Ralph Axe grew up in central Missouri, experiencing tragedy early in life when his brother was murdered by a fellow student in high school. After graduation, he only worked for a short time before being drafted in 1967. He attended basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas and Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Polk, Louisiana’s “Tigerland.” After a short 19-day leave period, he traveled to California and flew to Hawaii and the Philippines before deploying to Vietnam. He joined the 25th Infantry Division in theater and was assigned as a mechanized infantryman, learning to drive an M113 Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) his first day on the job when the prior operator was killed. His unit conducted route clearance patrols between Saigon and various outposts like Duckoa, Cu Chi, and Tay Ninh, searching for mines, booby traps, and enduring frequent ambushes and dawn attacks. Over the course of his service in Vietnam, he was wounded three separate times and received the Purple Heart for each. His first injury came when their unit’s position at Dau Tieng was overrun and air support and naval gunfire were called in on their own position, devastating the attackers but leaving him with shrapnel in his chest and stomach. After a too-brief stint in the field surgical unit to remove the shrapnel, he rejoined his unit and during a dismounted patrol was shot in the foot near Tay Ninh, breaking his heel and ankle. This injury sidelined him only briefly as it was reasoned an APC driver didn’t have to be able to walk to fight. His final injury came while helping his gunner replace an overheated barrel on their .50 caliber machine gun during an engagement at Cu Chi, as fragments from a nearby mortar explosion shattered his knee and ended his deployment. After several months of recovery in hospitals in Japan and Alaska, he left the Army at the rank of Specialist 4, returned home and joined the workforce, leaving his service off of his job application and keeping his uniforms and experiences locked away. After several decades and some tentative efforts to contact other veterans, Ralph has begun to address the trauma of his own experiences more publicly, joining and leading veterans’ organizations and using his perspective to help counsel accident survivors, children with cancer, and those dealing with substance abuse issues.
In this interview, Ralph recounts his thoughts on being drafted, perspectives on how training prepared him for combat, and his initial disorientation and fear on arriving in Vietnam. He describes the close-knit character of his platoon in combat, where he earned his nickname “Chopper” based on his last name, and came to know his comrades by theirs. He discusses his experiences of combat and his multiple wounds, expressing heartfelt gratitude for the members of all branches of service, who he credits with his life multiple times over. Then, he describes returning to his hometown and feeling compelled to put his service behind him, as even his effort to find fellow veterans at the Veterans of Foreign Wars was rebuffed because its members did not yet consider Vietnam a “real war.” He closes his interview with some thoughts on the long-term impacts of service on his life, the difficulties of providing for the long-term medical and mental needs of veterans, and offers some reflections on the meaning and value of service to the nation.