By Carolyn Barbre
Clara Hammons started to cry, just a bit. She is so proud. Lawrence, her husband, said it was a search and destroy mission in the Binh Dinh Province of Vietnam that almost destroyed their son, Wayne.
Now, 35 years later, he has just received the Bronze Star with a Valor Device.
Of course they were proud of him back then, proud when he graduated from Lindsay High School in 1968, proud that he joined the 503rd Parachute Infantry, graduating with honors from the Fort Benning Jump School where he was even presented with a trophy.
But they were also fearful, fearful that he would be wounded or even killed. Their fears were justified.
"He was only in Vietnam a short time and this happened. It was the 27th of December, 1968. They reached this one area. They were supposed to be there for two weeks, but they had a new lieutenant and he volunteered, after two days of rest, to go out on this big mission. They were only out two days when this explosion happened," Clara said.
The mission was to locate Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army personnel and fortifications and kill or capture them. While crossing a ridge line in thick jungle vegetation, Spc. Joe Neal, who was walking point, noticed several signs of VC activity according to a story published in The Wheel Online, a publication for personnel at Fort Eustis, Va. Wayne's son. Clay, works as a security guard at Fort Eustis.
Neal wanted to take an alternate route, but the lieutenant insisted they remain on the trail to save time. Others joined in the discussion.
"A lot of discussion was going on and nobody was making a call, so instead of staying there like sitting ducks, I thought it would be better if we just kept moving," Wayne recalled from his home in Mathews, Va. He was toward the end of the platoon, so made his way toward the front and volunteered to take point. "I went up there and told him what I was going to do," Wayne said. He had also seen the booby trap indicators. He suggested the platoon spread out a quarter mile behind him as he and two others scouted ahead to determine the danger.
Suddenly there was a large explosion which engulfed them. When the smoke cleared one of the point soldiers was dead. The other had lost a leg. Hammons was severely wounded and would spend the next year and a half in the hospital. His injuries included two broken femurs, a busted artery in his right leg, a broken left hand, a sucking chest wound and massive internal bleeding.
"Oh goodness gracious, he had so many injuries," his mom said. He spent the first six weeks in the hospital in Japan before he was transferred to Letterman Hospital at the Presidio in San Francisco where his folks visited him every weekend.
"When we'd think he was getting well, we'd find out that the bone wasn't mending. And one time he was immobile for so long his knee got stiff and then they tried to break it, and it broke the femur bone again, so he had to do it all over again. It just seemed like it was one problem after another," Clara said. Wayne was 19.
To add insult to injury, quite literally, the anti-war protesters were outside the hospital. "They were protesting everybody in the hospital," Wayne said. He said at the time the veterans tried not to talk about their war service a whole lot. "We'd just as soon forget it," he said.
But they didn't. "Some of the guys I was in Vietnam with, I guess they thought about it for a long, long time." They not only thought about it, Neal and others in the platoon did the paperwork, contacted senators and kept pushing. They knew if Hammons had not volunteered for the point position and suggested the rest of the platoon stay back, they would have sustained much more damage, possibly losing their own lives.
Hammons had been awarded a bronze star, a good commendation medal and a purple heart, but had not been awarded for his bravery, that oakleaf cluster with a V for Valor Device. Last month he was. Hammons received the Bronze Star with Valor Device from Brig. Gen. Brian Geehan, U.S. Army Chief of Transportation in Virginia.
Maj. John Hanson, Geehan's executive officer, helped orchestrate the presentation at Fort Eustis.
"In today's combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan there are a lot of soldiers that have been awarded the Bronze Star but not many with the valor device," he said. "You know that anyone that receives it has seen heavy combat."
"Senator Warner's office called me up and said they had it. It was quite a shock to me and Senator Warner was real surprised. It's real nice to be appreciated," Hammons said.
Hammons is now a rural letter carrier in Mathews, Va., where he moved with his wife, Ronda, and two of their three children eight years ago. Their eldest lives in Texas.
"We're just real proud and glad that he was able to have it, just real pleased that they gave him that recognition," his mom said.