“I had a sharp learning curve to adjust to. But, life put me in contact with very good people,” said Lee Alley, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran from Wyoming.
Alley, one of seven children, comes from an agricultural family.
“As a child we had the run of the Red Desert, herding sheep and chasing wild horses,” he said.
He served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. His medals include the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Soldiers Medal, Bronze Star, two Air Medals, Army Combat Infantry Badge (CIB) and two Purple Hearts. Upon joining the Army, he attended Officer Candidate School, graduating as a 2nd Lieutenant, and also Airborne School, and Jungle Warfare School in Panama. However, when he arrived in Vietnam and was placed with a reconnaissance unit, he received a quick education.
“Arriving in Vietnam as an armored officer, I was supposed to go either to a tank unit or an armored Cav unit … up north,” said Alley. “Once I got in country, they changed my orders, and I ended up down in the Mekong Delta with the 9th Infantry Division in command of the reconnaissance unit.
“We were the eyes and ears for the battalion,” Alley continued. “We were the ones at the tip of the spear.”
Fire Base Cudgel
Alley and his men were among those involved at the battle of Fire Base Cudgel in November 1967. They conducted an air mobile assault mission.
“Within two hours of going in, the entire battalion was pinned down; nobody could move,” Alley said. “The battles were very fierce.”
The next day, he was pulled out and moved 15 miles from where the unit landed in order to secure artillery coming in.
“Sometimes you get so far out from the artillery bases that they'd fly artillery pieces in so we'd have their fire power support,” Alley explained. “They needed some extra security, so they took my recon unit and moved me over there to help protect the artillery. That night we were hit by a very significant NVA force. My unit — there was 35 of us ... I had four men killed that night and 23 medevaced; there was only eight of us left the next morning.”
Alley was nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor for what took place at Fire Base Cudgel, but he rebuffed the process and focused on his job: rebuilding his unit.
“The guy came to base camp to interview me, and I blew him off,” Alley recalled. “'I'm 20 men short, I'm rebuilding, I'm interviewing all these guys, we're going out again in the morning, I don't have time for you ... adios!'
“That was a pretty significant battle for a couple of reasons,” he added. “The reality set in — this is war, not war games. The other thing I realized is how vulnerable the soldier’s life is and how quickly it can be taken. Immediately after the battle, the battalion commander came to me and said we need you back in the field. I had no time off, and I basically had to rebuild my platoon.”
He said he learned other lessons from the experience.
“You really begin to study people, you really begin to study habits...” he said. “I had the eyes and the ears of the battalion commander so I could go out within the battalion and pick and choose who I wanted in my unit. That was really a great learning experience for me because I really got to judge people.”
More lessons came along. Six months prior to his tour ending, Alley said he hit a “low point of my tour.”
“They took Recon away from me,” he said. “It was basically a perfect fit, and we had such a tremendous reputation.”
Army policy at that time stated “if you were an officer and you were on the line for six months and had seen a lot of combat, they took you off line because your life expectancy was getting very short,” he explained.
“My six months had come. They took me out of Recon and put me into battalion headquarters writing operation orders,” Alley said. “I was there only a short time when a company commander was killed. The battalion needed a commander for that unit very quickly. Me being one of the most combat experienced, they gave me that company. At that point I was commanding an infantry company in Vietnam.”
Battle of Fire Base Yeager
Then came the Battle of Fire Base Yeager. About 500 Viet Cong attacked.
“We were overrun ... that was a very horrific battle,” stated Alley. “They got in the wire; it was basically a hand-to-hand deal ... it was a very long night.”
And a deadly one. Twenty American men died and 120 were medevaced that night, Alley said. He received the Silver Star for that battle.
Return to Wyoming
When his tour concluded, Alley returned to his home state of Wyoming. He attended the university in Laramie on the GI Bill, but his experience wasn't stellar.
“The University of Wyoming was not a very friendly place. Yes, there were (war) protests in Laramie, Wyoming,” Alley said.
“I hid my identity, I hid my medals,” he continued. “Nobody knew where I had been, I didn't want to talk about it...”
Alley graduated with a degree in education and taught school on the Wind River Indian reservation in Wyoming. He later married Ellen Grieve from Wheatland, and they ranched together for about 15 years. After selling the ranch, Alley worked for the Postal Service and retired from that job. Throughout the years he was never far from Vietnam. In an interview a few years ago, which aired on Wyoming PBS, he said, “There is a price to war.”
That price comes in lives and in suffering. Alley writes about both in his book “Back from War: Finding Hope and Understanding in Life after Combat,” published in 2006.
“I suffered very severely from post-traumatic stress disorder when I got back. I didn't know what it was — I had never heard of PTSD — I just knew there was something wrong with me,” Alley said. “There were things that would set me off for no reason.”
Part of his healing stemmed from reconnecting with comrades from Vietnam.
“I was re-introduced to my men and that was what I was lacking in my life,” he said.
From those various experiences and conversations, Alley decided to write the book. He said he didn't write it for himself, but instead, to help others who return from war.
“I watched young guys come back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “I thought to myself, 'I don't want them to run and hide and try to figure this out for 20 years like it took me' … so I'm going to write a book and bare my soul. I'm going to tell them I have post-traumatic stress disorder, and I'll tell them what I did. I'm going to tell them how I started healing myself. ... It's not for me, it was not therapeutic. ... I thought, ‘If I can just talk to these young soldiers, it'll be worth it.’”
He found, however, the soldiers just returning from war didn't readily accept his message.
“They were very similar to me — you go into a complete sense of denial. ... It takes a couple years, three years, four years to finally sit down and say, ‘Maybe we better look at what's going on...’” Alley said.
His book, however, resonated with veterans from previous wars, such as Desert Storm.
“I couldn't grab those young guys, but (instead) ... if a guy had been out six or seven years,” said Alley.
‘A good fit’
His outreach doesn't stop with the book. Alley is vice chair of the Wyoming Veterans Commission and was instrumental in helping organize the Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans event held in Casper in early June 2015. His position is appointed by the governor and is a volunteer job he wholeheartedly embraces.
“These soldiers deserve everything we can give,” he stated.
A Wyoming boy who once rode horseback following sheep through the Red Desert became one of the state's most decorated Vietnam veterans who now serves other American military men and women.
“The Veterans Commission takes a lot of my time — that's where my heart is. ... All my efforts are towards helping the veterans of the state of Wyoming,” he stated.
Alley takes his Vietnam experience and finds and creates positive outcomes for others and for himself.
“One thing I found out (in the early years of service), me and the Army were really a good fit. It gave me the direction and purpose I needed in my life at the time,” he said.
“One of the things leadership in the military and combat did for me (is that) I know very specifically who I am,” Alley added. “I know what my limits are, and I know what I can do, and I know what I'd better not attempt. I think combat and leadership really refines that. Life to me has become very clear. The leadership and the military and the war experience really defined who I am.”
He also made other discoveries.
“The best thing that came out of the Vietnam War ... (is) the realization that as a nation we can never treat our soldiers with disrespect again,” Alley stated. “The military is out doing exactly what our government is asking them to do. I think a powerful thing that came out of that war is ‘never again.’ ‘Never again’ became the battle cry of the Vietnam veteran.”