Eugene S. Rivers mans his gun near the humid jungles of Vietnam.

He sees and hears the blast of a Claymore mine rip through a bunker nearby.

A comrade from another unit begins bleeding from his chest.

Rivers grabs a first-aid kit and runs to save him, hoping it’s not too late. The 21-year-old peels away the comrade’s bloodied uniform from his chest as an Army medic also rushes to his aid.

The fallen soldier is riddled with 40 holes in his chest, each one inflicted simultaneously by the mine he accidentally set off. The mine had been placed by U.S. soldiers to defend against the Viet Cong.

Rivers and the medic take turns giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to their fellow soldier, hoping for a good outcome. The roar of the propeller of an approaching medivac helicopter gives them hope as they continue their efforts to save the man.

“We’ve got a live one!” medics say after landing the chopper and loading the wounded man on the chopper.

“I never knew whether he lived or died,” says Rivers, a resident of Eutawville, who is now 69.

Memories of his experiences in the Vietnam War are still vivid in his mind, he says.

Rivers joined the Army when he was 20 and living in New York.

“I just really wanted to be part of something. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” he says.

By age 21, he had completed basic training at Fort Jackson and taken a one-year Army assignment in Germany.

He told his then-wife, “I’m volunteering to go to ‘Nam. I’ve got to be part of this.”

Just getting into Vietnam was dangerous. He says he wondered if he’d make it back home to the U.S.

“When I got to ‘Nam, they tried to blow us up. The Viet Cong was trying to shoot us out of the air,” Rivers says.

“I’ll never forget that because, as a young man, most of us didn’t know anything about war and all of a sudden now we’re around people that’s trying to kill us and blow us up,” he recalled.

Army officers instructed the newly arriving soldiers to "get down on the ground! Crawl over to that bus,” Rivers said.

And that’s what he and his fellow soldiers did.

“We got down. We got no weapons. We had nothing but just our fatigues and we crawled over the bus, and they took us to our base station, which at that time was part of the 1st Cavalry Division,” Rivers said.

He noted that he wasn't part of the 1st Cavalry Division until he went to Vietnam.

“They tried to kill you whether you had just got there or whether you were leaving. They were trying to blow the plane out of the air by shooting from the ground, from the jungles. Vietnam was nothing but jungles. They’d shoot rockets and mortars at the planes. It was a new experience, not just for me, but for all of us,” Rivers said.

Rivers spoke of Samuel, a fellow soldier he watched die at the hands of a Viet Cong sniper, who was also killed.

“We were in line at the chow line. You have to always stay five meters apart. And we were walking and all of a sudden, a sniper hit him,” Rivers said, pausing briefly to rein in his emotions.

“Oh, man, that’s something that you never forget,” Rivers said softly. “We were in the chow line and all of a sudden, 'POW!' "

He added, "We didn’t know where it came from, but somebody saw the flash (from the gun) and it was out in the tree."

He said he and the other troops ran back to their guns.

“When we went running back to our guns, they called a 'fire mission' because somebody saw the flash where it came from. And, they called it right on time, too,” Rivers said.

“We blew that guy up. We blew him up in pieces. He was a Viet Cong.”

As for Samuel, Rivers said, “I just happened to be close to him and, as I was looking at him, the blood was just running out of his head. Just running, just like a puddle. It made a puddle like a stream. He was a nice guy, too.”

After eliminating the threat of the lone Viet Cong sniper, he said he and the other soldiers resumed their duties.

“We were all there to do a job. We didn’t care too much about our feelings. We were military. We knew we were there to do certain things,” Rivers said.

Then on Oct. 24, 1968, his birthday, he received the order, “Sgt. Rivers, pack it up.”

“I was going home on my birthday,” Rivers said with enthusiasm.

Getting official orders to head back to the States didn’t mean he could relax, he said.

The Vietcong didn’t welcome U.S. troops and they didn’t want them to leave alive, either.

“It was so good to be on that plane, but we still knew we were not out of it yet. We got on the plane, and it got quiet ... until the plane took off, and when the plane took off and went into the air, we felt a little better,” he added

Rivers would learn that getting out of Vietnam safely was just half the battle. He said at age 29, he began to have symptoms of hypertension. During a visit to the VA Hospital, he learned that his exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange while in Vietnam was compromising his health.

“It’ll be 20 to 40 years before you began to feel the effects of Agent Orange,” Rivers said a doctor told him.

When the U.S. military sprayed millions of gallons of the chemical on the jungles of Vietnam, he and other troops didn’t think anything of it, Rivers said.

“We knew they were spraying. They sprayed the jungle to kill the growth. They were spraying it to kill off the heavy growth so that 'Charlie' didn’t always have a place to hide,” he noted.

“All we knew, and this is going to sound stupid, but it’s God’s truth ... when they sprayed, it felt so cool coming down, and we were enjoying the coolness of it and nobody thought anything more than that.”

Rivers said after returning to the U.S. and learning about the illnesses caused by Agent Orange, “It didn’t faze me too much then, but as time went on, I realized it was actually a death sentence.”

Rivers is currently undergoing treatment for prostate cancer.

At the time of his diagnosis, the cancer had spread out of the prostate and could not be treated through radiation or chemotherapy.

His wife and children were with him at the VA Hospital when a physician told him he had 18 months to live.

He was devastated.

Moments later, the lead physician entered the room and told Rivers there was a medical option that had good results.

Rivers’ despair turned to relief. As a result, he visits the VA Hospital once every six months for an injection in his abdomen. And, the treatment is working, Rivers said.

He’s testified about it at his local church, quick to give all the credit to the Lord.

“I’m blessed,” Rivers said. “I just want people to know that I’m blessed.”

"I wanted to join it (the military) because I wanted to say I became part of something that was greater than me at the time, and I thank my Lord and Savior for allowing me to get back to the United States," he said.

"For the most part, I'm glad to be a veteran. I served my country and more than anything, this means a lot to me."

Rivers said he didn’t think he’d make it out of Vietnam alive. And, he didn’t think he’d have the care of a wife, four children, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren -- another blessing he's added to his growing list of blessings.

Contact the writer: mbrown@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5545 Follow on Twitter: @MRBrownTandD

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Crime Reporter

Martha Rose Brown covers crime and other topics. The South Carolina native has been a journalist for the past 15 years.

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