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Tuesday, October 4, 2022
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Tom Kucera’s story of the Vietnam War

Thomas “Tom” John Kucera was born January 3, 1947 to Peter Joseph and Celestine Victoria Kucera.  Tom was the second child of seven children in the Kucera household. Tom attended East Bernard Holy Cross Catholic School grades 1 to 8 and attended East Bernard High School, graduating in the Brahma class of 1965. After graduating from high school, Tom attended WCJC from 1965-66.

In Vietnam, war began escalating at the beginning of 1966. The number of U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam totaled 184,314 and South Vietnamese military forces totaled 514,000. The U.S. estimated the number of enemy soldiers under Viet Cong (VC) and People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) occupying South Vietnam was nearly 280,000 by June 1966, including part-time guerrillas (independent insurgents). By the end of 1966, the U.S. had approximately 385,300 troops in Vietnam with a U.S. casualty rate of 6,433 soldiers for just that year. 

Back in the United States, early 1966 brought protests and marches against U.S. involvement in this war; many opposed the war on moral grounds. By late March, protests took place across the U.S. over a three-day period. For the first time in history, war and its violence was openly broadcasted on nightly TV news, bringing the graphic reality of war into every Americans’ living room. 

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Families in Wharton County felt the grief of war firsthand as their sons were being drafted and some receiving letters of, “It is With Great Regret to Inform You.” Parents spent sleepless nights worried if or when their son’s draft number would be announced. Parents of those drafted would drive in stoic silence, taking their son to board the bus in Wharton, where they would say what might be their last goodbyes. 

On June 22, 1966, 19-year-old Tom Kucera made an admirable decision to volunteer for the draft and enlisted in the United States Army. Per Tom’s DD214, he entered current active service in Houston, Texas. Tom was on his way to become a soldier for the United States of America, leaving his family and the only life he knew, farming, behind.

Screaming Eagles

‘Tom said every time he strapped on his parachute, he knew he would feel like the Screaming Eagle on his insignia — looking for prey, talons out and wings spread.’

Training as a soldier was exhilarating for Tom, as he successfully went through airborne training and was assigned to the famous 101st Airborne Division known as the Screaming Eagles. The Screaming Eagles is a specialized modular light infantry division of the U.S. Army trained for air-assault operations. The Screaming Eagles is referred to as “the tip of the spear,” being the most potent and tactically mobile of the U.S. Army’s divisions. According to the author of Screaming Eagles: 101st Airborne Division, its unique battlefield mobility and its high level of training have kept it in the vanguard of US land-combat forces in recent conflicts.

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During Tom’s childhood growing up on a family farm, he was raised to be a worker, self-disciplined with high ethics and values. This was Tom; he knew no other way to achieve any goal except through hard work and giving 110% to all he did. These traits were needed to achieve the honor of becoming a Screaming Eagle.

Tom was proud of becoming a Screaming Eagle paratrooper. Paratroopers make more money per month than “legs,” as the paratroopers called the regular army soldiers. This pay scale was based on the history of 101st paratroopers, who in war, are always sent into hot combat zones before the regular army soldiers go in. During training, a potential paratrooper must successfully complete five jumps during jump week, and to stay jump-qualified, you must make one jump every three months.  Tom said every time he strapped on his parachute, he knew he would feel like the Screaming Eagle on his insignia — looking for prey, talons out and wings spread. 

In a normal situation, Tom’s job was to jump out of a plane with the rest of his crew, descend to earth and fire at the enemy. Before each jump, paratroopers stand ready in a long line approaching the “stick” waiting at the door/ramp where they will leap out of the airplane. Each jumper has one second to leap forward after the man in front of him makes his jump. If they hesitate, the jump master stands by the door/ramp and helps them descend (friendly push). To determine the order of the stick, the most inexperienced jumpers are at the front of the line; the ones in the rear are those who have proven they will never hesitate at the door/ramp. To illustrate the type of man Tom was at this time of his life, Tom was usually the last man out, followed by the assistant jump master and then the jump master.  

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Tom’s father taught him you had to work hard in order to earn what you wanted in life. Tom wanted to be the best he could for his country. Tom became one of the best trained 101st Airborne Division paratrooper he could and was prepared to go to Vietnam and fight for the South Vietnamese’s freedom. This meant something to him. When it was time to go to Vietnam, he went with honor, pride and the work ethics of a Wharton County farmer. 

Landing in Vietnam

‘With wet feet and muddy pants, your life-fighting in the Vietnam jungles has begun.’

Tom landed in Vietnam ready to do what he was trained to do and ready to make a difference, but in Vietnam nothing, was normal, chaos reigned and war was in full force. It was real. Tom was not prepared for what he was about to experience. Instead of jumping from airplanes into hot spots, paratroopers had to hack their way through the jungle and fight like a regular army. Tom was slapped in the face of a different existence — an existence that only soldiers can know. 

Stars and Stripes (a military newspaper) describes the first taste of the Vietnam jungle experienced by U.S. soldiers as hot, sultry and dangerous: you walk 10 yards to go forward 5; the enemy can be 30 feet away, hidden by the foliage; you pick your feet up almost to your knees to keep from tripping on vines; you sit down for a break only to be covered by insects, such as ants a quarter-inch long; and you hope for rain one minute, then are waist deep in water the next, fording a river or stream. The first sounds you hear are guns firing at a distance and choppers moving overhead — sounds that will haunt you forever. With wet feet and muddy pants, your life-fighting in the Vietnam jungles has begun.  

Tom’s greatest challenge

‘Tom died mentally that day and became a “ghost soldier” — his body was whole, but his soul was annihilated.’

Men, particularly soldiers in war, experience situations which challenge them beyond human strength of character; Tom was one of these men. His greatest challenge in life presented itself in the spring of 1968 shortly after his 21st birthday. He was sent south of Pouc Vinh, South Vietnam, assigned to the 2nd 319th Artillery Liaison Brigade, 101st Airborne Headquarters Battery. On a base, everything is done through a chain-of-command structure. Everyone on the base knows this structure. On this day, the chain-of-command was a major (superior authority) followed by captains, lieutenants, sergeants and lastly specialist 4th class. Specialist 4th class Tom Kucera was responsible for taking orders from his sergeant to call in an artillery strike as needed. Using a radio phone, Tom would call in coordinates of the enemy location. This location call lets the gunners know how to set the artillery weapons to hit the called-in target. This system is supposed to function like a well-oiled machine, but in war, there are very few ideal situations. 

On this day, Tom met his devil —his major, who came out of his hut, drunk or on drugs, dressed in his underwear with a woman from the USO. A sniper had been firing from a friendly Vietnam village into Tom’s base station. Protocol for this type of incident was for the sergeant to take out a patrol to find the sniper and end the problem. However, the “devil” ordered Tom to call in an artillery strike on the friendly village. This was to be the moment that would change Tom’s life forever, and he knew it.  He basically had two choices: follow the order, which could mean a friendly village being wiped out; or he could disobey the order, which would result in a dishonorable discharge recorded on his military record and eventually, could affect his civilian life. The problem with these crucial moments is they are over in seconds.

Knowing he would never be the same, Tom made the decision and followed orders as he had been trained and called in the strike. The artillery struck the village resulting in massive carnage; Tom was horrified by what he had done. This strike not only destroyed the village, but also a U.S. Army helicopter, carrying 10 soldiers to the front, which accidently flew into the path of the artillery fire, killing most of the passengers and crew by “friendly fire.” Tom died mentally that day and became a “ghost soldier” — his body was whole, but his soul was annihilated.

Tom, who arrived in Vietnam a very honorable, hardworking person who believed in humanity became a soldier of war — trained to kill or be killed and follow instructions given by your superiors, whether right or wrong. The war in Vietnam killed the loving hardworking farmer, everyone knew as Tom Kucera. Tom’s life after Vietnam would never be the same.

After the war

‘Tom was a casualty of war who could be alive today living a normal life of a farmer, but instead he chose our country over himself.’

When Tom’s tour was over, he landed in California. He went from shooting the enemy one day to becoming a civilian the next. There, he was spit at, called a “baby killer” and treated as an enemy, not as a veteran and war hero. Tom was so beaten down, he did not call his family to pick him up but hitched-hiked back to East Bernard. For the remainder of his life, Tom suffered from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by the Vietnam War until his recent passing February 15, 2020. Tom was a casualty of war who could be alive today living a normal life of a farmer, but instead he chose our country over himself.

Tom’s family is very thankful to the community of East Bernard, who always watched out for Tom.  They are forever grateful to David Caldwell, counselor at the Veterans Center, Houston, and the many doctors at Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where Tom was treated for PTSD, who called him their friend and treated him with the dignity Tom deserved. 

Information for Tom Kucera’s story of the Vietnam War came from the eulogy written by Beth and Pete Kucera, Tom’s brother and sister-in-law of Boling, Texas. They were forever there for “Brother Tom!”

Author’s note: Tom Kucera was a kind soul, raised to believe in what was right. You work hard, you give back to others and you do so with strong ethics and morals without bringing attention to yourself. Tom went to Vietnam with the spirit of good in his soul. There, he had to live every day where all he believed did not exist, as the only law he was to obey was the law of war. War is harsh and cruel, where you live in conditions unfit for any human wondering, “Will today be the day I die? Will today be the day that breaks my Mama’s heart?” Every soldier must do what he has to under the laws of war, but every soldier was just a boy before he crossed the threshold into the hell of war and those who return home search the rest of their lives for the life they once had and battle the nightmares and demons that followed them home. Tom Kucera is an American hero! He was loved by all. When Tom gave you his smile and that special “Hey,” you felt all is well with the world. God bless Thomas John Kucera, who served his country with honor, dignity and everything he was taught to do and be! You are greatly missed!

Sarah L. Hudgins
Sarah L. Hudgins is a lifelong Wharton County resident who is dedicated to honoring our veterans and keeping their stories alive.

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