West Chester resident and Vietnam veteran Forest Messer almost backed out of his commitment to attend a Veterans Day program Friday morning Madeira High School.
Veterans Day haunts him with painful memories of war. After his daughter convinced him to attend, Messer “almost lost it” at the event when “Taps” was played.
Messer is obviously not alone. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) haunts many of the servicemen and women who return home.
Since his service time ended in 1968, the veteran from a small town outside Troy, Ohio, continues to heal.
Just this past year, he attended a Vietnam reunion in Fort Campbell, Ky., home of the 101st Airborne Division, with his special patrol unit, called the Phantom Force.
His unit had been meeting in Fort Campbell for the past eight years. This spring, Messer finally mustered up the courage to attend for the first time.
For Messer, it healed him “more than any treatment or medicine” he has had in the 43 years of life since his return from Vietnam.
He now claims to be doing better than ever.
However, Messer will forever struggle to share his story.
The Phantom Force
During the war, the Phantom Force patrolled the jungle and villages of Vietnam looking for enemy troops and spies.
Leading the way was Butch, a German shepherd, who could sniff out the enemy and help the unit avoid mines and other traps. When the North Vietnamese Army, or the Viet Cong, was nearby, Butch would stop. The Phantom Force would then call in air strikes or ground troops (187th and 503rd infantries) to take the enemy out.
Then on March 18, 1968, the Phantom Force called for more than additional firepower; they called for help. That afternoon, after marching into an enemy base camp nestled in the jungle, the Phantom Force found them selves surrounded.
What would happen next is a personal account of war that Messer has been holding onto for nearly his entire life.
Such was the case until a former Force member, John Hunt, contacted him. Hunt, who now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, called Messer to thank him for saving his life 39 years ago. Hunt would eventually fly up to Cincinnati to meet with Messer and stayed at a local hotel for a week.
While Messer enjoyed seeing his friend, it took a psychological toll on him. He felt as though he was back in Vietnam.
March 18, 1968
In Vietnam, contact from home was almost non-existent. Intermittent mail deliveries often coming two to three months apart. When it did come, Messer would have a stack of letters from his mom, who wrote him every day. She ended her letters with a simple command, “please write back.” Messer always replied, “I am ok.”
However, on that March day in 1968, Messer was not “ok.” He and his men were surrounded. The Phantom Force was taking heavy casualties and everyone in the unit was wounded.
While pinned down from enemy crossfire in every direction, Messer and another soldier tried to escape to the landing zone with wounded soldiers and two news reporters.
“I came up over the top of this hill and there were five Viet Cong looking right at me, RPGs (rocket-propelled grenade or grenade launcher), whoosh, flew right over my head. We had to retreat and go back,” Messer said of his attempted escape.
Many years after his service, Messer would write a letter in order to document what had happened that day. This is his personal account after falling back from the attempted escape to the landing zone.
“One of the news reporters, who was with us, got shot and killed right next to me. I tried everything in my power to save him, but I lost him.
“Then I heard one of my men, John Hunt, yell out, ‘I am hit!’ I ran over to him, got the bleeding to stop and gave him morphine … When I got to him, he bled all over me … I put my body on top of him for protection, but was blown off by an RPG. It threw me more than 15 to 20 yards.
Then I got up and on the radio … as I had the phone to my left ear, my RTO (radio telephone operator) got hit with a .50 Caliber machine gun. It blew his right shoulder off and he turned his head to the left and said, ‘Don’t let me die.’
“He took a hold of my hand with a death grip and did not let go. In matter of minutes, he was dead.”
At one moment during the attack, members of the Phantom Force turned off their radio and played dead while surrounded by the enemy.
Eventually, after air strikes and attacks from the infantry, the Phantom Force, or what was left of the unit, was rescued.
The group itself was sent to a variety of different hospitals. Their service time together was finished. Messer would be able to go home very soon.
Messer had trouble adjusting to life back home. He had problems with alcohol and his temper. He also had flashbacks and couldn’t shake off what had happened out there in the jungle.
He did, however, get the courage to ask a young woman on a date after he returned.
“I thought to myself, I’ve jumped out of airplanes, I got wounded, I have done just about everything that there is to be done,” he said. “I can call her.”
Shortly after their date, Messer married the woman, Suzanne. The couple has been blessed with two children and four grandchildren.
With the help of his loving family, his belief in God, counseling sessions and a large dose of daily medication, Messer was eventually able to stop drinking and rid himself of an impulsive temper.
The memories, however, have never left.