Still standing tall

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 2, 2002

Features Editor

When Billy Brubaker returned to Oakland, Calif., after serving a year in Vietnam, he was advised not to wear his uniform. However, all he had was his combat fatigues which made him a prime target for those who opposed the war and hated the men who fought it.

People spit on him, threw rocks at him, called him "baby killer," "dope addict"and things too awful to repeat and too painful to remember.

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But, Brubaker stood tall and held his head high. No matter what he was called or how many times he was physically attacked, he never dropped his head.

"I was proud to serve my country," he said. "I’m not going to say those things didn’t hurt, but, after Vietnam, nothing was too painful to bear. I love this country and I was willing to do whatever was asked of me. It was my duty and my honor to serve."

Even before Brubaker got to Vietnam in 1970, he saw the horrors of war. He was with the 249th general hospital in Tokyo in 1968 during the Tet

Offensive. In one week, the hospital went from a 500 bed facility to a 5,000 bed hospital.

"What I’m going to say, might make people sick, but it’s the harsh, horrible reality of war," Brubaker said. "They brought men in with half their heads shot off and their brains hanging out. Men were brought in with legs missing and arms – sometimes both. The sounds were of men in ravaging pain and of men dying – boys suffering and dying.

"It got to me. I got to all of us. I’m not ashamed to say that I turned to alcohol to cope. I had to or I couldn’t have survived. It would drive you crazy. So, when I was off duty, I got as drunk as a skunk. That’s not a good way to cope, but it was the only way I had."

When Brubaker was sent to Vietnam, he first went to Long Tan then on to Nha Trang with the 144th Aviation as a convoy driver on Highway 1.

"When you’re in the army, you do what you’re told to do," he said. "My main job was to drive in convoy all over the country. A couple of times, I was the door gunner and, when they said, ‘shoot,’ I shot."

When there was a "red alert," Brubaker was often assigned to stand guard duty six feet from tanks filled with aviation fuel.

"Being that close to those tanks was scary," he said. "We carried M-16s and our orders were to keep the enemy away from the tanks. If a mortar had hit one of them, we would all have been gone – blown away."

Anyone who is in a war zone and says they aren’t scared is a either a liar or crazy. "I was scared," Brubaker said. "Scared to death."

Fear coupled with deplorable conditions made life very difficult.

"Some days would be sunny, almost like here," Brubaker said. "Other days, the monsoon rains would come and you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. We’d get maybe two hours of sleep and were living on MREs. That was tough, but the hardest part, the part you can’t forget was the fighting, the people hurt and dying. We saw what the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were doing. We would go into a village and see children and old people lying everywhere dead and the everything burned."

And, Brubaker said the enemy might be a small child or an old woman.

"You never knew," he said, pausing to remember his first kill. "Six of us were in a hooch. I was cleaning my M-16 and looked up and saw a little girl about 8 years old standing there. Then, I saw a her pull the pin on a grenade. I snapped the magazine in my rifle and unloaded on her."

One of the other soldiers was able to grab the grenade and throw it from the hooch.

"If I hadn’t had my rifle, we would all have been killed – all six of us and the little girl," he said. "But, I saw her face that day and I see it every day of my life. It haunts me, but that’s the kind of war we were fighting."

There were others kills for Brubaker, but he doesn’t know how many.

As a convoy driver on infamous Highway 1, Brubaker’s orders were to keep moving.

"We were told never to stop," he said. "If we did, we would be facing a court martial."

"Keep moving" meant "moving over" any obstacle in the way.

"Men, women, teenagers would be standing in the middle of the road," Brubaker said. "If they didn’t move, we had to move through them. Those were our orders. After times like that, we’d hit the bottle. That was the way we coped with what we had to do."

When Brubaker came home to an ungrateful nation, coping wasn’t easy. Faces in the night kept him from sleeping. Faces of friends who were killed, faces of those he killed, especially, the little girl – they all came to him in flashbacks. Therapy helped but it didn’t erase the memories.

"I’m not ashamed of what I did, of what we did," he said. "We did what we were asked to do – what we had to do. I still stand tall."

Brubaker has worked the mobile Vietnam Memorial Wall nine times. He has yet to visit "The Wall" in Washington D.C., but he feels a strong need to go there.

"I want to see all of the memorials that honor the men and women who have served our country," he said. "My family has six generations who fought for our country. I have four nephews serving now, one in Kuwait and three in Afghanistan. I’m proud of them."

Although Brubaker does stand tall and although he thought he had made peace with his past, he still has flashback and they are often brought on by the "choppers" from Fort Rucker flying back and forth.

He’s in anger therapy at Tuskegee Veterans Hospital "to keep me from getting so angry that I hurt someone."

"I’m angry because we didn’t finish what we started over there," he said. "That so many died and we didn’t finish it for them. And, I’m angry, too, that I survived and so many of friends died. That’s why I still stand tall and keep my head high. For them."