At 17 he was the youngest of nine children on a farm in Maryland. He joined the Army like his three brothers did before him.
“I was the youngest left at home,” Vietnam veteran Tommy Shorter said. “I was trying to get away from that work, jumped right into the fire.”
Shorter entered the Army on June 18, 1964, a day after graduating from Kennard High School in Centreville, Maryland. He had basic training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and advanced individual training at Fort Lee, Virginia.
He went to Vietnam in December 1966 with the 9th Infantry Division, Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry. They were stationed in Dong Tan in the Mekong Delta.
“Rice paddies and jungle,” Shorter said laughing. His job was infantry fire team leader and point man. There was combat every day.
“Combat was pretty regular. Just about every time we went out we usually ran into some action, some type of action,” he said.
Some of his battle buddies didn’t survive. “Too many to mention. You tried not to get too close,” he said.
On April 7, 1967, at 11 a.m. he was walking point when his unit was returning to their base camp from an ambush. Shorter stepped on a bobby trap and was severely injured by the exploding hand grenades.
He had damage to both upper arms, his right knee, lower extremities and some facial and throat injuries. He was medically evacuated, shipped to Japan and then to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in his native Maryland. He spent six months in Walter Reed and another six months in the VA medical center in Washington, D.C. He was medically discharged from the Army as a corporal in 1971.
Shorter said he remembers Vietnam’s hot, humid weather and the putrid smell. He also remembers the leeches. “Bloodsucking leeches, those things would eat you up,” he said.
A woman told him at the VA in Birmingham that she visited Vietnam last year and saw where that Dong Tan area had been turned into a zoo with exotic animals. Shorter said he doesn’t want to go back for a visit.
His awards included the Good Conduct Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Combat Infantry Badge, and the Purple Heart.
After the Army he worked five years for Chrysler Corporation in Newark, Delaware, until his disabilities got the best of him. He is 100% disabled and retired.
Shorter shakes his head while describing how service members were treated in the U.S. when they returned from Vietnam, particularly black veterans like himself.
“Pretty bad. You were denied a lot of stuff, apartments, during that time. Places to eat, sleep. A lot of segregation then. And if you were a black Soldier, if you had been to Vietnam, you were low man on the totem pole,” he said. “You go to the bank to get a loan, you had the highest interest rates. You had to sign away your first born to get that. Right in Maryland, my hometown, home state. And then if you went further south than Virginia, you’d get in in the daylight. No traveling at night.”
He and his wife of 45 years, Vera, a retired master sergeant, reside in Harvest. She retired from the Army in 2004 at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, after 23 years and nine months. She was a Soldier at Fox Army Health Center at Redstone from 2001-03 and then returned to Fox as a civilian from 2005-16. She finished her career as the physical evaluation board liaison officer.
The couple have three children, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Their son, Aaron, the oldest, resides in Chestertown, Maryland. Tonya lives in Huntsville. And the youngest daughter, Zita, resides in Millington, Maryland.
Shorter likes working on cars and playing cards. He belongs to the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Vietnam Veterans of America, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, the Retired Enlisted Association, and the Non Commissioned Officers Association.
“At my age (73) I’m surprised and thankful that I’m still here,” he said. “I look in the obituaries in the Vietnam paper and see 69 to 71. As far as vets dying, that’s their life span. It ain’t too many of us left.”
Editor’s note: This is the 261st in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.