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Confronting civil strife here and overseas

On a summer evening in early August 1966, Edward Gibson and several of his teenage buddies sat on a Steelawanna Avenue porch in Lackawanna and pondered their futures.

He recalls them looking over at the nearby Bethlehem Steel plant and being turned off by the prospect of spending their lives working in a steel mill.

Inevitably, Vietnam entered the discussion.

"We were young and dumb and didn't know what it was really all about," Gibson, now 63, said in reflecting on that pivotal evening when he and his friends decided that the military might be the door to adventure.

"There were about eight of us, and four of us enlisted, and the rest ended up getting drafted. Each and every one of us went to Vietnam, and fortunately we all made it back home."

The bravado of that evening gradually faded as the reality of the military settled in, Gibson said.

Yet there was adventure.

"I was stationed in San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967 and was having too much fun to go over to Vietnam," he recalled.

Having scored high on military aptitude tests, Gibson decided to apply for Officer Candidate School.

"I knew I could not be accepted because you had to have a college education," he said, "but I figured by going through the process, I would put off Vietnam for three or four months.

"But so many officers were getting killed in Vietnam that the Army changed the rules, and I was accepted. Also at that particular time, only 2.3 percent of the officers in the military were African-American."

Still, Gibson had no plans of accepting the invitation to advance.

"I was laughing about it," he said, "and told some older noncommissioned officers who were African-American that I wasn't going to go, and they said, 'Oh, yes you are. You'll be doing this for all of us. This isn't just about you. It would be selfish for you to turn it down.' "

After graduating from OCS as a second lieutenant, his first duties took him to trouble spots in the United States in the spring and summer of 1968.

"Martin Luther King was killed, and there were riots all over the country," he recalled, "and I was sent to the South Side of Chicago. We patrolled for a few days, but the riots were over.

"Then I was sent back to Chicago in August, just in case there were riots at the Democratic National Convention. They tore up the place big time, but we never had to go into the city."

That was a good thing.

Gibson explained that if he had been ordered into the city, he would have refused.

"I'd made up my mind ahead of time I wouldn't go," he said. "My mother, Rachel, was in Chicago to join in the Poor People's March."

A couple of months later, Gibson left behind stateside civil strife for a much more dangerous setting.

"I was sent to an area of Vietnam where we were trying to give all of the military duties to South Vietnamese soldiers. I was an adviser to three companies of scouts who were from an indigenous tribe," he explained. "There were about 40 of them per company, and they lived up in the mountains of the Central Highlands. We worked close to the border where Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos come together."

North Vietnamese soldiers and enemy supplies often flowed across those borders, he said.

"We tried to stay out of the fights because we weren't carrying heavy weaponry," he said. "We only had M16 rifles and hand grenades."

But fighting was inevitable.

"For two months," he said, "we were under siege at a Special Forces camp. We had incoming mortars, artillery, rockets. People were getting wounded and killed."

At times, it seemed the camp might be overrun, Gibson said.

"The only thing that prevented that was the hurt we put on them with our B-52 airstrikes," he said.

That type of airborne firepower, Gibson said, finally forced the North Vietnamese to move elsewhere.

Of working with indigenous tribal members, Gibson said, the experience was one he will never forget.

"They were ferocious fighters, and we were in their territory," he said. "They knew the terrain better than anybody."

Up in those highlands, Gibson also learned something quite unexpected: The United States did not have a lock on racism.

"These tribal people were as dark as I am, and the South Vietnamese treated them like we treated Indians here in America, taking their land and moving them around," he said.

As for Gibson, he had nothing but respect for the tribal members.

"They were a gentle people, and they were brave and skillful," he said.

Their scouting abilities provided intelligence to go after the enemy, he said, "when you could convince the South Vietnamese to do it."

The intelligence also steered B-52 bombers in the right direction.

"That was the most important thing. After those airstrikes, we would go out on [bomb damage assessments] to see how many had been killed," he said. "Sometimes the dead would have no blood on them. The force of the bomb's concussion was enough to kill them."

Gibson spent nearly a year carrying out these missions before returning to the United States on Nov. 30, 1969.

For years after that, he wrestled with post-traumatic stress but managed to carve out a life for himself, working as a supervisor at a trucking company, then later as a property manager at housing facilities dedicated to providing veterans places to live.

"It took me a long time to get both feet back on the ground, but I did," Gibson said.

In the last four years, he has volunteered at Buffalo City Court's Veterans Court, serving as a mentor to vets who have had brushes with the law.

"It's extremely rewarding," he said. "I've seen people have really great changes in their lives."

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Edward Gibson, 63

Hometown: Lackawanna

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Army

Rank: First lieutenant

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: 1966-69

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman Badge

Specialties: Infantry, intelligence, operations