War is for patriots. There is not a more self-sacrificing duty than to work and die to protect one’s country. As a result, military veterans and the fallen deserve honor and respect in our society, especially those who don’t escape the horrors of battle unscathed.
Within the last twenty years there has been an increased awareness and treatment of mental health issues for soldiers returning from combat missions. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), initially a buzz word in the early 90’s, is now a treatable diagnosis. Yet, many vets fail to receive such attention and in some cases find themselves isolated from the very help they need. It’s at this point violent crimes are sometimes committed by veterans who, unable to adjust to life after combat, succumb to the poison of unseen injuries.
The difficulties with VA hospitals—which are notoriously underfunded, mismanaged and backlogged—are well documented. Veterans with PTSD and combat-induced psychosis are frequently left to their own devices. It was even worse when Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Cong, and the Tet Offensive haunted the nightly news. Vietnam was an era without diagnoses. A harsher, wetter climate where rats were brave enough to climb up the pants legs of sleeping soldiers, and the whirl of helicopter blades echoed through the jungle. A place where explosions of molten lead ripped through the air and you lived or died, with no room for a troubled mind.
James Davis (JD) remembers it well, never forgetting the oppressive heat and constant rain of Vietnam any more than why he volunteered for war or how it irrevocably changed him at the tender age of 18. It was 1966 . . . .
JD: At that time I graduated from a private high school in Union Mills, North Carolina. My parents weren’t going to let me stay home after graduating so I had to find a place to live. And a job. Mainly, my mind was focused on a place to live. Around that time recruiters came to the school. Some from the Army. Some the Navy and Marines. I didn’t like the Navy uniforms. I didn’t want to go in the Marines. Four of us went into the Army. The Army also had a radio repair school and I liked that. It was one of the main reasons I joined. That, and I wanted to fight for the U.S. It was a patriotic choice.
What about the draft? What was the political climate back then?
JD: The draft had already begun. It was for people who wouldn’t volunteer. Mostly the poor. Later, college kids once the government suspended draft deferments. There was a lot of people angry about this. Protests on campuses happened because these people were against the war, but not when the poor were drafted. They were protesting because the US never declared war. It was more of a police action than a war like Iraq. Like Afghanistan and Syria. Like everything since World War II. The U.S. was trying to prevent the spread of communism. To stop the Russians from spreading it to Vietnam. It was the same with Cuba.
What was boot camp like? Where were you stationed? What was your job?
JD: They taught us to be killers. That war was about living and dying. Both were possible. I was in infantry. We learned how to shoot a rifle, get in physical shape, live out in the field, different weather survival, exercises and marches. Lots of marching. Running. Obstacle courses. If you couldn’t shoot a rifle you were out of the Army. They also taught us first aid. Hand-to-hand combat. How to use gas masks for chemical warfare. They taught you to stay alive, to familiarize yourself to know what to do.
But I started at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina for basic training. Then I went to Ft. Seal, Oklahoma for radio repair. Then Ft. Carson, Colorado for artillery training. The one that meant the most was Nuremberg, Germany when I got secret clearance. It doesn’t happen for everybody and I forgot about it until I left for Vietnam. That secret clearance meant more to me than anything because it meant I was trusted. I never revealed anything of course.
What did you think and feel about going to war? Even though you were a trained solider did the idea of battle scare you? Were you excited to prove yourself and serve your country?
JD: It was about serving my country. I was a volunteer. In other words, I wanted to bet there when the others had to be drafted. I learned real fast when your number comes up you die. When it doesn’t come up you live. Some guys got there and were shot dead on the first day. Others went their whole tour and got killed on the last day. A tour of duty was one year. We counted the days backward. What was scary to some guys was being short—getting ready to go home and being sent out into the bush. One guys was short and went out. Raised his hand up and a sniper got him. When your number comes up, it comes up. We didn’t think about living or dying. We couldn’t. They trained you to do a job and put the rest out of your mind. Otherwise, you make mistakes that get you killed. Or you go crazy. If you can do the job you gain rank fast. I made corporal in the first week. At the end of the first year I made buck sergeant. Combat promotions are different than stateside. Some people stay the same rank for years when they’re stateside.
What were some of the tasks they assigned you?
JD: My first tour we moved around a lot. All the time. In trucks and helicopters. We didn’t stay anywhere long. A lot of the work was filling sandbags. Tens of thousands of sandbags; hundreds of thousands. It seemed like digging foxholes and filling sandbags was all we did. That and breaking ammo out of their wooden crates.
How do you feel about Vietnam now?
JD: I think people died over there for nothing. It’s politics. Population control. We didn’t win anything. So many died and then we come home because the government stopped fighting. I would never volunteer for this country again. They took the poor and middle class who volunteered and drafted the rest and threw them all away. At one point the media asked President Johnson, “How many children have you killed today?” This was when 300 of us were dying every day in Vietnam. For nothing. By our Constitution we’re not supposed to be the policemen of the world. The presidents and Congress don’t even follow the Constitution. They would have to draft me now.
What was it about your first tour in Vietnam that made you want to go back?
JD: It was the best year of my life. Even though it was a hard life – the constant rain, mosquitoes, heat, lack of sleep and death – it was the best. I can’t explain it any better. This is one reason. It was better to be over there than anywhere else. I found out later I was becoming psychotic in Vietnam. We would see combat and laugh. I was psychotic and still am. After you see so much combat you’re changed by it and you don’t even know it. You develop problems like I have – PTSD, paranoia, schizophrenia – these things don’t go away. I didn’t know these things then. All I knew is that I wanted to go back. Nobody liked stateside duty.
Why did no one like stateside duty? It was safer, right?
JD: After the first tour I returned to Asheville, North Carolina for a 30 day leave. For a time I just went to Shorey’s Drive-In or some other drive-in, you know, where girls on roller skates take your order. I rode around in a nice brand new ’61 Galaxy Starliner listening to Elvis, Pat Boone, Buck Owens, Patsy Cline and others. I was more of a loner, enjoying life on my own. After leave they sent me to Ft. Hood, Texas to serve the rest of my time stateside. I knew in my mind at the time that something was wrong with me mentally, something different than before I went to ‘Nam. I didn’t know what. I was in a heavy artillery unit at the time. They wanted us to go on field maneuvers in Texas. I felt like if I was going out in the field – I was going out in The Field. I hadn’t even been back a week and put in to go back to ‘Nam.
During my second tour the war was winding down. Less movement for my unit. More problems though. My pants caught on fire from an accidental chemical spill. Put me in the hospital for two months. There was less shooting in ’69-’70. Still mortars and artillery though. The last Viet Cong I killed, I was on guard duty. I just threw a grenade down a hill out of boredom and got lucky. It was so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. The next morning they found a VC who had tried to sneak into camp, dead from the grenade. The supply sergeant said “Good job!” and gave me some more grenades.
Were you ever awarded any medals? If so, what were they?
JD: After basic training everybody gets a National Defense medal. Then I got the Marksman and Sharpshooter badges. At the end of your Vietnam tour they give you a ribbon for being in Vietnam. We all got those. During my second tour I got wounded by an enemy mortar. The NVA (North Vietnamese Army) were firing rockets and mortars, and pushing ground attacks trying to overrun and kill us. I was at a base camp in Chu Ci and we had six 105mm T.O.Ws, big crew-served artillery pieces on the perimeter. We were firing back and forth when a mortar landed behind me. It blew out several of the tires on the truck and hit me. I reached down and felt my leg was wet with blood. There were five of us and we hurried up and took cover in a bunker. The injury burned. Hell, there was hot shrapnel stuck in my leg! What hurt more though, was the shot of penicillin they gave me at the hospital. That, and I had to learn how to walk again after it healed. There’s still shrapnel in my leg. Anyway, when I got wounded the medic forgot to turn in the paperwork so I didn’t get a purple heart. At that time though, the medals meant nothing to me. The only thing we thought was that they looked good. They didn’t have much meaning because it was all a part of the job. When I didn’t get my Purple Heart I was just like “I didn’t get mine. That’s life.”
You were ultimately awarded the Purple Heart and Good Conduct medals in 2009 while on death row. How did that happen?
JD: My appellate attorney from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, Ken Rose, hired a legal intern from Australia to go through all of my files. When the intern went through my military records he discovered I got wounded in combat and never received a medal. He contacted some people in the Army and got the paperwork moving. The lawyers were real surprised. When the paperwork was finally processed a retired Army chaplain, Jim Johnson, was going to have a ceremony for me to award the medal, but the warden at the time, Gerald Branker, refused to allow it. So Jim went to James French, a guy in the Department of Public Safety, to get approval. Sure enough we had a little ceremony. Ken Rose, Gretchen Engel (current director of the C.D.P.L) and James French watched as the Army chaplain presented me with the Purple Heart. The warden and associate warden were there, talking loud, laughing and being disrespectful. James French didn’t like that one bit. It was shortly after that both of them were removed from the prison. French was a great guy. Later, I ended up with two more medals from the South Vietnamese government, but I only got the paperwork on account they don’t make medals anymore.
What does the award of a military medal mean to you after being imprisoned on death row since 1996?
JD: You have to go back to 1968. It took over forty years to get those medals. A lot has happened. If I hadn’t come to death row I wouldn’t have gotten them. The Australian intern asked “Why am I talking to you? Is it destiny?” It took an outsider like him, not any lawyer working on my appeal, to find this information. I don’t know why it took so long, but the point is I lived to see those medals. Here [on death row] more than anything it was the recognition from other guys and officers who were surprised I was getting a medal. It meant a lot more to them, and that means a lot to me. Otherwise? Let me tell you. When I was on my way back from Vietnam after my second tour I was in a four prop plane over the Tennessee mountains. Two of the engines went out. People started praying and I though “Is this thing going down or what?” Talk about living and dying!
Author’s Note: Upon completing the writing of this interview James was given an opportunity to read through it and suggest some corrections and additional information he thought might be needed to more accurately portray what had been discussed. He paused a moment and said:
“I think you did a good job. I really like the way you wrote the interview. Very accurate. We work well together. In the 21 years I’ve been doing this thing [living on death row],and all of the B.S. that goes with it, this back and forth with you is one good memory I’ll have.”