GREENSBURG, Pa. — It has been more than four decades since Earl Mansberry was nearly blown up during a fierce firefight in Vietnam, but for the Fayette County man, it might as well have been yesterday.
“It‘s lived with me to this day,” said an emotional Mansberry as he recalled the March 1, 1970, explosion that tossed him into the air as he and his fellow airmen defended Phu Cat Air Base near the coast. “Just talking about it, I can still feel my body rising off the ground and spinning around 180 degrees.”
The blast “felt as if someone had punched me in the back,” said Mansberry, 63, a retired coal miner from Uniontown who on Thursday was presented a long-overdue Purple Heart for having been wounded in action 42 years ago in Vietnam.
A young Air Force sergeant with the 37th Security Police Squadron in 1970, Mansberry said he quickly recovered from the blast and resumed firing. It wasn‘t until the enemy fled and the gunfire stopped that he realized he had been hit in the back by shrapnel.
“My (noncommissioned officer in charge) asked me if I needed an ambulance, but I said I would drive myself to the dispensary,” Mansberry said. “I drove in, they checked me out, took some X-rays and the doctor told me I have shrapnel in my back, but it wasn‘t around any vital organs, so they weren‘t going to take it out.”
Mansberry said he immediately went back to work as a canine handler with his unit, finished his tour of duty, returned home and left the service. Back then, Mansberry said, Vietnam veterans were called “baby killers and spit on,” so he rarely spoke of his service or his injuries, which include post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD.
“It was rough back then, so you put it out of your mind,” Mansberry said, noting that although the BB-sized piece of shrapnel is still lodged in his back, he withheld for years details of his service from family and friends.
In 2009, when he retired from coal mining, Mansberry said he felt it was time to seek help for his PTSD. He joined an outreach group for veterans that meets weekly at the Hopwood Amvets. It was there, he said, amid the camaraderie of other veterans, that he felt comfortable enough to finally talk about his service in Vietnam.
He credits the group‘s counselor, Joel Smith of the Veterans Outreach Center in Morgantown, for “opening my eyes and understanding myself, (that) it‘s OK to talk about stuff and not feel ashamed, which is what we all felt when we first came back.
“I‘m understanding my moods and my anxiety,” Mansberry said. “I‘m not saying it stops, but you understand why it‘s happening.”
A few months ago, a health care worker who was treating Mansberry at a Veterans Affairs facility in Clarksburg, W.Va., suggested he file paperwork for a Purple Heart for the shrapnel injury. Smith said the Purple Heart medal “is one of the hardest ones to get after you leave the service,” but Mansberry‘s was approved in just a few months because he had his medical records to prove he was wounded in combat.
On Thursday, during a ceremony at the Hopwood Amvets, retired Air Force Col. Thomas Yanni of Morgantown presented Mansberry with his Purple Heart. In addition, Mansberry was presented with the Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross and an Air Force Longevity Service Ribbon.
Mansberry told a group of fellow veterans who were in attendance, including at least 10 who have Purple Hearts of their own for combat wounds, that he accepted the medal “in your honor, too, because you were there.”