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Billy Walkabout, decorated veteran, dies at 57

By Stephanie Reitz -- Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Billy Walkabout, a Cherokee whose actions in Vietnam made him among the most decorated soldiers of the war, died March 7 at a hospital in Norwich, his stepdaughter said March 11.

He was 57.

Walkabout received the Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart, five Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars. He was believed to be the most decorated American Indian soldier of the Vietnam War, according to U.S. Department of Defense reports.

Walkabout, who lived in Montville, died of pneumonia and renal failure, said his stepdaughter, Randi Johnson of Norwich.

He had experienced complications related to his exposure to the Agent Orange defoliant used during the Vietnam conflict, she said, and he had been on a kidney transplant waiting list and undergoing dialysis three times a week.

However, he had not been seriously ill until his immunity weakened recently and he developed pneumonia, Johnson said.

Walkabout was born in Cherokee County, Okla., on March 31, 1949, and lived much of his life in Oklahoma before moving to eastern Connecticut about seven years ago.

At the time of his death, Walkabout and his wife, Juanita Medbury-Walkabout, lived in a portion of eastern Connecticut that is home to many Mashantucket Pequot, Mohegan and other tribal members.

Walkabout, a Cherokee of the Blue Holley Clan, was an 18-year-old Army Ranger sergeant when he and 12 other soldiers were sent on an assassination mission behind enemy lines on Nov. 20, 1968, in a region southwest of Hue.

However, they ended up in the enemy's battalion area and came under fire for hours, during which he was seriously wounded. Several of the other 12 men were killed at the scene, while the rest later died of their injuries.

Walkabout's citation for the Distinguished Service Cross said he simultaneously returned fire, helped his comrades and boarded other injured soldiers onto evacuation helicopters.

''Although stunned and wounded by the blast, Sgt. Walkabout rushed from man to man administering first aid, bandaging one soldier's severe chest wound and reviving another soldier by heart massage,'' the citation stated. ''Only when the casualties had been evacuated and friendly reinforcements had arrived, did he allow himself to be evacuated.''

He retired at the rank of second lieutenant. In a 1986 interview with The Associated Press, Walkabout said his 23 months in Vietnam left him with disabling injuries and memories that refused to fade.

''War is not hell,'' Walkabout said. ''It's worse.''

He said he struggled with failed marriages, thoughts of suicide and years of self-isolation when he would spend six months at a time alone.

''Everyone I went to high school with thought I was dead for years. They're amazed when they see me and they say, 'You're not dead,''' Walkabout said.

He said he often refused to sleep near his wife, afraid he would strangle her in his sleep or try to push her under the bed to protect her from the bombs he imagined were going off.

Over the years, however, he found solace in the pow wows, where he often was an honored guest, leading the traditional dances in time to the pounding drums and chant of the singers.

''I'm at peace with myself,'' Walkabout said in 1986. ''I've got my dignity and I've got my pride. ... I never lost the war in Vietnam; I never lost a day of it. Even when I was wounded, I didn't lose. When I fought, I won. I won my wars.''

Walkabout met his future wife, Juanita, when she was attending school in Oklahoma, and they moved to Connecticut after their marriage to be close to her family, Johnson said.

''They had that little bit of perfect for the short time they had together,'' Johnson said of her mother and stepfather. ''Although he was very private and traditional, he was a storyteller. He always told us he felt it was his duty and his honor to serve his country.''

Walkabout's family and friends tended a round-the-clock fire in Montville after his death on March 7, and extinguished it at midnight March 11 as part of a four-day Cherokee ceremony.

Smoke from the fire is believed to carry prayers to heaven and spiritual messages from place to place around the world, and to carry Walkabout's soul back to the Creator once the embers had cooled, Johnson said.

A memorial service was scheduled to take place March 13 in Norwich. His family is in the process of requesting a military burial at Arlington National Cemetery, Johnson said.