Vietnam Veteran: ‘We Were Winning When I Left’
Terry Combs joined the military as the Vietnam War was heating up because he felt it was the right thing to do at the time and for the experience. He saw his friend killed in battle and earned a Purple Heart for being shot in a firefight, but for all his experiences the Cherokee veteran only recently started sharing his stories.
Combs was born in Marysville, California in 1946, when his parents divorced he was a child and his mother moved back to her home in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Combs volunteered for the Army and entered into service on January 25th, 1966.
“Going to the military was just the right thing to do at that time,” Combs said. “There was no work around here and I wanted to do something different. I wanted to see what combat was like, and I found out.”
Combs ended up in the First Calvary division, 12th Regiment, Bravo Company. He spent a good part of his time in Vietnam as a squad leader slogging through the jungle. He saw his friend, Billy Kalsall, die in combat on December 9th, 1967 and three days later Combs himself was shot in the left knee.
“We were advancing forward in sand dunes with hedgerow, behind each hedgerow you had to take your ground and you had to clear it out first. With this particular one the guy we were fighting was so far in front that we hadn’t got to him. The shot threw me around, but in the heat of battle, with the adrenaline rush, you don’t notice it. It was like a bee sting, or being burned by a cigarette. It was a couple of minutes before I felt it.”
Combs came back to the states on January 1st 1968.
“I never really talked about my army experiences until a few years ago. At the time, seeing people jeering and booing soldiers when they returned home, I just never talked about it and I think that’s true of most combat veterans. I repressed the time that I spent in combat so much that I couldn’t remember names, I couldn’t remember dates, and I didn’t want to, you know. Nobody ever questioned me about how many fights I was in, how many people I had killed, or how many times I was shot. My medals and stuff were in the back of a closet. I got divorced and remarried and my new wife found the medals and got them out. I started going to the V.A. hospital and started talking to people there and my wife got me in touch with a couple of the guys I had been with in Vietnam and I started talking with them. Then I finally went to a reunion and I started talking to people and I was able to get it out.”
Combs says that his feeling about the war never changed, which is what kept him going through such a trying time. “From the day I went in until I got back from Vietnam, it was to stop communism and fight for the people of South Vietnam, who were being taken over by a Communism nation, North Vietnam. That’s the way we were taught, and that’s the way you had to feel. If you felt any different, you just lost hope, but I never lost hope.”
“When I think back on it the main thing I remember is the camaraderie. At the time, the main talk was about hamburger joints that we missed and were going to visit when we got back home. And as the saying goes, ‘When I left we were winning.’”
After some time off on convalescent leave, Combs finished out his stint in the army stateside filing medical records in a hospital. After he got out of the army in 1969, he worked in construction, went to college, got married and raised a family, and worked in Law enforcement as a deputy and for the Cherokee tribe in their tourism and recreation department.
Combs did not receive his Purple Heart until four years ago when a friend of his, a career army man, filled out his paperwork and got the medal for him.
“Giving out medals was supposed to be kind of automatic, but so many men, 58,000 killed in action and over 150,000 wounded, there were just too many,” Combs said. “It’s taken years to get medals to all the people who deserved them.”
Combs is now semi-retired and working with the 12th Calvary Regiment to put their annual reunion together in Branson, Missouri.
“This is our sixth annual reunion. The first year we had 43 people attend. The second year we had 60 people, last year he had 93 people, and this year we’re expecting over 100. It’s a lot of work and a lot of dedication for the committee and other people, writing the letters, making phone calls, and finding the people and getting them to come to the reunion.”
Even years later Combs still feels some of the sting left over from those chaotic days of the Vietnam era.
“I’m envious of the soldiers coming back from Iraq because of the love shown to them and the parades and celebrations. We didn’t have any of that.”