By Bill Derby, Publisher
Some came home to anti-war demonstrators hurling insults or even spitting on them. Others cherished the quiet return to civilian life, ready to return to normalcy, while others buried their wartime experiences, only to see those experiences later surface as post-traumatic stress syndrome. Others dedicated their lives to helping people in need as servant leaders in their communities and churches or volunteering in non-profit agencies. These men and women are Vietnam Era War veterans who served in the military from 1955–1975. During those years of national trauma, there was no formal “Welcome Home.”
These veterans will finally be honored and recognized in a celebration at Mountain Home (VAMC) in Johnson City July 30. Mountain Home VA Medical Center staff is excited to partner with the Department of Defense to celebrate 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 will start at 9:00 a.m. and last until noon.
The VA would also like to welcome businesses to become a part of the celebration that will include a parade, honoring ceremony and picnic at the Gazebo. Groups or businesses that would like to participate in the parade can contact Tammy Jenkins at (423) 926-1171 x2450 or Ashley Smith at x7296 or become a commemorative partner by going to the Department of Defense website at vietnamwar50th.com. We also must not forget the 58,267 who did not come home alive.
As an Army veteran having served from 1966-1969 I never considered myself a Vietnam War veteran since I was stationed in Korea and in the U.S. But all who served in the military during that period are considered Vietnam War veterans.
I have had the privilege and honor to write about a number of Vietnam War combat veterans and would like to share a few short stories over the next three weeks about these men who answered the call. None consider themselves heroes but their stories show otherwise.
Dr. Bert Allen, a retired Milligan Psychology professor, is one of those veterans. He retired in 2012 after 37 years at Milligan. His Vietnam War experience led him into a life of servant leadership, which keeps him busy to this very day.
After his Army induction, Bert was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division; Bravo Battery, 1st Battalion, 8th Artillery in Vietnam as a crew member on a 105mm Howitzer in December, 1968. The 25th was one of the largest units in Vietnam and saw intense action throughout its deployment. He was assigned to one of many firebases near Chu Chi north of Saigon.
As a new guy on a 105mm Howitzer cannon, Bert recounts his close call with death, heart-warming reunions and what led him to a life dedicated to others.
In his own words….
Ben Banuelos had been “in country” for almost twelve months and was getting “short” and was going home shortly. Banuelos gave us new guys the “facts of life” and conventional wisdom of how to get through the next year without getting hurt.
He told us the sound of enemy incoming rounds differed from those we fired and that we would have to stay on our guns during rocket and mortar attacks because we had to return fire to prevent a ground attack. Banuelos was cool, he was confident, he had the swagger of one who has been through hell and seen the other side. We paid attention to what he said.
Unlike training at Ft. Sill, which is done primarily during the day, much of the firing in Vietnam was at night. It was hard to set the timing fuses while holding a 35-40 pound projectile in virtual darkness while trying to hold a flashlight which gives off a reddish light. Many times we were short personnel to help fire our weapon.
A fateful night of battle January 10, 1969…
Unlike the night before, this was a sweaty, physical night, without the usual conversation in our gun pit. During our first hour on duty we fired a great deal, which was expected and routine. At about 10:30, we were notified Fire Support Base Patton, about four miles away, was being hit by a heavy mortar attack.
Banuelos’ gun was called to begin the counter‑mortar fire for Patton. Many rounds “splashed down” around Patton. Then an order came down to turn the Howitzer toward Fire Support Base Stewart as it was being attacked too.
We continued to fire. Suddenly a brilliant, brutal, violent, visual, audible and physical flash – the hot, stinging, burning, piercing, devastating flash – signaled an explosion in our gun pit. That incoming mortar explosion resulted in human damages in a life‑changing second. Banuelos lay in the dust, slightly moaning. The Battery Executive Officer, Lieutenant John Farley who was also in our gun pit, was lying crumpled on the ground, making no sound.
I was knocked to the ground, stunned. My immediate thought was the round in our cannon had exploded in the tube, sending shrapnel throughout the pit. The other gun bunny, Joe Burkett and I bounced up and tried to orient ourselves. I grabbed a shirt and stuck it down into the cold water container and wiped down the injured lieutenant. I then tried to get needed medical help using the field telephone. I couldn’t raise anyone on the phone. I needed help immediately with two wounded men down and hurt badly, perhaps even dying. When those attempts did not work I screamed to anyone who would answer, “Medic on three, Medic on three!!”
Shortly, two angels appeared, the medic and a Catholic chaplain who helped us carry (Banuelos and Farley) to the aid station. As soon as we got safely to the aid station bunker, the medic cut away Banuelos’s flak jacket and started an IV. The IV bottle was handed to me to hold over Banuelos. As his flak jacket was removed from his torso, I watched, stunned, noting the extent of damage a single mortar round could do to a person’s body. His wounds looked like craters, wide plugs of flesh and muscle missing from his back. The Catholic Chaplain, I suppose noting my growing greyness, took the bottle and held it.
Although he was critically wounded, Banuelos mumbled a question to the medic, which startled me. He asked, “How’s Allen?”
Shortly afterward, Lt. Farley, Banuelos and the dozen or so other wounded were transported by multiple medevac helicopters back to the hospital in base camp. I stood in the darkness now feeling the burning and discomfort on my face and head. I now understood the question asked by the brutally damaged Ben Banuelos.
The following morning, I was in the howitzer pit, looking over the damaged gun and the smashed aluminum of the gun’s carriage. I also noted the two pools of blood on the ground. My inspection was broken by the medic’s shout, “Jeezus, Allen, what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be back at base camp at the hospital. Why didn’t you get on that dust-off?”
I had been told that if you received a head wound, an examination by medical staff at the base camp hospital was required. I was immediately sent to the hospital. During my examination the physician asked several questions to insure no brain damage as he looked over my head and ears. I had caught some shrapnel in my face and head and some shrapnel blew off a piece of one ear. I was lucky.
The last time that I saw Ben Banuelos was in the hospital at Chu Chi base camp. Although he was motionless below the chest, he was smiling because he was going home. Lt. John Farley had lost the lower part of his leg and was unconscious so we were not able to speak.
At a number of times subsequent to these experiences, I have felt myself thinking that I have a mission, having been wounded only nominally while others were severely injured or killed. Was it to alert me to a greater responsibility in life and at grandiose times to have thought that I had been protected by God on that night in 1969? It further presents the question of responsibilities of those selected to live.
An offshoot of this focus has been my interest in the lives of veterans and other victims of trauma, of conflict, of crisis, of catastrophe. It has led me to several research studies on prisoners of war and their families as well as functioning as a therapist for counseling groups of Vietnam veterans. All of these are likely to be partially an attempt by myself to understand self and my own war experience….
After the war and back home….
Over the years, Bert has focused his work on dealing with war trauma and helping veterans deal with life challenges. He made successful efforts to re-connect with his Army buddies and the men who went through that fateful night in his Howitzer gun pit.
Ben Banuelos and Bert discovered one another in 1994 after 25 years.
Bert said, “In 1995, Ben flew to Tennessee where we spent several days becoming re-acquainted after many years. Although we spent only three weeks together in Vietnam prior to the night of January 10, 1969, we renewed our acquaintance in various ways and became brothers in new ways. Ben said several times during our visit that I had saved his life then and now. He said that my aid on the night in January, 1969, was the initial time. My correspondence with him and sharing veteran experiences assisted him in a healing from the wounds he suffered earlier and through his re-adjustment to life here. The sharing also resulted, according to Ben, in his request for benefits from the U.S. government to be heard favorably. Until then, Ben reported to me that his therapist and those handling veterans’ benefits considered him a malingerer without a legitimate basis for his difficulties.”
He also connected with the other angel who helped his crew that evening. “After 15 years of searching, this evening (August 17, 2004) I spoke to Father Donato Silveri, the chaplain who came to the aid of us four cannon-cockers on January 10, 1969. He is 75 years old and continuing his chaplaincy work with those who have been damaged by wounds while serving in the military.”
And again he re-connected with the severely wounded Lt. John Farley. “I did contact him and we have talked and shared information since that time. Jack, as he prefers, was read the Last Rites of the Roman Catholic Church twice, once in Vietnam and a second time in Japan due to severity of wounds and deteriorating medical condition. He obviously survived and has accomplished much since. He has continued to be active in the church, to complete the study of law and to be a judge for the US Court of Military Appeals in Washington, DC. In the early 21st Century, he is in the military hospitals in the Washington region visiting regularly the patients who have been brought back to the U.S. for treatment of severe wounds. He also married one of the nurses who cared for him in Vietnam.”
Bert says his military experience changed his life focus. “Since being wounded slightly while two others with me were devastated physically, I think that I have felt a need to justify my luck, blessing or whatever made my wounds so much less than Ben’s and Jack’s. Even now, almost 48 years later I am continuing to ensure that I do good to others.
“In addition to opportunities in and through church activities, I have been for the past three years spending Tuesday mornings with Jenny Seeley’s kindergarten class at Fairmont Elementary School. Mrs. Seeley permits me to read with children she chooses in her classroom. In addition, I spend Thursdays at the VA Medical Center driving a shuttle van throughout the hospital grounds transporting patients, their families and staff members.
“Since 2009, a colleague at Milligan, Dr. Joy Drinnon, and I have been volunteering with Appalachia Service Project assisting as ASP measures the effects of their home rehab work in southern Appalachia, Their wonderful ministry spans 30-plus counties in five states. Joy and I enlist her students in interviewing and surveying the people whose homes are the subjects of ASP’s construction, the volunteers who come into this region from throughout the nation to do the work, and the community stakeholders in whose counties the rehab is done.
“We do this through collaboration with Milligan students who with us and alone travel into the counties and visit with those whose lives are touched by ASP. Our lives, too, are touched by the ministry of ASP. We have met wonderful people of Appalachia whose lives are brightened by ASP making their homes “drier, safer, warmer,” which is ASP’s stated mission. An unstated mission is to allow us to see the face of Jesus in those we encounter and to be the face of Jesus to them.
“I’m invested in that Jesus encounter partly because in Vietnam I was invested in killing people with the 105 that I fired.”