Ray Heimes jumped out of a Huey helicopter and stepped right into one of the worst ambushes of the Vietnam war.
It was Nov. 14, 1965, and the 22-year-old Heimes was a soldier with the U.S. Army's First Battalion, Seventh Cavalry Regiment. In an operation codenamed Operation Silver Bayonet, U.S. intelligence sent 400 troops into the Ia Drang valley of South Vietnam near Cambodia, to break part of the Ho Chi Minh trail, a supply line that ran from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam.
Heimes was part of the U.S. Army's first airmobile attack unit that landed at LZ X-Ray, an open area the size of a football field, where helicopters were used for the first time in Vietnam to move troops into battle. Their search and destroy mission was to cut the supply line off.
As depicted in the Mel Gibson movie We Were Soldiers, the troops advanced on Chu Pong Massif, where the North Vietnamese had dug themselves a tunnel system to provide cover. They stood on termite mounds to position their snipers and the Americans were caught in the line of fire. With the second lift of the battalion still in transit, the 200 American soldiers already on the ground ran into three North Vietnamese battalions with an estimated 1,600 soldiers clustered around Chu Pong, outnumbered eight to one.
"We weren't on the ground two minutes and the bullets and bombs were flying," said Heimes, 69, a Prince George resident since 1991.
"They didn't have any information on what was there, and we got ourselves into trouble. It looked good on paper but it was a whole different ballgame on the ground. It lasted three days, and it was a mess from the time we went in there until the time they ran off."
Casualties were horrendous on both sides. From Nov. 14-17, 243 Americans were killed in action, 250 were wounded, while 3,561 North Vietnamese died. Of the 400 troops in the Seventh Cavalry, 71 were killed and 121 were injured. Heimes got hit by shrapnel in the calf of his left leg 20 minutes after he landed. The medics taped him up and he continued fighting until he was evacuated three days later.
"Attrition ended it -- they ran out of troops," said Heimes. "They were losing, but we were losing too. It wasn't a constant battle, they'd hit us, and fall back. I was in real good shape compared to the guys going home in the gray body bags. There was a lot of them laying on the ground."
After two days in a military hospital, Heimes was back in combat. For his active participation in a ground battle under hostile fire lasting more than 72 hours, he earned the Combat Infantryman's Badge, the highest award for an infantryman or special forces soldier. The blue badge consists of a long rifle set against the background of a wreath, and is now prominently displayed along with his other military medals in his living room. Heines survived the fighting through to the end of his second tour and was back to the States until September 1967, when he volunteered for war duty again.
In February 1968, on the eve of the Vietnamese lunar new year, North Vietnam launched the Tet offensive, striking 100 South Vietnamese urban areas and military bases during what was supposed to be a period of ceasefire. At the time, Heimes was stationed in Saunloc with the First Battalion, 11th (Black Horse) Cavalry.
"They hit every place and they sent us to Saigon, where we spent two or three weeks cleaning up the mess," said Heimes, who achieved a Sgt. First Class ranking. "Tet lasted a week, but most of it happened in one or two days."
He served four tours of duty in Vietnam and in each tour was wounded in action. He keeps one of his four Purple Hearts in a display case with a large assortment of military medals. His worst injury came in 1968 when he was hit in the abdomen and arm by an exploding rocket grenade as he rode on top of a tank.
"I saw this little black ball coming at this tank and I was standing on top of 53 tons of steel and thought there was no way it would hurt me -- well it did," he said. "Next thing I knew, I was blown ass over tea kettle. I didn't feel any pain whatsoever, but it blew out a big chunk of my arm and I lost some love handles, but I didn't know I was hit."
Heimes came to Vietnam as a volunteer for his first tour in 1961, part of a military advisory group training the South Vietnamese army. Each tour lasted 13 months, and he served his final two back-to-back, from September 1967 to December 1969. He knows of some soldiers whose Vietnam duty extended to seven tours.
"They found out I'd done two back-to-back tours and not had a psychiatric evaluation and put me on the next plane out of the country," said Heimes, an infantry and armour intelligence specialist. "I wanted to go back for another tour but they wouldn't let me. I volunteered because I was really good at what I did. Somebody has to do it. I did it for duty, honour and country."
He finished his career in Fort Lewis, Wash., training soldiers.
Heimes first came to Canada in December 1962 to Churchill, Man., to serve 90 days on a security mission on the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line, a series of radar installations set up in northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland during the Cold War to detect Soviet bombers.
He enlisted in the army in his hometown of Detroit in 1959 when he was only 16, one year younger than the minimum age requirement. He and four of his friends in Detroit had gotten into trouble with the law and the judge gave them a choice -- either go to jail or join the military service. All five picked the forces.
"We all thought we were going to the same place and thought, this is great -- wrong again -- he put every one of us in a different branch of the service so we wouldn't cause any more trouble, and he was probably right, and for the next 22 years I was in the military," said Heimes.
The Vietnam war will best be remembered for the uncensored press coverage and the negative reactions it generated. TV news on all major networks regularly showed battle scenes and video clips of soldiers who had been killed or maimed. That continued for years, turning public sentiment against the U.S. military, and the soldiers bore the brunt of it. When Heimes returned from his fourth tour in 1969 on an air force plane with 186 soldiers, fog at McChord air force base in Tacoma forced the plane to land in Vancouver, where a crowd of a couple hundred anti-war demonstrators lined the chin-link fence and heckled the troops as they arrived, calling them 'baby killers," and throwing dog feces at them.
"We thought they were out of their minds -- we were still in our jungle fatigues after a 16-hour flight," said Heimes. "We were already angry because the plane ran out of food and booze, and when we walked out of that plane we were still armed. You don't care what the people think, you know what you did, and that's why you tend to cluster around the people who had the same experiences you did, and I still do that to this day."
The horrors of war left Heimes with post-traumatic stress disorder, which first started two years after he retired from the military in 1981. Nightmares and flashbacks brought back memories he thought he'd buried permanently in the back of his mind. Years of fighting in the jungles of southeast Asia trained soldiers like Heimes to be hypervigilant and rarely fall into a deep sleep, and he still suffers from insomnia. His PTSD condition was recognized by the U.S. authorities as a disability. Because of that, he was denied landed immigrant status in Canada, but was successful in a court challenge and his application was finally approved in 1997.
"It was fine while he was in the military because he was looked after, but when you go onto the civilian street, things change very drastically, and that's when he started falling apart," said Heimes's wife Rose. "You're turning from a killing machine back into a normal human being and that's when problems start."
Heimes says mental health supports are still lacking for Canadian soldiers returning from war zones but the situation is improving as more becomes known about the effects of PTSD.
"I did get help and went into some of the programs [at U.S. veterans hospitals]," he said.
"PTSD is a two-headed dragon. One head lets you forget about what you've done and it hides it, but the other head is the evil head, and for everybody who suffers from it, sooner or later it's all going to come back to you like it was today."
Heimes got his Prince George address by accident. He was on his way to Alaska in 1991, where he owned property, when he stopped at the Yellowhead Inn in Prince George to buy a beverage. The cold beer and wine store was closed, so he went into the pub, where he met group of Canadian veterans. There was a dance that night, and that's where he met Rose, a Winnipeg-born, self-confessed military brat. They've been together ever since and are now in the process of moving to Nanaimo, where they hope to get settled by the end of the month.