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Wilkes County Veterans History Project: Donald Gilreath

Veteran Top Box

Donald Gilreath at Fort Bragg, NC.

Donald Gilreath at Fort Polk, LA.

Donald Gilreath, present day

Donald A. Gilreath's Story

This is a story about how to overcome fear. My story begins in a foxhole on a hill in Vietnam in 1968. Me being one of them. I had no idea that night would turn out the way it did. As day turned to night, it was black and you could see nothing. At that point the fear of an enemy attack took over. My body began to shake.  I wanted to leave that foxhole. The man beside me said, “If you do you will be shot.” For the first time in my life I prayed to God to please help me over and over. As time passed so slowly my fears began to calm down. I know it was God’s grace and mercy that I’m here today to tell my story.

To God be Glory,

Donald A. Gilreath

Donald A. Gilreath's story, as told to Emily Ball

Donald Alvin Gilreath was born on January 20th, 1949, in North Wilkesboro, NC. He has one brother and three sisters. He went to Lincoln Heights High School, running with the track team and performing with the marching band. He loves Wilkesboro. It's not much, but it's home, and there is no better place to be.

He enlisted in the Army in 1968 to 1970, from 19 to 21 years old. During his service, he rose to the rank of Specialist Four.

When he joined the army, he saw it as a chance to see the world beyond Wilkes, and take a break from schooling. His family was worried but proud of his decision. He didn't really think about the war until after he'd joined. Luckily, he didn't have any trouble adjusting to military life or the lessons in Boot Camp and Basic Training. He enjoyed the competition and challenge the training and other recruits offered. He missed his family, but the letters from home and the new friends he'd made helped. He was sent to Fort Bragg, NC for his Basic Training. Fort Polk, LA was where he received his Advanced Individual Training. Some of the other recruits found it more difficult to cope with the situation, the training, and their later experiences in the war.  

After his training was complete, it was off to Vietnam. In his company, every new recruit was assigned a vet to follow and learn from. His mentor was a great guy, career military, and recently married. He would get letters from his wife, keeping him up to date on what was happening at home. Soon enough, there were photographs of his baby to join with the letters. 

During his service, Donald got the news that his father had died, and was granted leave to help take care of his family. On his way back to Vietnam, he learned that his mentor had been killed in a raid. He never got to meet his baby. It broke his heart, every day, that he never got to see his baby. This was the hardest part of the war, losing friends and seeing what their lives could have been like.

One highlight of his service was his unit. His Captain was an amazing leader. There was no racism in his unit, because the captain demanded equality. They were judged on their abilities and how well they followed orders. If the soldiers didn't think they could handle that, they were sent elsewhere to serve, or sent home. They were really close, like a real band of brothers. 

He enjoyed the structure and organization of the army, as well as the friends he'd made. They found a way to make everything fun. It was exciting, and every day was different. it gave him the chance to travel around the world. 

He didn't see any fighting or combat, as he was assigned to be part of the Rear Security Unit for the 3rd Marines. He started out as a basic infantry soldier, and by the time he was done, he was driving a tank. He was offered the chance, as he was the best in the unit. It was the safest place to be, having 18 inches of steel between him and all threats. They were on call 24/7, always waiting for a call to get the 3rd Marines out of trouble, and they were always in trouble. They could get a call at 2 am and be ready to go, firing bombs and serving as support from a nearby high hill. 

One of the most ironic things about the war was the effects of the DMZ. It's dividing line was the Imjin River. A North Vietnamese soldier could be at the river, and would be shooting at the American soldiers. The American soldiers couldn't shoot back, or else they'd get court-martialed.

For his service, he was given the Army's Commendation Medal.

He could have stayed in the military if the war wasn't going on, and his sister hadn't sent her letters. He got out of the military to get away from the war, start a life and move on.

On his way home, one of his friends, Freddie, was passing through the same bus stop. He was getting shipped over to Vietnam. He died two weeks later.

 He met his wife through his younger sister. They were best friends in High School. When he was deployed, he asked his sister to send him pictures of available girls. She sent him three pictures of her friends. Donald took one look at his wife's picture and forgot the rest of them. She was the one for him. Their first date was a week after he got home, and it was the only date needed for him. They were married a year later, and have been married for 53 years. Both of their families are wonderful, and very happy to see their children together. Things only got better, if more troublesome and complicated when their own children arrived, a son and a daughter.

His first job after the army was at Holly Farms, now part of Tyson Food, processing chicken. One of the side effects was the inability to eat chicken now. It was the first job he could find that paid, and that was enough at the time. He found another job soon enough, and it was much better. His favorite job was working with Centel Telephone Company. He worked as a repairman and installer for landline telephones. His favorite part of the job was the customers. He did his best to do what the customer wanted. Sometimes people got upset when their phone wasn't working, and previous repairmen had failed. He would be able to guarantee that he could fix it, and he would be correct, ninety-five percent of the time. He worked there for 14 years until he was laid off. 

After that, he went off to Wilkes Community College, to study industrial mechanics. This was paid for through the GI Bill. He was hired by the Limburg Machine Shop before he graduated. He operated two machines, each worth half a million dollars. He worked there for 17 years until he retired. He then went on to enjoy his retirement, fishing and doing home improvement projects. His projects were so successful, they accidently turned into a business. When not working, he spends his time fishing during the winter months, to cut down on the competition. He fishes catch-and-release, with his biggest catch to date being a 1 1/2 lb. largemouth bass. He will fish anywhere, freshwater and saltwater, creek, pond or lake, or out on the deep sea.

He joined the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in September 1991, and was baptized as a Christian. His brother was of great help in finding the right church to join. This was the third greatest thing in his life, after his wife and children. His time in the army brought him to God. "He brought me through the storm."

As a Veteran, he gets his medical treatments through the VA. They have access to amazing facilities, and everyone there is eager to help. It's a Class A health system. If there is a problem, they are very quick and thorough to figure out the issue and available treatments, medications, and equipment needed. He was seen by the same doctor for 17 years, until the doctor retired. 

When he left the service, soldiers were seen as the "scourge of the earth." Many soldiers didn't wear their uniform home. Their name was mud among civilians. It was a "Big Man's War", the longer the fighting went on, the more money could be made by the big companies selling supplies, weapons, and ammunition. The Vietnam War wasn't a war, it was a conflict. This was done to avoid the trouble that would come with declaring a war, at home and abroad. If it had been declared a war, it would have been over in a year. 

PTSD has killed many veterans. Some can't adjust back to civilian life, after their experiences in war. 

Now, they are recognized as Veterans. He's proud to be a veteran and would serve all over again if needed.