When local Larry Fleming was 18 years old, the year was 1969 and the United States was about to begin drafting soldiers to fight in the Vietnam War. Fleming was so terrified of being drafted that he enlisted himself and got into Army Aviation. He quickly signed with the First Aviation Brigade, soon to be transported to Vietnam.
The first step of every soldier, Fleming was immediately placed in a basic training program to prepare him for his first tour. Going through training, he said he learned what true respect for others and brotherhood really meant.
“You don’t fight for yourself. You fight for the guys on your side,” Fleming said. “If one of us messed up, we all messed up.”
This training was one of the best things that happened to him, he said, if only because it taught him how to work on a team and the importance of camaraderie.
Over the next couple of years, Fleming spent time in and out of Vietnam, returning to his home country in 1970 when he was injured and volunteering to return to Vietnam in 1971 after his recovery. As a part of an aviation brigade, he spent most of his time on helicopters. His days would often begin at 5 a.m. and end late at night after a long day of trying to fend off the enemy.
“Being in aviation, we got to see 10 times as many things than what foot soldiers would see,” he said.
His two separate tours were spent trying to shoot at the enemy before they shot at him, he said. He was injured twice, and had many friends who died while serving in the war, including one of his friends from home who stepped on a bomb.
Fleming said being in Vietnam was unlike any other place he had ever been, and not in a good way. While there, he experienced a country littered with drugs, violence, prostitution and child trafficking. It was not a place he wanted to stay. Fortunately, he was able to return home earlier than expected.
Coming home: The worst part
Fleming was able to return to the United States early as a result of President Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy, which significantly reduced the number of American troops in Vietnam. Yet, coming back to his home country was equally shocking, and he regards it as the worst part of his service. The amount of angry and hateful protestors made him question if he was actually back in the States.
When Fleming was flown back to the U.S. and was being taken to a hospital for injury treatment, he distinctly remembers being put on a bus with a group of other soldiers. From there, they were driven from the Army base onto public roads, where protestors were lined up and waiting with signs.
“There was one girl who was standing on the corner, and the bus slowed down to make a turn,” Fleming said. “She yelled, ‘Too bad they didn’t kill you too.’ They called us everything you can imagine.”
For that reason, Fleming avoided talking about Vietnam for almost 15 years, when after some time had passed, he finally became comfortable talking to his family and friends about his service. He began to reach out to old crew members from his team and started attending yearly brigade reunions. But even with the time that has passed, he is still affected by his time in the Army.
“It’s hard to say, but I’ll say it, I never came home from Vietnam,” Fleming said, now 69 and an active participant in the Calhoun American Legion. “Physically I’m here, but the rest of me isn’t.”
Helping other veterans
Now, nearly 50 years after his second tour ended, Fleming is trying to help other veterans in the area. He works with five to six veteran organizations in the Gordon County area, listening to veterans tell their story.
“I want to help the other guys get to where I am at least, or better,” he said. “When they come to talk, you listen. You give them whatever they need.”
Through his association with the American Legion, he has made a good friend who was in an artillery group in Vietnam. The two have bonded over their mutual experience in military service, and refer to each other as brothers.
Fleming has met countless others through these veteran organizations and serves as a mentor to younger veterans, regardless of military branch, age, or tour location. When reflecting on Veteran’s Day, which will be celebrated on Monday, Fleming said it’s more than just a three day weekend.
“It should be a day we all take time to reach out to those who served,” Fleming said. “To me, it means a whole lot.”
Fleming encourages people to move beyond the “lip talk” and get to the real heart of the holiday by listening to veterans, hearing their stories, and offering them support in any possible ways.
In Gordon County, Veterans Day will be celebrated by local schools, restaurants and businesses, who will be hosting sales, special discounts and/or events offered specifically to veterans to show gratitude and appreciation for their service.