Emmett Mulroney has spent 44 years trying to make sense of the eight months he spent in Vietnam.
For a couple years now, the longtime Champaign County resident has attended a weekly support group at the Veterans Affairs clinic in Springfield for Vietnam veterans nagged by post-traumatic stress disorder.
“A lot of times, I say, ‘I’m not going to go anymore.’ I don’t contribute anything,” Mulroney, now 64, confessed. “It seems like something keeps making me go.”
When he came home — a decorated Army Ranger who repeatedly ventured into a lush, green hell with only three other guys to back him up — Mulroney thought it would be beneficial to be around other veterans.
To his dismay, the Veterans of Foreign Wars wouldn’t accept him. Like many other Vietnam veterans, Mulroney never bothered again with the VFW.
Even though he’s now retired from a combination of factory work and self-employment, Mulroney still can’t help but wonder if coming home would’ve been easier had home been more welcoming.
Would he still have the recurring dream in which he encounters the faceless GI whose body he carried out of the jungle one April night in 1969 with the enemy in pursuit?
“I had several nieces and nephews who didn’t even know I was in the service because I never talked about it,” he said.
His late father never talked, either, about what it was like to fight the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II — but that was by choice.
“Not one single person asked me about Vietnam, not even my parents,” Mulroney said. “It’s like they didn’t care. It’s like I just went to the store and came back. Nobody wanted to talk about Vietnam then.”
The result is a reluctant hero, a man whose Silver Star earned him a place in the Ohio Military Hall of Fame, but who also thought about backing out of the induction ceremony in 2011.
“She talked me into it,” Mulroney said of Kay, his wife of 41 years.
He’s a man who’s immensely proud of his service — reminders of Vietnam are all over his living room in rural Champaign County, from his medals to mementos — yet haunted by it.
“When I try to go to sleep at night,” he once wrote to his support group, “I try to think of something other than Vietnam for fear of dreaming about it.”
A 1967 graduate of Graham High School, Mulroney did what his country asked of him, and then some. Even though he was a draftee, he stepped forward to become a LRRP — a member of a long-range reconnaissance patrol.
“I wanted to feel important, and I wanted to make my dad proud of me, even though he never said it,” Mulroney explained.
Made up of four-man teams, these special operators effectively stalked the stalkers, spying on the movements of an enemy who specialized in guerrilla warfare. When needed, they would snatch prisoners as well.
The History Channel produced a documentary about the LRRPs that still frequently airs on the sister Military History Channel. A book published in 2000, “Ranger: Behind Enemy Lines in Vietnam,” features a full-page color photo of Mulroney clutching his CAR-15.
“When I was a LRRP, it was the first time in my life I really felt good about myself,” he said.
The missions were nothing short of daunting.
On April 10, 1969, Mulroney’s team was tasked with finding four missing American soldiers in the Plei Trap Valley of South Vietnam’s central highlands near Cambodia.
Instead, they found a North Vietnamese bunker complex.
Searching each one — about 40 in all — the LRRPs found several blood-stained letters from American soldiers, maps of planned attacks on friendly firebases and a cache of ammo.
Mulroney and his teammates stayed in the area, eventually calling in artillery on enemy locations.
As they made their escape, they found the body of a missing American in a dry creek bed, which they carried to a landing zone.
For all of that, Mulroney was awarded the Bronze Star with V device for heroism.
“We came out pretty good on most of them,” Mulroney said, “except the last one.”
He’s referring to the events of July 19, 1969. By Mulroney’s count, he should have died six times — just that day alone.
Searching for a base camp from which communist troops had conducted a lethal ambush on French forces the decade before, Mulroney and his three teammates stopped for a break.
He had just dropped two tablets of Fizzies, courtesy of his mom back home in Jackson Twp., into his canteen to produce a delectable drink made with cyclamate, the artificial sweetener that would doom Fizzies to the realm of gone-but-not-forgotten candy when it wound up being banned by the FDA.
“I think they were orange,” Mulroney recalled.
That’s when they heard an approaching North Vietnamese company.
Before long, the four-man team would be cut down to two, and two helicopters would go down trying to rescue them, against orders, from what Mulroney’s Silver Star citation would later term “murderous enemy fire.”
“I really don’t know how we got out of there,” he said. “Six different times that day, I should’ve been killed. I always figured somebody upstairs was watching out for me.”
“At the time,” he added, “I said, ‘I’m dead,’ and I thought I was. It was just a matter of time.”
Mulroney suffered a broken neck and back when one of the choppers was brought down by an enemy rocket, but he made it.
It was his eighth and last month in Vietnam. He was only 20.
“I look back,” he said, “and I know why they make soldiers as young as they are. The older guys wouldn’t be as stupid to do some of the stuff we did.”
Once a month, Springfield News-Sun military reporter Andrew McGinn profiles a local veteran in order to share their extraordinary stories.
If you or someone you know would like to be featured, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 937-328-0352.