U.S. Congressman Derek Kilmer recently presented Key Peninsula resident Butch Long with numerous medals, including the Purple Heart, 45 years after he was wounded in Vietnam. This is his story — but could have been the story of anyone who was of age in that time period.
Long was born in 1948 at Puget Sound Hospital on Pacific Avenue in Tacoma. The same hospital that Pierce County is planning to tear down to construct a new county administrative building.
His family moved to California when he was 9 years old. He attended Petaluma High School, followed by work on chicken ranches.
At the age of 19, on April 4, 1968, Long received a letter that started with, “Greetings.” It included a bus ticket and instructions to report to an “induction center.” Long was drafted into the Army.
Barbara, his wife since July 1967, followed Long to Fort Lewis for his basic training. She has remained in Washington since.
After basic training, Long went straight to Vietnam. He was only there for four months before receiving critical injuries — four very eventful months he will never forget.
Long was a private, or as he calls it, a “grunt,” a “ground-pounder.” No specialized training, except aiming and shooting.
He was a member of a platoon that would either walk out of the base camp for patrols or be dropped off and later picked up by helicopter 5 or 10 miles from camp where they would patrol.
The patrols would last up to 10 days. The longest one took them 30 miles up to the Cambodian border. Some patrols were during the day, some at night. The jungle was filled with poisonous spiders, snakes, tarantulas and centipedes.
“The centipedes and millipedes would be 3 inches wide and 4 feet long,” he recalled. “The nightcrawlers (worms) were 2 inches across and 3 feet long. The leaches were 3 to 4 inches long and wide, and we would constantly need to remove them from our arms and legs using a cigarette lighter or knife.
“We needed to be on constant alert. The enemy liked to sit in the trees and fire down on us from above, and then scurry away when we tried to go after them.”
Being of small stature, on one occasion Long had to crawl 50 yards after an enemy, down a very tight tunnel in pitch black, not knowing what he was going to bump into. Long almost got stuck and had a heck of a time backing out. The enemy made it through to another exit and ran away.
“The enemy constructed their own ‘bombs’ using a 5-gallon ‘jerrycan’ with C4 or dynamite and metal shell fragments. They would light a short fuse just before we would walk up to it,” he said.
“I experienced a lot of these special bombs, up close, my last day in country,” he said. “They were placed and thrown throughout the camp. One landed on a fellow soldier 4 feet away, with pieces of him flying everywhere. Another landed 2 feet away from me, with metal embedding in my back, legs and arms. I was deaf and could not see (because of the blood in his eyes). There was a hole in one eye.”
Long recalled crawling up a hill to the medic station.
“But the medic had to be dug out from under 500 pounds of sand bags before he could help us,” he said.
A Huey (helicopter) ride had Long in the field hospital within a half hour. He was in the hospital in Da Nang the next day, and then on to Camp Zama (the big hospital) in Japan. A month later, Long was at Letterman Army Hospital, near Oakland, Calif.
He was given limited duty at the Oakland Army Terminal helping to in-process new draftees. He was discharged in April 1970.
The military and VA doctors have not wanted to remove the many pieces of metal Long still carries throughout his body, for fear of infection. Those pieces have gradually worked their way closer to the surface and have been a continuing source of pain and difficulty walking and using his arms.
Since 1970, Long has worked as a machinist and has built mobile homes. He has also worked in a wrecking yard and at a chicken hatchery. He is still married to Barbara and has four children, none of whom have shown any interest in the military.
Local resident and fellow veteran Chris Copeland was surprised that Long had never received a Purple Heart or other recognition for his military service and combat injuries. Copeland’s extensive campaign finally resulted in well-deserved recognition 45 years after the fact.
Long said, “My experiences were little different from a great many men that got involved (and not by choice) in that nasty little war.”