Battle Creek VA Medical Center
Honoring Vietnam Veteran Thornell Billinslea
Every year on March 29 we thank and honor our nation’s Vietnam Veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice during National Vietnam War Veterans Day. During the war, 2.7 million Americans from all over the country answered the call to through enlistments or the draft to serve in Vietnam. 58,000 of those are memorialized on the National Memorial in Washington D.C. and over 3,750 were listed as Prisoners of War or Missing in Action. Thornell Billingslea is one of the 850,000 Vietnam Veterans still living today, and this is his story.
Billingslea grew up in a mixed neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan in the 1950s. The oldest of six children, he remembers a simple, but comfortable life. “Families were a lot closer back then,” said Billingslea. “My father was a career Soldier and I didn’t know what a shower was until high school,” he joked about sharing the bath water, “but we always had food on our table.” Billingslea grew up playing little league baseball, football, basketball and attended many Tiger’s baseball games. “Sports was an escape from the gangs,” said Billingslea. “From high school basketball, to the Fireman’s baseball league; I even tried out for the Detroit Tiger’s once.”
Billingslea graduated from Pershing High School in 1965, and got a job at Chrysler corporation in Hamtramck, then was drafted to the U.S. Army a year later. “Military Service was just something that happened in our family,” recalled Billingslea. “I had eight uncles and a father who served in the military. Four served during WWII, and one served in Korea. When my name came up in the draft, I considered it my turn.”
“I was drafted the same day as four of my classmates,” Billingslea continued. “The Army was looking for volunteers for Airborne School and my hand went up. That meant I was headed to Ft. Gordon in Georgia.” Billingslea completed 11B Infantry School and continued through Airborne training where he ran into a Lieutenant who recognized his name. “The LT found out that my father was an instructor at the MP School and dropped me for pushups every time he saw me after that.”
Billingslea’s first assignment was with A company, 2nd Battalion in the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate), and by February 1967, he was part of the only combat parachute jump of the Vietnam War. “Nobody from my company got hit during the jump, but one guy got stuck in a tree and had to be pulled out by helicopter,” he recalled. Billingsley’s Company conducted regular patrols to block North Vietnamese Army incursions around Junction City, Xuan Loc, and the Mekong Delta. “I was hit by enemy fire twice that spring. Once on right forearm and once in the knee. They patched me up and I went right back out.”
In May, after a brief R&R in Taipei, Thailand, Billingslea was sent to Dak-To in the central highlands during Operation Greeley. Company A was emplaced near Hill 1338 during the battle on June 22. “’The Battle of the Slopes’ was a very long day,” recalled Billingslea. “Our company lost 79 men that day, and another 23 were wounded. I made it through, and on June 29th was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor. It was completely unexpected.” His award (shown here) was presented to him on his twentieth birthday by General William Westmoreland.
Billingslea returned to duty until July 9th when he was injured again. “We were entrenched on a hill and received mortar fire, said Billingslea. “Our foxhole got hit, and shrapnel tore up my left arm. They transported me out, and just like that, I was headed back to the states.” He spent nine months rehabilitating at Valley Forge hospital in Pennsylvania and had his first experience with anti-war protestors. “There I was in uniform with my arm in a cast, and a protester spit on me. I would’ve been arrested for defending myself if a couple of witnesses hadn’t interceded with the police.”
Billingslea couldn’t hold a weapon anymore, so he was transferred to Ft. Knox, Kentucky where he was put on staff duty at the recreation room, playing music for the other Soldiers. He met a high school buddy who had been sent to 1st Battalion who was also injured, and they spent their weekends in Louisville.
Billingslea went back home to Detroit in the fall of 1967, found a job and eventually went to college. He was able to play basketball again in the summer leagues, and even played against the Detroit Pistons. His old girlfriend didn’t stick around, but because of their military history, his family was always supportive, and understood what it meant to carry on after combat. Billingslea eventually married and had two girls and two boys.
He visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. once and it had an emotional effect on him. “I put off going to see the names of my buddies on that wall,” recalled Billingslea. “When I did finally go it was raining, and the wall looked like it was crying. Seeing each name on that wall brought me back to a moment I spent with each one. Memories of guys I hadn’t even thought of were pouring out of the wall.”
Billingslea retired from BASF in 2002 and volunteers for Vet-2-Vet and the West Michigan Veterans Assistance Program. He spends lots of time with his nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, coaching them in basketball. He still attends reunions with the 18 surviving members of Company A and says that staying busy is crucial. “No matter what you go through in life, you’ve got to hang in there, find some comrades and talk with them, face-to-face or on the phone. You may want to put your military service behind you, but you need to get out every day and do something, or those memories will catch back up to you.”
We owe a great deal of gratitude to our Veterans, and as we celebrate National Vietnam War Veterans Day, we’d like to tell Billingslea and our other Vietnam Veterans “Welcome Home.”