Georgia veteran leader recalls return from Vietnam, and the dead

When America honors its fallen warriors on Memorial Day, the state of Georgia also will pay tribute to a U.S. Army captain who by all rights should have died on a battlefield northwest of Saigon on May 29, 1969.

Tommy Clack will be among 300 Vietnam veterans honored with a certificate from the Peach State as they stand together to remember patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice. Perhaps as much as any other living service member, Clack will wonder how an explosion that hit a 22-year-old fighting for a scrap of land so far from home known as “Angel’s Wing” could have taken three limbs, yet spared his life.

“My records show I was pronounced dead, but obviously God had something else for me to do,” Clack, who over the years has been a much studied medical case for near-death experiences, told “All those details of when I died are very vivid to me. It is there. They don’t go away.”

Clack was leading a small platoon through the jungle, running interference for another unit, when they suddenly found themselves surrounded by North Vietnamese fighters. Half an hour into a fierce firefight, Clack saw a flash and felt an explosion from a rocket-propelled grenade that launched him into a strange state between dream and void. He was taken for dead, but not left behind: His comrades covered him and others who died that day with plastic ponchos. When medics came to treat the wounded, one was curiously compelled to lift the edge of the poncho covering Clack.

“He doesn’t even know why he did that,” the veteran said of the medic. “God sent him to that poncho and that is why I am still here… he saw something.”

He would drift in and out of consciousness over the next days and weeks, and still has gauzy memories of nurses and doctors hovered around him, and a figure pointing a finger at him and saying “Now is not your time.”

Clack, 69, has spent nearly a half-century since honoring those who came home from war, serving as special assistant to the director of the Atlanta Veterans Administration and then in the Conyers office of the Georgia Department of Veterans Services. He retired in 2012 only to take over as president and chairman of the Walk of Heroes, a veterans war memorial in Rockdale County, Ga.

The Walk of Heroes is a ceremonial site devoted to remembering those who paid the ultimate price.

The Walk of Heroes is a ceremonial site devoted to remembering those who paid the ultimate price.

Along the way, Clack earned his degree at Georgia State University, attending in the early 1970s when the campus air was charged with anger and protest.

He felt the contemptuous stares of peers who had not served, endured insults from those who believed his permanent injuries were deserved and, in his mind, saw his assignments and tests downgraded by professors whose anti-war sentiments extended to ill will toward young men drafted into service.

“I have always believed you don’t bring yourself down to the level of those putting you down,” Clack said simply.

Walk of Heroes is seeking donations to repair the sprawling, three-acre, tranquil tourist attraction and ceremonial site in Conyers, Ga., devoted to remembering those who paid the ultimate price. The group then intends to build six educational enclaves, each one marking the major conflicts of the 20th century from the two world wars through to Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and the global war on terror.

“We want future generations to understand the cost of freedom because freedom is not free,” Clack said. “The younger generation needs to grasp the reality that there is a world out there that wants to do them harm. And I hope that this May 30th everyone takes a moment to say thank you for that sacrifice.”

Clack, an 8th generation U.S. Army veteran and father of a soldier son, is grateful for the miracle that allowed him to survive. But he has always been ready to take his place among those the nation honors on Monday.

“I would gladly die tomorrow if I had to, to preserve my faith in God and belief in my country,” he said. “It is worth it.”