A Note from the Author, Thomas R. Jones
I am a Vietnam War survivor.
I do not know why, or how, I survived.
War is the most profound event in a person’s life. Brutal events are encapsulated into hard shells in your body, mind, and emotions. These areas become dead zones within you – dark places you hide from outsiders.
I was brought up to respect people – Vietnam changed that. At times, I knew my survival was an act of God. Other times, I felt God had forsaken me for doing what I had to do to survive. Vietnam was a living hell. Surviving meant giving up everything that defined me and going against my upbringing. I accepted killing as a natural act, and it was a burden that cut my soul.
I was born in Quincy, Illinois, but I considered Peoria, Illinois, home. Peoria is seventy-eight miles northwest of Springfield, the state capital and home of Abe Lincoln, and 180 miles southwest of Chicago. I lived with my grandmother, who owned a boarding house, while my parents worked in Chicago. Peoria used to be a small city with tree-lined streets and conclaves of ethnic cultures. Though there was racial tension and clear boundary lines existed between the white and black areas of town, it was home – and home was a sharp contrast to Vietnam. At least at home, I felt safe and knew I was loved.
When I was twelve years old, my family moved to the projects on the south side of Chicago. We lived on the seventh floor of a fifteen-story building at 3939 Lake Park. My mother moved me from Peoria after she found a job and place for us to live. I attended Oakenwald for my last two years of grammar school, went to high school at Tilden Tech, and spent one year at Southeastern Junior College. In 1965, I returned to Peoria and joined the United States Navy. After completing boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois, I went to Corpsman school in San Diego, California. Following combat training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and jungle warfare school in the Philippines, I was ordered to Vietnam.
I only was 23 years old when I went to Vietnam in 1967, but that was an old man compared to the 18- and 19-year-old kids who served in the field. I served as a Senior Hospital Corpsman, known as “Doc,” with the Third Marine Division, Deep Reconnaissance (Recon) Company until I was wounded and transferred to a – supposedly – non-combat support unit, the Third Shore Party Battalion. In Vietnam a non-combat unit was a paper designation in an office. But in war, all units are combat units. To the enemy, it’s the uniform they attack. Non-combat means easy prey.
I had seen maps of Vietnam with black lines showing the country divided and the areas considered “enemy territory.” But in the jungle, enemy lines were not as clear as those drawn on the maps. Every step I took in Vietnam felt like enemy territory. Recon teams operated behind enemy lines in six- to twelve-man units for seven to ten days. Recon’s motto was, “Swift, Silent, and Deadly.” The enemy certainly believed in the motto because Recon fought the war the way they did – small units of men causing destruction, then melting back into the jungle. In fact, we were so feared that Hanoi Hanna, who had a radio program that played music from the United States, regularly told the country how much the reward was for killing or capturing Recon team members.
The patrols in Lost Survivor are based on my personal experiences. I know the strain, and pain, of humping through the jungle with more than a hundred extra pounds strapped to my body. The pack on my back, extra ammo, and medical supplies on my belt and in my pockets made every step a test of will. The strap of the overloaded pack would cut into my flesh like a sharp knife, with numbness eventually invading the pain. I have walked, eaten, and slept amid the musty, decaying smell of the jungle. It would leave a layer of grime on my skin. I have looked toward the sky during the day only to see darkness because of the high, thick jungle canopy. My ears have heard the sound of jungle animals in the night, the rolling thunder of exploding 1,000-pound bombs, and the agony of men screaming from pain and grief. I have felt the fear of walking through a mine field, my feet and mind anticipating the metal click of a mine armed to explode. I have fought through thick jungle bush with wait-a-minute vines clinging to my body as if protesting my mere presence in the jungle. As a corpsman, I have used my hands in an attempt to stop the draining of blood from men’s bodies into the red dirt of the jungle floor. Fear of death was a common factor in every action, every day, and every thought. Death was visible everywhere in Vietnam, always reminding me of its possibility.
While in Vietnam, my memories of home were fragmented mental snapshots of places, events, and people. The longer I was there, the more my memories of home became vague images that I only thought of during rare moments of silence. Internal silence was next to nonexistent – I spent most of those quiet moments listening for danger, not thinking of home.
Music from home provided a sense of silence between the sounds of explosions and gun fire. Listening to familiar songs helped keep some home memories alive, and new music meant home still existed. The beats of home would have you snapping your fingers and dancing, mostly from your head to your ankles. Feeling the beat in your body made you feel like you were home.
Most men carried something physical from home on them. Touching something real from home was like a memory bookmark that allowed a memory to be lived over and over. Simply getting a letter from home was more important than what was in the letter.
For thirteen months, I survived the brutal existence of combat in Vietnam, and then the day came for me to go home. I walked out of the jungle, got on a plane, and forty-eight hours later I was back in the United States. Although I was home, it took a long time for my mind to catch up with my body. My mind and emotions remained in Vietnam for a long time. To this day, I still carry with me the vivid, emotional memories of Vietnam.
After Vietnam, I attended Radioisotope and Nuclear Medicine School at the National Naval Medical School in Bethesda, Maryland. Upon completion of the school, and until I left the Navy, I was placed in charge of the radioisotope and nuclear medicine laboratory at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Illinois. Ironically, I ended my military career where it began.
I had moments when I doubted whether I could make a life for myself back home. I would wake up some nights in a cold sweat, my body shaking, as my mind relived a Vietnam experience. I was always on the ready to react, to attack, to survive. I have even hid in the dark, dead zones within me.
But helping others helped me. At Great Lakes Naval Hospital, I counseled returning wounded Vietnam veterans. I could talk with them because I was, like them, a combat Vietnam veteran. Then, from 1981 to 1986, I was appointed to the Governor’s cabinet as Assistant Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs. In that position, I counseled Vietnam veterans from across the state. I also helped coordinate the state of Illinois’ involvement in the building of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., and served as the fund-raising and government liaison for the building of the Illinois Vietnam Memorial.
Most Vietnam veterans fall into one of three types. Some came home and were so lost they returned to Vietnam; some came home and got lost in America; and some came home and joined life again. I was fortunate, after being home awhile, to be one that came home and found a life. Yet, just as the lingering memories of Vietnam always surface, the personal pain I suffer for my brothers who got “lost” comes back. I can’t answer the perpetual question of why so many veterans were lost when they came home. I only hope Lost Survivor will help families and friends of war veterans understand the metamorphosis of man into soldier and soldier back into man. My fellow veterans can relate to this courageous, yet troubling, story for many of them have lived parts of it.