More than 41-years after he suffered shrapnel wounds to his arms from a mortar attack during combat in Vietnam, a southwest Iowa man received his purple heart and other awards, Sunday, in Creston. Sixty-one-year old William "Bill" Hayes, a Creston native, was presented with the Purple Heart, the Combat action ribbon, the Navy United Commendation ribbon bar, the National Defense Service medal, and the Vietnam Service medal with two bronze campaign stars.
"When you get my age, you know I thought: ‘I deserved it,’" Hayes says. "…The short time I was there, I did my part." While he’s never had nightmares or Post Traumatic Stress like many of his fellow vet’s, there are some memories that continue to haunt Hayes.
"We had a squad out. They were a night patrol coming in and it was probably the worst experience I had. We were sent down to get them out of the field. It was a mine field," Hayes says. "The lieutenant, I was behind him and a radio men that was in front of him. The radio man stepped on a mine and he was gone and then the lieutenant — he was right in front of me — and he got his face and his hand gone and I didn’t have a scratch on me."
The records for many veterans deserving of medals were destroyed during a fire at a facility in St. Louis in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s. Since then, the rules were changed to allow those vets who received an Honorable Discharge and who haven’t received their awards, to re-apply for them. Hayes was a 19-year old Corporal in the United States Marine Corps when he was wounded two and a-half months after arriving in Vietnam, in May 1967.
Hayes — who carried a rocket launcher with him into combat — kept most of his emotions in-check following his return to the States after his tour in Vietnam and never spoke about his experiences. Another vision he says he’ll never forget was when a helicopter hit a man in the head who was set to go on leave. The chopper was attempting to land and deliver supplies when the accident happened. After they loaded the man on board, the Huey went out of control and crashed.
Hayes’ family never knew he failed to receive his purple heart until his wife Janet found out as she and her son-in law were looking over Hayes’ records while they were in the process of moving. After Janet spoke with Marcia Wilson at Iowa Workforce Development in Creston, she got the ball rolling on the paperwork. Wilson is also a veteran of Vietnam as well as the Persian Gulf War.
"She mentioned that he hadn’t gotten his Purple Heart and I said, ‘Oh, that can’t be,’ so I got all the paperwork and that type of thing," Mrs. Hayes says. "…It just seemed to happen just really quickly."