Artillery vet recalls journey to Vietnam and long road back

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As young man from a rural area of central Georgia, Steve Lee knew plenty about guns. So, he wasn’t surprised to be assigned to an artillery unit after joining the Army just weeks after his college graduation in 1967. 

“I knew I was going to be drafted,” he said. “I was hoping I’d go to Fort Benning (Georgia), but they put me on a plane to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. It was my first time flying.”

A patriotic love for his country and the respect for those who served before him provided all the motivation Lee needed.

After completing basic training, Lee headed to Fort Sill in Oklahoma for training in artillery fire direction control.

“If someone gave us preset locations, I had to know how far to move the sights up and down, left and right,” he said.

Given his unit, Lee wasn’t surprised when he was sent to Vietnam in August 1968. When he arrived at Long Binh, the largest U.S Army base in Vietnam and a logistics facility that distributed incoming soldiers and equipment to the assigned posts, Lee, like all who came through, went straight to the map to see where he would be heading.

“We came into a rocket attack in Long Binh,” Lee recalled.

He also remembered the ditch he found — near the mess hall — where he took cover. After the attack, he found he was headed to Freedom Hill in DaNang. A patrol bomber took him to his new assignment and picked up troops heading out for R&R. From there, he went to Dong Hau, outside Hanoi.

He was assigned to a truck with “quad 50s,” four .50-caliber machine guns, known as clusters or dusters, on the back. These vehicles were used to provide artillery support for the South Vietnamese Army in the Central Highlands and prevent the Viet Cong from interfering with pacification efforts. They dealt with enemy guerilla and terrorist tactics to upset the process.

When he returned home in June 1969, Lee applied for an “early out” and returned to Georgia to work on his masters degree. Although he didn’t finish, he did receive certification to work in the insurance field.

I met my wife in Georgia,” Lee said. “We got married in October 1969.”

Lee worked for an insurance company in Georgia while they were raising their children.

Since he returned from Vietnam, Lee has suffered from the affects of Agent Orange. For years after his return, he also struggled with anger issues and an addiction to alcohol.

“Eventually I had a religious experience that helped me turn my life around,” he said.

Lee became successful in the insurance business in Georgia. Eventually his company transferred him to Nashville, but Lee wanted to get back into sales, where his heart was. He eventually found some partners and started his own business, with Chappel, Smith & Associates, and moved to Franklin. He also became active in Reboot Combat Recovery, a program that uses veterans helping other veterans heal inside.

Lee said that when veterans talk to veterans, they know they’re not alone. They find a common experience, develop a trust and begin to see the light of hope at the end of the tunnel.

“It takes a real commitment to work with these guys, especially guys with multiple deployments,” Lee said. “These are guys who were willing to lay down their lives for each other. That hasn’t changed. Once they start healing, they continue to heal by helping others.”

Healing the soldier includes healing the family, creating healthier relationships and reducing suicides.


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