'I am a loser and a sucker'

Richard Watkins

According to President Donald Trump, anyone who serves in the military and is wounded or killed during that service is a “loser and a sucker.” When I heard those words that came from his mouth, it became obvious to me that his personal history as a draft dodger and his total disrespect for a true American hero like Senator John McCain was the origin of such thoughts and comments.

I then realized that he was talking about me and my family; a family on my father’s side where all of the male members had military service starting in World War I and going through the Vietnam Conflict.

My father, while serving as a high school teacher and coach in East Texas, volunteered to serve during World War II. He later became an Army officer after successfully completing the Army’s Officer Candidate’s School. A picture of his assignment as a commander in the all black tank destroyer unit hangs in the Veterans Museum in Huntsville.

After the completion of World War II, my father stayed in the Army Reserve as an officer but went back to Germany to serve as one of the first American Education Advisors.

In 1966, my father retired from the United States Army Reserve at the Army’s Military Police Headquarters at Fort Gordon, Georgia as a lieutenant colonel. My two brothers and my sister also served; one brother served in a top secret capacity as an Air Force radar technician and the other brother as an Army dentist. I was not drafted, but chose to serve in the United States Army as a second lieutenant upon my graduation through the college ROTC program. I was commissioned as an infantry officer initially, but later became an officer aviator after an additional nine months of aviation training. After completion of flight school, I was assigned to the first gunship company formed in the continental United States at Fort Benning, Georgia for an additional three months of aircraft weapons systems training.

As a unit, the 335th Gunship Company was deployed to the Mekong Delta area of Vietnam. Later, while assigned to the 114th Assault Helicopter Company in Vin Long, during a combat mission on December 30, 1967, my helicopter was shot down by hostile enemy fire along with three other Army helicopters and an Air Force jet. The three other helicopters were shot down while they were trying to recover me and my crew.

My gunner was killed, a 19-year-old young man who wasn’t supposed to fly on that mission that day, but chose to miss his dental appointment and fly with his crew. When our helicopter crashed, the rotor blade came through the cockpit and caved my face in. Due to the severity of my wounds and massive hostile fire, the remaining crew members left me for dead.

Sometime later when I came to, the enemy was firing tracer rounds into the fuel cells of all of the downed aircraft in an attempt to set them on fire. I was able to crawl through the mud of the rice field in the direction of a mud hut. Even though my vision was blurred and the tracer rounds looked like basketballs whizzing past me towards my downed aircraft, I could hear the remaining crew members yelling to get my attention. They had made it to a mud hole filled with water, which protected them from direct enemy fire. Later that day, I was able to eventually crawl to the mud hole. This is when I realized that my gunner had been killed.

As we lay in the mud hole we witnessed the fire fight going on between the enemy on the ground and the new Cobra Gunships firing straight down from the air. There were as many tracer rounds going up from the ground as were coming down from the gunships. Later in the battle, the Cobras pulled out in order for the Air Force fighter jets to drop napalm on the enemy. The burning napalm was dropped so close to us that we could feel the intense heat.Even though this was initially a morning mission, it is now afternoon. We knew that if we were not evacuated before dark, we would not survive the night. We knew that the enemy had a bounty on the heads of all helicopter pilots because of the death and destruction done by our helicopters in Vietnam.

The three of us were able to crawl to the mud hut where we found a Vietnamese woman cooking on an open flame. We also recognized a tunnel leaving the hut going in the direction of the enemy fire. We knew then that we would have to make our way in the opposite direction to a tree line located on a small channel if we were to survive. Just prior to sunset, we could see a South Vietnamese officer waving his hands for us to crawl to his location on the tree line. I was getting weak because of my blood loss from my head wound and the broken bones protruding from my face.This was our only chance to escape and we had to try to make the 100 yards crawl to possible safety.

I made it about two-thirds of the way and the Vietnamese officer came to help me to make the remaining distance.

We made it to the tree line and to a waiting helicopter to fly us back to Vin Long, and for me, on to Long Bin for five and a half hours of surgery. In addition to my facial injuries, my neck had been cracked.

I spent seven weeks with my mouth wired up so I had to live on a liquid diet and eventually learn to speak again. After three months in hospitals, even though I was told that I would probably never fly again, I was assigned to the Primary Helicopter School , initially as a navigation instructor and later as the chief of the faculty development division, with the responsibility of academic training for all instructor pilots.

It took me over 15 years to share the experiences that I have just shared with you.

It isn’t pleasant to remember all of my combat experiences and the sacrifices of American lives,limbs and minds. I thought it appropriate at this time, because Donald Trump was talking about my family and me when he called us “osers and suckers.” When I returned home from war I wasn’t in a good place, like so many other Veterans of War. We all had put our lives on the line with some of us shedding blood and others paying the ultimate price with our lives. Returning from Viet Nam, we were being called baby killers and worse. The great nation that we had served didn't reciprocate with care for our broken bodies and broken minds. We came home to our families as different people than the ones that left them.

I know that General Kelley has shared with the nation the process necessary to return a service member’s body home after his or her death in combat. I am pretty certain that he didn’t discuss what happens to a body that has been blown apart or mutilated by the enemy, and certainly not what happens to a body in high temperatures that might not be recovered for days.

I know that my brother and sister veterans served this country for the many freedoms that we all enjoy, one of which is the right to vote for the candidates of our choice. However, I could never support anyone who called us, “losers and suckers.” I can’t speak for all veterans, nor can I speak for all African American veterans. What I can speak to is my experiences that I have had that were not the same for all who have served this nation.

African Americans have made up significant numbers of persons who have served this America in the military during war times. Initially, because of unfair draft selections and most importantly, because we wanted to earn respect from an ungrateful nation. No matter how we served, how we bled and how we died, respect has not been in the picture for us.