Tet offensive was in full operation and attacks on American troops were rising.
“That was a pretty rough time,” Irvan said. “It got better later but we had some rough times then.”
In his three years serving as a Seabee, Irvan spent 25 of those months building roads, bridges, air strips and whatever else needed to be constructed so that troops and artillery could move across the northern fronts of the war, oftentimes as firefights raged around him and his team. At times a bulldozer would be dropped at the front lines, and Irvan was tasked with clearing jungle so that fighters could settle into a better position. Unfortunately and unknowingly at the time, Irvan faced risks other than bullets and mortars.
“They did a lot of Agent Orange and while I came home without a scratch, now I’m suffering the effects of the Agent Orange,” he said. “It was tough but it taught a lot about life.”
Irvan also suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which he believes is connected with the tragic death of one of his war mates. While working under a wood bridge, a truck that was being driven across, veered off the bridge and landed in the water below. Irvan swam over to rescue the driver but couldn’t get him out before he drowned. The driver died while grabbing at Irvan, an image that haunts him to this day.
He was also the victim of an explosion that sent sandblast into his face and eyes, forcing him to be medevacked to a hospital ship for awhile.
“It still weighs in my memory,” he said. “For the most part, I was very fortunate. A lot of young men didn’t make it back.”
Irvan spent a large part of his time in South Vietnam’s northern provinces near the dangerous demilitarized zone, where a majority of the fighting took place. He said they would build bridges only to have them blown up overnight, then they’d build them again. Most bridges were wooden, made by driving wood pilings. A bridge they built across the Perfume River was a quarter-mile long.
“There’s was no front line and lot of times, at night especially during the Tet offensive, we were getting rockets and shells and mortars and being sniped at by snipers,” he said. “Three guys with us got killed running over land mines.”
After returning home, Irvan made a living in the construction industry.
“I did construction all my life and it allowed me to make a good living,” he said.
Most of the time he worked for someone else and went from equipment operator to boiler maker, working all over the country. The last few years though, he came back to De Queen and went to work on houses and doing home repairs before he retired. Four years ago his wife passed away and he became a “food junkie”, trying to cope with the loss.
“Eating was a way out and I became obsessed with it,” he said. “I was eating the wrong things and there’s no telling how many calories I was taking in.”
Just over a year ago, Irvan was being treated at the VA for his variety of ailments and weighed in at 225 pounds.
“I was looking like a blimp,” he said.
On top of the PTSD and the debilitating effects of the Agent Orange, he was also suffering from Neuropathy and Diabetes. A nutritionist at the VA told him he needed to exercise and looked up gyms in De Queen, finding Mike Atkin’s Better Body gym. She called Atkins, quizzed him, and then sent Irvan to meet him. It was Nov. 13 of last year that Irvan first entered the gym and was given a tour by Atkins, who told him he would show him how to use the equipment and set him loose to chase his goals. Irvan then began walking on the treadmill and lifting light weights, making friends with the people that also worked out during the time he was there.
“I figured this might work or might not,”” he said.
At one point he told Atkins that while he would workout and change his diet, he was not going to count calories.
“He told me in a kind and firm tone that if I was not going to count calories. to not waste my time,” Irvan said.
He began to count calories, keeping it at 1,600 a day and in one year he has lost 60 pounds.
“Ive got to give credit to Better Body,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for Mike — he’s been an inspiration — he motivated me and still motivates me. I really watch what I eat and it’s gotten easier, but it was tough for awhile there. I give the good lord and Mike a lot of credit for it.”
Irvan’s diet now consists of food such as green beans, which he eats a lot of, and celery as well. He said that he watches his calories, avoids fried foods, and now and again will reward himself with a hamburger or small steak, or a homemade meal if someone invites him over.
While he went from 225 to 168 in the course of the past year, he felt too small and built himself back up to 175, where he feels comfortable now. The waist size on his pants has gone from a 38 to a 34.
His advice to others that need motivation to change their health trajectory, is to go see Mike.
“I thank the good lord, he’s blessed me in so many ways and I can’t say enough good about Mike and everyone at the gym — they’re all friendly,” he said. “One thing that’s motivated me is watching the younger guys and gals that workout here. If they can do that, I can do a little of it.”
Atkins said, “When he first walked in the door, I told him like I do anyone that walks in and asks for advice— it’s completely up to them. I can tell them and show them what to do, but it’s not easy to do — it’s up to them to do it. He’s one of the few people that took it to heart and used his willpower and did what he needed to do. I didn’t know him from Adam but now were buddies.”
Irvan said that the willpower to win in the gym and his overall philosophy to achieve his entire life were deeply rooted in his time served as a Seabee and his experiences in Vietnam.
“I was basically just a punk kid when I went over there,” he said. “It caused me to grow up. You seen life and death and how fragile it is.”
He said that he was fortunate in that a lot of Vietnam veteran became druggies and didn’t adjust as well to the traumatizing experiences they witnessed as soldiers.
“I give the lord credit,” he said. “I had a good Christian raising and used stuff I learned there all my life. As far as dealing with life, you really see life as it is. You don’t never know if you’ll be alive the next day. It gives you a good view of life to appreciate every moment — you may not be here five minutes from life.”
Despite having a 100 percent disability from his war years, Irvan spends time working with a group in New Boston, Veterans Helping Veterans, and strives to be there for veterans when they’re in need. He’s made himself aware of the many programs that are available to veterans and shares that awareness with them so they can take advantage of the benefits they earned fighting for their country. He also works with the widows of vets, helping them take advantage of programs available to them as well, many they have no idea exist.