Veteran profile

Willie Fields retired from the U.S. Army as a first sergeant after 24 years’ service.

KILLEEN — After growing up in extreme poverty working the cotton fields in and around Essex, Mississippi, when 74-year-old Willie Fields dropped out of high school and joined the military in 1964 it was like a breath of fresh air.

“I thought boot camp was the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Fields, a longtime Killeen resident who left school prior to his senior year and spent 24 years in the U.S. Army, retiring in 1985 as a first sergeant. “All kinds of good food, clothes, shoes — boots. I thought it was great until I met some people who were really racial.

“When I first got to basic training (at Fort Campbell, Ky.), there were four of us in a room together, and I was the only black. I got jumped a couple of times by my roommates. I told the drill sergeant about it, and he said he would take care of it. But it seemed to me that he didn’t do anything.

“I was privy to some of that (racism) as a kid. I used to see it happening to the grown-ups. But then, it was my turn. It was kind of hard for me to really comprehend.

“The physical (training) part of boot camp was no problem, but it was the way we were treated. And I’ll tell you something … a lot of people may not know that it happened not only to black guys, but to the poor white people, too. We were treated virtually the same. You don’t hear a whole bunch about that.

“Eventually, they moved me to another area, and once we got to Vietnam (a few years later), things were totally different. Everybody took care of everybody else over there.”

Fields took basic training at Fort Campbell, then moved on to AIT (advanced individual training) at nearby Fort Knox, where he trained as a tanker on M48 Patton tanks.

Three years after enlisting, he was sent to Vietnam from Fort Riley, Kan.

During his 1967-68 tour, he manned tanks and also worked as a personnel specialist. When he first arrived in country, it did not take long for him to get a taste of what the next year would be like.

“It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be,” he said. “When I got there — at Cam Ranh Bay — the first thing they said was, ‘Take cover.’ We were taking fire before we even got on the ground. I didn’t know what to do. I was just running around trying to follow what everybody else was doing.

“I lost a lot of friends in Vietnam ... people I knew prior to going over there. I really hate to talk about that.

“One thing that was interesting is that Charlie (U.S. troops’ name for Vietnamese soldiers) knew your name. That was one of the things I couldn’t understand until after I was there for a while.

“You see, they worked with us every day in the TOC (tactical operations center). They cleaned your hooch; cooked your food; cleaned your clothes … but at night, it was a different story. You could never really be sure who the enemy really was.”

Not only was going to Vietnam a bit of a rude awakening, so was coming back home after his tour ended. Protests and returning soldiers being harassed and spit on were a painful reality for young Fields.

“That was the really bad part — the way we were received when we got back. That really hurt. But it wasn’t enough to make me want to leave the military because I had learned what the military was all about.”

He was stationed at Fort Hood three times during his career, which also included tours in Germany. After he retired from the service, he went to work as a courtesy driver for Centroplex Ford in Killeen, then started volunteering at Metroplex Hospital before taking a job as a bus driver with the downtown Arrow Trailways station managed by former Killeen Mayor Tim Hancock. After that, he worked for a while as office manager for a local bail bond company, then retired for good after receiving 100-percent VA disability.

“A tank blew up and damaged my nervous system,” Fields said. “It caused my hands to look like claw hands. If you look at my hands, you’d think I have bad arthritis, but I don’t.”

Married to wife, Nikola, for 50 years, Fields is a father of four, grandfather of 10, and great-grandfather of one. All the family lives in the area and they see each other often.

He is active in the local Masonic organization, a member of the 40 and 8, and once served as commander of VFW Post 8577 in Copperas Cove. Fields also is a former commander of AMVETS and the Military Order of the Cooties, a subsidiary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Looking back now at his decision to leave school and join the Army, Fields says he thinks it was a good move.

“The Army made me a better man. If it wasn’t for the military, I don’t think I’d be here today,” he said.

“I didn’t have nothing going for myself. I wanted to join the Army. I thought that was a big thing.

“All the friends I had at that time either volunteered or got drafted. I was about to turn 18, so I was probably going to get drafted, anyway, and I was trying to get away from those cotton fields.

“I picked cotton and chopped cotton. Chopping cotton is when it’s first planted, and you chop all the weeds and stuff out so the cotton can grow. Picking cotton is after it’s growed and there are cotton bolls.

“When I was in Mississippi, I never knew anything besides cotton, beans and rice. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but we were overly poor. We had nothing, and I thought there had to be a better life. When I got away, I learned a few things.”

For anyone who might be considering signing on the dotted line today, Fields says it is not a decision to take lightly. It is not an easy life, but it can be a rewarding one.

“I’ve been out about 30 years, and it’s really hard for me to say. If you do join, give it your all. Just give it your all.

“I was a helluva soldier because I gave it my all. You can’t be an ‘almost’ soldier.”

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