By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
East Hall womans reunions help Vietnam vets find closure
0322kimbrell3
Billy Kimbrell sits with a photo of a reproduction of the "jungle eater"equipment he operated in Vietnam. - photo by Tom Reed

Often under attack as they cleared the Vietnamese jungles on their bulldozers, the American soldier felt he had no choice.

The woman, holding a child, pointed the gun at him, yelling she was going to kill him. The soldier killed her instead, then got off his bulldozer and approached her body, finding a gold ring that she had with her.

Holding the object, he sat and cried.

Years later, he handed the ring to Hazel Kimbrell, a fellow veteran's wife who had organized a reunion of the Army's 62nd Engineer Battalion (Land Clearing), based at Fort Hood, Texas.

"He wanted me to have it because that was the end of his hell," said Kimbrell, who lives off Harmony Church Road in East Hall with her husband, Billy.

Billy's own postwar experiences, including post-traumatic stress disorder, which requires him to take medications, inspired her to reach out to the other veterans, getting them to reconnect with each other and perhaps heal old wounds.

Some 380 veterans attended the first reunion at Fort Hood in 2000.

Kimbrell has worked to put on reunions every two years at different locations, with one event sponsored by Caterpillar, which made the group's bulldozers.

The whole effort sprang out of Hazel's online family tree research nearly a decade ago.

"I realized it was kind of easy to find people on the Internet," she said.

She then asked Billy if he wanted her to try to find some old war buddies. "He had always talked about so many of them," she said.

He was reluctant at first. When she pressed as to why, he said. "Honey, I'm scared of what we might find." She probed further, and he said the war had damaged so many veterans, with many later becoming alcoholics and drug addicts.

"It started out as a slow process," she said. "... I found one, then another, then another ... and it kind of got going real good."

In the meantime, Billy had met up with one veteran, who lived in Kentucky at the time.

"They took off to West Virginia and visited (another veteran), and they were enjoying (their time together)," Hazel said. "They were having fun."

She thought "if we could do (a reunion) on this small of a scale, why not do a big one?"

She contacted 62nd Battalion officials in her efforts to organize the event. She said she told them, "You know, these guys finally deserve what they should have had to start with - they deserve some kind of recognition, some official people saying we appreciate you."

Billy, 63, said after he returned from his one-year tour in Vietnam in 1971, he found anything but appreciation and respect.

"When I come back, we flew into New Jersey. When I got off the plane, we were treated like dirt - like you should have stayed over there and died," he said.

Billy left for Vietnam a year or so after he and Hazel, both Gainesville natives, were married. He volunteered to go to Vietnam after he had found out his cousin had been killed there.

"I thought I was going over there to get revenge," he said. "After I got over there, I found out it was an altogether different story. It was really a mess. It was hard for anybody to do anything."

Bulldozer duty was "a heck of a job," he said. "... We ran into all kinds of ambushes and stuff blowing up. ... We didn't figure we were going to make it back (alive).

"(The jungle) was so thick, you couldn't see what you were doing - you just felt your way through it."

A painting depicting a military bulldozing crew clearing ground - and an explosion set off by one machine striking a land mine - hangs on the wall of the couple's mobile home.

Billy received three Purple Hearts, the result of enemy fire from an AK-47 assault rifle.

During the war, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese used jungle cover as part of its war strategy.

Between July 1969 and October 1970, battalion plows with blades made in the Northwest Georgia city of Rome cleared 240,000 acres of jungle, according to Military.com.

The battalion left Vietnam in October 1971 and was assigned to the 13th Support Command. In June 1976, the battalion was redesigned as the 62nd Engineer Combat Battalion (Heavy).

In the years since the war, Billy worked mostly at cotton mills and, while they lived in South Carolina, Hazel worked as a security officer.

Billy's disorder put a strain on the marriage, they said.

"I went from drinking to working all the time," he said.

He also experienced the classic symptoms of flashbacks.

"I got the brunt of it," Hazel said. "He would fight in the bed. He'd scream ‘Incoming, incoming!' ... He has broken I don't know how many alarm clocks, thrown things at the TV ... it's terrible."

Billy said he has appreciated seeing old friends at the reunions, but more than anything, they "have helped me a lot. I think it has helped the other guys a lot, too."

Hazel was diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago and is in remission, but the treatments are slowing her efforts to plan a 2010 reunion.

"I've got about 300 e-mails out saying, ‘Look, I need prayers. I need help. I need somebody to help me do this or do that'" she said.

Hazel is weaker these days, but she said she is getting by fine.

"I'd rather have (medical problems) than the demons (the veterans) have to deal with," she said.

Billy said he believes that from the beginning, the government response to the veterans' problems was weak. When his tour of duty was over, he and the other men were pulled from the jungle, put on a plane and whisked to the United States - all without any kind of debriefing.

"They were nice enough to give them little, bitty bottles of liquor on the plane," Hazel said. "That was the only appreciation they got."

Billy said he hopes the "government does more for these coming back from Iraq and all those place and it doesn't boil down like Vietnam did."

Regional events