Troop Talk: Vietnam veteran struggles with past, gets needed help
By Nancy Strunk Kirby email@example.com May 3, 2012 2:24PM
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jerry Walls (right) and Lt. Gary biro, both of Aurora, saw heavy combat when they were stationed together in the central hightlands of Vietnam in 1968. The two lived next door to each other for six years in Aurora, graduated from high school together and were later assigned to the same unit of the 198th Infantry Brigade in Chu Lai, Vietnam. | Photo courtesy~Jerry Walls
At A Glance
Who: Jerry L. Walls
Branch: U.S. Army, Company C, 1st Battalion, 52nd Infantry, 198th Infantry Brigade
Rank: Staff sergeant
Deployed: Vietnam, 1968-69
Awarded: Bronze Star Medal, National Defense Medal, Republic of Vietnam Service Medal for meritorious service against a hostile force
Updated: June 7, 2012 8:11AM
Vietnam veteran Jerry L. Walls, 67, knows what it’s like to fight the demons of war and come out on the other side.
After graduating from West Aurora High School, he was drafted at age 19 into the U.S. Army in 1967. He put in nine weeks of basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., with additional advanced training at Fort Polk, La., and five months of “jungle school” at Schofield Barracks in Honolulu, Hawaii. By April 1968, he was stationed at Chu Lai, South Vietnam, fighting the Viet Cong.
His dress uniform photo from 1967 shows a baby-faced kid not even old enough to shave. Two years later, in the jungles of Vietnam, a much older looking man with a thick mustache stares into the camera. He holds an M-16 rifle, a bandolier of ammunition strapped across his chest.
Walls served five months fighting the Viet Cong with the 52nd Infantry, 198th Infantry Brigade before being stationed farther north with another unit fighting the North Vietnamese Army. Both units saw intense combat and heavy casualties. Most of his time was spent patrolling in remote areas accessible only by foot or by helicopter.
In early spring of 1969, Walls was serving the last week of his tour when his company was called in to assist a battalion that had been pinned down by 8,000 hardened NVA troops. Walls could have turned down the mission in Chop Vum. But he volunteered because their lieutenant was new and inexperienced. On March 8, 1969, on the fifth day of heavy fighting, his company was caught in a mortar ambush.
“We couldn’t get bodies out for days,” Walls remembers. “Every time we tried to get the choppers in there, they would get shot down. It was a nightmare.”
After helping move wounded personnel to a safer spot at the base of a hill, Walls was ordered to a helicopter for evacuation. Although his chopper was hit three times by enemy fire, it managed to land at a nearby evacuation hospital. The next day, the surviving members of the company were extracted. Only 27 of 92 soldiers had lived.
During the next few months, Walls was processed out of country and received an honorable discharge. But troops received no psychological assistance in making the transition to civilian life.
Although he had escaped injury, he was covered with sores from bug bites and “jungle rot.” He spent a month being treated for malaria at Hines VA Hospital. He recovered physically, but invisible wounds festered.
For decades, Walls says he was miserable — fighting through anger, guilt, depression, insomnia, three failed marriages.
“I couldn’t sleep at night; I couldn’t be in crowds,” he says. “I was paranoid. If a car backfired, I’d be under something. I couldn’t have anyone standing in back of me.”
Walls hadn’t even heard of post-traumatic stress disorder until he began getting the help he needed about three years ago from the Veterans Administration.
Now he has counselors and advocates he trusts at Hines VA Hospital, and he receives medical treatment for diabetes and other problems related to Agent Orange exposure. He collects 90 percent VA disability and hopes to qualify for 100 percent soon.
Focus on positive
On May 1, Walls retired from ABF Freight Systems, ending a career of more than 30 years as a local freight driver. A recent hip replacement surgery had made the work more difficult. But Walls has reservations about retirement because he can’t bear being idle.
“The reason I worked was to keep sanity,” he says. “Working was an escape.”
While he doesn’t dwell on it, Walls is proud of his military service. In the basement family room of his immaculate St. Charles condo, he displays a collection of framed photos and mementos from the war, including the Bronze Star and three other medals for valor during combat.
He focuses on channeling his struggles in positive directions. He works out every day, sometimes twice a day, at Export Fitness. He rides his bike for up to 20 miles a day along the trails from Batavia to Aurora to Sycamore.
“I just have to be careful,” he says, acknowledging that a slip-up could send him spiraling downward. “Not a day goes by that you don’t have a flashback. You’ve just got to fight it to get it out of your mind.”
Unexpected sounds, the vegetation along bike trails, the smell of smoke — any of a number of triggers can take him back to the jungles of Vietnam.
He has seen many of his fellow vets struggle with similar demons of depression, alcohol and substance abuse. But he doesn’t judge or offer advice. “They’ve got to do it on their own,” he says.
Walls admits it isn’t easy, but he’s determined to stay on a positive track.
His daily workouts keep his mind occupied. He has made amends with his ex-wives and has a good relationship with his two daughters. A close friend has helped him nurture a spiritual life. And his hard work and financial discipline over the years is allowing him to purchase a condo on Marco Island, Fla., an escape that will be a place of healing.
“The good Lord has taken care of me,” Walls says. “There had to be an angel on my shoulder for me to get out of Vietnam.”
Troop Talk is a column profiling and honoring local veterans and active servicepersons. Email freelance writer Nancy Kirby at firstname.lastname@example.org with ideas.