Vietnam veteran finally receives awards

Published 9:28 am Thursday, November 12, 2015

Vern Mecham knew he would be drafted, so at age 19, he volunteered for the U.S. Army.

It was 1966, and the Vietnam War was in full swing. His best friend had just been drafted.

That decision changed his life forever, and last month, the Mocksville man received the Bronze Star with V for Valor, and Combat Infantry Badge – presented by U.S. Sen. Richard Burr. He had more than earned the awards, but had never received them.

Mecham remembers well how cold it was when he went to basic training. Then he was sent to Germany and it was even colder. He had bought a car, and money was tight. An officer came around and asked if anyone wanted to go “airborne.” He explained that meant jumping out of airplanes. That wasn’t on Mecham’s mind. What was the pay, he asked. “He said ‘$55 a month’ and I said sign me up.”

More training ensued, and when he arrived in Vietnam expecting to be a paratrooper, the platoon sergeant took one look at him and said you’re the new machine gunner. “I had never fired a machine gun in my life.” What was worse, there was blood all over the gun he was issued. The stock was damaged.

It was the rainy season in Vietnam, and the leeches and fire ants and mosquitoes were rampant. There was little clean water to drink, and the soldiers had to cut their way through the jungles.

He remembers the mortar explosion that shattered his heel, but he doesn’t know where it came from, or who fired it.

He remembers the medic who saved his life, the only one he saved in Vietnam. The medic pulled him down a hill, then went back to save someone else. “I heard another round and he vanished. It blew him everywhere. That round killed my best friend, but I didn’t know it at the time.”

He remembers well the time they were sent to find a village believed to have a platoon of enemy soldiers. He captured several, most giving up with their hands held above their heads.

He remembers charging up a hill, “I don’t know why I did that,” and finding a hole full of enemy fighters. One came out with his hands over his head, and was captured.

“I looked back in the hole, and saw an arm sling a grenade right into my face. I hollered ‘grenade’ and jumped. It was a dud.” Another grenade was thrown and killed an enemy soldier.

That’s when Mecham unloaded an M16 on the hole. His description of the scene is graphic.

Just the smell makes you sick, he said. Certain areas had so many dead bodies that whole mountains just stank. “That’s what gets to you, the smell.”

He remembers leaving three scared soldiers to look for his platoon sergeant. “I walked off … you had to walk over stuff. Everybody hollered incoming. That mortar round hit those boys point blank.”

Something clicked in Mecham’s brain. He wasn’t going to give up. He was going to live. “I really believe God had a purpose for me when I got home. If I hadn’t walked away, it would have been four dead.”

That same day, another mortar round hit a foxhole, one he couldn’t believe had been dug into the ground, which was almost like digging in cement, he said. “That’s the second time that day I had been spared.”

He remembers his friend telling him he didn’t think he would ever make it home. Mecham started up a hill, looking “for something to shoot at rather than being shot at,” he said.

Another mortar exploded, where he had been. “I attribute that to God taking control of my mind, telling me where to go.” But he had been hit in the heel with shrapnel.

He waited until almost dark, with mortar rounds going off in every direction.

“I wanted to get back home. I had seen people die with less wounds, but they scared themselves to death,” Mecham said. Thoughts of death did enter his mind, but he didn’t give up. Two other soldiers helped him down the hill.

“A chaplain – boy, them guys were brave – was coming around the hill with a stretcher.” The mortar rounds were still exploding. He had endured all he could, and was about to break down. The medical helicopter finally arrived (“They are the bravest human beings in the world.”), and he was eventually evacuated to safety.

“That ended my tour of duty,” he said.

Mecham had already decided to marry Phyllis Anne Rowe when he had enlisted, the same girl who had asked him out to a Sadie Hawkins Dance. The school’s chief cheerleader asked him out later, but he had already promised to go with Miss Rowe.

They were married for 48 years in March, and have three boys and 12 grandchildren. “I knew from the first kiss that I was going to marry that girl,” he said. “I had a cast on my leg the day we were married.”

He’s her main caregiver now after a car wreck in 2002, and he’s had knee and back surgeries. The problems, he said, were caused by his war injury, with one leg being shorter than the other and issues with the size of the prosthesis.

Mecham is proud to have his awards. He’s even more proud that he can still take care of his wife.