When Rick Lewis was drafted into the U.S. Army shortly after high school, he was shocked – but not because his number was selected.
As a child, he had rheumatic fever, which affected his heart to the point where he couldn’t play sports in school. Because of that, he never expected to be called up. And when he brought up his condition to the army, they didn’t think it was an issue.
“That was quite a shock because … I had physical problems when I was a kid. So I thought, ‘Well, I won’t be able to go to the army.’ Well, I went down for my physical, and I told the guy the story. He said, ‘Well, that’s all right. We have doctors here in the army.’ It was obvious I wasn’t going to get out of it,” Lewis said, laughing.
Lewis was 19 at the time, and he had just gotten a job at General Motors. He was married, and he was ready to begin a steady life as a husband. That changed quickly.
He went to boot camp at Fort Campbell in Kentucky and went on to Fort Polk, La. There, he was volunteered to go to NCO (noncommissioned officer) candidate school at Fort Benning, Ga. Attending school there promoted him to a sergeant instantly and came with four paygrade increases. While there, he also went to airborne school and learned how to parachute out of an airplane.
Around Thanksgiving of 1968, Lewis had just graduated from NCO school, and he was home on break when he received orders that he would be going to Vietnam in December. Up until ’68, all the troops went to Vietnam on naval ships, he said, but when he got ready to deploy, service members began getting transported by plane.
Lewis flew American Airlines, and he remembered landing in Vietnam after 14 hours.
“It was a nice air-conditioned plane and comfortable, and when we got on the ground in Binh Ba, Vietnam, and opened the door, it was like a blast furnace. It was 115 degrees, 120-percent humidity. Everybody took one deep breath of that air in that airplane cabin, and that was the last time I breathed it for six months,” Lewis said.
Lewis was a staff sergeant on an M113 armored personnel carrier (APC) in a mechanized unit. He had several men under him, and they all rode on the track together.
During his deployment, he and his men were in several firefights. During one, they captured a 51-caliber machine gun when it fired on them, which later earned him a Bronze Star.
Another firefight occurred in April 1969. One night, he and his men were securing their area, something that was done regularly by circling the area in tanks, and they were attacked by about 400 enemy soldiers. The U.S. troops, however, were able to drive them off, Lewis said.
The biggest battle Lewis was a part of also was the reason his time in the field got cut short. On June 6, 1969, the two-day Battle of Tay Ninh City II began – but Lewis missed most of it.
“I got shot within 10 minutes of the first round that was fired,” Lewis said.
Lewis was on the ground that day. He was supposed to be on the APC as a commander, but one of his men had jumped off the day before and sprained his ankle. So, Lewis let him stay on the APC, and he got down in his spot on the ground.
He was right beside the APC, and the driver of it was hollering at him to get down, that there were bullets all around him, kicking up dirt.
“I said, ‘Oh, I’m all right,’” Lewis said.
Just a couple of seconds later, a bullet hit Lewis in the left shoulder, came out his back, and flipped him over backward. His right hand landed on his face, and he remembered looking at his Seiko watch. It was 5:20 p.m., he said, something he never forgot.
Another sergeant went crawling to Lewis to check on him. He saw the blood in the front and asked Lewis where he was hit.
“I said, ‘Well, my back hurts too.’ He rolled me over, and I looked up at him. And he kind of had this white look on his face because that’s where blood and everything was coming out. He sat up, and the meat in his shoulder disappeared because he got shot. So now he’s laying on top of me, and I said, ‘A lot of help you are.’ He just laughed,” Lewis said.
The unit’s medic came out, brought the track over, drove it over the top of them, and pulled them inside of the APC to get them out of the firefight while a helicopter was called to get Lewis and the other sergeant off of the battlefield.
Lewis and the other sergeant were taken to the Tay Ninh 25th Evacuation Hospital. He was shot within a quart of an inch from his heart, and the bullet came out right beside his spine. He was shot through his lung, so by the time he got to the hospital, he had a collapsed lung, a seizure, and had quit breathing.
The doctor shot adrenaline into Lewis' heart to get it pumping, and Lewis said he locked up a second time. So, the doctor gave him another dose of adrenaline. Then Lewis locked up a third time.
“He said, ‘Son, I’ve done all I can do. You’re going to have to help. You’ve got enough adrenaline in you to start an elephant.’ He said, ‘I’ve done all I can do. You’re going to have to relax and breathe.’ He said it was more panic than anything, so I finally relaxed and got to where I was breathing OK,” Lewis said.
Lewis had to wait before a surgeon could get to him. All of the heart and chest surgeons were 15 miles away at another hospital, Cuchi Evacuation Hospital, and Lewis finally was flown there at 9 p.m. that night.
Recovery was “horrible” and a long process. Lewis had broken ribs in the front and back, and he lost half of his lung. He remembered waking up a day later after surgery, and he had gotten a bad infection that he wasn’t aware of. He was worried about having to go back out into the field, but he soon was informed that he was in no condition to do that.
After spending some time at Cuchi Evacuation Hospital, Lewis was sent to Okinawa Hospital where he stayed from June to August. After there, he was flown back to the United States to a hospital in Denver where he remained in recovery until December. Over that time, he lost 60 pounds.
Lewis returned home to Kokomo on Dec. 19, and on Dec. 21, he was back at work, as his job was held for him.
“I went straight back to work. They said, ‘When did you get back? You’re not going to take some time off?’ I said, ‘No, I want to stay busy,’” he said.
Lewis was in skilled trades in machine repair, and he said he immediately buried the Vietnam experience altogether. It wasn’t until 1981 when he attended a veteran gathering that he realized 1,500 other people in Kokomo had served in Vietnam as well.
“I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I thought I was only one of two or three guys in all of Kokomo that was a Vietnam veteran,’” he said.
Lewis soon became involved with the Howard County Vietnam Veterans Organization and attended the annual reunions that attracted veterans from all over the United States. Lewis said the reunion provided a strong sense of camaraderie and brotherhood for him over the years that allowed him to begin talking about his experience.
“Everybody just felt every alone because we just didn’t talk about it,” he said.
In addition to earning a Bronze Star, Lewis also earned two Purple Hearts from injuries he sustained. He also was shot in the elbow during his time in the service.