Harvey Hilbert enlisted in the Army in 1964. He was in the infantry, and in January 1966, he was sent to Vietnam to fight. Five months later, his unit was sent into the jungle. That was the last time he fought in Vietnam.
“It was coming on dusk, and we went into what’s called a hot landing zone — means we were under fire,” Hilbert told StoryCorps. “We jumped off the helicopters and took a position. And then the enemy stopped shooting.”
The company commander sent three soldiers into the jungle to set up a listening post to look for enemy forces and report back. Usually, the three newest men in the unit were sent out for this kind of duty, Hilbert says. He had met one of the men who was sent out that night.
“He went about 100 meters or so out in front of the line,” Hilbert says. “But the enemy hadn’t gone anywhere. They were embedded in the jungle. And around midnight, they opened fire.”
The three men had set up their listening post in the middle of a battalion of enemy soldiers. They grabbed their rifles and started running back to the helicopters.
“All I saw were soldiers with rifles, and machine-gun fire coming at me,” Hilbert says. “And so I shot at ’em. And one of them fell about 10 or 15 feet from me and was screaming in pain, and it turned out it was this young man that I had met.”
A few minutes later, Hilbert got shot in the head.
“I could hardly move, and I thought that if I fell asleep I would die. So I was trying to stay awake, listening to this young man scream.
“He died just before I was airlifted out. You know, I’m 65 years old, and I can remember clearly that young man — the color of his skin, his face, his cries.
“You know, there’s a legacy of war that lasts forever,” Hilbert says.
Hilbert was hospitalized at a field hospital in Vietnam, where he had to have bullet fragments removed from his brain. Hilbert was partially paralyzed on his left side, though he recovered the use of most of his leg and some of his arm.
He was decorated with a National Defense Service Medal and a Purple Heart, among other medals, for his service.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Katie Simon.