“I am more of a patriot than I was before my Vietnam experience. I believe in the principles that our flag represents, and that we, as responsible citizens, must speak and act to uphold those principles, and bring them forward to each new day, and for each new generation.
And I believe more strongly that war is not the answer. At the same time, each individual needs to search inside themselves to determine where they will draw the line, and yes, possibly act violently to protect themselves, their loved ones and vulnerable others in this world. I have no right to judge anyone about how they deal with this issue. Neither does anyone have a right to judge me. Each individual must struggle on their own with this issue.
That is where freedom of conscience and freedom of choice hold sway. Those freedoms, in my experience, are available in our country. I, for one, have benefitted my whole life because of them.”
– Bruce Andrews
While studying at the University of Wyoming, Bruce Andrews completed two years of ROTC training. Through his senior year of college in 1967, ROTC service required selection from three military specialties in which to serve – armor, infantry and medical service corps. The Army chose armor for him.
The values taught in Andrews’ home meant that he would have a lifelong commitment to humankind, and he valued “putting lives together.” A full bird colonel and ROTC Commander allowed him to discuss how he could best serve the Army.
Andrews told him, “‘I could be more fully present if I had a transfer to medical service corps.’ The officer trusted me, and that I knew best how to serve my country and the men I would command.” Andrews was transferred to Medical Corps.
A training officer at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, told his trainees that most of them would be going to Vietnam, and if the unlikely possibility occurred that enough people of rank were killed, the medical service corps officers might have to lead combat troops. Hearing this comment led Andrews, an active duty Army officer, to apply for 1-A-O conscientious objector status. Initially denied due to his “merely personal moral code,” Andrews was not deterred, and reapplied for CO status until it was granted.
As described in the dictionary, “a conscientious objector is a person who, for reasons of conscience, objects to serving in the armed forces.” Andrews, however, served his country and volunteered to serve in Vietnam despite his conscientious objector status when he could have stayed stateside. He never carried a weapon. He would serve according to the dictates of his conscience, and would not take a life upon another person’s order.
“My decision was . . . that if I’m going to pull the trigger on somebody, I’m going to be the only one that’s going to make that decision,” Andrews remembered. “I will not leave that in someone else’s hands. I will go anywhere. I will do what you want me to do in a combat zone or not, but I’m not going to make that move on somebody else’s order.”
After training, Andrews volunteered for Vietnam, and following a quick trip to visit family and friends, he flew aboard Flying Tiger Airline military aircraft from California to Anchorage, Alaska; Udorn, Thailand; Japan and finally to Bien Hoa, Vietnam. At Bien Hoa, he entered the inferno that was to be his home for the next, as he says, "approximately" 10 months, 5 days, 3 hours and 46 seconds. He then rode an Army deuce-and-a-half to his permanent base at Tan Son Nhut Airbase. There his military operational assignment was Field Medical Operations Officer/Medical Platoon Leader for the 2nd Battalion, 505th Infantry, 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, serving in-country from January through December of 1969. His unit’s nickname was the “All American.”
At Tan Son Nhut, Andrews actively served with the medics who treated and evacuated injured troops during the war, thus increasing their survival rate. The medics wore subdued insignia on their uniforms. Some chose to carry firearms and other armaments. Some fought, but most diligently saved lives. And it was brutally difficult saving men’s lives out in the jungle and rice paddies, far away from base and hospitals. Their transport was helicopters.
Many of these young men went from adolescence to manhood in a very short time. Throughout their service, they experienced traumatic stress, the sheer brutality of seeing and treating the men’s injuries, and the cruelty of war. Many young men witnessed the ravages of death over and over again.
‘That’s not the point’
A lieutenant colonel hell-bent on Andrews carrying a weapon ordered, “Lieutenant, you are going to carry a weapon.”
If necessary, Andrews would have disobeyed that direct order. But it was not needed. He always carried his CO status orders. He would reach into his breast pocket and hand the documents to anyone commanding him to carry a weapon. The lieutenant colonel was frustrated when the battalion commander ordered the return of Andrews’ weapon to the quartermaster.
Another officer, a major, assigned Andrews to identify an American that had been killed. At the morgue, he saw a soldier lying on the mortician’s examining table with the side of his head missing. Andrews confirmed his identity by comparing the dog tag around his neck to the one in his boot. They matched.
Later, the major approached Andrews and asked, “Want to kill some Gooks now?”
Andrews answered, “That’s not the point, Sir.” He saluted the rank on the major’s shoulder, but not the person for whom he lost all respect.
Andrews made himself available to his men and other troops, no matter what time of the day or night, seven days a week. Always accessible, he listened while they shared their painful experiences. He wanted to be certain that these men were physically and mentally capable of completing their life-saving tasks in the field.
At that the end of his service, and in appreciation for his concern for his men, they presented him a state-of-the-art, Norelco electric shaver. Andrews knew it was a reflection of their esteem for him. He holds this shaver with the same level of pride as his combat medic’s badge because his men had a right to their opinion of him more than anyone else. For many years, this honorable gift, still in its case, has been stored in a metal box along with Andrews’ citations, medals and other important documents from his military service.
Not only did his men honor him, but the U.S. government by direction of the president awarded Andrews the Bronze Star Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Military Merit Medal and others for his “outstandingly meritorious service in connection with military operations against a hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam.”
In the citations, descriptive phrases summed up Andrews’ service record and the man he is today: “Consistently manifested exemplary professionalism and initiative; rapid assessment; energetically applying sound judgment; extensive knowledge; diligence and determination; and unrelenting loyalty.”
Andrews was a war hero, and without carrying a gun. He insists, “I was no hero, but was simply doing my job. The real heroes were my men, especially those that paid the ultimate price.”
Andrews was asked to discuss what the fear felt like. His eyes filled, and the discussion moved on to something else. There may not be words to describe his feelings, even for someone as articulate as he.
Andrews faithfully, and in his own way, served. Upon returning home, he and his fellow soldiers were not treated as heroes but as scum. They were told not to wear their fatigues. Nationwide, our country wanted out of Vietnam and took out their hostilities on these returning vets. Confirmed rumors proved returning soldiers were spat upon. Many also experienced rude and unkind comments, and open hostility.
In 1972, Andrews completed his masters of science degree in counseling psychology at Southern Illinois University. For many years, Andrews served the Sheridan community by providing mental health services, much like he did in Vietnam when he served his medics.
Bruce Andrews and his wife, Jo Lynn, have two adult children, Amy and Doug Andrews. His family, always supportive of him, respects his service and time in Vietnam. In his office, a shrine honoring this time graces an area above his desk. It includes his memorabilia, letters, drawings and comments from his family. They understand just how formative and important this time was for Andrews, and what it meant for who he is today.