Ranch instructor included in Vietnam film Ranch instructor included in Vietnam film

July 3, 2006

Posted on Sun, Jul. 02, 2006

Herald Staff Writer
In the spring of 1970, Army Lt. Bob Lewis found himself commanding a company of 125 soldiers attacking the Ho Chi Minh Trail after two commanders were hit in the suffocating Cambodian jungle.

The harrowing but valorous story of how Lewis’ company fought its way through heavy North Vietnamese Army resistance to seize a large cache of weapons and ammunition is told in a newly completed documentary, “Commitment and Sacrifice.”

Now a 58-year-old Junior ROTC instructor at Lakewood Ranch High School, Lewis until recently was reluctant to talk about those desperate days in May.

But when a former network news cameraman who was embedded with Lewis’ old unit, Bravo Company, 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, began a documentary on the soldiers’ experiences, the retired Army officer openly shared his own.

Journalist Norman Lloyd was among a wave of American soldiers who invaded Cambodia in 1970 to attack safe havens and destroy enemy weapons and ammunition caches. Embedded in the action, Lloyd supplied film for use on Walter Cronkite’s evening newscast.

Years later, that film footage was pieced together with remembrances from the surviving soldiers of Bravo Company to create a poignant documentary focusing on their bravery, their brotherhood and their sense of loss.

“I’ll never forget how still it was,” Lewis said of his first look at Cambodia. “There were no sounds. None. I’d never been taken by so much beauty before that or since. I thought it’s a shame we had to fight there because it was so beautiful. But that tranquility lasted about 15 minutes.”

Finding the footage

Those graphic memories had been buried in a CBS film vault for 34 years.

When he decided to look for the film in October 2004, he initially found nothing.

“I was never sure that I would find it,” Lloyd said. “When I did, things began to fall into my lap just because of persistence.”

After combing through news archives for a year, Lloyd retrieved CBS News’ unaired footage of Lewis’ company in Cambodia and Vietnam from 1970 to 1975.

Newly retired from a 39-year career as a cameraman, Lloyd started locating veterans for interviews in July 2004. When he finished in February 2006, he’d toured the United States from Florida to Michigan and California.

“Commitment and Sacrifice” tells the story of American soldiers in their most trying times. With minimal narration, contemporary interviews and original combat footage, the movie offers a glimpse of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq as seen through the lens of Lloyd, who entered Vietnam at the age of 26 and received $50 a story for combat footage.

Almost 30 years later, the reactivated 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment invited Lloyd to Iraq, where he spent 15 days in 2005 interviewing and shadowing troops on missions near the city of Balad.

The harsh realities of the wars bring out the soldiers’ commitment to one another – regardless of time or place – and the sacrifice they made in protecting America.

A soldier’s connection

In Lewis’ Bravo Company, Bill Woodrum, then 19, led a squad of six to eight soldiers in Cambodia.

Morning after morning, the same uneasy feelings would sit in their stomachs.

“You’d wake up knowing somebody would be killed,” Woodrum said. “But you did your job. You never talked about it.”

Each night, Woodrum and his squad discussed letters from family or friends. But they never talked about the day’s events, no matter how intense they were, no matter how haunting they might turn out to be.

As the war expanded to the west into Cambodia, American unrest continued to rise. On May 4, 1970, four students died when National Guardsmen opened fire on a crowd of protesters at Kent State University.

As the tension in America continued, so did the war in Vietnam and Cambodia.

On May 23, 1970, one of Lewis’ platoons took Shakey’s Hill, named for Chris “Shakey” Keffalos, a 17-year-old soldier who died near the top. American soldiers confronted increasing resistance from North Vietnamese Army snipers on the treacherous climb to the summit.

Just as during the nights in Vietnam, Woodrum never discussed Shakey’s Hill or the war after he returned to America.

Then, after years of silence, he hosted a reunion of Bravo Company’s First Platoon at his house in Grand Saline, Texas, in November 2004.

Though decades passed without contact, the bond among the soldiers was as strong as ever after 30 years.

“When they showed up, we picked up right where we left off,” Woodrum said.

Veterans used reunions to find a connection. They also used the Internet.

About eight years ago, Mac Coffman, from Mangum, Okla., suddenly decided to begin his search for a community that he, like others who survived the war, had chosen to forget for more than two decades. With the faded memories, Coffman began to wonder if he was by himself, stranded in a darkness that no one else could understand. Sometimes he’d spend the entire day searching the Internet for clues that could connect him with any soldier in Bravo Company.

“It was like putting on a light switch,” he said. “I needed to know if there were more that made it. Because there weren’t many (on the hill) who did.”

While battling small-arms fire from the North Vietnamese Army on Shakey’s Hill, Coffman sustained shrapnel wounds to his right leg on May 20, 1970. One of the last people he saw in his company was Lewis, who helped lift Coffman to safety on the medevac helicopter.

Through the years, Coffman always remembered Lewis’ face. But his search for veterans didn’t yield great numbers, returning only one hit in 2000 – Jack Thomas, a sergeant in Bravo Company. But more men started to pop up. He found Eldon Erlenbach, then Sylvester Amy. Just looking for “someone to talk to,” Coffman was beginning to find he wasn’t alone.

“I had to find out. There was a piece of me missing,” Coffman said. “Finding it was like lifting a black cloud off of me. The bond we have is probably stronger than family. Families don’t really have to go through the ordeals that we did.”

The companies of the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment stayed in Cambodia for a few weeks after taking Shakey’s Hill. In the last week of June, the troops from Bravo Company were among the last Americans to return to Vietnam.

A new war

Although the soldiers are like family, some still have difficulty discussing their pasts, in part because they were not well-received in America when they came home.

Because of the public’s aversion to the war and the negative stereotypes of the soldiers, patriotism declined greatly during and after the war, Coffman said.

But that decline was dramatically reversed on Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks shocked the nation, killing close to 3,000 people.

Mike McIntire, closer to the tragedy than most as a Bostonian, had his answer. He joined the military within a week of 9/11. When he was scheduled to be released in 2004, he re-enlisted through 2009.

Now stationed in Fort Stewart, Ga., McIntire spent 2005 in Iraq. He expects to go on a few more tours there.

“A lot of people (at the base) told me I’m crazy because I like it better in Iraq,” McIntire said. “But I figure I’ll go back and help the younger guys out.”

Lloyd’s 15-day venture to an American base near Balad explored not only the evolving nature of war but also the unchanging mission for soldiers like McIntire.

Once an experienced leader of a five-man team in Balad, McIntire, 31, is like a big brother to many of the troops training at Fort Stewart. He tells them to listen selectively: Never tune out the enemy, but don’t believe everything you hear on the base, either.

“Everybody’s going to do their bragging, but it sounds a lot worse than it actually is,” he said.

McIntire’s wife, Kelly, knew he’d re-enlist. And their younger daughter, MyKayla, who was only 2 months old when he left for Iraq, has already gotten used to her father being away. Not accustomed to having dad at home, MyKayla sleeps close to her mother even when he is there.

In Iraq, McIntire patrolled the streets up to eight hours a day in a convoy of armored Hummers to search for terrorists and their weapons.

The insurgents’ main defense, the improvised explosive device, was a constant threat in Balad. One Hummer on the base was hit six times, McIntire said.

“Put new tires on it, change the windows. There’ll be holes all over it, but it’ll go,” he said.

Looking ahead

Though “Commitment and Sacrifice” spanned 35 years and multiple generations, its message of unity, humanity and duty transcends politics, place and time.

For his yearlong service in the Vietnam War, Lewis received the Combat Infantry Badge, the Silver Star, four Bronze Stars for Valor and the Legion of Merit.

“We all believe in America,” Lewis said. “We believe, whether it’s popular or not, we can only have a country if we support our leadership. That’s what (the war in Vietnam) came down to.”

Despite a different enemy or ideology America faces today, the soldier’s mission remains unchanged.

“I don’t care how much we fight with each other, we’ll always rally around the flag,” Lewis said. “You have to have a group, the military, that will salute and carry on. For future generations, we’re going to do the best we can to make the world a better place for everyone.”

John Simpson, Herald reporter, can be reached at 708-7918, or at jsimpson@HeraldToday.com.

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