Occasionally, an interview with a veteran challenges my creative abilities. How do I properly relate the story of a military career seemingly beyond normal human aptitudes? This is one of those stories, much too condensed to suitably honor hard-earned accomplishments.
He welcomes visitors into his home with "Ahlan wa sahlan," Arabic for, "You are always welcome at our home." He’s also articulate in Korean, which he learned in short order during a tour along the perilous DMZ separating North and South Korea. Linguistic skills come naturally for Gary Freedman; his mother spoke seven languages fluently.
Born and raised in Sault Ste Marie, Mich., Freedman earned recognition as a "distinguished military graduate" of the ROTC curriculum at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Automatically awarded 2nd lieutenant bars in the regular Army, his plans for law school at USC were cut short by the call to duty. The year was 1966.
"I volunteered for active duty and Vietnam," he said. "I was ordered to report for military police officer’s training at Ft. Gordon, Ga. I bought a new Ford Mustang and headed south. Crossing the Smoky Mountains, I stopped at an old-fashioned country store, where an old-timer gave me a MoonPie and RC Cola. He was warm and friendly like the weather, so I decided then and there to one day live in the South."
Freedman completed MP training at Ft. Gordon, then Ft. Benning, before joining a sentry dog unit at Ft. Carson, Colo.
Next stop: Vietnam, and MP duty at Long Binh in December of ‘67.
He said, "Other soldiers guarded the perimeter in bunkers, but my men and their guard dogs walked the perimeter. It was treacherous duty. I remember the night a perimeter guard fell asleep and was startled awake by one of my men and his dog. He opened fire on them. My man lost his leg."
The Tet Offensive, 1968 — Freedman’s heavy responsibilities included six detachments throughout the Mekong Delta.
"It was bad at Long Binh," he said. "But I had six detachments to worry about and flew into Vinh Long to check on my men. The base had not been hit, so I copped a few minutes of sleep. For some reason I awoke and noticed figures running by a window. Gut instinct said something was wrong. I grabbed my gear and M-16 and headed for the door.
"The door burst open, struck me, and threw me back against the wall. A VC opened up and raked everything in the room. He was going room to room, killing people. If I hadn’t been knocked against the wall, I’d have been dead, too."
All the bunker guards were dead; choppers were blown up, and dead men lay upon the ground.
"All the choppers were destroyed," Freedman said. "I saw one dead VC against a bunker with his hand behind his back. I told my men, ‘Don’t touch him,’ because once again, my gut instinct told me something was wrong."
Gut instinct works: the dying VC had concealed a live grenade behind his back to kill anyone who moved his body.
Later, Freedman survived an emergency landing of a battle-damaged C-130 transport.
"One of the four engines had been blown off the wing," he recalled. "The plane was fully loaded with 175mm and 105mm artillery ammo. The pilot had to land at a helicopter base without an adequate runway. We all jumped out while the plane was moving. It crashed into a rice paddy and exploded. That was quite a sight."
Of his encampments, Freedman said, "We were hit every night by gunfire, mortars, rockets, or ground probes. I can’t remember one night we didn’t get hit."
Called back to headquarters, Freedman was informed that his father had passed away.
"My father lived in California at the time," he said. "I was given a 30-day leave and stayed at my brother’s house."
While on leave, Freedman was promoted to captain. "I was watching TV one night and heard about a unit under attack in the Mekong Delta. Well, those were my guys. I caught a ‘hop’ and headed back to the war. We ended up guarding convoys along major routes. Combat became a daily occurrence. We came under attack at Can To one night, and that ended my Vietnam experience."
With a gate guard dead and people running amok, Freedman tried to close the gate but felt a sharp pain in his hip. A piece of his cheek and forehead sliced off. A VC, less than 20 yards away, was throwing hand grenades at the MP captain.
"I didn’t realize what was going on due to all the noise and explosions," he said. "The next grenade knocked me about 20 feet and tore up my left arm. It was dangling like a wasted appendage. I dispatched the VC with my sidearm and started running around trying to organize the fight."
Literally forced into a medevac chopper and delirious, he recalled, "I thought the stretcher was my coffin and they were trying to cover me. I finally settled down. It was a miracle that they saved my arm."
Later, back in the States and recovered, Freedman was ordered by a general to attend jump school at Ft. Benning.
"I told him I had no desire to jump out of airplanes and why would a MP need to do so anyway?" The debate fell on deaf ears; Freedman completed jump school.
Sent to an advanced officer’s course at Ft. Gordon, he was pulled out of class and ordered to appear before a medical review board to be mustered out of the Army as physically unfit for duty.
Freedman said, "Well, a general on the medical board saw my airborne wings and asked when I completed jump school. When I told him only recently, he asked the board if they had additional questions for me before I was considered totally fit for the Army.
"Well, with no further objections, I remained in the Army. The other general who ordered me to jump school knew exactly what he was doing … saving my career."
After a three-year teaching assignment at MP school, Freedman received orders for South Korea.
"I ended up working in a staff position for the Provost Marshall at Camp Humphreys," he recalled. "That assignment proved interesting to say the least."
Saying the least meant posing as a chaplain to talk down a distraught soldier who had grabbed an M-16 and taken the battalion commander, company commander, and 1st sergeant as hostages.
"His intent was to kill all of them," Freedman said. "I conned him into believing I was actually a chaplain and he allowed me inside the building."
As Freedman entered the building, the disturbed soldier stated, "Good, now I have four people to kill."
Part II of this story will feature Gary Freedman receiving the Soldiers Medal for Heroism, an assignment as a UN Observer in the Middle East, being on the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s "hit list" and more. Read it in the Jan. 15 edition of The Covington News.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.