The Price of Freedom

by Nat Harwell

Fifty years after he returned home from the Vietnam War, three-time Purple Heart recipient Gary Price bears physical and emotional wounds that will never fully heal. However, he continues his sacrifice through the tales he lived to tell.

He was a Porterdale River Rat while growing up in Newton County, a scrappy kid who, in the mid-1960s, had but one thought: to join the Marines and serve his country in Vietnam. He was so determined to do so that upon entering the ninth grade, he shut down academically and refused to do his work. Back then, students either passed a grade or repeated it. So it was that he idled away the hours, did virtually nothing and spent four years in the ninth grade awaiting his 18th birthday. 

“I’d have gone sooner,” he said, “but my parents would not sign for me at 17, as they were worried I’d end up in Vietnam.”

Eventually, Jan. 8, 1968 rolled around, and at the famed brick structure on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta known as the Sears, Roebuck and Co. Building, he took the test to enter the United States Marine Corps. He failed. In fact, he scored so low on the test that the recruiter accused him of trying to fail in order to avoid service. However, the earnest plea in the young man’s voice and the dreadful look on his face convinced the recruiter to tear up the test and welcome him to the ranks.

He spent eight weeks at Parris Island in South Carolina—they crammed the normal 12 weeks into eight because of the horrendous losses the Marines were suffering in Vietnam—and followed them with eight more weeks of infantry training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. From there, the Porterdale native boarded a plane for Da Nang, Vietnam in May 1968. He would not return to the United States for more than a year.

Upon reporting for orders, he was met with a cold splash of reality: “You’re in Medevac Mike.” The young soldier snarled: “I ain’t no corpsman; I’m a grunt.” From there, the conversation took a turn. “You don’t get it, bud,” he was told. “You’re in Mike Company, and we call ’em Medevac Mike ’cause so many [of them] are choppered out wounded … or dead.”

In that instant, the River Rat became Gary Price, 1st Marine Division, Reinforced Fleet Marine Force, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, Mike Company. “Right then and there,” Price said, “I realized that maybe, just maybe, I’d bitten off a little more than I could chew.” He could not have known the weight those prophetic words would carry.

“We ran out of ammo, they ran out of ammo and it came down to man against man, hand-to-hand combat using anything you could find as a weapon.”

Vietnam Veteran Gary Price

Those too young to remember the Vietnam War or those unfamiliar with how it was managed might not know that a combat soldier was to spend one year “in country.” There were to be regular breaks for “R&R”—short for “rest and recreation”—as the soldier counted down from 365 days to zero and his time to go home. 

Consider what awaited Price, who was elevated from buck private to corporal in just 11 months due to the attrition rates for Marines. He was in country for 13 months and in mortal combat for 12 of them. In fact, the only time he was not in combat was when he was hospitalized for the three egregious wounds for which he earned three Purple Hearts. In those 12 months of combat, Price took part in 14 major military operations, earning 23 medals for valorous conduct. He was wounded at Quang Nam on Oct. 28, 1968, at Thong Duc on Feb. 24, 1969 and on the Ho Chi Minh Trail on April 12, 1969.

Those old enough to recall President Kennedy in the White House will recognize the locations in which Price served and lived to tell the stories: Quang Tri, Khe Sanh, Hue, Phu Bai, Phu Loc, the Ashua Valley, Gonoi Island, Quang Nam, Thong Duc, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Dak To and Pleiku. Books have been written and movies have been made about those battles, and Price was involved in every one of them. His stories reflect the brutality and sheer inhumanity of warfare. Joseph Lee Galloway, co-author of “We Were Soldiers Once, and Young,” began his book with these words: “Those of us who have seen the face of war, never stop seeing it.”

Price embodies everything at once great and simultaneously terrible about that face of war. It exacted an enormous toll, with tales of valorous conduct by friends who did not make it out alive, with his own body—twisted and scarred from horrendous wounds suffered in the name of freedom—and with an affliction men and women in the armed forces know all too well. More than 50 years after returning home on Aug. 5, 1969, Price continues to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“I have the nightmares still,” he said.

Two years ago, Price began speaking about his experiences for the first time as part of the “I Did It For You” program at George Walton Academy in Monroe. He received a quilt of valor made by the students. Subsequently, his story has been partially told in a Time magazine article, and a book was based on his experiences. Still, PTSD remains a real and present danger to Price, as it does to all who have seen the face of warfare in its most brutal form. However, by talking about it and telling the stories that are not too gruesome for others to hear, he has made the most of the life he was given. 

Of the wounds he suffered physically, Price recalls the first one most vividly. 

“I was choppered to Da Nang, and the operating room was outside under a tree,” he said. “There was no painkiller, no anesthesia of any kind. Four big men held me down while the surgeon operated on my leg, which was split open from crotch to knee; and they couldn’t suture it, as they had to come every day and swab it out with alcohol to let it heal from inside out.”

Seven days later, stitches now in place, Price was sent back into the bush on active combat patrol. Of all the operations in which he took part, he categorized the absolute worst as Gonoi Island. There, 450 Marines were sent in against 9,000 enemy troops.

“We ran out of ammo, they ran out of ammo and it came down to man against man, hand-to-hand combat using anything you could find as a weapon,” Price said. He paused, his head in his hands, before continuing the story. “We lost 270 men in that battle, but they couldn’t take us. By God, they couldn’t take us Marines.” 

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