Calvin Maxton Jr. recently received his Purple Heart, almost 42 years to the day that he was wounded in the Ashu Valley in Vietnam.
Maxton, now 64, was 20 when he was drafted into the military in 1968. He decided to go with the U.S. Navy, and was part of the special operations jungle surveillance Team One. The team went into the Ashu Valley on Oct. 18, 1970, the day after another team suffered heavy losses.
“We headed into Ashu all cocky,” Maxton said. “No one on our team had been wounded so far.”
The team came to a forked trail. One sailor went up one fork, while Maxton went up the other, about 50 meters. When they returned to the juncture, the Viet Cong detonated a bomb, then began firing on the team with AK-47s.
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“The bomb threw me about 25 or 30 feet,” Maxton said. “They had us in a perfect ambush.”
He suffered wounds to his back, arm and face. It took 45 minutes for a medevac to get to the wounded, because of gunfire from the Viet Cong.
“Forty-five minutes is a lifetime,” Maxton said. “The ambush was so well prepared.”
Maxton was flown to Da Nang where he was treated for his injuries, then went to Singapore to continue his recuperation. He was discharged from the Navy on April 24, 1971.
But the memories of what happened in Vietnam never left Maxton. He suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder until receiving treatment for it through the veterans affairs hospital in 1987. He’s endured 10 surgeries during the past 20 years due to his injuries and has chronic back pain. His eyes were damaged by Agent Orange, and he has artificial lenses in his eyes and must wear tinted glasses almost all the time, he said.
Maxton said he should have gotten his Purple Heart much sooner. But he never pushed for it, either.
When October comes each year, it’s a tough time for Maxton. He’s honored to have received the Purple Heart, but the medal is also a reminder of that day in 1970 when he lost good friends during the ambush, and suffered debilitating injuries himself.
“It’s always a pain in my heart,” said the soft-spoken Maxton. “It’s bittersweet. Sometimes it’s hard for me to talk about. We saw death every day. It’s a very, very painful time of year for me.”
But he decided to obtain the medal for his grandchildren, who he says keep him active and often involve him in their schools’ Veterans Day programs.
Maxton also received the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with three bronze stars, Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon with one bronze star, Navy E Ribbon, Combat Action Ribbon, Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 bar device, Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation (gallantry cross with palm and frame) Ribbon and Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation (civil action color with palm and frame) Ribbon.
Although a decorated veteran, Maxton, like many who served in Vietnam, came home to little fanfare.
“The American public treats their veterans better now,” Maxton said. “The men and women coming home from Iraq now have cheering crowds. We came home to our loved ones and protestors. The hippies would call you things like, ‘baby killer.’ Your self-esteem is already low because of the things you had to do to survive and the hippies would say those things and push you lower. During my time, they were quick to judge.”
Maxton said he is thankful for the care provided by the VA hospital. He urges the young men and women returning from conflicts in the Middle East, many of whom are suffering from PTSD just like he does, to get help from the VA.
“PTSD can take you through some twists, a lot of turns in the road,” Maxton said. “Paranoia, flashbacks, nightmares, no sleep. The VA will help them.”
Congressman Trey Gowdy’s office assisted Maxton in getting the Purple Heart mailed to him. Maxton chose not to have a ceremony to receive it.
Gowdy recently helped two other Vietnam veterans obtain their medals, a Purple Heart and Silver Star, but said he can’t take credit for helping Maxton. Emily Davis, who provides constituent services for Gowdy’s office in Spartanburg and who specializes in assisting constituents with veterans affairs, Social Security and Medicare, wrote a letter to the Department of the Navy on behalf of Maxton, Gowdy said.
“But the work is done by the veteran,” Gowdy said. “Nobody except he and his fellow soldiers helped him earn a Purple Heart.”