by Lance Cpl. Harley Thomas
MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII — On May 1, 1968, while suffering from shrapnel wounds incurred while relocating his unit under heavy artillery fire the previous day, Capt. Jay R. Vargas, the commanding officer of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 9th Amphibious Brigade, combined his company with two others and led his men in an attack on the fortified village of Dai Do in the Republic of Vietnam.
“One of my platoons got pinned down by heavy machine guns — in fact, we all got pinned down — and couldn’t move anymore,” Vargas said. “I went forward with four Marines and ended up by myself because they were hit immediately, but I (took) out three heavy machine guns and killed 14 North Vietnamese in the trenches, opening us up to continue the attack.”
Vargas said he and his remaining 80 Marines thought they had secured the village when the North Vietnamese Army counterattacked. He said after 48 hours of little to no sleep, the NVA pushed his already exhausted company into a cemetery.
“We were surrounded and cut-off completely,” Vargas said. “I (told my Marines) the only way to survive (was) to dig up those graves and toss the bodies out. The NVA knew they had us good, and nobody could help me. Everybody said we weren’t going to make it and wrote us off.”
Vargas said it wasn’t until hearing from Adm. John McCain, the U.S. Pacific Command commander in chief, that he knew his Marines would receive cover.
“He told me he had all his ‘little toys’ out there — his gunfire ships,” Vargas said. “He told me, ‘You are my priority, so do whatever you want to do,’ and I did just that. I built a circle of steel around (us) with aircraft, artillery and naval gunfire.”
Vargas said by digging up the bodies, his Marines were able to make fighting holes and create a 360-degree defensive position. He said his company fought all night, with their hands and bayonets, and, after three days, the Marines continued forward and that’s when Lt. Col. William Weise, the battalion commander, found him in the trenches.
“I told him he better get out of (there) because I’d called artillery on myself and my Marines,” Vargas said. “They knew it, and I told them to grab their butts because I was bringing it (close). The colonel turned around and as he did, took three shots to the spine. I had to bring in the fixed wing, artillery and naval gunfire with three radios in my hands because my radio operators were already dead.”
Despite his own injuries, Vargas dragged his wounded battalion commander nearly 100 yards through withering fire to a covered position. He continued to coordinate his remaining Marines’ defensive actions and called in deadly airstrikes until the attacking North Vietnamese diminished. It was for his actions at Dai Do that he received the Medal of Honor, presented to him by then-President Richard M. Nixon during a White House ceremony.
The retired colonel, now a mental health advocate, spoke to the Marine Corps Base Hawaii community about the importance of seeking help for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, May 12, 2015, at the Chaplain Joseph W. Estabrook Chapel.
Col. Timothy Winand, the commanding officer for 3rd Marine Regiment, said it was a great privilege to have a Medal of Honor recipient speak to the Marines about such an important topic.
“(It was) a great opportunity in the realm of professional military education,” Winand said. “Col. Vargas has commanded Marines at every level, from platoon to infantry regiment, and his great story is one of courage, dedication, honor, commitment and valor. This is a message we should all listen to and take away from.”
Vargas, a Winslow, Ariz., native, said it took him 37 years to talk about his experiences and once he let it all out, it felt good. He said he held it in because it’s what his brothers did. His brothers, Angelo and Frank, were at the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa during World War II, and his brother Joseph was in the Korean War. Vargas said they never spoke about it.
“The night after I received the medal, the four of us got together at supper and that was the first time I had heard what they did in WWII,” Vargas said. “They held it in, like I did. I had just assumed that once you came home, you didn’t talk about it, like that’s the way it was supposed to be. To those of you who are coming out of a combat zone, don’t hold it in and, if you might have a problem, seek help.”
Vargas said there isn’t a Marine in this world that’s not tough, but there’s ongoing issue in the military called fatigue. He said it causes mental problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder or suicidal thoughts.
“I’ve found this stigma between all of us,” he said. “Nobody wants to admit they have a problem because of the things they’ve seen in combat, but most people don’t understand what effect combat fatigue — that was the term we used in WWII — has on Marines. If you need help, contact your chain of command. PTSD is vicious and some people might not be aware they have it; after coming home, I didn’t.”
Coming from a family of hunters, Vargas and his brothers would always go out and hunt, he said. Vargas said for reasons unbeknownst to him, during one hunting trip, he would just go out and circle back to their base camp.
“I couldn’t kill anymore and I still can’t,” he said. “I can’t pull the trigger and my brother sensed (that). All he said, having gone through it himself, was ‘that’s okay, I understand,’ and took me (to get help). Was I cured? Yes. Will I ever forget what I went through in Vietnam? No. I will live with (my) memory of combat forever, I’m not going to deny that. I was told that my life was going to be different, that I would walk through life with a different posture. That I may even think about suicide.”
Vargas said one thing he has told Marines all over, was that nobody should ever think about taking their own life.
“Your life is too damn precious to throw away,” he said. “Some people never talk about what they go through, but if you put your heart and soul into it, you can live through anything.”