SPIRIT OF ALABAMA: Jim Lawrence - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

SPIRIT OF ALABAMA: Jim Lawrence

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BIRMINGHAM, AL -

In the summer of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson went on TV to announce that he was going to send thousands of American soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors to Vietnam.

A 24-year-old army lieutenant from Troy, Alabama didn't know much about Vietnam, but he got his orders, obeyed them and shipped out.

He came very close to being killed. But instead, he lived to tell his story of Landing Zone Albany in the Idrang Valley.

Jim Lawrence has had a long successful career in real estate and now as a teacher. But, he came within a fraction of an inch dying half way around the world in a place called Vietnam.

"We knew where it was on a globe, but we did not know. At the time we were not thinking war, we were thinking field exercise because at the time there was no real war going on, so it was kind of a foreign thought, a foreign experience for us," Jim said.

Jim Lawrence was a young army lieutenant, fresh out of Fort Benning. He was proud to be a part of Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry.

"That's the same regiment that General George Armstrong Custer took to the banks of the Little Big Horn River in 1876. We almost duplicated history in the battle I was in, cause we were on the banks of the Idrang River, we were ambushed and almost annihilated and we were very, very conscious and aware of the 7th Cavalry stigma that we carried with us to Vietnam, big time."

The first major battle had been fought at Landing Zone Xray just days before Lt. Jim Lawrence led his men near Landing Zone Albany. The Vietnamese fighters had a strategy to fight the Americans up close. Distance between them and the Americans allowed American air strikes to obliterate their forces. So, less than a hundred yards away they opened fire and closed quickly on Jim Lawrence and his men.

"There was no doubt in anybody's mind that we were locked in a hand-to-hand, fight-to-the-death combat. That's what was so unbelievable, it was a matter of either 'I'm going to kill them or they're going to kill me,' and that was every single soldier's mind set at that point in time."

Jim Lawrence says that in combat -- especially combat like that -- time and space has no meaning whatsoever. You think "this can't be happening." Jim remembers thinking "I don't want this job," but his training had taught him to lead his men away from the kill zone if he could, get them away, regroup, and live to fight another day. He had to get up out of the tall grass and signal his men to move.

"And, then when the North Vietnamese gunner put two rounds in the front of my helmet, came in the front exited the back, never touched skin, never bled, but the impact knocked me backwards. I was absolutely positive that the top of my head had been shot off and I was absolutely positive I was dying."

November 1965 is permanently etched in the minds and memories of the soldiers who fought the first battles with the North Vietnamese. The battle at Landing Zone Albany lasted 16 hours. When it was over, 155 Americans had died and 124 were wounded. Jim Lawrence would be hospitalized for two months. Why he survived while others didn't is something he thinks about every day. I'm told survivors of war feel a kind of guilt for surviving. Maybe that's why he told his story in his book "Reflections on LZ Albany".

"I have an obligation as a survivor, as an instructor, as you know, I have an obligation to tell people, to tell your audience, to tell the world why we don't need war if we can possibly help it."

I've learned over the years that the ones who hate war the most, the ones who wish we'd never have to go to war agai,n are the ones who have been in battle, smelled what war smells like, seen it and felt it themselves.

Jim Lawrence's book will help you understand that better than ever before. And maybe, it will continue the healing for him and men like him who fought, saw others die and understand fully the extremely high cost of war.

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