FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
What if you are the person left changed by forever by combat? That happened to retired Army First Sergeant Gregory Jackson, known to his friends as Jack. In November of 1967, Jack was shot multiple times in South Vietnam. The battle for Hill 875 was one of the deadliest engagements of the war. His fight for life changed him forever.
Thank you for coming into our studios.
Mr. GREGORY JACKSON (Vietnam War Veteran): Oh, thank you.
CHIDEYA: So let's go back to before your enlistment. You were a college student. You had a football scholarship. What happened that got you into the Army?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, I got injured playing football and I had to sit out a year of playing ball. And being young and being bored, I wanted to get to be my manhood a little bit early. So I thought I could do that by joining the Army. And the way they told me it was going to work was, I was going to go for Germany for three years and I could play football for an Army over there and come home and go back to school. But it turned out that after a year, I went to Vietnam.
CHIDEYA: Were you angry when you were first told that you were being deployed?
Mr. JACKSON: I wasn't angry. I was in no man's land. The day before I left to come home to go to Vietnam, I was stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Clarksville, Tennessee, the home of Wilmer Rudolph. And before I left I saw this water fountain. And it's said white only. And that made me think - I used the water fountain anyway - but the thing was, here I am going to fight for -this is my country. And I'm fighting for somebody else's freedom, supposedly, and we don't even have freedom here.
CHIDEYA: So you go to Vietnam. You are in this battle on this hill. Take me inside what was going on in that battle. How many troops were there on the hill? What were you trying to accomplish and what ended up happening?
Mr. JACKSON: We were supposed to take the hill. We don't know the reason why. The hill, they had underground hospitals on this hill. And they had North Vietnamese regular army troops that were there. And we were trapped on the hill for five days. Most of the people got hit in the first couple of days, died because we couldn't get anybody in and we couldn't get anybody out. And it was just complete chaos. And…
CHIDEYA: So you were trapped with some of your fellow soldiers for five days in battle on this one hill?
Mr. JACKSON: On this one hill. Yeah. And it wasn't like an unusual factor because a couple of weeks before, we were trapped for three days. But what keeps you going is the love you have for your people. It's like the family, in the military gets to be that way. And the best race relationships - I hate to say it - is during war because you don't know who might have to help you, who you might have to help. But you know you got to do it.
CHIDEYA: Was there ever a moment maybe when you wanted to give up but someone told you to keep going?
Mr. JACKSON: No, because I was responsible for nine other people in my squad. And I couldn't let them know that I wasn't control as much as possible, and that we were - our effort was for all of us to make it home. That's what it was.
CHIDEYA: What happened to those nine other men?
Mr. JACKSON: There's only three of us left. There's only three of us left. And what was so bad, I was already medevacked off the hill. And a week later, the people who were left behind left the hill and the enemy moved right back in. So it was like - and that was the continuation of my whole tour, going back to places, losing other people for no point, no purpose to me.
CHIDEYA: When you say you were medevacked off the hill, what kind of injuries did you have?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, the first time on Hill 830, I had shrapnel wounds from a mortar round that landed between me and my slack man. He lost one leg up to the knee, and the other leg up to the ankle. And we couldn't get him out. And he died on the hill. And the second time, I got shot twice from the machine gun on Hill 875. Got left behind because they thought I was dead. I hid under some bodies to keep from getting killed because easily if you moved or made any noise; they were shooting people in the head.
And I was blessed enough that one guy lost his eye trying to keep me from getting wounded again. And another person came and got me after three hours, put me on his shoulder and brought me at least a hundred yards, back to where we could get medical help. And bullets were flying everywhere. I just knew we're going to get killed, but he got me back.
CHIDEYA: You've come into our studios at NPR West today. You're wearing a hat and a jacket that proclaim you as a Vietnam veteran. You're sitting in a wheelchair. How do you feel about what you've lived through? Do you feel that any of it was worth it? Do you feel that this was just a path you had to walk? Do you feel that it was a curse? What do you feel about your time?
Mr. JACKSON: It was beautiful for the people I met during my military career. It changed my outlook on life. I still battle with physical problems and mental problems with PTSD. But, no, I don't think any war is worth it. Vietnam wasn't worth it. It was so bad. Iraq is a copy of Vietnam. And the way I look at it and a lot of veterans look at it, we hope that this country wouldn't - the leaders of this country wouldn't make the same mistake twice after Vietnam, but now they got Iraq.
And it's very disappointing and I feel a lot of hurt for the Iraq veterans because they're going to come back and then they're going to see what the Vietnam veterans went through and what they're still going through. Benefits, there are 400,000 veterans with claims that they're behind. Yet the people that run the VA make 300 and some thousand dollars a year, you know, but if you check them out they're not producing. They need to be fired, terminated or whatever. But this community, people in the United States, they really need to get together and push for veterans' rights and their benefits.
CHIDEYA: Well, Jack, I just want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. JACKSON: Oh, and thank you for having me. And I appreciate it, and God bless you. Thank you.
CHIDEYA: We've been talking with retired Army First Sergeant Gregory Jackson about the injuries he sustained while fighting in the Vietnam War. He was with me at our NPR West studios.
And coming up, our commentator Jeff Obafemi Carr about his literal walk of faith.
You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.