Life may have been "like box of chocolates" for Forrest Gump, but for the 42 men who entered into Cai Lay, Vietnam, on a fateful November night in 1967, they pretty much knew what they were going to get.
They expected a dangerous situation with bullets flying past them as they faced off with the Viet Cong. But they didn’t expect to develop a brotherhood with their fellow soldiers or experience a deadly situation that would later appear on the big screen in the 1994 film "Forrest Gump."
Gainesville native Terry Reagan was part of that unexpected journey. He forged a bond with a young, new recruit named Sammy Davis, who later would become the Medal of Honor recipient known as "The Real Forrest Gump." And one battle they fought together ended up on the silver screen.
In fact, Reagan was part of the heroic rescue that ended up being one of Gump’s big moments in the movie. But Reagan never expected to earn a Purple Heart for his actions which saved several of his comrades and helped set the scene for Gump’s heroics as well.
"One of my buddies, Larry Zimmerman, emailed me and said ‘Do you know you’re in part of a movie that Sammy Davis is going through?’" said the now 67-year-old veteran. "And I said I didn’t know anything about it. (Davis) didn’t know it until way later that they had used the footage of him getting the Medal of Honor in the movie."
Drafted into the Army
Reagan’s journey toward the fateful and now iconic scene in "Forrest Gump" started when he was drafted into the Army at 16. Reagan left East Hall High School to begin working when he was notified the Army needed him.
Reagan said as a teenager he did not want to go to Vietnam. The 16-year-old went absent without leave three times before he began his tour of duty.
However, Reagan worked hard once in the service, ultimately becoming a part of Battery C, 2nd Battalion, 4th Artillery Regiment, 9th Infantry Division, in the Republic of Vietnam. He earned a Purple Heart when he was just 19 after being wounded in battle April 15, 1967.
"We were support for the infantry," he said during a recent interview at The Times. "We shot the big Howitzers."
A Howitzer is a cannon having a comparatively short barrel, used especially for firing shells at a high angle of elevation to reach a target behind cover or in a trench, according to the US Army.
Reagan said he and his unit were under sniper fire from each side when he was wounded.
"I had leaned over to get another round to load the gun," he said, re-enacting the scene as he reached across the table and bent at the waist. "The bullet went up through the bottom of my radio and hit me in the back of the head."
One of Reagan’s fellow soldiers got a compression bandage from his kit and wrapped his head with it. At that time, he became one of the hundreds of thousands of men wounded in Vietnam and one of more than half a million to receive a Purple Heart overall.
"An estimated 600,000 Purple Heart recipients live across the country," wrote Dana Hallfors of the Veterans Administration. "More than 30,000 Purple Hearts have been awarded since 2001."
However, Reagan was tough. He recovered from the injury almost completely and returned to battle. It was then that he met Sammy Davis.
Meeting ‘Forrest Gump’
"The first time I met him, he was on the cook line in our unit," Reagan said. "He was a new recruit. He was 16."
Reagan explained Davis worked his way up through the ranks, becoming a squad leader for the artillery unit. Davis’ progress allowed to two men to become acquainted.
"He was the nicest, most gentle person and was always inquiring about stuff," Reagan said. "I had been in country a long time, and he would ask questions about what was going on and what I used to do because I was almost done with my time there."
Reagan said the Forrest Gump character truly embodied Davis’ kindheartedness and willingness to serve his country and help his fellow soldiers. Reagan added Davis was courageous, spirited and well-respected by all of his fellow soldiers despite his age.
However, Reagan and Davis bonded on one thing in particular — their dislike for Sgt. James Gant. Davis mentions Gant’s tough leadership and tendency to yell in a 2011 video titled "Medal of Honor: Oral Histories."
But for Reagan, the Gainesville man remembers one particular quality about the sergeant that he never liked.
"I hated Sgt. Gant," Reagan said. "He came in every morning singing the Brenda Lee song ‘I Can Feel a Heartache.’ We had to get up at five in the morning and he started singing that song and I hated it."
Courage under fire
Reagan and Davis put were forced to put their dislikes aside when the unit came under attack early in the morning of Nov. 17, 1967.
"It happened at 2 o’clock in the morning, right on the dot," Reagan said. "I was in fire directs control, which is where they point the guns and stuff and decide which way to shoot. We came under heavy mortar and ammunition and small arms fire. One gun was shooting straight up where we could see. I could see the Viet Cong on the other side of the river running around."
Reagan recalls he was in a foxhole near the control center with fellow soldier Terry Thompson when he saw a sign that something was wrong with one of the guns needed to protect the 42 men on the ground.
"I saw a big ball of fire come out from the No. 2 gun, which was Sgt. Gant’s gun," Reagan said.
Reagan’s superior officer, Capt. Dennis Schaible, told his men the No. 2 gun was hit. They needed to help them and move the gun.
"Now, I hated Sgt. Gant," Reagan said, noting the sergeant was an African-American soldier. "So I said, and excuse my expression because I don’t think this way anymore, but I said ‘I ain’t helping no (expletive).’
"And the Lord spoke to me and he said ‘Terry, the soul doesn’t have no color.’ And that’s when Terry (Thompson) asked me if I was ready and we went to go help him."
Reagan and Thompson made it through the onslaught of bullets to the Howitzer and pulled Gant’s wounded body out of the way. This single effort allowed the gun to fire and protect the rest of the men fighting in the battle.
For his heroism, Reagan earned a Commendation Medal.
Davis was on the scene as well, loading the gun with a beehive round, which fires 18,000 little darts.
"When you shoot one of those things, it does damage," Reagan said. "They were fixing to take over one of our guns, so Sammy kept loading them up and firing them off."
Davis fired more beehive rounds despite being shot in the back and buttocks before he heard shouts from across the river signaling that Americans were on the other side of the bank. Davis then used an air mattress to rescue three of his comrades.
"There were 12 left standing that morning of the 42 we started with," Reagan said.
Earning an award
Davis’ official commendation recounts the incident with vivid detail.
"In complete disregard for his safety, Sgt. Davis loaded and fired three more shells into the enemy," it states. "Disregarding his extensive injuries and his inability to swim, Sgt. Davis picked up an air mattress and struck out across the deep river to rescue three wounded comrades on the far side. Upon reaching the three wounded men, he stood upright and fired into the dense vegetation to prevent the Viet Cong from advancing.
"While the most seriously wounded soldier was helped across the river, Sgt. Davis protected the two remaining casualties until he could pull them across the river to the fire support base. Though suffering from painful wounds, he refused medical attention, joining another Howitzer crew, which fired at the large Viet Cong force until it broke contact and fled."
This incident, along with his Medal of Honor ceremony, were used in the film as portions of Forrest Gump’s experience in Vietnam.
However, neither Davis nor Reagan or the other survivors knew the battle was recreated for a movie.
"The part where Forrest gets his Medal of Honor from President Johnson is when Sammy got his Medal of Honor, they just put Tom Hanks’ head over his," Reagan said.
Even when the movie came out, Reagan didn’t realize the film included a scene he would recognize immediately. He did not see the movie until a few years after its release because of his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
"I couldn’t talk about it for years," Reagan said. "I spent 10 years with a psychologist though, and it helped. Now, I can talk to anyone about it."
The Veterans Administration estimates thousands of soldiers from Vietnam and other wars suffer from the disorder. They are pushing for more treatment for these men and women.
"We estimate that some 283,000 male and female theater veterans had warzone PTSD in 2012-13, 40 or more years after their wartime service," wrote Dr. Thomas Hall, chairman of the Veterans Administration’s PTSD committee. "Even with treatment, PTSD can be something to manage for a lifetime — for veterans and for their families."
Watching the movie
While making progress with his psychological recovery, a key line from the movie began recurring in Reagan’s life.
"Joshua, my 18-month-old grandson would go around saying ‘Life is like a box of chocolates,’ and it irritated me so bad," he said. "But I didn’t know anything about it.
"Finally, I was emailing Larry (Zimmerman), he was my ammo sergeant, and he said it was the movie that they made and got Sammy in."
Zimmerman sent Reagan the movie to watch.
"I watched it and bawled the whole way through," he said.
The group who fought the courageous battle had a reunion in Skidmore, Mo., six years ago. Reagan mentioned he speaks to Davis and many of his other brothers on an almost daily basis.
"When we had the reunion in Skidmore, Sammy was there wearing his medal, and I asked if I could touch it," Reagan said. "He said ‘Terry, it’s as much yours as it is mine,’" Reagan said.
It’s been almost 48 years since that fateful day in Cai Lay, Vietnam, but Reagan will always have a special bond the members of the 9th Infantry. The movie "Forrest Gump" always reminds him of his fellow brothers in arms.
"The many things you see in ‘Forrest Gump’ don’t just relate to Vietnam; it’s the everyday living of the American people, and they had to work something about the Army in there. It’s about the American dream," Reagan said.