Editor's note: This is part of a weekly series published each Monday between Memorial Day and Veterans Day honoring local veterans.
CHAMPION - When Richard Thiry reflects on what he went through in nine months of combat in Vietnam, sometimes he becomes intense.
Other times, though, Thiry can chuckle about things that others might not find as funny. Sometimes he's even moved to tears.
Vietnam War veteran Richard Thiry of Champion points out locations on a map where he was involved in battles in 1968 and 1969. Tribune Chronicle / Christopher Bobby
At the moment though, life is good for the 65-year-old retired Delphi Packard employee who still works to keep busy. The kids are grown. The grandkids can swim in Thiry's backyard pool. He enjoys his wife's company during the empty-nest period. And the corn in his garden is looking good as long as it gets enough water.
In 1968, Thiry and three of his buddies got their draft notices, piled into a bus outside the Warren Post Office and were driven to Cleveland. All four passed their physicals. All four headed back up to Cleveland before Thiry took his first plane ride - to Louisville, Ky., where a short distance away he went through basic training at Fort Knox.
Three of the four buddies eventually were assigned to units headed for Vietnam. A fourth was assigned to a base in Germany.
Within two years, only two of the three sent to Vietnam returned alive.
For Thiry, it meant joining up with the Big Red One, 1st Infantry Division, as a radio operator when combat was reaching its peak and when his Alpha Company was thrown into the heaviest combat seen in the war-torn country.
''I volunteered to carry that radio. I didn't realize it was like having a bull's-eye on my back,'' said Thiry, who described being the ''last on and first out'' of the helicopters that dropped his unit into remote fire-support bases where fierce battles were occurring, documenting historical accounts that led to scripts for movies like ''Platoon.''
As a member of the Black Lions regiment, Thiry was wounded three times. He still has shrapnel in his shoulder. ''A little metal in you wasn't going to make much of a difference. As long as you could walk, you were OK,'' he said.
But with grenade and mortar fire almost every day during the nighttime fights, injuries and death came with the territory.
Thumbing through the photos in the scrapbooks Thiry still keeps at home, there appear to be as many soldiers who died as made it back alive. Also in a box of keepsakes, the veteran still has his dog tags on a chain with the medical tape wrapped around the metal so they didn't cause any unnecessary noise when knocking against his religious cross and a lucky walrus tooth he picked up in Alaska on the way to Vietnam.
''We would sleep during the day and then move. The fighting mostly went on at night when we were set up at a NDP (night defensive position). It got to the point where the most cherished moment was when you would see daylight. Things would calm down,'' Thiry said.
The unit of about 17 guys would take up positions, ready to ambush the enemy advancing toward them on trails. ''It was always someone's turn to leave the position and move the bodies off the trail so they couldn't tell we were around,'' Thiry said.
''No one really had any close friends out there. No close relationships. Sometimes you didn't know the guy's name,'' he said, adding that it made it easier when someone didn't make it out of a fight alive.
It was Oct. 26, 1968, when Thiry earned the Bronze Star with a valor designation.
The Big Red One was called on to set up at fire support base ''Julie,'' one of three set up near the Cambodian border to lure the 1st North Vietnamese Army Division into the vicinity.
''I never knew those of us at Julie, Rita and Dot were there as bait. I never found out until I got home and read it in Newsweek,'' he said. ''They figured the enemy was going to make a move about 70 miles south to Saigon. We were there to prevent that.''
The orders awarding him the medal from Col. Archie R. Hyle state:
''Private First Class Thiry was manning a listening post near the Cambodian border. At approximately 0100 hours, the camp was suddenly subjected to an intensive barrage of enemy mortar fire, followed by a massive ground attack.
''Although hostile rounds were hitting all around him, Private First Class Thiry held his position throughout the onslaught in order to adjust the friendly mortar and grenade fire onto the insurgent positions. On several occasions, he called in grenade fire within a few meters of his location.
''Private First Class Thiry's effective direction of the friendly fire constantly kept the enemy off balance and prevented an organized ground assault in his company's sector. The exemplary courage and determination which he demonstrated significantly contributed to the successful defense of the base.''
Thiry said only two of the four listening posts survived the fighting that night. They were among the eight killed while the enemy suffered about 130 casualties.
It was another time in another battle, though, that still sticks in the veteran's mind. It was another ambush - or ''LP'' - mission and one of the three times he was wounded when he and his radio, along with two others, were outside the perimeter.
With Thiry were Bob Weiher of Battlecreek, Mich., and a third member of his unit. They were there to look for the enemy and communicate with the F-4s and F-16s, telling the pilots where to drop what they had. Sometimes they detonated blue smoke or yellow smoke to tell the pilots where they were.
''Bob carried the big 60-millimeter machine gun. He was there to protect the radio. We started taking on fire and mortars directly hit our position. I got hit in the leg that time. When we were ready to head back, Bob wasn't moving. He was hit directly in the head. I left the radio, and me and the other guy carried him back,'' Thiry said.
Thiry said it wasn't until his own son Matt reached adult age that the incident haunted him.
Thiry said that at the tail end of his stint in the Army, he was assigned to an honor guard at Pittsburgh International Airport, where parents would arrive to claim the caskets carrying their sons who were killed in battle.
''It just occurred to me that none of those folks ever really learned the real details of how their son was killed, or what led up to the death,'' he said.
Thiry said it wasn't until 2005 that he called the newspaper and then the library in Battlecreek to track down Weiher's mother.
''I got up the nerve to call her and figured out how to break the ice after all that time. I just wanted her to know that Bob never suffered. He wasn't wounded and left in pain for a long time,'' Thiry said.
After a long conversation with the mother, a week or so later, a younger brother of Weiher called. Then two sisters of his comrade also called to hear Thiry's account of that night.
The exchange over the phone gave Thiry some peace of mind.
''You know out there, we just took it as a way of life. Now you don't,'' he said.