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Vietnam vet Mike Heaney to share his war experiences

This photograph is of Lt. Mike Heaney and a member of the Vietnamese Veterans’ Organization standing at the site where Heaney’s platoon was ambushed in May of 1966. (Courtesy photo). (click for larger version)
November 05, 2009
SPRINGFIELD — A light kind of emptiness.

That's how veteran Mike Heaney of Hartland, Vt., described his feelings upon returning to Vietnam 42 years after losing several men in his platoon during a 1966 ambush.

"The feelings I had are almost impossible to describe," Heaney said. "It wasn't a sense of foreboding or calamity; it was a feeling of hyper-alertness. Everything started to fall into place like I'd been there yesterday."

During a small ceremony, Heaney buried a 1st Calvary lapel pin at the site of the ambush to honor the fallen soldiers, both American and Vietnamese, who lost their lives in the Vietnam War.

"I felt a good kind of emptiness," Heaney said. "I was able to say goodbye to my men and thank them for waiting for me all these years."

Heaney explained that the Vietnamese uphold a belief that if dead people are not found or cremated, their spirits wander the earth endlessly as "screaming souls" that can be heard in the night.

"I can relate to that," Heaney said. "I had to go back there so my guys could be at peace."

Heaney served in the U.S. Army as an infantry platoon leader with the 1st Calvary Division for roughly five months between 1965 and 1966.

"Mostly we did the usual stuff like going on long range patrols trying to make contact with enemy soldiers," Heaney recalled.

He will speak about his experiences at the Nolin Murray Center Tuesday.

The 1st Calvary's most catastrophic encounter came on May 17, 1966 when the 125 man company was ambushed by an estimated Vietnamese regiment of 250 soldiers in the Central Highland area of the country.

"My platoon was the lead platoon at the head of the company's front column," Heaney said. "I was about the seventh or eighth position and 10 men were immediately killed around me in less than one minute."

When asked how he survived the attack, Heaney credits a bit of divine intervention as the primary cause for his survival.

"If I ever go to heaven I'll ask God why he spared me."

"We were very lucky that only the lead portion of the company got ambushed," Heaney continued. "The enemy had set up to ambush the whole company, but one of my guys saw one of them prematurely and fired."

After the initial ambush, a 20-hour siege followed.

"My medic, my radio man and my forward observer were all killed," Heaney said. "During our final assault our company's area was barraged with mortars and I got hit with a piece of shrapnel that tore a hole right through my right calf."

Luckily, Heaney's injury occurred only half an hour before the battle's end and he was able to use another soldier's compress to slow the bleeding.

"The enemy's soldiers were disciplined, courageous and very aggressive and all of us were scared out of our wits, but we fought back," Heaney said. "After that initial horror we didn't suffer any more losses in my platoon."

Another miracle came when U.S. soldiers were able to take out the enemy's mortar position by pinpointing its location through sound triangulation.

"If the mortars had continued I think we would have been annihilated," Heaney said.

After more than 20 hours of relentless battling, army reinforcements were able to stop the fight. Heaney spent the next 3 months recovering from his wound in various hospitals overseas.

"I was fighting a very horrendous infection that had became gangrenous and they almost had to amputate my leg," Heaney said. Eventually, he made a full recovery, although Heaney still walks with a slight limp to this day.

While he'd always wanted to return to the site of the battle, it wasn't until last year that he finally made a fated journey back to Vietnam.

"I just kind of traipsed around all the old haunts in the Central Highlands and then I decided to reach out to the Vietnamese Veteran organization."

The organization even held a luncheon for Heaney and escorted him to the site of the 1966 ambush.

"Here again was the hand of God," Heaney said.

After coming full circle — even having the chance to make amends with the Vietnamese soldiers that had fought opposite him during the war — Heaney said he continues to give talks on his war experiences to raise awareness of the visceral horrors of war.

"Most people don't need to be told this, but war affects not just the soldier, but every single person he's intimate with," Heaney said. "While I'm not a pacifist, I believe the cost of war should be faced and taken into consideration anytime we're thinking about entering into one. We should exhaust all other avenues before turning to violence because it's never a clean solution."

On Tuesday, Nov. 10 at 2 p.m. in the Nolin Murray Center off Pleasant Street, Heaney will present the program, "The Road to Vinh Thanh: A Veteran Returns to Vietnam."

Heaney will show slides taken throughout his journey and share the story that shaped his life.

"It seems to me to be a lot more positive now that I can tell the second chapter of my story," Heaney said. "It's much more reconciling."

Heaney's presentation is being hosted by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute—a membership program affiliated with the University of Vermont.

Non-members are encouraged and welcome to attend the event for an individual fee of $8.

Martin Lord & Osman
Varney Smith
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