Gary Roberts is a 79-year-old Army veteran, easily recognized with his black 1st Cavalry Division hat adorned with POW and Airborne pins.
Roberts, originally from Medina, Ohio, enlisted in the Army for a two-year commitment to “get it over with.” Little did he know he would spend just over 20 years crisscrossing the globe, serving on a variety of bases in the United States, Vietnam, Germany, and Korea.
After his basic and infantry training, Roberts deployed to Augsburg, Germany. While there, he spent an extra six months watching the Berlin Wall going up.
Roberts eventually worked his way from infantry to airborne, landing with the 11th Air Assault at Fort Benning, Georgia. The Air Assault changed to Air Cavalry, and in September of 1965, Roberts was on his way to Vietnam.
His introduction to combat was on the first wave of helicopters inserting troops in the battle of la Drang Valley as depicted in the 2002 movie “We Were Soldiers.” Roberts was a machine gunner at the time, gaining great respect for his commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore.
“Growing up, General Paton was my hero,” Roberts said. “After Vietnam, General Moore became one of my heroes.”
During Roberts’ two tours in Vietnam – 18 months in total — he became a helicopter crew member. The flight crew consisted of a pilot, copilot, crew chief and two door gunners of which he was one.
While in Vietnam, Roberts was shot down five times. One of those occasions was on Dec. 25, after dropping off a Christmas meal of C-Rations and ammunition for troops in the jungle. Roberts was the only one of his crew that survived.
“I’m the only one of the five that came home (alive),” Roberts said, his casual smile vanishing and his bright eyes glazing with the memory.
When the North Vietnamese Army troops arrived at the crash site, they bayoneted the bodies. Roberts survived by hiding underneath the bodies of his comrades, at one point getting cut on his right arm from one of the bayonetings. After the enemy troops moved on, he would venture out to find things to eat and water to drink before returning to the helicopter each night.
After 13 days at the crash site, Roberts heard a helicopter flying nearby and took the chance to fire a red flare. The flight crew saw his signal and rescued him on Jan. 7, 1966. He was transported to a hospital where he would spend two weeks physically recovering from his time in the field.
Roberts eventually moved on to other assignments in the U.S., Germany, and Korea as a Quartermaster but his time in Vietnam and the loss of his flight crew stayed with him. He always wondered why he came home because they made a pact they would all go together.
Christmas proved especially hard for him but over time he came to accept what happened. Eventually, he would move to Tennessee, working as a truck driver for Old Dominion. That was when he found God and God helped him come to terms with his experiences in Vietnam.
He prayed for a safe trip to Washington D.C. to visit the Vietnam Memorial. He was able to visit the wall, thank his crew members – his heroes — and gain peace. He now talks with veterans about what he has gone through as well as what they are going through. He feels that is why he came home, to help all the veterans he can.
Roberts is thankful for his military experience and the lessons he learned such as respect for others and living off the land. He continues to pay respect to our soldiers each Memorial and Veterans Day by placing flags out at his church. He also offers replacement flags and proper disposal for threadbare flags as he finds them throughout the community.
While Roberts is quick to offer a “Thank you for your service” to veterans and first responders, what he likes most is when young kids offer the same to him.
“A little boy came up and saluted me,” Roberts said smiling. “He took one of those plastic toy soldiers out of his pocket and gave it to me. I told him to keep it, but his mother said he had a pocket full of them, so I kept it. I still have it at home by my other military things.”
These interactions are important to Roberts as he views it as the parents “raising the kids right.”
As for acknowledgment on Veterans Day, Roberts prefers a simple, “Have a good Veterans Day.”