Tom Corey and Jerry
Photo by Emily Thomas
On Veterans Day, Jerry Barfield walked up to Tom Corey in a
Washington hotel and introduced himself. Corey didnít
recognize him. Barfield had seen Coreyís name on an e-mail
list some time before and was shocked at the sight of it. When
he heard Corey would be at the Veterans Day dinner, he made
When Barfield introduced himself, he told Corey he was one
of the guys who put him on the chopper. They laughed when
Barfield said, "You look a lot better now than you did then."
He thought Corey was dead that day 34 years ago. Everybody
did. Even Corey himself.
They hugged. They cried. Each says he gets emotional about
these kinds of things now. Each says every moment means so
much more now. "All kinds of things were running through my
mind," Corey said.
On Jan. 31, 1968, in Quang Tri Province, 22-year-old Tom
Corey was a squad leader with a First Cav unit. Jerry Barfield
was a lieutenantís RTO. A call came in to saddle up for a ride
into a hot LZ. Corey had a bad feeling about it, a premonition
he couldnít shake. He didnít want to go.
"I was trying to get my guys organized and not show them I
had any bad feelings about where we were going," he said. "I
had a responsibility, especially to the new guys."
On the flight to the LZ, Corey sat on the floor at the
helicopterís door with his feet on the skid. He liked to stay
close to the door "in case those things fall from the sky."
The helicopter didnít touch down at the LZ, but hovered a few
feet off the ground. Corey and his squad jumped, the bad
feeling hanging with him all the way. He couldnít rid himself
They headed for dikes near the village. They called in
artillery and air strikes. When the barrage ended, Corey stuck
his head up over the dikeís edge to see the best way to
approach the village and to locate other men. He saw a flash
come from the tree line. It was the last thing he would
remember clearly for a long time.
The bullet hit his neck on the left side, severed the main
artery and the jugular vein, went through his back, hit his
spinal cord, and exited his right shoulder.
That day, and for years afterward in hospital after
hospital, people asked, Why is he alive? The artery, the vein.
How could he live? He wondered himself. He thought he was
dying, if not dead already.
"I remember saying words to myself, 'God forgive me,í íí he
said. "Itís like when you go to confession in the Catholic
Church. I felt I needed to be forgiven for anything I might
have done in my life, because I thought that was it. I was on
my way out. I thought I had died."
Then came the hospitals - Japan, California, Colorado,
Tennessee. Critical care wards. Burned men. Disfigured men. A
triple amputee who screamed incessantly because there wasnít
enough medication to bring relief from the pain. Brief moments
of consciousness lapsed into long periods of darkness. Someone
told him he was paralyzed. He didnít understand what it meant.
"I donít remember who told me," Corey said. "It didnít come
across that I was paralyzed permanently. I tried to move and
nothing on my body moved."
Tom Corey is the president of Vietnam Veterans of America
now and one of the architects of the Veterans Initiative, an
endeavor meant to bring healing to people on both sides of the
war. He said it never occurred to him over the years that he
would be in a position to give back in a meaningful way to so
On Veterans Day, he sat at Jerry Barfieldís table in the
hotel banquet room, talking about the war, looking at photo
albums filled with Barfieldís Vietnam memories.
"I told him how much I admired him for what he was doing,"
Barfield said. "Most people in his condition would just give
up on life and you couldnít blame them in a sense. I admire
him for what heís done for Vietnam veterans. If I would have
been in Tomís position, I probably would have just given up on
Corey said such thoughts were not unfamiliar to him, that
"giving up" was a companion for many years. The thoughts come
to him even now. He knew men who had chosen to quit.
"I thought about it a lot," Corey said. "I thought about it
in the 70s and the 80s and the 90s. I lost several friends to
suicide when I was in therapy in Memphis. I go through it
every once in a while. Then I think about the things I do
have, the things God has blessed me with, the family and
friends and people who are so important to me. So I hang in
Jerry Barfield said he spent 21 years in the Army and
laughs at the thought. Old friends said he hated the Army so
much they couldnít begin to imagine that heíd make a career
out of it. He said he gets "real emotional now when I talk
about my guys."
"Itís hard to put into words what I felt when I saw Tom,"
he said. "When I was in the Army, I was never like this. Itís
different now, but I donít know why."
Corey said the moments Barfield described carry significant
"Vietnam changed the lives of those who served," he said.
"There is only one group of people who understand that change.
Itís important that we talk about it, about the sacrifices
that were made. No one else wants to talk about those things.
No one understands. The guys on The Wall, the guys who
have left us since then - thousands have left us so early,
dying of things related to what happened to them in Vietnam.
There are so many people. Itís all around us. Itís important
to make that connection. Itís important to touch those people
we served with."