I first met this week’s Veterans Spotlight feature subject in the supermarket a couple of months ago, when I noticed his Vietnam hat and went up and thanked him for his service. He seemed to be caught off guard, blinked and said softly, “Thank you.” I replied, “You guys got nothing when you returned.…Welcome home.” The man brightened. “Thanks,” he said as he shook my hand tightly and looked me in the eye. “Thanks.”
It was one of those encounters when you think you will never see that person again. Not so in this case. While grabbing coffee the following week, I noticed the same man. I went over and said hello, telling him we met at the supermarket. He smiled and shook my hand again tightly. We would become friends, like many of the veterans I feature in my column. When I told him about my column he perked up and said, “Damn! I had no idea that was you…look forward to it every week…first thing I read when I get my paper,” he said.
I was surprised when I brought up the subject of being interviewed and he agreed. “Won’t be easy…been keeping this inside me for a long time,” he said.
Sam Tannis bravely served his country during the Vietnam War from 1967 to 1969 as a member of the US Army. He grew up in the small town of Connellsville, Pennsylvania; his family was third generation coal miners. “Worked in the coal mines from the time I was 12 until I got drafted…you’d work a day in the mines and be covered in black soot from head to toe,” he remembered.
Mr. Tannis was drafted and sent to Fort Polk in Louisiana for basic training. He was then sent to Vietnam, where his unit performed highly dangerous patrols in the dreaded A Shau Valley, a North Vietnamese stronghold deep in the jungle.
Knowing the intense pressure the A Shau Valley presented for soldiers, I proceeded with caution and asked him about members of his unit. “We were close…had to be with all the crap that we came across. We had a good sergeant…Dell, I think his name was…good guy…strong leader. Had a black guy named Lee…big man…looked as if he could lift a house…stepped on a booby trap and had bamboo shoots stuck in his leg…pulled them out himself, wrapped his leg and kept pace…one tough cookie,” he remembered.
Upon sharing the memory, Private Tannis’s mood changed quickly. “We had nothing in the jungle…tons of fog, so our bombers couldn’t hit the mountains where the [Viet] Cong was hiding…remember a (unprintable) poisonous snake slithered right over my (unprintable) boot when we were on patrol…couldn’t do nothin’…the slightest noise or error would put you in a body bag,” he recalled.
I asked Private Tannis if any mission stood out during his time in the A Shau Valley. He thought for a moment, looked down at the floor and started to tap his right knee, faster and faster. “Yup,” he said. “Monday morning…we just got briefed on our mission…had a guy named Jim…always took his time camouflaging his face…couldn’t tell his face from his fatigues when he was done…we got dropped, then started our mission. We bombed a Cong base camp the day before and our job was to go and find out if we nailed it…we got to the base camp and proceeded with caution…then all hell broke loose…(unprintable) were waiting for us…picked some of our guys off like ducks…(his voice started to rise) I remember Sergeant Dell doing unbelievably under pressure…kept his calm, had us regroup, then we lit those (unprintable) up. Lit everything and everyone right the (unprintable) up.”
The memory obviously took a great deal out of Private Tannis. I tried to change the subject. “We got (unprintable) when we came home,” he said, shaking his head. “Thought we were doing the right thing by defending our country…other people didn’t think so…at the airport in San Francisco when I came home, two women came up to me and spit right on my shoes…..still can’t get over that.”
I spent a good five hours with Private Tannis, and he shared a great deal about his tour of duty in Vietnam. Per his wishes, I will not write about all of it.
He was awarded The Purple Heart for his service and didn’t want to make much out of it. When I told him how much I admired it, he brushed the compliment aside. He currently lives by himself in Mashpee.
Private Sam Tannis, thank you for your service to our great country.
Contact Wayne Soares at firstname.lastname@example.org