At 16, Larry L. Penrod went to war for a buddy caught smoking in the boys room at Tonawanda High School.
“A teacher came in and started giving my friend a hard time for smoking. I said to the teacher, ‘I was smoking, too,’ and that put the attention on me. The teacher started pushing me. I started pushing back. I pulled his tie off, and they suspended me,” Penrod says.
Figuring the school staff would have it in for him, he never returned.
“I enlisted in the Army at 17 with my mother’s permission. My brother Al was already in the Air Force, and my brother Jim was in the Army,” Penrod says.
When he turned 18, he promptly volunteered for service in Vietnam, leaving behind the safety of Germany, where he had been assigned to the 8th Infantry Division.
“I had a lousy childhood. It was very abusive, with an alcoholic father, and we were on welfare most of my life. I wanted to prove that I was not a product of my environment. I like to say Vietnam was easy compared to being a Penrod.”
He served not one, but two voluntary tours in Vietnam and was awarded a Bronze Star and a Combat Infantryman Badge. One of his older brothers, Jim, also served in Vietnam and earned a Bronze Star.
In fact, when Larry arrived in Vietnam, he bumped into Jim, and they had a war zone reunion.
Albert Penrod, another older brother, was serving as a staff sergeant with a ground crew on Guam, keeping bombers headed to Vietnam airworthy. For that, Al received the Air Force Commendation Medal. A fourth Penrod brother, Gary, also served in the Army, assigned to Germany.
In recalling his war experiences, Larry Penrod says, “It’s like deer hunting, only the deer carry weapons in the jungle. It’s also like playing hide-and-go-seek, but the enemy knows all the hiding places.”
Penrod and the other members of his reconnaissance team would do their best to remain hidden as they sought out the enemy. When they were discovered, usually by a Viet Cong sniper, they would be airlifted out and taken to another location, unless it was their turn for three days of rest and recuperation, which occurred every 45 days.
On successful missions, Penrod said they would find hidden food caches, makeshift hospitals in tunnels and enemy graves. “We would have to dig up those graves because weapons would be stashed in them, mostly AK-47 rifles and mortar rounds,” Penrod says, recalling how awful it was to disinter a rotting corpse. “It stunk.”
There were also the monsoons, snakes and leeches, infrequency of hot meals and malaria to contend with, but the biggest worries, he recalls, were snipers.
“When you come under fire,” he says, “it’s like your heart wants to jump out of you.”
Memories of fellow soldiers falling under enemy fire and of him and his comrades going after the enemy, he adds, are best left in the past:
“I don’t want to open those doors. Those doors have been closed.”
By age 20, his two tours of duty in Vietnam were already behind him.
“After two combat tours, I still wasn’t old enough to drink a beer back home,” he says. “I was refused in the airport at Chicago. I told the bartender, ‘Do you realize I could be over there lying in the bottom of a rice paddy? He said to me, ‘Do you realize it is the law that you have to be 21?’ I just walked away.”
At home, the young man who had left high school after defending his buddy in the boys room settled into civilian life, getting married and raising a family. He was employed in a factory and later as a tractor-trailer driver, a job he still works.
Unexpectedly several years ago, Penrod realized he had a gift for poetry.
“Most of my poetry was dark and about my past and my father. When I showed it to people, they’d say, ‘Man, that’s dark.’ But then one day, as I was writing poetry about my father, I put my hands up and said, ‘That’s it, Dad; I’m done beating you up.’ He’d been dead for years.”
When asked to share a poem, he provided this one:
How can a lady bring tears to my eyes
When I can fight three of the biggest, baddest, ugliest guys
How can I be chained to anything, when I hold the key
Memories keep me connected, I’m afraid to be free
Love and hate are very good friends,
Living and dying the beginning and end
In case a mistake was made I’ll keep the lights on.
Penrod says he takes no credit for his gift for words:
“I believe it is a gift from God.”
He also believes that surviving the Vietnam War and every day since then has been a gift from above.