Vietnam veteran thankful fellow Marines saved his life

By Julie Fann
Star Staff

For Vietnam War veteran and Elizabethton native, Mike Melton, life is a sacred gift he doesn't take for granted. During a U.S. Marine operation in the Que Son Mountains of Vietnam when he was only 19 years old, Melton received a gunshot wound to the chest that should have been fatal. Instead, he hung on to life. Six hours passed from the time Melton was shot until he received medical help.
   "I should have died that day, and I don't know why I didn't. I'm thankful to my fellow Marines there. I feel sometimes like I lived for some very particular reason because I was so close to death. Like there's something I need to do," he said.
   The day was close to Thanksgiving 1969. Melton was assigned to the Second Platoon, "C" Company, First Battalion, 7th Marines. A machine gun operator, Melton -- called "Tennessee" -- and his platoon had just set up a combat perimeter around lunch time during monsoon season. It was raining. They were on a hill.
   "It seemed to me like there was a couple of enemy who opened up with automatic fire, but, whatever, there was a lot of bullets being fired at us, and when I was hit, I went down and pulled myself back behind my machine gun," he said.
   Melton said his good friend, George Rios, returned fire. "He turned around to see where I was and all I could do was meet his eyes, and he knew I was hit. I just saw red." Rios immediately called out for a medic, who determined Melton was suffering from a "sucking" chest wound because the bullet(s) had penetrated his chest cavity from the front and had exited through his back. The medic applied bandages, and Melton, lying in a pool of his own blood, was moved onto a poncho.
   "They carried me to the middle of the perimeter and, later on, they carried me to a better landing zone so the helicopter could reach me."
   Melton said pain centered around his stomach because his chest was numb. His fellow Marines talked to him constantly, reassuring him, trying to keep him alive. "I was scared. They kept saying, 'Everything's going to be O.K.' I just held on and trusted God and the Marines around me. I'm sure they thought I would die soon after the helicopter reached me, if not before."
   Six hours later, a helicopter arrived and transported Melton to a hospital in Da Nang, where he stayed for a month before being transferred to a Navy hospital in Japan. While he was there, Commandant Gen. Chapman, head of the U.S. Marines, awarded Melton a Purple Heart. "I knew that he was coming, but what I remember most are the other soldiers who were on that ward and who were in worse shape than I was, and I had been critically wounded. Some of them were minus legs," Melton said.
   After spending another month in Japan, Melton was then flown to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and returned home. At the time, he was unaware of the lack of recognition he would receive for serving his country. "I felt good about coming home. I felt like I was maybe coming home a hero, but that wasn't to be, though. It took years for it to sink in to me that my country didn't appreciate what I did."
   Melton went to work for his father who owns Elizabethton Dental Lab. Adjusting to life back home, though, was difficult. "When I first came back, I was used to having a rifle in my hand and being scared. In Vietnam, we were a grunt outfit, combat soldiers. The six months I was there we were out in the field all the time -- that's night and day, and nights were particularly scary. I still have a hard time sleeping at night."
   Melton married Barbara Ellis, also an Elizabethton native and a graduate of East Tennessee State University. The couple now have two sons, Vance, 13, and Dan, 12, both students at T.A. Dugger Junior High School.
   Melton, 52, says he talks to his sons about the war frequently, but he disagrees with how it is taught to them at school. "They bring home books from school that say we lost the war in Vietnam and that it's the only war America has ever lost. I think we accomplished what we were there to do, prevent the threat of Communism in South Vietnam. I think if we had been there longer, it would have escalated into World War III because Communist Russia and Communist China were behind North Vietnam."
   Last fall, Melton's platoon commander at the time he was shot, Lt. Steve Allen, sent e-mail on a Vietnam Web site in an attempt to contact "Tennessee" because he didn't know Melton's birth name. Melton saw the message and responded to Allen, who forwarded an article to him he had written about the day "Tennessee" was shot and that was published in a 1972 issue of a military magazine. "I'm just thankful to Lt. Allen, that he wrote that article. It has given me a lot of peace and needed recognition concerning what happened," Melton said.
   Because doctors diagnosed Melton with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he had to retire from his job at the U.S. Post Office in 1996 after 11 years of employment. Melton says he relives the war every single day, constantly haunted by memories -- an ambush, where approximately 10 of his comrades were killed; a 21-gun salute given in their honor; their helmets hung on the butts of guns lifted in formation; boots on the wet ground.
   Melton is thankful his wife is there to support him and help him deal with the trauma of what happened in Vietnam. "She is very patient. Her father was a war veteran and she had to live with him, so she knows what it's like. She's more understanding than most people would be," he said.
   Melton said he constantly stays "on guard," ready for an emergency. "Sometimes I'll be so scared I scream out or jump, and sometimes I just feel like I'm dying inside. It just takes everything out of me."
   Melton is hurt and angered by the lack of respect and recognition Vietnam veterans receive from the media and anti-war protesters who label them "crazy people" or "baby killers."
   "I just don't understand not being appreciated for what I did and what I gave when I was 19 years old," he said.