We were the lucky ones; we came home

“I grew up in a coal mine town in Pennsylvania. We had 2 movie theaters, 7 bars, 8 churches and 2 sewing machine factories. I worked at the sewing machine factory sweeping floors. It was great – there were 200 women, and I was one of the 4 men that worked there.

“I got drafted in April 1968. I was 20 years old. I remember going to get a physical a few months before that. There were 2 busses that took us, and only the second bus came back home. Everyone else was heading out. After I was drafted, I was on that first bus. I’d never left home before.

“I’m not a big person, or tall or strong, but I made it through basic training in Georgia. From there it was on to Ft. Polk, in Louisiana. We called it Tigerland. I remember being in a room and everyone on one side of the room went to Germany, everyone on the other side to Vietnam. We found out later that even the guys who went to Germany eventually made their way to Vietnam. 

“On the plane ride over, everybody was real boisterous, yelling and hollering that we were going over to win the war. As we were landing at Cam Ranh Bay, we could see smoke, and all I could think was ‘What did I get myself into?’ I thought it was explosions. I found out later they were burning human waste. The lowest man on the totem pole got stuck with that job. I was the lowest man. 

“It wasn’t but a few days until I was in the field. I remember someone yelling ‘grab your equipment’ and asking if I could help them unload the helicopter. It was 2 dead bodies. There was a stick right through one, and they were wrapped in a poncho. It was surreal.

“The first time someone shot at me I didn’t know whether to shoot back or not. I used to hunt. After Vietnam, I never hunted anymore. I remember running across a rice paddy when I heard the medics yelling. I yelled back, ‘Who’s hit?’ And it was me. My adrenaline was pumping so fast, I didn’t realize it. I’d been shot in the head, grazed by a bullet. I got 6 stitches. That was March 5th. On March 11th, I was back on patrol when our platoon was hit by a mortar. We were so close to our forward fire base. I had shrapnel in my back hip. The guys that were real bad were medevaced. And you don’t know what ever happened to them.

“I could tell you so many stories. A lot of them are hard for me to talk about. On the plane ride back over it was pretty quiet. It was one week shy of a year.

“I think if you talked to 100 Vietnam vets, 99 would do it again. We were the lucky ones; we came back. For so long I wouldn’t talk about it. I was awarded two purple hearts, but it was a good 25 years before I’d wear a veterans shirt or hat. Now I go to reunions. My Combat Infantry Badge means almost as much to me as my wedding ring. I don’t wear either one every day, but I am so proud of that. I’m proud of my wife and I’m proud of my service. Anyone who has served their country should be proud of that.

“I go to a support group now, two times a month. There are vets from Vietnam, some from Iraq and Afghanistan, and some from Desert Storm. I still have flashbacks whenever helos fly over, but these younger guys treat us like kings. Anyone who has served their country understands the sacrifice. I was on the front lines, but if it wasn’t for the guys stocking the helicopters for resupply, I wouldn’t be here. Whether you’re in infantry or support, your role matters. You make a difference. We all deserve to be proud of our service.”

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