Vietnam Stories - Joseph Jenkins

Col. Joseph Jenkins, 72, served in the Vietnam War with E Company, 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry. A graduate of South Carolina State University, he went to Vietnam in 1967 at the age of 24. View a video of Jenkins online at TheTandD.com.

LARRY HARDY/T&D

Col. Joseph Jenkins’ company -- E Company, 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry -- was engaged in an operation that was a part of the Mobile Wolverine Force.

The company was in battle throughout the day, chasing the enemy’s unit.

“It was back and forth, back and forth. It was like the Fourth of July. They would run and stop. We would stop. The fight would continue,” Jenkins said.

Finally, the enemy had stopped. It was almost dark. The company had called for Cobra gunships’ support.

Somehow, there was a mixup with the gunships and the coordination on the ground. The gunships hit the company. Five soldiers were killed instantly.

Night had begun to fall. “We couldn’t get the dead bodies out. So we had to spend the night with them,” Jenkins said.

“I looked at them, and I can remember 'til this day, thinking how many lives were going to be ruined. How many families’ lives would never be the same -- looking at these five kids. They were nothing but kids,” Jenkins said.

This was the first time he had come in contact with dead soldiers. Normally, they are removed quickly. They go out by helicopter and you never see them again, he said.

He wasn’t able to sleep at all that night because he kept thinking the dead bodies were moving.

“I was in prolonged contact with them. I never, ever forgot that,” Jenkins recalls.

He refers to this horrific memory as a "reoccurring nightmare."

Jenkins, 72,  graduated from South Carolina State University. While attending the university, he joined the ROTC and was commissioned. In 1967, he went to Vietnam at the age of 24. He volunteered to serve as an infantryman during two tours in Vietnam.

Jenkins said he lived by a quote from Napoleon Boneparte: “You march to the cannon, not away from the cannon.”

The role of an infantryman is to kill or capture the enemy, he said. “I couldn’t think of no finer job in the world than that."

During the Vietnam War, Jenkins earned the rank of captain. He says some of his best memories center around his first tour. He cherishes fighting with his fellow American soldiers.

“I was a professional soldier. I had the privilege of leading American soldiers in battle. I never felt more necessary than I did those two years,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins said he enjoys the lasting relationships he developed while serving.

“I still receive phone calls from people that served under me. There’s no greater feeling than that -- when people who are no longer obligated to keep in contact call,” he said.

Jenkins also takes pride in the battlefield successes.

During his second tour in Vietnam, he broke his hip, neck and back while training for a night jump for a classified mission.

“The error was all mine. The reason for the mishap was all mine. You’re told not to look down at the ground. I thought I would take a little glance down at the ground. If you look down, the ground is coming at you. You reflexively lift your legs up, which is what I did. I landed on my butt instead of on my feet,” Jenkins said.

When he landed on his buttocks, his hip, neck and back were crushed. After the accident, he transferred to the Military Police Corps and became a military policeman in 1974.

While fighting, Jenkins thought the American soldiers were winning. “Until 1972, I was one of the last to realize we weren’t winning,” he said.

Tragedies come to mind when he reflects on the Vietnam War. In 1972, Jenkins returned to Vietnam and lived and worked closely with the Vietnamese.

“I worked with soldiers who were just like me. They were trying to do a job -- just a little piece of the pie. From our little bit of perspective that we had from where we stood, it was a double tragedy because we’re powerless,” he said.

There’s not a day that goes by that Jenkins doesn’t think about his war experience.

“I’m 72, so that’s a lot of thinking,” he said.

As a result of fighting in the Vietnam War, Jenkins suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

“I’m not sure that I cope with it very well. I’m a loner. I’m just alone with my thoughts,” he said.

Jenkins says he has read everything he could put his hands on to try to understand what went wrong with the Vietnam War and why.

"It’s a very complicated subject,” he said. “I read and it (memories of war) triggers. I used to be a very outgoing, gregarious person. I’m not that person anymore. I don’t know why. I’m just not. I think the war has done that to me."

Jenkins says he would tell any young person that the military is a calling. "It’s not a job. Because there’s no way the military can pay you for what they demand or ask of you."

"During that period, I couldn’t wait for the sun to rise for the jobs that I had. I think God put me in that position to take care of these soldiers, and I did my best," Jenkins said.

After 24 years in the U.S. Army, Jenkins retired with the rank of colonel.

"If I had to do it all over again, I would do it the same exact way," he said. "I would’ve marched to the cannon."

Jenkins, who lives in Orangeburg, has two children and two grandchildren.

Contact the writer: princess.williams@timesanddemocrat.com or (803) 533-5516.

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