Sam Shipley did it for you

Published 9:46 am Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Editors Note: Students from Elizabethton High School recently worked on a project in which they had to write profile pieces on local veterans in the community. The Elizabethton Star will be publishing one piece a day, highlighting both the work these veterans have put into their communities and the students who have spent time and energy telling their stories.

Makensie Puckett

EHS Student

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“Have you ever seen Forrest Gump?” the interview seemingly flipped, just for a moment.

“No, I haven’t.” I tell him, almost ashamed. Now, both of us are bouncing our knees.

“My wife and I saw it when it first came out.” He stops as his smile peeks out from under his lampshade mustache. Then his lips fall into a straight line, his eye following.

“Forrest Gump goes to Vietnam. The trees weren’t right. The jungle was just wrong. But the sound.” Now his eyes close. “They got the Hueys just right.”

Mr. Sam Shipley is a member of the Elizabethton City council. Aside from work he spends his time playing music, community projects, and beating cancer. In February of 2017, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. With the help of his wife, Vicki Shipley, and endless faith, he was able to overcome the disease. Before retirement, he served as a post office employee. However, for a while, he was known by another name: 2nd Lieutenant Shipley. From 1966 to 1969, he served in Vietnam.

As a young boy, Shipley sat in class at Lynn Avenue Elementary dreaming of the day he got to Elizabethton High School. Why? The answer is rather simple: music. The beat of the drums especially called to him. As high school rolled on, so did his cadence. The passion lead him to the Reserve Officers Training Corps band at East Tennessee State University. However, school was an afterthought as he and his fellow members won a national championship. Even after his time in the service, music was a main priority. Unfortunately, fitting in was also a prime concern.

“Well, I got back and grew out my hair, played my music, and stayed away from the war.” I can’t help but laugh. The clean cut man in front of me is far from the long haired rockstar he’s talking about.

“I know it sounds crazy! All sorts of crazy stuff happened in Vietnam too.” His eyes light up. As he chuckles, his shoulders fall forward slightly. One weekend when his group was on clerk duty, the closest mission group extended them an offer; they made a mission to aid a nonexistent American aircraft  in Bangkok, Thailand. Shipley’s unit loaded up the real plane, flew miles away, and had a getaway weekend with the on duty crew.

“We took a total of three trips like that, but the officers had no clue!” Still laughing, he pushes up his glasses and holds onto his stomach. Even on those trips, they had been completely supplied by the U.S. army.

“Now, the best food you could have was the ‘beef stew’.” He holds up quotation marks. Raising his eyebrows above the wireframes perched on his nose, he adds, “Even though they were from World War II, those crackers were as crisp as ones down at the store.”

That store is in the heart of Elizabethton, much like Elizabethton is in Shipley’s heart.

With an unsatisfactory report card in one hand and two draft letters in the other, Shipley had a decision to make. Deferment had kept him out of the raging war. His lacking work ethic pushed him all the way to the enlistment office. Shipley had his sights set for officers training camp. However, just like the old saying, not everyone can get what they want.

An increasingly high need for lieutenants stopped him from the desired course. Instead, the young man ended up at Fort Campbell, Ky. By the time Shipley got there, a fresh layer of snow covered the ground. Training for the humid, fiery jungle didn’t match the frigid, icy atmosphere.

“That clashed with the real thing in Vietnam. So did respect for officers.” Shipley flipped through his miniature notebook. My minimal knowledge of Army protocol left me with questions. “If you salute an Officer, it would let the enemy know who was in charge.” He explains benignly.

When he arrived in Vietnam, duties were tedious: sandbagging, clerking, clerking, and doorgunning on hueys. Even today, he can recall the fear of an attack as he was in night watch. Nights on the town were equally as unnerving, and discouraged strongly. However, the worst of the experiences come from doorgunning.

“We often flew over Saigon into the Boonies. Of course we were ready for an attack, just not one time.” Shipley speaks softly, running his hand over the desk. For a moment, we sit there in silence. Neither of us are sure how to talk about this.

“A shot came out of nowhere. Before we knew it, the whole plane was going down.” On cue, Shipley taps his finger tips to show the impact of the crash. Again, he takes a sizeable breath and clears his throat.

“Everyone stayed in the Huey for about an hour, maybe two, after the wreck. Eventually, the ones of us left crawled out.” With that, Shipley sighed. His shoulders let go of all the tension they held just seconds before. Twelve months in Vietnam passed slower than pond water; but finally, they got the news of their homeward-bound journey.

“Of course we came back on a bus, but the windows had steel bars.” Veterans who risked their lives were greeted by thousands of protestors and aggressive citizens. “But I fought for them to be able to protest,” Shipley reminds me.

“Once I got home, the girl I had been dating and I went to Ridgewood. I ate so much I was sick the next day. But even now, Ridgewood is always good!” He laughs fondly at the seemingly memory.

“The Army is the best organization I’ve ever been in,” he says, patting the embroidery on his navy blue shirt. The golden arch reads ‘Vietnam Veteran.’

“It really whooped me into shape.”

The negligent boy who fought bravely for his country came home a dedicated young man. The GI bill gave him a second chance at college. Four years later, he graduated from East Tennessee State University with a Bachelors in Sociology. After tireless work, Shipley joined his first Vietnam Veterans organization. From there, he was inspired to start his big project: the war memorial wall in downtown Elizabethton.

With time running out, I look away from my notebook of questions.

“How can we respect Vietnam Veterans more?” I ask, completely confident in the atmosphere surrounding us. With his dog tags in hand, he looks away.

“Hmmm.” Shipley grins as an answer comes to mind. “There is one phrase we love to hear.”

Silence holds the air taut. No one says a thing. Then two words are softly spoken.

“Welcome Home.”