Jerry Lyons, Vietnam veteran
Hammond , Louisiana, USA
Don’t dwell on the bad stuff…………
In early 1968 I left school, got married, got drafted, and entered the Army. I thought a clerk job would be kinda interesting but after flunking the typing test during basic training (nice try, but eight words a minute?), I ended up in Infantry AIT at Ft. Lewis, Washington.
The weather and terrain of Washington state is similar to Germany and Korea. It was only logical that my next duty station would be where the snow was. I had trained in cold mountains. What a lucky break! They certainly wouldn’t go against logic and as a Floridian; I was really looking forward to learning more about snow.
Guess again! I got my orders and green underwear on the last day of AIT and was soon off to Vietnam as a replacement. The orders were just as permanent as the underwear was temporary. I was destined: To carry a real gun with real bullets in a hot place. To be in a line Infantry unit during a real war. To learn to survive my year as a Grunt, Ground-pounder, Eleven-Bravo, Eleven-Bush, Eleven-ant bite, Eleven-jungle rot soldier. I had no idea at the time that I would someday be inclined to insert the word “Proud” before each of these terms-of-endearment.
That’s a lot of growing-up to do in a short period of time for the average 19/20-year-old. Of course I had no idea how these things would shape my life years later. Fast-forward to today.
The marriage is still going strong with the same loyal, faithful wife. I have three grown sons and a fantastic granddaughter. With the help of a post-war scholarly focus (and the GI bill), college seemed more important the second time around. I graduated and am very happy in my career. But then there’s that Army thing……..
I guess I’d like to be able to say, "It's what I did, not who I am". I read that quotation recently on another Grunt’s web page and as good as it sounds, I don’t think it applies to me. In reality, being a Vietnam Veteran is a big part of who I am today, 31 years later.
Don't get me wrong, I‘m not saying that I suffer because of my experiences. I believe I’ve benefited by them. As a Combat Infantryman, I saw my share of the boredom, terror, physical and mental stress, waste, B.S. and confusion. I observed the different ways that people handled these stresses.
I came up with a plan. At some point, early in my tour, I must have made a conscious decision to try to control as much of my destiny as possible. That boiled down to the following; stay alert, do things right, have faith and don’t dwell on the bad stuff. I had a decent attitude at least most of the time.
I was extremely fortunate in many ways and I’m thankful for that. I was assigned to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade (3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, 3/7th Infantry) which had excellent leadership most of the time. That applies to the company Officers and NCO’s and as importantly, the seasoned veterans of the platoon. I tried to understand the ways of these strange dudes. Before long I became one of them.
We operated in the Mekong Delta area during most of my tour. One of the major contributors to our unit’s casualties was the VC booby trap. They were well-concealed anti-personnel explosives, often detonated by an unsuspecting GI on patrol who snagged a trip wire attached to a granade (ours or theirs), claymore mine or artillery round. Our grenades had a 15-meter “kill radius” so you can imagine the damage that could be done. “Spread out! One round will get you all!”
The bigger the explosive, the more serious the casualties would be. I can remember seeing the x-ray of one GI who got hit with a homemade VC booby trap. Since I had worked at a lumber yard the year before, there was no mistaking the image of the 6-penny common nails in his back. He and I later joked about it. Too many more serious injuries, we did not joke about.
It was frustrating, to say the least, that the enemy soldiers who were responsible for these things were usually nowhere to be found when the damage was done. Sometimes they used command-detonated mines, targeted at vehicles or groups who did not heed that advice to spread out.
I eventually volunteered to be my squad’s Point Man so I could have more control over the pace of movement on operations and also, I must admit, so I could give up that heavy ammo can (two somewhat selfish reasons). Everyone but the Point Man had to carry an ammo can for the machine gun. I became somewhat competent in this job, but not without some close calls. On Christmas day 1968, I stepped on a grenade that was set into the mud for an unsuspecting American to kick by accident. The pin was pulled so the handle should have flown off and set the fuse when I kicked it. Thank God for dry weather. The mud was dried and the handle didn’t move.
I was fortunately able to observe and learn from the best Point Man around. His name is Tyrus Becker. As I remember, before he went home, Becker went on to instruct at and possibly started-up the Brigade Booby Trap School. He was that good. He taught me things that I know kept us out of trouble.
He spotted a trip wire caught on my flack jacket zipper one morning in the Pineapple Grove, Southwest of Saigon, while on a company-sized operation. I hadn’t noticed the thin monofilament fishing line caught on my flack jacket until he told me to freeze. The booby-trapped artillery round at the other end would have done major harm to more than just me, had he not seen it. I would learn to see these things as he did. My survival would depend on it.
Although I haven’t talked to Becker in 31 years, I look forward to seeing him and thanking him again.
As I eventually got “short” (little time remaining on my tour), I also got one of those good jobs. As forward re-supply Sgt., keeping the troops supplied with C-rations, ammo, water and mail was way better than the life I had become accustomed to. I officially made the rank of Buck Sergeant (E-5) just before I came home. The official orders caught up with me while I was home on leave. That was important because married E-5’s could take their wives to the next duty station at Uncle Sam’s expense.
My plan obviously worked. I came home after my year and then fought the “war in Kansas” (I was stationed at Ft. Riley to play war games for the final 6 months of my 2-year active duty commitment). While at Ft. Riley, I took the opportunity to have a “pre-existing, football-connected, rice paddy-mud humpin’-aggravated” torn cartilage in my right knee repaired. I have to look at the scar (this was before Orthoscopic surgery) to remember which one was fixed. The fixed knee is still better than the other one. Who said you can’t trust Army doctors? Lucked out again!
I got out of the Army and proceeded to get on with my life.
There are very few days that I don’t think about something I learned that year in the sun, mud and rain. Not necessarily the bad because as I said, I tried not to dwell on the bad. The people, places and experiences of that year have been with me and will probably remain with me forever.
I still try to keep a positive outlook on things today. A realistic view emphasizing the positive. I’m not always successful, but I don’t stay off track for too long. If that technique can work in a war zone, it has a chance to work with many of the every-day problems I have experienced and tried to address i.e. marital (32 years with the original-issue wife), family (did I mention three boys?), and business/job related challenges.
The popularity of the Internet has allowed me to start a dialog with some of the people with whom I shared that year in the boonies, jungles and firebase bunkers. I never imagined that the opportunity would be available or that I would be interested, but I truly look forward to my first reunion this summer. The camaraderie will be there and I’m sure the stories will flow like water (like beer?). I expect I will be reminded of many things that I have forgotten both good and bad, but I fear not. I’ll count my blessings and go with a positive outlook. I’ll remember as much of the good stuff as possible and not dwell on the bad.