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Voice from the past: Northern Cheyenne combat vet reconnects with long-ago platoon buddy
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Voice from the past: Northern Cheyenne combat vet reconnects with long-ago platoon buddy

Thomas Rockroads

Army veteran Thomas Rockroads Jr. served in Vietnam. The medals and ribbons displayed on a rack pinned to his uniform show that during his time in service he earned the Bronze Star for valor, Combat Infantry Badge and National Defense Service Medal.

U.S. Army veteran Thomas Rockroads Jr. talks about his experiences in Vietnam from the perspective of a Northern Cheyenne tribal member.

Laura Rockroads was in bed at her Busby home in 1970 when she heard a knock at the door. The mother of three answered each knock with “enter” in Northern Cheyenne. The door opened; a face she hadn't seen in a year peered in. It was her son.

Thomas Rockroads Jr., now 72, returned home from combat in Vietnam before he was even legally allowed to vote. In spite of her rheumatoid arthritis, Laura sprang from the couch and yelled. The two had last seen each other in Billings, as Thomas boarded a 747 to begin his deployment. They had parted then with a Northern Cheyenne song that, 52 years later, the Bronze Star recipient still sings.

“My mother used to tell me different stories, and there was one that got me to go into the military. There was a Cheyenne camp, and there was a young man that was leaving the village…And it’s a true story, it’s not a Hollywood story. This young man had a female friend, a girlfriend so to speak, and he was riding away. As he was riding away, he stopped on horseback and turned around. He sang a song… ‘If I’m not back, I might come back by fall time when the leaves start to fall…And if I don’t come back by spring, when the buffalo shed their fur, that means I’m gone from the face of the Earth,” Rockroads told The Billings Gazette.

Rockroads jump shot

Thomas Rockroads Jr., in paratrooper training at Fort Benning, Ga.

Rockroads has shared stories of his deployment with the 173rd Airborne Brigade with family, friends and The Gazette several times in the past. In 2009, he recalled the night that two men from his platoon were killed on a booby trapped hillside. Seven years later, after being honored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., personally with an awards ceremony that was several decades overdue, he joined several dozen other veterans as part of The Gazette’s “Vietnam Voices” series.

Rockroads' story has been etched into cyberspace, on newsprint and in the U.S. Congressional record. And, it was his contribution to the “Vietnam Voices” that turned up in a search by one of his old platoon members. It led Dennis Joanethis, a former private first class in the 173rd, to hold another reunion with Rockroads that was also decades overdue.

“Anybody that hasn’t been in heavy-duty combat, you can’t communicate. You can’t talk about things you experienced: death, survival mode for 365 days…I got really emotional when my buddy, Dennis called me on the phone after Vietnam Voices. I was hoping that someway, somehow, one of my comrades, brothers in battle, would reach out,” said Rockroads, whose lineage contains veterans spanning back more than a century.

Thomas Rockroads jr.

Vietnam veteran Thomas Rockroads Jr., seen at left.

In the 1880s, his great grandfather James Rockroads put on a uniform of the United States military to serve as a scout for Gen. Nelson A. Miles. Three generations later, his great-grandson would do the same before guerrilla warfare training in Puerto Rico, and then on to the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

Thomas Rockroads grew up in a home that had been in the family for generations. It sits in a lonely part of the reservation several miles outside Busby. As a 6-year-old, Thomas began attending school, his father taking him to the bus stop by horseback or by sleigh. Although at the time, the Rockroads home had no electricity or plumbing, the family fed itself on what they could hunt and harvest. Elk, antelope, plums and turnips were coupled with essentials like sugar and flour from the general store. Before he ever stepped foot in a recruiter’s office, Rockroads already knew how to make a bland government ration of beef and rice palatable.

“They lived a real conservative way of life, my parents, and I think that’s kind of what put me through in Vietnam. I wasn’t too choosy, so to speak, and that’s the way they raised me…The C-rations, that’s like rations that I remember getting at home. You had to cook them so that they would be tasty,” he said.

Rockroads came of age learning to speak Northern Cheyenne fluently. While he picked up traditional songs from his mother, he also developed a taste for rock 'n' roll. He formed a band with three others, the Cheyenne Night Raiders, that would later become the Lancers. Although he could play rhythm guitar, the teenage Rockroads opted to fill in percussion on the band’s covers of the Kinks, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on a drum set made of an old ironing board and aluminum pot lids. He used chokecherry branches as drum sticks.

Thomas Rockroads Jr.

Thomas Rockroads Jr. says it's easier to talk about combat experiences with other combat veterans. "You can’t talk about things you experienced: death, survival mode for 365 days…I got really emotional when my buddy, Dennis called me on the phone... ."

A photo framed by his mother’s bead work shows Thomas in his junior year at what was then Tongue River Boarding School, his dark hair sculpted and eyes behind thick, black glasses à la Buddy Holly. The same year that he stood for his high school photo, he hitchhiked to Hardin to find the Selective Service office. 

Deployment

With uncles who parachuted into wars in Europe and Korea, Rockroads maneuvered his way into Army Airborne School, then into a unit bound for combat. In September 1969, the teen rock and roller from Busby was an infantryman dropping into the Tiger Mountains of Vietnam.

A month into his tour, he watched a helicopter leave a hillside with the remains of two men, radio-telephone operators killed by a suspected 105 mm howitzer round rigged to explode. Rockroads held one of the men while he took his last few breaths.

“The next morning, we couldn’t find (a soldier named) Reyes. On the other side of the hill, they found two ribs about six inches long. When the medevac came in, that’s what they took,” he said.

That same morning, Pfc. Dennis Joanethis, who became known as "the Greek," walked onto the same hillside. His first assignment as a new platoon member was to drop off two personnel files at a first aid station.

“I come over carrying these 201 files, and the medic says, ‘They must have been those two guys from last night.’ Thomas was with these guys when they got killed, and so those two guys were the first two guys that I knew coming into the company,” said Joanethis, who arrived at Delta Company in October 1969.

Until the end of his tour, comforts were few for Rockroads and the rest of his company. Those comforts came in the form of packages of pemmican and fry bread sent by his parents, and the top 40 hits broadcast by Armed Forces Vietnam Network in the early morning.

Rockroads and Joanethis fell into a battle rhythm that had them patrolling the area around seven villages during the day, passing out C-rations and cigarettes to the local Vietnamese who asked for them. At night, they prepared ambushes for the North Vietnamese Army.

During his first patrol, assigned as point man, Rockroads killed an NVA soldier. In the soldier’s rucksack, he found orders to the 22nd NVA regiment, medicine, a stethoscope, an M16 and a Sony transistor radio.

Thomas Rockroads Jr.

Thomas Rockroads Jr. and his platoon patrolled an area near seven Vietnamese villages, occasionally passing out C-rations and other items.

“When my parents sent me different dried meat and food, pemmican and corn balls, I always managed to pray and give to the spirits the way we did growing up. So to me, playing in a rock and roll band, that radio I think it came to me in a way…I would listen to that radio and the songs that came to that radio station, a lot of those songs we used to play. It just made my day,” Rockroads said. “You know The Animals? ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place?’ That was pretty much our anthem.”

Almost a year to the day after he stepped foot into Vietnam, Rockroads was back in the states. He left in a haze of yellow, red and white created by smoke bombs tied to the tail rotor of the helicopter that carried him out of the Central Highlands.

There’s no official record of how many Northern Cheyenne men and women served in Vietnam. Incoming paperwork for the U.S. military labeled almost every enlisted Indigenous person who didn’t say otherwise as “Hispanic,” “Mongolian” or simply “Other,” according to one study of the men who served in the war. Rockroads, who left the Army with no physical wounds, knows at least three tribal members who went overseas the same as him, and died in combat. Their names are on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Rockroads visited the memorial in the late '80s. He found their names, took several steps away from the memorial, turned and saluted. He’d have to wait several more years before receiving an official diagnosis for post-traumatic stress disorder. His parents saw symptoms in their son as soon as his return to their home in 1970.

“When my parents knew that there was something wrong with me, knew I couldn’t sleep, and would get up in the middle of the night toward morning and walk. I’d stay gone for a couple days and just walk, or being agitated or just jumpy. That’s when they had several ceremonies going on as part of what’s called the Native American Church.

“The organization deals with God’s love, care and hope and charity, those are the four main characteristics…We use peyote as a sacrament. The hippies, they think you get a high from it, but that’s not what it is. It’s a sacrament,” Rockroads said.

Reconnecting

While Rockroads received treatment through both the VA and traditional ceremonies, Joanethis spent 45 days in a course designed to treat PTSD. Although his stay came nearly 40 years after his return from Vietnam, Joanethis said the catharsis from his stay at the New Jersey VA hospital spurred his decision to reconnect with Rockroads and the rest of those who he served with in the 173rd. With a manifest that came to him courtesy of his old platoon sergeant, his search has helped in contacting 12 men over the past decade.

“You forget the faces, but you never forget the names…I couldn’t believe it when I saw the Rock as a part of that ‘Vietnam Voices,’” he said.

Joanethis, who lives in South Carolina, has connected with members of the 173rd during official reunions and over the phone. It was 2021, more than 50 years since the two met in Vietnam, when the Greek and the Rock spoke. Their first conversation led to an exchange of memories. Joanethis said he’s managed to collect photographs of men and places that Rockroads hasn’t seen in five decades.

During that first conversation, the two recalled Reyes and a second soldier named Shipley, the RTOs killed only a month into Rockroad's deployment to the Tiger Mountains. Rockroads will never forget Shipley's face during his last few moments of life, and Joanethis remembered his name. 

Joanethis mailed a photo to Rockroads, in which the two are standing alongside five others. Behind them is the jungle of the Central Highlands, and in front a Viet Cong flag. Rockroads can't say whether all the men in the photo even made it out of Vietnam alive, but having it now and looking at it is its own kind of catharsis. 

“I prayed that I would be able to find my brothers. I would pray in the sweat lodge, and at the Sun Dance, or the peyote meeting or fasting… I guess you don’t ever mention you want to die, that’s not in our culture, but just coming from the standpoint of what I know, now that I’ve finally got to talk to my buddy from 50 years ago, I feel like my life’s complete,” Rockroads said.

Vietnam Voices: Video Playlist

Vietnam veterans talk about their experiences in the Billings Gazette studio.

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