By Bill Derby, Publisher
Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a series of stories about local Vietnam War Veterans. These veterans will finally be honored and recognized in a celebration at Mountain Home (VAMC) in Johnson City on July 30 to mark 50 years since the end of the Vietnam War. The Mountain Home VA Medical Center is asking the community to join in making these veterans feel appreciated and giving them the recognition they deserve. The commemorative event runs from 9 a.m. to noon.
Like many young men his age, retired Johnson City banker Rick Storey was soon drafted in 1968 and found himself in basic training at Fort Campbell, Ky., and later advanced infantry training at Fort Polk, La. He then attended the NCO Academy at Fort Benning, Ga., and after reassignment to Fort Polk training new recruits was promoted to sergeant. Rick knew he would probably be headed to Vietnam and soon received orders to head to combat.
Rick sat silent for a few moments as painful memories returned. “Ive never shared this much of my story with anyone,” Rick told me.
“On my way to Vietnam I had nothing but airplane trouble. I should have known that was a bad sign. From Tri-Cities our Piedmont plane engine wouldn’t start. We just about skidded off the runway in Chicago and when we left Travis Air Force Base in Sacramento our Northwest Orient Airlines engine caught fire. We had to dump fuel over the Pacific and had an emergency landing in Anchorage,” Rick said.
“We finally landed at Bien Hoa Air Base in Vietnam. It was in the middle of the night. It was hot. Jeeps with machine guns drove by. It was stark reality; I was in a war zone. After in-processing we were flown by helicopter to our base about 50 miles from Saigon. The next day we zeroed in our weapons,” he continued.
Rick was assigned as a platoon sergeant with the 1st Air Cavalry Division, 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry. His narrow escape from death came while leading his platoon on jungle patrol about 50 miles northwest of Saigon in May 1969. The 1st Air Cavalry was recognized as a tough unit and usually the first in a fight. Huey helicopters ferried them to battle.
“Our base was close to the Cambodian border. As platoon sergeant I had a radioman assigned to me. Our unit saw action right away. We took mortar fire every night. I remember digging my first foxhole. As mortars fell around us I prayed that if God let me live through the night I would dig a deeper and better foxhole the next day,” Rick remembered.
“We had four platoons in our company. We took turns taking the lead on jungle patrols looking for Viet Cong. It was over 100 degrees during the day. I carried seven quarts of water. Since it was very hard to see in the jungle we became ultra-sensitive to any sound. I had only been in country for a little over a month when it happened,” he shared.
A life-changing day
“We were the lead platoon on a very hot day in May. On the previous day one of our platoons had been ambushed. We knew we might get into a fight. It was about noon. We started taking fire. We couldn’t see the enemy. They were all around us. Our captain was trying to call in artillery strikes to drive them back,” Rick explained.
“I felt something hit my back. Instinctively I rolled away but it was too late. The grenade exploded. It felt like I had hit my crazy bone on my arm and my ears were ringing. I couldn’t hear. We got up to run for more cover. I didn’t realize I had been wounded. My radioman took a bullet through the arm and also caught shrapnel from the same grenade that hit me. Eleven in our group were wounded. Shortly thereafter I realized I had been hit but it didn’t hurt that bad and I wasn’t bleeding very much. The captain called for airstrikes so they could get a medevac chopper to us,” Rick recalled.
“It took a long time for the helicopter to get to us. The jungle canopy was so thick the pilot had to lower a stretcher down through the trees. I didn’t think I was hurt that bad so I made sure the other guys went first. We strapped my radioman to the stretcher. The helicopter started taking sniper hits. All of a sudden from about 80 feet up we watched the cable snap as my radioman fell through the jungle. The thick foliage cushioned his fall and he was okay. We think the cable was hit by a bullet. I was then strapped into the stretcher and flown to the unit hospital,” he continued.
“The next thing I remember someone was cutting my fatigues off. I didn’t feel any pain. I must have been in shock. They asked me who my next of kin was. Luckily the shrapnel hadn’t hit any arteries. My wounds were more like tears. I felt very fortunate not to be in worse shape. I then went into surgery and woke up two days later and was evacuated to the 105th military hospital in Yokohama, Japan,” Rick stated.
A long recovery
“I didn’t realize I had been hit so badly. The doctor asked if I had been able to notify my family and I told him no. He insisted I do it very soon. After more surgery my wounds were left open to drain. I remember when I first got a chance to look at my legs. All I could see were open wounds and my flesh lying open. My bandages had to be changed every four hours. Evidently the nerves had been damaged in my legs and they were exposed. It was excruciating pain every time they changed bandages. I dreaded every bandage change. I noticed many guys injured worse than I was. I felt fortunate,” Rick softly said.
“When the grenade exploded the ulnar nerve in my right arm was severed. They put my arm in a cast from my hand around my chest to my other shoulder. I couldn’t move it for eight weeks while it healed.”
“I never could get through to my family. Later my mother told me she knew something bad had happened to me. Sure enough the next day mom received a Western Union telegram stating I had been wounded by hostile enemy fire in Southeast Asia. My wife and family didn’t know anything more about my injuries. They all went to church the next Sunday and it so happened another telegram was sent to the house. Without anyone home the courier went to the church. By then my church family at Gray United Methodist Church and community knew I had been wounded. When the courier came to the church it was very upsetting. My wife’s brother got the cable and motioned for my wife. The preacher stopped preaching. She read the cable and said, ‘he’s okay’ the preacher relayed the message to the congregation,” Rick said.
Wounded veteran, Staff Sergeant Rick Storey, left Japan for further surgery and rehabilitation at Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, DC. He was to endure more surgery. The nerve damage to his legs would require even more recovery effort.
“The nerve damage in my legs meant I had to learn to walk again. I was wounded in May and didn’t walk again until October 31st. I received great care in the hospital. It was hard to adjust to seeing the other horribly wounded soldiers. Many, many were in far worse shape. I was very fortunate,” he concluded.
Life after service
With his military duty fulfilled and long recovery from his wounds, Rick Storey returned to his East Tennessee home. He continued his education, which led to a 44-year career in banking. He retired at the end of last year but still serves on the board of Citizens Bank in Johnson City.
Rick Storey, the citizen, loves his community. He is a county commissioner and continues to play an active role in making his community a better place to live. He has been president of the United Way, Johnson City Washington County Chamber of Commerce, Appalachian Fair Board, Gray Ruritan Club, and a member of numerous community boards including the Johnson City Development Authority. He continues an active role in many of these organizations along with holding leadership positions with Gray United Methodist Church.
Rick came home with battle scars he would like to forget. The wounds heal but the memories remain.