KINGSTON – Bob Pries and John ‘J.R.' Richards are Kingston men who carry the scars of Vietnam for life.
Richards lost his right eye when a bullet hit him, and Pries, a combat medic, also was shot and now has an Army award named after him.
Richards, 67, is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served from 1967-70 and did a nine-month tour in Vietnam. He was 21 when he went overseas. As soon as the back end of the plane opens up, the heat hits you, he said of the day he landed in Vietnam. His unit was charged with walking through the mountains to find enemy base camps.
He remembers the day he got hit.
We were out on a patrol that day, he said. One of our helicopters was downed and we were sent to provide security around it.
They were able to hold off the enemy, said Richards, but there was an ambush and one of his men got hit. As he went to his aid, Richards was hit. His buddy already was dead.
Conscious the entire time, Richards spent the night near the helicopter awaiting transport to a hospital. He ended up in Philadelphia for facial reconstruction surgery and plastic surgery. By then, he weighed about 115 pounds.
Richards gained weight, got discharged and came back to Kingston. He got a job and married. He was hired at Tobyhanna Army Depot in 1978 and is now retired. He and his wife have two children – a son and a daughter – and three grandchildren.
Richards said he carried the guilt of his buddy's death for years. He felt he did something wrong. I went to counseling and finally got it through my thick Marine Corps skull that it wasn't my fault, he said.
I was very bitter for a long time, he said. Counseling helped and I kind of mellowed over the years.
Richards had been bitter that many people didn't respect Vietnam veterans, but he has seen that change in recent years.
We got through every day with our fellow troops, he said, explaining why Vietnam vets hug when they meet and depart – they never knew if they would see each other again.
Bob Doc Pries, the former combat medic, grew up in Kingston and now lives in Michigan. Like many Vietnam veterans, he won't talk in detail about his experiences, but he penned a note that outlines his time in the Army.
One photo he has from the Vietnam era shows him with his Bravo unit. The guys in the picture, he said, all have the thousand-yard stare – a phrase coined to describe the limp, unfocused gaze of a battle-weary soldier.
In the photograph, Pries and his fellow members of Bravo Company 2nd Battalion 47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division were returning from a mission.
At the time the picture was taken, I was a 19-year-old, on my second tour … I had been with the 2-47 for over 18 months by this time, Pries wrote. Fortunately, we did not lose anyone of this Op. We all knew this was the last, and we took extra precaution as no one wanted to be Bravo's last casualty.
There was an eerie quiet on this last Op. I, and most others, were lost in thought as we were returning. On this last day I was consumed by thoughts about all that I had experienced with Bravo Company during my time in Vietnam . . . to the many brothers of Bravo Company who were killed and the many wounded in action we had lost over my time with Bravo.
Pries knew the unit would be split up and assigned to different locations.
It kind of felt like our family was being split up, he said. That was a very weird feeling at the time. As strange as it may seem, I hated to see it end. The 2-47 was my home and these men were my family.
At the end of every training cycle at Fort Benning, Ga., the U.S. Army 9th Infantry of the 2-47 presents the Robert Doc Pries Leadership Award to the soldier who displays the highest level of motivation and leadership shown during their nine-week training cycle.
The Army has this to say about ‘Doc' Pries: During his assignment with B Company he was personally involved with every member from the Company Commander to the newest private and treated everyone with the same care and dedication. … He also is the individual that dedicated many long hours locating fellow Vietnam veterans bringing them to The Wall to start their healing process. He truly has the love and respect of everyone who served with him or has had the opportunity to know him.