Event to recognize Vietnam veterans

Sevierville vet: 'I’m just a country boy who went and served'
Apr. 05, 2013 @ 11:43 PM

Over 300 Vietnam veterans representing 25 states will march in the Welcome Home From Vietnam Parade on April 16.

The grand marshals are Air Force radio announcer Adrian Cronauer, the inspiration for the 1987 film, “Good Morning Vietnam”; Barry Rice, President of the Tennessee State Council of the Vietnam Veterans of America; and Mary Bears Grinder, Commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs.

The parade will be led by the U.S. Marine Corps Band from Quantico, Va.. A myriad of military-oriented units, civilian floats and groups honoring the veterans will also take part.

Forty years ago, veterans returning from Vietnam received harsh treatment from anti-war protestors, making the readjustment to daily life even more difficult. Some were even instructed to change into civilian clothes to avoid these mobs at the major airports.

Tuesday’s parade is intended to be “the parade they never got,” said Bob Cline, President of U.S. Tours in Parkersburg, W.Va. The parade is part of larger series of events, Welcome Home, Vietnam. All were organized by U.S. Tours.

Harold Stinnett of Sevierville is one Vietnam veteran who did not receive a warm welcome upon his return to the states. Though he was awarded a purple heart for bravery, Stinnett says humbly, “I’m no hero. I didn’t do any great deeds. I’m just a country boy who went and served and did what I was told and came home.”

Drafted in 1969, Stinnett spent two weeks in Da Nang for jungle training before joining his unit at Tam Ky.

“It was just like you went into another world,” he said. “The culture was different, even the odor of the place. I could wake up and still have my eyes closed, but I would know I was there because of the smell. It was that different.”

As a result of being wounded, Stinnett was honorably discharged seven months after arriving in Vietnam. That was long enough to change his life forever.

“I saw several friends, people I didn’t even know, too, and the enemy, get killed,” he recalled. “I saw my best friend killed the night I was injured.”

“There was an armored personnel carrier...That’s a small tank,” he said. “Four of us were on it. About four o’clock in the morning, we had camped on a little hilltop. There was always one of us on guard, but I wasn’t the one that night. I was asleep. Then we heard the enemy coming, so we all ran back to the personnel carrier to get our weapons. There was an explosion. It was an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade launcher), and that thing came close enough to my back to blister it. My buddy that was just a little behind me...it got him,” Stinnett said.

That buddy was Larry Sweet from Dumas, Texas. He was Stinnett’s closest friend.

“I was with him the entire time he was in Vietnam,” Stinnett said. “I got there first, and then he came. We were, daily, just very close.”

The memory is “something you live with every day,” Stinnett said. “Forty-five years later, and you still think about it.”

While Stinnett has not kept in contact with any of the soldiers from his unit, he has spoken with Sweet’s daughter, who was just an infant when her father left for Vietnam.

“The last time I talked to her, she was living in Memphis,” he said. “She might have seen him one time before he left. I’m not really sure about that. There’s a possibility she never saw her father.”

Stinnett said that after returning home, one man told him that it was “just a war. He said I needed to get over it.” Unlike some of his acquaintances, he didn’t hear anything worse than that.

After his injury, Stinnett was flown to Fort Campbell, where he spent seven months in the hospital before being discharged.

“I guess I was one of the fortunate ones,” Stinnett said. “I didn’t come back home by public transport, so I was shielded from the hecklers. But there was no welcome home. Nothing. I was just back, and that was it.”

By the time he was called to fight, the war had been going on for some time. Several local boys had gone to fight, Stinnett said, and the novelty had worn off.

After he returned, Stinnett couldn’t move forward. In some ways, he still can’t.

After the explosion, he was taken to a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit. “An American nurse looked at me and asked how long I had left, and I said five months,” he said. “She said, No, you’re going home now. Your war’s over. But someone who’s fought in a war, their war never ends. We fight it every day and night.”

In addition to the memories he cannot escape, Stinnett still suffers from pain in his left ankle, his knees, and his ears.

Nevertheless, Stinnett isn’t bitter, and says he is proud to have served his country. His eyes are warm, his smile kind, and he even has a few fond memories to share.

One memorable event occurred while Stinnett was on leave in 1970. He was headed back to Fort Campbell with a friend named Brian, and they stopped in Hendersonville to spend the night with Brian’s parents. Brian’s father was friendly, and began making small talk with Stinnett, asking about some of his own acquaintances in the area.

“After that he said, You may have heard of me. I wrote ‘Rocky Top’ and ‘Wake Up, Little Susie.’ I was staying with Boudleaux Bryant,” Stinnett said with a laugh.

Stinnett shared another fond memory: “One time in Tam Ky, we went out to the air strip, and we got out there and played baseball. We didn’t have bases or anything, but we had an old glove and a ball. We’d play till a plane hit the other end of the runway. Then we’d step back and let you go, and we’d play some more,” he said. “We were just kids.”

These are the kind of stories he told when he wrote home. “I normally won’t tell a lie,” he said. “But I wrote home every day to my mother and told her I was in a safe area. Even if it was a bad day, I’d just say, another day has passed, and I’m away from the fighting.”

When he was drafted, Stinnett was only a few months out of high school. “I was really too young to comprehend what I was involved in. Here you’ve got this kid with a machine gun,” he said. “At my age now I look back, and I see I was a kid. I didn’t know everything. It’s just by the grace of the good Lord that I’m still here.”

After the war, Stinnett “stumbled around a few years” before his life took a turn for the better. He credits three things for the person he is today: His Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; his wife of 25 years, Jeanette; and J.S. Elidge, his first post-war employer, for whom he performed maintenance work and drove a gas truck.

When Elidge went out of business, Stinnett was hired by the national park, and he worked for the federal government until his retirement. “I had a terrible job,” he joked. “I had to work in Cades Cove every day.”

Stinnett and his wife Jeanette have one son, Robbie, who lives in Sevier County with his wife Courtney. They have three grandchildren, Brett, 13, Tyler, 16, and Brayden, 3.

As an adjuntant for the local Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 94, Stinnett tries to make a difference in the lives of other former soldiers whose lives have been adversely affected by war. The group meets monthly to discuss veterans issues, and they devote their time to raise money for the nonprofit organization. “Everything we take up, we use to help other veterans improve their quality of life. Yesterday I wrote a check to a veteran to keep him from getting kicked out of his home,” Stinnett said.

The DAV is just one group that will be represented in the parade. “In the last couple of years, I’ve had a lot of people say thank you. “It feels good,” he said.

Stinnett notes that Welcome Home, Vietnam, has been well publicized, and he hopes he will see some of the men in his unit.

“If not,” he said, “I’ll still enjoy seeing other Vietnam vets.”

jfrye@themountainpress.com