Percy Jones remembers the exact day he enlisted with the U.S. Marine Corps: December 26, 1968. He’s not so exact as to when he was discharged. “April of 1970,” he said.
Sitting between 15 or so women moving to a qigong video on TV and another group of men shooting the breeze near a coffee maker, the 64-year-old machine gunner from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, recounts his days in the Vietnam War while passing time at the Richmond Senior Center on Macdonald Avenue.
As a 20-year-old growing up in the woods near Louisiana State University, Jones said he didn’t know the war was going on—much less where Vietnam was on a map. “I just plain volunteered,” he said. “I went to my boot camp, gun school and ITR. At the end of my training they said, ‘You’re a machine gunner and you be going to Vietnam.’”
And off he went. When Jones landed in Da Nang, Vietnam, he said he wasn’t scared. His mentality was “if it’s my time [to die] it’s my time [to die]. If it ain’t it ain’t.”
As a machine gunner Jones was assigned to a platoon of 11 men. He was the middle man: five guys walked with rifles in front of him and five guys walked with rifles behind him. “I didn’t experience horror because I was a machine gunner,” he said. “I only used my machine gun in case of emergency.”
And there were emergencies, but it wasn’t a bullet that got the best of Jones. Stomach bugs caused him and many other soldiers to be medevaced to Japan with acute dysentery. “They said don’t drink the water,” he recounted. “And if you drink the water use the halazone tablets. But they taste so nasty we didn’t put them in.”
When asked how exactly he got dysentery he said he took his helmet, dipped it in the water and poured it over his head and drank it. “It was 109 degrees in the shade,” he said. “The water was nice and cold and from the stream.”
War is not fair. And if the invisible water bugs didn’t get the best of Jones, the defoliant Agent Orange did. Jones said he’s on 100 percent disability because of the chemical warfare. “It’s like insecticide,” he said. “It takes two to three weeks [to work]. Sometimes we’d go in there the next day.”
Jones said it was hard to tell what Agent Orange smelled like because it was often mixed with the smell of exploding bombs. “Spray and bomb, bomb and spray,” he said.
Jones wasn’t diagnosed with Agent Orange symptoms until 1995—25 years after he was discharged from the military. For more than 30 years he’s had high blood pressure and diabetes because of herbicidal warfare program, he said.
But Jones isn’t angry. He said he was just a regular soldier doing his duty and that he’d do it all over again. “If I suffer the consequences, I volunteered for it,” he said. “I didn’t go over the hill, run or want to go home. I stayed and did my duty.”