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Old 02-22-2018, 09:14 AM
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Arrow Marine veteran served 2 tours in Vietnam

Marine veteran served 2 tours in Vietnam
By GORDON JACKSON | The Brunswick News, Ga. | Published: February 21, 2018

Ronnie Westberry didn't know a war was waging in Vietnam when he and a group of friends enlisted in the Marine Corps.

He was undergoing advanced weapons training at Camp Pendleton, Calif., when he started to hear first-hand accounts about the escalating conflict.

"There wasn't much on the news about it," he said. "Guys were coming back and telling us about it."

He volunteered to go to Vietnam, where he was initially assigned to the 3rd Marines Division in Da Nang before he moved to a helicopter base about 9 miles away where he was issued his weapons and equipment.

His unit was moved to Khe Sanh where their mission was to stop the flow of enemy traffic on the Ho Chi Minh trail near the Laotian border.

The day he arrived, his unit had just been attacked and he helped load wounded and dead Marines in helicopters.

"We did that for hours, chopper after chopper after chopper, realizing that could be me," he said. "I knew what fear was. I was scared."

His unit went on missions attacking enemy strongholds, sometimes multiple times.

"We were moving all the time," he said. "We were a mobile unit. We were getting into firefights. We were getting ambushed."

Westberry said his unit took one hill three different times.

"Marines fought and died to take those hills, then they'd come back an take them again," he said.

After facing enemy fire on a regular basis, Westberry said enemy troops suddenly became difficult to find.

"Things calmed down," he said. "We would go out and they wouldn't attack us."

Things changed in January 1968 when the Tet Offensive began.

"It was like the end of the world," he said. "It seemed like the whole hilltop was shaking. From that moment on, we were surrounded."

Westberry said 40,000 enemy soldiers surrounded the 6,000 troops on the hilltop, where they battled for 77 days.

"We started digging underground," he said. "We had dug in and were living like rats."

The most difficult thing was feeling helpless as round after round of artillery rained down.

"You can't fight artillery," he said. "You know you're going to die and it doesn't seem to bother you. You can't grieve. You can't hide. You have to be a Marine."

Near the end of his 13-month deployment, Westberry decided to extend his tour of duty another six months.

"Most people wanted out of there," he said. "I was a squad leader. I was good at it."

He returned to the same unit after 25 days of leave in Thailand and to lead his squad on search and destroy missions.

"A lot of the places had no names," he said. "They were just coordinates on a map."

He was wounded by shrapnel during a battle and pulled the metal fragments from his leg. He refused a Purple Heart Medal because of the catastrophic injuries he saw other troops he witnessed.

He was on a helicopter when a bullet struck him in the leg and he fell out of the helicopter.

"It knocked me slap out," he said. "I woke up in a hospital in Da Nang."

He returned to his unit after three weeks to resume leading his squad on patrols as aircraft sprayed Agent Orange overhead.

After his tour of duty ended, he was sent to Camp Lejuene, N.C., but he couldn't shake the memories of fellow Marines still fighting, He volunteered for another tour of duty in 1969, even though he had never fully recovered from his wounds.

"I lied. I told them it wasn't hurting me," he said. "I wanted to stay in and make it a career."

He returned to Vietnam, where he believed the war would be over soon.

"I thought the war was coming to an end," he said.

Politicians, however, made conducting patrols even more difficult.

"It was like fighting with one hand behind your back," he said. "My second tour was bad, but nothing like Khe Sanh."

Westberry said he struggled with survivor's guilt when he returned home.

"When I came home, I had a chest full of medals and all those protesters yelling at me," he said. "I didn't do anything wrong. My country told me to go, so I went. To be treated like that made me angry."

The first three months of each year is a struggle for Westberry after when he endured during the Tet Offensive. But this year has been admittedly more difficult because it's the 50th anniversary of the battle where he lost so many Marines with whom he served.

"I have a lot of guilt feelings, anger, frustration," he said. "Why did I live when so many didn't? Part of me doesn't want to get over it."

Purple Heart Medal; Vietnam Service Medal; Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal; Combat Action Ribbon; Vietnam Gallantry Cross; Vietnam Civil Action Ribbon; Navy Unit Citation; Navy Unit Commendation; Good Conduct Medal; Presidential Unit Citation (2); National Defense Service Medal; Expert Pistol Badge; Expert Rifle Badge

Duty stations
Vietnam; Okinawa; Camp Pendleton, Calif.; Camp Lejeune, N.C.

O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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