In recent years I have become an advocate for the military requiring a period of time to help soldiers returning from war zones to be treated for stress and allow the young men and women to readjust. My experience was not good and my story is far too common among Vietnam veterans. My desire is that the soldiers now and in the future who are returning from a war zone be given some consideration for their service. Mandatory debriefing/counseling prior to returning to duty or civilian life and ongoing “checkups” for as long as needed would help ease some of the troubles combat veterans face.
I think it may say something about me that I compare myself to Forrest Gump. For about three years from 1968 until 1970/71 I bounced around aimlessly. I wasn’t a very good citizen. In the movie scene where Forrest Gump was running from coast to coast and then one day said that’s enough and stopped reflects my transition. My change was just about as abrupt. I cannot point to one thing that was the driving force for the transformation. Somehow I had gained enough college credit to be nearing a degree. I took some control of my future. I took on night jobs and actually made an attempt to improve my grades and eventually graduated. I deeply regret many of my actions during those “lost” years. I hurt and disappointed many people and the reasons do not justify my actions. I meet with a group of Vietnam veterans and our experiences after coming home are very similar…disillusion and rage. However, I consider myself one of the lucky ones.
I would not go to a movie about Vietnam for a long time. The early ones were far from the facts and amounted to protest movies. The author of the book “We Were Soldiers Once and Young” who was also the advisor for the movie about the book was interviewed on a TV morning show. He said the movie as factual as could be made. He was the commanding officer of the unit written about in the book. The setting was the Ia Drang Valley, 1966. I was in the Ia Drang many times in 67-68. I went to the movie because of his endorsement. I don’t think I breathed twice during the movie. If you want to see how Vietnam combat went watch the movie. It is realistic.
Scenes in the movie were flashbacks to what was going on stateside. The movie depicted when soldiers were killed in Vietnam, officers would hand deliver the message to the soldier’s home/next of kin. Entire neighborhoods would come to a standstill when a military vehicle drove down the street. Everyone knew what the message was and stopped to see who it was for. I had never taken into consideration the stress and hardship I placed on family and friends until I saw the movie. Oh, I knew they worried about me. They were glued to the TV for the six o’clock news and read the newspapers every day. I didn’t think about the fear of seeing a car coming up the driveway or the phone ringing with bad news. I matured a little that day—after all at sixty years old it was time to grow up.
In 2003 the Fourth Division was deployed to Iraq. There was much information about the deployment being posted on the internet. My sister, Sarah, sent me a link about the Fourth. I was able to find information about the unit I served with in Vietnam. A medic friend of mine had signed the guest book for the website. I sent an e-mail that said, “I’m Bud Roach. Do you remember me?” This simple message set into motion a new phase of my Vietnam experience.
Jim Murray was a platoon medic at the same time I was. I remembered him being from central Texas but he actually was from Arkansas. The response to the e-mail was from Jim’s wife it read, “Jim will be excited to hear from you.” This simple exchange of messages led to remarkable chain of events. Jim had heard through the grapevine that I had been killed in a car accident in the early eighties so my email was like getting a message from a ghost.
Jim had stayed in the reserves and had been deployed to Iraq in 1991 and had again been called up in 2003. During the physical exam upon reentry to active duty an x-ray detected a spot on his lung. The spot turned out to be cancer. Jim had not been cleared for active duty so the Army was not responsible for his health care and he did not qualify for VA benefits. As a result, he had no coverage for medical treatment. The VA did say, however, that if Jim had been wounded in combat he would be eligible.
During the fighting in Kontum at Tet ‘68 Jim was riding on a tank when it was hit by a rocket. Jim and his platoon leader were blown off the tank and were exposed to enemy small arms fire. Jim treated his platoon leader and was awarded the Silver Star for his actions. Jim was wounded as well but would not leave his duty to be treated because the action was too intense. He agreed to be evacuated for treatment after several days when the action had eased. He spent almost a week in a field hospital for a leg wound. In the confusion caused by the number of injuries being treated at the hospital during Tet Jim’s injury was never reported and, as a result, no Purple Heart was awarded. A VA representative said if eye witnesses could verify this Jim could receive treatment.
Jim and I met in person during March, 2003. At this meeting the plan to search for eye witnesses was discussed. A list of names and contact information was made and in the following day I began what was to become a hobby/past time. My wife calls it an obsession. I learned how to use the internet to locate people. In Vietnam we seldom knew the real name of the people we served with. We used nick names. This was a liability when attempting to find someone. The first person I contacted was Charlie Shyab. Charlie was a platoon medic with Jim and me.
Charlie had plans to visit relatives in Houston that summer. Jim was in San Antonio for treatment at the same time and I lived near Dallas. We made arrangements to meet in Corsicana, Texas for a weekend. We three old platoon medics who had not seen each other since 1968 had a great reunion. A longer list of names was made and many, many stories were exchanged. A friendship was renewed after almost forty years. It was as if the years hadn’t passed. An article in an Army periodical that described the instance when Jim was wounded was found. It mentioned Jim by name. Along with eye-witness accounts, this article was convincing evidence of Jim’s war wound. Plans were made to have a larger reunion in the summer of 2004.
Later that summer Jim and June stopped overnight in Greenville on their way home to Arkansas. Cecelia and I visited. Jim and I hugged when we left. About two weeks later June called to tell me that Jim had passed away. I was shocked and devastated at the loss. I traveled to Sulphur Springs, Arkansas to attend his service. The Purple Heart Medal was on display at his funeral. Jim never saw it.
Jim’s legacy lives on in the annual reunions. The group has grown from the three medics to a group of around eighty veterans and friends. It is satisfying to see Vietnam veteran friends reunite. “I’ll look you up back in the world,” was a usual parting statement to a friend when a person left Vietnam. It is a feeling of accomplishment and a type of closure when I’m able to help veterans find each other again. Many of us have looked at the list of names on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall searching for friends. It is a relief to not find someone but then there is the unanswered question about where they are and what happened to them.
In Washington D.C. in 2007 I had the opportunity to meet with Lt. Zimmerman’s widow. I was relating the events of April 1968 when her husband, Bill, was killed in Vietnam and she was describing the circumstances of that same time in Maryland and Atlanta. It was an eye opener of how the war had affected whole families.
I will stop here. There was a time I could not have revisited much of what I have written about. It has been forty-three years since I was in Vietnam and I have seen and felt several changes in public opinion about the war. My own perspective has changed as chapters in my life have changed. Today, there is a curiosity by the general public about Vietnam. For me, there is a sense of relief in letting go of some of the pressure I have kept inside.
There is some question if a person can be cured of post-traumatic stress syndrome. After many years of suppressing thoughts and fears I say no. A combat veteran cannot be “cured” of PTSD but they can be treated to prevent some of the heartbreak and misery it causes over the long term.
I have completed a career in education. I was a trusted and dedicated employee and a true advocate for young people. My expertise was appreciated in the education community. I am a faithful family man…proud of my wife and two children. I think I’m pretty good at being a granddad, too. I truly am one of the lucky ones. People who only knew me in the late 60s and early 70s would be surprised where/how I ended up and people who have only known since I started my teaching career would be just as surprised at my life in the late 60s and early 70s.
When I started writing this I had no intentions of referring to Forrest Gump but he seems to be my point of reference. So it’s appropriate that I conclude with one more quote from the movie,
“That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”