A tribute to the soldiers of the Vietnam War

Published 11:43 am Thursday, September 27, 2018

Since I had written several times about World War II veterans, I have decided to write two columns about some of the soldiers from the Vietnam War era.

Many of these men who served in the Vietnam war are now in their 70s and I feel the need to honor them.

While this war is very close to my heart since it claimed the lives of many young men who were my own age at the time of the war, I have felt compelled to honor these military men who served.

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As I have mentioned previously, Willie Aldridge and Linn Planck graduated the same year I did and both lost their lives in the Vietnam War soon after graduating from high school. Clark County lost another young man, Bobby Gentry, to the war.

To these three and all others who never made it home from the war, I want to dedicate this column to them.

For the many veterans who did make it home alive, no one truly knows what toll this war has taken on their lives. Most of them have never been able to speak of it until recently and for some not at all.

What they experienced happened, in some cases, more than 50 years ago, but that experience is as real today as it was back then for them.

I asked Kim Wedgworth last week if he would be willing to share a little about his Vietnam experience and learned he is just now willing to talk about being in the Marines during the war. He served in the Infantry with the 3rd Battallion 9th Marine. His marine career began when he was 19 on Dec. 28, 1966.

He drew a low lottery number which meant he would be drafted soon. This was during a time when every young man who turned 18 was sent a draft notice for military service. The higher the lottery number, the less likely you would be drafted. He knew he was going to be called up soon so he and a buddy went ahead and signed up for the Marine Corp.

His military journey began with a rigorous 13-week training at Parris Island, South Carolina. From there he was sent for 17 weeks for more rigorous training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and then one week to Camp Pendleton in California before being sent to the middle of the war zone of Vietnam in a place called Khe Sanh.

He told me he was thankful for the rigorous training he received before he arrived because, “it was an absolute must for survival in the war.”

I mentioned to him I had read the temperatures would soar to 100 degrees and he said, “110.” He told me they had to carry a backpack that weighed around 70 pound. I shuddered inside at the thought of it.

Luckily, for a lot of guys, their homes were not equipped with air conditioners while growing up. Even so, I am sure many a soldier collapsed from heat exhaustion.

These guys may have been boys when they left home but they became tough men in just a few weeks.

Kim said it takes eight people to support one guy in the field. One of the things they were told during training before they left for Vietnam was one of them would get killed, two would be wounded and one would make it out with no visible signs of trauma.

From what I have learned all would share some type of inner turmoil from what they saw in combat and from being in Vietnam. Seeing what they saw just on the internet gave me flashbacks for several days after viewing the pictures.

I asked Kim if he got to stay with the same group of people he did his training with and he said they were separated but he did see some of them as they got rotated.

He was put in the jungle of the De Militarized Zone in Khe Sanh where he endured a lot.

He told me they would go on an operation where “recon” confirmed the enemy was there. The choppers would come in. It was during those times Kim realized he had to go into survival mode.

I asked Kim if he had buddies who got killed and he responded, “Yes, killed, mangled, blown up”.

Kim was also injured. He was shot and hit in the back side of his legs. He had shrapnel in five places. He was given a Purple Heart but when I called him a hero he made me very aware he did not want to be called a hero.

He emphatically told me, “Do not say I was a hero.” He told me the ones who didn’t come back and gave their all were the true heroes of the war. He often has had survivor’s remorse. He told me he often wonders why he lived and his buddies and others did not.

Kim said it was about five years before he felt any sort of normalcy after returning from the war. He still has nightmares from time to time. He also said he feels he must stay vigilant at all times since he returned from the war. He agreed it did leave its mark on him.

No matter what Kim thinks, I consider him a hero.

A guy who grew up at Kiddville and one I saw nearly every day of my life while s is the next story.

There were many guys who went to Vietnam who had never ventured very far from the community in which they lived. Such was the case of Billy Joe Trusty. His wife, Margaret, gave me permission to include him in this series.

Bill left for the Army in August 1966. He returned from Vietnam in January 1968.

When he first went into the Army, he was stationed at Fort Knox, where he received his basic training. After basic training, he guarded the AWOL guys and guarded the transport of gold at Ft. Knox.

He was sent from there to Ft. Polk, Louisiana. He told a story from his time there that was used for conversation many times at his home.

He and a guy had gone into town on the weekend leave and were ordering breakfast. When the waitress asked his friend how he liked his eggs, he replied, “Oh, I like them.” He was not aware she was asking him how he wanted the eggs cooked. Like I said, many young men had never left their confines of their communities.

Bill told Margaret one of his most lonely nights was laying in a top bunk overlooking the city lights in the state of Washington the night before he was flown out to Vietnam.

Unlike what Kim spoke of with the Marines, he said you became friends quickly in the Army since they were the group you would be with as long as you were able to survive.

Bill also had nightmares of his time in the war.

The soldiers were told spraying Agent Orange was to kill the mosquitoes but they soon learned it was to kill the trees and vegetation there so the enemy would be in view.

He told how they stayed in fox holes and the rice filled swamps where leeches would often attach to your body. He said they took their cigarettes and burned the leeches until they would drop off.

Once he got stung by a tarantula and had to be taken out of the field. He told her it was the worst headache he ever experienced. He also broke a finger while loading a machine gun.

A few months before his death he told how he made money to buy his cigarettes. He purchased a hair trimmer. She could hardly believe her ears when he told her this. She never ever saw him even trim a stray hair when he at one time had been so particular about himself for so many years. She got to thinking about it and realized all the haircuts were mostly burrs anyway so she thought how smart he had been.

He had always been an industrious person and worked since he was around 12 years old to make extra money. He worked for Bush Turkey farm, William Columbia, Paul Hisle and Floyd Pace farms at Kiddville.

Another of his ideas in the Army was to purchase an automatic Polaroid camera and take pictures of his Army buddies so they could send pictures of their group back home to their families. He sold those pictures for $1 each.

She displayed those pictures at his funeral and several of the guys who had been in Vietnam mentioned to her they would like to see those pictures again. Some never got any pictures at all while they were there.

Bill told her normally a soldier was taken out of the field two weeks prior to their departure. However, he never got to do that since there was such a large battle going on at the time. He said he did not think he would make it home since he only had a few days before he was to leave.

He did make it home safely. He returned to the workforce and retired from Rockwell International. He no longer had to work for others and he became the owner his own farm.

Billy Joe Trusty was born June 1947 and left this earth in May 2018. His wife wanted me to include that there is never enough gratitude and respect shown for the men who spent time in Vietnam and as she was writing down some notes for me, tears fell from her eyes.

The same holds true for me. Thank you guys for your service. It will not be forgotten. You are heroes in my heart.

I want to end with this poem given to me by a friend. The author is unknown to me but it so sums up my personal feelings.

“What Is a Veteran? A Veteran, whether active duty, discharged, retired or reserve, is someone who, at one point in his life, wrote a blank check made payable to ‘The United States of America’ for an amount of ‘up to, and including his life.’”

That is honor. And there are way too many people in this country today who no longer understand that.

Sue Staton is a Clark County native who grew up in the Kiddville area. She is a wife, mother and grandmother who is active in her church, First United Methodist Church, and her homemakers group, Towne and Country Homemakers.