Sgt. John Rivenbark and the rest of his platoon were given orders to attack a village in Vietnam. He and his fellow Marines woke up at 3 a.m. to carry out those orders.
Marine units were positioned on each side of the village. The unit on the far side of the village was ordered to open fire at daybreak to create an illusion for the enemy that their attackers were coming from the opposite side.
A Vietnamese man exited the village to relieve himself just before daybreak. After he saw that the village was surrounded by Marines, the attack immediately began.
During the battle, Rivenbark was shot in the leg with an AK-47. “When I fell down on the ground, I tried to crawl back to safety and either a mortar round or a booby trap hit, and I got blown up."
Rivenbark’s legs were so swollen he couldn’t move. Eventually, a first sergeant came to his rescue, threw him over his shoulder, got him back to safety and flew him away in a helicopter.
“We just ended up losing and we fought way late in the day," Rivenbark said.
All of the men in his platoon were lost. “They tried to use me as the person to go and identify some, and I couldn’t do it.”
Rivenbark, 70, is originally from Columbia. He served in the United States Marine Corps from 1964-1968 and was assigned to a Weapons platoon during the Vietnam War. He operated machine guns and fired rockets and mortars at the tender age of 22 from 1967-1968.
Rivenbark spent most of his time in Da Nang, Vietnam during the war. He said hardly any of his Vietnam experience was enjoyable.
He said he learned the causes of hate during the war.
“I saw a lot of the rage that ran in some of the men when we had bad situations when our buddies got killed. The retaliation of it was very vicious,” he said.
Rivenbark recalls seeing a fellow Marine unload his weapon on a dead Vietnamese man. "I asked him, ‘What did you do that for?’ He said, ‘That’s to kill him in the next life.’ I said, ‘I’m afraid you can’t do that.’"
After a long day of "massive, all-day fighting," Rivenbark said he ran across a human leg.
“For some reason, I stopped and just looked at it and tried to determine where it was from. It was an unusually large leg for Vietnamese,” he said.
Rivenbark said while serving in Vietnam, he began to realize he was fighting with people who were just like him.
“The more the politics got into it, the worse the situation got. Men were over there losing their lives, and we couldn’t really make sense of why we were there,” he said.
“I always thought we were fighting for the freedom of them (South Vietnamese), but their government was just as dictatorial as anybody else’s," Rivenbark said. "Their military was just as abusive toward the people caught in the middle. You could see the anger and the hate just coming from the way they looked at you.”
He said he ended up meeting the Lord in Vietnam and getting rid of his prejudice.
“I found a Vietnamese propaganda label, picked it up and saw a water fountain with ‘Whites Only' and another water fountain with ‘Blacks Only.’ That changed my whole perspective," Rivenbark said.
He added, “These guys are over here dying, losing limbs, losing their lives and everything else, and this is going on in my country. I had a sense of, ‘We really aren’t free, are we? Not all of us.'"
Unlike most soldiers during the Vietnam War, Rivenbark did not want to receive orders to go on Rest and Recuperation. He had heard about lots of drinking and partying taking place during R&R and said he "just wasn’t into all that."
“All I wanted to do was be there to keep my men alive, get my job done and get back to the United States,” he said.
After completing his military service, Rivenbark said he became heavily involved in his church as the Scouting coordinator. His son also became a member of Boy Scouts.
“I made a determination that this was one way that I could teach young men to appreciate this country, this nation and the sacrifices that other people have made and teach them how to survive. Plus, to educate them on the earth God has given us and to appreciate it,” Rivenbark said.
He said if he were to speak out to all of the rising hate groups in the United States today, he would tell them that they don’t realize what they’re implementing when they’re trying to create a war zone.
“When you start seeing the life that God’s given us being destroyed, you have a totally different perspective about what life is," Rivenbark said.
He said he is proud that he served in the United States Marine Corps and lives by former President John F. Kennedy’s words: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”
Keeping busy, praying, studying his Bible and ministering to other people are ways Rivenbark deals with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I would love to go back to Vietnam with the Bible as my weapon and love in my heart instead of hate because the Vietnamese are amazing people," he said. "They can take anything you throw away and make something useful out of it."
Rivenbark lives in St. Matthews with his wife, Gale. They have two children and 10 grandchildren.