‘I’m a lucky, lucky person’
Published 6:00 am Tuesday, March 9, 2021
James Wooten Jr., 76, walks with a limp and has fought diabetes after returning from two years of duty in Vietnam in 1967, but he is happy to be one of the fortunate ones who made it home.
“I am a lucky, lucky person,” Wooten said while thinking back on his close calls with death halfway across the globe.
“I almost got killed about seven times,” the Buckingham County resident said, crediting Jesus for bringing him home safely. “I had some close calls. A lot of it, I really don’t like to talk about.”
Wooten told about the time he was part of a convoy, and the first truck hit a land mine. Wooten was in the third truck of the convoy.
“This bothered me for many years,” Wooten said. “It was where I was in line. It could have been me that got killed that day.”
Wooten’s only injuries in Vietnam came from exposure to Agent Orange, the tactical herbicide that was used to clear vegetation in the thick jungles of Vietnam. The chemical caused his diabetes and the nerve damage in his left leg and foot, resulting in his limp and inability to walk for long distances.
“I’m so lucky I only got it in my legs. I could have gotten it in my lungs, but I don’t think I did,” he said.
The Central High School graduate was working as a timekeeper for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) in 1965 when the letter stating he had been selected for service in the Army arrived in his mailbox. Wooten said he was not disappointed or upset. He saw it as his duty to serve his country.
“It’s something you have to do for your country,” he said. “You get a letter that says, ‘Greetings, you have been accepted,’ and that’s where it starts,” Wooten said.
Wooten was more accepting of his fate than his parents.
“With the Vietnam War going on, they weren’t very happy, but it was something that had to be done,” he said.
The first battle the 20-year-old Wooten fought was homesickness. Having never traveled away from his family or very far outside Buckingham County, Wooten found himself in a very different environment.
“Being from the country like me, I never went anywhere far from home. I want to tell you right now, the homesickness really got to me,” Wooten said.
Basic training was in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Then it was to radio relay and carrier school in Fort Gordon, Georgia, then to Colorado for six months before landing in Pleiku, Vietnam. Wooten was a member of the signal corps. His job was to aid communications for the troops as part the 459th Signal Battalion. He worked in a high rise in Pleiku that had been abandoned by the French. But it was not out of the range of enemy mortar fire.
“They hit us about every night with mortar fire. We had bunkers outside of the building to get in,” Wooten said. “But that didn’t mean you were safe. You just hoped one of those didn’t come in and hit you.”
Wooten was stationed in Pleiku his entire tour but was sent out in the country once where he met Sergeant Puckett from Roanoke.
“He adopted me as his son. I didn’t hardly have to do anything,” Wooten said. “He treated me absolutely superb.”
Wooten made it home in July 1967, back to the parents he left two years earlier and the job with VDOT, the same job his father held before him. He would work there another 28 years before retiring in 1995. He got married after he returned and had three children.
“They say we lost the war, but we really didn’t. We did our part,” Wooten said.
He said he didn’t fully understand what was happening in the U.S. while he was in Vietnam but now understands what the war was about.
“It was more or less a political war. There was a lot of politics involved in that war,” Wooten said. “We didn’t keep up with the news or know what was going on back here. After the war, everybody realized it was a political war. They really shouldn’t have sent us over there. It was a mistake.”
Although Wooten rarely travels, he did take a bus tour to see the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. It was an experience that brought forth lots of memories and emotions from his time in the war.
“I walked up to it, and I got so emotional. They had to drag me back to the bus,” he said. “I just couldn’t take it. I lost it. They had to drag me back to the bus screaming.”
Wooten said he knows quite a few of the people whose names are inscribed on the wall.
“A lot of my friends did not make it,” he said. “I am a lucky, lucky person.”
To see the full Salute to Veterans edition click here.