Comanche veterans recall memories of Vietnam

By Scott Rains
Lawton, Oklahoma (AP) November 2010

War is hell. It's become a cliche, but it's not trite to those who've experienced it - it's a fact.

Ask two Comanche Nation warriors who earned Silver Star commendations during gut-wrenching experiences in the Vietnam War. They'll tell you. They'll also tell you that the return from chaos offered its own levels of Dante's Inferno.

Decades after descending into an experience truly understandable only to those who've experienced it, the fellowship of other Comanche veterans has allowed these soldiers to realize they need never suffer alone again.

Larry "Cobb" Laurenzana and Gene Red Elk are two of only five Comanches known to have earned the Silver Star, as far as can be traced by Lanny Asepermy, Comanche Indian Veterans Association (CIVA) historian.

The two men's memories of combat have shaped their lives as they continue to come to terms with being boys who became men in the heat of battle. Now considered 100 percent disabled from their combat experiences, both men recalled being young, able and ready to serve their country.

Laurenzana was 17 and a half when he walked into the recruiter's office and enlisted in the Army after receiving his draft notice in 1968. The war was building and, though a married teenager not yet old enough to legally buy a pack of cigarettes, Laurenzana was the right material to fill the ranks.

"They still took me," Laurenzana said. "In those days they'd take anybody."

George Red Elk was in Nebraska when he received his notice. He'd spent a year in college and was working on bringing in the wheat harvest when he and a friend joined the Army through the buddy plan. He and his friend had decided against joining the infantry or the artillery, which they knew would see combat in Southeast Asia.

"We decided we'd join the armored," Red Elk said with a chuckle. "We said, 'There's no tanks in Vietnam.' Boy, were we wrong."

Naive in their military beginnings, the two men found bravery something seemingly inherent in their Comanche blood.

Comanche warriors are historically known as some of the fiercest ever to inhabit the Great Plains and since the end of the wars with the United States, have been some of the staunchest defenders of this nation.

About 1 percent of the American population has served in the armed forces - for the Comanche people that proportion reaches almost 12 percent, Red Elk said. The land has always been central to the character of the Comanche people.

The Numunu are known for legendary battles fought with a fierceness that has been credited with slowing white, Western expansion as much as 30 to 50 years, according to some historians.

Those traits paid off for the young soldiers, not only for survival but also in valor under fire. Laurenzana's training in the Army led him through jump school and Ranger training in Florida before valuable jungle training in Panama.

He entered his first year in Vietnam as a member of the 101st Airborne Division where he served in a LRRP - Long Range Recon Patrol. He was twice decorated with the military's fourth-highest award for heroism in combat, the Bronze Star with valor device, along with a Purple Heart for shrapnel, though the proud warrior said the damage was minimal.

"That was in A Shau Valley; we were right in the middle of it," Laurenzana said. In 1970, Laurenzana was discharged. A young man with a taste for war, he then enlisted in the Marine Corps and served in the 3rd Battalion as a lance corporal.

It was then he spent time in Laos and Cambodia. Eight months in, Laurenzana was in the firefight of his life near the demilitarized zone. Accompanied by tracer fire from a spooky gunship, he and another soldier held off Viet Cong fighters through the night.

A rocket-propelled grenade was fired that shocked the soldier back onto the ground. As two Viet Cong soldiers, bayonets affixed to gun barrels, leaped over him, a third reached down to take the watch from Laurenzana's wrist.

"I pulled my .45-caliber from my shoulder holster and shot him," he said.

Laurenzana saw the men with the RPG prepare to fire, and he shot one; as the grenade hurtled his way he shot the other man. The explosive hit the ditch behind him and as he flew back, shrapnel took one of his eyes.

Severe head wounds sent the soldier to Da Nang, then Japan, before he came stateside and spent seven months recovering in California. Laurenzana was awarded the military's third-highest decoration for valor - the Silver Star - to join a rainbow of ribbons, honors and medals awarded in his military career.

The Silver Star may be awarded to any member of the armed forces who is distinguished by an act or acts of extraordinary heroism. As a tank commander for D Company, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, Red Elk's heroic example under fire while suffering from severe wounds inspired his entire unit to press on and overpower a battalion-size Viet Cong force, Asepermy said.

Inspiration to others through the actions of one is one of the qualifiers that earned Red Elk the Silver Star in 1969. The armored tank unit was ambushed near a rubber plantation in what was called the "Michelin Rim," Red Elk said.

"An RPG went over my head and hit a rubber tree," Red Elk said. "It fell on my .50-cal. (machine gun) and broke the mount."

The tank commander picked up the large gun and moved it before taking to the controls. When the Viet Cong attacked a tank unit, Red Elk said, it was never simply a skirmish.

"When we got into a firefight with the VC, they were ready to fight," Red Elk said. "They weren't messing around."

Two more RPG rounds hit the armored hulk - shrapnel tore through the hull and injured Red Elk's right hand; but in a fight for your life, you find a way, he said.

Red Elk took control of the tank's gun and, despite the new disability, used his left arm as a fulcrum - with the mangled right hand fixed between his left elbow and forearm - to maneuver the tank controls and kill two RPG teams.

"I fought for about 45 minutes before I passed out from loss of blood and the pain," Red Elk said. "I really don't remember it. My unit leader told me how I was shooting when it happened. I guess the Good Lord didn't want me to remember it," he said.

After two weeks convalescing, Red Elk finished his tour and continued to serve in the Army until 1973 before returning home, where he built a life of domesticity near Apache with his wife, Fran.

The new settings couldn't remove the memories, only bury them, he said. Laurenzana returned from life-or-death conflict in a war zone to a life of internal conflict that would cause him to create his own war zone wherever he was, he said.

In his own way, he continued to seek death - to challenge it. The unpopular war made for less than a hero's return for the veterans of Southeast Asia. Memories from the madness made for nightmares soldiers couldn't forget. Conditioned to kill and survive from moment to moment, a return to civilization offered unpredictable results for the wounded warriors.

Even those not injured in combat are still casualties from its impact, the two men said. Military service remained in Red Elk's blood. The grandson of World War II Comanche code talker Roderick Red Elk, in 1982, he joined the National Guard's D Battery, 1st Battalion, 158th Field Artillery, as a field artillery surveyor.

He began his second military career working with howitzers and by the start of the Gulf War in 1991 was working with the Multiple Launch Rocket System in the Kuwaiti desert.

Twenty years after his first return from war, Red Elk saw a change in veteran treatment by the civilians who greeted him upon arrival at Altus Air Force Base.

"There were 18 to 20 of us who had served in Vietnam and they had us lead," Red Elk said. "We received a standing ovation. That made me feel good, better than I felt after coming back from Vietnam," he said.

Laurenzana's readjustment was first more volatile than stabilizing. Following his discharge, he and his wife divorced and he went off the rails with alcohol and self-destructive tendencies while in California, he said.

Decades of unrest, nightmares and feelings of alienation followed him. A warrior without a fight, he said he was always looking to start one.

"There were armed standoffs with the police; it was madness," Laurenzana said. "I used to be stone-cold crazy."

A move to Dallas, followed by marriage to "a good Comanche woman" - Mary - led Laurenzana to Oklahoma in 2004 and allowed him to reclaim his life and his memories.

The introduction to a new military family allowed the warrior what he needed to finally find his way to the adjustment that had long eluded him.

"That's when I joined CIVA," Laurenzana said. "Now I can talk about it, now I can laugh about it. That's how I can tolerate it. It took a lot of time and support. I used to have some bad dreams."

Laurenzana said he'd always been a "lone warrior," so to speak - "I never wanted to join a support group." But after joining the CIVA and being honored at a ceremony, he learned that he'd found a family.

"When they honored me, I couldn't talk," Laurenzana said. "I began to cry, I couldn't talk at all."

A year ago, on Nov. 1, Laurenzana had a heart attack that left him dead at a local hospital for almost five minutes before he was revived, he said. His brothers and sisters in arms were at his side at the hospital and during the annual CIVA Veterans Day Celebration and a moment of silence was marked as the dance was stopped to recognize the stumbled but unfallen warrior.

A rejuvenated Laurenzana is now the CIVA second vice commander.

"I'm very thankful I'm there with them," Laurenzana said. "I'm thankful for them."

Red Elk, now CIVA commander, said the camaraderie shared with his Comanche warrior brothers and sisters has allowed him his memories as well.

"I didn't like talking about it," Red Elk said. "I didn't want to talk about it. Now I can."

A decade into a new round of warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, Red Elk and Laurenzana said the guerilla tactics and extreme violence faced by a new generation of soldiers aren't so different from their experiences - only the locations have really changed. As younger Comanches return from service under fire, CIVA has its collective arms open to offer support and counsel, the commander said.

Members have served in all branches of the military, he said. "We're trying to get some of the younger veterans to join, but it doesn't seem like they're ready just yet - it's still too fresh for many," Red Elk said. "But they will be. Sometimes it takes a while before you can reach out," he said.