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Vietnam soldiers' stories: Changed forever

PART 3: Vietnam changed the men who were involved in the war forever

Native Canadian Neil Thompson was injured in Vietnam during his first combat mission, and he said around half of his unit was either seriously wounded or killed in the war. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Native Canadian Neil Thompson was injured in Vietnam during his first combat mission, and he said around half of his unit was either seriously wounded or killed in the war. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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Albany veteran Bob Washington said the fear of serving during the Vietnam War had a profound impact on his life. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — While many veterans have seemingly moved past their experiences from the Vietnam War, conversations with former soldiers who served in the conflict indicate that few — if any — truly escaped unscathed.

From health disorders associated with defoliants such as Agent Orange to persistent post-traumatic stress disorder to battle wounds whose scars run much deeper than victims’ skin to psychological problems associated with readjustment to civilization, veterans who served in Vietnam generally came home changed individuals.

As Albany veteran Frank Mills noted, “The Army teaches you how to go to war, how to live in war and how to survive a war. They just don’t teach you how to come back from war.”

These are the stories of local veterans:

NEIL THOMPSON: Canadian Neil Thompson, who lived until age 19 in Montreal, was conned into joining the U.S. Army. There’s no other way to put it.

Thompson was asked by his roommate, an American citizen who’d received his draft notice, to ride with him to an induction center in Plattsburg, N.Y. While at the center, a recruiter told Thompson how good he’d look in a uniform.

“I bought it, hook, line and sinker,” Thompson says wistfully. “Since I already had paperwork that allowed me to come to the U.S., I was eligible to enlist. They got us by telling my friend Archie and me that we could go into the Army under the ‘buddy plan.’ If we enlisted together, we’d go through training together.”

It was 1961, and American involvement in Vietnam at that time involved “advisers” sent to help the anti-communist South Vietnamese army. Thompson went through basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., and since he decided he wanted to serve as a medic, the newly minted U.S. soldier was sent to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for medical training. He was assigned to the 1st Armored Division and sent to Frankfurt, Germany.

“That was perfect, actually,” Thompson said. “One of the reasons I agreed to enlist was that I wanted to travel, particularly to Europe.”

Thompson served with a non-combat MASH unit for a year before receiving orders for a transfer to Belgium. Since he spoke both French and English fluently and had quickly learned German while in Frankfurt, he was to serve as an interpreter for top NATO brass. But two weeks before he was scheduled to head to Belgium, Thompson got new orders: to Fort Benning, Ga.

“I was sent to Fort Benning for combat training,” he said. “We did jungle training at an Army facility in Biloxi, Miss., so it was obvious they were planning to send me to Vietnam. I guess the biggest thing I wonder about even today is what would have happened in my life if I’d been allowed to take the position in Belgium.”

Thompson and the 199th Light Infantry Brigade endured a 21-day sea voyage to Cam Ron Bay and eventually established a camp at Long Bin, outside Saigon. It was two weeks later, during his first combat mission, that Thompson got an up-close-and-personal view of the horrors of war.

“We landed in a rice paddy and immediately drew fire,” he said. “About 10 minutes later, we called in artillery support. My uncles, who’d served in World War II, had told me that a shell coming at you sounds different from one coming in any other direction. I heard the whistling of a round and immediately dropped into the rice paddy. A shell landed about three feet from me and exploded.”

Most of the impact of the shell went downward, into the paddy, but the percussion shot Thompson into the air.

“I landed at about where that tree is,” Thompson says, pointing to a pine on his Terrell County property, some 40 to 50 feet away from where he sat. “When I woke up, I discovered that I’d landed on a hornet’s nest, and they were eating me up. But I heard people calling ‘medic,’ so I put all that out of my mind and started doing what I was trained to do.”

Shrapnel from the explosion hit Thompson in the head and other parts of his body, and he sustained other injuries from the experience. But he never received the Purple Heart medal awarded to soldiers wounded in combat.

“My CO asked me not to write up the incident because it was the result of ‘friendly fire,’” Thompson said. “I was hit in three or four places by shrapnel — above my eye and on my arm — but I just got another medic to sew me up and didn’t write up the incident. I didn’t get the Purple Heart, and I regret that now.”

Thompson was involved in other incidents during his tour of duty, but he came home to Columbus after his year of service.

“I look back on that and realize that I was fortunate,” he said. “Almost half the people in my unit were either severely wounded or killed.”

Thompson worked with an insurance agency in Columbus and eventually started his own independent company, Neil Thompson and Associates, in Albany in 1985. His wife, Gloria, read up on Vietnam-related health issues and pointed out that he showed symptoms of both PTSD and complications from Agent Orange exposure.

He’s now, at 71, fighting another battle, this time with doctors at the Veterans Administration. (See related story.)

BOB WASHINGTON: When Bob Washington graduated from Monroe High School, he thought he had it made. He’d lift weights, hang with friends and “eat pretty much everything that was in the refrigerator.” But Washington’s days of leisure ended abruptly when his father, who’d insisted that his son find employment, visited the local draft board and told officials there, “I’ve got a really strong son who’d be good in the Army.”

A week later, Washington got his draft notice. He went through basic training at Fort Benning and was shipped to Vietnam with the 1st Infantry Division, 121st Regiment.

“They tricked us when we came out of advanced infantry training,” Washington said. “They told us we were going to Germany. But after they flew us to Fort Riley, Kansas, the whole unit learned we were being deployed to Vietnam. I told them I wanted to go home to see my family before we shipped out, but they said we couldn’t.”

Washington and his regiment were sent by ship to Vietnam. They docked a few hundred feet from the coastline and were transported to shore on small craft that held 10-12 men.

“We had to be combat ready when we got there,” he said. “They were shooting at us before we even got out of the water. I was scared to death, and I pretty much made up my mind that I was never coming back to the U.S. I thought I was a dead man.”

As a “regular grunt” with the 121st, Washington said he and his fellow soldiers went out from their base at Tai Nai to “beat the bushes” searching for the enemy. They were in constant contact with defoliants like Agent Orange, and they were charged with finding and destroying tunnels through which enemy soldiers traversed the countryside.

“We’d discover a tunnel and have guys who’d go in in search of the enemy,” Washington said. “If the person who was standing guard at the mouth of the tunnel fell asleep, he’d very likely wind up dead. There were some of our men who had their throats cut and their penises cut off by the enemy.

“There were times when we were told to dig holes next to the area where we were camping for the night. Everyone said we were digging our own graves.”

Vietnam changed Washington immediately. He said he couldn’t sleep for the first six days he was in-country and he often cried while lying awake.

“When I came out of high school, I still had a 9 o’clock curfew,” Washington said. “My mom didn’t play, and she wanted us in the house. I’d never cursed, smoked or drank anything. But after a little while in Vietnam, I started doing all three, just to try and cope with everything I was going through.

“I started smoking marijuana to help me deal with the pain. Drugs were plentiful over there, and I found myself doing anything to numb the pain. I also prayed a lot at night as we listened to the bombs and artillery shells going off all around us.”

When Washington’s first 12-month hitch was up, he was offered a $10,000 bonus to stay for another year.

“A friend of mine figured he could use the money, so he did that,” Washington said. “He was killed the next day.”

Washington came home to Albany in 1968 and got a job at the Firestone tire plant. He said he couldn’t adjust to civilian life and mostly stayed in his bed and slept before quitting his job. The Army had indoctrinated him, and he decided to re-enlist.

He served three years of a planned four-year stint and finally came back home to Albany. This time, he got a job through the Veterans Readjustment Program at Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany, where he worked for 12 years.

“I’m proud of my service,” Washington said. “Sometimes people will see me in a restaurant and pay for my meal. White and black folks will come up and thank me for my service.

“I think if I had the chance to do it all over again, though, I’d decline. Probably the worst thing about all that I went through was surviving the war and coming home to a country where people looked down on me because of the color of my skin.”

TOMORROW: The aftermath.