Jim Barker and his identical twin Ron grew up in Iowa and Oregon. They attended Graceland University, where their parents met, and both enlisted in 1969. After completing basic training at Ft. Ord together, Ron was assigned to Ft. Devens, Massachusetts, while Jim was assigned to the Defense Language Institute (DLI) to learn the Hanoi dialect of the Vietnamese language. Following twenty months of training at DLI, Jim deployed to Vietnam, and after a brief period working as a translator (where he felt his talents were being wasted) he joined the ARVN 23rd Division. Although he was a Sergeant, he was assigned as an acting-Captain in Kontum to give more authority to his work. While Kontum was under siege, he was evacuated every night to Pleiku to prevent him from possibly falling into enemy hands. The process of being evacuated nightly caused a lot of additional stress that he internalized over the years. He enjoyed working with the Vietnamese, and learning more about their culture and the nuances of their language. When he returned to the United States following his tour, he tried to maintain contact with those he worked with.
In this interview, Jim talks about his childhood, his growing love for running, and the primitive shoes he wore in the early days, and explains how running shoes developed over time. He addresses some of the languages he learned to speak, and his natural aptitude in that discipline. He discusses his experiences at DLI, including the challenge of learning Vietnamese and the cultural lessons he received from instructors who were northerners who moved south in 1954 before ending up “benignly trapped in America.” He feels that learning the culture trained him to prevent loss of life, and made him as prepared as possible. He highlights the terror of being under rocket and artillery attack, and the relief he felt at being able to fire back. In one instance, he helped evacuate a mortally wounded pilot to give him some measure of dignity, and that action gave him a sense of peace in the midst of the chaos around him. Finally, he reflects on the end of his tour, and describes how he “relives” Vietnam in stressful athletic competitions like the Ironman.