• 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.

U.S. Army Private First Class Jerry Irick was a passenger in a patrol truck convoy traversing the jungles of Laos.

The five-ton truck was hauling a semi-trailer loaded with a bulldozer en route to an engineer worksite.

The mission was to clear jungle vegetation and cover used by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces

"The truck I was in had D7 bulldozer," Irick said. "It was a nice size bulldozer, a big one."

A loud explosion rocked the 20-year-old as the truck and trailer struck a landmine.

"It blowed me through the windshield," Irick said. "It killed the truck driver and it blowed that durn bulldozer into a field about 45 to 50 yards away."

Deafened and rattled by the blast, Irick found himself about 40 feet from his truck.

Seeing the danger, Irick headed toward the dense jungle brush in search of cover.

"As soon as I come out from behind that durn tree, them jokers opened fire on us," Irick said. "All I could see was the ground being chewed up all in front of me."

Seeking refuge behind a rubber tree, Irick tried to escape the enemy fire.

"I looked around the corner of the tree and as soon as I looked, the joker started shooting at me again," Irick said.

Within moments, Irick felt pain in his right arm. A piece of shrapnel hit him, embedding in his arm.

Returning gunfire with gunfire, Irick pointed out the enemy to reinforcements as they arrived on the scene.

"There were two tanks out there and they turned their barrels right onto us, wondering where we were at," Irick said.

Irick saw it as an opportunity, chased the enemy and captured some for intelligence purposes.

"I captured about seven or eight down there," he said.

The Aug. 2, 1967 incident still remains fresh in the mind of the 68-year-old Rowesville native.

Before entering the military, Irick attended Orangeburg High School where he was a stand-out fullback on the school's football team.

Irick graduated in 1966. He received a football scholarship to play for the Georgia Institute of Technology, but gave up the opportunity to serve.

At the age of 19, he was enrolled in the prestigious U.S. Army Signal School at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey for 35 weeks of training as an electronic technician.

Irick entered the United States Army in September 1966 as a private in Company A, 27th Engineer Battalion (Combat).

"I did not know it was going to be as bad as it was over there," Irick said. "It was rough over there."

He arrived in South Vietnam and ended up in the A Shau Valley.

The A Shau Valley was one of the key entry points into South Vietnam for men and materiel brought along the Ho Chi Minh Trail by the Communist North Vietnamese Army.

Irick ended up being promoted to Specialist 5 during the war and received the Bronze Star Medal for his heroism.

The Laos skirmish was not the only one for Irick.

A little later, Irick was once again ambushed by the Viet Cong during a clearing operation. This time Irick was operating a Rome plow with a sharp "stinger blade" which weighed more than two tons and was able to cut down trees.

"When they started shooting, I slipped down into the seat," Irick said. "That Rome plow had a durn steel cage over you. It was open in the front but it had a steel cage on the back and on the side."

"The cage would prevent bullet fire but it was no contest to rocket-propelled grenades," Irick said. He still remembers seeing one of his colleagues killed by a rocket-propelled grenade.

After spending about five weeks with his fellow America soldiers, Irick was transferred to a camp with Australian soldiers. He would spend the next half year with the men from “Down Under.”

Irick said he tried not to get too close to these men.

“That was one of the best things to do over there is not to make any friends,” he said.

Sleeping arrangements were difficult.

"When I slept over there, I did not sleep in a bed," Irick said. "I usually slept in the side of a bank and we would put rubber trees and sandbags on top of that. There were two of us sleeping in that thing."

There were moments Irick said he wishes he could forget, like coming upon villages that were bombed by American planes.

"The Viet Cong would leave but they would leave the kids there and the kids would be dead," he said. "You would go behind these buildings and you would find these kids out there dead and these women back there dead.

“It seemed like they would go back there and throw them on a pile. I just could not believe they would do stuff like that."

There were also the screams of the children from napalm, a flammable liquid used during the war.

"The mommas would come running down the road with kids in their arms and they would be all burnt up," he said. "All the kids would be hollering."

Irick said being too far from any hospital, field paramedics would resort to the one thing they had available to stop the pain: morphine.

While pleasant memories are scarce, Irick said spending time with the Australians was a highlight.

It was all about the beer.

"All they liked to do is drink beer," he said. "But the beer had a bad taste to it."

Irick was honorably discharged from Vietnam about two weeks before he was scheduled due to his grandmother's death.

"The company commander looked at me and said, ‘I have one question: If I let you leave right now would you promise me you would come back?’" Irick said.

"Can you believe the little joker actually thought I would go back over there?"

Irick was one of six soldiers to embark on the return flight, first to Guam and then to San Francisco.

"I came back on a body plane," Irick said. "I was wondering why the plane was so cold."

He said, "There was a curtain up there and one boy wandered through there and I asked him, 'Boy, why is it so cold on this plane?’ He said, 'Look behind that curtain.' I looked behind the curtain and you could see all them body bags out there."

Upon landing on U.S. soil, Irick said he “kissed the ground” before seeing a stark site.

"They had a bunch of hearses out there and ambulances to put the bodies in," he said. There were no well-wishers to welcome them home.

Upon his return, Irick discovered that he had been promoted to Specialist 5 and that he had been awarded the Purple Heart.

In addition, he also received the Army Commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal and Vietnam Campaign Medal.

Despite the recognition, Irick said the war is one the United States should never have fought.

"It was a waste of money and a waste of lives," he said.

Today, Irick suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, the loss of hearing, continued pain in his right arm from the shrapnel wound and scabbing on his head due to Agent Orange. Flashbacks have also been a problem.

"Vietnam did things to you," he said. "It messed with your mind."

Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.


Business Reporter

Gene Zaleski is a reporter/staff writer with The Times and Democrat.

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