by Jesse Lockhart
On February 14, 1969 I’m not sure I was even aware that it was Valentine’s Day; much less thinking of flowers and candy. But this story is not about me, but a friend who gave his life for me, 1st Lt Gary Lee Miller.
I only knew Gary for about a month before he died. He was born and raised in a small town in the western part of Virginia, Covington, almost on the West Virginia state line. Gary graduated with honors from high school and attended Virginia Tech. At Tech he joined the ROTC program and graduated with an Engineering Degree and 2nd Lieutenant Commission in the United States Army. After commissioning Gary went to the Infantry Officer’s Basic course at Ft. Benning, Ga. I don’t know what his first duty assignment was but he ended up in Vietnam assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, 3rd Brigade, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry (named the Black Lions) in Company A.
This is where I met Gary. I was Mike Platoon leader. The time was late January 1969 and although I had only been in Vietnam three months, through attrition, I was the senior platoon leader (which in retrospect was really scary considering the lives I was responsible for at the old age of 21 years old). Gary showed up just as we had lost two platoon leaders,,1 killed,1 wounded and Gary was assigned as the replacement to Lima platoon. I was assigned to “mentor” him until he was ready to operate on his own.
It’s now February 14, 1969; Lima and Mike Platoon were on a joint mission and had been on patrol for three or four days without any contact with the VC/NVA. Our ambush site that evening was a trail junction with the main trail going north- south and an intersecting trail going east- west. The trails weren’t that well used, they looked like any cow path you see in a pasture. I told Gary to set his platoon up ambushing the main trail going north- south. We usually set up our ambushes in a straight line boxed off at either end. The main section of the ambush was covered with claymore mines and the boxed ends were manned with M-60 machine guns.
I set up my platoon (Mike) facing the east –west trail. I didn’t expect any activity that evening and was looking forward to some sleep. Well, that didn’t happen. About 3 AM I was suddenly awakened by claymores being exploded and rifle and machine fire going off. My platoon lay in their ambush positions waiting for movement in front of them (like a a football offensive line waiting for the snap). I got on the radio and asked Gary what was happening. He told me that his platoon had seen movement on the trail and had set off the ambush. I remember thinking that I hope they weren’t trigger happy because I would be the one to explain to the CO why they screwed up. It was pitch dark so I called for artillery illumination rounds andwalked about 50 yards over to Gary’s position (that was probably not too smart because the guys had just popped the ambush and would still be jumpy) I was yelling my call sign and telling them to cease fire. I found Gary and could see three or four dead Viet Cong laying in the “kill zone” no US causalities . Since this was Gary’s first ambush, I let him call it into Headquarters giving the details and body count.
This is where the mission began to fall apart. The Battalion XO (Executive Officer) wanted a body count confirmed. Gary and I could see three or four bodies but the BN XO ordered Gary to sweep (walk) the “kill zone”. At this time I should have told Gary to wait 5 minutes and report a standard operation reply 5 VC dead carrying AK’s and rice, but I didn’t, hell, it was 3 AM in the morning and the bodies would have been there at sunrise. What was happening was; in the Army information flows up and down the “chain of command” and the Battalions report to the Brigades who report to the Division for their 6 am General’s briefing on to the Corp Headquarters, and this is where the good folks back home got their daily body count for the six o’clock news. Gary and I lined up a squad from our platoons to sweep the kill zone. As the men were searching for bodies, artillery illumination flairs were the only light we had and that wasn’t very much. You could barely make out the profiles of the men, I certainly could not identify which platoon was which. Gary and I were standing together discussing how stupid this sweep was when out of the darkness I heard a couple of rifle shots. The shots sounded like an M-16 and I thought the shots were from our men so I yelled “cease fire” to keep someone from getting shot from “friendly fire”. The next few moments happened very fast, but over the past 46 years I’ve slowed them down and replayed them hundreds of times in my mind.
have to understand the only light was artillery illumination and the terrain was thin grass about three foot high; there was confusion/talking about the recent ambush. The men’s adrenalin was pumping as we searched for additional dead VC. This was not a training exercise; this was combat and people get hurt/killed if they’re not careful. As Gary and I stood talking about how stupid this sweep was and what a mistake theBN XO made while he was 10 miles away in a safe bunker… something suddenly hit me in the chest. It reminded me of my baseball days and felt like I had missed a catch of a baseball from a kid and bam it hit me. Next I yelled something to this day I don’t understand why other than training and instincts kicked in. I yelled “grenade” and dove to my right. There was an explosion but it was not loud it was kind of muffled. I felt something on my back, a burning sensation. I remember later thinking being wounded didn’t feel like I thought it would. It felt like a cut with a sharp knife. My survival instincts kicked in and I immediately started looking for my rifle and through the dirt and darkness I couldn’t find it. I looked over at Gary, he wasn’t moving. I touched him and immediately knew he was dead.(Gary had covered the grenade with his body) I yelled for a medic and when I turned him over, I could see his shirt was blown open and my rifle lay under him. The Doc looked at Gary and shook his head. I picked up my rifle and saw that the magazine and receiver were blown up. I grabbed Gary’s rifle, checked it out, put in a new magazine and started looking for the VC who threw the grenade. I knew he was close because he had just tossed a grenade at me. I was crawling on my stomach when I saw him. Luckily for me his attention was directed at the men on the sweep. I stood up took care of him.
I went back to Gary knowing that he had just given his life for me. Emotionally his death didn’t really hit me for a couple of days. I’ve often wondered why I reacted the way I did but in retrospect I had been calloused by all the death around me and I had had a job as a leader to regroup the platoons to prepare for a counter attack. We didn’t know what was out there in the darkness. I had the men gather up the VC’s weapons, and both platoons formed a defensive position and we moved Gary’s body to my CP. In about an hour or so the sun started to rise and I started talking to the Battalion CP and requested a dust off for Gary’s body. The dust off came and we loaded the AK’s and Gary on the Huey. Lima platoon’s men were shaken because they had lost two platoon leaders in less than a month, so I had to remind them that we were still on a combat mission with a job to kill VC’s.
Gary was written up and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. In 1978 working for B.F. Goodrich, I was transferred to Richmond and I wrote Gary’s Dad a letter asking if there was anything I could do for them. He called me and said that he and his wife were OK.
Every year on the last weekend in April the First Infantry Division has a “Black Tie” dinner in Washington for the officers who served with the division in combat. In 1993 I asked Gary’s Dad if he wanted to be my guest at the dinner. He agreed and my wife and I drove to Covington and carried him to Washington. On the drive to DC he quizzed me on the death of Gary wanting to know all the details. I found out that Gary had been honored at Ft. Benning by naming a building after him. The city of Covington named a school and a park in his honor. Gary had been the younger of two sons.
To this day I go over that night playing “what if” and how things could have come out differently. I get chocked up knowing that someone gave his life for me and I live with that every day.
Gary’s Dad passed away and the funeral was 10/3/15. I didn’t find about it until mid-day that Saturday and could not attend.
In those two days February 14 and 15, 1969 in the Army’s infinite wisdom I was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star with “V” and a Purple Heart. I had one piece of shrapnel come to the surface in the late 80’s and removed. I still have a couple of pieces in my back and memories that forever linger.
I’m sometimes asked by kids if I’m a brave person. I tell them no but I knew and served with some brave men.