Star Ledger/NJ.com article on vet Smith helped in '81'My father was a war hero who saved lives and I never knew'
By Keith Sargeant | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
A tree branch broke, the same ominous sound he heard so many times in his his first six months in Vietnam. His heart racing, he glanced to his right and saw a North Vietcong sniper about six feet away in tall weeds. His rifle out of reach, Martinez grabbed his 45-caliber pistol but barely lifted his arm before he heard three rapid-fire shots.
Pop! Pop! Pop!
Two somehow missed, but a third took his breath — and nearly his life — away. The force of the bullet hurled Martinez 10 feet before his 145-pound body crashed to the Binh Duong soil, his vision blurred, his hearing temporarily lost. With a gaping hole in his chest, Martinez seemed destined for the same fate as the soldier he had just tried to save.
“The impact of getting hit is like when you get punched in the stomach. You can’t breathe, but it’s probably 20 times that feeling,” Martinez tells me 53 years later. “You’re gasping for air and funny things go through your Head. ‘I want a drink of water.’ … ‘Am I going to be OK?’ … ‘Is this it?’”
It should’ve been it.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for your dad,” he tells me over the phone.
Suddenly, I get a similar feeling in my stomach, the kind of jolt that takes your breath away.
My dad and I
Father and son relationships can be among the most complicated in life. Mine certainly was. I loved and admired my father for all that he gave me and all that he endured, for the physical and psychological battles he waged for decades. But I also resented him, justly or not, for allowing some of those demons to get the best of him. They cost him a marriage and time with his children, and I was never able to tear down the walls he built when he returned from war. I felt betrayed because he never let me in. I felt cheated out of really knowing my dad.
As his birthdays, Veterans Days and other milestone passed, I tried to tuck it all away, convince myself it was no big deal, and just get from one day to the next as I raised my own family. But it gnawed at me silently, especially after he died and, I thought, took with him any chance of a deeper connection. And then, unexpectedly, life gave me an opportunity to love him more and understand him better.
This is the story of how it happened.
An unexpected phone call
There was a piece of my father that he kept locked away, hidden in the recesses of his memory and unexpressed pain. Like many Vietnam veterans, William Sargeant rarely talked about his war experience. He buried it. Or, at least, he tried.
I was told he “served in the shit,” a fitting way of saying he saw his share of killing. But if a war movie popped on TV, my father turned it off. If I pressed him on his Vietnam experiences, he ducked the question and changed the subject.
I’d seen and read a lot about Vietnam, so I figured it must’ve been hell for him. As a teenager, I was forbidden from enlisting as the United States fought in the first Iraq War: “I paid my debt, so you don’t have to,” my father told me.
He served with the 2nd squadron in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, a unit of the United States Army nicknamed the “Blackhorse Regiment.” He received two Purple Hearts for wounds in action. After he handed his dog tags to me, his service number — U.S. 51982371 — became a pair of lottery pick 4s.
Still, I never pretended to know what he experienced from June 1968 through June 1969 while fighting in the war. Maybe the closest I came to getting something out of him was when we visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. in 2003. As he sat on a bench surveying the 58,000 names of the dead soldiers, carved in granite, I asked what he was thinking. Once more, he changed the subject.
“Let’s go get some ice cream,” he said.
He died not long after, at age 57. The cause of death was liver disease, but it wasn’t the result of alcohol abuse. Decades earlier, his illness officially was attributed to Agent Orange, a defoliating herbicide used by the U.S. military to clear the Vietnam jungles. It has been blamed for cancer, immune system damage, nerve disorders, muscular ailments and a long list of other life-altering and life-ending diseases in thousands of soldiers.
Not long after my father’s death in September 2005, my uncle, Joe Jucciarone, sent clues to the Vietnam experience. Inside a cardboard box were hundreds of photos and dozens of letters my dad wrote to his beloved sister, Susan. But life got in the way and the lid stayed on that box, literally and figuratively: My first daughter, Elizabeth, was born six days before he died.
Many years later, however, the COVID pandemic, with its unexpected lockdown, gave me free time, and just before Christmas, I finally thumbed through the photos that spanned his two-year enlistment. I read his letters, which detailed his boot camp in Fort Dix, N.J., to his final stay at Fort Hancock, S.C. — with the year in Vietnam in between.
The accounts were rich in detail, offering a glimpse at a man who wouldn’t bring me into the world for another seven years. He described his anxiety over being away from home and wrote about his mundane tasks as he went about soldier life. But mostly he kept it light, holding back the horrific details he experienced on the battlefields.
“Our old Lt. has gone off the line to become X.O. (executive officer of E Troop),’' my father wrote on March 15, 1969. “He was from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, so maybe with a little bit of luck I’ll be able to get a rear detachment job. If not I’ll have to make sure the new Lt. is broken in the ‘right’ way.’'
Spread over hundreds of pages were names of the soldiers he fought with in the Blackhorse troop, and I did what every son would do — especially an investigative reporter: I punched into my computer some of the less common names that would be easier to track. With contact information I hoped was still current, I emailed a few of his former troop-mates. I called others and left messages.
I waited for any response. And waited. And waited. Just after Easter, I was in the backyard when an unrecognizable number popped on my cell phone. The caller introduced himself as Nick Martinez, and he mentioned a message I had left on his home answering machine.
“Your dad was a damn fine soldier,” he told me.
Caught off guard, I stumbled my way to a quiet spot inside the house, listening as he explained how the military’s privacy policies kept him from finding my father for more than 50 years. I scrambled to locate my tape recorder so I could capture every detail of the conversation.
As a reporter for nearly 25 years, I’ve written dozens of profiles on people committing acts of courage. Little did I know the man who raised me just might’ve been the most courageous of them all.
‘We were kids’
It’s six weeks after that call, and I’m standing in the lobby of a Courtyard Marriott near Ann Arbor, Mich., about to meet the man my father kept alive a half-century ago. I’m not the one who should be here. It should be my dad. But maybe this is how it is meant to be. I shake Nick Martinez’s hand and deliver an awkward hug.
A short and stocky man with a fading hairline and a neatly trimmed grey beard, Nick invites me to sit at a table. He speaks in a soft voice and gestures gracefully as he relives the day he landed in San Francisco following his honorable discharge.
“We didn’t get any hero’s welcome coming back,” he says. “We landed, they said, ‘Put your dirty clothes over there,’ and then they sent us to a different part of the terminal. That’s where the protestors were, and they came at us with tomatoes and bananas, and called us ‘baby killers.’ … I mean, what were we supposed to do?’’
I tell Nick about a Memorial Day parade I had recently attended in the Monmouth County town where I live. He shrugs.
“Where were those salutes when we got back?” Nick asks.
My father had a different perspective of the war protestors. He once told me and my brother “they did their part to make sure we got home.’’ If the war was popular, Vietnam never would’ve ended, he believed.
He hadn’t completed high school in 1967 when he was drafted. He was five months shy of his 20th birthday when he was dispatched to Fort Dix for basic training in January 1968.
“Most of us were just 19 or 20 years old at the time,” Nick says. “We were kids.”
History books say the United States entered the Vietnam War to prevent the spread of communism after the North Vietnam government attempted to seize control of South Vietnam in the early 1960s. Our involvement in the war bitterly divided the country, and many Americans — lied to by political and military leaders about the war’s costs in lives and dollars — demonized the young men who fought.
It didn’t matter that many of the 2.2 million Americans who went to Vietnam, like William Sargeant and Nick Martinez, didn’t want to be there.
Death was 6 feet away
I quickly press Nick on the details of how my father saved his life.
Nick and his wife, Becky, are sitting in chairs across from me in the lobby. Nick is wearing a white shirt emblazoned with American flags and motorcycles. He takes a sip of water, glances at Becky and relives his worst nightmare — the day he stared down a Viet Cong sniper.
“I saw the barrel of the gun. I saw the guy look at me,” he says. “I had just laid my rifle down. I was picking up another guy, who was dead. I was trying to grab him to pull him back when I heard this noise and looked back and saw this Viet Cong sniper right there.”
He points to a computer desk about six feet away.
“My gun was down so I reached for my .45 and I got it this far out,” he says, raising his arm just below his chest. “[He] got three shots off and one of them hit me. And when I got hit, I got thrown back from here to that window.”
As Nick laid in the patch of weeds, Spc. William Sargeant was the first soldier to arrive.
“When I got hit in the stomach, your dad pulled me behind a tree,” Nick says. “He was talking to me, but I was wounded so bad I couldn’t hear anything. But I know he was saying, ‘Stick with me! Stay with me!’”
They had been ambushed by six Vietcong soldiers. As bullets whizzed by them, Nick says my father balanced on one knee and sprayed the area with his M-60 machine gun, held with two hands.
“He put out a lot of firepower — I couldn’t hear it, but I could see the bullet casings coming out of the machine gun,” Nick says. “He wasn’t taking any cover. I was afraid that he was going to get hit because I could see the bullets coming by us. I guess the Lord was watching over him because he never got touched.”
When I first spoke with Nick by phone, he told me my father carried him to a helicopter for evacuation. I discover that’s not completely accurate.
“You didn’t carry people, you dragged them by the ankle,’’ he says laughing. “Your dad was, like, 160 pounds and was carrying all that gear. What was important for me was getting out of there, and he made sure to do that.
“I could see tears in his eyes because I think he thought he lost me. He thought I was gone because I had been hit in the stomach, and I thought I was gone, too. When I woke up three days later in a tent hospital, I thanked the Lord.”
Fifty-three years later, he has the bullet that nearly killed him.
“The doctor saved it for me,” he says.
The letters home
That firefight happened on Christmas Eve 1968, Nick says, and I thumb through a green folder containing the letters my father wrote during his enlistment. I pull one out and hand it to Nick. It’s dated Dec. 24:
“Needless to say this isn’t going to be one of my better Christmases. But I’m trying to make the best of things and take it as it comes. We are out on a sweep right now and as far as I know there is no Christmas truce. Right now we are … in an open field. And it could just be the spot where we spend the night.’’
The three-page letter continues with an update:
“Today is Christmas day. And just as I expected we spent the night here in this open field. It wasn’t much of a Christmas Eve but they did send out two cans of Pabst beer per man. And I had a little bit of chianti left. So I was trying to make the best of it.’’
Nick sits in silence as he contemplates the obvious omission: My father never mentioned saving his life.
“That’s your dad for you,” he says. “Sometimes we were in two or three firefights a day. We didn’t want our loved ones to know all the danger.”
Turns out, Nick wasn’t the only man my father saved, or the only man who considered him his best friend. While combing through old photos, I came upon the name Elzo Berry.
Late in his Vietnam stint, he was ordered to take the job as a driver of one of the armored vehicles. It was a dangerous mission, he said, because if his tank were to hit a land mine the driver had little chance at survival.
“I don’t like to say no to anybody,’’ he told me. “And this lieutenant wanted me to take the job so bad, and he kept on me about it, and your dad was determined that I didn’t take that job. Because of him I didn’t and it probably wasn’t two weeks later that the guy who was driving hit a mine and he was killed.
“So I figured your dad saved my life too.’’
The next day I mailed Elzo six photos I had with him and my dad. Elzo, now 76 and living in his native Tennessee, told me that he and my father had made plans to find each other after they both returned home — a reunion that would never take place.
“I’ll tell you how close we were,’’ he said. “His grandmother sent him two $1 bills for his birthday. He gave me one of them. I still got it. When he started to leave the country he tore half of it and gave it to me, hoping we could put it back together someday.’’
Haunted by Vietnam’s demons
Nick had been searching for my father for 50 years.
“I even wrote the Army and they said they needed permission before they gave out his information,’’ he tells me.
He’s sitting across from me to ease the pain of regret. I was searching for something too — for an opportunity to learn more about my father, who, among other things, was my first Little League coach and the man with whom I shared a love of music, sports and newspapers.
But I also knew him as a flawed man who had a decades-long addiction to pain medication. He certainly had his share of pain he needed to medicate.
One of my earliest memories is sitting in a crowded emergency room in the summer of 1981 as a nurse drew blood from me and my brother, Michael, to determine whether we had Hepatitis C. I was 5 and my father, then 33, was dying of liver disease at South Amboy Hospital. Doctors told my mother, Deborah, he was a lost cause.
As a priest delivered Last Rites, my mother sprawled across his chest and screamed, “You’re not leaving us, Billy!” Determined to get him the best care possible, she convinced a liver specialist at Mount Sinai to take my father’s case. Within hours, he was transported via helicopter to the New York City hospital.
My father lived another 24 years, thanks to my mother’s perseverance. But it wasn’t easy. He was sick throughout the 1980s, in and out of Veterans Administration hospitals. Unable to work, my father joined thousands of Vietnam veterans to force the federal government to acknowledge that Agent Orange was the cause of their suffering.
Records say more than 11 million gallons of Agent Orange were spread over 5 million acres of Vietnam jungle between 1962 and 1971. But for decades, the VA insisted there was no definitive link between exposure and illness.
“The way they simply ignored the fact that this dioxin had caused life-altering illnesses in our Vietnam vets bothered me at the time — and still bothers me today,’’ Rep. Chris Smith (R-Mercer, Monmouth) says as we sit in his legislative office in Hamilton. “In many ways, Vietnam vets had a much more difficult time returning home than the veterans from previous wars did. And in many ways, our government leaders let them down, too.’’
Smith’s first legislative act in 1981 was to co-sponsor a measure providing compensation for those exposed to Agent Orange. The proposal sat for a decade before President George H. Bush signed a bill in 1991 to compensate Vietnam vets suffering from sicknesses caused by Agent Orange. My father was awarded a monthly disability stipend of $677.
I confide in Nick that my father battled his share of demons. I discover his foxhole buddy did, too.
“I became an alcoholic when I got back from Vietnam,” he tells me. “I lost my family for a couple months because of the alcohol. Your experiences come back so much stronger when you’re drinking. You’re so angry at everything about what happened. You wish you could’ve done more to save your brothers.’’
Sam “Doc” Allison, a medic assigned to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Squadron, was two months shy of his 20th birthday when he was killed on July 9, 1968. Frederick Reed Will died from the same enemy fire. He was 21.
“Doc was right behind me, working with us in the Iron Triangle,” Nick says. “I was walking point. My commanding officer told me to check out some bunkers. There was a guy behind me. His name was Guidry. He was a gunner, about 6 foot tall, a Black guy from Louisiana. We called him ‘Louie.’ I asked him for a grenade and as I pulled the pin, I saw the rifle come out. I quickly threw the grenade and jumped out to the side as he started firing.
“I remember feeling the heat from the bullets going by me. How they missed me, I don’t know.”
Nick didn’t remember if my father was with him on this mission in the Hua Nghia province of South Vietnam.
Hours after our interview, I scanned through my father’s letters hoping to find a clue. There’s no record from July 9, 1968.
The closest I can find is from the day before.
It was his first week in Vietnam.
“Hi Sue, Today is July 8 and it my second day out in the field. So far, so good. It looks like I finally got a break when I got with the Armored Cavalry instead of being a leg soldier. Those guys have to walk everywhere. At least I get to ride (the) tanks. By tonight we will be moving down towards Saigon.’’
‘It was brutal’
I was around 12 when I was watching “Patton,” the World War II film starring George C. Scott as U.S. General George S. Patton. My father walked into the room and told me to change the channel to the Mets game. The memory came rushing back when I saw Patton’s son’s signature on my dad’s two Purple Hearts.
George S. Patton IV, the son of the famed WWII general, was the commander of the 11th Armor Cavalry Regiment, and during one of the bloodiest years of the Vietnam War, his quest was to destroy the Viet Cong infrastructure. Operation Treasure Isle, a nine-day “cordon and search operation” would be dangerous — and many wouldn’t be coming back, Patton told the soldiers.
“Where you’re going … when we get back … not all of you are going to be sitting there,” he said. “This is a bad area. I want you guys to watch out for yourselves and cover your friend’s back. Some of you are not going to come back. It hurts me to tell you that because that’s one of the things I hate the most, is to lose any of you guys. But I don’t want no prisoners. I want a body count.”
Records show that around midnight on Jan. 10, 1969, the 2nd squadron closed in on Tan Binh from three directions. By afternoon of the following day, the unit had the sealed off the district. The operation was said to have netted 65% of the known Viet Cong and dozens of suspected supporters.
“We lost two guys,” Nick says. “A lot of us were wounded. I took shrapnel in my cheek. I didn’t know whether to scream or cry. It was brutal.’’
As I thumb through my dad’s letters, I realize the date of the mission was significant for another reason.
“In case you didn’t realize it yesterday (Jan. 10) was my anniversary — one year of working exclusively for my Uncle Sam,’’ my father quipped. “I’d hate to say an unkind word about one of my uncles but I sure will be glad when we go our separate ways.’’
The four-page letter turned serious before he signed off.
“Our main mission for the next 10 days is to keep a watchful eye on a neighboring village. In between the eye straining we will probably have a mixture of road security, daytime O.P.’s (watching certain suspicious locations), convoy security, and other choice details. I’ll stop now so I don’t overtax my delicate but superior grey matter. Till tomorrow; or sometime. Bill.’’
My dad, the pot dealer
I can admit it now, because the cops won’t come and break down the door: In the 1980s, when he was too sick to work and awaiting disability compensation, my father sold pot. Weed, scattered throughout the house, was weighed with a small scale kept on a dining room shelf. We had many more sandwich bags than we’d ever need for our school lunches. My dad’s buddies stopped by to make purchases. He never got rich off marijuana sales, but they paid the rent.
For years, I struggled with my father being a drug dealer. But a few minutes into my conversation with Nick, I understand the root of it.
“Marijuana was easy to get over there,” he says. “I couldn’t buy it because I was an officer. But your Dad always had it, and he just waved his hand and I knew what that meant: ‘Hey, let’s go for a walk.’ We’d smoke it. But that didn’t make us bad guys. That was just something that got us through.”
Marijuana was a coping mechanism when death was all around and ready to pounce at any moment. Many brought that habit home to deal with dark and haunting memories.
“We lost a kid from California — it was his first day out in combat,” Nick says. “I can remember the chopper bringing him in the day before.”
The kid, nicknamed California, joined Chico, Chi-Town and Jersey on a mission just south of Lao Nin near a rubber plantation and the jungle.
“The kid got shot because he wanted to walk point man,” Nick says. “It wasn’t his time. It was a burst of maybe 10 to 12 rounds and I think every one of them hit him. He shouldn’t have been walking point man.”
Later that day, the unit received a telegram from California’s wife. She had just had a baby. As a commanding officer, Nick had to write a letter home. He remembers crying in my father’s arms.
“I broke down for several hours trying to write that letter to his wife,” he says. “How do you tell somebody he was a hero? Which he was. He went to Vietnam. He had a rifle in his hands. He was a hero. But I had to lie about him doing things because I wanted to make him look good to his family. I didn’t want them to think he just got there and was shot. I wanted to make him look good. I wrote the letter the best I could.
“I remember your dad sitting by me, telling me, ‘It’s going to be OK, Chico. Do the best you can.’ We stuck together for just about everything. We talked about how we were going to do a mission, how we were going to do this or that. If it wasn’t OK with him, it wasn’t OK with me. We had each other’s back. We did lose some men. It was a war. We’d get back to camp, have a smoke and try to forget about it. But you don’t forget about it.”
Turns out, they saved each other
I traveled 629 miles to hear the intimate details of how my father was a war hero, but I find out Nick saved his life, too.
The date was Sept. 12, 1968.
The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment’s 2nd squadron Troop E was setting up a blocking position northeast of the village of Loc Thanh.
Nick was stationed on the second tank. My father was sitting aboard the lead tank with an M-60 gun in hand.
On a dead-calm day, a branch fluttered on a tree in the distance. Nick knew danger was imminent. He whispered to the communications officer to remain silent. His lieutenant told him to stay down, but Nick defied the order, stood up and fired into the trees as the sniper aimed for his head.
“He shot once or twice but missed me,” Nick says. “I took a couple of pops at him, and down he went from the tree.”
In the ensuing firefight, Nick and my dad were wounded, but no one in the 2nd squadron was killed that day. Nick was awarded a Bronze Star.
Goodbye and good luck
As my two-day quest ends, Nick hands me a $50 bill and makes a simple request: “Take this home, buy some flowers, and put them on your dad’s grave for me.”
“That won’t be easy,” I tell him. “He’s not actually buried.”
But that’s about to change, I promise. Not long after our initial conversation, I decided to place my father’s cremains where they belong: Brigadier General William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery. The Wrightstown, N.J.-based cemetery is a final resting place for more than 100,000 soldiers and their spouses.
My father will be one of them, I tell Nick.
“I wish I would’ve gotten a chance to see him before he had passed,” Nick says. “We would’ve had some good times. Your dad was a good man. He could make the sad man laugh. That’s just how good he was.’’
Nick scrolls through the stack of photos I have of my dad’s time in Vietnam, then pauses as he reaches the last one. He shakes his head in disbelief.
There he is, 52 years younger, standing with a bag over his shoulder and a big smile on his face.
“That’s me in front of the freedom bird,” he says. “I remember your dad seeing me off, giving me a hug and saying, ‘Drink a beer for me.’ It’s kind of emotional because you’re with these guys for 10 or 11 months. You get to know them pretty good.”
A few days after Nick returned to the United States for his final six-month tour at a Kentucky base camp, he wrote my father a letter. My father replied on May 18, 1969, expressing “surprise” at how Nick found the time to write.
Nick hands me an envelope containing my father’s letter. He’s kept it all these years. My hands tremble as I open the neatly folded four-page note.
“I have 34 days left but it still seems like a lifetime,” my father wrote.
The letter takes a dark turn. Unlike the letters my father wrote to his sister, which were mostly light, this one was soldier to soldier. He describes a bloody battle at Xuan Loc, where Americans were “overrun,” and reinforcements never arrived in time.
“The road was heavily mined and there were snipers all the way,” my father wrote.
Fourteen American soldiers were killed.
Just days before, many of them had wished Nick goodbye and good luck.
There was a reason why 15 years passed before we got around to burying my father’s cremains. He was eligible for a military service, but my mother didn’t want one. She blamed Vietnam for my father’s suffering, criticizing the Veterans Administration for its failure to give him the benefits he deserved and for the substandard medical treatment he received from the VA in the decades after he was diagnosed with liver disease.
She changed her mind late in 2017, just before she died in January 2018. I kept their ashes in my home until July 6, when I honored their spirit with a military service at the Doyle Veterans Memorial cemetery. As a soldier played Taps, a fellow soldier folded a flag, which was presented to me.
“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service,” he said.
I kept my emotions in check until the last line. The service removed any final doubt that this is where my father belongs.
For months since starting this journey to learn about a part of my father I never knew, I wondered why he never shared his Vietnam experiences.
Was his year in Vietnam the reason he battled those demons? Were those haunting memories the reason for the toxic relationship with my mother? Were they why she took me 2,800 miles away from him when I was 12? Did his fighting spirit convince her to bring me back?
As I walked to his final resting place, I stopped questioning.
Like so many of the veterans resting across this 225-acre cemetery, he buried it.
A half-century later, it’s still raw for Nick, whose courageous sharing is a gift I can never repay.
I know the story now.
As I knelt next to the granite gravestone, I placed my hand over the bronze marker.
WILLIAM H. SARGEANT
SP4 U.S. ARMY
MAY 12, 1948 | SEP 6, 2005
PURPLE HEART & OLC
I thanked him for being my hero.
A few weeks before this story was set to run, I was returning home from a road trip covering Rutgers when I found a letter sitting on the kitchen table. It was from Elzo Berry, the man my father convinced not to take the dangerous job of driving an armored vehicle.
“Thank you for the packet I received yesterday,” he wrote on a water-stained sheet of white looseleaf paper. “Thank you for the photos. Bill was my best friend.”
The letter was spare in its language. Maybe, like my father, Elzo had spent a lifetime shielding his family from what happened in Vietnam. He wasn’t writing to share more details of what happened back then, just to let me know he had never forgotten about my father.
The proof was now in my shaking hands. It was the other half of the torn dollar bill my dad had given to him.
It’s a gift I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.
But it still leaves me wondering: What happened to the other half?
About the Authors
Keith Sargeant covers Rutgers football and college sports for NJ Advance Media. You can find his reporting on NJ.com and in The Star-Ledger.
This article originally ran on page 1 of the print edition of the Star Ledger, and can be found at: