As a young boy, Roger Beamer learned printing at his father’s shop, Rapid Printing, on Genesee Street. By the time he entered Burgard High School, he was already well-versed in the finer points of the trade. Finding work as a printer after graduation was easy.
But more than ink ran through his veins. Patriotism was in his blood.
His great-grandfather, John Beamer, had been highly decorated for his service to the North during the Civil War. Roger’s father, James, served with honor in Europe during World War II.
“I had a great love for my country and kept hearing about this threat of communism spreading, and I had to see what was going on over in Vietnam,” the 67-year-old Beamer says. “… I didn’t even know where Vietnam was, but I wanted to find out what was going on.”
Impressed with his athletic ability and decision to volunteer for Army Parachute School in Fort Benning, Ga., the brass took note of Beamer, who had enlisted.
“I was asked if I’d like to volunteer to try and join Special Forces,” he says. “I had no idea what it was, but I agreed.” Beamer was assigned to Fort Bragg, N.C., and “I loved it.”
As a Green Beret in 1964, he arrived in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, a member of the 5th Special Forces Group, where as a military adviser he worked with the indigenous mountain people, or Montagnards.
“The highlands were a very dangerous place. You had the North Vietnamese army passing through it. There was also Viet Cong who were fierce fighters, and, of course, you had the Red Chinese,” Beamer says. “There were so many factions, and people just don’t realize that.”
The mountain people, he says, were also fierce fighters and extraordinarily loyal.
“One time, when I was shot in the arm and shoulder and hit with shrapnel in the head and face and left for dead, the enemy had stripped my body.”
When the Montagnards became aware of his situation, he recalls, “they placed several of their own dead over me to apparently shelter me.”
“The next morning,” he says, “when American reinforcements arrived, they were throwing bodies onto the choppers to take to the morgue. I was later told that I groaned and that they said, ‘This one is still alive,’ and I was flown to a hospital.”
That’s how Beamer earned his second Purple Heart. His first was awarded after he suffered a bullet wound to the leg. He earned his third Purple Heart during a rocket attack.
“We were in our compound, and I was running around and making sure everyone was OK,” he says, “and I went up a ladder on the outside of a bunker, and I caught shrapnel in my back.”
Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, presented him with his last Purple Heart.
“He said to me, ‘The object is to see how few you can get, not how many.’ We had a laugh,” Beamer recalls.
His connection with the mountain people was like love.
“It’s like a marriage,” he says. “You eat, sleep and drink with those people. You had to prove yourself to them. You had to win their trust.
“When they accepted you, well, you were just part of the tribe. It is like a love story. The whole premise behind Special Forces is to win the hearts and minds of the people, and we did win their hearts and minds.
“We fought the war as it was supposed to be fought, as a guerrilla unit. I fought right along with them and vice versa.”
After serving 2½ tours of duty for a total of 30 months in Vietnam, Beamer returned to civilian life in 1968. He returned to the family trade of printing, and in 1969 he was hired at Buffalo’s morning newspaper, the Courier-Express.
There, he rose to a position in the paper’s human resources department, where he worked until the Courier closed in 1982.
These days, Beamer still serves in human resources, but as a volunteer with a local group called VetsHERD: Helping Empower Returning and Disabled Veterans.
“I was in an elevator at the VA Hospital going to see my doctors, and I was looking at this young veteran who was with his wife and little daughter. The veteran’s legs were all twisted up, and he had a walker,” Beamer says. “When the elevator doors opened, the girl grabbed the legs of the walker and helped her dad get off the elevator.”
Another time when Beamer was at the VA, he says, “I saw another young vet, and his hair was all scruffy. I wanted to give him money to get a good haircut, but better judgment told me not to.
“When he turned his head, I actually saw daylight between his ears and head. He was wearing artificial ears.”
Such experiences stirred him to act on his patriotism again.
“I knew it took me years to seek out help for my own demons,” he says. “I believe I survived for a reason, and I know this is it: helping other veterans.”
Anyone interested in joining Beamer in his mission can visit www.vetsherd.com to learn more.