“It’s barely daylight. I’m walking down that trail. I feel something on my foot,” Tillman Abell said.
“You know Chuck Norris would always back up and see the trip wire, but I didn’t. I thought it was a vine. I kicked. I heard something p-s-s-s and I thought ‘Oh oh.’”
It was June 10, 1968, and Abell was on a mission deep in the Mekong Delta.
“I looked back and there was a hand grenade in the middle of the trail,” he said.
He dived into the “nasty water” beside to trail to get away from the grenade.
“I lay there and thought, I’m not hurt too bad,” he said. “It stings a little bit, but I’ll be all right, and all of a sudden I passed out.”
Grenade fragments had struck his left lung, torn open his left knee and put a couple pieces of metal in his left arm.
Fortunately for Abell, a medic and a radio operator were with him.
When he came to, the medic was slapping his face and telling him to get up.
“I asked him why and he said ‘You’ve got a collapsed lung and you’re going to drown in your own blood if you don’t,’” Abell said.
As Abell struggled to a sitting position, he heard the radio operator calling, “Charlie two-six is down and it’s bad and we need a vac (evacuation).”
“That was me,” said Abell. “I was Charlie two-six.”
But the helicopter couldn’t land near them and his buddies had to carry Abell on a stretcher to the river and across it by boat before a helicopter could pick him up and take him to a Navy ship for treatment.
He was on the ship for three days before he recovered enough to be taken to a hospital in Japan.
That was probably the worst experience he had in Vietnam and it ended his stay in that country, Abell said. By the time he recovered from his injuries, his stay was up.
Abell joined the U.S. Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps while at Wofford College and entered the Army as a second lieutenant in the Ninth Infantry Division, Third Battalion Platoon.
In Vietnam, he was a platoon leader and part of a mobile riverine unit stationed on a Navy ship.
They traveled in small boats down rivers in the Mekong Delta to locate the enemy.
It was one big swamp with water and mud like clay was everywhere, he said. It made Edisto River mud look like nothing.
“You were wet the whole time. You couldn’t stay out more than three days,” he said. “If you did, your feet would deteriorate.”
Vietnam is one absolutely beautiful country, but the delta was a really hostile environment, Abell said.
It had fire ants, the biggest mosquitoes that ever lived and every kind of poisonous bush that can be imagined, he said. Additionally, the nipa palm could cut a person apart.
During the rainy season, the temperature might reach 100 degrees in the daytime, but at night it was cold.
Abell’s platoon was part of the effort to run the Viet Cong out of Saigon during the Tet Offensive.
Tet is the Vietnamese New Year. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong figured this would be the best time to attack and launched an offensive on cities all over South Vietnam.
The platoon was in the field 18 days during the offensive and that’s when Abell saw things he wishes he could forget.
The Viet Cong would go through villages and kill everyone there, from children to nurses, he said.
“The press said we’d lost the thing, but we got the idea that we had won because we had really killed a bunch of the enemy and we ran them out of town,” Abell said.
But the Tet Offensive was the beginning of the end in Vietnam, he said.
Gen. William Westmoreland asked for more troops and couldn’t get them. Instead, Washington started talking about how to get out of the war.
Abell brought some permanent issues home with him from the war. He has a piece of steel very near his left lung, some more pieces in his arm and is deaf in his left ear. He also has Type II diabetes as a result of being exposed to Agent Orange.
Yet Vietnam was a priceless experience, he says.
“I found out who I am and what I was capable of doing,” he said.
After Vietnam, he didn’t have to ask himself, “Can I function under pressure? Am I a coward?
“You don’t have to worry about those things. You’ve found out the things that threaten you.”
Vietnam really put things into perspective for him. It took life down to its very basics.
Nobody’s going to die over whether Carolina beats Clemson, he said. When you’re driving down a road in Vietnam and you’re ambushed, people are going to die. But when football players go down, the great likelihood is they’re going to get up. They might be sore or even have to go to the hospital, but they’re not going to die.
Abell, who retired from teaching history at Edisto High School, says he told his students that soldiers have two prayers.
“In the morning, you pray, ‘God, help me live to see night.’ And at night, you pray, ‘God, help me to live to see morning,’” he said.
He supported the war when he went in, but at age 70, he’s come to think it was wrong.
It’s all right if people criticize the war, but they shouldn’t put down the soldiers, Abell said.
“I do have some resentment – the way Vietnam veterans were perceived and the way they were treated by the public and the government,” he said. “I always call Vietnam veterans throwaway veterans.”
Things are better now, but the Vietnam and Korean War veterans have kind of been left out, he said.
Like many veterans, Abell said he has had some horrible memories and nightmares, but he’s dealt with them by staying busy doing valuable things.
“I was too busy with the kids (his students) and my own kid and with the church to go back through it,” he said. “I got involved with everything at school that I could help with.
“Being busy is the best therapy in the world.”