Turner Jackson was 21 when he left Columbus, headed for the jungles of Vietnam. As a young black man, the first lesson he had to learn was trust.
It didn’t come easily. When he was 14, he and some friends were captured by Ku Klux Klansmen and nearly killed, he said, fueling an early distrust of whites.
But when Jackson stepped off the plane at South Vietnam’s Bien Hoa Air Base in April 1969, he realized he was in an entirely new reality. In a place that “smelled like death,” those he had once feared became those he entrusted with his life. They became friends.
As much as he depended on them, they depended on him. When he was walking point, leading his fellow soldiers as they advanced into enemy territory, he was tasked with the solemn duty of risking his life for the safety of his unit, the United States Army’s 101st Airborne Division Battalion 2/506.
He also learned to trust himself.
As he spoke Thursday afternoon at the Columbus Municipal Complex to a crowd of veterans and their families, he noted that from the moment he arrived in Vietnam, he wanted one thing: to get into his first firefight. Trained as a “grunt,” the anxiety of the unknown was eating him alive.
“You want to get that firefight over in a quick hurry as soon as possible, where you can get the fear out of you,” he said.
On his unit’s first patrol recovery mission, they were ambushed and his hunch proved correct: his fear dissipated as soon as the bullets began flying. His training kicked in and he realized he knew exactly what to do and how to do it. Fear, he realized, could not only cost his life but also the lives of others.
He was one of many from Columbus who went to serve his country, and he knows he was fortunate that, of the numerous young men who left from Southside, he was one of the lucky ones who came home.
Two friends — Sylvester Ellis, who grew up on Pickensville Road, and Roy Lee Henley, who was raised on 10th Avenue South — did not return. Ellis, 22, died in May 1970, five months after arriving. Henley, 21, died in September 1968, seven months after his arrival.
Jackson lost a lot of friends during the war, many on Hill 937, colloquially known as “Hamburger Hill.”
He came home, but the learning experiences did not end.
He had heard that large cities were holding parades for returning veterans, even giving them money. But that wasn’t his experience, nor was it the experience of many, if not most, Vietnam veterans.
One soldier returned home to California and hitchhiked to Columbus, enduring people spitting, cursing and throwing bottles at him, said Wayne White, founder of the Columbus War Museum and the organizer of Thursday’s event. The young man was so upset, he hid in the woods and removed his uniform, donning civilian clothes.
“That’s a hard thing, to fight for your country and come home and be spat at,” White said.
Jackson had a similar experience when he flew into Jackson from Fort Bliss, Texas.
“We went (to Vietnam) in good faith, like good soldiers,” Jackson said. “But what threw me when I came back home — this was the killer — there was no love shown. It was like we had went and committed something — not of our own choosing — like we had committed a crime of some sort.”
He went into more detail after the program: “I had my uniform on, and man, them cats was like (White) said. They spat at you and everything else. There were no exceptions. It was very ugly.”
He arrived at the Columbus bus station, then located near the Gilmer Hotel, and walked over to Catfish Alley, where he caught a taxi and returned to Southside and his childhood neighborhood, where people were glad to see him.
“I was a young man when I went to Vietnam,” Jackson said. “I somehow grew up in Vietnam in the year to year-and-a-half I was there. It took a lot out of me, but it gave me a lot — the knowledge and experience that would take me through life. That experience still pays off today.”
There are things he will not talk about.
“You still remember; there are parts you still remember,” he said softly. “You’ll never forget. Every Vietnam vet’s got a different story he can tell you, because we weren’t all in the same location. Every one probably has a different story to tell.”
Jackson intends to spend Memorial Day with his family, grilling out, remembering the fallen and enjoying the beauty of freedom.
“This is my country,” he said. “This is the only country I know. And I think we (veterans) deserve to have respect and support.”
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.