Unlike so many young men who were trying to avoid wearing a military uniform in the 1960s, Bobbie J. Crowder knew fatigues would remain in his future.
The Alabama native was proud of his rise in rank from the time he re-enlisted in the Army in 1965 while stationed in Germany through his promotion to staff sergeant before his 41-month tour in Europe ended.
Crowder knew he was respected by his commanding officers. The pay was OK. Whether in khaki, camo or olive drab, Army life was lookin' good.
The Vietnam War changed all that.
"I would have made it a career if it hadn't been for the war," said Crowder, 70, of Hammond.
The U.S. had just 900 men in Vietnam in late 1963 when Crowder had first enlisted. As the war escalated, Company 1 of the 58th Infantry Division — Crowder's unit — was among the more than 480,000 who were in country in 1967. There he would receive two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts with one of his wounds hospitalizing him for months, ending his military career.
Of those 480,000-plus troops, a disproportionate number were black, but Crowder harbored no resentment then or now.
"I wasn't thinking about no race thing there," he recalled. "You couldn't. You had to have each other's back. We were all in it together."
Crowder was among some 200 men who were on patrol one day in the Iron Triangle stronghold of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. A sergeant for the point squad, he sensed there was something wrong. He no sooner had alerted his company commander by walkie-talkie that he feared they were in an ambush when the enemy opened fire.
Told to keep moving by his commander, Crowder and the few remnants of the unit were rescued later. He was told once that he was one of eight survivors.
He and a patrol of nine were ambushed one evening when he was shot in the back.
“The back wound wasn't nothing. They just slapped a little patch on that sonofagun. They don’t take you off the field for a little old wound like that. You have to be down for them to take you off.”
Such wounds came less than three days later when a sniper targeted them.
One round opened a gaping hole in Crowder's left side. Another struck his crotch. The squad hid, and despite bleeding and being in pain Crowder kept in communication by walkie-talkie with a nearby company.
"When you get in a situation like that, you don't see no way out," he said. "You can say I’m dead. It’s over with … You don’t see no way out, but once you get out, you know you sure enough are blessed."
Crowder eventually was extricated by helicopter.
His stays in four hospitals covered the better part of a year. His failure to follow his doctor's orders extended his stay overseas by 30 days when he ate a piece of chicken while he was being fed intravenously. The surgery possibly prevented a fatal case of food poisoning.
The 5-foot-10 Crowder had gone from 155 pounds to 95 and his spirits were ebbing, but daily letters from his mother and his wife, Betty, encouraged him. After months of rehab back in the States, Crowder knew he had cheated death again, unlike others he had encountered on the battlefield.
He has no nightmares about his experiences, although he avoids war movies because “they’re too realistic.” He knew other vets who let combat slayings prey on their minds, to their detriment.
As for killing anyone, the deacon at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Hammond says he doesn’t know for sure that he ever did.
“When we fired, we fired altogether,” he noted. “Like if I threw a grenade, others would, too. There would be two or three explosions. I don’t know that the ones who fell were from my grenade.”
The only close friend he lost was a fellow sergeant who had made it known he wouldn’t allow any of his platoon to “smoke no reefers … marijuana.”
“I told him he shouldn’t be saying that,” Crowder recalled, citing how troops who toked up were known to seek revenge on “snitches.”
He didn’t heed Crowder’s advice.
He’s listed as a casualty of war.
While Crowder breaks ranks with that underside of “having each other's backs” philosophy, he resolutely keeps the faith with the Lt. William Calleys of the war, saying he understood their frustration.
Calley was convicted of ordering the slaying of 109 Vietnamese civilians in March 1968 at My Lai.
“The villagers sure could lie,” Crowder recalls. “We’d ask if there were any VC (Viet Cong) there and they’d say .... ‘No, no, no VC here.’ Then you’d go no more than 25 to 100 feet away and they’d have us pinned down.”
Calley, he said, simply went back into the village and “did his thing.”
As he rehabbed from his wounds, learning to walk again at hospitals in Georgia, Crowder knew he likely would be sent back to Vietnam. He had earned his stripes over the long haul, not like the “shake and bake” noncoms who were in the field by 1969.
He didn’t welcome the prospect of going back, primarily because: “To this day, I still don’t know why we were in Vietnam.”
He retired instead, landing a job with Inland Steel when the mill wasn’t hiring. He was never laid off in his 36 years there.
Crowder's son, Anthony, followed his father's lead in the 1990s. He served 10 years, but left, telling his dad there was “too much politics in the Army” for him to make it a career.