Editor’s note: This is the first in a Bradenton Herald series of Vietnam War stories shared by Manatee County residents in conjunction with “The Vietnam War,” the PBS documentary starting Sunday by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
What Robert E. Graves really wanted when he graduated from high school in 1966 was a new Pontiac GTO.
Instead, the Kokomo, Ind., native joined the Army and found himself driving a Rome plow, an armored bulldozer equipped with a 2-ton blade that was used to rip out out Viet Cong sanctuary jungles in Vietnam’s “Iron Triangle” and elsewhere.
The Iron Triangle was a 120-mile jungle hideout for the Viet Cong near Saigon.
“I knew that if I didn’t join the Army, I would be drafted. I just wanted to get it out of the way,” he said.
It would not be so easy. Life would never be the same for him.
“I cut jungle. We went in before the tanks,” Graves says. That’s how he spent his time in Vietnam between May 1967 and May 1968.
“The Viet Cong could hear us coming a mile away, but you couldn’t see them 10 feet away because of the jungle. They would try to put those RPG rounds right in your cab,” Graves said of rocket-propelled grenades.
Graves was awarded the Purple Heart twice for wounds suffered during the war, and he received the Army Commendation Medal with V Device for valor. He suffered wounds in a leg, an arm and under an eye.
He was recently among Purple Heart recipients honored by the Manatee County Commission.
“When you’re cutting jungle, you never knew when you were going to drive into a VC base camp,” he said.
During the first battle of Loc Ninh in 1967, two regiments of the 9th Viet Cong Division swept down from Cambodia and were repulsed by Republic of Vietnam and U.S. 1st Infantry Division forces. An estimated 850 to 1,000 Viet Cong died in the battle.
There were so many VC bodies on the airfield at Loc Ninh that they were removed by bulldozer and buried in trenches, he said.
Based in Di An, just west of Long Binh and Bien Hoa, Graves was assigned to the 27th Land Clearing Team, a part of the 168th Combat Engineers. Graves also took part in clearing jungle around Cu Chi, in an area dubbed “Tunnel City.”
4 grenades, a nervous breakdown
Now 69, Graves still carries an inscribed handkerchief he received from his sister Elsie while in Vietnam.
“This handkerchief was anointed with oil as we had a special prayer for you last night, Jan. 24, 1968, at prayer meeting. We are trusting that God’s presence will be with you at all times to guide your every footstep and to protect you as He sees fit. May God bless you always. Your sis, Elsie.”
Graves survived the war, but after four grenades landed near his Rome plow, he had a nervous breakdown.
“A tank retriever picked me up and took me back to base camp,” he said.
Many of the other Rome plow drivers in his unit were wounded as well, and some were medically evacuated out of Vietnam.
“I had deep problems,” he said of his return to the United States. He had trouble finding and holding jobs and maintaining healthy relationships.
He borrowed $200 from his father in 1971 and moved to Manatee County. He lived in Palmetto Point for many years before moving to the Parrish area.
The longest he held a job was 10 1/2 years as a truck driver for the U.S. Postal Service. He has not worked in 20 years.
He is 100 percent disabled and regularly gets counseling from the VA.
“In June of 1994, I went to the vet center in St. Pete and told them that I was at the end of my rope. I need help. I’m in my 24th year of going to counseling,” he said.
Reliving the war — every day
His wife of 18 years, Ramona, says the war profoundly affected him.
“He relives it every day,” she said.
Graves is in contact with surviving members of the 27th Land Clearing Team and has attended a reunion at the Rome Plow Company in Cedartown, Ga.
He doesn’t know if he will watch “The Vietnam War” documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick when it airs.
It just might be too painful.