“My little brothers, I never thought they’d enlist because they were all little kids, looking up to me. I thought they couldn’t do what I did. They kind of went into the military on their own. We were in and out, all of us,” says Carl Hillis Jr., my father.
My father told me plenty of stories about Vietnam and plenty about how he felt. From dreams to reality, from his beginning to the present, his experiences are etched into my mind. His journey always seemed like a long road to finding out who he is, and the same can be said for his brothers, my uncles. It was a long struggle to find peace. Carl Jr. felt set apart from his brothers, considering the age gap between him and his brothers a detriment. “I was kind of a loner. They were little guys. For me, little guys were more of a nuisance,” he says of himself growing up in Fort Defiance, Arizona.
He had a lot of questions that went unanswered for a long time. “Schools at that time were probably limited in talking about certain things, like evolution. Getting out of high school I had a lot of questions but people couldn’t answer them. People I asked were set in what they believed in.” After graduating from Window Rock High School in 1965, Carl Jr., went to Arizona State University before trouble had him expelled and soon drafted. Though he hadn’t considered a military career, this seemed to be an adventure for him. “I chose to be with the paratroopers and the Army because I believed that I should fight the enemy as all Indians have, face-to-face. When I signed up, I signed up to be a medic. There was something enticing about trying to do the opposite in war,” he says. Carl Jr., did his medic training in Fort Sam Houston in Texas and went to jump school in Fort Benning in Georgia. “There were about 400 people in the class, and only 150 passed,” he says of jump school. It was here Carl hurt his back and would ail him for the rest of his life.
When it came time to leave his family, Carl bottled up his emotions. “I didn’t know when I was going to come home and that this was the last time I was going to see them. I kind of felt bad looking at them because in my mind I thought, ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever see you guys again.’ I just padded them on the head, joked with them but inside I felt bad because this might be the last time I might see them.” His father, Carl Sr., only told his son to take care of himself. Carl Jr., landed in Vietnam on October 16, 1967. He completed one tour, earning the Silver Star Medal for safely removing wounded men from enemy fire.
Upon his return from Vietnam, Carl Jr. wanted to make the military his career which was set to begin during his time at Fort Bragg. He wished to become a chopper pilot, to fly a gunship. “I told my dad about these opportunities presented to me. He said, ‘No son, you come on home. Your mother needs you.’ I thought that was an unusual request. About a week later I get a call saying my dad is in the hospital.” He took leave and visited his father with his mother. “I looked at him and I knew that he was going to die. I had seen death enough times and somehow you recognize it. I went back to Fort Bragg and five days later he died. His demand to come home, he never asked me to do anything for him. That was the only thing he ever asked me in my whole life. That was the last thing he ever said to me.” Five days after he returned to Fort Bragg, his father passed away. He did as his father wished and eventually returned home.
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Hardships the brothers faced included difficulties finding jobs and that there was no one to talk to about PTSD. Friends and family suffered, many resorted to drinking. “We were all wrecked from the war,” Carl Jr. says. “I couldn’t tell anybody anything how I felt or what I felt was wrong. You’re so alone. You can’t get help from a psychiatrist because he wasn’t there and he doesn’t know what you’re feeling. You find your own answers in other veterans.”
Lowell in Vietnam, circa. 1969
The Hillis brothers experienced the same war but had different things to say. As with my late uncle Clyde, I never had a chance to talk to my uncle Lowell about his Vietnam service. Lowell passed away in 1999 due to alcoholism. He was 47. What little I gathered from my father and uncle Mervyn paints uncertainty but it’s understandable. Veterans may share stories but perhaps not all of the details. Lowell was drafted and did one year in Vietnam roughly the same time Mervyn was doing his second tour. My dad recalls sending Lowell a care package. Lowell told him, “Don’t ever send me whiskey again. It almost killed me and my buddies.” The hot climate of Vietnam mixed with intoxication probably made the place more unbearable, my father surmised. Russell did enlist in the Army but the war had ended. His brothers jokingly quipped to Russell, “War’s over.” Russell was instead stationed in Germany.
My father said, “Despite the losses and the pointlessness of that war, the men that lost their lives should all be recognized for their sacrifice and never forgotten.” Mervyn told me, “People call me a hero. I tell them, I’m not a hero. It’s the men who were killed in action, the men who are wounded, and the POWs, they’re the heroes. I’m not a hero. I got my medals but I don’t talk big about it.” As brothers who served in Vietnam, the bond was always there. They shared stories with each other, both funny and tragic.
Jesse Hillis, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, wrote this four-part series about his father and uncles who simultaneously served in various branches of the military and fought in Vietnam. Indian Country Today is pleased to publish his work through an internship in cooperation with the University of New Mexico.