The long road home: Vietnam vet James Hill shares story at Morris Township Memorial Day program

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Life would be easier for James C. Hill if he could forget Vietnam.

But his tour as a Marine lance corporal is seared into his memory. Five times, he was wounded in combat.

Vietnam veteran James C. Hill, left, is greeted at Memorial Day ceremony in Morris Township. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Vietnam veteran James C. Hill, left, is greeted at Memorial Day ceremony in Morris Township. Photo by Bill Lescohier

Even worse, perhaps, was an assignment that involved regular chopper flights to a Danang morgue — to identify bodies of friends before they were shipped home.

“That was real stressful to me,” Hill told the packed chamber of the Morris Township Committee, where rain moved the annual Morristown/Township Memorial Day observance.

Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty noted how the communities are lucky to have the option of canceling a parade in bad weather. The men and women honored on Memorial Day “didn’t have the choice to give up a battle on a rainy day. They fought no matter what the conditions were,” he said.

The Morristown High School Marching Band wedged into the building, along with police and firefighters from both municipalities, and dignitaries including Morris County Prosecutor Fredric Knapp, former Township Mayors Kathleen Hyland and Peter Mancuso, and Morristown Councilwoman Alison Deeb.

A Morristown High School bugler plays Taps at Morris Township Memorial Day ceremony, May 29, 2017. Photo by Bill Lescohier.
A Morristown High School bugler plays Taps at Morris Township Memorial Day ceremony, May 29, 2017. Photo by Bill Lescohier.

“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died,” said Township Mayor Bruce Sisler, quoting WWII Gen. George S. Patton. “Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.”

Dougherty asked for a moment of silence to honor Art Grant, a Vietnam veteran who emceed many veterans’ events over the years. The Morris Plains resident died in February at 74.

“We will surely miss his jokes. He always had a joke,” Dougherty said.

‘I DIDN’T WANT MY BROTHER TO GET KILLED’

During Vietnam, the joke was on James Hill. He joined the Marines with his best friend in 1968, straight out of high school in Plainfield. Subsequently, he learned that his older brother had been drafted and already was in Vietnam.

“I just knew I didn’t want my brother to get killed,” said Hill.

He signed some paperwork, intending to replace his brother in Vietnam. But he signed the wrong papers, he said, landing himself in combat while his brother continued to enjoy a comparatively safe gig as a military policeman, working regular eight-hour shifts at a helicopter base.

Police and firefighters salute at Morris Township Memorial Day ceremony, May 29, 2017. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Police and firefighters salute at Morris Township Memorial Day ceremony, May 29, 2017. Photo by Bill Lescohier

Hill, accustomed to fighting “24-7,” was wounded by a mortar round while serving in a rear area.  He preferred to be “in the bush,” where the combat was heaviest.

“I felt safe out in the field because I could fight the enemy, the Viet Cong and the NVA,”  he said, referring to the North Vietnamese Army.

Awarded two Purple Hearts for his injuries, Hill returned to the States and served in a Marines unit that backed up the National Guard at riots on college campuses.  His buddy, the one he enlisted with, left Vietnam with a bullet wound in the arm.

“When I got home in January 1970, he was strung out in drugs,” Hill said. Soon, he was hooked, too. About a dozen years later, with the help of a Veterans Administration hospital, he got clean.

GIVING BACK

Hill, who now has two grown children and “four or five grandchildren,” astonished himself by having a long career with the Postal Service, retiring on disability when two bad knees hobbled him. Post-traumatic stress syndrome still dogs him, he said.

He copes by helping his fellow vets.

Morris Township Mayor Bruce Sisler addresses Memorial Day ceremony, May 29, 2017. Photo by Bill Lescohier.
Morris Township Mayor Bruce Sisler addresses Memorial Day ceremony, May 29, 2017. Photo by Bill Lescohier.

“Basically, what I try to do is give back to the veterans community. And that’s what I’m all about, giving back to the veterans community, because they helped me when I was out there,” said Hill.

He has volunteered at the V.A. hospital in Lyons. He is active in the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Marine Corps League.

And he remembers. Every day. But especially, on Memorial Day.

Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty speaks on Memorial Day 2017 in Morris Township. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty speaks on Memorial Day 2017 in Morris Township. Photo by Bill Lescohier

“I do the best that I can to live a day at a time.  This is the time I remember the people that died, that’s what this is all about for me, remembering the ones who didn’t come home from Vietnam, from WWII, WWI, the Korean conflict, Afghanistan and Iraq.

“This is for those who didn’t come back, and for those like me who are still fighting the war, with post-traumatic stress,” Hill said.

Bill Lescohier contributed to this story.

MORE 2017 MEMORIAL DAY COVERAGE

Video playlist: Memorial Day 2017 speeches

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