The following article is provided in honor of the US Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War. Tommy Burton began his Vietnam account by telling this interviewer that he had been in many firefights and could tell some horrific things but would not, because they are just too graphic to tell, much less to put in any newspaper. He said he left Vietnam with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which he has struggled with ever since, despite treatment, including medication. Yet, he proceeded to talk for nearly two hours, using notes that he had written in the past few days, telling about various incidents that stood out in his mind. He spent a year (Nov. 1969 – Oct. 1970) in South Vietnam as a “grunt” (an infantry soldier). The grunts stayed out in the field from two to four weeks at a time, spending much of their time on the move, walking most of the time carrying up to 75 pounds , which included their food and water and other supplies, and for Burton, this included the machine gun, which he carried for his unit, and his M-16 rifle. They slept on the ground in the rain and in the mud, bathed in the rain or creeks, and got re-supplied only once a week. They also had to contend with mosquitoes, especially at a place called the Plain of Reeds, that “would just tear you up,” according to Burton. They were sent there to rid the country of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese soldiers who were trying to take over South Vietnam. He said his unit was to engage the enemy if they were in the woods or out at night. One afternoon Burton and some other soldiers ate their meal in the yard of a Vietnamese home. The man of the house had invited them to eat with his family, but they had declined. At first the soldiers did not understand what the man had said his family was having for their meal, but then the man pointed out to them the rat hole in the yard. “They ate rice and rat; we gladly ate C-rations,” Burton said. After their meal, the soldiers waited until dark to go to their nighttime location. Two hours later they killed the man who had invited them to supper because he was out at night and was armed. Burton told of two friends of his to whom he had talked just days before they were killed. One was killed on the same day he would have arrived back home in the USA if only he had not extended his Vietnam service for 30 additional days in order to get out of the Army six months earlier than scheduled. Later, when Burton had the same choice, he chose to remain in the military for six months longer (at Fort Benning), rather than stay in Vietnam for 30 more days. Burton told of stepping into a looped string attached to a grenade hidden in tall grass. He just happened to see it and carefully removed his foot. About 25 yards further along, his sergeant set off a similar device and was sent flying through the air with small puncture wounds all over him – but it did not kill him. He was back in the field in three weeks “by popular demand,” Burton said. “He was our guardian angel.” Then Burton told of strange, often miraculous happenings. For instance, one night they called for artillery to shell the woodline near them. About fifteen rounds fell short onto their position, but not a one exploded. Then he and the others crawled to a dike, where they lay in fetal positions and PRAYED. “I can see it like it was yesterday.” Awhile later, while they were lying on the ground, traumatized, when they moved their feet they heard the dirt hitting water, obviously underground. “I still don’t understand how that happened. Why did those rounds not explode on us, when they were supposed to go 300 feet farther and explode on the enemy?” The same sergeant who had been hit by the booby trap, kept telling the lieutenant that something just did not feel right. One of our military helicopters with a spotlight was called in to help. When the helicopter arrived over our position and shined their spotlight, immediately they were shot down by the Viet Cong that had us surrounded. The helicopter fell in the center of our position – and “that’s a night I will never forget.” “Again, thank God and Sergeant Simpson.” And another miracle: Burton needed some non-emergency medical attention, so he and some others had walked some distance to a US firebase, where they got a shower and a hot meal. The captain told Burton that he could catch a ride in either one of the two huge Shinook cargo helicopters that had been hauling supplies all day, to go in to the main base for his x-rays. Burton reported that the helicopter he did NOT get on went down. Both that helicopter and the one he was on had left at the same time, headed for the same destination. After discussing the miracles he had recognized in Vietnam, Burton told that the only scars he bears from the war are the ones on the backs of his legs, scars caused from walking so much, wearing boots that cut into his legs. Burton went on to tell one thing he did in the Army that made him feel good. At Fort Benning, where he was assigned for awhile after Vietnam, he was to be promoted to sergeant but did not accept that promotion because he did not intend to stay in the military. Someone in his platoon had just re-upped for six years and was to go to Germany and had not been chosen for promotion until Burton declined his so that the other man could become sergeant. “Because of what I had been through, I knew I was not going to join the National Guard or any other military service,” Burton said. He spoke of his medals: National Defense Service, Marksman (Rifle M16), Vietnam Service w/2 Bronze Stars, Vietnam Campaign 1960 Service Medal, plus two Q/S Combat Infantryman badges, Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal, and Good Conduct Medal. He credits his fiance back home for enabling him to cope with life in Vietnam by writing him daily. “I loved mail call because I could look forward to her letters, which I still have today.” “When I arrived home at Bush Field, there she was to greet me. We married three weeks later, have been married over 45 years, and have two sons. The older one has been in the military for over 20 years, and the younger one spent eight years in the military.” The subject of “PTSD” came up several times during this interview. Burton was complimentary of the VA health services that he has received in Augusta. “Search and Destroy can get into your blood and also into your head….the shooting, the explosion, being on guard all the time…anyone can develop PTSD,” Burton stated. “I’m proud to have served in the Army and in Vietnam. When I was a kid, I played cowboys and Indians a lot, and in Vietnam I got to play cowboys and Indians for real. Even though I developed severe PTSD, which I still have today, I count myself fortunate that I was able to own and operate T. Burton Floor Covering for 30+ years.” Burton retired in 2008 for health reasons; he said his knees could not take it any longer. He has served on the Johnston Town Council “soon to be 20 years.” Much of the info above was written down by Mr. Burton over the past few days, since this interview was arranged. He acknowledged that the process of reminiscing and writing was therapeutic to him. He ended his notes with the following synopsis: “I believe God has a job for everyone. He protected me over there because He had work for me to do in the future. Through my PTSD, God and my wife have been by my side. She is my rock. I give them the credit for helping me, especially with the PTSD. My motto is: Treat others as you wish to be treated.” Thank you, Tommy Burton, for what you did for our country. The above article was provided by the Old 96 District Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization whose objectives are patriotism, education, and historic preservation. These interviews will be preserved at the Saluda Museum and at the Tompkins Library in Edgefield. If you are a veteran or a relative of a deceased veteran and would like to have your story or theirs preserved, call Ann Ella Adams at 803-637-4690.
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