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Back to Vietnam

When Tony May boards a plane at the Medford airport Wednesday morning, he will be heading to a distant land he hasn't seen for more than 40 years.

"I'm apprehensive — very apprehensive," acknowledged May, 61, a retired teacher living in Phoenix. "I'm not sure how I'm going to react."

After all, he is still carrying a souvenir from his first trip to what is now Vietnam: a 7.62 mm bullet from an AK-47 rifle lodged against his spinal column high in his neck.

The former Army corporal is among 10 veterans, all wounded during the Vietnam War, whose names were selected in a national drawing by the Veterans of Foreign Wars to return to the country where they were wounded. The 10-day trip is being paid for by the Charles Kahle Fund, a trust dedicated to providing special opportunities for wounded veterans.

May was notified early in December he had been chosen to make the trip as a guest of the VFW. The trip includes airfare, accommodations, meals and tours of Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta, the tunnels of Cu Chi, Hue, Hoi An, Marble Mountain and China Beach.

"I'm apprehensive but I'm excited at the same time," he said. "I know the country has changed a lot since I was there." As has May, who was drafted in summer 1967 while a second-year college student in the Los Angeles area.

May arrived in South Vietnam in February 1968. Forty years

(see correction note below) ago this month he was deployed to the field where he joined Bravo Company, part of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.

The former student's life became a series of firefights and endless meals of C rations.

"I got so I could come up with some real interesting recipes," he recalled. "My mom would send me stuff and I'd pour it over the bread from the C rations to make Sloppy Joes."

Those unique GI meals ended in the mountainous Que Son Valley halfway between Da Nang and Chu Lai on Sept. 16, 1968.

Ironically, May was hit while looking forward to a relatively quiet day back at base camp. His platoon was assigned to guarding camp while two other platoons went out on patrol. It should have been a good day, he said.

"I was going to write some letters and eat," he said. "I remember walking out to the well to shave when they opened up from the ridgeline around us. I didn't have my weapon (M-16 rifle) with me. Brilliant.

"I reached for my weapon and — bingo!" he added. "It was like getting hit with a baseball bat."

The bullet slammed into the right side of his head on a downward trajectory.

"They thought I was dead because I had a hole right here in my head," he said, pointing to a spot just below his right temple.

"I remember being happy I was still alive," he said. "But then I started throwing up blood — blood was going into my stomach from my cut jugular. That was scaring me a tad."

He was taken by helicopter to the 95th Evacuation Hospital in Da Nang.

"The doc told me if I had been 15 minutes later I would have died from loss of blood," he said.

The bullet ripped down the right side of his head, cutting the jugular vein before lodging in his neck. Because of nerve damage, he couldn't swallow. For months, he was fed through a tube threaded down through his nasal cavity to his stomach.

The wound left him deaf in his right ear and with a permanent stiff neck.

Yet it didn't hurt his sense of humor.

"The bullet is still there — I just stay away from airport security," he quipped.

"I'm growing this on purpose so I fit in when I get to Vietnam," he added, referring to his goatee, similar to one worn by Viet Cong leader Ho Chi Minh during the war.

"I understand the mosquitoes are still there, and that they still have malaria," he said, noting he plans to take plenty of insect repellent.

While May has a quick sense of humor, the former teacher is serious about learning as much as he can from the land where he was nearly killed in 1968. He plans to check out opportunities to eventually work in Vietnam as a part-time teacher.

"I've been pretty lucky," he said. "I skipped over the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I missed that chapter. Mostly I just went on with my life.

"I'm proud of my service," he added. "My experience in the military was where I decided I wanted to become a teacher."

May has never forgotten the people with whom he served. When his son was born in 1986, he was named David Carroll May after a buddy the senior May served with in Vietnam.

In addition to bringing back some Vietnam dirt to give to GIs he served with, the former infantryman plans to try to find a Vietnamese named Thi Binh Minh who hailed from the coastal town of Tam Ky.

"He was our 'Kit Carson' — our scout," May said. "I'm sure they captured him and killed him but I have to try to find him."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Correction: The original version of this story made reference to an incorrect number of years. This version has been corrected.

Veteran Tony May is returning to Vietnam later this week. He was shot in the head during the war and the bullet is still lodged in his neck. - Bob Pennell