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I received a lovely letter the other day from a young Marine lieutenant thanking me for the packages of Girl Scout Cookies and coffee I sent to his unit in Afghanistan. Hearing from them makes me grin all day and puts things in perspective.

Later the same day, I received an email from my cousin Alec about an impromptu visit he had with a friend. I grew up with Alec and his four brothers. He taught me how to tie my shoes and shoot rubber bands. 

We pay homage to our military in different ways. I send care packages. Alec wrote a touching essay that made me think of the thousands of veterans, each of whom have their own story to tell.

Alec has allowed me to share his email with you. It’s about his friend Dave and Dave’s friend, Herman, both of whom fought in Vietnam.

Kind of a salute to all war veterans through a first hand account or actually second. I guess as you get older, history affects you differently. I had to get this story out as it was fresh in my head.

Yesterday around 2:30 p.m., I was pretty much done with all I could fake that had anything to do with work, so I decided to drop by to see my buddy Dave at his shop. Dave is in his mid-sixties and perhaps the last of a breed that can still do blacksmith work the old-fashioned way. Every so often I get the opportunity to include his work into my jobs, and it always add a certain level of depth to the final product.

He was carrying on in his usual colorful, loud way about how the world is going to hell, the lack of good work, politics, etc. Of course he does tell me what he’s up to now and shows off the work in progress. As I was trying to leave, he started telling me about his neighbor and how he made some throwing knives for him. I told him I had friends that would have liked to have seen them. The conversation turned to knives which is when brought up his friend.

This story really isn’t so much about Dave or me but more about his friend. I will tell you a little about myself later.

Herman Lawrence Woods grew up in Florida with Dave. They did the same kind of crazy things I did when I was a teenager–double dated, worked on cars, you get the picture.

Dave, drafted in 1967, became a submariner who spent most his time covered in grease in the engine room. His view of the war differed from Herman’s, who was drafted a year later.

Herman eventually landed in the Army’s First Calvary division and rose to the rank of sergeant. Before I go any further, I wanted to mention that I did think about Googling his name to get some historical accounting, but then decided not to. These accounts are from Dave, who was Herman’s life-long friend. I didn’t want my research to influence my story so I’m just telling it pretty much from listening to Dave, who got it first hand from Herman.

By 1970 Herman was a well-known bad ass with years of combat experience. But he couldn’t move up in rank because he was a non-conformist and liked doing things his way. Rather than the standard Army issue, he carried a 357 Colt Python, a shotgun, and his knife of choice, The Randall. His duties were to find and clear out the enemy from tunnels and hidden posts, which is how they got the nickname Tunnel Rats. In Cambodia tunnels were more like trails of thick jungle undergrowth that had to be cut through. 

Herman’s platoon was out on patrol one day in Cambodia. Herman was on point, his usual spot. As he quietly worked his way through the jungle, he noticed what appeared to be an unnatural jungle canopy. Using the point of his shotgun, he slowly picked up the cover and saw a North Vietnamese soldier setting a trip wire at the entrance of the tunnel.

Herman instantly lowered the shotty and let loose, taking out the soldier but not before he was able to yank on the trip wire. The ensuing blast blew Herman straight up into a tree. Stuck in the tree with no legs, more North Vietnamese soldiers came flooding out of the tunnel. They shot him out of the tree. He hit the ground. His patrol started losing ground and was about to get run over until the air support they’d radioed in for showed up. When his platoon was able to get to Herman, he was shot up, blown up and bleeding to death. But still alive.

A routine Army patrol meant sending out patrols to shake out the enemy. Once you find them, you engage them and expose as much of them as possible. Then they call in the gun ships which would riddle the place to pieces and also provide cover for the medevacs that came in almost right behind.

It’s my guess that this procedure is what saved Herman because they were able to get him evacuated quickly. The base did not have the proper medical facilities for such an injury so they packed Herman into a bathtub full of ice and flew him to Japan where they patched him up best they could. He ended up losing one leg below the knee and one above the knee.

Now Dave and Herman really never saw or heard of each other since they were drafted until one day in 1982 right here in Petaluma when Dave walked into Dan’s Auto Parts and there of all people was Herman. He had been outfitted with two prosthetics and was able to get around pretty well. He had a car with hand controls and participated in the Wheel Chair Olympics.

Fast forward again to about 2008 or 2009. At this time I’ve known Dave for only about eight or nine years. I had just start hearing about his friend Herman who was now on the downhill slide. He had always been hard to get along with and at this point, had no one left to care for him.

Though Dave tried to help him and cheer him up, all he could do for the next six months was to watch his friend slowly will himself to death. During this time, I was only getting bits and pieces of the story because I was up to my ears with work and stress. But from what little I observed, Dave had the daunting task of helping with the funeral and cleaning up the years of stuff Herman had collected.

This brings me full circle to yesterday and why I’m telling you this story. One of the items left to Dave was Herman’s combat knife that he’d carried with him on every campaign.

The knife feels like about a pound and a half of heavy metal. If you look at the handle it has wire wrapped around it. I’m told this was used as trip wire. The little pocket on the sheath is for a sharpening stone. I’m also told that this knife had a lot of action, which kind of gave me the shivers as I held it. When you hold the handle and put it into the sheath it has the feel like it’s been through this routine many times.

After holding the knife for awhile, I suddenly felt the urge to write this down so I wouldn’t forget it. I got my camera and note pad, jotted down the notes and had Dave take this pic of me holding The Knife.

Not only is he a bad photographer, but I wish I wasn’t smiling so much.

I graduated from high school in 1972. Unlike most hippies, I dutifully went down and got my selective service card. Like every guy in my situation, I waited to see what my lotto number would be. For you kids out there, this wasn’t about winning money. All three of my other older brothers had lotto numbers in the 300′s and when I finally got mine it was 27. Here we go. Or not.

It might have been the election year or that the country just had enough of Vietnam, but that was the year when the draft ended. I started at the junior college down the street for the next three years. (Yep, three years.)

Dave also had an Army helmet that looked well used. He wanted me to put on so he could snap a pic. I didn’t feel like I deserve to wear it.

It’s been forty years since I registered for the draft. I’ve never had to pick up arms or fight other peoples’ wars. I’ve never had to lose a pound of flesh–or more. But I’ve been enjoying the freedom that some people are unable to understand.

Perhaps passing on the story of Herman’s hard-won life and his sacrifice is a small contribution to his memory.

If you’ve read this far, I hope you enjoyed the story as much as I did writing it.

Alec

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The next time I see a veteran, I’ll think of Herman’s story.