Former Green Beret Heals to Remember with Others on Veterans Day

November 8, 2023
Green Berets from the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) make their way down 5th Avenue as part of the 2011 New York City Veterans Day Parade.

Seriously wounded, Bryant Schroeder prayed as he and fellow Green Berets took cover near their downed helicopter and awaited rescue deep inside Cambodia.

The U.S. Special Forces medic survived for about nine hours on the ground before he was flown out of harm’s way and hospitalized for his combat injury, one that would merit him his third Purple Heart and send him home from Vietnam in 1969.

Schroeder, who completed much of his military training in Georgia, where he has family, recovered from his physical injuries. But it would take years to heal from his survivor’s guilt, hypervigilance and flashbacks.

Although generations of his family have served — ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War and his daughter is a U.S. Army veteran who lives near Milledgeville — this Veterans Day marks the first time Schroeder will celebrate with a dinner at his local American Legion post. For many years, Schroeder, who turns 80 on Nov. 21, stayed away from such public gatherings because they brought back painful memories of friends killed in Vietnam.

“There is counseling that helped me get past it,” said Schroeder, who lives in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. He considered his heritage and other Americans who have served honorably and decided he needed to “start honoring them and my comrades that I served with.”

‘I Did a Lot of Praying’

The second oldest of four children, Schroeder was born in Muskegon, Michigan, and raised in Salt Lake City. His father, a U.S. Army veteran, was a foreman in a manufacturing plant and remodeled homes, while his mother took care of the family at home.

Expecting he would be drafted during the Vietnam War, Schroeder enlisted in the Army, three years after graduating from high school.

He volunteered for the elite Green Berets. Schroeder’s father told him he should be a doctor, so he chose to become a Special Forces medical aidman. His training lasted about 18 months and included stops at Fort McPherson and Fort Benning, now Fort Moore, in Georgia.

Schroeder was sent to a camp in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, about 12 miles from the Cambodian border, in 1967. He cared for both U.S. troops and Vietnamese civilians. Villagers would line up to see Schroeder, who treated their illnesses and shrapnel wounds, pulled teeth and sometimes delivered babies. Fellow Green Berets nicknamed him Snoopy.

During his nearly two years in Vietnam, Schroeder was wounded in combat three times. Two weeks after he arrived, he said, a Viet Cong operative poisoned civilians, killing six. As Schroeder sought to save seven other poisoned civilians, he heard explosions.

A mortar round struck nearby as Schroeder scrambled up an earthen berm protecting his camp. The blast threw him over the top of the berm and drilled shrapnel into his back. The enemy fired more than 100 mortar rounds at the camp that day, Schroeder said, and dropped tear gas on the U.S. troops. Between 25 and 30 people were wounded, some seriously. After Schroeder helped care for the wounded, a fellow medic removed shrapnel from Schroeder’s back and bandaged him up.

In 1969, Schroeder was shot in the right thigh by North Vietnamese while he was on a rescue mission inside Cambodia. The medic who X-rayed him couldn’t find the round in his leg, so he left it inside and sewed him up. Schroeder returned to his unit. The pain in his thigh persisted.

While on a rescue mission later that year, the helicopter he was riding in was hit by North Vietnamese ground fire. Shrapnel from a suspected rocket struck Schroeder in the head and right eye, burying shrapnel in his brain and damaging his vision.

“The impact knocked me back so that I hit my head on the floor of the helicopter,” he said. “I had all of this blood streaming down the side of my face and on my uniform.”

The chopper landed in the jungle. Men he had come to save froze as they saw Schroeder covered in blood. Grabbing them by their shirt fronts, he pulled a few on board. A pair of Green Berets stepped out of a dry streambed and climbed in. A third Green Beret fell from a rope ladder as the chopper rose, so the aircraft flew back down for him.

As it lifted off a second time, the chopper was hit by another suspected enemy rocket and went down hard. While he climbed out of the wreckage, it crossed Schroeder’s mind that he might not make it home. He and the others were vulnerable to attack.

Other U.S. helicopters swooped in, providing covering fire. Spent bullet casings rained down on Schroeder and the others hiding in the foliage. Schroeder bandaged his own eye during the hours he awaited rescue.

“I don’t know why they didn’t try to attack us. I just firmly believe God had a hand in that,” Schroeder said of the North Vietnamese. “I did a lot of praying.”

A Pistol Under His Pillow

Schroeder was hospitalized for almost a year. As he was being treated for his eye injury, his doctor pulled the bullet out of his thigh.

Honorably discharged, Schroeder worked in nursing and real estate. Meanwhile, he found it difficult relating to civilians.

“It was a hard adjustment. In Vietnam, you just form these tight relationships with the guys you are working with,” he said. “I missed that.”

Schroeder was treated as a hero as he prepared to deploy in 1967. Strangers offered to buy him drinks and pay for his meals. After he returned home, critics of the war called him a “baby killer” and spat at him.

“When somebody picked a fight with me, I was out to win. And I made darn sure I won,” he said. “Anybody who picks a fight with somebody who has just been in combat is not making a wise decision.”

For years, the Vietnam War echoed in his life. Suffering from hypervigilance, he urged his family not to whisper or tiptoe around him when he was asleep. In Vietnam, he said, “If it was too quiet, there was something wrong. We all slept with a loaded pistol underneath our pillows.”

Schroeder recalled a time in the 1970s, when his sister-in-law was visiting. Forgetting his warnings, she tiptoed up to him and whispered for him to wake up for work. Alarmed, he leapt out of bed and began strangling her before he came to his senses.

“It scared the crap out of both of us,” he said.

Schroeder experienced flashbacks, particularly when he heard — and felt — helicopters approaching. Decades after he returned home from Vietnam, Schroeder was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He underwent eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, in which he was instructed to discuss his traumatic experiences while focusing on blinking lights and vibrations. The therapy, according to the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department, is one of the most effective treatments for PTSD.

“When I first started doing it, I thought it was just voodoo. I didn’t believe it would work, but it did,” said Schroeder, who began participating this year in group talk therapy.

Schroeder’s daughter, Elinor Carrick, noticed a substantial difference in his demeanor after he began therapy. He had a temper when she was growing up, Carrick said, and is now a “soft, squishy grandpa” who loves making pancakes for his adoring grandchildren.

“I am really proud of him because at the time he was doing that, therapy was not particularly popular,” said Carrick. “For him to be willing to do that and go through the work… it just showed another level of strength.”

Members of their family have fought for America from the start, serving during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the wars in the Middle East.

Carrick deployed with a U.S. Army medical unit to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. She still remembers the whine of air raid sirens and the threat of Scud missile attacks from Iraq. One such ground-to-ground missile struck a U.S. military barracks in a different part of Saudi Arabia in 1991, killing 28 and wounding about 100 others.

Carrick was planning to commemorate Veterans Day this month by attending a parade at Georgia Military College.

“People forget that the rights that they are demanding and the rights that they exercise every day have been paid for over and over again by true patriots,” said Carrick, who worked as a medical radiologic technologist after her military career. “I wish people could remember that more often. If we look at the sacrifices that have been made, we would appreciate what we have a lot more.”

Her husband, Ben Carrick, was not in the military when they met. Deciding his personality fit with the Army, she introduced him to a military recruiter. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted Ben Carrick to enlist and serve in 19th Special Forces Group. Schroeder gave Ben Carrick his first salute when he was commissioned as an officer in 2009.

Eight years later, Ben Carrick attached a light blue cord on his son Caden Smith’s shoulder at Fort Moore, signifying that Smith had completed infantry training. Inspired by his family’s military service, Smith joined the 82nd Airborne Division and deployed to Iraq between 2020 and 2021, spending most of his time in the Green Zone in Baghdad.

Smith researched his grandfather’s Vietnam War service and found it awe-inspiring. Now a staff sergeant with the 4th Infantry Division, Smith has consulted his grandfather for advice about leading other troops.

“Growing up, he was always somebody to look up to,” said Smith, who is scheduled for training at Fort Knox in Kentucky on Veterans Day. “It just stuck with me… wow, he really did some stuff.”

This year is bittersweet for Schroeder. It’s the 50th anniversary of the Paris peace accord, the Jan. 27, 1973, agreement that led to the release of hundreds of American POWs and the end of a costly war. The North Vietnamese would capture Saigon two years later.

On the Sunday closest to Veterans Day each year, Schroeder wears his green Special Forces Association blazer. When strangers ask him about its meaning, he emphasizes honoring fellow veterans. Like his grandson, Schroeder views Veterans Day as a time to reflect. He especially thinks of the soldiers with whom he trained. Some returned alive from Vietnam. Others did not.

“I say a prayer for them,” Schroeder said. “I think of them because I want to honor them. I want to honor their sacrifices. I want to honor what they did.”

For this article, Jeremy Redmon, who has reported extensively on the Vietnam War for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, interviewed Bryant Schroeder and his daughter and grandson; reviewed Schroeder’s military service records and commendations; consulted an expert at the National Infantry Museum Foundation; and read U.S. military reports about the war and passages from a book that mentions Schroeder, “Secret Green Beret Commandos in Cambodia,” by Lt. Col. Fred S. Lindsey.

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