SOUTH GATE, Calif. (Army News Service) -- Greg Simon saw men mowed down like hay -- his own men and those of the enemy -- on Hamburger Hill, South Vietnam in May 1969.
Simon -- a Native-American mix of Osage, Cherokee and Black Foot -- reluctantly shared his story during a powwow in South Gate, California, hosted by the Native American Veterans Association, or NAVA, Saturday and Sunday.
At the time, Simon was a corporal, a radio operator with the 101st Airborne Division. But when it became apparent that the North Vietnamese Army force, or NVA, was about to overrun their positions, he was called upon to man one of six 102mm cannons.
"The enemy came straight at us, so we direct-fired Beehive rounds at them, cutting down trees and people," he said. A Beehive round is round filled with shotgun-like metal that scatters everywhere when fired, he explained.
Despite his unit using six 102mm howitzers at the bottom of Hamburger Hill and three 105mm howitzers atop the hill, they just kept coming, he said. The enemy twice overran their positions. Eventually, most in his unit were dead, dying or wounded. In the end, Simon himself was among the wounded.
Once the medics and doctors had patched him up, he returned to duty. He served from 1968 to 1970 in Vietnam. He recalled that the mobility of his unit was amazing. "We'd hop inside a Chinook with the one-0-deuce slung under it and off we'd go from one firebase to another," he remembered.
Simon said he had so many stories to relate about his exploits in Vietnam that it would take days to tell them all: stories like the time his unit stopped the NVA from coming in from Laos on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or the time his unit ventured into North Vietnam to rescue a unit of Marines who were faring poorly against a much larger NVA force.
Before he enlisted in the Army, Simon remembered, he encountered vets returning from Vietnam with post-traumatic stress disorder. "I thought they were all sissies," he said. "Even when I returned from Vietnam I thought that."
But in 1983, Simon's wife told him that he needed to seek help. "I had anger issues and PTSD but didn't want to admit it," he said.
The biggest hurdle in treating his PTSD was first admitting he had it.
Retired Sgt. 1st Class William Givens is the founder of NAVA, which he started in 2000. The organization is unique, he said, in that any veteran can join. Of the 30 member families, two are non-Native American.
Members are from the greater Los Angeles area, but others are welcome to join, he said. Members hold a monthly breakfast and a powwow every Veterans Day weekend. The nonprofit group's mission statement is "We are Native-American veterans providing outreach to tribal and non-tribal veterans and their Families."
Outreach services include assisting veterans and their families with applying for federal, state and county benefits. NAVA has its own color guard, which promotes native heritage at ceremonies and presentations upon request. NAVA also hosts an annual veteran summit that connects veterans with service providers and organizes healing ceremonies for veterans struggling with emotional or psychological issues.
NAVA takes a special interest in veterans who are just separating from one of the services. "Our goal is to leave no veteran behind in their successful transition to the civilian community," Givens said.
Givens' ancestry is a mixture of Creek and Okanagan. He served in the Air Force from 1963 to 1967 and in the Army from 1967 to 1990. He served in Saigon in 1963. He later was a radio operator and photographer on a secret mission in Pakistan in 1968.
Asked what he remembers most about his Army service, he said, "[Soldiers] are the best people I've ever met in the world. They take care of each other just like a tribe."
Givens is currently employed by the state of California's Employment Development Department.
STEVEN DE LA ROSA
Steven De La Rosa is a Lipan Apache, born and raised in the Inland Empire area of Los Angeles, an area that includes South Gate.
The Inland Empire is now a sprawling suburb of Los Angeles, but when De La Rosa was growing up, he said, much of the land was still wilderness, so much so that he and his father could hunt deer, pheasant, duck and geese. They also went for many hikes, even at night, using various land navigation techniques.
The skills he learned hunting and navigating the wilderness, he said, probably saved his life during his service in the Marine Corps from 1971 to 1974.
In early 1972, De La Rosa was notified at Camp Pendleton, California, that he was deploying. However, the notification included no mention of where he was deploying to. Eventually, he and other Marines landed at a NATO base in Iceland, where their mission was to protect the NATO Ground Defense Forces, who were holed up in underground bunkers in Iceland's hinterland.
One Marine was assigned to each of the bunkers, which were scattered throughout Iceland. The NATO personnel would stay inside the bunkers for weeks, never coming out. The Marines received no contact with anyone for extended periods of time. De La Rosa was never told what was inside the bunkers, and he was never allowed inside. Today, he still wonders what was inside.
Guarding his particular bunker, De La Rosa would walk miles of perimeter barbed wire fencing, armed with an M-14 rifle. It was tough, he remembered. "I nearly froze to death a few times and so did others," he said.
In February in Iceland, the darkness lasts 24 hours, the temperatures can drop to 20 and 30 degrees below zero, and storms regularly blow in off the Atlantic, turning into severe blizzards.
"It's easy to get lost in [whiteout conditions]," he recalled. "You can end up freezing to death and being buried in some snowdrift."
The total darkness and long hours in the cold caused some of the Marines, whom De La Rosa called "hard-core Vietnam guys," to hallucinate. "It started to work on you and there were things out there that you imagine," he said. The hallucinations led some of the men to discharge their rifles, resulting in multiple investigations and lots of paperwork.
De La Rosa still bears physical reminders of his duty in Iceland. His nose has scars from frostbite. When he went to see the corpsman about his frostbite, he was given some gun grease to apply to his nose and told to go back outside on duty. In time, his nose went black with dead tissue.
He also developed arthritis as a result of his duty there, he believes, and he has permanent cornea damage in both eyes from sun glare on the ice.
His only contact with the outside world was a phone in an unheated guard shack near the gate to the bunker, he said. The person to call when you got into trouble was Lance Cpl. Joe Pierce. "If Pierce couldn't save you, then no one could," he said.
Pierce grew up near Canada and was accustomed to the cold. When Marines went missing, he would hunt for them in his 2.5-ton truck, known as a deuce-and-a-half. "He found people half dead in snow drifts," De La Rosa said. "He'd warm them up in the cab."
De La Rosa said he kept his sanity by touching the feather of an owl, which he kept inside his jacket liner. He said his grandmother gave it to him and told him it would give him the power of the owl and allow him to turn himself invisible, see through darkness, and sense danger in the future.
When he returned, De La Rosa used the owl feature as a bookmark in his King James Bible. He finally retired after serving 37 years as an operating room surgical technician.
Today he is proud of the work he did and the lives he saved. He believes the work soothed some of his own PTSD symptoms, and he loved the work so much that he often volunteered for extra night shifts.
De La Rosa said he joined NAVA partly because alcoholic beverages are never served at meetings, but mostly because he enjoys the camaraderie of the members.
He had an older brother who served as a Green Beret in Vietnam. He died from Agent Orange five years ago.