On growing up in St. Louis, Andy Farris recalled, "My dad served in the medical corps during WWII caring for German POWs in Augusta, but our family settled in St. Louis after the war."
On being Irish Catholic: "I was a teenager before I knew it was OK to have Sunday dinner without a priest and two nuns at the table."
A 1961 graduate of the Christian Brothers College High School ROTC program, Farris attended two different universities while working as the night manager of a Burger King.
"I had to close every night," he said. "So my grades in the early morning classes suffered. As a result, I dropped out in '66."
That May, Farris received "greetings" from Uncle Sam informing him the U.S. Army required his services.
"I took tests for OCS (Officer Candidate School) during my basic training at Fort Leonardwood and was in my seventh week of advanced infantry training at Ft. Ord, Calif., when my orders for OCS finally caught up with me."
Asked about his OCS training at Ft. Benning, Farris said, "I can't describe it without using four-letter words."
He double-timed everywhere for 26 weeks and learned to sleep at parade rest. Destined to be a platoon leader, Farris mastered the use of every weapon in the Army inventory; learned to dial in mortars, call in air strikes, adapt to hostile environments. He would need the training. After four weeks with a mechanized armored unit at Ft. Carson, Calif., Farris was en route to Vietnam.
Second Lt. Farris arrived at Bien Hoa Air Base via commercial airliner where he took a chopper into his base camp at Dau Tieng, a short distance from the Parrot's Beak region separating South Vietnam from Cambodia. The area is heavy triple-canopy jungle infested with North Vietnamese staging areas and storage facilities.
At Dau Tieng, Farris was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry, 3rd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division.
"We claimed we shook hands with the NVA to welcome them into South Vietnam, but we didn't let them go home," he recalled.
Farris would spend the next 365 days fighting in some of the most historic and ferocious engagements of the Vietnam War, from September 1967 to September 1968, including the infamous cataclysm known as the Tet Offensive of '68."When we boarded choppers in September '67, I noticed a man standing on the tarmac with four stars on his shoulders and wearing a pearl handled revolver. Gen. Creighton Abrams was there to see us off. I knew then, we were heading into hell," he said.
Flown to the Michelin Plantation within a stone's throw of the Cambodian border, Farris and his men were still digging in when two regiments of NVA attacked at midnight.
"We fought all night long," Farris said. "I helped fire a mortar for four straight hours, the fighting was hand-to-hand, plus I had to call in air strikes above the noise of combat."
The air support included 'Puff the Magic Dragon,' a C-47 cargo plane modified to carry three 7.62mm MXU-470A Miniguns, each firing 6,000 rounds per minute.
"The guns were mounted on one side of Puff and they fired downward at a fixed angle. About every fourth or fifth round was a tracer. It was an awesome weapon," he said.
The NVA overran one position.
"A friend of mine crawled outside the wire and reclaimed the position. He was wounded twice, but stayed with us and helped turn the tide," he said.
The attack ceased at 4 a.m. At 5 a.m. the NVA attacked again, this time using women and children from a local village as human shields.
"May God help us, that was tough," Farris said. "Our men hesitated, but we had no choice. A lot of guys carried that battle with them for the rest of their lives."
Farris paused for a moment.
"Ya know, the Vietnam veteran is so unappreciated. These were kids, 18- and 19-year-olds, playing high school football and basketball a year before but now in a jungle fighting for their lives. These were good soldiers, courageous, and they were winners. Politicians and the media lost the war, not my boys."
In December 1967, Farris was the last man to jump from a hovering Huey.
"It was too high," he said. "About 20 or 25 feet up. My feet caught the landing skid when I jumped and I just tumbled out, landing on my back on a rock-hard ant bed."
In war, as well as civilian life, Farris bore tremendous pain. Not until 2012 did the VA discover a cracked vertebra and pinched nerve.
Of the '68 Tet Offensive, Farris said, "The NVA and Viet Cong screwed up when they switched to conventional warfare because that was our kind of fight. We had our act together throughout South Vietnam by Feb. 4 and came roaring out of the base camps, gnashing our teeth, locked and loaded. Check the figures, we won, and total combatants surpassed the Battle of the Bulge in WWII."
As the night battalion duty officer, Farris was in his bunk when the Tet Offensive kick-started.
"An Intell officer woke me up and told me to grab my M-16," Farris stated. "He said I had to fly out to take over Delta Company. When I asked why, he said, 'There are no officers left in Delta Company.' I still had to wait; all of the Hueys were in action and unavailable."
Flown into a "hot" LZ near Tan Son Nhut, Farris and his men were quickly pinned down while assaulting a village.
"We weren't 20 yards from a machine gun nest," he said. "The NVA were dug into a hedgerow type bunker using firing ports. We couldn't move. I called in a Huey gunship but the pilot refused to use his rockets because we were too close to the target. My voice rose several octaves and my language was, well, vividly colorful. I gave him a direct order and he came in hard and low then cut lose with all his rockets. We managed to withdraw."
The village remained under enemy control until the Tet Offensive ceased.
Assigned as an executive officer, Farris thought his frontline combat was over.
"I didn't quite make it," he said. With six weeks to go, Farris returned to the field to replace a company commander wounded by "friendly fire."
"Actually, a water buffalo charged his men in a dry rice paddy and a soldier opened up on the beast," Farris said with a smile. "A bullet struck the hard bristle on the buffaloes' forehead, ricocheted off, and shattered the company commander's ankle. It was a helluva war."
After 365 days, Farris received his traveling orders.
"No decompression time, no time for readjustment," he said. "Within 24 hours I was in a grimy warehouse at Travis Air Force Base in California, got my discharge papers, and was out the side door. My buddy and I had to outrun three Marines to the only taxi available. No thank you, no Army buses, nothing."The lack of "down time" took its toll on many a Vietnam veteran.
"I guess I was one of those guys," Farris admitted. "I went the corporate route, kept my anger bottled up; became a workaholic and an alcoholic."
In 1982, Farris joined thousands of fellow Americans for the opening ceremony of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, The Wall.
"After the crowd thinned out I walked up to The Wall," he said. "I placed my hand on a line of names, the same time the sun broke through the overcast. A bright glare replaced the names and my face reflected back at me like a mirror, as if I were inside the shiny black granite. I realized for the first time since Vietnam that I had really made it home, I was still alive. That was my epiphany."
Andy Farris has been clean and sober for 25 years. As the founder and director of HealingVeterans.org, he conducts spiritual retreats for veterans suffering from the trauma of war. His next retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers is scheduled for a three- day event, July 16-19.
Farris said, "I like the quote by the Rev. Robert Certain, a Vietnam veteran and POW from that war: 'Bring them all the way home.' That's what I've dedicated my life to do."
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist, and free-lance writer. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.