By Donna Thornton/News Editor
Walnut Grove native Jerry Wilson wasn’t a wet-behind-the-ears teenager when he served in Vietnam.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1956. During the conflict in Vietnam, though still a young man himself, he was a leader to even younger, less experienced soldiers.
Wilson remained in the Army until 1982 and during his lengthy service he earned a number of medals and commendations: among them three Silver Stars, four Bronze Star, a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, the Civil Actions Honor Medal First Class and many others.
“The last medal I got was the Distinguished Service Cross,” Wilson said. He said he received it just in the past year, when it was discovered that he had not received it earlier.
Capt. Wilson earned something perhaps harder to achieve: the continued respect and admiration of the young men who served under his command.
Dwain Foster of Gretna, La. was one of those men.
Foster, like several of the men who served with Wilson, have kept in touch over the years and attended reunions of their unit.
“He is wonderful,” Foster said. “He was a soldier’s soldier. He took excellent care of his men.
“We looked up to him not only as a commander,” Foster said of those months in Vietnam, “but as a father.”
By the time he was stationed at a base camp in Lai Khe, about 30 or 40 miles north of Saigon, Wilson had served several years, and had been stationed in Germany, had been to Korea and in Panama aboard a ship.
During his first time stationed in Vietnam, Wilson was a rifle platoon leader.
“I’d just got out of Officer Candidate School,” Wilson said.
Just six months later he was in Vietnam.
He was in country about a year with the same company, then came home for 14 months and returned for a second tour of duty.
Wilson said his company was always in areas of heavy fighting, but details of the harsh conditions are not something he goes into.
Foster said that’s true of most veterans.
“We talk often,” Foster said. “We never talk about it (combat). We don’t get together and tell war stories.”
Instead he said, there is talk of common interests and of comrades.
Wilson said he remembers so many friends from that time, some with sadness.
“I lost too many people. I remember them more than anything,” Wilson said. “In some ways, you always remember the ones you lost more than the living ones.”
One of those lost was Danny Sikorski, a young squad leader from Wisconsin. Diane Sikorski Kramer said her brother served under Wilson in the “Black Lions” – the 2nd Battalion 28th Infantry Regiment’s Alpha Company in Lai Khe. He later transferred to Delta Company and served in that unit during the Battle of Ong Thanh, described as the bloodiest U.S. defeat of the Vietnam War.
Sikorski died in the battle, after Viet Cong forces pinned down Alpha and Delta companies on Oct. 17, 1967. The battle has been described as the bloodiest U.S. defeat of the war.
Diane Kramer met Wilson at Black Lions reunions.
“He is a kind and sweet man with a heart of gold,” Kramer said, “who has the respect of every young man who served under him.”
Foster said Wilson earned that respect.
“I had the opportunity to serve under two captains,” Foster recalled. “The company commander before Jerry – human life meant absolutely nothing to him.
“When Jerry came to the company, it was the difference between light and dark. He was devoted to his men.”
During his time in Vietnam, Wilson was wounded four times, once in the knee.
“I couldn’t hardly walk,” Wilson recalled. After three of his injuries, he returned the front. The fourth resulted in him being sent to “the rear.”
The army created a training camp for soldiers coming into Vietnam for the first time, and Wilson said they gave it to him to run.
“We taught people what to expect,” Wilson said. “They didn’t have that when I got there. I went to my company and went straight into the field. They just put me right in there.”
Given the way Wilson’s men described him, the assignment was a good fit for a man devoted to those who served under him and to their safety and care.
Foster said to this day, more than 40 years after their time at war, he still looks up to Wilson as a father figure.
“He never wore his rank in the field. He never had to,” Foster said, to gain the allegiance of his men.
“I’d follow him anywhere,” Foster said.