Life has been more than painful these past 43 years since Vietnam War veteran Thomas A. Gena received a Silver Star for his war heroism in saving another soldier’s life.
Post-traumatic stress, he says, has held him captive.
Unlike other soldiers who have been fortunate enough to find peace in civilian life, the 65-year-old Gena said, he has not been able to enter into a lasting relationship or hold down a job because of his mental and physical wounds.
He lives alone in the Depew house he secured with a down payment from money that his parents bequeathed and makes monthly mortgage payments with cash from his VA disability pension.
To understand his isolation and often agony, Gena shares his war experiences that might have been avoided if he had followed his brother’s advice.
“Michael told me that if I stayed in college, I could keep my deferment for the draft, but I left college because I was bored with metallurgical technology courses,” he says. “One month later, I was drafted. As I was flying over to Vietnam, Michael was on his way home from Vietnam.”
Gena initially served as an infantry M60 machine-gunner and often was at the trigger providing “suppressing fire” so that troops pinned down could be rescued.
On Oct. 1, 1968, he earned a Silver Star and a Purple Heart during a battalion-size operation to take a mountaintop.
“When we reached the top of the mountain, I could hear wounded comrades crying for help. Some were crying for their mothers,” Gena recalls. “I put myself in their place and said, ‘If I was dying I would sure as hell want someone to come up and help me.’
“That’s why I went to my second lieutenant and asked him, ‘Who are you going to send?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ When he said that, I took his M16 rifle and went myself. I used the rifle to get close enough to the enemy bunker, spraying it with bullets.
“About 10 or 15 feet away in elephant grass that was 4 or 5 feet high, I threw two baseball grenades and took out the bunker. When I got behind it, I found one of the soldiers I’d heard crying dead. He’d been shot in the head and stabbed.
“I was still receiving fire from another area to the left of me. I used the other two hand grenades I had left and took out another bunker. But one of the enemy was behind the bunker, and I actually saw his hand tossing this Chinese grenade at me. I took off and hit the ground flat. I was wounded with shrapnel, but I didn’t know it.”
Before fleeing the mountaintop, Gena noticed the other soldier he had come to rescue.
“I could see he was dead. He had so many bullet holes.”
At about the same time, Gena observed three howitzer spotter rounds land near him.
“I knew the next thing that would happen was that the top of the mountain would be taken off,” he says. “The smoke from the spotter rounds helped guide the heavy artillery. I ran as fast as I could. About a quarter way down the mountain, I encountered a wounded U.S. soldier. He was shot in the side, and I patched him up and carried him.”
At nightfall, Gena says, he watched as tracer rounds were exchanged between American and North Vietnamese forces on two separate mountains.
“The Americans used red in their tracers, and when dawn came, I climbed the mountain where the red ones came from,” Gena recalls. “I finally met some comrades, and they gave directions to the captain. They said that I was wounded. My adrenaline was so intense I hadn’t noticed the shrapnel wounds in my forearm and upper right leg.”
By this time, the wounded soldier Gena had carried was able to limp along under his own power.
“We arrived at the area where the helicopters were coming in for medevac,” Gena remembers. “The captain asked us if we wanted to go on the first chopper. I said, ‘No, we’ll wait for the next helicopter.’ There were guys who’d been hit in the chest.”
Gena says he could not believe what happened next.
“I watched as the helicopter took off with at least five guys who had been wounded,” he says. “It was shot in the rear rotor. It started spinning, and I saw it explode in the air.”
Here, Gena pauses, overcome by emotion, but, after a moment, says, “To this day, I think it was God who told me not to go on the first helicopter. I didn’t hear a voice or anything.”
When the second medevac helicopter arrived, he and the soldier he’d rescued were safely evacuated to a hospital where Gena spent a week, before being returned to his unit in the 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment. Feeling invincible, he said he began volunteering to serve as the point squad leader, sometimes picking himself as the point man, other times selecting others.
“I was in charge of seven men, and every day I had to pick someone to be the point man. If no one wanted it, I served,” he says. “But can you imagine having to put someone’s life on the line? I always guaranteed the point man that he would be in my sights, so I could rescue him if something happened.”
During one patrol, his point man and close friend, Paul Jackson, turned back to Gena to say he was finding spent M60 shells.
“Halfway through his sentence, Paul fell dead, shot in the throat,” Gena recalls. “I climbed around a hill where there were boulders bigger than my dining room and started throwing grenades, doing everything in my power to kill the sniper who had killed my friend.”
“Then a Cobra gunship appeared and dove at me twice. I was wearing a black bush hat and black T-shirt, and the crew thought I was the enemy. They started shooting, and if it hadn’t been for the boulders, I would have been dead,” Gena says. “I guess God intervened again.”
After he returned to civilian life in 1970, Gena says, he protested the war and ended up arrested in Washington, D.C., where he was fined $500.
“I felt that if anyone had the right to demonstrate against the war, it would be me,” he says.
In the years that have followed, he has earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University at Buffalo and worked as a psychiatric technician at the Buffalo VA Medical Center and later as a mail handler for the U.S. Postal Service.
But post-traumatic stress along with physical wounds from the war and injuries in the workplace have thwarted those careers and made it impossible to establish a lasting relationship.
“I wake up in cold sweats at night from dreams about the war, actually re-enactments,” he says. “I’m unable to get close to anybody because so many people I got close to in Vietnam died. I have no wife and no children. Yet I still have the American flag hanging in front of my house. You know, I don’t know the reason why.”
Thomas A. Gena, 65
• Hometown: Buffalo
• Residence: Depew
• Branch: Army
• Rank: Specialist fourth class
• War zone: Vietnam
• Years of service: 1968-70
• Most prominent honors: Silver Star, Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge
• Specialty: Infantry