Vietnam War veteran Jim Hunziker

Vietnam War veteran Jim Hunziker invites all veterans to the 15th annual Veterans Barbecue on Saturday, May 20, on Veterans Drive (off Homer Cagle Road) in LaFayette. Hunzicker and his wife Karen sit in front of two photo albums of his time in the military. (Messenger photo/Josh O’Bryant)

If you're a military veteran, you're invited to join fellow service men and women for a time of barbecue, music and fun.

The annual Veterans Barbecue is Saturday, May 20, and the Georgia Vietnam Veteran's Alliance in LaFayette says this is a call-out invitation to all veterans. The event is free for veterans and their families.

Vietnam veteran Jim Hunzicker passionately invites all veterans to the upcoming barbecue on Veteran's Drive off Homer Cagle Road in LaFayette.

The barbecue during Armed Forces Week begins at 10 a.m. for ceremonies and food will be served at noon.

Hunzicker is a U.S. Marine veteran from a military family and the president of the Georgia Vietnam Veterans Alliance Chapter 12 in LaFayette.

The GVVA started in 1995 and this is Hunzicker's sixth year as president of the LaFayette chapter. The group offers assistance to veterans and the community. The alliance gives a $500 scholarship to LaFayette High School JROTC graduates each year as well as award graduates at Ridgeland High School. Food baskets are delivered to needy families — especially around Christmas — and care packages are sent to active military men and women. The LaFayette Chapter has 15 active members and various volunteers including JROTC cadets as well.

The Veteran's Barbecue is for all veterans and their families, Hunzicker said.

A soldier's story of Vietnam

Hunzicker served in the Marines from 1967 to 1969 and spent 13 months in Vietnam at the early age of 20.

Originally from small-town life in Deer Creek, Ill., Hunzicker eventually moved to LaFayette in 1996 with his wife Karen. The couple married in 1989.

Two full and well-designed scrapbooks sat on the dinner table that are treasured memories of Hunzicker's time in the military.

There were good times and bad times. Hunzicker created brotherly bonds with his fellow servicemen. Some still keep in touch and attend the veterans barbecue, but the others lost their lives in Vietnam.

"I was with the 3rd Battalion 4th Marines. We served around the Khe Sahn area," Hunzicker said.

Hunzicker recalled that time being a "constant barrage of incoming bombardments" from the North Vietnamese Army. This put the young, small-town soldier in for the culture shock of his life.

Hunzicker was wounded in an ambush during a mission from Khe Sahn. There was a fire base on a hill that needed help when the battalion was covered by North Vietnamese soldiers.

Hunzicker's squad was in the midst of the ambush and his whole squadron was left wounded.

Hunzicker was hit with shrapnel from the incoming rockets.

He was hit in the upper thighs and back. He was concussed and knocked back into a fellow Marine who was seriously injured from the shrapnel.

"In fact, I had to carry him," he said.

The whole unit was spilt up as Hunzicker carried the downed soldier to a bomb crater as the fire fight continued throughout the night.

Helicopters returned that morning and brought Hunzicker and his fellow soldiers out of the fight and to medical attention.

Hunzicker would exchange letters with his parents and had to let them know about being wounded in battle. By the time the letter got to his parents, they had already received a Western Union message from the recruiting officer saying he was wounded.

This made his parents think he was wounded twice, which was concerning to his parents, Hunzicker said.

Watching the recruiting officer come to the door was cause for worry as this usually meant a soldier was fatally wounded, he said.

Hunzicker was medically treated and released back into the unit after one week.

A regular day in Vietnam was of constant operations against the North Vietnamese Army, who usually struck at night, Hunzicker said.

During the sparse downtime, Hunzicker and his fellow Marines would find a hot meal and occasionally attend a USO show.

The 3rd Battalion 4th even got a chance to see Bob Hope perform at a show.

"There was so many people you could barely see because I was way in the back," he said.

Hunzicker said he would enjoy this downtime and he didn't have to watch behind his back constantly.

"Once in a while, they would bombard the big bases, but not very often," he said.

One thing remained constant: there was always a need to be on high alert.

"You've got that programmed in your body, automatically, you know, once you got hit once or twice," he said.

Hunzicker recalled a battle on Phi Nui Hill which led to a letter of commendation as well as the deaths of a few of his buddies and his other brethren in uniform.

Two hospital corpsmen were killed by a sniper on a rescue mission as well. All were men around 20 years old.

Hunzicker said he had to hide behind a soldier's body as there was nowhere to hide. Eventually, air support arrived and took the sniper out with bombs.

"They hit us three days in a row on that hill," he said of the six days they were sent to hold the hill.

"We were out-numbered quite a bit," he said. "When they attacked us, we just had to hold that hill."

Hunzicker soon volunteered into a program to train South Vietnamese soldiers how to fight in battle.

This was the South Vietnamese Popular Force, which consisted of local militias who protected their home villages from attacks by the Viet Cong and the People's Army of Vietnam forces.

"They would come into the villages and terrorize the people. That's what the VC (Viet Cong) would do. They were small groups. They dressed in black and they would come into the villages at night and ambush, so what we would do is patrol the daytime and try to find them," he said.

Kids in the villages would often come up to him to bum cigarettes off of him, he said.

Hunzicker also worked around this time as an interpreter, machine gunner with the M60 machine gun and the M79 grenade launcher and even worked as "radio man."

Then one day — all of a sudden — as the meal jeep arrived to the village, Hunzicker found out he was going home.

"They didn't give me a notice ahead of time. They told me. 'pack yourself up and catch the meal jeep and head to the airport back to the base, and from there you are going home,'" he said.

He said he didn't have time to grab all of his souvenirs that he had collected in a duffle bag as well as various letters and clothing he collected in Vietnam.

"I was pretty happy," he said about going home.

In March 1969 Hunzicker was promoted to lance corporal and eventually ended his service as an E3 lance corporal.

Hunzicker knows that there are more veterans in the area and surrounding areas and he sees the barbecue as a chance to bring these veterans together to enjoy themselves and connect with their fellow soldiers.

He invites veterans of all wars to attend the annual barbecue.

Josh O'Bryant is a general assignment reporter and covers the Walker-Catoosa County area. He can be reached at the Walker County Messenger office at 706-638-1859 and by email at jobryant@npco.com.