I've only written a few stories about my tour in Vietnam. It goes without saying that it wasn't a fun time in my life. When I signed up with the Marines, I had full intentions of going over there and kicking their butts all the way back up to Hanoi. I was actually looking forward to it. I know that sounds crazy, and it was. What did I know? I was 18.
My MOS (military occupational specialty) was intelligence. I've never figured that one out. I barely made it out of high school. Little did I know what lay ahead for me. Some of it's been good. Some of it, not so much. I'd say it's been close to 50-50.
The good has been really good: an exciting 40 years in the entertainment business, all the monetary trappings, meeting and working with a bunch of famous people. It's all more than I ever imagined when I lay on my back on green Tennessee hilltops daydreaming the afternoons away. Everything was ahead of me. All was well for this country boy.
I'm now of the age that a lot of my life is in the rear-view mirror, decades that have passed through time with me at the wheel. Rather than daydreaming, I now remember.
I've definitely taken some wrong turns, many of them uphill and bumpy. I've had my share of dead-ends. A few times, I took off heading for what I thought was going to be a fabulous journey, only to find myself back at where I began.
I've had good fortune on many fronts. I have a son. Twenty-three years ago, I bumped into my wife, Jana. Somehow, she saw through my veneer and decided to love me, warts and all. I met her at an emotionally crippling time in my life. There's not enough space on this page to explain it all. Jana saved me from myself.
Funny thing about showbiz. They don't care about your bad habits or your soul. Just bring home the bacon, get handsomely rewarded and carry on. The system worked perfectly for me. I'd already done it that way before.
When I got back from Nam, there were no ticker-tape welcome-home parades. Nobody gave a good damn about where you'd been or what you'd been through. Booze and drugs were my go-to. I learned to suck it up and carry on, to keep it to myself in a pent-up, ready-to-explode container that I tucked deep down inside.
Consequently, there were several guys, thinking they were cute, who found themselves picking up their teeth from the floor. I'm not proud of any of that. It was a full-time job for me to stay in control of myself. Sometimes, it still is. PTSD is no joke.
After boot camp, 2nd Infantry Training Regiment and Guerilla Warfare School, my first military assignment was to the 5th Engineers Battalion at the far-most western tip of Camp Pendleton, California, Camp Telega. Half the guys there were coming back from Vietnam and awaiting their honorable-discharge papers. Most of the rest of us were waiting to go.
It was great suffering for a guy like me, being stuck behind a typewriter, pecking out secret clearances for "lifers," men who stay in the service for 20 years or more. Here I was, the guy who wanted to go to Vietnam, doing secretary work. No man worth his salt wants to sit "in the rear with the gear." For a Marine, it's kind of like sitting on the bench at the World Series.
At Camp Telega, there were five of us in the Intelligence Department. Lt. Johnson, my commanding officer, was awaiting his overseas orders. One of the two staff sergeants had done a tour in Nam and had come back crazy. The other one, Staff Sgt. Brown, was a lifer and gave me a hard time. He didn't look like a Marine. More like Barney Fife on the TV show "'Mayberry RFD." I doubt he weighed 110 soaking wet.
Then there was Sgt. Marshall, who'd been in the Corps for 10 or so years and wanted nothing to do with Vietnam. He told me that he intended to do everything he could to skip the war. He used to say, "Stamps, I don't want to be a dead hero. I have my family to think about." I understood.
A gold-framed picture of his high-school- sweetheart wife and their two young blond-haired boys sat on his desk, next to a plaque with little Marine Corps and American flags stuck in it and his name engraved on the front.
More than a few times, Sgt. Marshall came to my rescue from Staff Sgt. Brown's disapproval of my job performance. I didn't type worth a flip. I couldn't get through three lines without making a mistake. I went through enough whiteout to paint a barn. Administrative matters were not my calling. To this day, I type with just two fingers.
Between Staff Sgt. Brown always on me and my pride, I was at wits' end. I kept volunteering for Vietnam every chance I got. Almost a year went by, and nothing. I found out that I'd been passed over twice because the base commanding officer, Maj. Hines, didn't want to lose me as his handball partner. I told him how much I wanted to go, that I just couldn't bear to sit out the war.
Within a few weeks, I was on my way to staging, preparing to go to Vietnam. I was rearing to go. Sadly, out of the blue, my 16-year-old brother, Ricky, fell off a cliff and died. The Red Cross people sent me home to be with my family.
Three weeks from the day we buried my favorite brother, I was in Vietnam. At night, in a foxhole, out in the jungle, thousands of miles away from home, it caught up with me. I gave it all I had to hide my tears from the guys. I found a way to use my extreme sorrow as a weapon. I became a vicious person. I did things over there that I'll never tell.
About six months in-country, a double dose of malaria and two Purple Hearts later, I was back walking point when we took enemy fire. We had unknowingly walked into a horseshoe ambush. They had three sides of us surrounded, and when enough of us were within the "U," they opened fire.
Crossfire is a whole other kind of combat. I've seen young men's bodies severed in two from bullets simultaneously coming at us from every direction. More than one war historian has said that Vietnam is by far the goriest war of them all. Any guy who was there will concur. Human beings aren't meant to see so much devastation, so much death. It stays with you.
As always, I hit the ground and began my crawl out. You're taught to keep your head as close to the ground as you can. However, my peripheral vision enabled me to guide my crawl out by marking my distance from a tree line or something else, like a ditch. You just keep on crawling. Sometimes, crawling over a dead Marine, one of my brothers.
After most of the day and into the night, we killed as many North Vietnamese as we could. They finally retreated. Just after dawn, we began to bag up the mortally wounded and prepare LZs, landing zones, for the choppers. Throughout the day, they kept landing, picking up the dead and wounded, and leaving. We had suffered great losses.
I was having a cigarette with a few Marines, waiting to load up more body bags into choppers, when I heard someone behind me, zipping up a body bag, say, "They got Sgt. Marshall." I got a pain in my gut. I walked over there and unzipped the bag a little. It was him. My friend. I had no idea that he was in-country. I lost it. All I could think of was that picture on his desk of his wife and two little boys.
One of the guys said that Sgt. Marshall was attempting to carry a Marine out of the line of fire when he took a bullet to the heart. He said that Sgt. Marshall was known for his cool demeanor during firefights. He died a hero.
So this Memorial Day I'll be thinking of Sgt. Marshall and all the other brave men who went to war and gave their lives for our country. Whether or not you agree with the Vietnam War, there's no denying the courage of 58,220 dead American heroes, including Sgt. Marshall. God bless their souls.
Say a prayer for our American warriors out there somewhere in harm's way and remember: There's more to Memorial Day than stuff on sale.
Bill Stamps' book "Miz Lena" may be purchased on Amazon (soft-cover and Kindle). Or order a signed copy at firstname.lastname@example.org. His second book, "Southern Folks," is due to be released in late June.