STOCKTON, Calif. — It was mid-February 1964, less than three months after the trauma of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, when a young Michael Flowers turned 18 and signed up for the U.S. Marine Corps.
It was a delayed enlistment, after all, since Flowers first had to graduate in June from San Jose's Del Mar High School. It seemed like a natural move for the son of a decorated Navy veteran who had enlisted at 15. Years later, Flowers would realize he was also inspired by Kennedy's call to public service.
"I didn't join the Marine Corps to go to war, but that's what we're here for," Flowers, 66, said recently during an interview at his Stockton home. He understood deployment was imminent just months later after a Navy ship engaged the North Vietnamese navy in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Flowers did two tours of duty during the ensuing Vietnam War, rising to the rank of sergeant with Marine Observation Squadron Two, Marine Aircraft Group 16, First Marine Aircraft Wing. He volunteered as a door gunner on a UH-1 Huey gunship, firing thousands of rounds at the enemy below on more than 150 missions to support and resupply "the grunts on the ground," Flowers' endearing term for foot soldiers.
Flowers said his story is little different from other Vietnam veterans. To this day, he feels extremely lucky that he never got injured and his aircraft never took a hit, but he admitted that "every time someone shot at me, I shook."
While stationed at Da Nang, home to a major U.S. airbase, Flowers lived in a "hooch" constructed of wood and tin by Navy Seabees in an area heavily infiltrated by both North Vietnamese army regulars and South Vietnamese communist guerillas — the Viet Cong. Nightly rocket and mortar attacks were a regular occurrence.
Four decades after he last saw combat, Flowers says today his experiences have affected every aspect of his life.
"It's always there. I always go through pictures. I've read everything I can read on the subject. I will always remember Sgt. Bud Taylor and Capt. Albert Tripp," Flowers said, referring to close comrades killed during the war who earned Flowers' lasting respect and admiration.
He'll also never forget the day a large bomb dump exploded just yards away from where the Da Nang troops slept — "from that moment on, I was a different person" — or the night flight when his pilot warned another helicopter gunship it was too close to a mountain, just moments before it crashed — killing all 17 Marines on board.
"We're brothers. We did something that nobody else did. We stood up and did our jobs. We didn't run off to Canada," said Flowers, a self-avowed pacifist today who still can't believe he survived the sheer violence of the Tet Offensive launched during the first two months of 1968 that took U.S. forces and their allies by surprise.
In 1969, Flowers was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism for rushing to the scene of a multiple-helicopter crash and risking his life in order to control a fire while another Marine extricated one of the passengers. He also earned an Air Medal and presidential citation.
When he finally left the Marine Corps in 1975, there wasn't much for him and other vets, Flowers recalled. He applied to job after job, but the only way he got hired was by a connection through his father.
"Hopefully, this new generation (from Iraq and Afghanistan) doesn't experience that," Flowers said, adding that he doesn't think the U.S. has any further business fighting in Afghanistan today, despite his strong sense of patriotism.
"It's important that we be there for our country. I feel that when the time comes, the government says you gotta do what you gotta do. It's self-sacrifice, although we didn't look at it as self-sacrifice at the time, but that's what it is," he said.
Flowers went on to run his own business, dabbling in real estate and renovating 19 run-down homes. He and his wife, Sandy Flowers, have helped raise 40 foster children, with up to seven in their home at one time — "including four in diapers," Sandy Flowers added. They made 10 trips to Disneyland over the years and ended up adopting two of their foster kids.
Up until recently, Michael Flowers has spoken very little about his war experiences outside of with fellow veterans.
"It's hard to fit back in. You can't sit down with people and talk about it; they just think you went away for a while. They never can relate to what happened, because they have never been there," Flowers said, explaining he's not even spoken to his own family about all that he did and witnessed.