Eastern Idaho man receives Purple Heart after 45 years

IDAHO FALLS POST REGISTERAugust 26, 2013 

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho prepares to present Jerry Blackburn with the medal on Saturday. Blackburn is joined by his wife, JoAnn.

ALEX MCDOUGALL / AMCDOUGALL@POST — POST REGISTER

IDAHO FALLS — It was an emotional moment for Army Spc. Jerry Blackburn.

Until Saturday, he’d never visited the Vietnam War Memorial — an inverted “V” that overlooks the Snake River. “I’d drive by and see the signs … but I never stopped,” he said. “Seeing it for the first time, I got a little choked up.”

Blackburn, today an area rancher, was among the first to arrive for a long overdue ceremony honoring the plain-spoken man’s service.

Rain already was falling and the gathering retired temporarily to a nearby picnic shelter to wait out the fast-moving storm.

So, after 45 years of waiting, Blackburn waited some more — another 30 minutes or so — before finally receiving his Purple Heart.

He had earned the medal during the opening hours of what would become known as the Tet Offensive — one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.

THOSE FIRST HOURS

“I was a military (Army) policeman in Saigon. We took the brunt of things in the first eight to 10 hours,” he said.

The assault (named for the Tet lunar new year holiday) came Jan. 31, 1968.

An estimated 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched a coordinated series of fierce attacks on more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam, according to the history.com website.

Though U.S. and South Vietnamese forces would prevail, the North won a strategic victory that marked the beginning of the slow and painful U.S. withdrawal, the website said.

Blackburn’s unit was moving into position to protect a vital command center when they ran into enemy forces. A truck carrying 22 of Blackburn’s friends and comrades was hit by enemy explosives and automatic weapons fire. He was riding in a Jeep behind the truck.

“I saw my fellow soldiers on fire … heard them screaming. It was awful,” he said.

Blackburn climbed out of the Jeep and began returning fire. He saw three enemy soldiers stripping weapons from the bodies of his fallen comrades. “I shot all three of them,” he said.

He also remembers shooting the driver of an enemy Jeep. Beyond that point, details fade away.

THE FOG OF BATTLE

Blackburn would engage in the firefight for more than two hours.

There were nearly three-thousand rounds of spent ammunition found where he made his stand. He was hit three times — bullets piercing his left thigh, pelvis and right groin.

Then an explosion knocked him to the ground. Later, he would learn that the force of the blast broke his neck in two places.

Somehow, Blackburn got back to his feet.

“Then I had this weird thought,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘That wasn’t so bad.’”

Eventually, Blackburn was taken to a field hospital. While undergoing treatment, it appeared the hospital was coming under attack. Still in his hospital gown, Blackburn found a helmet and boots. And putting on a discarded flak jacket that reeked of sweat, he resumed the fight.

By the end of February 1968, Blackburn was back in the U.S., recovering from his wounds.

But the paperwork that recounted his heroism under fire and the entirety of his service, somehow was lost. What was found was rife with errors. It took decades to get everything sorted out.

Eventually, Sen. Mike Crapo’s office helped track down the paperwork that finally led to Blackburn receiving his Purple Heart — on a stormy Saturday evening in Idaho Falls.

After receiving the box that held his Purple Hear, Blackburn said: “I’ve been choked up several times this evening,” he said. “And you know something; I hope those kind of emotions never go away.”

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