More than 40-years after being shot by enemy fighters north of Saigon, near the DMZ, in 1969, Vietnam veteran Gary Vickers delivered a personal letter to his fallen comrades at the memorial wall in Washington, D.C.
Vickers was shot in the hip while seeking to reinforce fellow soldiers who were outnumbered and under heavy gunfire and mortar attacks from North Vietnamese fighters.
Eight soldiers from Vickers’ infantry unit had gotten pinned down on a trail ahead of where he was moving.
Editors Note: This story first appeared in 2015 and is being republished due to reader interest.
“They were reinforced and ready to fight. The point man was shot real bad and had taken shrapnel. He was down on the trail. We circled up behind them. A sergeant was on the phone trying to communicate with us, but he had been hit also,” Vickers recalled to Scout Warrior, citing detail from an attack more than 45 years ago as though it were yesterday.
The pinned down soldiers were overwhelmed by a very heavy attack, he remembered.
“We had not been able to get any artillery on them. They had hit these guys with mortar rounds and some heavy arms fire and some small arms fire,” he said.
The main portion of his company was more than 200 yards behind the enemy fighters who were they unable to see due to the thick bamboo – whereas the group of eight soldiers on point were only 50-yards or so from the North Vietnamese, he recalled.
“On this particular day, we were walking drag -- the last men in the company to go through. We did not like that position because a lot of times the enemy would wait until everybody got through and then hit the tail end. Then everybody would have to come back and they would ambush us as we came back,” Vickers explained.
Another soldier from the group under fierce attack tried to jump out of the line of fire, and to take refuge behind a log. Yet another member of Vickers’ infantry group died while being transported to a MEDEVAC helicopter.
“I could tell they were flanking us. I tried to shuffle guys back and lay down a base of fire. Then I got shot through the right hip. Then another bullet went through my pocket and blew my maps up,” Vickers explained.
Vickers had entered the line of enemy fire because he had made the choice to move forward into the attacked area to help his fellow soldiers.
“Nobody made me go out there. When the Captain called up and wanted to know if we had anybody up there, we were already on the trail. That was my decision. I was not going to leave our people out there,” Vickers explained. “At the time it was what had to be done.”
Eventually, B-52 bombers arrived and destroyed the majority of the attacking North Vietnamese fighters, Vickers said.
As part of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, Vickers was part of an infantry unit tasked with searching for and destroying the enemy, often performing dangerous reconnaissance missions. He said he carried an M-16, 15 magazines, two quarts of water and two hand grenades.
“My company was very successful with a low loss ratio. We got called on a lot for that,” he said.
Wounded Soldier Comes Home
After recovering in a hospital in Japan, Vickers came home from Vietnam to his family and farm.
A lifelong farmer, Vickers, who has five children, now lives with his wife in Harwood, Missouri. Until recently, he has not talked much about his combat experience in Vietnam. However, after reuniting with many of his fellow soldiers, Vickers decided to visit and communicate with many of his comrades in arms.
“I was shot on the right hip and got the right half of my butt blown off. I have gotten along fine. I lost a lot of muscle back there in that hip, but it has never slowed me down. I have farmed all my life, and this did not slow me down,” he said.
On one occasion, during a conversation with fellow soldier Jess Raley, one of the eight soldiers pinned down by enemy fire on that day in 1969, Vickers was asked a profound question.
Raley thought that perhaps he was responsible for Vickers getting shot since Vickers had entered the line of enemy fire to save him.
“I’m glad you brought that up,” Vickers told his fellow soldier. “I will tell you like I have told my wife and son, getting shot probably saved my life. It was time for me to come home because my number was coming up.”
In fact, Vickers wound up having powerful conversations with a number of soldiers in his unit on a few occasions, more than 45 years after the battle.
At one point, 46 years after the battle, Vickers asked comrade John Howe why he took the risk of taking a chopper to the first aid station to help him after he had been shot.
In response, Howe told Vickers’ son Jason Vickers – “I don’t know if your Dad’s ever said anything about this, but he was the best Platoon Sergeant I ever had. His men would have followed him anywhere.”
Vickers and most of his fellow soldiers were drafted to fight in Vietnam. He did not have much to say about the politics of the war but stressed the importance of a soldier’s duty to country and love for his fellow comrades in arms.
“My boys have all grown up knowing what I went through and I encourage other vets to be in touch with their families. We were called upon to do a job,” he said.
In May of 2015 – Gary Vickers Delivered His Letter to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.
I leave this letter for all to see so they will know what these names and reflections mean to me. I come to this solemn place with a heavy heart and deep respect, to see how we honor those we have lost, that served to protect our country which called us to do a tough and dirty job in a country far away.
Oh my God what a price we paid! That cost still goes on today for so many. When I came back to the world, I was met with gladness, joy and thankfulness that my wound was not that bad. But that is not what happened to many more. The country has changed, and we need to get that behind us, but for some the memory of that treatment will forever last.
I’ve tried to live my life with honor and respect in hopes my reflection would reflect good for these names and reflections that did not get the chance that I did to have a family, get a job and compete in this old world. When days are long and the going gets tough and aches and pains of growing old are there, I think of you and that all seems pretty small!
I’ll never forget where I’ve been on my trip to the wall, as I will never forget those who gave their all! All these names and reflections have a face. God Bless and keep you.
Gary Vickers, Missouri
Staff Sgt. 11-Bravo
D-2-12 1st Cav 68-69