“How do you remember something? The smell, the taste of something can bring you back. For me, it’s pain. I feel this pain in my back and I go back to when I was there, in Vietnam,” says Clyde Hillis I in an interview from 2000 conducted by my sister Nadia Norton. I never had a chance to interview my uncle Clyde Hillis I about his Vietnam service. He passed away on April 4, 2006 at the age of 55 due to complications from cancer. I remember last seeing him at his house with his children days before he left this world. I asked him how he was feeling and he told me very straightforward, “It’s got me.” He knew his time was up. I interviewed those who knew about his service including his brothers.
Clyde was among the many Vietnam Veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange during their service. During the Vietnam War, United States and allied military sprayed approximately 77 million liters of “tactical herbicides” including Agent Orange from 1965-1970. These herbicides were denoted by color (Pink, Green, Purple, White, and Blue), but it was Agent Orange that was widely sprayed. By one historical account, the Italians had used lethal chemicals delivered from the air in Abyssinia in 1936 but the Allies and Axis did not use the weapon for various reasons. In 1951-1953, the British had developed a weaponized herbicide that was used against communist insurgents in Malaya. The latter inspired the U.S. Department of Defense in collaboration with South Vietnam to develop its own tactical herbicides that would eventually be used in the Vietnam War. In November 1961, President Kennedy approved the use of herbicides, and in January 1962, “Operation Ranch Hand” was started where soon thereafter chemical warfare had begun in Southeast Asia. It ended in 1975 when President Ford renounced the use of herbicides by the United States in future wars. Yet it didn’t end there for the many Vietnam Veterans that were exposed.
The herbicide was used to defoliate large areas of land and destroy enemy hiding places, heavily contaminating the environment for everyone on both sides. Clyde’s brother Mervyn has also felt the effects of Agent Orange. “We used the water from the river. We drank from it, cooked, showered, washed our clothes in it. We siphoned the water at 2 a.m., that’s when the sediments are down. Just drinking from that for a year will do a number on you,” recalls Mervyn whose back has become brittle over time and has had a stent put into his heart. Currently, he fights to receive full coverage from the VA.
Clyde Hillis was born on July 11, 1950. He signed up for the Marines in summer 1968 shortly after graduating from Window Rock High School. “I volunteered like a fool. I had a scholarship to go to school and I turned it down,” said Clyde in the 2000 interview. Clyde was in boot camp from August through October 1968. “I went to machine-gunner school, and there I volunteered for Force Recon because I liked sneaking around.” He began his tour in March 1969. He was in the infantry of the 1st Marine Division. In Vietnam, Clyde went on “search and destroy” missions, which involved looking for the enemy’s weapons and supplies and destroying them once found.
Clyde received a Purple Heart for his service. He detailed his last day in Vietnam:
The last night I spent in Vietnam was in a graveyard. As we were traveling on a search and destroy mission we had set up our camp in the afternoon. We should’ve moved our camp as soon as it got dark but we didn’t. The VC watched us set up our camp so they knew exactly where we were. When the Vietcong attacked that night, a grenade went off about 3 feet away from me. I fell back into this foxhole and noticed I was bleeding from my arm and the left side of my neck. The shrapnel had just grazed me but I decided to use my only bandage for my neck. As I lay there in that foxhole, something told me to stay down. I wanted to fight, but I told myself there were only two options: I could stay down there in that foxhole like a coward and live, or; I could get up and die fighting. I decided to get out of there and really fight. As I was running and shooting my rifle, something blew up behind me and I flew up. When I landed I thought I had broken my back. I looked down at my toes and wiggled them. My back was fine. My left leg, however, was bent all the way to the side. A small piece of shrapnel had gone into my thigh, hit the bone and shattered it. I tried to crawl back to the foxhole but the VC saw me and tried to shoot me. They couldn’t quite get to me because the gravestones blocked any clear shots. Even though they kept missing, I gave up trying to crawl back so I lay there. As I lay there, just waiting, the artillery was called in and the VC backed off. I called a medic over. He looked me over and said that I had the million-dollar wound. I was going to go home.
Clyde remained in the hospital from June 1969 to April 1970. He was discharged from the Marines. Regarding his service, he said, “I felt used and I just let it go even though I wanted to make it a career.”
“My first night in the field, I slept on a grave. Sleeping on that man’s grave, I dreamt about him. About his family, his life, everything before he died.”
I was asked if I could play “Taps” at my uncle Clyde’s funeral. I brought my trumpet out of retirement to play this piece which I practiced. I almost cowardly backed out because I thought I wasn’t strong enough, or good enough. The day of the services I said I would. They laid my uncle to rest and I played “Taps.” I cried afterward. My mother consoled me, saying it was beautiful. I haven’t played that trumpet again since.
Coming tomorrow: Confronting Your Obstacles Face-to-Face: Brothers in Vietnam and Life Pt. 4
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.