He is probably the most recognized veteran in the state of Georgia. His accomplishments and awards would fill a newspaper. One hundred or more hours is a typical workweek.
Folks in Georgia know his face, his talents and his dedication to his fellow veterans. They know Tommy Clack, the man. But very few know Tommy Clack, the soldier. This is his story.
Johnny Tommy Clack was born and raised in Decatur, into a family steeped in military tradition. When the first American adviser was killed in Vietnam, Clack penned an eighth-grade history term paper entitled, "This is My War." His destiny lay before him.
Recognized in high school as "Most Outstanding in Track and Field," his athleticism earned him a track scholarship to the University of Houston. However, as the intensity of combat and casualty rates soared in Vietnam, Clack dropped out of college during his first year to enlist in the United States Army. Quickly appreciating his leadership ability, the Army sent Clack to OCS (Officer Candidate School).
"A bigger bang"
After graduation, 2nd Lt. Tommy Clack requested and was granted training in Army artillery.
He admits, with a grin, "As a kid I got a real kick shooting off firecrackers, so I figured artillery would offer a bigger bang."
Clack excelled at artillery, was assigned as an instructor, and was considered so valuable that his repeated appeals for duty in Vietnam were refused.
His persistence finally paid off. Assigned as an FO (forward observer) with the Vietnam Field Force, Clack visited and trained personnel at just about every camp from the DMZ to the Mekong Delta.
Promoted to Captain, Clack was on his second tour in Vietnam when tragedy struck on May 29, 1969.
"I was with the Wolfhounds of the 25th Infantry Division," he recalled. "We were engaged in a hellacious firefight with the enemy southwest of Nau Ba Dien (The Black Virgin Mountains) near the village of Ap Duc. They tried to overrun us, but we just hunkered-down and denied them passage. I was calling in artillery when the RPG (rocket propelled grenade) hit my foot and detonated."
Some men in his unit say it was an RPG; some claim it was a land mine. The result was an enormous explosion that effectively dismembered the young captain.
He said, "I was awake and alert for about 5 minutes and knew I was missing three limbs, but as I continued to lose blood, I lost my vision, awareness, and finally couldn’t hear nor feel the people trying to work on me."
Clack had lost both legs above the knee and all of his right shoulder and arm, and suffered massive internal injuries. His right eyeball lay on his right cheek, and he suffered a loss of hearing.
At a recent reunion of Clack’s unit, one of the soldiers trying to stabilize Clack that day, Staff Sgt. Quintrell, recalled, "When we loaded the captain onto the Medevac chopper, all of us prayed that he would go ahead and die, due to the extensive damage we saw on his body."
Unable to find a pulse or any signs of life, the medic on the Medevac flight covered Clack with a rain poncho. At the 12th Evac Hospital (mash unit), Clack was laid in a line of deceased soldiers.
The only good thing the RPG did that day was to cauterize his horrendous wounds with the force of the explosion.
After one of the surgeons had saved those he could in the hospital trauma room, he came outside to check the dead. For reasons known but to God, the surgeon uncovered Clack’s body, saw something that made him believe Clack was still alive, and yelled, "Get this man into the trauma room, now!"
Clack said, "I have talked to that surgeon many times since that day, and he still doesn’t know why he picked my poncho out of all the other ponchos to uncover. But we both agree that God had his hands in the deal."
Clack would be hospitalized for the next 22 months, 20 of them at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. He remained on the "D" Ward, the "D" meaning death. From May of 1969 until October of 1969, he survived on life support; his world at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds had shrunk to 55 pounds of flesh and bone. Clack was not expected to live.
But God had other plans for Johnny Tommy Clack. The tubes came out in October. He learned to sit up and he learned to crawl. He learned his center of gravity, and sat in his first wheelchair in January of 1970.
Clack recalled, "I was visited many times by future Senator Max Cleland, himself a triple-amputee. Max gave me the inspiration to move on with my life and live it to its fullest."
After 33 operations, Clack "walked" out of the VA Medical Center. "That’s right," he said. "I did ‘walk’ out of that place. I was walking on artificial legs weighing 20 pounds apiece, but, by God, I did ‘walk’ out of that place."
His philosophy since Vietnam: "I’m a strong believer in competition. Only by failing can we better ourselves. There are winners and losers; that’s life. That’s how the world operates, and we’re doing our children a big disservice by letting every kid win and nobody loses."
One would believe Tommy Clack is the very definition of a "hero," but he rejects the suggestion.
"I’m no hero," he said. "And quite honestly I don’t know of any, except for the men and women who gave their all. Their names, all 58,267 of them, are on a long, black granite wall in Washington, D.C. Those are my heroes."
Eventually, Clack’s body would reject the artificial limbs. A wheelchair would have to generate his mobility for the rest of his life.
But make no mistake about it: Captain Johnny Tommy Clack, still is, and always will be, walking tall.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.