Thomas Rockroads Jr. served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971. He served in the Airborne Infantry. This is part of his Vietnam story. For the full interview, go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam.
Gazette: Most of the time, we start these interviews at the beginning of your entry into the service, but today, we're starting with a different event. You received medals today from Sen. Jon Tester. Can you explain that?
A pair of U.S. Army veterans received more than a dozen medals Thursday in a long-overdue ce…
Rockroads: "A lot of the Vietnam veterans, especially the combat veterans, when we ordered to do our tour in Vietnam, we flew in — some came by boats. ... When we did come out of Vietnam, there weren't any awards or medals ceremony or anything of that nature.
"With that in mind, after 46 years, I started wondering if the medals that I wore were legitimate and authorized, so I went to the veterans center and they gave me a form and I filled it out. I went to VA coordinator in Lame Deer, Joe Brady. ... When I got a letter from St. Louis and the person in charge of the research and the medals that I should be getting, they sent a letter to me and Sen. Jon Tester, and that's how this ceremony came about — the ceremony that happened this morning."
Gazette: What's it like to get your medals, 46 years later?
Rockroads: "It's very emotional, seeing what I've seen and getting those medals. First of all, this is what I was thinking: They were just going to ship the medals to me. I never expected Jon Tester to do this or for them to have this awards ceremony.
"When I got that letter about this ceremony, right then and there, I was very emotional. When the contacts were made and then Tester's office to ask me to bring my family, it was very emotional, and at the same time I was very happy about what they could do for a Vietnam veteran after 46 years."
Gazette: Where were you in 1968, and how did you wind up in the Army?
Rockroads: "I live on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, and I grew up Rockroads allotment on the Rosebud Creek, about two miles east of Busby. My great-grandfather was a scout for Gen. (Nelson) Miles under Lt. Casey. So he served in the military as a scout, after everything was quieted down (after the Battle of the Little Bighorn).
"In 1884, when our reservation was established, that was their area of operation, so to speak. So, they came — my great-grandparents — and they built a log house there. He was paid $25 a month. He built that log house, and that's where I grew up. My great-grandfather, my grandfather, my dad, myself and then my son and daughters and grandchildren. I have five grandchildren, four boys and one granddaughter.
"Times were pretty tough, but the skills that were taught to me by my parents and other relatives — you know, uncles and aunts and the older Cheyenne people, the skills that I learned that very much came in handy in Vietnam because I was a booney rat — I was a grunt, in the infantry. If it was tracking or whatever the case may be. I went to school at the old Tongue River Boarding School, the old BIA school.
"I decided to go into the military. I have two birthdays, one is ’49, the other is ’48. ... I was 17 when I left the rez, and so I hitchhiked to Hardin. Right in the Main Street of Hardin there used to be an old Ben Franklin store. Right on top of that, there was a selective service office, and I signed up for the airborne infantry and Army and then they sent me to Butte, and from there ... I took my oath and went to Fort Lewis, Washington, to start my basic training.
Gazette: Why did you sign up?
Rockroads: "I know a lot of history about our Cheyenne people, defending their way of life, family, elderly people, the young ones. The stories that were told to me were very fascinating growing up. With that, I think that's where the majority of influence came from. I had uncles who served in World War II, one was a paratrooper who jumped in Normandy. Then, in Korea. I was just fascinated with my uncles who were in Airborne, the way they dressed — you know? The jump boots. I had an uncle who jumped in Korea twice.
"... In this police action in the ’60s in Vietnam, if you do not answer the call of duty, honor or courage, then you're going to spend some time being in a place you don't want to be. Or, be fined. With those things in mind, this is what I thought. I educated myself with Vietnam, and some of my friends and relatives that were there and came back. I didn't want to be drafted because if I was, they'd put me wherever they wanted. I volunteered to be infantry, U.S. Army. I had the type of training in Airborne Infantry so that I was trained to fight in the battles I read about."
Rockroads went to jump school at Fort Benning, Ga. After that, he went to Fort Bragg, N.C. After training, he requested to go to Vietnam, for combat duty. He then went to Puerto Rico for guerrilla war training. He left for Vietnam in October 1969.
Gazette: What was guerrilla warfare training like?
Rockroads: "From the stories I have heard, it was almost like the way my forefathers fought. They all were all on the ground with certain tomahawks or bow and arrow, things of that nature. How they ambushed the enemy — stories that I knew, that were told to me at my great-grandfather's old cabin. So, all of those things that were told to me, all of that came into play.
"In the fall of ’69, when I was shipping out for Vietnam, I came home for a short leave. My dad and my grandfather and great-grandfather were Northern Cheyenne ceremonial people and they knew a lot of things about the past. So when I was going to leave that morning to come to Billings to jump on that 747 to go ’Nam, my dad woke me up at 5 in the morning, but shook my hand — never broke down.
"He said, 'Son,' when he called me son in our dialect, he would say to me, 'Na,' referring to me as a son. So he said, 'When things get tough, the only thing that you need to do is growl like a bear. Where you're going is going to be tough — just like our ancestors. In this contemporary time, you will have all the necessary things that you need and you're already trained in being a grunt.'
"As a Cheyenne, I knew I was going to be walking point, maybe a slackman, or a volunteer for ambush. He told me, "You got to watch for this butterfly. The color of that butterfly is going to be yellow and black. When you see that butterfly in the battlezone in Vietnam, be extra cautious and careful because something is going to happen.'
"I got to my first platoon ... after a week's refresher course. I told the platoon sergeant and the buddies that I was with that I am going to volunteer for point man (walking in the front) so the old-timers could start training me as a point man. So that's what I did. That next morning, we were going to go out on a patrol. 'Sure, we'll train you since you're a Native American and you look similar to a Vietnamese person.'
"So we did that. We come out of the perimeter and it's still dark and I had a slackman walking in back of me, training me and the rest of the patrol. We were walking, looking for Charlie. We came to this river and there was an old rice paddy dike and there was a river coming through and there was trails and tangles going through. So, when I started walking and there was a village on my right, over maybe 200 feet or so. So, I was walking toward that river and out of the clear blue sky, there was that butterfly. Like that, I picked it up. ... The patrol stopped, and I didn't say anything yet. ... I was already with my M16, full automatic and a clip that I tied back-to-back that I could just flip up. My buddies didn't know what was going on."
Gazette: This was your first time on patrol in Vietnam?
Rockroads: "Yes. ... When I saw my butterfly, I thought about my dad. I turned around ... silently moving. I was motioning the patrol to get back. I started walking on a hedge row of the old rice paddy where they used to farm, but it wasn't being used anymore, the grass was pretty high. I was about ready to step over to go over the paddy and the elephant grass was pretty high.
"There was a trail and tangle coming out of that rice paddy, the old dike. There was a guy coming out of there, he had black pajamas on and a rucksack on and he had his rifle. He didn't have any headgear, but his hair was long and it was pretty windy too. The first thing I thought was when we were in training, even in the States. They called these 'Vietnamese Popular Forces' — they were the ones that would guard the villages from what the (Viet Cong) and the North Vietnamese Army did to terrorize them. I kind of thought it was one of those. But, he was alone.
"I just stooped down and when he got about half way, I stood up and he took off, and I knew it had to be a Viet Cong — black pajamas. He took off, and I sprayed him, sprayed him with two magazines. He came and dashed back into the bush. That was my first personal kill. We checked it out. You have to check out if they have any orders or whatever. He was laying there on his back and his rucksack.
"After we checked him out, out of those two magazines, with 18 rounds, I only hit him with one round. It got him right in the back through the rucksack. After we searched him, he was a doctor. He had orders to the 22nd NVA regiment. Everything — stethoscope, medicine, M16 — everything he had was all American made. So, you know, if my father didn't tell me that, I wouldn't be sitting here and there wouldn't have been an awards ceremony this morning because if I hadn't have been cautious and kept on going, this NVA doctor could have been walking and with the high elephant grass could have just blew me away."