Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 36

RM

| NEIGHBORS

ONE

of Many
J.D. Stephens recounts
his time as part of the
7th Cavalry in Vietnam
by Heather Berry | hberry@ruralmissouri.coop

J

.D. Stephens had only been in Vietnam for two weeks as part of the
Army's 7th Cavalry Division when he was sent out with Delta Company
as a platoon replacement.
Late one afternoon his squad was sent to scour an abandoned cave for
rice, weapons and any other useful items the enemy may have left behind. With
only one man left to stand watch at the entrance, the remaining soldiers entered
the dank, dark chamber.
J.D. was the first one out. Thankfully his eyes were accustomed to the cave's
darkness, so when the 21-year-old looked out into the jungle dusk, he quickly
made out the silhouette of a North Vietnamese man through the waving jungle
grasses - a man aiming a weapon in his direction.
"I reached down, picked up my weapon and did what I'd been trained to do,"
recalls the veteran, now 73 years old. "I wouldn't have even seen him if I hadn't
just come out of the dark and happened to look up. It scared the hell out of me." J.D. Stephens is proud to have been part of the 1st Cavalry Division, 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry
That was 1967 - 50 years ago - and for the Stockton native, the year he Regiment serving in the Vietnam War. The veteran says the diary he kept helped him keep his
served in Vietnam is something he thinks about every day and night.
wits about him, but noted it was against regulations to keep one.
J.D. recalls in the early '60s, the Vietnam War was on the TV news every
night, and he knew he wanted to get involved as soon as possible. While broth- of North Vietnamese," J.D. says. "Like a fool, I just headed down the trail after
ers weren't supposed to serve at the same time, J.D.'s brother, Richard, also them. But they surrounded us, and the sky and ground lit up with artillery.
"I killed five before they got me in the shoulder," says J.D. "But they killed the
signed up to fight, serving when J.D. did.
After basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, J.D. volunteered for any duty two guys I had just been with, and many others in our unit were hurt or killed."
Time crept by, battle by battle. After his year in Vietnam, J.D. headed home to
because he wanted to end up in the infantry on the front lines. The third day,
the platoon's drill instructor made him acting sergeant of a squad. From there, Missouri, returning to a job at General Motors in Kansas City, where he quickly
worked his way up to management and retired after 30 years. He married
he went on to Fort Polk, Lousiana, and then on to Fort Benning,
his wife, Sherry, also a Stockton native, and the couple wound up retiring
Georgia, to learn to jump out of planes and fight in the jungle.
back to the quiet rural town.
"I could dig a fox hole faster than a mole - and I could read a
For J.D., life is good. But like many veterans, there are things he
map and then put artillery in your pocket," says J.D.
simply won't talk about with most folks, because they couldn't posThe veteran says they were told the temperature hit 116 degrees
sibly understand. For he and his band of 7th Cavalry brothers from
on his first day in Vietnam. "We wore mosquito repellant all the time,
across the United States, calls and reunions help them continue to
took malaria pills daily and put iodine tablets in our canteens all the
Stockton
put the horrors of the war to rest.
time," he says of the jungle living conditions, adding you "got used to
"Some men come back and have it much worse off than others
everything being wet from the humidity."
when adjusting," J.D. says. "I'd say one of the worst things for
In addition to a huge pack J.D. filled with everything he owned, the
me is the insomnia. My mind's always racing, replaying things."
infantry sergeant also carried an M16 assault rifle, .45 caliber pistol,
As a Stockton Christian Church Sunday school teacher, the veteran
400 rounds of ammo and several grenades.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, soldiers serving in Vietnam saw says when he can't sleep he often sits and reads his Bible.
When he does sleep his dreams are often filled with terrors so bad he wakes
more combat than any other soldier in American history. On average, Vietnam
veterans fought 240 days each year, while World War II veterans fought an aver- his wife. He dreams of writhing snakes or images where his legs are blown off.
"You go into a situation like that (Vietnam) and don't know anyone you're
age of 40 days a year. One difference was Vietnam soldiers had more helicopter
mobility - which helped by bringing in supplies, serving as medevac, as well with," says J.D. "Our lives, our survival, depended upon having each other's
as moving the soldiers from place to place. According to J.D., helicopters didn't back. We became an instant brotherhood that grew out of combat."
He points to a couple of framed group photos he keeps on the wall in his den.
always help when it came to knowing where the conflicts were.
"They would pick us up then drop us in another area where we'd fight to They represent the 7th Cavalry soldiers who made it to the reunions held at
survive, then get back in a helicopter and move on," J.D. recalls. "There were no J.D. and Sherry's home in 2012 and 2014. He hopes those are the first of many
gatherings with his comrades. "I served with the best of the best," he says.
battle lines to the Vietnam battle."
When it comes to honors received, J.D. will barely acknowledge he has any.
As if reading a book, J.D. can quote day and month of nearly any battle from
While wounded five times - and awarded a Purple Heart and four oak leaf
his time in Vietnam. One day lurks close to the surface of his memories.
"We were really pinned down on Nov. 15, 1967," he begins, looking away, as if clusters, a bronze and silver star, and a combat infantry badge - the respectful
replaying a movie in his mind. Supplies had come in and he was sharing a bottle man will only say, "I just did what I was told to do.
"Honestly, the Purple Heart means nothing if this heart isn't right," J.D. says,
of Coca-Cola with two soldiers while on break from patrolling the trails.
"After break, we walked across the rice paddy and right into a command post pointing to his own. "God cares a lot more about this heart than the Purple one."

36

RURAL MISSOURI | NOVEMBER 2017



Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Missouri - November 2017

Rural Missouri - November 2017 - Intro
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - Cover1
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - Cover2
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 3
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Rural Missouri - November 2017 - Cover3
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - Cover4
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