January 21, 2013

Maine Marines mark 45 years since Khe Sanh siege

Henry R. Gagne, Ralph Sargent and Bill Witt recall the 77-day battle at a base near North Vietnam border.

By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Marine Corps veterans Henry R. Gagne, left, Ralph Sargent and Bill Witt speak on Thursday about their service during the siege of Khe Sahn, during an interview in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Ralph Sargent, left, smiles as Bill Witt punches his arm while telling the story of how Sargent sent him home after being wounded a third time, while they were in the Marine Corps in battle of Khe Sanh, during an interview on Thursday.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Additional Photos Below

Because of the lack of water, the troops couldn't shower. Gagne said after he came out, after 77 days without a bath or shower, it took three showers to remove all the red clay and other dirt.

But some things you can't wash away.

Gagne spent many nights during the siege talking with a member of his fire team from Tennessee who, like him, was just 18 years old. One night his friend told him he had a feeling he wasn't going to make it home alive.

After Gagne took shrapnel in his abdomen, his team went out without him the next day. Gagne's friend took point, which was normally Gagne's position. The friend was killed on the patrol.

"I didn't believe he'd really been killed," Gagne said. "So I went to the morgue tent to see my buddy. His leg had been blown off, his fingers blown off ... and this was the kid I had kind of kept an eye on."

Some 30 years later, while he was at a Veterans Affairs hospital being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, which had made him suicidal, Gagne and his wife went to visit the dead Marine's family and went to the cemetery where he was buried.

"It had been 30 years, and I hadn't cried once since I left 'Nam," Gagne said. "Seeing where he was buried, I cried like a baby. Khe Sanh is with me every day. You kind of take it a day at a time and do the best you can to keep our brothers' memories alive."

All three men said they're glad to see the warm reception veterans of recent wars have been getting upon their return from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of them also said they got no such welcome, returning from Vietnam. Sargent said he was once called a baby killer after he'd returned to the United States.

Witt said he has undergone treatment for cancer, which he thinks he got from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

They have each been recognized with various medals for their service, such as the Purple Heart and Silver Star.

Sargent was awarded the Bronze Star for his role in an attack, outside Khe Sanh, in which 35 Marines were killed while on patrol. He risked his own life to get wounded Marines to safety.

It was an award he didn't want to accept.

"At first I refused to wear it," Sargent said. "Now I wear it in honor of the 35 men killed that night."

Each of the three Marines said they have no interest in ever returning to Khe Sanh.

Keith Edwards -- 621-5647

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Marine Corps veterans Ralph Sargent, left, and Bill Witt speak on Thursdayabout their service during the siege of Khe Sahn, in an interview in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Marine Corps veteran Bill Witt speaks on Thursday about the siege of Khe Sahn, during an interview in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan


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