With each guitar string picked, the dreadful Vietnam jungle moves closer to the forefront. Each cord brings the scent of death into the air and the horrible sounds of combat ring as loudly as the verse.

Played to the tune of a classic cowboy melody, Fletcher Jowers sings, "Metal coffins in my dreams at night. Metal coffins in my dreams at night."

It was August 1968 when Jowers loaded onto a C141 Starlifter along with four other soldiers and 12 occupied metal coffins.

Recorded deaths from the Vietnam War tally 58,220 — the most American lives were taken the year Jowers wrapped up the first half of his second tour. He was coming home, or what everyone referenced as "back to the world."

On that 16-hour flight from a base in Vietnam to San Fransisco, those 12 coffins carrying war heroes sat less than a foot away from Jowers. Containers — like those used in the drive-thru teller line at a bank — detailed each soldier's life, including where they died.

Jowers can still recall the details of a 19-year old from Alabama and another young man from Hawaii, even some 51 years later.

Upon returning to United States soil, Jowers said he packed up the horrific memories of war in a box and buried them deep within his subconscious as if he had never served.

"I wouldn't tell anybody that I was even in the service," said Jowers from inside his house Wednesday. "I guess if they'd asked me, I would have told them. But much less than I'd been in Vietnam."

However, no matter how deep he tried to bury that box of memories, the past manifested through Post-Traumatic Syndrome Disorder.

Jowers eventually went on to study history at El Centro College Dallas, only to have symptoms related to PTSD keeping his focus elsewhere.

"You're afraid to fall asleep at night, afraid the house is going to burn down or someone was going to come in an kill us all. We don't have anyone on guard," Jowers reconciled, noting he would wake up praying to God, always ultimately thanking Him that those worst nightmares were only a dream.

The "survivor's guilt" grew after Jowers received a phone call from the U.S. Naval reserve station in Dallas. He was to be awarded the Bronze Star with a combat "V" for valor.

A framed wooden display inside Jowers' home proudly displays seven medals for good conduct, national defense medals and Vietnamese service metals, along with a photo of his younger self.

The Bronze Star is awarded for heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement or meritorious service in a combat zone.

"Receiving that medal probably compounded the survivor's guilt," he explained. "Those guys that I flew home with — those dead boys — I don't know if any of them got a Bronze Star and they gave their very lives."

After Jowers explained the meaning of each medal, he returned to his music room to share the tales of his, and his brothers', heroic actions.

It was the evening of Jan. 25, 1986, when Jowers, a Second Class Petty Officer, and two other soldiers loaded into a swift boat near the Cambodian border. The men arrived at the smaller of two islands that did not even equate to the size of a football field. Jowers explained he could see the bottom of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

A larger island across the way was known as a frequent gathering spot for the enemy.

Jowers had still not slept as the mission moved into its second night. He recalled fixating his drowsy gaze on a star that turned into enemy soldiers headed straight for him.

The American soldiers quickly took shelter around the only tree in sight. Jowers then took command of the situation while the other men began to break mentally.

"We would do like a squirrel when it goes on the opposite side of the tree," he recalled. "My radioman started crying and this other guy, he's wanting to jump up. I'm the senior guy. I said, 'No, get your ass down here.'"

"We were scared to death," Jowers admitted.

Shortly after the men radioed for help, U.S. troops arrived to intercept the threatening situation.

"The swift boat came and picked us up, and I could hear it on the radio to the base camp that every American base in Vietnam was under attack," Jowers recounted. "The Vietcong had broken — it was a full fledge attach on us."

Jowers explained the Vietcong had broken its truce for the lunar year holiday since it's the most important holiday on the Vietnamese calendar. North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces attacked more than 100 cities and outposts against South Vietnam and American troops.

The Tet Offensive is known as the bloodiest day of the Vietnam War. The attack took place around 3 a.m. on Jan. 31

"We lost a lot of men that week, but we killed a lot of them," Jowers ensured.

It was the turning point of the war that still had seven years to go.

In March 1968, Jowers and two others also saved their base camp stationed in Kien Giang Province from being attacked by the enemy.

When the soldiers reached their destination by "sand pan," they stumbled upon, "Two old ladies and a pot of rice that could have fed an army. We found some things. I couldn't tell you what it was, but the 'VC,' the enemy, was everywhere."

He recalled that company of Civilian Irregular Defense Group thankfully showed at that same time with their Green Beret advisors and ambushed the Vietcong in the area.

"We had an awful battle there. We saved our base camp from being attacked by the same company," Jowers stressed.

On Memorial Day, Jowers usually posts the same gruesome photo on Facebook and writes, "You brave young heroes; you'll never be forgotten."

The photo depicts slain U.S. Marine Corps soldiers piled on a tank that is departing a battleground.

Jowers proceeded to explain that in June 1967, his cousin's husband had been in that area before. The family member did not die there but lost his life the day Jowers returned home.

"I interpret it (Memorial Day) as a day to remember and honor men who served our country and especially the ones who died serving our country," Jowers remarked. "Remember them, so their memory lives on. That's why I post that picture of the Marines."

- - - - - - 

Ashley Ford | @aford_news | 469-517-1450