ARDMORE – Today is Jackie Sanders’ 68th birthday. His ribs are still sore from the one-car accident he had April 15 but he’s been in tough spots before.
“I hope the rest of my life goes better than this past year has,” the Vietnam veteran said. “And that’s for me and my family.”
Sanders got drafted in September 1969 – “that was back in the days when they could come and get you,” he quipped. He had basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and advanced individual training at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
The infantryman got sent to Vietnam in February 1970 and assigned to Bravo Company, 4th Infantry Division. He first went to Pleiku and within four days was in a convoy en route to An Khe. Three days later he was on a helicopter being sent to a fire base.
“It was six of us new guys,” Sanders said. “You could always tell the new guys. They had on new fatigues.”
When the helicopter began to land, he saw a group of Soldiers waving toward the newcomers. He thought they were greeting their arrival. But actually they were trying to tell the newbies to take cover because the helicopter was under fire.
The next day, the troops were building bunkers when another firefight erupted. Sanders saw Soldiers motioning for him to take cover and he did – but he left his weapon behind.
“My sergeant said, ‘Where’s your weapon?’ I said it’s over there,” Sanders recalled. “I was lucky that day.”
He was doing night guard duty after arriving at the fire base when he said he saw a vision around 2 a.m. he will never forget.
“It looked like an angel appeared in front of me that told me I had nothing to worry about, that I would be taken care of, that I had other purposes in life,” he said. “And then it slowly disappeared.”
Three months later, Sanders got attached to a chemical division out of Fort McClellan. They did airborne personnel detection or “snoopy” missions with helicopters. Sanders spent 11 months in Vietnam.
“It was good times and bad times,” he said. “I’ve had people ask me, ‘How many people did you shoot.’ I said I never counted because if you counted you could become a number. You did what you had to do.”
The self-described country boy from Alabama learned it probably wasn’t prudent to tell the Army induction center folks that he liked camping, hunting and fishing “because they’re going to put you in infantry.”
He and his fellow Soldiers spent July 1970 in Cambodia. He remembers the major enemy offensive that August when they breached the 4th Infantry Division base in An Khe at night and blew up 15 helicopters and two barracks. Sanders earned the Bronze Star that September for his role in a firefight north of An Khe. He fired his machine gun while hanging from a bungee cord attached to a helicopter.
Sanders spent his last two weeks in Vietnam providing security for the covered food storage in Da Nang.
“Basically the people I was with and the people I was around,” he said of what he most remembers from Vietnam. “How well everybody did and how everybody watched each other’s back. You had some good times. Basically it was dealing with bad times and how you dealt with that together. There were bad times.”
He got sent to Alaska where he would stay five months. He left the Army as a specialist 4 in August 1971.
Sanders got married and he used his veteran’s benefits to attend trade school and became a welder. He retired in 2012 after 25 years with Accurate Machine and Tool in Madison.
He and his wife of 45 years, Connie, have a son, Jason of Ardmore, daughter, Heather Troupe of Madison County, and four grandchildren. Remembering his angel vision in Vietnam, he said of taking in the children of his wife’s late sister, “I think that was my purpose.”
Editor’s note: This is the 131st in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.