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Vietnam Vet deals with battle memories 40 years after guns went silent

Local Vietnam veteran Bob Atkinson poses with mortar launcher bi-pod during his time in Vietnam, 1966-67. During one battle, Atkinson recalls he stopped using the bi-pod and held the tube with his hands, firing point blank at times. "One of the Marines took off his shirt and wrapped it around the tube so the heat from the tube wouldn't burn the flesh from my hands," he said.

Local Vietnam veteran Bob Atkinson poses with mortar launcher bi-pod during his time in Vietnam, 1966-67. During one battle, Atkinson recalls he stopped using the bi-pod and held the tube with his hands, firing point blank at times. "One of the Marines took off his shirt and wrapped it around the tube so the heat from the tube wouldn't burn the flesh from my hands," he said.

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Newton County resident Bob Atkinson was awarded a Bronze Star during his service in Vietnam, then spent 40 years coming to terms with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Robert Atkinson had 15 days remaining to complete his tour in Vietnam when he received what the grunts called 'a million dollar wound' not enough to kill you, but bad enough to send you home mostly intact. Atkinson was atop an amtrack when it hit a land mine; his third time to survive a roadside explosion.

Atkinson, a long time Newton County resident, endured unremitting fighting and psychological trauma, dodged mortar and rocket attacks, and survived hand-to-hand combat against North Vietnamese and Viet Cong human wave attacks. Decades would pass before hypnosis took Atkinson back to Vietnam for proper closure. Before hypnosis he could vividly recall only 24 hours in the war zone.

His journey began in April 1966. Sent for basic training in San Diego, "We were called Hollywood Marines," Atkinson said. "That first haircut. We all looked the same, our individuality was gone."

Six months later he was on a flight to Vietnam. To avoid sniper fire, the chartered Continental Airlines jet began its steep descent into DaNang, the Marine bastion in the northern part of South Vietnam.

"I recall walking off the plane," Atkinson said. "It was like walking into an oven."

Trucked a few miles south of DaNang, Atkinson spent his first night on the 'safe side' of Marble Mountain; actually five pure marble formations the size of Stone Mountain.

"That night we were sitting in the sand fighting off sand fleas while watching a movie when someone shot up the screen," he said. "Later explosions rocked the base, and we were told Charlie (the enemy) had lobbed grenades at us off the mountain. All I could think of is, 'This is the safe side of the mountain?'"

The next morning Atkinson was sent to the 'bad' side of Marble Mountain.

"I had been trained as a rifleman," he said, "but they put me in a 60mm mortar crew. I'd never fired a mortar in my life."

Atkinson had to carry the mortar round box on patrols, usually six or seven rounds, each weighing 4.4 pounds; plus the heavy M-14 semi-automatic rifle, two canteens of water, six to 10 magazines for the rifle, C-rations, a few grenades and the ever-present rain poncho about 85 pounds total. At the time, Atkinson weighed 128 pounds.

"I don't know how my scrawny butt did it," he said.

The next three months were a living hell. Days and nights sloshing through filthy rice paddies and boot-sucking sand, fighting off sporadic ambushes, and burning villages with his Zippo lighter.

"At first I wondered why guys talked bad about our country," he said. "But that didn't take long to figure out."

After departing one village, the Marines were raked by machine guns firing from the same village.

"We called in fire from naval ships offshore," Atkinson said. "Their reply was, 'Negative, negative, that's a friendly village.' We're in a fight for our lives but can't get life-saving support because a map shows a black dot to be a 'friendly' village? No matter, our Huey gunships took care of the problem. We could always count on Marine chopper pilots. They knew no fear."

Assigned to a position called the "Sand Dunes" in December 1966, Atkinson and 75 other Marines were protected from attack by three rolls of barbed wire and a few claymore mines.

On the night of Jan. 14, 1967, the enemy decided that wasn't too much of a disadvantage.

"Explosions woke us up around midnight," Atkinson said. "Then tracers ripped through our tent. My buddy and I grabbed our M-14s and ran for our mortar pit. Flashes from explosions almost blinded us, but I could see a man dressed in green boxers running towards me with a rifle. I shot him twice in the chest then feared for the rest of the battle that I had killed a fellow Marine."

Atkinson was the only one in his mortar crew to reach the weapon, but two other Marines joined him to help load. "Our flares lit up the night and we could see the enemy inside our perimeter. Things were getting bad."

Things were bad enough that Atkinson stopped using the mortar bi-pod and held the tube with his hands, firing point blank at times.

"One of the Marines took off his shirt and wrapped it around the tube so the heat from the tube wouldn't burn the flesh from my hands."

Tracers flew overhead, bullets ripped up the dirt surrounding the mortar pit, and a young lieutenant kept shouting for Atkinson to blow up the chow hall.

"An enemy soldier had taken over the chow hall and had a field of fire at us from inside our perimeter, and I was out of munitions," he said.

With rounds hitting all around him, Atkinson crawled to another mortar pit already out of action to retrieve the munitions. Dragging the munitions box back to his mortar pit, Atkinson zeroed in on the chow hall.

"I had to aim left, then right, to avoid hitting one of our 50 cal. machine guns that was mowing down the enemy. I got on target after two rounds." Atkinson destroyed the chow hall to neutralize the threat.

Atkinson was later told by fellow Marines that during the intense fighting he had manned a 60-caliber machine gun on the perimeter. He didn't remember. Atkinson was also informed that other Marines had to stop him after the fighting was over he was chasing after the enemy! An enemy satchel charge was also found in Atkinson's bunker; it never exploded, and the man in the green boxer shorts he shot in the chest was indeed an enemy soldier.

"I got the Bronze Star," Atkinson said. "That didn't mean much in Nam."

After recovering stateside from the roadside bombing injuries, traumatized Atkinson was sent into Washington, D.C., to quell the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

"Dear God," he admitted. "I fought an enemy overseas then was put in a situation to fight my own countrymen. It was crazy."

Atkinson served his time in hell then fought drug and alcohol addiction for the next 40 years. After 40 years of hospitalizations, evaluations, and psychoanalysis, he was finally diagnosed with 100 percent Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

"I guess when all is said and done; the only question I ever wanted answered was, was I a good Marine?"

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen. Contact him at petemecca@gmail.com.