Today continues The Times and Democrat's print and online series, “Vietnam: They Served With Honor.” The stories based on interviews with local veterans of the Vietnam War will continue on Sundays and Wednesdays through Nov. 11, Veterans Day. For more photos and video, and earlier stories in the series, visit TheTandD.com.
The helicopter begins to rattle and jerk.
It is billowing smoke.
Sgt. Julius Sistrunk of Orangeburg realizes the chopper is losing power. It's going down.
As the helicopter descends, Sistrunk looks for the enemy in the surrounding bush.
The crash landing is successful.
"We had to land in a remote area, where nobody was,” Sistrunk says now.
“Thank God the pilot had a map,” he says. “The enemies could have been watching the helicopter. Anything could have happened."
Safely on the ground, Sistrunk and the pilot realize a leaking hydraulic line is the reason for the trouble.
The soldiers have enough hydraulic fluid to get back in the air and return safely to their compound.
The harrowing incident is one of the worst memories Sistrunk has of serving in the Vietnam War.
Sistrunk is a 67-year-old veteran and Orangeburg native. He was drafted into the U.S. Army on Nov. 19, 1966, and completed basic training at Fort Jackson in Columbia.
Sistrunk served in Vietnam from July 1968 to July 1969 as an E5 sergeant. During the war, he was in Danang, Hue and Fubi.
“My experience was a good one. It let me know how much I appreciate America,” he said.
While serving, Sistrunk was a part of the first Airborne 101 Division supported by 1st Calvary. He was an aviation mechanic who fixed helicopters.
Sistrunk was also a barber. Although he did not charge fellow soldiers and officers for their haircuts, he received "great tips" to buy whatever he wanted from the commissary.
“I had more business than the licensed barbers had,” he recalls.
Sistrunk remembers eating good food, especially on holidays. While on R&R in Bangkok, Thailand, he enjoyed several great meals with Southern foods such as macaroni and collard greens.
Sistrunk shared a startling memory of the enemy ambushing his tent.
“I was so startled that I could not figure out how to get out of my sleeping bag.”
“Rounds were flying. We had to run for cover. Thank God for safety,” he said.
Sistrunk said sometimes it was difficult to determine who the enemy was. One day, he received news that a soldier from his compound had been stabbed with a screwdriver by a 12-year-old.
Sistrunk hated seeing the dead bodies of the fellow soldiers zipped up in body bags. “We lost about 58,220 guys, not including the guys who later died after being wounded in action.”
“It’s very trying to wake up, eat breakfast and dinner with your buddy, and then later hear their name being announced on the list of soldiers who were KIA (killed in action) or WIA (wounded in action),” he said.
“I promised myself if I made my three years in the Army, I was getting out and going back home,” Sistrunk said.
During the war, Sistrunk said, he felt like the soldiers "were doing the right thing."
“Now, the war is senseless to me. The war was fought in vain. The war, to me, was unwinnable,” he said.
“The same thing that we were fighting to keep from happening, which was the North taking over the South, and after Nixon brought the war to an end in 1973, then they went on for about another two years and they came together. They reconciled themselves and came together. Now they’ve got one capital just like they started out with.”
Sistrunk said sometimes he gets emotional when talking about Vietnam.
“When I look back on it, I think, ‘Why?’”
“I was disappointed in the way we were treated as a whole when we got back, but we did what we had to do.”
Sistrunk received medals while serving, including the Bronze Star, National Defense Service Medal and Vietnam Service Medal.
He thanks God for his service in the Vietnam War.
“Being able to come home without any broken limbs, without any nightmares, post-traumatic stress, being in that type of environment and was able to survive, I have a positive outlook from that perspective,” he said.
“Many people don’t realize that war is nothing to play with. We have people that have never been the same.”
Sistrunk said after receiving Christ, he was able to "pray his way through and use his faith."
“I believe that had a lot to do with my healing of Vietnam much quicker,” he said.
Sistrunk has four children, seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild. He resides in Orangeburg with his wife.