The Worst Day of My Life

Reconciling life and death is mandatory for farm kids. Hearing stories about church members crushed under tractors can be as gut-wrenching as watching neighbors stop by with shovels to help your grandfather bury his horse. Dick Foley though, will never get over the shock of how three prisoners were killed in Vietnam.

Like many of his classmates, Foley grew up on a farm one or two dirt roads back in Le Sueur, Minnesota. He played sports and spoke proudly of his lead roles in high school plays before enrolling in Mankato State College where he spent more time drinking and hanging around with his fraternity brothers than studying. After he flunked out, he ending up in Vietnam slogging through rice paddies with the 25th Infantry Division famously portrayed in Oliver Stone’s film Platoon. “I didn’t take a shower for seven months – not even with a water bucket” he said.

When his platoon was overrun during a heavy firefight seven miles outside of Saigon, he recalled sorting through the carnage the next day. A huge hole was dug for bodies and while he was mourning the loss of Captain Rogers, who he said was “respected by everybody,” he was given an order to shoot three injured Vietcong soldiers.

After back-and-forth discussions between a radio operator and the colonel who called for the executions, the lieutenant beside him put a bullet in the neck of one of the prisoners. Telling the officer “Sir, the man is still alive,” Foley helped finish the job by spraying all three head-to-toe with a semi-automatic rifle. The details are grisly – suffice to say, Foley walked away dazed, blood-splattered and recalled that he felt like “Moses and the Red Sea had parted” when he saw a crowd of soldiers clear a path for him.

He returned home 35 pounds lighter with a huge handlebar mustache, a Bronze Star and so weather-beaten his family didn’t recognize him. Typical of many returning combat vets, he kept to himself, drank more and became annoyed if someone asked him if he ever killed anyone. “Three that I know of” he’d say before moving to the other end of the bar. When he did go back to college he got serious about studying and said he “went from the shit list to the dean’s list” before graduating.

After raising a family and working primarily in the insurance industry, he retired in 2007 and started volunteering at the Minneapolis VA where he discovered he was eligible for benefits due to PTSD, anxiety and depression. His disability was initially rated at 50% until a former helicopter pilot suggested he appeal the decision telling him “I’m at 85% and you’re way more fucked up than me.” Foley was quickly bumped up to 70% which meant full benefits.

A few years later he joined Veterans For Peace (VFP) Chapter 27 in Minneapolis where he found solace at VFP meetings and a place to bounce around his idea of using private and public high schools to tell his WORST DAY OF MY LIFE story. He also cautioned students to watch out for sales pitches from military recruiters.

“I’m the anti-recruiter” he’d tell students when introducing himself at schools adding “joining the military is a crucial and critical decision that requires critical thinking and if all you do is listen to the recruiting sergeant – where’s the critical thinking?” Careful not to discourage anyone from enlisting, he also made a point of advising students against using the hollow-sounding “Thank you for your service” cliche contending “Thank you for your sacrifice” is more accurate.

Foley said he’d tear up at times when students lined up to shake his hand and thank him for his sacrifice after he was through speaking. “Oh my God, they heard me” he said out loud during this interview mentioning that he frequently told them to “go home and tell your parents.” He found comfort when students told him they were rethinking their decisions to join the armed services or when he received tender letters from them. Sometimes he’d reread the letters and cry when he was alone. Other times he’d read them out loud at VFP meetings and vets would share tears with him. Chapter 27 member Vernon Hall said “knowing Dick and his background, and what he went through in Vietnam – it took a lot of courage for him to go into classrooms and tell his story honestly – I have a lot of admiration for him.”

He wasn’t alone in his struggle with trauma. According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, about 30 per cent of Vietnam Vets experience PTSD at some point in their lives and processing it may take alternative routes outside of conventional therapies. Foley discovered that using classrooms as a stage and the public speaking voice he developed in theater not only touched students deeply with a story, but cathartically helped him heal by telling it.

One Vietnam Vet I know hiked the 2,200 Appalachian Trail to confront his demons in the wilderness and another attempted to soothe his moral injury by revisiting Vietnam to meet with members of a village he dropped bombs on. About six years ago an Iraq War Vet from Kansas City wandered into our local VFP meeting and kept to himself and didn’t say much. He did agree to join a group of us who were learning the “lost wax technique” to make bronze bells. None of us will forget watching our instructor’s jaw drop during a critique after she heard him say that making a bell probably kept him from committing suicide. The transformative qualities of camaraderie, uncommon openness, and art can work in mysterious ways.

Although Foley has been invited back to speak in high schools, he said he doesn’t have the energy he used to. He continues to hope that those thinking about enlisting will remember the 58,200 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and listen for stories military recruiters don’t want to talk about – like the one about the officer who gave an order to shoot three wounded young men on May 12, 1968.

Craig Wood is a member of Veterans For Peace in Minneapolis. His work has appeared in numerous publications locally and nationally.