Old Soldier Remembers Cambodian Combat

Petrice bonded with fellow soldiers in Cambodia

Editor’s note: This article is part of The Inter-Mountain’s Unsung Heroes series for 2018, which features veterans in our area sharing first-hand accounts of their military service.

Sixty-nine-year-old Tom Petrice, of Coalton, served from June 10, 1969. to Nov. 6, 1971, as a member of the United States Army, retiring as a Specialist 4.

“After basic training, infantry training and armor training, I went to Vietnam. I was assigned to the 25th Infantry, first of 27 ‘Wolfhound’ Division,” Petrice said. “After a few days they placed me as point man. That’s the first one, the one out front. The first one in and the last one out. The first one leading the pack. I looked for booby traps, trip wires and stuff, then led them to where we were supposed to go.”

Petrice recalled his first night of deployment being on Christmas Eve.

“I remember my first night out in the field it was Christmas Eve,” Petrice recalled. “A helicopter flew over playing Christmas carols.”

He said his battalion lost several soldiers while in fire fights during the Vietnam War.

“We lost a few guys, several guys. Good friends in fire fights,” Petrice said. “We were in several altercations. Cambodia was a whole different story. When they shipped us into Cambodia, that was the last invasion.”

Petrice sustained injuries during his time in Cambodia when he was struck by enemy fire.

“That morning we had a fire fight and everything seemed to be good and in place. We had searched their camp out and everything seemed to be clear. We set down, rested and ate,” he said. “We got ready to move out and, evidently, I walked face to face with one of them. He was coming back to his camp as I was leaving out of it. We just surprised each other, I guess. I got my front teeth shot out from right up under my chin and I got a plate put in the side of my head.”

Petrice was transported for medical treatment and stabilized in Japan before being flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland. He added he was under hospital care for roughly three months and had to wait a year to get the plate placed in his head.

He described what it was like for him in Cambodia, noting they had no sleeping quarters and very little water.

“It was six months on the ground. At nighttime you slept on the ground with no beds. When we were in the infantry we were in the field all the time,” Petrice explained. “If you had any water, you conserved it. Very few showers. If it rained you got a shower. It just wasn’t a good situation over there.”

Petrice said his service to the country taught him to make due with very little.

“I can’t say that it was a good situation to be in and it seemed like two years was two days,” Petrice said. “I did learn a lot. I got a good education about keeping yourself and making due with so little.”

Without the assistance of Vietnam War helicopter pilots, more soldiers would have lost their lives, Petrice said.

“I could brag on helicopter pilots. Vietnam helicopter pilots, to me, were the best. They came in on the ground, they transported our wounded and I know they were put in bad situations sometimes,” he said.

Petrice received several awards and decorations for his service, including two Purple Hearts; a Vietnam Service Medal; an Air Medal; an Army Commendation Medal; an Army “V” Device with oak leaf cluster; and a Bronze Star Medal.

In October 2006, Petrice went to his mailbox and, to his surprise, found a letter from the sister — Carol Sharpe, of Michigan — of one of his fallen comrades, Sgt. Charles Sharpe, who served with him in Cambodia. Petrice said he and Sharpe had become close during their deployment.

“I am searching for a (Tom) Petrice that served with my brother, Sgt. Charles Sharpe, in Cambodia. My brother was killed in action in Cambodia on May 25, 1970. After his death, my brother’s wife, Linda, received a very nice letter from (Tom) Petrice, who had been wounded a few days after my brothers death,” the letter read in part. “He was recuperating from his injuries in a hospital in Japan.

“Linda misplaced the name and letter shortly after that and lost contact with him. My parents and I have spoken of (Tom) Petrice many times through the years, and have wished we could contact him to see how he is doing,” the letter continues. “We were so touched that a young man who had been so seriously injured would take the time to comfort our family in our time of sorrow.”

Petrice said he, Sharpe and other veterans from the same battalion began meeting annually during the Coalton Days celebration, a tradition that has continued for the past seven years.

“I made a lot of bonds and friendships. I went to visit (Sharpe) and went to the cemetery where her brother is. She and her cousin have drove in to visit me and she’s as much of a veteran as anything could be without being a veteran. She is really a good person and from a great family.”

Petrice said the friends he made were the most important thing to him from his time serving the country.

“Each one of these friends means a lot more to me than any of the medals, when we get together,” he said.

Petrice is commander of VFW Roaring Creek Post 5583, a member of American Legion H.W. Daniels Post 29, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, a member of The Military Order of the Purple Heart, and a member of The 40 and 8.

Petrice is a graduate of Coalton High School. He and his wife, Sandy, have one son, Steve, and two granddaughters, Peyton and Natalie.

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