HARKER HEIGHTS — Retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. John Footman was drafted for military service in 1967, a couple of years after high school, and soon found himself patrolling the jungles of Vietnam.
Enemy small-arms fire caught him in the lower left leg one day, but he finished his 1968 tour, came back to the States, and then was assigned to duty in Germany. Nine months later, he volunteered to return to the war in Southeast Asia.
“I wanted to go back because the mission wasn’t finished,” said Footman, a 74-year-old Harker Heights resident. “I never told anyone that I volunteered to go back, but one of my brothers cornered me one day and said, ‘I want you to tell me the truth, and don’t lie to me.’
“I said, ‘What’s going on?’
“He said, ‘You volunteered to go back?’
“I said, ‘Yeah, but don’t say nothing to nobody.’
“He told me — and excuse my language — he said, ‘Well, brother, you better bring your ass home.’”
Footman was born and raised in Tallahassee, Fla. He knew the jungles of Vietnam was his destiny when he received his induction notice June 1, 1967, but he was ready, willing and able to go do his duty.
“I was glad I got drafted,” he said. “My cousin had volunteered, and he tried to get me to volunteer, but I didn’t think they’d take me. I got my draft notice two weeks after he had volunteered.
“My mother knew it was coming. She knew I wanted to go in the Army. She just said, ‘Son, take care of yourself.’”
Basic training was at Fort Gordon, Ga., followed by advanced individual training at Fort Polk, La., then it was on to combat in Vietnam. During his 20-year career, he also served at Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Eustis, Va.; Fort Polk; Fort Hood; and a total of 12 years in Germany.
After retiring from the military in July 1987, he and his late wife, Kathleen, who died in 2019, returned to central Texas. Kathleen managed a mobile home community while Footman worked for a time at the Veterans Administration, then took a job as a jailer with the Bell County Sheriff’s Department. After that, he worked security at Scott and White Memorial Hospital, where he stayed for nine-and-a-half years before having major surgery and deciding to retire permanently.
A past commander for the Harker Heights chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, and the Military Order of the Purple Heart Department of Texas, Footman now serves as chief of staff for the organization’s Region V. He also helps out with the local Wreaths for Vets group and is an officer with the Harker Heights Public Safety Commission.
He was recently honored, along with eight other area veterans, for ongoing community service as part of a Congressional Veteran Commendation program started six years ago by Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock.
“I’m involved with all the veterans’ organizations around here. With my wife gone, it helps keep my mind occupied, and I like helping soldiers. When soldiers call me and say, ‘Do you know anybody that can help me?’ I find out what their problem is and I send them to DAV 29 (Disabled American Veterans Chapter 29 in Harker Heights), and those guys really know how to help out.
“I’ve helped soldiers that were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve helped them get their Purple Heart; their disability benefits.
“I like helping soldiers because didn’t anyone help me when I retired. I found out everything on my own. These young soldiers getting out now – they need help. And it takes us older veterans to give them the support they need. They tend to give up too easily, and I tell them not to give up fighting for their disability.”
Now considered 100-percent disabled, Footman received two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars for valor (one with Oak Leaf Cluster), three Army Commendation Medals and a Combat Infantryman Badge.
One Purple Heart was for that leg wound during his first tour in Vietnam; the second recalls that explosion that nearly killed him after he volunteered for a return trip.
“When I got back there, they sent me to the 4th Infantry Division, and I was talking to the commander. He said, ‘What are you doing back here, sergeant?’
“I said, ‘Well, you’ve got a mission, right?’
“The first sergeant said, ‘That’s the man we need in platoon.’ Come to find out I was the only one in the company that was a Vietnam returnee.”
Footman eventually wound up being assigned to the 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized), and 30 days after that, a massive explosion rocked his armored personnel carrier.
“I hit a 60-pound mine. The concussion caused me to not be able to feel anything from the waist down. I couldn’t feel nothing. Three doctors said I’d never walk again.
“I had been laying in bed for about 15 days, trying to figure out how I’m going to go home and explain it to my mother. I told my buddy one day, ‘I’ve got to move my feet.’ So, I moved my toes, and I said, ‘Wow, man, I think I can get up.’ He said, ‘John, don’t get out that bed.’
“I got up and when I stood up, I kept falling. I mean I hit that floor hard. I’ll never forget this little major coming in there and she said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’ve gotta walk.’ The doctors were shocked. They gave me a walker, and I walked with a walker for about a week, then I told my buddy one day, ‘You know what? I’m through with this walker.’
“I put it to the side, and I’ve been walking ever since.
“When I went back to the unit, the first sergeant said, ‘I don’t believe it.’ I had a month-and-a-half left (in his tour), and he said, ‘You’re not going back out to the field.’ I said, ‘Top, I want to go back out with my soldiers.’
“He said, ‘Sgt. Footman, what did I say?’ I said, ‘OK, but I’ve got to do something.’ He said, ‘I heard you worked in maintenance before.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve done maintenance.’ So, they sent me to the motor pool for my last month-and-a-half, but I kept going on R and R. I went to Sydney, Australia, three times; went to Hong Kong once.”
He still has a little trouble with hip and back issues, and some of the mental scars from those long-ago combat experiences — and the treatment he and many other soldiers received back home — continue to haunt him even today, Footman says. Nevertheless, he is proud of his military service and has no regrets.
“People spit on us, called us all kind of names. It wears on you when somebody calls you a baby killer. You have to have a strong mind and a strong constitution.
“The thing that sticks with me right now is … a little (Vietnamese) girl was walking toward us. She was probably six or seven years old, and she had something strapped to her. My squad leader told me if I didn’t shoot her, he was going to shoot me.
“When I shot her and she hit the ground, she blew up. Things like that happened a lot.
“When I look at little kids today, it still bothers me. If anybody tells you they went to Vietnam, and it didn’t bother them, they’re lying to you. I still have flashbacks sometimes. I wake up in a cold sweat, and it was over 50 years ago.
“But I enjoyed my time in the military. The good Lord saved me over there. If I had to do it again, I’d do it all over. I really would.
“And now, I like helping these young soldiers coming into the Army. A lot of them never had a father; some of them never had a mom. Those guys need our leadership.”