Tuesday, November 15, 2011

TOP STORY >> Vietnam vet is in military hall of fame

Leader executive editor

Lex (Butch) Davis of Sherwood was among the first 15 inductees into the Arkansas Military Veterans Hall of Fame at the Agora Center in Conway on Friday. This column appeared here in February 2007.

Butch Davis sat at a round table near the corner where the Singing Sergeants entertained in the big gym on Little Rock Air Force Base, which was honoring its top personnel at the annual awards banquet Saturday night.

Davis is a Sherwood alderman and disabled Vietnam veteran who almost died in the summer of 1969 in a huge explosion that nearly wiped out his company. He was put on a rescue helicopter along with several dead soldiers heading for the morgue. He’d come to momentarily, hoping the chopper crew didn’t think he was dead.

He signed up for the Army when he was 16 — “I lied about my age,” he admits — and was 24 years old when he was hit, and he’s been in pain for 38 years. You can only imagine his injuries — almost his whole body was ripped up, and he seems disabled along much of his left side — but Davis never complains. He has a great attitude and likes to laugh and joke and help others.

He enjoyed the Saturday show — the Singing Sergeants, backed by a jazzy combo, sang American pop classics (Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” Harry Warren’s “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”), and when they did “America the Beautiful,” the audience stood up, and so did Davis, with some difficulty, and there was hardly a dry eye in the house. When the awards were announced, Davis was especially proud of Senior Master Sgt. Darren Hill, who is serving overseas and who was named first sergeant of the year.

Davis has known Hill for a long time, and Hill’s wife, Tammy, and two young sons, Tyler and Aaron, accepted the award for him.

When Sgt. Davis was in Vietnam, he was about the same age as the people getting their awards Saturday night. Davis’ company was on patrol near Chulai in South Vietnam on July 12, 1969. They’d had frequent firefights with the Viet Cong and captured several of them that summer.

“Four companies would take turns out in the field,” he recalls. “We’d find the Viet Cong and take them back to Chulai.”

He remembers one of his company commanders was from Arkansas, who’d split them up in separate groups, which Davis didn’t think was a good idea, but you’re not going to argue with a commanding officer. But Davis was still in one piece, and he was hoping he’d see his wife and son back home soon. Davis was supposed to leave Vietnam in a couple of days. He figured this would be his last patrol, only he didn’t know how right he would be about that.

The company’s orders were to stay clear of trees, where the VC planted explosives with detonators on the ground. Around 7 p.m. when it was still light outside, someone stepped on a detonator that was wired to explosives in a nearby tree. When it exploded, it killed six and injured 28 G.I.s, along with several South Vietnamese out on patrol with the Americans. “There were enough casualties to fill a couple of helicopters,” Davis remembers.

“When the bomb hit me, it felt like a bell over my head,” he continues. “I knew I was hit. It got my whole left side.” His injuries spread all over his body, including his spinal cord, which wasn’t severed, though. “I was one of the last flown out. I was worried they thought I was dead,” he says.

Once he was in the helicopter, Davis was hoping the chopper crew would realize he was still alive. He’d open his eyes, then close them again.

“I couldn’t move,” Davis said. “I blacked out again for a while.” Fortunately, he woke up in a hospital, then was flown to another hospital in Japan. He received more treatment at the Veterans Hospital in Richmond, Va. Months of therapy followed. He was finally released in December 1969.

“I still have shrapnel in my neck,” Davis says.

Despite his disability, Davis says, “I really enjoyed the military. I was going down the wrong path when I joined up.”

He’s 62 years old now, and he says he’s been fortunate, considering how many of his buddies didn’t come home.

He’s been a Sherwood alderman for eight years and does more volunteer work than most people half his age.

“I feel better than I’ve felt in years,” Davis says. “I’ve got to stay busy.” It’s been a long day, and he says, “I sure do feel tired.”