The Ennis Journal / The Waxahachie Daily Light
Not war, not miles, not even years can break the bonds of friendship for two Vietnam veteran Ennis High School grads.
Ray E. Jackson of Emery, Texas has chronicled his experience in the military – and that of his best running buddy Jimmy Swindell of Ennis – in a new memoir just out.
Self-published by Jackson through Bloomington, Indiana-based iUniverse, the book’s deceptively plain name, “Military Police Protection in Southeast Asia,” just skims the surface of both the tragedy and comedy of war found in its gritty pages.
An Ennis native, Jackson graduated from Ennis High School in 1967. “I went into the military in October of 1967, along with about half of my senior class,” he recalled.
He went to Germany and then to Vietnam, arriving in country July 4, 1969.
Rising to the rank of sergeant (E-5) in the Army’s military police, Jackson had more than one “worst moment.” “There were several close calls. I got hit by a concussion that threw me into a building in a mortar rocket attack, and I had a 45 shoved in my face involving one of our own troops,” he said in an interview Monday.
But the most devastating and lingering wound of all was the horrific after-effects of Agent Orange, which was only recognized years later for the lasting damages it did to U.S. troops. “It was a mixture used to kill the foliage, but there was something in that chemical that affected us. They sprayed it out – sometimes in choppers, mostly from C-131s,” Jackson recalled.
Both in the Army’s 101st Airborne division, 10,000 miles from home, unbeknownst to each other, EHS running buddies Jackson and Jimmy Swindell were stationed within a few miles of each other. Jimmy was at Camp Eagle, and Ray at Phu Bai – and never knew it until Swindell, on leave in Australia, heard from his mom, who was in contact with Jackson’s mom. Jimmy hitched a ride into the MP operation at Phu Bai and went to see his friend, who was nodding off at the time. “I shook his toe a second time, and he sat up like he was going to hit me,” Swindell recalled with a grin. When Ray realized it was one of his best running buddies from home, the friends had a big reunion. “Jimmy was more like a brother than a friend,” Jackson said.
Swindell agreed.“I can’t explain to you how it felt to see him there, in the jungle. We were best friends, we played baseball together when we were kids, we ran together – and there we were,” he recalled.
Almost 40 years later, Ennis resident Swindell’s account of Vietnam became part of author Jackson’s book.“There’s quite a bit in the book about Jimmy,” Jackson said. In fact, a whole chapter is devoted to a frank recollection of Swindell’s R&R hijinks. If it was a movie – and it might make a fine movie, in the tradition of M*A*S*H – Jackson’s book would be rated R. “It was pretty informative about things that actually happened – but it’s got some personal stuff in it,” Swindell said. “He talks about going to massage parlors and all kinds of things. Ray just wrote the truth, and that’s what people want to read, I guess.”
Swindell doesn’t talk much about his “365 glorious days” (his words) in Vietnam. He was drafted in 1969 after dropping out of Abilene Christian after a year. "When I first got over there, I was in a platoon of 30 guys, and until I got used to the country and what went on over there, I was scared to death. I was just a kid,” he remembered. “Then they asked for volunteers to be snipers, and I volunteered.”
Considered special ops, the snipers went out in five-man teams in the jungle for a week at a time. They would rappel down lines dangling from helicopters, disappearing into elephant grass that was as deep as they were tall. Their assignment: hunt down the enemy, the Viet Cong, who sympathized with the North Vietnamese. If they found a group of less than five, take them out. More than five, call for support. And stay alive. “It was kill or be killed. You had to have that kind of attitude or you wouldn’t make it home. You couldn’t be passive.”
One time, it rained down on his unit, huddled under their rain capes pitched as tents, for 11 days, straight, non-stop. They might go for days or even a month without spotting the enemy – and then all hell might break loose.
Swindell believes the move to the sniper unit actually saved his life. “The company that I had been with were up on a mountain and I could hear people talking on radios.“They got into a fire fight, and I started recognizing voices – that was the platoon I was in. You could hear the sheer terror – they were screaming for more body bags,” he remembered. Across the valley, Swindell’s sniper unit watched, thunderstruck, as Phantom jets zoomed in to drop barrels of napalm – on impact, they split open and the gelled gasoline burst into long-lasting flames. There were American casualties dying in agony under that American napalm. “It burnt up some of the guys. I would have been close to the front of the squad, in a position where the napalm hit, and the first five guys got burnt up,” he said soberly.
Exactly 365 days after arriving in country, Swindell headed back to America.
For all its terrible loveliness, even in wartime, he has mixed emotions about Vietnam. “It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been – I’d never want to go back,” he said.
Four decades later, now a Union Pacific railroad engineer back home in Ennis and married to his sweetheart Nancy, when he sees a returning soldier in uniform, he has a singular response: “I shake their hand and tell them ‘Thank you,’” he said, a tear welling up.
Swindell found that while his buddy Jackson’s book exposes some of his own rawest and most personal memories of the war, it was still fascinating. “For the most part, the book is pretty true to life … it captivated me once I started reading it – it kept me going … I like the way he wrote – he skipped back and forth, from different stories at different times, and then he’d come back to the story later,” he said.
Jackson lives with his wife Barbara in Emery, Texas. His life to date has been good, but not perfect by any means. He is fully disabled because of health conditions attributed to Agent Orange, including permanent damage to his kidneys from uncontrolled diabetes. “We lost our baby in a car wreck in 2006,” he said. “I dedicated the book to him, to Kyle.” He still has his oldest son, Todd, and daughters Courtney and Tonya.
A first-time author, Jackson is experiencing the joys and travails of publishing with “Military Police Protection in Southeast Asia.”“It was my first book, so I was going to make a few mistakes … To make those words mean something takes a while. You have to revise it, and edit it, and read it yourself, before it makes sense to you or to someone else,” he said.
He started in January, finished in June; the book was published in September. “Military Police Protection in Southeast Asia” is finding a welcome in his home town. The American Legion in Ennis is going to sponsor his book and a book signing, Jackson said. “This way people can drop by and I can visit with them,” he said. “Any exposure I can get will be well appreciated.”
And once again, his own experiences are taking him toward writing – this time about loss and survival. “The book I’m writing now is based on a true story about family love, from happiness to heartache,” he said. “It’s about when you begin a family, how happy you are, and when you add kids to equation gets even better – they’re the apple of your eye. Then one day, you wake up and you start losing them, or something happens. It’s a challenge that a family has to overcome, to lose that loved one. You have to be very close to God, and keep that loved one in your heart. You never get totally over it – you get through it, but you never get over it.”
Author to sign book at Autumn Days SaturdayVietnam veteran and Ennis native Ray Jackson will be at Autumn Days in Ennis on Saturday from 10 a.m.-12 noon to meet friends and visit about his book.Military Police Protection in Southeast Asia by Ray E. Jackson, $22.95, 316 pages, perfect-bound softcover 6x9. ISBN: 978-0-595-52301-6 For information about buying Ray Jackson’s book, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a voice message at 903-473-8092, or order it at www.iUniverse.com.