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Horrors of Vietnam drive vet to help

Special Photo. Joe May is seen in Vietnam. He served with the 4th Infantry Division in the Army.

Special Photo. Joe May is seen in Vietnam. He served with the 4th Infantry Division in the Army.

CONYERS — Joe May attempted to move on after serving in the Army in Vietnam by helping fellow veterans readjust to civilian life. He said the horrors of war are always with him and the best medicine he has found is helping others.

"You know, when I leave this world, I hope people remember me as a person that loved everybody," May said from his Lithonia home. "I learned in war that we're all humans. There has got to be a better way to solve differences other than war."

May grew up in East St. Louis, Ill., and was one of seven children of professional gospel singers. After high school, he attended Tennessee State University on a baseball scholarship. He was good enough to get signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates. May was six months into playing on the Pirates Class A farm team in Scranton, Pa., in 1967 when he received his draft notice.

"The Vietnam War was escalating," May said. "I was single with no dependents, so my goose was cooked."

May did not want to go to Vietnam. The Army had other plans. The morning after completing advanced infantry training, May and his fellow infantrymen were called out for a 6 a.m. formation.

"They called the names of the guys going to Korea, to Germany, then said, ‘And the rest of you men will be going to Vietnam.'"

May's name had not been called; he was going to war.

May was flown to Pleiku in the central highlands of Vietnam and served with the 4th Infantry Division. He was assigned to the 245th Psy Ops Unit (Psychological Operations). UH1-D Huey choppers became his airborne home.

"We'd set up speakers about a 100 yards from the villages and call the people out. Nobody would come out except children and old women," he said.

After villages were cleared of inhabitants, the missions became search and destroy campaigns.

"We were ordered to level the cleared villages," May stated. "On this one mission we were torching a village, and I threw a hand grenade into this flimsy old hut. I'll regret that forever. A woman and child came out screaming with horrible, disfiguring wounds."

The incident traumatized May, who said, "I can't forget it."

The platoon leader told May he had two choices: Toss grenades or stick his head into the primitive huts, in which case the Viet Cong would probably blow his head off.

May spent about five months with the Psy Ops Unit, mostly dropping propaganda leaflets from choppers into enemy-controlled territory, before his transfer to the 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division.

"I was regular infantry by then, armed with an M-16, seven or eight grenades, and machine gun belts wrapped around my torso. I looked like Pancho Villa," he said.

The stagnant jungle heat took a heavy toll on the physical element, but too often war takes a heavier toll on the mental component. May's platoon leader was decapitated from a direct hit.

"I was standing next to him when he got hit," May said, biting his lower lip. "I lost another friend. People just don't understand what war is."

During the Tet Offensive of 1968, May's base came under relentless rocket and mortar attack, which normally preceded an enemy ground assault.

"Russian-made 122 mm rockets would make craters the size of a bus," May explained. "After the barrage, here came the Communist troops charging over the barbed wire. We'd mow them down like wheat, but we still lost a lot of our people."

May participated in a U.S. counterstrike in the A Shau Valley.

"As soon as the choppers touched down we were ambushed by North Vietnamese troops concealed in the jungle. They cut us to pieces. In two days over 200 guys got killed and hundreds were wounded. I can still hear boys calling for their mommas."

May made it home, but he remembered it was not a pleasant welcome.

"I remember some hippie-like people calling me a baby-killer," he said. "We never intentionally killed kids, but the kids killed us."

May referred to the children the Viet Cong wired with explosives, and Coca-Cola bombs.

"You'd see a small child in a village, maybe 5 years old holding a Coke can, approach a G.I. and all of a sudden … boom! And that was that."

May took advantage of the G.I. bill and received a master's degree in counseling and psychology and he also met his wife, Patricia, a champion track star, at Tennessee State.

"We were married for 13 years. I was making a living at the VA as a mental health and readjustment counselor, but I was the one having nightmares and cold sweats, fighting in my sleep, flashbacks, a fear of large crowds, anger over little things; it took a toll on our marriage. I was the one that needed counseling. I was a time bomb," he said.

In 1995, after years of private anguish, with too many memories and not enough sleep, May was diagnosed 100 percent disabled with post traumatic stress disorder by the Veterans Administration.

"I eventually came to Atlanta, found a job at Families First, and kept attending PTSD group sessions. The guys are like me, we relate, we save each other," he said.

Now a lifetime member and spokesman of the Disabled American Veterans, May helps his fellow veterans seek the assistance they need and have earned.

"The walking wounded are still with us, homeless veterans that need help. I'm dedicated to helping these guys," May said. "They're my lost Band of Brothers."