By Debbie Hall
Harless Belcher is the first to admit that he is not a therapist, but as the number of suicides among veterans increase, he is more than willing to offer an empathetic ear.
“The key to it all is being a good listener. Let that (other) guy talk, if he will. That’s what he needs to do. He needs to talk and get it out of his system,” Belcher said. “I don’t have the expertise to help, but if he’ll talk, I’ll listen.”
In Vietnam or his native Patrick County, Belcher is committed to serving his country – a commitment he made to honor his fallen comrades and those who did not come home.
Belcher was 19 when he was drafted into the Army. He served in the 25th Division Triple Deuce, Second Battalion, Americanized Infantry, 22 Infantry Regimen.
“I was drafted right away from the sawmill” where he worked, Belcher said, and recalled the look his boss had when Belcher explained he had been drafted and had to leave his job.
His boss had served in WWII, Belcher said. “I never forgot” that look, Belcher said, adding. “I didn’t know what it meant then, but I know now. He knew more about what I was going to face than I did.”
Belcher’s unit was stationed in War Zone 3, about 45-minutes west of Saigon, “but we had plenty of enemy around,” he said, adding “we were a rag-tail bunch” with members from several states, including Oregon, New Jersey and Texas.
Daily, Belcher and others in his unit climbed into an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC), and “went out sweeping the road. Sweeping for mines,” he said, adding the group sometimes rotated with a sister company in the battalion, providing security when the roads were swept.
Belcher’s group also was the security detail for units performing “jungle duties. They were in there pushing the jungle down. We did that a lot,” he said.
“When we swept the roads, it was like convoy duty. We set up along the road. If they got hit — and they did — we had to drive right in the middle” of the fight, Belcher said, adding the same was true when on jungle duty.
Months, dates and years fill Belcher’s mind.
For instance, on March 11, 1969, his friend Thomas Poldino “was taken. He was from New York and we became great friends,” Belcher said. “The day he was killed, I got very, very angry. When I found out he’d been” killed in action, “I was mad.
“When we got up there to the big battle, I wasn’t afraid, I just wanted to get in there and get somebody; and we did,” Belcher said, adding there was little time to think about self-preservation. “You got out there and fought the best you could.”
In May, 1969, his unit was engaged in 21 contacts with the enemy, Belcher said, adding “that’s very, very high. He also recalled a “big one” that occurred on May 9, 1969. He received a Bronze Star for his accomplishments that day, and another for his service during a May 13 battle.
In June, as Rome Plows were being used to cut the jungle down, Belcher recalled “we had gotten into a firefight – contact with the enemy. Our sister company went in to fight and we went back in, too.”
That was June 11, 1969. Belcher was seated to the left of Robert Glenn “Augie” Sekba, both were on top of an APC when the vehicle and members of his unit were “hit by shrapnel from an RPG (rocket propelled grenade), which penetrates metal and bodies.
“It penetrated him,” Belcher said, pointing to a photo of Augie, who also was his friend. Belcher explained that Augie was a radio disc jockey before he got in the service, and while he originally hailed from California, had been living in New Jersey when he was drafted.
“Augie loved music,” Belcher said, adding that “he died a hero in my eyes. He never showed fear that I could tell” and now is buried in California.
The impact of the blast was sufficient to throw Belcher off of the vehicle, but not before he also had been hit. His right arm was gone, and Belcher also suffered injuries to his right leg, which was “tore all to pieces. It broke my leg. Part of my kneecap is missing.”
A medic who walked along behind the APC “threw a tourniquet around my (arm) stump. It broke. This guy came charging up through the bullets and everything, took off his belt and used it as a tourniquet,” Belcher said, adding that he did not pass out during the ordeal and “was fully aware of everything.”
He was placed onto a stretcher and taken to the base hospital, arriving there within 10 minutes.
While hospitalized for four months, Belcher learned he weighed less than 120-pounds. Due to his injuries, there was speculation that he may not live a normal life.
“I couldn’t get out of bed for the first month, but the day I turned 21, I got up out of the hospital bed,” Belcher said. “I didn’t have permission, but I got up anyway.”
After he was discharged and arrived home, Belcher said “people treated me good. I couldn’t even go to a restaurant and buy a cup of coffee.”
He returned to work 17 days after getting back home, and Belcher determined to adjust to the loss of his limb. “I just do” whatever it is that needs doing, Belcher said. “It takes longer, but I do everything. I get it done.”
He has served as a member of a volunteer fire department, Parks and Recreation, the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and the American Legion.
“But what I’m most proud of is the Honor Guard,” he said of the Patrick County Veterans Honor Guard. “I’m very proud of it.”
He also is glad he can talk about his experience, but notes that it hasn’t always been easy.
“It took me years to talk about it like I do now,” he said, and recalled “I dreamed nearly every night for four years” after coming home.
But once he started talking, the dreams stopped. “Suddenly, it was gone.”
Belcher can be reached at (276) 930-2321.