The rocket attack blew U.S. Army Spc. Brian E. Will off the back of a transport truck and nearly tore off his ring finger.
Will had only two months left in a 1969 tour of duty in Vietnam when he became a war casualty.
His wife remembers the call as if it happened yesterday.
“He called me at 3:30 in the morning,” said Linda Will. “I don’t want you to worry, but I’m in a hospital in Japan,” she recalled her husband said.
Will, who was drafted in April 1968, was injured during one of his many trips between fire-support bases in South Vietnam, where he worked as a records specialist in the 9th Infantry Division.
“I didn’t spend all my time in the office. I was in the back of a two-and-a-half ton truck when we took fire from a rocket-propelled grenade attack,” said Will, who is now 76. “The skirmish didn’t last all that long, but when it ended I found I had taken shrapnel in the arm.”
Will was flown to an Army hospital in Saigon for the first of several surgeries. He was discharged on Christmas Eve 1969 after serving 11 months and 18 days in Vietnam. He never fully regained use of the finger, he said.
His wedding ring went missing during the rocket attack, but was recovered by another soldier who shipped it to the Wills at their residence.
“I asked him to wear that ring. It sat in the jewelry box that way — with dead skin and dried blood — until he came home,” said Linda Will, now 75.
Will had been drafted during the time of the Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks by Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces on cities, towns and hamlets throughout South Vietnam. Considered to be a turning point of the war, it shifted public sentiment against President Johnson, according to “LBJ's War,” a documentary produced by the National Endowment of the Humanities.
“Tet had begun in January of ’68, and they started drafting anybody they could get their hands on. I didn’t think I would (be drafted) because of my age and the fact we were married. It was quite unsettling,” Will said.
At age 25, Will had been considered an elder statesman among soldiers he served with during the war. Many of them called him “Pops,” he recalled.
He was stationed at Dong Tam Base Camp, a center of U.S. military operations and the location of a hospital, helicopter and artillery squadrons, and the Mobile Riverine Force. Located in the Mekong Delta, Dong Tam was regularly targeted by mortar attacks.
“We got mortared every night,” said Will. "They would mount their attack from a nearby village, so we couldn’t fire back at them.”
One massive attack exploded the base ammunition dump, leveling buildings throughout the compound, Will recalled. An overnight mortar attack heavily damaged the administration building and required military personnel to carry personnel records from the burning building.
“We sort of made a bucket brigade to get the records out,” Will said. “Everything was on paper in those days."
"There were no safe areas on that base. I kept most of it from my wife, but she eventually found out. There was very little communication. In 1968, we communicated by letter.”
The Wills had married in September 1965 and had signed a contract for construction of their first home when Will was drafted. Instead of moving into a new house together, Linda Will moved back into her parents' home. She said she wrote a letter each day to her husband when he was in Vietnam.
“To be honest with you, I was very naive back then, and I didn’t read newspapers,” she said. “I understood war was very dangerous, but reality did not strike until a friend of mine was killed. Two months after that, Brian was injured.”
Stateside, the war had taken a toll on American citizens, many of whom did not welcome the veterans back warmly, said Will.
“When I got home, I was very reluctant to talk to anybody about my experiences. The war had such a bad stigma for the American people. They couldn’t separate the war from the warrior. They started to blame us for the war,” said Will.
“When I came home, I was at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center,” recalled Will. “I had to fly between Buffalo and Washington and I wore my uniform, and that was the last time I wore my uniform in a public place. People would look at you with scorn. We were not well-received.”
The Wills, married for 54 years, live in West Seneca. They have one daughter and two grandchildren. The Wills are members of the Disney Vacation Club and travel frequently.
Will served as commander of Ismailia Temple Legion of Honor, New York Ontario Legions of Honor Association and American Legion Niagara Frontier Post #1041 in West Seneca. He was commander general of Masonic War Veterans of the Grand Lodge of the State of New York. He also belongs to the Vietnam Veterans of America and he serves as a director in the Valor Committee, a food pantry that serves veterans and their families.
He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition he did not realize he had until he retired after 24 years with the U.S. Postal Service in 2005.
“I was 62 and I had some difficulty sleeping and flashbacks,” Will said. “I think because I had more time on my hands. It didn’t settle in immediately.
“Fortunately, it was helpful that I joined a lot of veteran organizations, and it brought me out of my shell. It was such a bad, bad time. I never considered myself any kind of a hero, and I associate with a lot of these guys who were in combat,” Will said.
Name: Brian E. Will
Birth Date: Jan. 8, 1943
Residence: West Seneca
Branch: U.S. Army
Unit: 9th Infantry Division
Occupation: Records specialist
Years of service: 1968-1969
Rank: Specialist 5
Medal: U.S. Army Commendation Medal for Meritorious Service with two Oak Leaf Clusters