LAMPASAS — Mike O’Hara survived firefights, mortar explosions and rocket attacks during three tours with the infantry in Vietnam, but the emotional scars and pain he brought back home nearly destroyed him.
“I drank an awful lot,” O’Hara says. “Up until recently — maybe 10 years ago, when (Department of Veterans Affairs) finally got a handle on what medications worked for me — I was drunk every night. Got into a lot of trouble over that stuff, but it’s the only way I could deal with it.
“After the first tour, I learned (that) you don’t make friends — because then it hurts when they get killed. If you don’t make friends, and you just have acquaintances, then it’s just something that happens.”
O’Hara went to Vietnam the first time not long after joining the U.S. Army in 1965. He was what some might call a troubled teen, raised by a single mother in Massachusetts, and when his rebellious ways landed him in serious trouble with the law, it was off to boot camp.
“I have to admit, I was a pain-in-the-ass. I was not a good child in my teens — staying out late, drinking, basically raising hell. What finally happened was I got caught joy-riding (in a stolen car) with a buddy. My mother said, ‘That’s it.’
“She went down to the judge and said, ‘My son’s in trouble; what can we do?’ So I ended up going into the Army, two days after I turned 17.”
Even after he put on the uniform, young O’Hara had trouble staying out of trouble. It didn’t take him long, though, to figure things out.
“I learned fairly quickly that if you keep your (stuff) together, you don’t get yelled at as much. I did a lot of pushups until I started to learn to keep my mouth shut.”
His first duty station after boot camp and advanced training was in Hawaii, with the 25th Infantry Division. Six months after he got there, it was off to war, and a life-changing three years of combat.
“The first tour was continuous patrolling. And I’d say if I learned something from that time, it was the utter tiredness. You’re tired all the time. We went on Operation Paul Revere — which was actually four operations — and I heard it was the longest continuous combat operation to date: 249 days. Our battalion was out on all four of them.
“When you get shot at, it’s actually a relief, in a way. All the other time, you’re waiting, and all that nervousness is there. Then, finally, when it happens, you can do something back,” O’Hara explained. “It was very surprising, because it did not make the noise I thought it would. The sound you hear in the movies? No, it’s not like that — it just ‘snaps.’ A real sharp snap. It’s hard to describe. It’s that breaking of the sound barrier when it goes by you. A machine gun is a whole bunch of rapid snaps.
“When you get shot in the head, it’s not like in the movies, either. You don’t stand there. You just fall, like a bowl of jelly. One time, I was running right behind a guy that happened to.
“The one that shocked me the most — he wasn’t a close friend, but he was a friend I knew — was a kid, and he got a bullet crease right through here,” O’Hara said, pointing to his bicep area. “It took about an inch of skin off. And he was sitting there (saying), ‘What’s my mother going to think? What’s my girlfriend going to think?’ And then he died of shock. He just went into shock and died.”
After a second tour with a Mobile Advisory Team, and a third tour as an advisor, O’Hara came back home and spent another 17 years in the Army, keeping his nose mostly clean and retiring as an E-8 (master sergeant/first sergeant) after 20 years’ service. He lived in Harker Heights then, and went to work on an offshore oil rig for two years, then managed a 7-Eleven store, attended classes and taught part-time at Central Texas College, before the VA declared him 70-percent disabled and unemployable.
Now 71, O’Hara has a house in Lampasas, and spends his time making custom knives and hanging out at VFW Post No. 8539, where he serves as house committee chairman. He is happy with his life, and says he has no regrets; never looks back and wonders what might have been.
“I would say, my life is really no different than anybody’s. I’ve had my ups, my downs, maybe some specialized problems.
“I’ve never been married. I think I came close probably twice, but I knew I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t think they deserved the crap that I had going on with me. They were good girls — it might have worked out; might have not. By the time I figured out it might be a good thing to be married, I was too damn old,” he said, laughing.
“I came out of ‘Nam not really caring about people. I’m indifferent to people. If someone dies, I’m like, ‘OK, well, see ya.’ It’s nothing I mean to do; it’s just the way I am. Now, I’ve never done anything violent. If I was going to say I was dangerous in any way, it was to myself.
“I very rarely drink now. If I drink to any extent, it’s at my house. If I come up here (to the VFW) and drink, I’ll have maybe two or three beers, and I usually time them, one an hour. I’m paranoid about drinking and driving. I will not do that. If I ever get caught again, it’ll be straight to jail.
“A lot of my troubles came after I retired from the Army. When you’re in, you’re too busy to think about those things … but I don’t blame what happened to me so much, the problem was how I handled it. A lot of soldiers are too damned proud to go ask for help, and I was like that.”
Once a soldier, always a soldier, O’Hara says. He is proud of his service, and would do it all over again. Vietnam was a controversial war, and the first one considered “lost” by the United States, but he still believes it was the right thing to do.
“I have got to say that it was just, because I lost too many friends over there to say it wasn’t. I think we were right. The military did not lose the war over there; the politicians lost it. I’ll tell you right now — the biggest thing we have to fight in the Army is not the enemy, it’s the politicians back here that makes these rules of engagement,” said O’Hara, whose military awards include the Silver Star, Bronze Star with ‘V’ device, Purple Heart and Army Commendation Medal with ‘V’.
“I am a strong believer … you’ve got light colonels and colonels, with 20 years in the military, training nothing but their specialty. Then, you‘ve got a first-term representative come up and tells them what to do. They get people killed.
“I am a firm believer that when you let loose the dogs of war, you take that whole collar off. Just give ‘em their objective and say, ‘Take care of it.’
“I’m a soldier, and I will always be a soldier. I believe strongly that when I took that oath of office, it never runs out. I will always protect the Constitution. I will fight, even at my age, to protect it against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”