Today CN Salutes Veteran, Marine Corporal E-4 E. Michael Helms. Helms joined the Marine Corps a few months after high school graduation in 1966 (he had to wait until he turned 18 because his parents wouldn’t sign the age waiver). Upon discharge in 1969 He had attained the rank of Corporal (E-4). Helms journey was difficult and inspiring. He was awarded a Purple Heart Medal; Combat Action Ribbon; Navy Unit Commendation; Good Conduct Medal; National Defense Medal; Vietnam Service Medal w/bronze star; Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation; Vietnam Civil Actions Unit Citation; Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.
WHAT WAS YOUR MOS? I had a double MOS: 0141 (office clerk), and 0311 (combat rifleman). 0311 was my preferred MOS, although I had brief stints as an 0141 at Camp LeJeune, NC, before and after my tour of duty in Vietnam.
WHAT WERE YOUR DUTIES? During my brief stints as an 0141, I typed forms, letters, citations, leave and liberty passes etc., and filing. In general, I was an all-around office flunky. As an 0311 (rifleman), I served in combat with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines (Regiment). My duties were to close with and kill the enemy, conduct patrols, listening posts, ambushes, etc.
WHAT WAS YOUR TRAINING? Besides boot camp at Parris Island, basically it was on-the-job training as an 0141. I learned to type in high school, and was proficient in spelling, grammar, etc. As an 0311 (grunt rifleman), ITR (infantry training) was valuable. Just before shipping out for Vietnam, we went through a few weeks of “Staging,” which included instruction about what we might encounter in Vietnam, information on our enemy and their tactics, and more intense weapons training. Of course, no amount of training could prepare you for actual combat. That entailed listening closely to those who had been there awhile, and learning as you go. After a few weeks, if you were lucky enough to survive your baptism of fire, you became one of the guys. It was vitally important for them to be able to trust you. We had each others’ backs.
WHAT DID YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT SERVING? The camaraderie with my brother Marines. It’s uncanny how quickly you came to love those guys after a short period. Once you began to lose friends, you hardened and tried to avoid making close friends. At least, that was my experience.
WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO SERVE? During the mid 60s the Draft was hanging over every male’s (of age) head. I didn’t want to be drafted. I had admired the Marine Corps for years. I suppose I’d watched too many John Wayne movies. I was determined to join as soon as school was over. I suppose you could say I was patriotic to a fault. I was offered a baseball scholarship from our local junior college, but turned it down to join. My thinking was that I’d volunteer, do my duty, and hopefully revive my baseball ambitions when I left the service. Things often have a way of not working out according to our youthful dreams.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE GREATEST CHALLENGES YOU FACED? Learning the basics of survival in combat during those first weeks in-country. Even the best combat Marines often died, but “knowing your sh_ _” as we used to say, increased your chances of living another day. Quite honestly, I never expected to make it out alive, and almost didn’t.
WHAT WAS YOUR MOST REWARDING EXPERIENCE? Helping my brother Marines and Corpsmen any way I could. It was back-to-back, and the camaraderie was incredible. We were willing to die-in-place for each other. That made it extremely tough whenever we lost someone. The day I was medevacked after being hit three times the same day was a sad time, once I survived my wounds. I was eaten-up with survivor’s guilt. I still am somewhat to this day, though time has eased things.
HOW DID SERVING AFFECT YOUR FAMILY? I returned to “the World” at 19, my tour cut in half due to my wounds. I spent around six months in hospitals in Japan and Pensacola, Florida. I was a mess, both physically and mentally. That was tough on my family. Later, after marriage and kids, I suffered with PTSD, although I had no idea of what the problem was at the time. In the mid 80s I began therapy, both individual and group, for PTSD through the Vet Center Program. That helped immensely. As part of my therapy, I was instructed to “journal” about my experiences and thoughts. It soon took the form of a book, a memoir of my time at boot camp and tour of duty in Vietnam. It was published in 1990 and is still in print. Writing the book was very cathartic. However, PTSD never completely goes away. But so far I’ve learned to handle it.
WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE TO SOMEONE WHO IS ABOUT TO SERVE THEIR COUNTRY? This is tough, and might not be the answer you were expecting. I believe serving your country in the military is an honorable thing. However, that statement comes with a huge caveat. If there was one saving grace about our involvement in Vietnam, it was my sincere hope that never again would the U.S. entangle itself in another nation’s affairs militarily, unless of course we were directly attacked and forced to retaliate. That would have made our sacrifices worthwhile.
When the bombs began to fall on Baghdad, signally the beginning of the First Gulf War, that hope died. It made all our sacrifices in the Vietnam War meaningless. Our nation’s political leaders and those pulling their strings (i.e. – the military industrial complex and other “shadows”) failed us miserably. And then with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s underhanded invasion of Iraq, the giant can of worms was opened once again. Look at the numbers of dead and wounded those fiascos have wrought. And now the Middle East has blown to hell without the stabilizing influences of Egypt, Syria, and yes, Iraq and Libya.
And so, my advice is to weigh your actions carefully. In my opinion, our recent wars or “conflicts” have overused and abused our military fighting forces. The difficult decision to serve is up to each individual. In the words of Davy Crockett: “Be sure you are right, then go ahead.”
THANK YOU CORPORAL E-4 E. MICHAEL HELMS FOR YOUR SERVICE!
In 1967, a young E. Michael Helms boarded a bus to the legendary grounds of Parris Island, where mere boys were forged into hardened Marines—and sent to the jungles of Vietnam. It was the first stop on a journey that would forever change him—and by its end, he would be awarded the Purple Heart Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Citation, and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry.
From the brutality and endurance-straining ordeals of boot camp to the endless horror of combat, Helms paints a vivid, unflinchingly realistic depiction of the lives of Marines in training and under fire. As powerful and compelling a battlefield memoir as any ever written, Helms’s “grunt’s-eye” view of the Vietnam War, the men who fought it, and the mindless chaos that surrounded it, is truly a modern military classic.
Now a new war begins—against Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In a series of gut-wrenching sessions, Nathan faces the ghosts of his past and shares the struggles of others as they confront and relive horrors and dark secrets kept locked inside.
There’s Vic Guerino, a former Army helicopter pilot trying to adjust to the boredom of a grounded life, Dan “Doc” Matthews, wrestling with addiction brought home from the battlefields of Vietnam, and Rene Boudreaux, the loner who withdraws from society with paranoia ruling his every waking moment.
Nathan must conquer the demons of PTSD to win peace in his life, but it’s a harrowing rollercoaster ride through the valley of healing. The path is strewn with heartbreak and humor, hope and despair and love lost and regained.
This is the comeback story of a heroic young man who saw it all, lived through it, and ultimately emerged from the shadows of war.