The painful past: Memories of Vietnam are not easily pushed asideView 6 Photos
The day 22-year-old U.S. Army draftee Harland J. "Bud" Sutherland Jr. landed in Vietnam, he was unarmed, in his street clothes. Within minutes, he received orders to board a tank and join an ambush patrol.
"We hadn't been issued flak jackets, helmets, compasses. We didn't have anything, not even a weapon. They took us up there where they gave that orientation and I don't guess we stayed there 10 or 15 minutes and they called me and [Charlie] Grisham out," said Sutherland, 74.
Sutherland and Grisham quickly donned uniforms and received M-16s and all the gear they could carry, then just boarded a helicopter to join the 11th Armored Cavalry Regimen. The two were assigned to an ambush patrol crew on an M-113 tank that sported a .50-caliber machine gun on top and two M-60 machine guns on the sides.
Troop L consisted of eight tank crews. On July 21, 1967, the unit was moving down a road when a large tank in the lead struck a mine, "and that's when it all broke loose," Sutherland said. The moments that followed were a blur.
Name: Harland "Bud" Sutherland Jr.
Home: Soddy-Daisy, Tenn.
Military branch and rank: U.S. Army, sergeant
When it was over, seven Americans lay dead and most of the enemy had been killed, he said. Sutherland stayed the rest of the night on guard at the .50-caliber gun, a post he would man for the rest of the war.
Distracted by a thought during an recent interview, Sutherland opened up an album of yellowing photographs showing Troop L's tanks plowing through the jungle or Sutherland and his buddies standing shirtless in some war-torn field or camp.
"We were in a firefight, it seemed like, every other day. We were all over the place. It'd be pushing it if I stayed two weeks at a base camp," Sutherland recalled as he thumbed through the pages.
The longer Sutherland looked at the photos and thought about the continuous firefights and the lives they claimed, the more haunted he became. When something disturbed him, he patted his hands on the album.
What happened when he "opened up" with his .50-caliber and used his baseball skills to hurl grenades at the enemy with deadly accuracy bothers him.
"It's hard to remember all that stuff," he said, looking down. "If it had just been one time, I'd remember."
Sutherland earned an Army Commendation Medal with "V" Device on May 5, 1968, according to a U.S. Army document. He was a sergeant and the tank commander when Troop L was on a reconnaissance mission near Cu Chi.
"When the enemy began to fire rockets, automatic weapons and small arms at the troop, Sgt. Sutherland courageously directed his vehicle into the area of most intense fire," the document states. "He maneuvered his track up to within five meters of the insurgent fortification and from this point, destroyed the bunker with hand grenades."
Sutherland talked guardedly about that operation, patting the table uncomfortably. He had more than a case of grenades that day.
"When I came out into the opening, I saw them fire. I saw the RPG hit [a sergeant in Troop L]. I saw it come out of the barrel," he said. "I had a good target. I knew where I was shooting."
He reflected on losing his best friend, Grisham, on the second day of the Tet offensive of 1968. He believes they should all be remembered, commended.
"The boys in this outfit, not just me, a lot of them should have gotten these medals," he said.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.
This story was corrected to say an M-113 tank is equipped with two M-60 machines guns.