When Sam Sheetz was wounded pulling fellow infantrymen out of hostile fire in Vietnam he didn’t think of the homeruns he’d hit playing baseball as a youngster….or the touchdowns he scored playing halfback for Bel Air High School in the early ‘60’s….all the thoughts of homeruns or touchdowns were just as much a dream as the nightmare he was in right at that moment….
He told me ‘some guys never get over it…the Vietnam thing…they never scored a touchdown, never hit a home run…all they did was survive a war like me and lots of others…and lots more who didn’t score the touchdown and didn’t live to get the Silver Star, the Bronze Star or the Purple Heart…He did but you’d never know it.
“This doesn’t apply to the parents and families who lost a son or daughter in the war. For them the pain sometimes never goes away. When I speak of the war there are many aspects of unsung and ‘overblown’…that’s what I’m referring to…the ones who want to brag about heroics…the ones who never felt the ‘rush’…I’m not interested in those stories,” he notes as elbow grease polishes a cherry drop-leaf table in his shop.
Sitting still is hard for Sam to do…just sitting is hard because of his combat wounds. Only you can tell how you would feel when someone who’s been through the world of shit he has…speaks so blandly of it…to those who know, they do not speak…and often those who speak, do not know….the truth that is…truth and bravery have been instilled in Sam since early childhood and growing up in Harford County.
Sam came home and put his medals upstairs in his son’s bedroom and no one ever sees them in the fine shadowbox his wife, Carolann made for them. She is boldly proud of her husband of 35 years. Working as a secretary for Havre de Grace High School she knows the values of hard work and perseverance. Ten years ago Sam left his job with WHITEFORD Construction Company and started his dream, Grassy Creek Antiques. Today it is a burgeoning business in Churchville occupying four buildings and an assortment of 5 huge trailers.
Mondays he repairs and restores antiques he searches for up and down the East coast…Tuesdays he loads his truck and trailer with stuff that didn’t make the ‘cut’…Wednesdays he hauls out of his home in Aldino and by 5 a.m. is in Crumpton on the Eastern Shore. On the way home he may drop a line or two in Chester Creek, a rare break for a guy who never sits down and never dwells on heroics, let alone his own.
Thursday’s he is working again in his quaint shop behind his home. Fridays he has to pull ‘shop duty’ and is confined from 11 in the morning till close at 5…then it’s time for a Coor’s Light and a few friends over for food he enjoys cooking on the grill.
The weekends are jam packed with antique auctions, sometimes two or three a Saturday…and the occasional Sunday ‘public auction’ at a rented hall.
On Sundays he works more in the shop along Churchville road, rearranging and answering questions from folks who expect to see him there. Today he’s been asked to find a spool bed, old and in good shape, cheap, he says with a smile.
“Yep, find it clean, not broke and cheap….right!”
Loading and unloading delicate antiques…bringing them to a sheen with rubbing and stroking…and it all begins again on Monday.
When a man loves his work it doesn’t seem like work…and someone once said, “To do something you like and to be paid to do it….is the best of all situations to be in.”
In all the years since that terrible war he never speaks of it, never listens to others speak of it. He shrugs at guys who hang around the local 7-Eleven and boast of heroics while second generation ears hang on every word. And there are those who lie about their heroics…men like Sam Sheetz are likely to allow them short-shrift.
Dale Swanson, of Minnesota, a survivor from Sam’s Platoon, who readily admits he “owes his life to Sam” contacted Carolann Sheetz and said a fellow comrade was writing a book about Sam’s courage under fire.
The book deals with the events of May 7,8,9,10 and 11 of 1968…”when the LRRP (long range recon patrol) Team got into real trouble on the ridge south of Camp Evans.”, according to potential author, Randy Kimes. “Your (Sheetz’s) platoon was RRF (rapid reaction force), and inserted to ‘assist’ us getting out. Alpha Company was inserted on 09 May to ‘assist’ your platoon.”
Whatever the logistical confusion, the fighting was intense and the realities of war were unforgiving…only six out of the 40 men in Sergeant Sheetz’s platoon survived the ambush. The truth is the man in charge of Sheetz’s platoon ‘froze’ and Sam took over, calling in artillery…and ended up saving Kimes’ platoon as well.
Serving as squad leader with the second platoon of Company B, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry, 196th Infantry Brigade Sam Sheetz’s squad was taken under fire, and quickly laid down his own base of fire. He then had the wounded moved to the rear of the platoon, while he moved forward to locate Kimes LRRP team.
Once that was done, Sheetz had three of his men evacuate the wounded, while he checked for more survivors. Next he called in ‘accurate artillery fire’ for the remainder of the night.
“The morning after was foggy, not good, but our guys held and we got back down the mountain after a company relieved us…and they went right into the same mess we were in. I think the North Vietnamese Regulars were using the LLRP as bait to get our platoon. “We were all over that country and within two weeks of getting there I knew with a map and compass exactly where I was, and it paid off calling in artillery accurately.”
While putting together the first draft of the book, Kimes contacted Swanson, looking for the man who had saved them. It was Swanson who vividly recalls the face of that football star from Aldino.
“Sam Sheetz is a hero and I wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for him,” Swanson declares with honest and open appreciation. “His personal heroism and devotion to duty saved what was left after a horrific ambush.
Today, Sam Sheetz admits he never thought he’d speak to anyone who was on that hill ever again. A Silver Star was awarded Sheetz for that act of bravery and single mindedness, as well as a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
His wife said the call was a voice from the past and it gave her man reason to pause…after he hung the phone up he uttered those words again…
“They never hit a home run…never scored a touchdown, all they have is the war and they need to get over it. There are a lot of guys who died there and their families will never ‘get over it’…and there’s nothing that can be done about that.”
From one who’s been through a tough defense and firefights at night Sam Sheetz can say whatever is on his mind, without fear of contradiction. But mostly he doesn’t say a word…he doesn’t have to.
Todd Holden writes from his home, Rustica, near Forest Hill, and doesn’t tolerate trespassers easily.