With bullets flying around his head, pole lineman Burnie Coats knew it would be the last time he climbed up a utility tower to repair the lighting that helped to provide security at Firebase Quang Tri, near the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone.
It was late 1970, and Coats had spent nearly a year ensuring the lights stayed on, first, at Firebase Sally and, when it got overrun by the North Vietnamese, at Firebase Quang Tri.
“We used light in our compound to keep the Vietcong from coming in. We had to be able to see at night to defend our compound,” recalled Coats, who now works as a civilian in telecommunications at the Army Materiel Command’s G-2/6, headquarters. “We were the largest concentration of Army, Navy SEALS and Air Force near the demilitarized zone. We had about 25 towers surrounding our compound that were 250 feet in the air.”
At first, on that night in 1970, Coats thought he was being attacked by mosquitos. But, when his buddy yelled up at him that he was being shot at, Coats said he “let loose of my belt and went straight down.”
Safely on the ground, he went to the communications bunker and asked to be trained as a teletype operator. Soon after, he returned to the U.S. from his one-year tour, and changed his military occupational specialty.
“When I was ready to leave, my first sergeant told me I could be a teletype operator if I stayed for a second tour. I left anyway, and still became a teletype operator,” Coats said. “I got home in time for my grandmother’s Thanksgiving turkey. I was watching TV that day and I saw the Quang Tri compound under attack by Vietcong and buddies of mine hanging on helicopters as they tried to fly out.”
Stories like Coats’ were certainly not recognized when Vietnam veterans returned from war. A Tuscaloosa native, Coats’ acquaintances didn’t even know he had gone off to war.
“When I got back, they asked me where I’d been. They asked me if I’d been in jail,” Coats said. “Nobody really cared about Vietnam. They didn’t even know where it was and they didn’t understand the circumstances of Vietnam. I really appreciate what is done now for veterans when they come home from deployments.”
AMC, like many other military-related groups around the nation, is working to rectify the lack of recognition of the nation’s Vietnam veterans by presenting them with a special Vietnam veteran lapel pin and other commemorative materials from an era long gone. Currently, AMC, as an official Vietnam War commemorative partner, is recognizing eight Vietnam veterans who either work at AMC or are associated with AMC through a family connection with an employee. Along with Coats, the AMC employees include: David Lewis, Murphy House and Richard Petrillo; and the AMC-connected veterans are: James Bush, father of Sgt. First Class Matthew Bush; James Schueler, uncle of Col. John Motszko; Henry Martin, father of Pamela Sherode; and Peter Van Alstine, father of Hope Boroch.
Originally, AMC leadership planned to recognize Vietnam veterans in a ceremony presentation. But, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the presentation will be completed through contactless recognition by delivering the commemorative packages to the individual veteran honorees.
“This is our way of not forgetting the past. We don’t want to forget our history and what happened over the course of the time frame of the Vietnam War,” said Lt. Col. Travis Nauman, who is leading the recognition effort with the assistance of a committee of AMC employees.
“We want to recognize and honor our Vietnam veterans for their service. We want to recognize their heroic act of military service. For many Vietnam veterans, they see heroic as a veteran who received a Medal of Honor or another significant award. In this day and age, heroic is simply putting up with what you had to put up with serving during the Vietnam era. Simply being a part of service during that time frame is heroic in itself.”
Publicly recognizing Vietnam veterans can be difficult because many don’t seek out recognition due to the public sentiment of the Vietnam era, Nauman said.
“Those in service during that time frame may not have received the gratitude and appreciation they deserved. This is our way of trying to give them that appreciation,” he said.
The 71-year-old Coats, who served 28 years with the Army before retiring as a master sergeant with five Signal Corps military occupational specialties, still enjoys his work days at AMC, and doesn’t plan on retiring soon. He also doesn’t mind talking about his Vietnam service.
“I look at life as filled with life experiences and Vietnam was one of those experiences,” said Coats. “Most people, if you’ve been in combat you don’t want to talk about it. But you have to talk about it and share your story. It’s important to remember our history and the sacrifices that have been made for our freedoms.”
Coats’ year in Vietnam was filled with attacks from the enemy, and stories of loss and inspiration. He remembers being under attack and having to run from the compound wearing nothing but a T-shirt and underwear, and a jacket, and then remaining in the jungle for seven days while infantry forces fought off the enemy. He remembers the isolation of Vietnam, the bodies of countless dead Soldiers waiting to be shipped out of the war zone in helicopters, and the derogatory names that greeted him and other Vietnam veterans when they returned from war.
“After serving in Vietnam, I never had another bad day in the Army,” Coats said. “I saw and experienced the worst during my first 1½ years of service. Everything else was just fine.”
To learn more about the Vietnam War Commemoration Commemorative Partner Program, visit https://www.vietnamwar50th.com/commemorative_partners/commemorative_partner_program/. Vietnam veteran lapel pins can be obtained at commemorative events, from a commemorative partner or through the program’s website. To participate in AMC’s Vietnam veteran recognition program, contact Nauman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 256-450-6101.