Cheney Free Press -

By Lee Hughes
Staff Reporter 

From combat Marine to missionary

 


It was an impulsive decision.

Born in Lakewood, Ohio, in 1945, Jerry Foster chose to join the U.S. Marine Corps in 1962, four days after he turned 17. He hadn’t even finished high school.

“I was borderline a lot of problems,” Foster said of his enlistment, thinking the Marine Corps would instill the self-discipline he said he lacked at the time. “Boy they sure gave it to me.”

He was assigned to artillery after boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. He started in fire direction control, plotting angles and trajectories of artillery rounds, before moving to the battalion command post level as a fire controller, coordinating all types of artillery, including naval gunfire, close air support, and everything in between, “so we didn’t shoot our own guys,” he said.

Foster was initially stationed on the East Coast before transfer to Hawaii. In 1965 he and his unit shipped to Vietnam and took up a position at an airstrip in Phu Bai, south of the city of Huê.

One of Foster’s duties was developing targets for illumination and harassment fire based on intelligence reports, which were then relayed to battalion artillery batteries who would fire on Foster’s targets in an effort to expose and destroy the enemy. They were frequently successful.

“Those went on every day, every night,” Foster said.

Foster and a lieutenant were also embedded several times with Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers to coordinate U.S. artillery fire.

“I lived off the Vietnamese food the time I was there,” he said, noting that he even attended a Vietnamese wedding. “I interacted with the local people a lot more than the average soldier did.”

Life in a country at war was stressful, even in the rear, away from direct combat.

“You always had to be on your guard,” he said, noting that local Vietnamese people held jobs in their camp, and one would occasionally deliver a load of laundry that included an explosive.

“You didn’t know who to trust,” he said. “You had to constantly be on your guard.”

On one occasion they received reports of heavy movement in the bush, and Foster developed targeting data for the battery’s guns. But the subsequent barrage held a surprise: secondary explosions — they’d hit an enemy munitions dump. So Foster and his fellow Marines “walked” an artillery barrage back and forth across the area.

“The helicopters, when it got bright enough to go in there, said there were body parts everywhere,” Foster said.

The Marines worked the area over heavily with artillery fire for two more days, he said.

“It probably saved our battalion, because that was what they were coming for,” Foster said.

Finally, Foster’s tour was over. As he was leaving Vietnam and saying goodbye to his buddies, his lieutenant shook his hand and said, “Jerry, there’s a lot of people over here that killed hundreds, but we know for a fact that you killed thousands.”

The statement fell heavily on the young Marine’s heart.

Although he is over it now, “To come home and have to live with that,” he said. “That’s one of those things you have nightmares about.”

“But our guys are safe, there’s no regrets for that,” he added.

Dating, courtship and marriage

Although single while in Vietnam, it wasn’t by choice. Before shipping out to Hawaii, Foster had asked his girlfriend, Chip, who was still in high school, to marry him. Her parents refused, instead suggesting they wait until after he returned from Hawaii and she had finished school. The young lovers kept in touch through letters.

Still in the Marine Corps when he returned to the states from Vietnam, Foster traveled straight to Chip.

“When she came out to meet me she just came running out, threw her arms around me, both legs went up in the air,” Foster recalled. “We got married 24 days later.”

Romantic perhaps, but Chip had no idea who she’d had married. Foster was a changed man after his experiences in Vietnam.

He didn’t know who he was either.

“It took me seven years to get my head kind of back to where it was supposed to be,” he said. “She put up with a lot of the junk and stuff. I’m really thankful she did.”

Foster was discharged from the Marine Corps in late 1966.

He was a different man than the impulsive boy who had enlisted nearly five years earlier.

Post-Vietnam

Foster and Chip moved to upstate New York and he began working at his father-in-law’s New York City dredging company after his discharge.

During this time Foster was a self-proclaimed mess, getting lost in the bottle and rage.

“I drank a lot,” he said. “I had a lot of anger issues.”

He would be driving down the road, he said, listening to music “as happy as can be, and the next thing I know I’m beating the steering wheel,” he said.

He also suffered from survivor guilt. At one point some years later he visited a traveling Vietnam memorial wall, and while walking it he asked himself, “How did I make it? How come I’m home and they’re not?”

At one point during his tour in Vietnam he’d come under heavy enemy fire while embedded with ARVN forces. He was carrying a heavy radio and other gear. Rounds were zipping past his head on both sides. He couldn’t return fire because he was in the rear and afraid to shoot his own people.

“I couldn’t see who to shoot at,” Foster said.

But instead of dropping to the ground, he recalled just standing there, laughing, as bullets whizzed by.

Later, as he stood in front of the traveling wall, Foster struggled to reconcile that moment with being alive.

“My name should be there. It’s not,” he said. “I’d give my life for any one of those guys.”

Missionaries

The Fosters eventually had a son, Lenny. Chip was a Christian, and occasionally dragged Foster, who most definitely wasn’t, to church with her. He once told his wife after he returned from Vietnam that God was either dead, or he “doesn’t give a hoot about us.”

Regardless, the church wasn’t a good fit for him, Foster said.

They later moved to Staten Island. When Lenny expressed an interest in going back to Sunday school, Chip refused to take him without his dad because she was afraid of being labeled an unwed mother.

So Foster tagged along. But unlike the upstate church, this church and its congregation made a big impression on him, he said. He continued attending and was eventually baptized and became a church member. His life slowly began to change.

Years passed in which Foster received a calling to enter the ministry. In 1975, the man who quit high school to join the Marines was awarded a bachelors degree in theology from the Seattle Bible Institute — now Seattle Bible College.

But the shadow of Vietnam remained; he was still angry, he said.

Foster and his family eventually moved to Liberia, West Africa, in 1979, where they served as missionaries for 11 years.

They were home from Liberia on a brief sabbatical in 1982, attending a conference in Indiana “that we had no reason to be at,” Foster said, staying with a Liberian doctor and his wife, a psychiatrist, who were also missionaries. The wife counseled Foster for three nights.

On the final night of the conference, Foster invited Chip to pray with him.

“I knew that the Lord had forgiven me for what I did,” Foster said. “But I had not forgiven myself.”

They prayed together, and Foster was able to find forgiveness within himself.

“I was a changed man from that point on,” he said.

They were still in Liberia when civil war erupted. Chip and Lenny were away at a mission in Monrovia, the capital, at the time, and were witness to atrocities there.

The Fosters had also adopted a Liberian girl, Monty. But when the family was being evacuated the U.S. embassy wouldn’t allow Monty to leave with her adopted family, despite having the necessary paperwork, Foster said. They were forced to leave her behind at the mission.

Monty was eventually smuggled into what was then the adjacent country of Ivory Coast, and eventually repatriated to the U.S. She now lives in Spokane with her husband and daughter.

The VA

The Foster’s returned to the U.S. permanently in 1990. Out of necessity, and despite severe misgivings, Foster eventually sought health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Despite all the work he’d done to forget Vietnam, he still suffered from dreams and flashbacks.

The VA sent Foster to mental health professionals for a comprehensive evaluation with “chips on both shoulders,” he said.

“They worked me over,” Foster said. “I became a blubbering idiot.”

Foster refused to talk to anyone who didn’t at least have comparable experience to his; unless they had been there too. He confronted one psychiatrist in a wheelchair after he had been asking questions during one session.

“What gives you the right to ask me those questions? Who are you?” he asked the doctor. “I don’t want to know your degrees, I want to know who you are. What have you been through that qualifies you to sit here and talk to me?”

It turned out the doctor was a former Air Force pararescueman during Vietnam, who would spend days in the hostile jungle looking for downed pilots to rescue, Foster said.

He cooperated after that, and was eventually diagnosed with chronic post traumatic stress disorder.

Medications helped and seemed to make a difference. People commented on the change.

“Before you went (to the VA) we liked you, but you were like a prickly pear. We didn’t know when you were going to go off,” Foster said. “Now, we love you because you’ve settled right down. Everybody saw the difference.”

Project Healing

Waters Fly Fishing

Foster has enjoyed fishing his entire life. While visiting a traveling Vietnam wall in Spokane he ran into a representative of a national group called Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing. He took some literature.

After some false starts he eventually became involved with the group and grew adept at tying fly fishing flies and making fly rods, all from scratch. He found it helped him.

“It takes you away from dark places. It takes you out of all of that and you have pure concentration on what your doing in front of you,” Foster said.

He eventually became a leader in the local program.

Over time, participants begin to open up and talk with each other, Foster said. Bonds are formed. The program is entirely free, with all supplies for making flies and rods donated to the vets. Day fishing trips are also paid for, although longer trips require funds to be raised.

Foster had a younger brother, Rich, who also served in Vietnam in the U.S. Army at the same time he did. They were able to spend five days with each other while in-country. Rich recently died of lung cancer associated with exposure to Agent Orange.

Through it all, Foster and Chip’s marriage survived. The couple recently celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary.

They still travel to Africa.

Lee Hughes can be reached at lee@cheneyfreepress.com.

 

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