It was getting dark that fateful day, Oct. 15, 1966.
The squad came across a trench dug across the road.
As the soldiers started jumping over the trench, the squad leader felt something was wrong.
“I relive that day every day,” said Dewell Glen Tolbert recently, getting a tissue from his pocket and wiping a tear away that started to stream down his face. He clutched his recently awarded Purple Heart in his hand tightly as he told the tale.
Having just turned 20 years old 10 days earlier, Tolbert had only just started his first tour of duty with the Army in Vietnam, in June of that year.
His squad leader ordered them all to come back.
“And that’s when I heard the awfulest explosion I have ever heard in my entire life,” Tolbert said. And in that split second, a soldier had stepped on a mine.
“He was right behind me,” Tolbert said.
The fallen soldier next to him had literally been cut in half.
And shrapnel wounded Tolbert in his back and neck.
A helicopter flew in to take Tolbert; the soldier who had been next to him lay at his feet while being evacuated back to base, along with the five or so others who were wounded that day.
Tolbert spent several days in an Army hospital and then returned to the field.
“God had his hands over me that day,” he said.
Tolbert was eventually offered a job driving a truck away from the front lines, but turned it down.
“I don’t want to be in back,” Tolbert told his commander. “I want to be with my friends.”
And so he served out his tour in the field. Nothing like his early tragic experience ever happened to him again. But, during his service, Tolbert earned the Combat Infantryman Badge, the National Defense Service Medal, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal with two bronze stars and the Air Medal.
But he never received the Purple Heart that he so richly deserved. The Purple Heart is the oldest military decoration and the first American award for a regular soldier initially credited as being created by Gen. George Washington. The order includes the phrased: “Let it be known that he who wears the military order of the Purple Heart has given of his blood in the defense of his homeland and shall forever be revered by his fellow countrymen.”
When Tolbert started to look into finding out if he qualified for one, he discovered that a soldier had only three years after the event in which he could apply.
“I had given up hope. I had about given up,” Tolbert said. It took more than 44 years since Tolbert was wounded, but thanks to the dogged and relentless efforts of Larry F. McDaris, director of the Veterans’ Affairs Service Office and a retired Army veteran himself, Tolbert finally got the Purple Heart that he had earned years ago.
“He certainly deserves it,” McDaris said.
McDaris followed the trail of recorded injuries, deaths, flight reports, hospital stays, etc., until he was able to provide concrete paperwork and convince the Board for Correction of Military Records to forgive the statute of limitations period and still award Tolbert his rightfully earned Purple Heart.
“You earned that Purple Heart,” state Rep. Kevin Brooks assured Tolbert. Sen. Mike Bell and Tolbert’s wife, Linda, and their friend, Melissa White, also joined Tolbert to congratulate him.
Tolbert also has already asked his wife to place his Purple Heart in his casket after he dies.
In addition to his Purple Heart, Tolbert was given an additional award, one that few people ever earn. He was given the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm. He also was given two Purple Heart license plates that can be used for a lifetime.
“I’m proud. I’m really tickled about this,” Tolbert said. The 64-year-old took off his glasses and wiped away the tears welling up in his eyes.
“Those are well-earned tears,” Brooks said. “You’re a good American.”
And, right after the ceremony, Tolbert went down the hall a few feet into the Bradley County Clerk’s office to set up the transfer of his new Purple Heart license plates onto his car. It just so happens that Tolbert’s license plate was about to expire at the end of May, so everything is working out perfectly.