Memories of war still linger

Memories of war still linger

November 4th, 2018 by Davis Lundy in Local Regional News

Vietnam veteran Don Provonsha poses for a photo at his Ringgold, Georgia, home Thursday, October 11, 2018.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

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Name: Don Provonsha

Age: 74

Branch of military: U.S. Marines

Years of service: 1966-1968

Don Provonsha is steady, always has been. In a career that started at age 13 bagging groceries in Tampa, Florida, through today at age 74 with BlueCross BlueShield in Chattanooga, Provonsha oozes the "next step" mentality required to achieve any goal.

If you are an oilfield roughneck, the guy who stands on top of an oil derrick and catches the pipe as it is pulled out of the ground as Provonsha was at age 20, steadiness can keep you and the men working below you alive. If you are the lead investigator for the FBI uncovering corruption in West Virginia and East Tennessee, being firmly focused means arrests and convictions.

But it was that recognizable steadiness, Provonsha said, that caused him to be one of 300 draftees in February 1966 selected to join the Marines and sent him on a journey to Vietnam that can haunt him to this day.

"If I don't stay busy, it all comes back to me in waves, like the human waves in Vietnam," Provonsha, 74, said. "It rained for 91 straight days when I got there — except for 30 minutes on Christmas in 1966. We had no skin on our feet from the top of our boots.

"There were leeches. It seems every bush and elephant grass would either cut you or stick you, and the cuts would get infected," he added. "We really did not get a lot of action. All we did was fight the weather."

But the real fighting came soon enough.

His time in the jungle climaxed the first week of September 1967 at the battle of Hill 48, just days before his tour was scheduled to end. The Marines' bloodiest month in the war left 482 Marines either dead or wounded.

He flew into Leatherneck Square in the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam on Sept. 6, 1967. By Sept. 10, Provonsha, wounded and in the hospital, watched as the bodies of three close men under his command arrived. He had to identify the remains.

"I was getting ammo off the chopper and running it down to the men," Provonsha recalled. "There were what seemed like thousands of them coming in human waves across the rice paddies. Artillery was all around us. You had a choice of getting down to avoid artillery or have them come right up on you. It was a pretty terrifying thing.

"I got a chest wound and was on the last medivac out, and there was no one to get them ammo, and "

Steadiness is gone as Provonsha's voice cracks and tears surface. "They were they were throwing cans of sea rations trying to make them think it was grenades.

"I have nightmares. I have tremendous survivor's guilt knowing I was not there to save them."

Provonsha left the service as a platoon sergeant, a position not often achieved by enlisted men, in February 1968 with two Purple Hearts. He went to college on the GI Bill at a time of massive protests over the Vietnam War.

"When I went to college, I did not broadcast that I was a veteran or that I had been to Vietnam," he said. "I just did my time and earned a degree in economics to get in the FBI Academy."

Provonsha was soon back in pursuit of career with the FBI. He became an FBI special agent in 1972. He served in Memphis; Charleston, West Virginia; and Chattanooga before retiring in July 1997. He then became an investigator with Provident/Unum before his current stop at BlueCross.

Provonsha suffers from neuropathy in his feet and hands that he believes is the result of Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide used by U.S. military during the Vietnam War to eliminate forest cover and crops for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. The condition causes balance issues for millions of Americans, including what the grandson he raised calls the "finest man I have ever met."

"I just have to stay steady," Provonsha said.

Still, his military service provided invaluable life lessons.

"I have had a lifetime of service to my country between the Marine Corps and the FBI, and it has instilled in me a level of patriotism that most Americans don't understand," he said. "I wish that we had a law that when every American reaches the age of 18, they are required to provide two years of service tot their country so they reality that our liberties cost something. It's not free."

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