MOULTON, Ala. — Sgt. Matthias Letson is a Vietnam War veteran from Moulton. In honor of Veterans Day, FOX54 News tells his story about the hardships of war and the life he built after his return.
"I didn't approve of the war and I got my first draft notice when I was 18, still in high school. But I got a deferment and I put it off 'til I was 20. I got drafted on the first day of July in 1970, went to boot camp at Fort Knox, Kentucky, for eight weeks, from there to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for another eight weeks. First day of December '70, I was in Vietnam."
Sgt. Matthias Letson is a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War. "I hated to go. But at the same time, you know, I felt pride in my country and I felt that I needed go since, you know, I was drafted."
By the age of 20, he was on his way to basic training. "I got drafted here in Moulton, there, right around the courthouse and from Moulton we went to Huntsville to catch a plane and while went to Atlanta, Georgia, to catch a plane back to Louisville, Kentucky."
Letson's boot camp was first in Fort Knox, Kentucky, then Fort Polk, Louisiana. "It wasn't something that I couldn't handle but at the same time it wasn't easy."
After that, his tour of duty began.
"Before we were into Vietnam, they had all the lights turned out and as we were going into Bien Hoa, you see firefights going on all around from a distance. And when we got off the plane, we got on the bus and they had chicken wire around the windows, to keep the grenades from coming in. So you know I was scared. It was about 9:00 at night and it was hot, humid, and the stench was something else and it is something that you never got used to."
Letson was participating in active ground combat and serving in the Delta. "I had to go into tunnels and spider holes to check out for VC. And that was scary, you know…go in with a flashlight and pistol and it's you know, it was traumatic."
He says there's one memory on Chu Lai mountain he can never forget.
“Our allies Army Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), was trying to go up the mountain and they were under heavy fire, we (Americans) had three helicopters with four men crews each that were in the fight also. Our platoon was listening to the fight on the radio, we knew it was bad and we also knew we were headed into it. We were dropped on top of the mountain to come in behind the enemy, luckily we didn’t run into the enemy but we blew their bunkers as we were going down the mountain. My platoon never made contact with the enemy. We never knew what happened to them. Have read stories since then that they had tunnels that went all through the mountains. On the way down there was the three helicopters that had bend shot down. That’s 12 American’s killed and 60 ARVN’s that were trying to go up the mountain killed. The mountain looked like a F5 tornado had hit it. That whole day we were carrying bodies down the mountain. That is a scene you can never ever forget!"
Letson spent about a year out there and as most soldiers of war receive a celebrated homecoming, him and other soldiers of the Vietnam War were met with scorn
"We had to be escorted out of the airport because we would have been spit on or called baby killers."
Transitioning back to civilian life was difficult for him. "Even my mother was scared of me when I first came home because of all the stories she had heard and read, she was scared of me and it hurt."
And Letson didn't feel like there were resources available to help him after his arrival home. But he prides his high school sweetheart of 50 years for saving him.
"I come home in December of '71 and I got married in February of '72, and it had to be hard on her because at that time I was bad to drink, but she stuck by me and thank god I don't drink, don't smoke anymore… So I have to give her credit for all that. There was a time or two that I'd wake up with nightmares and whatever and she had to calm me down, she took care of me."
Since then, his family has grown, with three children and 10 grandchildren.
Letson's son served in the air force for 20 years and his grandson is currently serving in the air force.
"I believe they were honoring me."
It took him several years before joining any organizations, like American Legion Post 25.
And when asked if he's happy with his life now, he responded, "yeah, and these organizations keep me going too. They sort of understand what I went through and I understand what they went through."
Letson was recently greeted by another veteran with a 'welcome home,' an affirmation he longed for, the day he returned from war.
"We're welcoming each other home, although it's been 50 years."