They Were Warriors First
Matthew Davison

Some people ask me why I do what I do, attempting to transform the lives of veterans incarcerated. Some say they are only criminals. They broke the law and have to pay. Most people don’t consider that maybe PTSD has something to do with choices made at a young age, or that self-medicated drug use, in order to forget the horrors of combat, could lead to addiction and imprisonment. I worked with vets who took part in the invasion of Iwo Jima and fought in the Solomon Islands during World War II. I worked with decorated vets who were turned around after the war and made bad choices. What I tell these people is that the men I train for successful and productive releases back into their communities were veterans first, and they must be recognized for their service and their sacrifice. They didn’t run when they were called to war, and we can’t run from them when they extend their hand. What follows is the recollections of a Vietnam warrior named Tony. After 40 years, he’s finally on his way home.

“From Fort Benning, Ga., we sailed across the ocean together, sharing the stories young men share on the way to a place they are not sure they will return from. The stories moved from plans to marry their high school sweetheart to business ventures to be undertaken upon their return, and the first things we would do when we got back. Eventually, the conversation would drift to the fact that we might have to actually take a life or lose ours. These were solemn talks and were always followed by a period of time when it got very quiet. Everyone knew what everyone else was thinking about.

“We finally arrived at the First Air Cavalry Division, the first full division to sail the ocean to a war in a place called Vietnam. It was August 1965. We built an area called Camp Radcliff and complained about the heat, food, work and of course, when we were going to get into the fight with this enemy, the Communists. We drank and bragged about what we would do when the enemy showed himself. I was a rifleman of the Alpha Team, First Platoon. First Squad, Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion 7th Cavalry (Custer’s outfit).

“On Nov. 16, we went to support the First Battalion 7th Cavalry at a place called LZ X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. As we arrived, my first view of the battle was a medic putting the guts of a man back into his body, and I got so scared my finger pulled the trigger of my M-16, and my first round of the war went safely into the ground in front of me. We were placed in positions that were occupied by other troopers, and they returned to the rear area for rest and recuperation. The First Battalion had been surrounded by 2,000 NVA regulars and the battle had been bitter. The U.S. forces had lost 79 KIA and 125 wounded. The enemy had sustained an estimated 1,334 KIA.

“On the morning of the 17th, we walked to another place called LZ Albany and were immediately overrun. In this battle, we would lose 151 KIA and 121 wounded, plus four MIA. I became the only private to survive in the First Platoon of Alpha Company. All my friends were dead, and I clearly recall thinking, “What happens to all those dreams and plans that these guys had?" And I remember thinking how come I was alive and they were dead. Had I done something wrong? Had I not done my job right? I had just turned 19, and since I joined the Army from a Catholic orphanage, I had not shared any plan or story because I had none to share. The swollen, maggot-infested bodies of my friends were all I had left then. And, at times, still today.

“When we got back to Camp Holloway in Pleiku, my mail from a Red Cross pen pal was given to me out of the "dead bag" and Costello said, “We thought you were dead with all the others.” I was dead in a sense and continued to be for a long, long time. I went on to become a hero in the eyes of some, and today I believe my actions under fire that were termed heroic were only my attempt to try to never let happen again at any other place what happened at Albany. The only reason I survived was because a fellow soldier had been the first man shot, and in taking him to the rear for evacuation, I had been spared. I should have been killed with the rest of my outfit. I received the Cross of Gallantry for that action from the South Vietnam government and nothing from my own government. I began to learn the agenda of this war had very little to do with what we were told it was about, and I began to see that leadership sought recognition for actions that other men did. At 19, I was not well versed socially or politically and couldn’t believe what I thought I was seeing. When we returned to the base camp, all my buddies' stuff had been boxed and stacked in a squad tent, and the bunks they slept in were occupied by new guys, all ready to go to war. I remember thinking, "How many of these are not going to make it?"

“In January, we went on Operation Masher/White Wing, and these men I didn’t even know began to die. Our losses from Jan. 28-31 were 121 KIA and 220 wounded. By the end of February, the total losses were 228 KIA and 834 wounded. We were credited with having killed 1,342 enemy soldiers and capturing 633. By March 1966, I was a very different boy. I received a Bronze Star with Valor Device for bravery under fire. We went on to serve in Operation Jim Bowie, Operation Lincoln, Operation Mosby I, Operation Davy Crockett and Operation Nathan Hale. I was sent back to the United States against my wishes in July 1966. I was a trained killer.

“Total losses for the first tour of the First Cavalry Division are hard to realize some times. They were 579 KIA, 1,842 wounded, and four missing in action. The enemy lost 4,059 KIA and 794 prisoners of war captured.

“Today, I am 59 years of age and have spent about 30 years in and out of hospitals, jails, prisons, rehab centers, homeless shelters and halfway houses. I don’t feel sorry for myself anymore, and I clearly see what was done to us in the name of defending America. As a misguided punishment for what I did and for surviving, I managed to sentence myself to a life where I am not counted, am not trusted, am not needed or wanted. I have punished myself far worse than any court could—to be dead and yet walk the earth with the constant memory of my fallen comrades, along with the lives that I destroyed.

I am, at this writing, serving 110 months in prison and have five years of real sobriety, being proactive in my own recovery. I fight the good fight, and I know that if I don’t, no one will care and no one will cry for me. I could easily blame my life on the war and subsequent treatment I received from the Army upon my return home, but what good would that do? There are many very ill veterans who need help in coming home. Now that I am making the journey myself, I want to spend the rest of my days helping others come home.

“In prison, I have found the indifference and apathy that was in the Veterans Administration and military. But today, I do what is good and try to be a person of integrity and compassion. I only regret not having come out of this emotional coma sooner. But the old saying "better late than never" couldn’t be more true. I’m going to go to The Wall some day and say goodbye to my friends and apologize for these wasted years that I could have lived for them, if not myself.

“For almost 40 years, I have been a useless, wandering soldier with the truth of war on his heart. Today, I tell the truth to myself and others, and when I have to cry, I do it openly and unashamed. There is no more reason for shame, and the tears come from love. There can be no shame in that.

“I once swore to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Today, I have returned to my country and its social/political circumstances. The difference today is that I understand who and what I am and what my responsibilities are.

“I hope all the men who survived are happy and well, and have put our past behind us. Peace."