Bank of America employee stories: The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War remains one of the most divisive and controversial events in American history. PBS recently released The Vietnam War, a landmark documentary series, by film makers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which explores the war’s impact on society and culture from the perspectives of soldiers, civilians and protesters on all sides.

Bank of America is a proud sponsor of the film, and believes that fostering different perspectives and civil discourse around important issues helps further progress, equality and a more connected society. In support of this, Bank of America employees have been sharing their own Vietnam era stories.

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Pang Xiong’ Story

Pang discusses how her parents escaped Vietnam during the war and moved to the United States while she was a baby. She shares what the story means to her and how it impacts her today.

Elderly man standing in Military uniform

Mike Stevens’ Story

SSGT Mike Stevens was dangling from the end of a wire a hundred feet from the winch and another sixty from the ground when the helicopter started taking heavy fire from enemy combatants in the jungle below.

The Crew Chief looked down at Mike and gave the signal: we’ve got to get out of here. As the helicopter tore away, Mike was dragged behind through the canopy of the jungle until he slammed with full force into a tree. “Half of me went one way, half went the other.” He dropped and fell down the length of the tree, hitting every branch on the way down.

Mike was drafted in 1968. During basic training, he saw a recruitment notice for the Air Force Special Operations Group and applied. He was assigned to the most rigorous training regimen that exists in any branch of the military: the Special Operation Group. During his time in Vietnam, Mike’s responsibilities included collecting intelligence and tracking coordinates, determining locations and carrying out various missions. It was one such mission that had Mike helplessly tearing through the jungle canopy. Working off intelligence that sent them into a supposedly safe area, Mike’s encounter with that tree was a reminder that “intel” is often not the same as fact.

After his unlikely survival from the fall, Mike observed the damage that the tree had done to his right leg — injuries he still carries today. “Every muscle and fiber of my leg was ripped, torn, crushed ― you name it: it happened to that leg.”

Mike was the last of a three-man team to reach the ground, the others having been lowered safely through the canopy before their helicopter was spotted. His teammates found Mike first and immediately had to find a place to hide. They bandaged him up, dosed him with morphine and then began a tense, silent game of hide-and-seek over the next 72 hours. During that time they evaded Viet Cong guerillas while travelling 11 miles to an arranged extraction point. “The adrenaline got me through those 72 hours,” Mike remembers, “but you don’t even know what I started feeling once that adrenaline wore off.”

Mike’s time in Vietnam didn’t end after that accident — although it should have. Because Mike had an older brother who had also been drafted, he pulled in a lot of favors to stay despite his injuries. He knew that certain regulations could allow for his brother to be less likely to reach the warfront as long as Mike was in the thick of it.

His brother, Jack, served six months as a platoon officer in the Central Highlands in Vietnam before being able to return home. Mike succeeded in keeping Jack out of harm’s way. In a big war, keeping his brother safe was a victory that made it all worth it for Mike.

Two women touching memorial wall

Jodie Hardman and Nikki Graham’s Story

On October 6, 1972, an F4E-Phantom jet piloted by U.S. Air Force Colonel Robert Anderson was shot down in Vietnam. The pilot’s wife Jerry and three daughters Debra, Lynda and six-and-a-half year-old Jodie were at home in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.

Eleven days later on October 17, another Air Force pilot Captain Allen Graham of Mobile, Alabama, was similarly killed in action leaving his wife Susan and only child Nikki behind.

Years later, Jodie and Nikki, the airmen’s daughters, became employees of Bank of America, and in 2006 they were working for the same manager, but based in different states. Having noticed their similar stories, their manager introduced the two and they became friends.

Over time, they realized just how close their fathers’ stories were. Both men were sports fans, both loving fathers of daughters, and both had a real love of flying. They also both flew their missions out of Thailand and each man was missing in action for years after their planes were shot down ― Captain Graham for six years and Col. Anderson for 20. In 2009, Nikki and Jodie were both volunteering as mentors at the annual Student Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. During the visit, Jodie had an opportunity to visit the Vietnam Memorial Wall. She located and photographed the inscription of her father’s name from among the 58,000 names that appear on the wall. But when she showed the photo to Nikki, her friend immediately saw her own father’s name, just below that of Jodie’s father.

“I started crying,” Nikki said. “We were both stunned and amazed and couldn’t really comprehend the coincidence.” Somehow Col. Anderson and Captain Graham’s names are engraved inches apart on the Memorial Wall, separated by one line.

“We realize that there’s more to discover and to share, to learn and to know,” said Jodie “We share this bond that is almost bizarre. In a company of so many employees, for people who work together to have both their fathers die in the same way and have their names two inches apart on the Vietnam Wall is incredible.”

Bruce Beagley’s Story

Bruce discusses the draft and shares how his time in Vietnam helped shape who he is today.

Hand written letter

Maureen Torres’ Story

Although she was only seven-years old, Maureen Torres was already changing lives. Maureen was fortunate not to have any immediate family members deployed to Vietnam, but it felt a lot like she did when her neighbor and close family friend, Lee, was shipped off. “We weren’t family, but we might as well have been. Our families were that close.”

As a child, Maureen kept a list of friends’ and family members’ birthdays, in date order and carefully underlined. “I never let a birthday on that list go by without doing something to celebrate it,” she remembers. “I was obsessed!” So when Lee’s birthday came around, she wrote him a birthday card and put it in the mail, despite the fact that she knew he was on the other side of the world.

A few weeks later, she received a letter back from Lee expressing just how much that birthday card meant to him. He even promised her a kiss upon his return – an idea that simultaneously excited and disgusted seven-year old Maureen! Months later, after a year-long tour in Vietnam, Lee returned home and she remembers him chasing her around to deliver the kiss he promised.

He was awarded a Purple Heart, following the loss of part of his hearing from an explosion. But it became clear as Maureen grew a little older that the scars of his service cut far deeper than she could have imagined. Maureen recognized that he suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following his experience. “I knew him before he had left, so to see him come back in so much physical and mental pain was hard,” said Maureen. “He would wake up in the middle of the night and think he was still in Vietnam.”

Lee married and had children of his own, but his struggle continued due to the severity and intensity of his PTSD. Maureen is certain that his wife never stopped loving him, but she and the children could no longer live with him because of his affliction. “His time in Vietnam changed his life forever,” Maureen said. “It ruined his life, even though he was just doing what he was supposed to do.”

Lee passed away from a heart attack in his 40s. “It seemed as if he was just tired of struggling,” Maureen laments. She still has the letter that he wrote back to her when she was seven. Maureen is proud to have known such a patriotic and selfless man, and despite what came after, she remembers the handsome boy who lived on their street and the impact that one letter from a seven-year-old girl can have.

Don Norton’s Story

Don discusses his Vietnam War experience and shares how he feels today as a veteran of the war.

Martin Herman’s Story

Martin shares one of his proud moments from Vietnam, and discusses an uncomfortable encounter when he returned home.