It is more than three decades after he left Vietnam. The day is Sept. 11, 2001.

Isaac W. Lee of Eutawville is watching as a second plane slams into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York.

All the years after earning medals for valor, after watching his younger brother come home from the Southeast Asia war in a body cast, after standing tall about his nation's role in the Vietnam War, 9-11 impacts him beyond anything he can imagine.

"When they said America was at war, I snapped," Lee says. He pauses, tears running down his cheek. "You think about it in the sense of why did it have to happen."

He is hospitalized, suffering effects he does not completely understand. "It just shuts you down when it hits you."

For Lee, 9-11 triggers personal trauma. It's about that day, and it's about Vietnam. "It brought everything back," he says.

"I never got over 9-11." And neither should Americans, he says.

"We as Americans do not know how blessed we are," Lee says, saying Vietnam was "well worth it" if war can be kept off American soil.

At 72 years old, he says with conviction: "If I have to go in another war to keep from fighting on American soil, I'd go without a second thought. I'd go right now without thinking about it."

Lee knows what war means.

His brother, Peter, who lives next door in Eutawville, came home from Vietnam in 1966 after being wounded badly in the leg. He was a volunteer who did not want his older brother to go to war.

But he did go.

Isaac was drafted, serving in the war from August 1967 to August 1968, seeing action in the Tet Offensive in which North Vietnam attacked on the Tet holiday. In that year's time, he earned the Bronze Star and the Silver Star, coming home with the rank of staff sergeant E6.

There are many stories. One is defining.

Lee's squad was on point near the small village of Xom Doi Bay Ti. As squad leader, he reported by radio seeing fresh tracks.

"We went on up," he says. “I wanted to turn around" but the company commander said by radio, "Lean forward and drive on.”

“It was disaster after that," Lee said. The seven-member squad came under attack with heavy fire from the village.

"The guy carrying the radio got hit," Lee said. The back portion of his right shoulder was about blown off.

Lee reacted, dragging the wounded soldier with the radio and all the equipment toward safety.

The rest of the squad fired away, covering him and the soldier from Ohio, Floyd Suggs.

“He was the one who gave me the courage to get back to the company," Lee said. "I figured we were not going to make it back.

“Those guys who helped me get back deserve medals," Lee said.

So did Lee, who says he still cannot remember a lot of details.

The citation accompanying the Silver Star for bravery, however, tells the further story.

"Without hesitation or regard for his personal safety, Sgt. Lee braved the heavy enemy fire as he maneuvered to the rear elements and brought a medical aidman to the casualty's position."

The aidman needed a stretcher, which Lee secured by again passing through enemy fire.

"By the time he returned, the enemy fire had intensified to such a degree that it was dangerous to move the casualty. Sgt. Lee directed the squad's fire and threw a grenade that silenced an enemy position making the evacuation of the casualty possible."

The citation further states, "His gallant efforts undoubtedly saved his comrade's life and contributed greatly to the rout of the Viet Cong."

Lee was to have received the Silver Star in Vietnam, but that wasn't to be. Ultimately, it was presented in a special ceremony in Orangeburg in 1972. Lee at the time was in the Army Reserve, serving for 20 years after leaving active duty.

After the war year, he and his wife Betty Jean had two children, a son who is now 45 and a daughter now 40. In the civilian world, he worked for General Electric as a welder and as a security officer at the Naval Weapons Station in Charleston.

Lee said he had contact with the soldier he rescued, Suggs, once after the war.

“We thanked each other," he said. "I think if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have made it. If it wasn’t for me, he would not have made it.”

Upon returning home from the war in 1969, Lee said he did not directly experience public anger. He had heard about soldiers being called baby killers and was told to wear civilian clothes and not his uniform, but the welcome he got from family overshadowed any of that.

“I tell you what, looking at what happened over there and what is going on today, America is a blessed country," said Lee, who cited a particular purpose in telling his Vietnam story.

"So people would know what it takes to keep the freedom Americans enjoy."

Contact the writer: lharter@timesanddemocrat.com and 803-533-5520.

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Editor

Lee Harter has been editor of The Times and Democrat since 1981

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