"I wasn't going to die, at least not there." A Nebraska soldier remembers Vietnam

Jim Gordon at True Stories Live, May 2017 (Photo: David Martin)
1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam, April 1967 (Photo courtesy 1st Cavalry Division Museum)
Gordon (right) and others at basic training, 1966. (Provided by Jim Gordon)
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September 13, 2017 - 6:45am

Sometimes the stories of the long-ago Vietnam War walk right past us.

Jim Gordon, traveling with the Vietnam veteran's Honor Flights, stands before the United States Marine Corps War Memorial. (Photo Courtesy Jim Gordon)

St. Christopher,
the Star of David,
and Jim Gordon

Jim Gordon has worn the medallions from two faiths since 1966. (Photo: Karen Kilgaren)

A friend of Jim Gordon’s gave him the news they had both been drafted. Their reaction was to take a road trip to Mexico before reporting for duty.

In Mazatlán, one of the shopkeepers learned the young men were heading to Vietnam.  

“I have a nephew in the military in the United states,” and she asked them to wait.

When she returned “in her hand were two Saint Christopher medals,” Gordon recalled “She gave each of us one and said ‘I want you to have your parish priest bless these because you’re going in harm’s way.”

“What I didn’t have the heart to tell her was, I’m Jewish.”

When Gordon returned to Lincoln he asked a Catholic friend what to do They went to St Teresa's parish and the priest gave the medallions his blessing.

“I put mine on a chain,” Gordon said, adding “Because I was going into the military I also had a Star of David for the Jewish faith, and I also had a Mezuzah.

“I thought if anything is going to protect me, these will.”

Months later, when Gordon lay wounded, awaiting the army medic, he remembered the chain and pendants he took into battle.

“I didn't know whether I was going to live or die and I just thought I better take what chances I could to make it live. I had my Mezuzah, my star of David and my St. Christopher medal and I just squeezed as hard as I could. I said, I think I said it aloud, "God, don't let me die here." All I remember is, I didn't hear it, I felt it. His words. "I won't let you die here." And that's all it took. After that I could do anything but I knew that I wasn't going to die, at least not there.”

“I still have them. I wear them every day.”

A familiar figure in Lincoln and a frequent visitor to the Nebraska State Capitol, Jim Gordon has the distinctive look of a statesman of a different era. Swept-back hair, impressive mutton chop sideburns and always accompanied by a brass-topped walking stick to compensate for a slight limp.

The lawyer and mediator recently shared the story of how that cane became a necessity. The occasion was the 2017 Memorial Day edition of True Stories-Live, where people share the meaningful events in their lives before a live audience.

In his own words, this is Jim Gordon’s story.

Lincoln, Nebraska, 1966

I was planning on being a doctor but I got a two in Math 14 and Math 18, and kind of destroyed my grade point average. I decided that what I should probably do is go to work. It wasn't long before Uncle Sam realized that I was no longer in school and my deferment was gone, and they came knocking at my door.

I was first assigned to an armor base at Fort Knox, Kentucky and so I learned about armor and I learned about tank radios and I learned about communications. I learned about tank tactics. When I got my orders for Vietnam they told me I was going to the air cavalry as a radioman. A tank radio would fill the trunk of your car. The thing they gave me was about the size of a child's lunch pail. And I said, "You've got to be kidding!" They said, "No, that's your radio. You're going to keep in touch. You're going to be the communications wavelength for a company in the field."

South Vietnam, 1967

In the next 30 days we went on 31 combat assaults. Every time they called us out for a combat assault it means we were going into an area which was already ‘hot.’ There were already people being killed. There were already people being wounded. There were already people in harm's way.

The first time I was really frightened we were on one side of what I would call a very steep hill and we were going up that traverse. The fellow beside me happened to be a grenadier. He had a grenade launcher. The name of a grenade launcher in Vietnam was ‘Thumper’ because that's the sound it made when that rocket went out. That rocket would go downrange and would do something terrible for somebody.

We were walking up this incline and I saw something move and I saw a flash, and the next thing I knew Terry Broumley, my grenadier, was tumbling over backwards.

I fired back at whatever had hit him and I saw a body come out of that place, that area. Got back to Terry and he was bleeding out. He was bleeding through his fatigues. And I said to myself, "I've got to get him out of here. I have to be able to get him out of here." And I couldn't. I couldn't lift him. I was struggling with him.

He breathed his last and he was gone. I knew there was nothing more that I could do for him other than to mark the place where he died so they (could) recover his body, hopefully, later on.

We were still there. He dead and I still alive but wondering if I was going to make it.

(The air cavalry) brought in our helicopters, our gunships, and they started to fire. It went on like that for several rounds. Each time one of the helicopters came in to fire their missiles. (The crew would maneuver the chopper into place and take aim on the target.) The rockets would start firing, start firing, start firing.

Well, the Viet Cong weren't stupid. They waited for that to happen about two or three times. About the fourth time one of those helicopters came around (the Viet Cong) fired back even before the rockets could begin to be fired. Hit the helicopter.

Helicopters are unstable without being shot up and this one was starting to go down. I could see it starting to tumble and I thought, "Oh, this is not good." At that point that the rockets on either side of that helicopter began coming out of their containers and they're coming down, coming down, coming down.

The next thing I knew I couldn't hear, I couldn't see, I couldn't feel my right foot, I didn't know where I was but I had been hit by the shrapnel from one of those rockets.

It started out on the right side of my right foot, up my right leg, my right thigh, my buttocks, my right arm, my right hand, shrapnel in my right eye. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what was going to happen.

Medical Evacuation

Jim Gordon, 1966. (Courtesy Photo)

Gordon (right) training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. (Courtesy Photo)

Fortunately, we had medical corpsman who are more fearless than anybody I'd ever known. (A medic) came to me and he said, "I'm going to get you out of here. We'll get you out of here."

After I heard that I was going to be mobile I tried to stand up and it was like a cartoon character. I'm looking this way and my foot's pointing that way, and I just passed out. I mean I don't know whether it was the shock of seeing it or the shock of understanding.

The next thing I knew, our medic was back and he's giving me a shot of morphine. He'd already given me the one up above and now he's giving me another. And I'm think, "Oh, this is pretty good. I don't know where I am and I don't care. I just don't care."

The last thing I remember is that they had gotten me down to the hill where one of our med-evac choppers was. I remember them sliding me onto the floor of the chopper and I remember the door closing behind me. I don't remember much of anything. I woke up in a battalion aid station. I don't know how many miles (I was) from where I'd started.

When first I realized something was happening a medical corpsman was cutting off my boot. I thought, "That's strange. Why would he cut off my boot?" then I realized that had he pulled my boot off my foot would've come off with it.

That was the beginning of a recovery that took months. I lost count of the surgeries.

Years Later

Terry Broumley was the grenadier. He died in my arms.

We had no way of finding out who he was or where he came from. I knew he'd come from somewhere in the south but I didn't know what city; what town. But his name was a peculiar spelling, B-R-O-U-M-L-E-Y, Broumley. And so I started beginning to see if there was a Broumley here, a Broumley there or a Broumley wherever. And no, no.

After several weeks of trying I made a call to someone whose name was very close to his and a young woman answered and I said, "Ma'am, you don't know who I am. My name is Jim Gordon. I'm calling just to let you know that I was with your brother when he died."

Without the least bit of anger, she said, "I only wish my mother were alive to hear that." She said, "Thank you."

And that was the end of that conversation.

I've never forgotten it. If I've ever done anything for (the benefit of) any one person or one family, it was probably to let her know that when her brother died there was somebody with him and they cared enough to call.

That's when I began to realize you don't have to be anything other than real and honest with yourself to make things happen for other people. I guess I've lived that.

The Rest of the Story

Sally and Merle Gordon, visit Jim at the Colorado army hospital. (Courtesy Photo)

Jim Gordon was airlifted to Japan for his first round of surgeries. Later he was shipped stateside where he spent 17 months under the care of doctors and nurses at the Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Aurora, Colorado.

Surgeons were able to save his right leg, however the injuries require Jim to walk with a cane to this day.

Gordon is a recipient of the Purple Heart and was awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge for participating in more than 30 combat assaults.

After returning to Lincoln, Gordon earned his bachelor’s degree in 1972 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He added a law degree in 1974. As a certified senior law student in 1973 he was able to set up his own private practice. He continues to practice law and serves as a certified mediator.

Editor's Note

An earlier version of the online version of this story a photo caption, the writer misidentified the United States Marine Corps War Memorial. We regret the error and welcome our readers feedback to assure our accuracy.



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