After graduating from Kenmore West High School, Michael J. Laughlin started working for his older brother, who ran a successful tow truck company. Operating one of the smaller trucks, Laughlin says, he was mostly sent out to assist stranded motorists, a job he enjoyed.
But what he enjoyed even more was his part-time work. Laughlin served as an usher at the Colvin Theater. It was his ticket to meeting members of the opposite sex.
“I would sneak girls in through the back door of the theater,” says Laughlin, whose job required him to look spiffy in a blue blazer, shirt and tie, with a flashlight at his side. “I also got to meet the girls who worked behind the candy counter.”
The end to those times of innocence arrived swiftly when he and a fellow usher and close friend, Charlie Czarnecki, received 1-A military draft classifications, meaning that their chances of being drafted were just about inevitable.
“So Charlie and I decided to volunteer. … We knew our number was up,” he says.
By October 1969, Laughlin was in Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province, an area filled with land mines.
“One time, when we were out walking to meet another patrol that had made contact with the enemy, I must have just missed this mine,” Laughlin remembers. “The guy behind me was blown 20 feet into the air. When he landed, quite honestly, it was hard to recognize him as a person.”
Another soldier, he says, lost an arm at the shoulder and a leg at the hip:
“I remember him using his good arm to help other soldiers loading him onto a medevac helicopter.”
Other soldiers suffered shrapnel wounds, but Laughlin was spared.
In the early part of 1970, he and other members of Company B, 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment, 198th Brigade, Americal Division, were reassigned from patrols to the “pacification” program. They provided protection to a village of South Vietnamese in order to deny the enemy the chance to exploit villagers by stealing their rice and livestock.
“We were in a foxhole one night, and a mortar round hit above us in the bamboo and sent out a burst of shrapnel,” Laughlin says. “The guy next to me started screaming, ‘I’m blind. I can’t see.’ I was hit in the back and the arm. Three other guys were also wounded.”
Laughlin was patched up by medics and deemed good enough to remain on duty. So he was more than a little surprised when he was honored.
“I had no idea I was going to receive the Purple Heart. I wasn’t looking for it,” he says. “I thought it was for guys who lost limbs or their lives.”
A day after being wounded, he recalled working to build a better foxhole.
“It was stronger than Fort Knox. Then I was told we were heading back out to the bush. Our work with pacification was over,” he says. “We returned to trying to catch the enemy off-guard, which we very seldom did. The tunnels they had were unbelievable. I stuck my head in one and said, ‘I’ll never go in there.’ ”
As time passed, Laughlin says, he and other members of the unit were often transported by helicopter to hot spots.
“We’d sit in these Hueys, with our legs dangling out of the sides, and when we got low enough, we’d just jump out,” Laughlin recalls. “Sometimes we’d be in a hot landing zone and sometimes not. You just never really knew. That’s what every day was. You’d walk and hear nothing, then a sniper shooting or an explosion.”
He eventually returned to the United States in August 1970, though he has no recollection of the trip back.
“The last thing I remember, we were getting shelled with rockets in a bunker in Cam Ranh Bay. I had been stricken with malaria. I was delirious,” he says. “When I woke up, I was sitting on a bunk, and I asked, ‘Where am I?’ And the guy next to me said, ‘Fort Lewis, Washington.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not. I’m in Vietnam.’ He said, ‘We had to carry you from plane to plane.’ ”
When it sank in that he was in America, it felt good, though his joy was soon muted by the strong anti-war sentiments of the time.
“I was afraid to say anything because people called you ‘baby-killers.’ ”
The demons of war also stalked Laughlin.
As a civilian, the now-retired autoworker recalled turning to alcohol, though he eventually gave it up. Then, about five years ago, post-traumatic stress struck.
He found help through fellow veterans by attending readjustment counseling groups at the Buffalo Vet Center on Sweet Home Road in Amherst, a place that remains an emotional oasis for him.
In fact, he urges any other vets who may be struggling to stop by the center and get in on the recovery. The phone number for the center is 862-7350.
As a final note, Laughlin says that the searing image of the soldier who had lost an arm and a leg and then used his remaining arm to help his buddies hoist him into the helicopter has come full circle.
“After 42 years, I met him,” Laughlin says, “and, believe me, he has a great attitude and a marvelous family. It’s like the opposite of what we feared for him.”