The late Bob Jewell (1946-2017) served 14 months of combat duty in Vietnam, surviving numerous firefights and ambush patrols. Jewell faced impending death multiple times during his service, from the Battle of Kam Duc, to nearly drowning while swimming in the South China Sea.
After graduating from Great Falls Central High in 1965, two years later he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Jewell arrived at Chu Lai, in January 1968.
He then joined Fire Base Ross, 40 miles northwest of the Americal Division HQ, serving with Charlie Company 2/1, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment. One week after the start of the Tet Offensive, Bob was part of a group of replacements for Charlie Company’s heavy casualty losses from three weeks earlier, which left just 17 men from about 130.
Assigned to the 2nd platoon, early on during Jewell’s tour, he experienced two of the many episodes that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
When it came his squad’s time to share the point man, on a mission to “Pinkville” – real name My Lai – the best soldier in the group, one “Shorty” Baumbach, took Bob’s turn up front. Baumbach stepped on a booby trap, blinding him and losing both of his hands in the blast.
“A lifetime seed of guilt had been planted, I’ve never gotten over that day,” Jewell wrote in his 2011 book, Bleeding Spirits.
Jewell killed his first North Vietnamese soldier on just his 10th day afield.
The majority of his In Country memories were repressed for decades, until undergoing extensive counseling. Twenty years later, his poem “Two Hearts Racing” of that initial encounter “began my quest for recovery.”
Of Jewell’s three combat wounds, his Purple Heart was awarded after an explosion of an anti-tank RPG.
“For what seemed like seconds, I felt like I was floating. Then I felt myself crunching into the ground on my right shoulder,” he wrote.
Jewell sustained a chunk of nickel-sized jagged shrapnel in his left forearm all the way to the bone, and a needle-like piece in his throat. He was Medevaced to the base MASH tent, where they removed 16 pieces of shrapnel from his body. A 17th piece was left behind his ear.
He was back in combat 3-4 days later.
Other notable episodes took place after he transferred to Delta Company of the Division’s 4/21, 11th Infantry Brigade. Once while on point, he miraculously came away unscathed despite being isolated in the crossfire of two NVA machine gun snipers just 30 yards away.
During another intense firefight, Sgt. Jewell became trapped in his shallow, muddy foxhole when a dead soldier fell on top of him, pinning his M16 between their bodies. As the enemy overran the position, and were shooting Americans in their foxholes, an NVA soldier pointed his rifle at Jewell momentarily before moving on.
Originally nicknamed “Twiggy” because of his long eyelashes, Jewell eventually became such a fearless squad leader, his peers called him “Sgt. Rock.”
“I morphed into a blood-thirsty hired gun, complete with seven notches on my rifle – small stick figures of confirmed Cong drawn on my M16’s stock,” he wrote.
After his discharge, Jewell went on to become an earth science teacher at Helena Junior High/Middle School, and then an HHS school counselor. He retired in 2002, after 30-year career in the Helena School District.
His decades-long battle with PTSD included a six-week inpatient program at the psyche ward of Boise’s VA Hospital.
“…War chooses no favorites, it only chooses death,” Jewell penned. “War is not glory, it is only hell.”
Curt Synness, a Navy veteran, can be reached at 594-2878 or by email at email@example.com. He’s also on Twitter @curtsynness_IR
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