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Veterans carry scars from war, but they stand firm as patriots
US soldiers came home from Vietnam to unwelcoming America
Tommy Bowers holds the Purple Heart he was awarded in 1968 for injuries received in Vietnam. - photo by Tom Reed

Tommy Bowers of Gainesville walks with a slight limp and carries the scars of a war he fought long ago.

Just talking about those dark days in Vietnam gives him pause. The words don't come easily; the memories are painful.

But don't doubt his patriotism or the love for America. U.S. flags are draped across the balcony in front of his house, and another one is attached to his garage, fluttering in the breeze.

"I have a lot to appreciate in the United States," Bowers said. "I served as honorably as I could. America should be proud of its freedom - it's taken for granted and watered down a lot."

Other area wounded veterans, when asked their views on the significance of Independence Day, responded similarly.

"Our young kids, they don't know. They're not taught in high school," said Brent Barrett, a Vietnam War veteran who has two Purple Hearts, the medal given to U.S. wounded. "They go over it, but they never get into it."

His brother, Barry Barrett, a decorated U.S. Marine who received three Purple Hearts for his injuries in Vietnam, said today's youngsters "don't relate the Fourth of July to (military service)."

He likened it to Christmas Day lessened by an emphasis on gift giving.

At the same time, Barry Barrett doesn't place himself on a pedestal.

"I wasn't a hero," said the Hiawassee man. "No, the heroes were left over there. The heroes are on the (Vietnam Memorial) wall in Washington, D.C."

July Fourth is possible, the veterans say, because of those ultimate sacrifices. It's not just about cookouts and firecrackers.

Still, for the survivors, war was hardly a walk in the park.

"It's not like the movies," Barry Barrett said. "When you're actually there ... the fear factor gets into you so much that survival is all you're there for. You're going to survive.

"You're going to fight ... and die like a U.S. Marine - that's all there is to it."

Brent Barrett remembers his journey to war beginning after graduation from North Hall High School. About that time, he was going to railroad school in Chicago, when his mother told him his brother had been wounded.

"Send me a plane ticket," he told his mother.

"The first thing I did when I got home was I got Dad's car and went to (a military hospital in) Cherry Point (N.C.) to check on Barry," he said.

"I checked on him about every week. The weeks went by and I got home one day and ... Dad said ‘You got a brown envelope in the mail.'"

It was a draft notice. U.S. Marines basic training followed at Parris Island, S.C.

Brent Barrett, who now lives on the Hall-Lumpkin county line, arrived in Vietnam and within two days of getting his equipment, he and other Marines were taken to a mountain.

"We got off the chopper and all hell broke loose," Brent said. "They were shooting at us and we were trying to dig a hole, hide or whatever. The last guy on the chopper didn't make it - he got shot through the chest."

Bowers remembers his 1966 induction into the Army in Blairsville.

As part of the Americal Division, 198th Light Infantry, he operated a grenade launcher in Vietnam.

"We did a lot of combat assaults ... and engaged the enemy in a light of situations," he said in his Gainesville home. "We had a lot of casualties."
He remembers the vivid details of being injured.

It was nighttime on New Year's Eve.

"We were set up on a perimeter and it was raining," Bowers said. "It was dark."

Trip-wire flares went off, illuminating from sky where the enemy was located.

"The next thing we knew there was a (North Vietnamese) soldier with four hand grenades with pins pulled that fell on the four of us (in a foxhole)," Bowers said.

"One hand grenade went off between my ribs and arm and another went off near my left boot sole. I had about 10 injuries there, I had a liver injury," he recalled.

He wounded up evacuated from the scene on a helicopter.

"Somewhere in flight to the hospital, I came to and realized someone's muddy boot was on my face," Bowers said.

Roger Stephens, a graduate of the former E.E. Butler High School in Gainesville, remembers being shipped to Vietnam in 1967. Six months later, he was wounded.

He was in a bunker, when he came under an attack that killed his squad leader.

A rocket shattered nearby, sending shrapnel into Stephens' left arm, back and side. He was hospitalized for three months, then was sent back to his unit.

"From then on, it was just give and take," he said. "I had a lot of hard times. We fought and there were a lot of casualties. I saw a lot of men my age die."

Their stories and accounts of the war may vary widely, but one common trait binds the veterans together: post-traumatic stress disorder.

"It still lives within me," Stephens said. "I have nightmares about the events that happened over there. I'm under a psychiatrist's care, medication, therapy and all that, so I'm trying to deal with it. But it's hard sometimes."

Bowers and Brent Barrett talked about shutting down after the war, not opening up to anyone about their experiences.

U.S. military returned home from Vietnam to an unwelcoming America, with many protestors accusing the veterans of killing innocent civilians.

"I never talked about it a full word for 40 years," Bowers said.

He now attends Veterans Affairs classes that allows him to share his feelings.

"I think it's helped a lot," Bowers said. "... It's mind-bending to allow yourself to remember a lot of what we did."

Barrett said he didn't "come out of my shell" until a few years ago when he joined the Vietnam Veterans of America.

"I didn't want anybody to know I was a Vietnam vet," he said.

But, Barrett added that he's a "patriot, patriot, patriot."

"I wave the flag, I carry the flag, I have a flag at my place in the mountains," he said. "I march in parades. I wore my uniform (in parades). And I try to help all vets that I can that's going through what I'm going through."