Born on January 21st, 1949, Elwood “Woody” Stone joined his family living in McGuffy, Ohio. He was the ninth of twelve children born to Mason and Edna Stone. Though they were never rich the family lacked for little. Mason was a welding instructor at Rockwell, while Edna kept the brood well and fed, by managing a large garden, canning vegetables, and raising numerous chickens, ducks, turkeys, two pigs and a Jersey milk cow. All the children were expected to pitch in from a very young age to help out.
Along with a strong work ethic the children were taught by strict discipline to respect God, country and family. This would be ingrained in Woody and he would carry these standards into war and throughout his life.
Mason was a strict disciplinarian and used corporal punishment to keep his children in line. At the age of 18, Woody stepped in between his father and a younger sister, refusing to let his father use a strap on her. This led to a rift between Woody and his father. Woody left home shortly afterwards, living with a neighbor while he continued his education at Kenton High School. Because of his patriotism, feelings of obligation to serve and a desire to get away, Woody left school enlisting in the US Army on September 25, 1967.
Inducted in Columbus, Ohio, with a group of forty other young men, Woody and his companions were shipped first to Ft. Gordon, Georgia and then on to Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, for basic training. At the time Woody stood a whopping 5’9” tall and weighed 160 pounds sopping wet. He survived two months of basic training before being assigned to Ft. Carson, Colorado, for training in metal repair/truck maintenance. This training lasted a year.
There was an Army rule that no two brothers could be assigned to the Vietnam conflict at the same time. Woody’s older brother, Harliss, was a military policeman/dog handler in the Army and was scheduled to be deployed to Vietnam immediately. Harliss was married and had a baby on the way. Woody volunteered to go to Vietnam and Harliss was reassigned to South Korea.
Woody’s unit was ordered in 1968 to begin training for deployment. After six weeks of simulation warfare in mock Vietnamese villages at Ft. Carson his unit was transported to Oakland, then onto Hawaii, Wake Island, the Philippines and finally touched down in Saigon.
Woody was assigned to the 4th Army Infantry Division, Maintenance battalion stationed in Pleiku, a city of approximately 100,00 located in the country’s central highland region. Though this was supposed to be a support position, the army required each unit to select individuals to serve as members of a patrol guarding the perimeter of the camp. Supposedly this rotation was to last for about a week and others would take their place on patrol detail. The truth was the rotation never happened and the platoon called itself the “perma-patrol group”.
Woody was strong, and his platoon leader assigned him to carry the M-60 machine gun, several boleros of rounds for it, seven clips for his M-16 which he also carried and approximately 60 pounds of food, bedding and supplies for week long patrols in the surrounding jungles.
It is here as we sat talking that Woody had to take a break as his eyes clouded up with tears and the quiet voice cracked with emotion…
In his mind he is back on patrol a few clicks outside of camp searching for Viet Cong, He says a name, “Robert England III, we called him Bobby, was a few feet away from where a 122 rocket hit…..there was not enough left of him to collect to fill a ten gallon bag”….
I let him take a breather and recompose…
The patrols continued, out for a week, staying in village “hooches” especially during the rainy season. The Montagnard people, (French for the mountain dwellers), were friendly to the American soldiers, welcoming them into their villages and homes. It was on one such patrol Woody’s world changed forever.
The patrol’s mission was to locate a large group of Viet Cong, rumored to be several thousand strong, get very close, and call in for artillery and air support. It was a very dangerous mission. It was necessary to get within a couple hundred yards of the enemy to get accurate intel. This required wading across a river that was neck high to the soldiers, battling the current, with their weapons held above high above their heads. By the bank was a small drop off the soldiers had to jump down to, to get into the water. Following several others in his platoon, Woody jumped, hit a muddy spot and felt his ankle snap. Unable to return to camp until their mission was complete, his fellow soldiers inflated an air mattress and floated Woody across the river. They set up a perimeter, spread out over several dozen yards, close enough to hear the enemy’s voices. They were notified that the rescue evac helicopter was pinned down by enemy fire and would be delayed for hours.
“I was terrified that I was going to die there. That the platoon of eleven men would be forced to leave me, to achieve their mission. I was crying from fear and pain when the medic, a 23-year-old, laid down next to me, assuring me neither he nor any man of the platoon would ever leave anyone behind. He calmed me, handed me a 45-caliber pistol and then we had to become absolutely silent due to the close proximity of the VC. We laid there for what seemed forever, afraid to say a word. Behind the medic I saw, on a banana leaf, a huge spider crawling down, heading in his direction. I knew many of the spiders were deadly poisonous, that the medic was in danger, but we weren’t allowed to speak, so I just watched as it crawled closer and closer…. terrified to speak and frozen with fear that if I didn’t…”
“In addition my mind was playing games, convincing me that if I needed to avoid capture I had to turn the gun on myself. I was 19, in pain, in hell and wondering how I got there. I also thought of my father, how I would never be able to see him again, to apologize to him.”
The platoon was eventually able to back away, again floating Woody across the river on a mattress. The Huey finally arrived, hovering over the river, a few feet above the water. Arms reached down and dragged him into the chopper. As the Huey took off, Woody could hear bullets striking the undercarriage of the chopper. He was sent to a MASH unit and stayed there for three weeks recuperating.
Again, Woody paused, back in the present…
“For years afterwards, back in the states, every time I would fill a glass of water and begin to take a drink, there, swimming on top of the water in the glass… was that same spider. Haunting me. I would freak and throw the water out, trying to get rid of the vision, the memory. This happened literally hundreds of times.”
After returning to active duty he was assigned to drive a truck from camp to local villages, usually three to four miles away to pick up villagers to come back and work in the camp.
Woody paused again, “You know when these young men were wounded so bad, that there was no hope of surviving, they weren’t afraid of dying. They were focused on getting word back home to loved ones that as they lay dying their last thoughts were of home. He recalled Jacob, a young soldier who did not survive his wounds, begging Woody to get word to his wife Linda, back in the states, that his dying words were, “I love you Linda.”
In September of 1969, his year complete, Woody and a planeload of soldiers lifted off from Saigon, in a commercial airplane. They were treated like royalty by the nine stewardesses for the entire duration of the fourteen-hour flight. The plane touched down in Oakland and several of the soldiers deplaned and knelt kissing the ground on American soil. The initial welcome at the Oakland Army reception center was wonderful. Reality hit when he walked the San Francisco terminal and the cries of “baby-killer”, “disgrace to the uniform” and the flashing of middle fingers welcomed him. He was confused! “I was an American soldier, who had honorably served his country, and this was people thought of me?!”
“The war followed me home. I felt such guilt that my mistake of breaking my ankle had almost gotten my fellow soldiers killed. I constantly thought of suicide but had been raised that those who took their own life were damned to eternal hell. It is the only thing that kept me alive. I constantly begged God for relief, to take this pain away.”… This war destroyed the hearts and minds of soldiers returning home.”
Wanting to put the war behind and get on with life Woody married and tried to settle down. Unfortunately, there were so many triggers to flashbacks like special events and holidays that led to depression and crying. His first wife was unable to understand or cope with his behavior. One day she drew a line in the sand, “I am sick of the war crap! Knock it off or I will divorce you!” Woody walked out. “I had to get away from her.”
Marriages two and three fared no better. There were no therapists or counselors trained to deal with the mental trauma and PTSD these soldiers were inflicted with. Woody found no answers or relief. He was able to function at work, managing 44 people and five production lines but in his personal life only his religious teachings kept him from suicide.
Woody joined the Stonebridge church congregation and became active in their Christian Singles program. It was here fate would intervene and life would finally take a turn for the better. He was coordinating a singles event one night eighteen years ago, when a lovely woman walked into the church.
“I immediately asked her to join my group and thankfully she agreed. As we got to know each other she noticed I was quiet but told me she could see I had a kind heart.”
“I see a lot of good in you Woody, but you need to talk to someone”. She took my hand and said, “We can work through this.” That was all it took. With Sandra’s tender but strong love and support Woody began to finally heal. They were married seventeen years ago. He made a commitment that each day would include giving Sandra a smile and a hug, and expressions of love.
The day the greatest healing took effect for Woody occurred three years ago, right here in Findlay. A simple errand to the downtown Chase Bank would change fifty years of deeply held emotion.
“As I walked up to the teller, I noticed from her features that she was Vietnamese. I asked her if she was from Vietnam. Her reply jarred me.” “I am from North Vietnam.”
“Instantly all the hatred for the North Vietnamese welled up in my throat and I took a step back. I told her I had served as a soldier in Vietnam.”
She continued to speak, “My family lost two uncles in that war along with many other young men in our town. The war destroyed a lot of people on both sides. But we have put the war behind us. We have tried to heal and move on. I came to America to learn to forgive.” She extended her hand to me and gently asked, “Can we put an end to the war, here, today?”
Woody states, “I paused and then slowly extended my hand taking hers and we shook hands. I realized she was soft, warm, a person, not a hated enemy, not a monster. As I held her hand I felt fifty years of hate drain away. I left the bank, sat in my car and cried for the longest time. Tears of relief, healing and finally peace.”
(Editor’s note: This just is a thin slice of the experiences of a young soldier and the weight he carried for so many years.)
“Welcome Home” at last, Woody Stone!