By Paul Wood
CHAMPAIGN — Robin Counce, who carried a grenade launcher in Vietnam, was nearly killed by “friendly fire” and still sees a therapist to talk about his PTSD.
Counce, 68, grew up in Danville a minister’s son. He still leans on his faith and his moral compass — “I believe in right” — in dealing with his dangerous service during the seven months he spent in that country.
Among the medals he received, almost one for every month, were the Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge, Army Commendation Medal and First Oak Leaf Cluster, Air Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Good Conduct Medal and National Defense Medal.
Counce had been drafted. He served in the Army from 1968 to 1970.
After training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and Fort Lewis, Wash., he got orders to report to Vietnam via Fort Ord, Calif.
Counce was assigned a grenade launcher, which he said was about the size of a sawed-off shotgun.
He joined a unit that targeted Viet Cong guerrillas using guerrilla tactics of their own.
“We were supposed to search for them, find them and kill them,” he recalled.
The day that most sticks out was March 11, 1969.
“We were on a battalion operation in Thanh Phu province,” Counce said. “The enemy engaged us before we had time to dig into our defensive position for the night.”
That was when everything went wrong.
Counce said the brigade commander continued to send in more troops, and at the same time ordered gunships, Cobra helicopters, to the area in support. The Vietcong called Cobras “whispering death,” Counce said.
But Col. David Hackworth, a Korean and Vietnam veteran who had created the Tiger Force anti-insurgency outfit, told the officer not to send the Cobras in.
Hackworth warned the officer that his troops did not know where all the other troops were stationed.
Counce said Hackworth received a radio message that two companies were taking friendly fire from two Cobras.
Counce and his squad leader, Sgt. Cary Grant of Georgetown, hunkered down in Viet Cong trenches.
“The Cobra helicopters were firing (hundreds of) rounds a minute and it sounded like a giant meat grinder. I could see the tracers and bullets hitting all around us, knocking dirt and water into the air. I heard God, I heard Jesus and I heard the Lord all in harmony,” he said.
To prevent the men from being fired on, Hackworth told Counce’s company commander to put a strobe light on his helmet so he could see exactly where they were.
Hackworth then held his own helicopter directly above Counce’s company so the Cobras would break off. And they did, though the Viet Cong still fired at the helicopter.
Meanwhile, Counce’s unit was taking friendly fire from both sister companies.
Amazingly, no one in Counce’s company died.
“Five guys were wounded in my company, but did not need medevac that night,” he said.
Somewhere near that time, Counce said, he killed a man (for the first time he knew of) when he blew up a flat-bottomed sampan on the river, with two enemy soldiers and their AK-47s.
“I sent them to Hanoi Heaven,” he said.
He also helped save another soldier by lobbing grenades in the enemy’s tree line.
After the war, Counce returned to Danville, where he first worked in a bookstore.
Friends helped him a get a job at the GM foundry in Tilton, where he spent 25 years. He spent another dozen working for Wal-Mart.
Counce moved to Champaign when he got married to Shirley, his rock. He has a daughter in Danville named Robin.
Long after the war, a friend asked Counce if he got angry easily, and if he had nightmares. That’s when he began to seek therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder at the VA Illiana Health Care System in Danville.
It’s helped, he said, though he hasn’t stopped treatment.
What else helps?
“Fishing,” Counce said.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.