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Wounded repeatedly in Vietnam

Ever since Roland Hayes was a young boy, he dreamed of seeing the world.

He had read books on the military, and the idea of traveling to foreign lands and getting paid for it as a member of the military appealed to him.

Military service would also give him a chance to keep up a family tradition.

His father, William Hayes Jr., had served in the Army immediately after World War II, and a maternal uncle, Donald Rolls, was killed in the Korean War.

So with the Vietnam War heating up, Hayes decided to leave Lackawanna High School in his senior year in 1966 and sign up with the Army, though he later obtained a general equivalency diploma and a bachelor of science degree from Medaille College.

But it was the Army that provided him with his first real education.

After basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., and parachute training at Fort Benning, Ga., he was sent first to Germany for seven months and then ordered to the Southeast Asian war zone as a member of the 101st Airborne Division.

He arrived just in time for the Tet Offensive, a major attack by the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam.

The battle taught him just how good the enemy was at concealment.

"We were supposed to conduct a backdoor maneuver on the North Vietnamese, and we walked into one of their base camps where they were hidden," Hayes recalled. "The first thing that went off was a tear gas grenade. My company commander ran up to see what happened, and that's when they sprang the ambush.

"I was an assistant machine gunner. A firefight broke out, and there were flashes, smoke and chaos. The next thing I knew, I was hit in the right leg with a bullet that ricocheted off the barrel of our M60 machine gun. The bullet had a lot of velocity and went completely through my leg."

That occurred on the morning of March 14, 1968.

Hayes was out of commission for four weeks. He then returned to duty with the first of his three Purple Hearts.

In early August of that year, he was wounded again.

"This time," he said, "we were going to back up one of our sister platoons that was in a firefight with the North Vietnamese. We came in on a helicopter, and we disembarked.

"The enemy opened up on us with a .51-caliber machine gun, and as we were taking positions, I had my squad get down, and I began to look around to determine what action I was going to take. And to my amazement, I looked to my left and saw these puffs of dirt being kicked up. I was being shot at.

"I got my squad up to get out of that particular kill zone, and that's when I got hit in my left thigh with a bullet. It took a chunk out of me, and I hit the ground."

A soldier behind Hayes had also been cut down with a bullet through the ankle.

"I collected him, pulled him by the neck and crawled back to the safety of the rest of our company," Hayes said.

As the firefight continued, a medic patched up Hayes, and he returned to the battle, which lasted a few hours before the enemy disengaged.

Although he did not consider his wound to be a major setback, he would again earn a Purple Heart.

About a month later, Hayes and his company were part of the force trying to tighten the noose around an escaping North Vietnamese battalion.

"We had found out where they were," he said, "so we joined up with other units and a cavalry that had M48 tanks and armored personnel carriers. Our job was to make sure they didn't escape.

"As we overran one of the [North Vietnamese army] positions, a firefight broke out, and the enemy tried to retake it. The NVAs opened up with machine guns, and I knocked out one of the machine guns with a light antitank weapon.

"But the NVA was still trying to come in, and one of them threw a hand grenade. I was standing firing my M16 rifle, and the grenade hit the berm in front of me and exploded. A piece it hit me in the jaw and went through my face. It knocked me down."

A soldier ran over to Hayes, looked at him and said, "You're OK, you're OK."

"When I felt my face, I was so angry -- very angry," Hayes said. "I jumped up, picked up my M16 and unloaded magazine after magazine. Eventually, I calmed down, and I realized I was standing up there exposed, and I got down and continued with the battle."

For this, he received his third Purple Heart.

The Bronze Star would be come later for his collective "meritorious achievements against hostile forces," according to the citation, or, according to Hayes' translation, "doing my job as an infantryman."

Only a couple of days were required for recuperation before he was again back in service.

Hayes, in fact, would spend about four more months in Vietnam before returning to the States. In 1969, he was honorably discharged, but he eventually decided to serve as a citizen soldier in Reserve and National Guard branches of the Army and Air Force as a drill instructor.

"It was a job I loved," he said.

In 1995, he finally hung up his jump boots.

In civilian life over the years, Hayes worked as an aircraft mechanic and as a youth detention officer for Erie County before retiring in 2001.

But Hayes still loves the military.

Last year, he formed "The Buffalo Soldiers Group," a club that pays tribute to African-Americans and women of all races who have served in the military.

At this time, there are nine members, he says, but "our ranks will be climbing."

***

Roland Hayes, 64

Hometown: Lackawanna

Residence: Cheektowaga

Branches: Army, Air Force Reserve, Army National Guard, Army Reserve

Rank: Sergeant first class

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: 1966-69, 1972-95

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, three Purple Hearts, Combat Infantryman Badge, Parachutist Badge

Specialty: Airborne infantry