Joe May was born in St. Louis, Mo., to professional gospel singers Joe and Viola May in 1945. The Mays and their seven children eventually moved across the muddy Mississippi to East St. Louis, Ill., where May completed his schooling. Collegiate baseball scouts already had their eyes on May while he attended Lincoln High School.
Upon graduation in 1962, May received a baseball scholarship to Tennessee State University where his talent caught the attention of professional baseball scouts. After earning a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1966, May happily signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He said, "My signing bonus was $5,000. Shoot, that was a lot of (baseball) money in 1966."
After six months playing with the Pirates' Class A minor league team in Scranton, Pa., May received a draft notice from the U.S. Army. He said, "The war in Vietnam was escalating. I was single with no dependents, so my goose was pretty well cooked."
At basic training at Fort Leonardwood, Mo., the Army offered May the chance to sidestep Vietnam if he'd sign for three years instead of the normal two year enlistment. May signed up, but the morning after completing advanced infantry training, May found out he was going to Vietnam, not Korea or Germany. "I pitched a fit, I tried everything. I went to church, got saved, nothing helped. I was sent straight to Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base in Saigon, Vietnam." From Saigon, May flew to Pleiku in the Central Highlands.
Once hooked up with the 4th Infantry Division, May was assigned to the 245th Psy Ops Unit (Psychological Operations). UH1-D Huey choppers became his airborne home. "I would fly out to different villages with three or four guys and an interpreter," May said.
"We'd set up speakers about a hundred yards from the villages and call the villagers out. Nobody would come out except children and old women."
May quickly learned the Viet Cong took refuge in underground caves and tunnels. After villages were cleared of inhabitants, the missions became Search and Destroy campaigns. "We had orders to level the villages," May said. "On this one mission, we were torching the hooches and I threw a hand grenade into this flimsy ol' hut. I'll regret that forever. A woman and child came out screaming with horrible, disfiguring wounds."
The incident traumatized May. "I can't forget it," he said. The platoon leader told May he had two choices: toss grenades, or stick his head into the primitive huts, in which case the Viet Cong would probably blow his head off. May spent about five months with the Psy Ops Unit, mostly dropping propaganda leaflets from choppers into VC controlled areas. Then he received a transfer to the 3rd Brigade 25th Infantry Division.
The stagnant jungle heat took a heavy toll on the physical element, but war can take a heavier toll on the mental component. May's platoon leader was decapitated from a direct hit.
"I was standing next to him when he got hit," May said, biting his lower lip. "I lost another friend. Folks just don't understand what war is."
Joe May made it home. "I remember some hippie-like people calling me a baby-killer," he said. "We never intentionally killed kids, but the kids killed us." May referred to the children the Viet Cong wired with explosives, and Coca-Cola bombs. "You'd see a small child in a village, maybe five or six years old holding a Coke can, approach a G.I. and all of a sudden...boom! And that was that."
Returning to Tennessee State, civilian Joe May took advantage of the G.I. bill and earned a master's degree in counseling and psychology. He also met his wife Pat, a champion track star at Tennessee State. They were together 13 years before separating. "I was the one that needed counseling. I was a time bomb."
In 1995, after years of secret torment, with too many memories and not enough sleep, the VA diagnosed May as 100 percent disabled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. May said, "I eventually came to Atlanta, found a job at Families First, and kept attending PTSD group sessions.
The guys are like me, we relate, we save each other.
Reunited with his wife Patricia in 2009, May was diagnosed earlier this year with ischemic heart disease, possibly due to exposure from the herbicide Agent Orange during his tour of Vietnam. He is presently recovering at his home in Lithonia, after successful open heart surgery.
"You know, when I leave this old world I hope people remember me as a person that loved everybody. I learned in war that we're all humans. There has got to be a better way to solve differences other than war."
Pete Mecca - Vietnam veteran, columnist, and freelance writer. Contact Pete at email@example.com. Visit his website at aveteransstory.us.