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.
Wayne Carter of Bamberg follows the column of soldiers as they begin to move up the mountain. He's fourth in column, hoisting the weight of the company radio on his back.
Less than 50 yards up, the point man, a staff sergeant, trips a booby trap, paralyzing him from the waist down. The second man in column is killed almost instantly.
Carter is called to attend the wounded staff sergeant. He grabs him, puts him arms around him. The patrol leader lunges for the radio on Carter's back to call in a medical helicopter. Carter's too scared to do it.
Two minutes later, the staff sergeant is dead. Carter is still holding him. He didn't know people died with their eyes open.
Reaching over, he closes the man's eyes.
On reflection, Carter, 64, who served in B Company, 1st Platoon, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Army Airborne Brigade as a specialist fourth class, says it wasn't his scariest experience in the Vietnam War. But it was his most memorable.
He arrived in the country around Dec. 21, 1969. It would be his first Christmas away from home.
"My unit, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, was on a mission. ... Westmoreland used us to be the guinea pig for his idea of 'pacification.' It meant that we went in and secured an area and began training the locals to protect themselves," Carter said.
"We had about a 30-square-mile area of operation where we ran Hawk Teams, which is four to six GIs and two Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVNs). ... We’d go out for four days at a time doing long-range reconnaissance. We took turns walking point."
Carter was the point man on the day that proved the scariest of the war for him.
"I was trailing an enemy. I was about 20 to 50 yards out and I got very close to him. I saw a campfire that was still smoldering and I jumped him. He got away and in the excitement, I tripped a boobie trap that had been set (a hand grenade in a can with a trip wire)," he said.
Carter knew he had tripped the wire. Soldiers are trained to recognize the sound of the handle, or "spoon," of the grenade when it "pops," he said.
He jumped and tumbled about 100 feet down a hill, coming to rest against a boulder.
"I stood up and realized how bad I’d been hit."
Carter took the majority of the shrapnel in his chest. It entered under his shoulder, shattering his rib cage. He was also wounded in the legs, ear, chin and buttocks.
"When I tumbled, I dropped my rifle. ... I didn’t have my weapon and I was pretty sure that the enemy was coming after me," he said. "So I grabbed a grenade in each hand and thought, 'Well, I can’t shoot you, but you ain’t gonna take me down without a fight.'”
Carter's best friend, 18-year-old Billy Farrell, got to him first and started attending to his wounds. Medivac was called in and one of his team members laid down suppression fire to secure the area.
"I was immediately evacuated, which was the scariest part because the Medivac couldn’t land because of the terrain. So the helicopter hovered over and dropped what’s called a 'jungle penetrator,' which is a cable with a chair attached to it, and they extracted you," Carter said.
"As soon as they got me up and I looked down, I thought, 'Oh boy, I’m a big ol’ target now.' We took fire ... we had one or two gunships in support of the chopper, and they got me out of there safely."
He said if he had not jumped when he heard the grenade spoon pop, the shrapnel would have hit him in the back of the head, "and I wouldn't be here."
Carter had been in Vietnam only 4-1/2 months at the time.
"Very few people survived a grenade blast at 5 feet and even fewer survived it with their limbs intact. Praise the Lord I didn’t lose any limbs," he said.
Carter was taken to a field hospital, or M.A.S.H. unit, where he was stabilized and underwent surgery. From there, he was transferred to a major military hospital in Qui Nhon, where he spent two weeks, including four days in ICU.
"My rib cage was shattered; my lung was punctured and filled up with blood and collapsed. Shortly after they got me into the helicopter, I went into involuntary shock from blood loss. So when I woke up in the military hospital four days later, I had tubes draining out of every cavity in my body, plus two new cavities," Carter said.
"So that was a little scary, being a 19-year-old kid from Bamberg, South Carolina, that had never left the state before."
Carter said he learned to cope with fear by remembering what his father always told him: "Don't let fear stop you from doing what you want to do or need to do."
In later years, Carter had complications from his chest wound and was in and out of the hospital for about three years. Before mustering out of the Army in 1971, he was diagnosed with ostemyelitis, an infection in the bone that ate through his fifth rib, resulting in most of it having to be removed.
He also had a bout with malaria and was diagnosed with arthritis in his rib cage.
Five weeks after Carter was wounded, his best friend Farrell was killed. The emotion of the loss is still raw as Carter pulls out a framed photograph of him and Farrell that he keeps on his desk.
"He was a true hillbilly … salt-of-the-earth guy, and he was only 18 when he died," he said, looking at the picture.
He said Farrell dropped out of high school after his father died and got his mother to sign for him to go to Vietnam.
"I’ve been to D.C. to see his name on the Wall as well as the (names of) other members of my platoon. I’ve been twice to D.C. and to the Traveling Wall, and every time it’s difficult," Carter said. "I have looked up all 23 names of those that were in my company during the time that I served that were killed in combat."
Carter said he learned to deal with his emotions, "compartmentalizing" them. Surrounded by a military presence in his family (his father and three of his father's brothers fought in World War II and his wife’s father and two of his brothers were WWII and Korean veterans), Carter said he never wanted to look weak in their eyes.
"I was affected by the war but I’d keep it to myself. I’m a loner. I’m friends with everybody but I don’t have that many friends, if that makes sense … I don’t let people get close to me," he said. "I dealt with the emotion; it never bothered me."
At least, not until he experienced the death of a number of his family members. "My father-in-law died two months before my sister, Sandy, who died in January 2006. In October 2007, Rhett (his middle brother) died. That just devastated me. He was my best friend," Carter said. "Two months later, my mother-in-law died, and I loved her like my own mother.
"So I started seeing the body count rack up, and it just emotionally got the best of me for awhile."
He got help from "a VA shrink" who prescribed medication, but Carter made up his mind he was not going to be dependent "on something chemical."
He weened himself off the drug, "and I felt immensely better. I was anti-medication anyway, but things just got rough there for awhile."
Today, he says his best memory of Vietnam is "my team, especially Billy. ... the camaraderie. We lived by the creed of watching each other's backs."
"I was what you called a triple volunteer. I volunteered to enlist in the Army, I volunteered for Airborne infantry and I volunteered to go to Vietnam," Carter said. "The uniqueness of being Airborne is that the entire unit is volunteers. You can’t be drafted into the Airborne … it’s a unique camaraderie."
His assessment of the Vietnam War? "We won the battles and lost the war. My unit, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, was one of the first units in country and was one of the most decorated units. Our brigade had 12 Medal of Honor awardees -- that’s the most in history for a single brigade."
"The Vietnam War made a man out of me in a hurry. I'm immensely proud of my service," Carter said.
He earned the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and the Parachutist Badge, along with the standard National Defense and Viet Nam Campaign medals.
Carter and his wife, Andrea, have two children, Stephanie and Jason, and three grandsons. He retired in 2008 after 25 years in retail logistics working with major companies including Target, Walmart and CVS.