The searing heat and drenching rain make the walk up hills and down through valleys longer.
Albert Shuler Jr. is not used to climbing through the Central Highlands of Vietnam, especially with up to 70 pounds on his back. Carrying his personal items, weapon, ammunition and rations, he moves through thick terrain, constantly looking for an enemy he knows is out to kill.
His reconnaissance platoon maneuvers the best it can. A sergeant gets hit. A member of the squad is hit too, and the infantrymen are pinned down amid the bloodshed.
The North Vietnamese Army unleasheas a barrage of fire. Artillery support is summoned. Planes drop bombs against the enemy, but there are two men whose bodies must be brought back.
Shuler and another soldier are asked to do the job. Fright fills him, and he is almost killed by a sniper. But he gets the job done. These men are his fellow soldiers -- even in death.
The dramatic experience is just one of many during the Orangeburg man’s time in Vietnam. Another comes just a week later.
Shuler, 69, serves in D Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division as a specialist fourth class. He is a member of a reconnaissance platoon conducting search-and-recovery missions.
It isn’t long after his first harrowing experience that Shuler’s entire division is overrun by the NVA on March 26, 1968. It is a day he will never forget.
He sees the enemy has circled around his platoon’s perimeter. He fires away with a machine gun as the enemy lurks around his bunker.
The NVA fires everything from mortars and rockets to flame throwers and automatic weapons. Shuler knows he must do something.
As the enemy moves in on his position, he jumps into his bunker to help get some of his fellow infantrymen out. He witnesses members of another squad having half of their faces blown off as he manages to find safety inside the bunker.
Partially frozen from fright, he sees his lieutenant, the “radio man” and a fellow soldier equipped with an M-79 handheld rocket launcher are sheltered with him.
He begins firing against the approaching enemy. As he comes up to warn other soldiers not to fire over the underground fortifications, his bunker is struck by a 122 MM rocket launcher.
Shuler thinks he is dead from the direct hit, which decapitates the lieutenant and kills the others in the bunker too. But before the visage of death sinks in, he lifts the soldier equipped with the M-79 rocket launcher onto his shoulder and crawls to a safe area. He passes out.
“I was surprised I made it through that rocket because a lot of people say I should have been gone. In fact, I thought I was. I thank God every day,” Shuler said.
He spent 11 months in the combat zone, surviving six ambushes and a firefight. He credits the stringent Advanced Infantry Training he received at Fort Polk, Louisiana, with equipping him for the harsh conditions in Vietnam, where he served from 1967 to 1968.
“We went through a lot over there. A lot of us didn’t make it back. We got overran out on that hill that night and the enemies took our position. The Fourth Division lost its colors, so that division was broken up and made into a mechanized unit.
“They sent me farther north to Camp Evans with the 1st Calvary Division. They sent some guys to Okinawa, and others to the Marines farther down south,” Shuler said.
Shuler is the recipient of three Purple Hearts, the Army Commendation Medal, the Air Medal and two Bronze Star medals, including one with an authorized “V” for valor.
He still bears the scars of war but was thankful to get back home to his mother and five sisters. He said while he and his fellow soldiers largely got along, there was some racism to be endured.
“They’d give me a hard time, but I didn’t take no lip off of none of them. That sort of got me in a little bit of trouble over there too, but they knew I was a good soldier," Shuler said.
He eventually got used to the environment after being in the combat zone for nearly a year.
“I had a mindset of trying to stay alive. I was frightened too, but I was very aggressive. That’s maybe what caused me to have a lot of problems when I got out of the service," Shuler said. "In other words, I wasn’t gung ho, but I was ready for it."
Following the war, he had problems sleeping and suffered the effects of back and head injuries he sustained during the war.
“I had a lot of injuries over there, but it got worse over the years. I dealt with it on account of the medicine the VA was giving me,” Shuler said. But he admits he may have begun working too soon after leaving the service.
“I got out of the service April 3. I was very aggressive and wanted to have something other than the cotton fields. So I went to work April 11, but I didn’t have no time to recoup and understand what was going on when I got back,” Shuler said.
He worked 21 years at the former Utica Tool in Orangeburg and spent 17 years in the U.S. Army National Guard. The single father of two children said he hoped getting in the Guard would benefit his family and even help him get over some of the emotional scars from the Vietnam War.
“I didn’t think this was going to be that tough for me to do, but apparently it was because I lost my wife. She left me and my boy, who was about 9 then. He’s 40 years old this year and hasn’t left me yet. He’s doing good,” Shuler said, smiling.
He has mixed emotions about the Vietnam War.
“I thought we was making a little progress, but I think it was a waste of time after I got out. It was a lot of lives lost for no reason. There were a lot of places we won but when we’d leave and go to another hill, the gooks have come back in there and got the hill we took the first time.
“That’s when I thought we was just losing lives, especially brothers. There were a lot of brothers. After we got out, we felt we didn’t accomplish nothing. A lot of brothers died for no good reason because the country ended up getting taken back anyway,” Shuler said.
He is happy to see war veterans being recognized more today.
“I thank God they recognize the soldiers now. We go through hell in combat. It took me 21 years to get my disability (benefits), and they know what I went through,” he said.
There were happier moments, though, with Shuler’s best memories stemming from “being with the guys,” listening to music and thinking about his family at home.
“We’d smoke a little weed, drink some cold beer, play some Martha and the Vandellas and Smokey Robinson. That’s the only enjoyment I would say we had,” Shuler said.
He also got a chance to meet actresses Raquel Welch and Barbara McNair while in Vietnam. Near the end of his service time, he got some R&R in Bangkok, Thailand.
“They said, ‘You get five days to go anyplace out of the country or in the country,’” said Shuler, who jumped at the chance to recuperate from the toils of war.
“I went swimming and just had a nice time. I met this young lady over there too. She was nice,” he said, referring to the young Thai woman whose picture he still carries in his wallet.
“I didn’t want to leave Bangkok. They had to run me out of there.”
Shuler’s mother died in 2005, but he credits the prayers, love and support of her and his sisters with helping him through tough times.
“I couldn’t hurt my mom and my sisters. I didn’t want to put no bad stigma on them, so I held up. I had to. I didn’t want to bring no shame to my mother or my sisters,” said Shuler, who credits God for divine intervention in his life.
“That’s the only person I know that could bring me back out of that. With the Lord’s blessing, help and guidance, he got me through,” Shuler said.