Recently, Melvin R. Barnes and I met at one of my favorite digs in Santa Clarita, the Corner Bakery, where we sipped coffee and spoke for over two hours exchanging our stories of U.S. Army service during the Vietnam War.
I found Mel to be a proud patriot, very proud of his family and a great American who has served his country and community well.
Student Deferment Ignored
Mel was born September 8, 1947 in Glendale, California, at Glendale’s Sanitarium Hospital.
“I was actually born in a nut house,” Mel joked.
I replied, “Don’t feel bad, I was born in the Crazy Water Hotel, downtown Mineral Wells, Texas.”
Mel grew up in nearby Burbank graduating from Burbank High School June 17, 1966, and then he attended Pierce College while also working at a local aircraft fabrication plant.
Though Mel had a student deferment, he was drafted into the U.S. Army anyway due to the huge demand for troops resulting from the 1968 Tet Offensive in South Vietnam.
On June 11, 1968, Mel entered downtown Los Angeles’ induction station and at day’s end, he and a busload of new recruits were bussed up to Fort Ord to begin Basic and Advanced Infantry Training.
Following AIT, Mel and four others were selected for the Non-Commissioned Officer Academy at Fort Benning, Georgia, where Mel excelled becoming Honor Graduate and was promoted to Staff Sergeant E-6 in February 1969.
That my friends, is one heck of an accomplishment!
Mel then became an NCO instructor at the academy for the next three months before his deployment to South Vietnam.
Before flying to Vietnam, Mel received a three week leave of absence to visit his family back home in Burbank.
Given the excessive television coverage of the Vietnam War, Mel’s parents were extremely concerned for his well-being but, at the same time, they were very proud of Mel’s service to our country.
You see, Mel’s Grandpa Charles Fehring fought at the Argonne Forrest during WWI and Mel’s Dad, Jack Barnes, served in WWII on a U.S. Navy destroyer and saw action at Okinawa in 1945.
Plus, Mel’s stepfather, Charles Kurtz, served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Clearly, Mel’s family heritage is steeped in military service.
Welcome to Vietnam!
After serving in Uncle Sam’s Army for one year, Mel deployed to Bien Hoa, South Vietnam in June 1969 as a replacement and his first night in-country wouldn’t you just know that they came under a Viet Cong mortar attack. Welcome to Vietnam!
Mel received orders to report to the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi assigned to 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company of the 1st/5th Infantry Mechanized Regiment as Platoon Sergeant. He replaced the previous platoon sergeant who was killed in action two weeks prior.
During his tour of duty, which ended June 14, 1970, his unit experienced long missions in the field constantly seeking enemy forces.
These missions, at times, lasted as long as three months which required the troops to make do using streams and bomb craters filled with monsoon rain water for personal hygiene. There were no shower facilities in Hobo Woods where they spent much time.
Search and Destroy
Mel’s mechanized unit’s principle activities were large-scale search and destroy patrols consisting of night time ambush missions, which for infantry troopers is the most nerve-racking.
They experienced numerous firefights, sniper fire and constant unforgiving, nasty booby traps. It was dangerous as hell.
Usually, the enemy they faced was the elusive 101st NVA Division which the 1st/5th chased across the Cambodian border despite Nixon’s pledge we wouldn’t fight in Cambodia. Sometimes, it became necessary to release Washington D.C.’s shackles.
Mel’s unit also experienced much action in the old French Michelin Rubber Plantation not far from the 25th Infantry Division Base Camp at Cu Chi.
Mel said a number of their patrols were recovering bodies from downed helicopters and KIA’s from other units. It was hideous work, but mandatory.
Because Mel trusted his instincts over that of his fellow grunts, he often chose to take point and take on tunnel rat searches and his troops were all too happy to accommodate him.
Remarkably, there were over 200 kilometers of three level tunnels in the Hobo Woods located 20 miles from Cu Chi towards the Cambodian border.
The precision of those Viet Cong tunnel diggers was simply mind-boggling.
KIA’s and WIA’s
In August 1969, Mel’s unit engaged a significant enemy force of the 9th Viet Cong Division while on reconnaissance.
His 2nd Platoon literally walked up on the enemy promptly killing one VC sentry when suddenly all hell broke loose with incoming RPG’s, heavy automatic and small arms fire blasting away.
In the opening burst of fire Mel instantly lost four KIA’s and four WIA’s so he grabbed four soldiers to flank the enemy positions and lost one more KIA and another WIA in the process.
Mel’s platoon leader called in Huey gunships and Cobras resulting in routing the enemy guerillas, driving them into their bamboo-concealed tunnels and into the surrounding jungle.
Mel recalls that one of his men took a grenade blast to his mid-section and Mel tried desperately to save his life, but it was not to be. That brave warrior died in Mel’s arms.
Home Safe and Sound
Things that linger in Mel’s mind to this day are sights of blown apart bodies, screams of pain and desperately wounded young men hollering and crying for their mothers.
Thankfully, his tour of duty ended July 14, 1970 and he returned safe and sound to his parent’s home where he would begin the next chapter in his amazing life.
Mel will never forget the jubilation as his freedom bird lifted off from Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat Airport bound for Fort Dix, New Jersey where he was immediately Honorably Discharged.
Mel’s awards include the Combat Infantryman Badge, 3 Bronze Stars w/V Device, Army Commendation Medal, 3 Purple Hearts, 2 Air Medals, National Defense Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, and Vietnam Gallantry Cross w/Bronze Star.
Mel went on to complete his education earning his Associate Arts Degree, Bachelor’s Degree in Clinical Psychology and his Master’s Degree in Natural Health.
Along the way, he worked 33 years with the Glendale Police Department and after earning his teacher credentials he taught Police Law and Science courses for 17 years at Glendale College.
Mel married Heather Brooks in October 1970 and they have two wonderful children, but sadly that marriage ended after 23 years.
Mel, being a happy warrior and a survivor, fortunately met Lisa Valenti and they’ve been married 20 years.
Proud Military Heritage
Mel is a proud Vietnam combat Veteran and he is very proud of his family which altogether includes four children and eight grandchildren.
Son Michael served four years in the Marine Corps and saw action as a Lance Corporal in Desert Storm.
Son-in-law Joe Hanze was a Marine Corps grunt and saw action in Somalia and Mel’s grandson Michael Ryan Barnes currently serves in the Marine Corps at Parris Island.
Another son-in-law, Chris Gibby once served in the Air Force, so Mel’s family military heritage is alive and well. These days, Mel stays active and healthy training and instructing as a Black Belt in Marshall Arts.