As I went through photos on my phone this week, I saw one that didn’t make sense to me, as it was sandwiched between family photos and work videos. It’s not the best of photos, but I remembered taking it, and I remembered I took it for a purpose.
To tell a story.
It was a perfect day in August when East Texas Purple Heart recipients were being honored at Camp V in Tyler. We had photographers and videographers at the event, so I only had one job, to write.
But as the ceremony was winding down, I saw a man, a Marine veteran, staring down at his new medal honoring him for the Purple Heart he was awarded after the Vietnam War. He kept staring at it and I could tell he was so deep in his thoughts, he didn’t hear anything going on around him.
His name is Raymond Ward, and he graduated from Emmett J. Scott High School in Tyler, which shut down in 1970. In 1968, while attending Tyler Junior College, Ward and two friends decided to quit school and volunteer to join the Marines and go to Vietnam.
Why Raymond Ward was so deep in thought is as deep as his thoughts. And a little warning here, war is not pretty and neither are parts of this column.
If you ever see a war-time veteran with a sign that says “will work for food” or a veteran who is struggling or even a veteran who is wearing a shirt and tie each day, this Marine said they are all the same.
This is why.
Ward was stationed in the Quảng Trị Province, a notorious battle ground during the Vietnam War.
His job as a squad leader was to protect the Air Force base. In layman’s terms, he said that means, “We had to search, seize and destroy the enemy.”
He was injured and sent home for four weeks, but recovered to return to Vietnam. A second injury was enough. The military would not let him return a third time, and he was retired on Feb. 10, 1970. The Purple Heart honor came soon after.
Ward is very blunt about life.
“Basically, since (1970), I’ve been recovering,” he said.
If he was not wearing his Marine cap, you would never know. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he received his master’s from the University of Texas at Tyler. He worked 18 years for Tyler Pipe Industries, then became a teacher.
“I taught school but I could not stand the pressure, I could not shoot anybody,” he said, deadpanned. Then, with a smile he added, “I then got a job with Allstate, they let me shoot people ... with a camera.”
But the memories came back. With Allstate, he was with the special investigation fraud unit and also went to hurricane and flood sites.
“I waded through water where you didn’t know if there would be an alligator nipping at you and I saw huge rats,” he said. “It was like a combat zone, but you had to do what you have to do to make a living.”
But he also learned much more.
“I learned how to avoid the snakes and the bandits and the hiccups in the road. (After Vietnam) I had a few ask me in college, ‘Why did you do what you did in Vietnam?’ I said, ‘My country called me to do a job, and I did it.’ They said, ‘But don’t you have a conscience?’ I said, ‘Yea, but I left it back at the base!’ When you went out there, you had one thing on your mind, making it back and taking care of the guys you were responsible for.”
He also resented hearing they were baby killers.
“Now, we didn’t kill babies. The only time babies were killed were in a bombing raid,” he said.
Then, in a low, matter-of-fact-voice, he said, “That was high from above and it was not very personal. They didn’t know ... I guess they didn’t know, but I did see babies blown apart and stuff like that,” he said. “But as for the guys in the bush, which I was a grunt, a ground pounder, we didn’t shoot any kids. A lot of women, but we didn’t know they were women, they wore the all-purpose hat, we didn’t know they were women until they disrobed them.”
He said the claims of shooting babies were “part of the insurrection of people who were Communists feeding this frenzy to the people to incite them. They knew the only way they were going to get the American soldiers from there is to incite the public, the people who are the voters.”
Ward looks at the world today.
“They saw an opportunity like they see now. There are a lot of people just in there raising havoc, just to stir up stuff,” Ward said, going back to Vietnam. “But it’s hard to find them and that’s why I knew we would never win that war in Vietnam. We didn’t know who we were fighting from day-to-day. During the day, they were cooking your food, and at night they are trying to blow your head off. And they were united.”
Ward said they were teenagers who didn’t realize “there was so much corruption in the South Vietnamese government. They allowed coups to happen, people were assassinated and killed. We didn’t know, we were doing what our country told us what to do. I didn’t know what was going on until I got to college.”
After all of these stories and after years of college and learning on the job, you wonder what Ward would do if he had to do it all again.
“If I knew now what I knew then? I’d still do the same thing,” said the Marine. “I was born in America. When they call on you to do a job, especially when you are in the military, right or wrong, you took an oath. Some people don’t understand that. If you don’t follow the rules, you have anarchy. And that’s how a lot of veterans feel today. People don’t understand them. And they never will understand them. They try to get in their mind, but you will never get it off. They still have nightmares. They have been traumatized ... you have to find a way to cope and that’s what they do everyday, they cope.”
Ward looks around at veterans being honored at Camp V and said there is hope. Camp V has a mission to be a one-stop shop for veterans in East Texas for finding assistance.
Camp V is great. People are still suffering.
“People are still suffering. I went to other places for counseling sessions, but they were just B.S. sessions,” Ward said. “Camp V is great. This is constructive. We need to do something to help that individual who is homeless, has had his leg shot off, can’t feed himself, gets evicted.”
“I see veterans on the street all the time who will do anything for food. I tell them to go this place or that place. A lot are transients from other states because in Tyler there are churches and places to help them,” Ward continued. “I meet them from Chicago and Detroit and they say they are here because of the weather. Some suffer from substance abuse and that has to be addressed. People know about it and don’t care. That’s why I like Camp V, they know, and they care.”
And like a true Marine, Ward still has faith in his government.
“Our government needs to know, these people want to work. They want to get a job, they are used to working,” he said. “Someday our government will get it and I believe they will.”