Vet­eran’s Story

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - Pete Mecca is a Viet­nam vet­eran, colum­nist and free­lance writer. You can reach him at avet­er­ansstory@gmail.com or avet­er­ansstory.us.

Lt. Gary Freed­man vol­un­teered for ac­tive duty and Viet­nam,s et­ting the stage for an event­ful ca­reer.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, an in­ter­view with a vet­eran chal­lenges my cre­ative abil­i­ties. How do I prop­erly re­late the story of a mil­i­tary ca­reer seem­ingly be­yond nor­mal hu­man ap­ti­tudes? This is one of those sto­ries, much too con­densed to suit­ably honor hard-earned ac­com­plish­ments.

He wel­comes visi­tors into his home with “Ah­lan wa sahlan,” Ara­bic for, “You are al­ways wel­come at our home.” He’s also ar­tic­u­late in Korean, which he learned in short or­der dur­ing a tour along the per­ilous DMZ sep­a­rat­ing North and South Korea. Lin­guis­tic skills come nat­u­rally for Gary Freed­man; his mother spoke seven lan­guages flu­ently.

Born and raised in Sault Ste Marie, Mich., Freed­man earned recog­ni­tion as a “dis­tin­guished mil­i­tary grad­u­ate” of the ROTC cur­ricu­lum at Western Michi­gan Univer­sity in Kala­ma­zoo. Au­to­mat­i­cally awarded 2nd lieu­tenant bars in the reg­u­lar Army, his plans for law school at USC were cut short by the call to duty. The year was 1966.

“I vol­un­teered for ac­tive duty and Viet­nam,” he said. “I was or­dered to re­port for mil­i­tary po­lice of­fi­cer’s train­ing at Ft. Gor­don, Ga. I bought a new Ford Mus­tang and headed south. Cross­ing the Smoky Moun­tains, I stopped at an old-fash­ioned coun­try store, where an old-timer gave me a MoonPie and RC Cola. He was warm and friendly like the weather, so I de­cided then and there to one day live in the South.”

Freed­man com­pleted MP train­ing at Ft. Gor­don, then Ft. Ben­ning, be­fore join­ing a sen­try dog unit at Ft. Car­son, Colo.

Next stop: Viet­nam, and MP duty at Long Binh in De­cem­ber of ‘67.

He said, “Other sol­diers guarded the perime­ter in bunkers, but my men and their guard dogs walked the perime­ter. It was treach­er­ous duty. I re­mem­ber the night a perime­ter guard fell asleep and was star­tled awake by one of my men and his dog. He opened fire on them. My man lost his leg.”

The Tet Of­fen­sive, 1968 — Freed­man’s heavy re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in­cluded six de­tach­ments through­out the Mekong Delta.

“It was bad at Long Binh,” he said. “But I had six de­tach­ments to worry about and flew into Vinh Long to check on my men. The base had not been hit, so I copped a few min­utes of sleep. For some rea­son I awoke and no­ticed fig­ures run­ning by a win­dow. Gut in­stinct said some­thing was wrong. I grabbed my gear and M-16 and headed for the door.

“The door burst open, struck me, and threw me back against the wall. A VC opened up and raked ev­ery­thing in the room. He was go­ing room to room, killing peo­ple. If I hadn’t been knocked against the wall, I’d have been dead, too.”

All the bunker guards were dead; chop­pers were blown up, and dead men lay upon the ground.

“All the chop­pers were de­stroyed,” Freed­man said. “I saw one dead VC against a bunker with his hand be­hind his back. I told my men, ‘Don’t touch him,’ be­cause once again, my gut in­stinct told me some­thing was wrong.”

Gut in­stinct works: the dy­ing VC had con­cealed a live grenade be­hind his back to kill any­one who moved his body.

Later, Freed­man sur­vived an emer­gency land­ing of a bat­tle-dam­aged C-130 trans­port.

“One of the four en­gines had been blown off the wing,” he re­called. “The plane was fully loaded with 175mm and 105mm ar­tillery ammo. The pi­lot had to land at a he­li­copter base with­out an ad­e­quate run­way. We all jumped out while the plane was mov­ing. It crashed into a rice paddy and ex­ploded. That was quite a sight.”

Of his en­camp­ments, Freed­man said, “We were hit ev­ery night by gun­fire, mor­tars, rock­ets, or ground probes. I can’t re­mem­ber one night we didn’t get hit.”

Called back to head­quar­ters, Freed­man was in­formed that his fa­ther had passed away.

“My fa­ther lived in Cal­i­for­nia at the time,” he said. “I was given a 30day leave and stayed at my brother’s house.”

While on leave, Freed- man was pro­moted to cap­tain. “I was watch­ing TV one night and heard about a unit un­der at­tack in the Mekong Delta. Well, those were my guys. I caught a ‘hop’ and headed back to the war. We ended up guard­ing con­voys along ma­jor routes. Com­bat be­came a daily oc­cur­rence. We came un­der at­tack at Can To one night, and that ended my Viet­nam ex­pe­ri­ence.”

With a gate guard dead and peo­ple run­ning amok, Freed­man tried to close the gate but felt a sharp pain in his hip. A piece of his cheek and fore­head sliced off. A VC, less than 20 yards away, was throw­ing hand grenades at the MP cap­tain.

“I didn’t re­al­ize what was go­ing on due to all the noise and ex­plo­sions,” he said. “The next grenade knocked me about 20 feet and tore up my left arm. It was dan­gling like a wasted ap­pendage. I dis­patched the VC with my sidearm and started run­ning around try­ing to or­ga­nize the fight.”

Lit­er­ally forced into a medevac chop­per and deliri­ous, he re­called, “I thought the stretcher was my cof­fin and they were try­ing to cover me. I fi- nally set­tled down. It was a mir­a­cle that they saved my arm.”

Later, back in the States and re­cov­ered, Freed­man was or­dered by a gen­eral to at­tend jump school at Ft. Ben­ning.

“I told him I had no de­sire to jump out of air­planes and why would a MP need to do so any­way?” The de­bate fell on deaf ears; Freed­man com­pleted jump school.

Sent to an ad­vanced of­fi­cer’s course at Ft. Gor­don, he was pulled out of class and or­dered to ap­pear be­fore a med­i­cal re­view board to be mus­tered out of the Army as phys­i­cally un­fit for duty.

Freed­man said, “Well, a gen­eral on the med­i­cal board saw my air­borne wings and asked when I com­pleted jump school. When I told him only re­cently, he asked the board if they had ad­di­tional ques­tions for me be­fore I was con­sid­ered to­tally fit for the Army.

“Well, with no fur­ther ob­jec­tions, I re­mained in the Army. The other gen­eral who or­dered me to jump school knew ex­actly what he was do­ing … sav­ing my ca­reer.”

Af­ter a three-year teach­ing as­sign­ment at MP school, Freed­man re­ceived or­ders for South Korea.

“I ended up work­ing in a staff po­si­tion for the Provost Mar­shall at Camp Humphreys,” he re­called. “That as­sign­ment proved in­ter­est­ing to say the least.”

Say­ing the least meant pos­ing as a chap­lain to talk down a dis­traught sol­dier who had grabbed an M-16 and taken the bat­tal­ion com­man­der, com­pany com­man­der, and 1st sergeant as hostages.

“His in­tent was to kill all of them,” Freed­man said. “I conned him into be­liev­ing I was ac­tu­ally a chap­lain and he al­lowed me in­side the build­ing.”

As Freed­man en­tered the build­ing, the dis­turbed sol­dier stated, “Good, now I have four peo­ple to kill.”

Part II of this story will fea­ture Gary Freed­man re­ceiv­ing the Sol­diers Medal for Hero­ism, an as­sign­ment as a UN Ob­server in the Mid­dle East, be­ing on the Pales­tinian Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s “hit list” and more. Read it in the Jan. 15 edi­tion of The Cov­ing­ton News.

Sub­mit­ted photo /The Cov­ing­ton News

1st Lt. Gary Freed­man on air­borne road pa­trol in Viet­nam in 1968.

Sub­mit­ted photo /The Cov­ing­ton News

1st Lt. Gary Freed­man ready for pa­trol in Viet­nam in 1968.

PETE MECCA COLUM­NIST

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