“I told my mom I would be back that afternoon,” Andrews said, as he took a deep pronounced breath while recounting his entrance into the military. “And as soon as the physical was over they took us in a room and said ‘raise your right hand, repeat after us and by the way you guys are on your way to Fort Leavenworth for basic training.’
“So I called my mom and said, ‘I am in the Army.’ She said, ‘No, they haven’t drafted you yet,’” he recalled.
The Kansas installation was overcrowded, so Andrews was sent to Fort Polk in Louisiana.
“Because of my good testing scores, rather than be put in to serve in the infantry unit they wanted me to fly jets,” he said.
That would have required a commitment of six years, so Andrews declined.
“So I ended up going in as a military police officer with training in Fort Gordon in Georgia,” he said. “As soon as I was done with training I was home for five days and then I went straight to Vietnam. It was a big cultural shift.”
Vietnam ‘was like the odor of death’
Andrews arrived in Vietnam on Christmas Day in 1970 at the age of 19. When his boots hit the ground for the first time, he can still remember what his first thoughts were.
“The smell … it was like the odor of death and that was the first thing I noticed. Time froze,” Andrews said.
The young soldier was assigned to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Viet Cong’s supply path that ran through Laos and Cambodia and the demilitarized zone.
Andrews and nine other soldiers were assigned to provide safety to Army cargo trucks carrying ammunition and helicopter fuel in remote areas.
“I was escorting convoys of fuel and ammunition up and down the mountains,” he said. “The drivers of the trucks had guns, but they couldn’t fight. We had to fight for them. They had to concentrate on getting a truck that could only go 17 mph up and down the mountain.”
Path to Bronze Stars
During August of 1971, it was a time of national elections in Vietnam and tensions were high, Andrews recalls.
While escorting one cargo truck, the driver accidentally hit a Vietnamese civilian. A crowd of angry villagers threatened to kill the driver.
“The leader of the (civilian) group told me they were going to take the driver and the police in the town said they were going to take him,” Andrews said. “We only had two M-16s and an M-60 mounted on our truck. So the police pulled a gun on us and the villagers had sticks and started to swing on us.”
Then PFC Terry Hestilow, who retired as a captain, was with Andrews during the chaos. Hestilow sent a letter detailing the entire scene to Army brass.
He said the entire event “lasted a little over an hour,” and Andrews managed to save lives without a single shot being fired, while coming up with a plan that involved making it look like the U.S. servicemen where roughing up their own soldier.
“We made it look like we were roughing him up a little bit so the crowd would back off,” Andrews said. “I told Hestilow to scream at him, cuss at him. So (the civilians) stood back for a few minutes.”
The Vietnamese Army showed up in the meantime and the colonel with the unit told Andrews that he was going to take the driver.
“I told him that on this day, the driver is going back with me or we are all going to die because nobody is taking an American soldier — it’s not going to happen,” Andrews said.
When the colonel realized that Andrews was not going to relent, he called off the civilians and his unit.
Andrews’ second act of valor came when a U.S. convoy encountered a Viet Cong unit ready to fire at the group of trucks carrying fuel and ammunition. A group of vehicles were blocking the path of the convoy.
After calling several units to get the vehicles moved with no luck — he was told that there was a lunch break going on — Andrews finally reached a commander and issued a stark warning.
“I told him if you don’t move these vehicles, we are going to push them off the side of the mountain,” Andrews said. “… we pushed the first one off the side of the mountain and guys jumped off the back.”
The show of force worked and the vehicles moved so the cargo trucks could get up the mountain and out of harms way.
Andrews, however, went up for a court martial after the incident, but he was exonerated after the hearing.
A ‘welcome home’ decades later
He was then nominated, but did not receive, the Silver Star, which is the military’s third-highest personal decoration for valor in combat.
But thanks to now-Capt. Hestilow’s detailed letters to politicians and military brass, in 2015, Andrews was awarded two Bronze Stars, given for heroic achievement or heroic service in a combat zone.
The Bronze Stars brought some much appreciated respect to Andrews, who at age 19 getting ready to turn 20, managed to save lives.
“I get asked how I did it at that age?” he said, while looking at his medals. “It was really about survival and making sure every soldier was safe. That was my job.”
That feeling of respect was elusive for decades for the veteran, who remembers returning to the U.S. in 1972 and being greeted by a not-so-friendly crowd at the airport.
“There was a group of girls that saw us and yelled out, ‘baby-killers,’” Andrews said. “They left and came back with a group of other guys and started saying things.”
After four decades of wondering if his service would ever be looked at positively, a special moment came during Hamilton’s recent Memorial Day parade.
Hamilton Mayor Pat Moeller had asked Andrews to be in the parade and ride in a car with the veteran’s name on it.
“I hear this voice and this lady shouts my name and she says, ‘welcome home sir’ and gave me a salute,” Andrews recalled.
“I had never heard those words until a few months ago,” Andrews said. “It occurred to me that I had never heard those words since I left Vietnam.”