America’s press, public, and even Congress paid relatively little attention to the experience of the wounded soldier during the Vietnam War.
Weekly casualty reports from U.S. headquarters in Saigon, South Vietnam, gave numbers, but rarely told the story. The Pentagon figure for Americans in Vietnam who suffered “wounds not mortal” is 303,604, including 153,303 of those wounded to the extent that they required a hospital stay.
Bradley Jimerson became one of those Americans. Shrapnel from an exploding Viet Cong mortar shell destroyed Jimerson’s left eye and penetrated his brain.
Jimerson, 65, calls Steamburg, N.Y., home, but he and his wife, Catherine, or “Cat,” spend most of the year traveling the country in their recreational vehicle. Jimerson spends much of his time encouraging fellow paratroopers to attend reunions of his outfit, Company B, 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. “We try to do what we can to help veterans, especially the wounded,” Jimerson said in a July 3 telephone interview.
Jimerson grew up on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation near New York. He moved to South Los Angeles, Calif., when he was 12 years old. He enlisted in the Army in February 1967, two days before turning 19, and went to Fort Ord, Calif., for basic training.
That’s where he learned about the Airborne. “I looked at the airborne boots, airborne wings, and the Screaming Eagle patch on the visiting drill instructor from Fort Benning, Ga., and that drew me in,” said Jimerson.
Jimerson recalled earning his jump wings: “I’m proud and lucky to have made my first jump from a C-119 Flying Boxcar. That was the only time I ever saw one. It provided a lot of vibration and noise that we didn’t train for. The instructor had to scream for you to hear. ‘Stand up!’ ‘Hook up!’ ‘Green light!’ It was kind of scary, but once your parachute opens up then you feel safe. We jumped out of C-130s and C-141s. We trained with the M14 rifle so I didn’t see the M16. We had to jump five times to receive our Airborne wings. Four were just jumping with a parachute, but the last one was with our full gear and weapons: you felt like you were a robot, trying to walk. Once the chute opens up, you just have to go through your training and do the landing like they taught.”
After infantry and airborne training, Jimerson went to Fort Campbell, Ky., to join the 101st Airborne Division Screaming Eagles, where he trained to become a machine gunner in Vietnam.
“In mid-December 1967, they issued us new jungle fatigues and told us to mail our personal stuff home. They trucked us to the airfield at Fort Campbell. We loaded on C-141 Starlifters, which flew us to Vietnam.” Within weeks of arrival in Vietnam, Jimerson was in combat.
With the Tet Offensive unfolding around them, Jimerson and his fellow paratroopers were airlifted to Hue, where they remained till he was wounded on March 13, 1968.
Jimerson fought with an M16 rifle from atop a small hill while his company evacuated a wounded point man and regrouped under heavy fire. Next they established a perimeter, getting the wounded together for extraction. That’s when a Viet Cong mortar round exploded nearby.
Wounded in Service
“I turned and saw a light,” Jimerson said. “I don’t remember hearing the explosion. I just saw it. It was like someone was taking a picture with a flash.”
The horror of a battlefield wound was instant and overwhelming. “It was like my brain and body were short-circuited,” said Jimerson. Years later, 2nd Lt. Rick Arbogast told Jimerson he began screaming and rolling back and forth on his back. Jimerson remembers only that his senses were overwhelmed and the pain was “something I can’t even begin to describe.”
While the firefight persisted, fellow paratroopers bundled Jimerson and other wounded on litters and moved them downstream on a small riverboat to a landing zone where a UH-1 Huey “dustoff” (medical evacuation) helicopter crew picked up Jimerson and hauled him to a tent hospital in Da Nang. The introduction of the helicopter in the Vietnam War is one reason many seriously wounded Americans survived.
After losing consciousness, Jimerson awoke and heard someone saying, “This guy’s not going back out there.” He passed out again. He woke up aboard another life-saving helicopter, landing on the hospital ship USS Sanctuary (AH 17).
Jimerson remembers a nurse shaving his hair and prepping him for surgery. “They had to cut my scalp open and drill a hole in the skull to go inside and get the metal out. Then they closed the skull and sewed up the scalp.”
Jimerson learned that the ordeal of a wounded soldier never ends. After 14 days on the hospital ship, during which he received his Purple Heart, Jimerson was evacuated and found himself at Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco, in an open ward full of wounded men. Months of treatment and therapy followed, and doctors made him his first glass eye. Jimerson began learning again how to speak, how to understand.
“They promoted me from Spec-4 to Sergeant E-5 just before they sent me home at the end of June 1968,” he said. At his parents’ house in South Los Angeles, Jimerson began the process of learning all over again how to function independently.
Jimerson credits his subsequent progress to his 1973 marriage to Catherine Kelley and to the family they built together, two sons and a daughter. Today, he still has difficulties with language and memory. In the July 3 interview, he acknowledged “trouble calling up simple things.” Jimerson said he has been treated well by the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs. But, he said, acquaintances often assume that because he was wounded so long ago, his problems must be over. He wants everyone to know that many combat-wounded are never “made whole” again.
Jimerson said his efforts to assist fellow veterans and his participation at military reunions are an important part of what keeps him going.
In some sense, Bradley Jimerson is still in Vietnam, frozen in time at the young age when he was blown up. He has good family and friends now, but most of his life revolves around continuing to cope with his wounds and helping other veterans to do the same. He has never moved on. He never found a career that had a place for him, with his ongoing injuries.
Over the years, Jimerson has searched for and found 80 of the paratroopers he served with, but he would like to find others who served in his company in Vietnam. The website for veterans of the company is www.b2501airborne.com.