Veterans’ advocate recounts horrors, camaraderie of service in Vietnam
November 16, 2010
By Laura Geggel
Jerry Pearson grew up in Issaquah, working at Pickering Farm and serving — in his joking manner — as the 1964 vice president of the Associated Student Body his senior year at Issaquah High School.
Many knew him as the class clown, the student who ran a stop sign and tried to hide his car from police behind a farm’s giant pile of manure in then-rural Issaquah.
After high school, the steps he took next eventually took him to Vietnam, changing his views of himself and of his world.
Pearson enrolled at the University of Washington, but he took too many credits and found it hard to both study and work as a part-time janitor. He walked away from the UW and found work at The Boeing Co., doing heat treatment for its planes.
Meanwhile, politics and tensions were heating up in Vietnam. Pearson’s grandfather had served in World War I and his father had fought in World War II. At age 19, he decided he wanted “to be a man,” and enlisted with the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I wasn’t very combative, but I was very idealistic,” he said.
His sister, Gayle Volk, remembers her mother begging Pearson to go to Canada, but he had already made up his mind: He was going to be a marine.
In fall 1965, he went to Marine Corps Community Services in San Diego for eight weeks.
At boot camp, he was broken down and built up. He met men from the North, South and Midwest. He learned how to eat a meal in 60 seconds and obey orders, and though he never had time for himself, he found a brotherhood he had never before experienced. Tears stung his eyes when he left, and he never saw some of his boot camp friends again.
For the next six months, he trained at Camp Pendleton, learning how to fire weapons and fight in hand-to-hand combat, a big step from shooting a bb gun as a child.
“Even though what we were training for, we had never seen anyone get shot,” he said.
He went home one last time, and remembered being irritated when his parents and girlfriend insisted on saying goodbye to him at the airport in 1966 for his 13-month deployment.
“In my heart of hearts, I was prepared not to come back,” he said, remembering his jingoism. “We thought we were going over there to end it.”
In the bush
Finally, his battalion boarded the USS Iwo Jima, which took them to Vietnam. On his first operation, a helicopter took the Marines to a location in Vietnam.
“We all expected just complete hell. We were so revved up,” he said. “Not a single thing happened.”
They returned to the Iwo Jima and went out on a second operation. Again, nothing happened, except for a Marine who misheard a noise and ended up shooting a herd of cows. Once more, they went back to the Iwo Jima.
“We’re thinking, ‘What’s this about?’ We wanted to be combat marines,” Pearson said.
He thought his third mission would be as quiet as the first two, but a shot shattered the silence and killed his unit’s radioman, Elmer Boatman.
“We were all in shock,” Pearson said. “One shot and he’s dead.”
A Marine in Pearson’s outfit shot an enemy soldier holding an AK-47. The men in charge of the outfit chose to blow up the body, and “I just never forgot the sound or the image of it,” he said. “I thought what I was about to engage in would make sense, and it didn’t make sense.”
The next day, enemy soldiers ambushed them, and Pearson and his platoon ended up carrying their injured and dead friends to safety. Again, he was in shock, seeing the dismembered arms and legs.
Not long after, Pearson was shot in the arm and taken to a naval hospital. Though safe and recovering, he hated being away from his platoon — “It felt like your whole family was under attack,” he said.
He returned, only to be injured again, getting shrapnel in his neck. It was then that his little sister, Volk, began sending him cookies with the Issaquah Campfire girls.
“It was such a thrill,” he said of getting the cookies and sharing them with his friends. “I saw guys sit up and cry just over eating a cookie, just because they knew there was some kind of connection.”
Volk said the cookies were her mother’s idea.
“We baked for days,” Volk said, “I’m not sure how it ended up arriving, because Jerry said even the crumbs were great.”
In fall 1967, Pearson rotated back to Camp Pendleton until he was honorably discharged in 1968. On the trip back, he learned many of his friends had died, including Lester Bell, from Miami.
“You walk in and say, ‘Where’s Bell?’” Pearson said. “And they say, ‘Oh, you didn’t hear? He didn’t make it.’”
To this day, he wears a bracelet engraved with the name of his friend: Ronald Dexter, Sept. 19 1966, who died the same day Pearson was shot in the arm.
After his service with the Marines, he concentrated on his studies, using the G.I. Bill to go college and then to law school. He married and had six children, moved around before settling in Preston in 1994 and opened a law office, first in North Bend and then in Snoqualmie.
It has taken him years to reconnect to society, he said. But, as a father, he rediscovered his sense of humor. Pearson still avoids action movies’ loud noises; even stepping on crackling leaves in the fall can remind him of the noises of Vietnam.
Volk said her brother had a lot of anger when he returned from Vietnam, but said he had learned how to constructively channel it into almost a playfulness.
“I have never seen anybody so determined to take their life back into their own control,” she said.
Veterans’ Advocates Guild
Hoping to give back, Pearson and his wife, Michele Pearson, have founded the nonprofit Veterans’ Advocates Guild, helping veterans get resources they need. He has offered his legal services, and people from other professions, including neurology, bankruptcy and landlords, have volunteered their services.
Veterans in need of services, or people who want to volunteer, can visit here or call 877-234-1999 toll free.
“It’s about reconnection,” Pearson said. “It’s a way of reassuring people who feel disconnected that there are people out there who care about them.”
Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.