Larger-than-life Lawton native J. Blake Wade led the struggling Oklahoma Historical Society to prominence in the 1990s. He led the historic Oklahoma Centennial Commission through most of the 2000s. Since 2011 he has led the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum. Before all that, he had a 20-year career in the U.S. Army.
Wade won two Bronze Stars in Vietnam. One came on the hallowed field of Khe Sanh. There, in 1968, unfolded 76 straight days of legendary head-to-head combat between the North Vietnamese and the Communist world, and the United States military. At this important U.S. firebase bounding the demilitarized zone, the Reds attempted to prove their superiority over the best units America could put on the field.
In a memorable 2014 interview with John Erling, Wade spoke repeatedly of how, as a company commander at Khe Sanh, often referred to as “The American Alamo in Vietnam,” “I lost some men.”
“My company was to take a certain area in that battle,” he recalled. They succeeded, bloodily, “but actually, I did lose some people. By the grace of God, I made it through. I lost some men during that time that kind of haunted me for a long time in my life. But I tried to make amends by going to see their families in small little towns in Texas and Missouri.”
Wade and his fellow soldiers, airmen, and U.S. Marines famously held out and broke the Communist siege, killing thousands of enemy troops as they did so.
The Oklahoman came to believe that:
“At twenty-two, twenty-three years of age, I was just too young to be a company commander in a war zone. I did not fully have all the combat experience that I needed to have during that time. I did the best I could but I still lost some men. I was so upset about my military (experiences)—you know, they call it PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) now, but you talk about worrying at night, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t do anything. So alcohol was my savior.”
Due to the cumulative effect of the soldiers Wade “lost” at Khe Sanh and elsewhere, his PTSD, and his alcoholism, “My first wife left me, and my two children. I regret it to this day….But certainly in those days, all my bosses were alcoholics. I mean, booze in the military during that period was…” He recalled doubting at one point whether even a single soldier in his 120-man company was not a vigorous drinker. The highly decorated warrior’s nightmare continued until one wrenching morning in 1983:
“It was in Lawton, Oklahoma, in an alley where I spent the night. And a sergeant was making me Tang and honey. He was mixing it and I remember looking out the window and I said, ‘If there is a God, please help me.’ I couldn’t eat and he was making something just to get down my throat. And I remember drinking that and walking up through an alley into a church that I grew up in, and for the first time in years I cried. When I left there I said, ‘I’ll die before I take another drink.’ I started to Alcoholics Anonymous then and I’ve gone four or five times a week for the last thirty-one years.”
Wade has helped countless other alcoholics over those decades. As seems to be his way, however, his thoughts turned toward others:
“What I worry about so much today are these young officers going over two and three and four times over there (to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan). People in the United States don’t understand what that does to a human being’s mind.”
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.