Vietnam war buddies from southern Indiana share tales as they reunite after decades apart

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JEFFERSONVILLE, Indiana — Even before his 1966 deployment, Jimmy Gales knew not to make friends in Vietnam. A war raged in the jungles there, and the guys who would fight beside him might not make it back home.

Soldiers at his base in Germany warned him not to become close with anyone. It was easier that way.

That thinking went out the window when Gales saw fellow Jeffersonville High School alum Lt. Jim Hale in an in-country mess hall.

Proving the skeptics wrong, Hale and Gales became friends and made it back to the United States, the place they called "the world." Vietnam, though, had changed this world.

Hale returned a paraplegic after shrapnel from enemy-fired mortar pierced his spinal cord. Gales made it out physically unscathed, but the emotional and mental tolls of the war still wear on the now 68-year-old Jeffersonville resident.

Meeting again after 47 years at Hale's class reunion this summer, the men found solace discussing their good and bad times in Vietnam despite these enduring wounds.

"You didn't know anybody. You're the only person I remember from over there," Hale said to Gales at his Indianapolis home several months after their reunion. "The only name I know."

Unlike in later wars, soldiers who fought in Vietnam usually arrived individually, not as a unit. When Gales recognized Hale upon touching down in country, the guys around Gales couldn't believe it. Coincidences like that didn't happen often in the war zone. And they almost never occurred between an enlisted man and an officer.

"Jim Hale was the type of lieutenant that anybody could approach and talk to him. He wasn't one of those gung-ho type guys. He was down to earth," Gales told the News and Tribune (http://bit.ly/1lPQFJ1 ). "We could be out in the bush and we could just walk and talk. It was just a different story between me and him. He just wasn't like those other lieutenants."

Although from the same town, Hale and Gales never really met before their 8,000-mile trek to Vietnam. Both men graduated from Jeffersonville High School, Hale in 1959 and Gales five years later.

Gales, though, remembered watching Hale on the hardwood and in the dugout, and viewed him as a local sports legend. Hale even started for the famed 1958 JHS boys' basketball team that went 22-3, and progressed all the way to semi-state. After high school, Hale played basketball and baseball and participated in ROTC at the University of South Dakota, where he earned his master's degree in mathematics.

"You got guys now that look up to LeBron James, Michael Jordan," Gales said. "That '58 team that they had, that's how we felt about them as kids."

Gales was also an athlete at JHS. He had a chance to go to Indiana State on a baseball scholarship but opted to join the military instead. He served in the infantry, frequently leading ambushes in the jungles of Vietnam.

Taking a different path based on his ROTC experience and degree, Hale became a forward observer for the artillery, directing their mortar rounds from either the air or the field. Gales said the infantry guys respected Hale for treating them equally despite his higher rank. Hale didn't need to go out in the bush to do his job, but Gales would often find him working alongside the enlisted men, an unusual sight.

"I hate that superior officer bit," Hale said. "I took my shirt off and dug the ditch right along with you."

While his shirt might have come off at times, Hale was rarely seen without another belonging — his notorious walking stick.

"We called him Moses. To this day, I don't know where he got that stick," Gales said. "He always carried that everywhere he went."

Hale doesn't remember where he picked up the stick, but he still has one out in his garden.

Like the images of the stick, some pleasant memories emerged from the men's experience in Vietnam. Hale enjoyed the thrill of dangling his legs over the edge of a helicopter's open door, skimming barely above the thick treetops. Gales talked of reading cowboy books in the foxholes that he dug so deep.

But painful reminisces also remain. Gales has nightmares about the Viet Cong fighters his unit killed; flashbacks persist of bullets severing an arm from an enemy combatant's body.

For Hale, the April 5 morning he was struck by the mortar can never be forgotten. That night, he decided to sleep on the open ground and forgo digging a foxhole. At around 5 a.m., voices sounded an alarm that "Charlie" was close by. Hale rolled over to grab his helmet and radio. With Hale's back exposed, a mortar hit the ground next to him, throwing bits of metal shrapnel into his spinal cord. Even today, some pieces still remain.

Hale's superiors, once notified of his injuries, summoned a helicopter to transport him to a medical facility. While being carried in a cot across the field, Hale and the soldiers fell under fire again.

"I don't know who was involved, the faceless soldiers picked me up — I think there were six of them — on a cot and carried me out to the helicopter," Hale said. "Halfway out there, all hell breaks loose again. And they lay me down and surrounded my body with their bodies and protected my body."

Under attack as well, Gales was nearby. He heard of his friend's injuries, but he had lost two of his own men and couldn't get away. For weeks, the status of Hale was unknown. Finally, word came he had survived.

"We thought he was dead. They told us he was dead. Thank God he wasn't," Gales said.

Transported back to the states, Hale received treatment for his wounds. For three months, the now captain was admitted to the Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital, followed by another six months of rehabilitation at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Illinois. Limited motion did return to Hale's legs over time. After a while, though, he opted to use a wheelchair.

"It got to the point where I could walk, but I couldn't function. I couldn't carry anything," Hale said. "I just decided at one point there that I wanted to move on with my life."

Move on he did. With Linda, his wife of 51 years, by his side, Hale moved to Indianapolis and worked for Naval Avionics, from which he retired. They have two adult children.

After completing his service in Vietnam, Gales also returned to the United States in 1967. He became a Washington, D.C., police officer before returning home with his wife, Patricia, to Jeffersonville in the mid-1970s to work for Colgate and The Evening News.

Hours before the attack that injured Hale, the men had made a promise that they once again fulfilled this summer.

"The last thing we talked about you said, 'When we get back to the world, we're going to get together,'" Gales said to Hale. "That's the last thing you told me. And then we got hit."

Upon Gales return to the States, the veterans met at Hale's Jeffersonville home in December 1967. The class reunion allowed them to connect again almost half-a-decade later. When the men spoke, witnesses reported that not a dry eye could be had in the room.

Gales understands these emotions all too well.

"People will tell you those who died in Vietnam or who died in war paid the ultimate price," Gales said. "What about the guys who come back here and can't walk or don't have no arms or legs? That's the ultimate price to me."


Information from: News and Tribune, Jeffersonville, Indiana, http://www.newsandtribune.com

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