Virgil Grabeal left jungle combat and returned home to face urban combat

Virgil Grabeal lives near Las Animas, Colo. It's a fitting place to meet a combat veteran. Across from the Loaf-N-Jug stands the Bent County Courthouse, on its square stand memorials to POWs-MIAs and Veterans. Within the city of Las Animas is the last home of Kit Carson, famed scout and soldier.

Though important, Grabeal's service hasn't taken on the mythical proportions of Carson 's. Grabeal was one of 16 thousand soldiers assigned to the newly reactivated Ninth Infantry Division, the “Old Reliables” of WWI and WWII. They arrived in Vietnam in 1966.

Trained on the 106 MM recoilless rifle, Grabeal would earn a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts during a year of carrying and firing, a .30 caliber M-60 machine gun, the infantry's “heavy weapon”.

He was recently surprised by his son Eric with an aluminum plaque complete with pictures and his list of medals.

He's proud of the plaque, but shrugs off the medals, “That's nothin but history now,” he said with a wave of his hand.

He served in C Company, First Battalion, 47 th Infantry, as they slogged through seven thousand square miles of the Mekong Delta. They sweltered in jungles and waded through rice paddies up to their armpits. He and his buddies fought battles such as Bau Bang, and Junction City .

The concept of fighting in the Delta, was derived from a battle plan of nearly a century before. General U.S. Grant first used the idea of a Mobile Riverine Force in the siege of Vicksburg; Gen. William Westmoreland tore a page from Grant's book and formed navy Task Force 117 to fight alongside the 9 th .

Bau Bang, according to the Old Reliables' website, commenced on the morning of Palm Sunday, March 19, 1967 . Six hours and thousands of rounds of ammunition later, the attacking Vietnamese were driven back with losses estimated at more than one thousand killed in comparison to four killed and 67 wounded for the 9 th .

Grabeal, as one of the smallest young men in his unit drew the unenviable duty as a “tunnel rat”. As each entrance to a tunnel network was located, Grabeal, and those like him, stripped their gear and with minimal arms and equipment, (usually knifes, pistols and flashlights), entered the darkened hell of the snake and spider infested tunnels, (booby traps were also prevalent).

Grabeal remembers in one tunnel he discovered a large cache of weapons, including a Russian-made sniper rifle; a weapon he planned to keep, but it wound up in the hands of Westmoreland.

Grabeal pointed to a picture of “Westy” with the weapon, “I meant to have that. But…rank has its privileges, and when it comes to a PFC to a four-star general…you'll lose very time.”

Asked to explain the emotions of combat, Grabeal, stopped, blinked and lowered his chin to rest on his car door. He seemed to stare back some 39 years, to another time, another place; to when he was 21 years old.

He rose up, “You're scared. You've been fighting for your life. When it's over you wonder…what did I do?”

He remembers escorting VC prisoners; each soldier had their own for who they were responsible. He is conflicted about his relationship with the Vietnamese. They are no longer enemies, but he questions the wisdom of allowing them to immigrate after the war.

“That was a different time. Today, they're no different than we are. But I still don't understand why we had to bring them here.”

“I had a lotta miles flying in a chopper. Not sure how many, don't really want to know. I had two shot down while I was in them; jumped from one into a paddy, and a shell crater. I went under with a 35 pound gun, 200 rounds of ammo and a radio. I left the radio.”

Even today, he feels negative emotions about war protesters. He understands their Constitutional right to oppose the war, but thinks they should give those who fought the war wide berth. Those people who protest the war, that's OK, but they should leave the veterans and the families of the dead alone…if you don't it's a good way to get hurt.”

It fell to some of the soldiers of the 9 th to face the urban riots of Detroit , Mich.

“We had just been back for a month,” Grabeal remembered. “Does it seem smart to send troops just a month back from combat to a riot?” he asked.

“We'd heard about the protestors but we didn't really believe it.

“It was a different kind of combat,” he added.

“I was met by reporters and protesters when I got off the plane in Amarillo , Texas . You could tell the reporter was sympathetic to the protesters.

“We weren't in the mood to be insulted. He stuck the mic in my face and asked if I was proud of myself. I knocked him down.”

Nearly forty years later, Grabeal wears the weathered face of man who's spent more than half of his life on a tractor or chasing cattle; his days as a warrior were mostly forgotten until a son showed his pride by making a plaque to honor his father.

“I cannot imagine what they went through,” said Eric Grabeal of his father and the other veterans of Vietnam . “I don't really want to know,” he added.

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