07/03/07 — A soldier's memories, service ... and the flag

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A soldier's memories, service ... and the flag

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 3, 2007 1:46 PM

Bob Stone closes his eyes and reaches into his 72-year-old memory.

It isn't so easy for the Vietnam veteran to focus anymore -- let alone back 41 years.

He stumbles across memories of the family farm in Person County -- corn and tobacco growing high.

He remembers when he dropped out of school to help feed his nine brothers and sisters.

He goes back to age 16 when he moved to Wayne County to live with his military uncle, his "hero", and the moment he decided to join the Army.

But that's not what he is searching for.

He is looking for that muggy night in the central Vietnam highlands, the night he saved four American soldiers, the night he earned the Silver Star.

At last, the retired Army major remembers.

He opens his eyes.

It was March 13, 1966.

"We moved into a night defensive position, had been running operations all day. We pulled in there around 5 in the afternoon," Stone said. "We set up our position, and we would go after the Viet Cong or just lure them into us. We set up all the machine guns and the mortars and all of a sudden, all hell broke loose outside our perimeter and to the east."

Having been in Tuy Hoa for close to a year, the first lieutenant had grown accustomed to the sound of enemy fire.

But something troubled him about this particular frenzy.

"We were on a canal. Nobody knew what was happening," Stone said. "All I knew was it was coming from the east. So I took off east by myself."

On foot, he made his way to the eastern point of the perimeter, stopping only when he saw an American jeep in the distance, a soldier slouched down in the seat.

"I went to the jeep. It was an artillery lieutenant," Stone said. "I saw a guy on the ground and another guy hunched over in the vehicle. Obviously these people were hurt, so I went down there."

Enemy fire "sprayed" in a seemingly constant stream across the canal.

"I found that there were four guys, two of them on the ground," Stone said. "The ones on the ground were wounded but not seriously, so I moved them down on the embankment. We were receiving fire across the canal, just all over the place."

The soldiers in the jeep were fading. Their injuries seemed to be life-threatening.

So without a second thought, Stone jumped in the jeep and took off for cover, not stopping until he reached the others in his squadron.

In the back of his mind, he knew he would have to go back toward the enemy, back to the canal where the other soldiers were taking cover.

Their lives were not the only ones at stake, Stone said.

An armed artillery truck was ambushed, too, and there was "no way" enemy troops were going to get their hands on that truck -- at least not without going through Stone first.

Again, he moved east.

"There was a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on that weapons carrier. It was fully loaded. That's the only thing I kept thinking," Stone said. "Then (the Viet Cong) ran two guys across the canal. They got pretty close to that weapons carrier. I don't know why but I eliminated them. Then I went back, I climbed up on that truck, turned the machine gun around and just hosed their area down. All I could see was them in control of that .50-caliber machine gun. I couldn't let that happen."

Then the firing stopped.

"I don't know what happened," Stone said. "They just broke contact. I got those two guys on the embankment up on the carrier and drove it back. Both men had to be evacuated."

The veteran's eyes close again.

Having to take human lives to save others is something he has battled with since, he said. But at the time, it was just "what you did to survive."

From his leather recliner, the major reaches for an old black and white photograph. Pictured is a younger Bob Stone -- before the days Parkinson's disease started wearing on his mind, before his second and third tour in the jungle.

Staring at a snapshot of the moment he received one of the military's highest honors for valor takes him back.

He closes his eyes for a few seconds and then finds it.

It was a few months after that fire fight along the Tuy Hoa canal.

Stone was flown to Saigon, where an Army general decorated the self-described simple man with the Silver Star.

"I had no earthly idea that someone would see fit to recognize what I did," he said. "I was shocked."

Shocked that a high school dropout, the son of a "very poor farmer" would grow into a national hero.

"Look at me," Stone said. "I started off my life on a farm in Person County, had to drop out of school to feed my family. I left home at 16 and look where this country has taken me. You can do anything you want if you set your mind to do it."

He closes his eyes one last time, only now, to hold back tears.

This veteran knows he will not make it to the Independence Day parades around town this year.

"I put my uniform on, or used to, to go to parades and weddings and things of that nature," Stone said. "I got chills."

These days, though, his condition is worsening.

Public appearances by a Wayne County hero have been replaced with rides down a quiet street in an electric wheelchair.

But he will not need much strength Wednesday to remember what makes America great, he said.

He will simply close his eyes and reach back for those moments, ones that embody the spirit of a country he has nearly died to defend.

"I get a lump in my throat every time I see that flag," Stone said. "I shed tears sometimes. I'm not the man I once was, but I still love this country. I will die loving this country."