By Errol Castens
NEW ALBANY – Tommy Verrell has been a hero for more than 40 years. Now he has the medals that tell the story.
In 1969-70, Verrell served a year-long tour of duty in Vietnam in the U.S. Army. He received several medals, including the National Defense Medal and Vietnam Service Medal testifying to his service. The two most notable medals, however, fell through the figurative cracks of bureaucracy.
Tuesday, Sen. Roger Wicker presented the former SPEC 4 and retired truck driver with the Air Medal and the Bronze Star at American Legion Post 72 in New Albany.
After post officials learned of the unfulfilled honor, they contacted Wicker’s staff in Tupelo and Washington, D.C., who shortly confirmed that the awards would be presented.
“We told him, ‘Bring it on,’” said Post Commander Billy Kelly.
Verrell earned his Air Medal as an infantryman who made more than 25 aerial missions with his rifle platoon.
“A lot of it was landing in rice paddies and going on patrol,” he said. “We lived in the field, slept in the field, for 60 or 90 days at a time.”
The Bronze Star – formally “Award of the Bronze Star Medal with ‘V’ Device” – signifies Verrell’s valor in saving the life of a fellow soldier while under attack.
“In the initial burst of hostile rounds, several friendly soldiers were wounded and required medical assistance,” states Verrell’s Bronze Star citation. “Reacting immediately to the urgency of the situation, Specialist Verrell rushed to the aid of a fellow soldier who was seriously injured and vulnerable to the continued enemy fire.”
Verrell recalled that several wounded soldiers needed to be loaded on a medevac helicopter even while the enemy continued to fire at the chopper.
“These were my brothers in service, and they needed help,” he said. “I knew I might be the next one to need it.”
Wicker noted the negative view that many still have of the nation’s involvement in southeast Asia.
“There’s a lot of revisionism about the Vietnam War,” he said. “We had a lot of threats to freedom, to Western civilization, to our way of life.”
Calling the U.S. withdrawal “Communism’s high-water mark,” Wicker added, “That began the decline of world Communism. … I am grateful to the veterans of the Vietnam era for that accomplishment.”
Mike Bennett, Union County’s veterans service officer, noted that Verrell had defied the odds and escaped combat injury even while seeing buddies severely wounded and killed. He did, however, suffer a month-long bout with a jungle illness.
“Tommy managed to survive his 12 months of service in Vietnam,” Bennett wrote, “with only the scars of malaria and memories.”
Verrell was appreciative of his recognition but deflected the attention to his fallen comrades.
Referring to the more than 50,000 names inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial, he said, “The heroes of the Vietnam War are on that big black wall in Washington.”