The year was 1966. Somewhere in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. A remote region with rugged mountains, thick forests and plateaus with rich soil.
A region filled with violent battles. Death and destruction.
It was an area of supreme strategic importance as the Vietnam War raged.
This is where W. Cliff Herndon nearly died. The U.S. Army veteran was a member of the Special Forces and had seen plenty of action in his 11 years to that point.
On this day, a well-planned ambush rained hell down upon his company. Pinned into a dead end by a mine field, Herndon and others were peppered with sniper fire. The term dead end was dead on.
Herndon was hit, multiple times.
Then he waited. His left side shredded by shrapnel and bullets, he couldn't hold a rifle, but he used his pistol with his right hand to blast away at the enemy. His body ripped apart by the ambush that started around 11 a.m., he had to wait for more than five hours before help arrived. Five agonizing hours thinking it would be his last day on earth.
Today, Herndon leans heavily on a hand-crafted walking stick with a carved eagle's head at the top. He ponders questions, thinking back to that day and others more than four decades ago.
“Twenty plus,” he says about how many U.S. soldiers died in that ambush.
“I didn't think I was going to make it. You don't expect to be on the ground wounded for that long,” he says.
He'd seen 37 months of combat up to that day. “I'd pushed the envelope a lot to that point.”
This wasn't the first time he'd been wounded, but it was the worst.
Pain clawed at him but he was too busy to think about it at the time. He shifts in the chair and a small grimace appears. “It wasn't as much pain as I'm in now.”
He says without smiling. It's not a joke.
By the time he departed the Army with a medical retirement in 1970, Herndon had spent 33 months in the hospital following that vicious ambush.
Herndon, who retired as a captain, wanted to be a soldier since the “day I was born,” he says. A sixth generation veteran and soldier, Herndon went to a military academy then joined the Army at 17. His goal was simple.
“My plan was to do as every (male) member of my family had done. Thirty years and make full colonel or general. I figured that would be a nice retirement,” he says, nodding slowly.
“It was a very big disappointment when that didn't happen. But that's how things work out sometimes,” he says.
War has a way of detouring plans.
The Texas native moved to the Mancos Valley in 1990 and spent 18 years as a park ranger at Mesa Verde.
Following the military, Herndon turned to college where he studied psychology and anthropology. He earned his masters and doctorate, then taught at Texas A&M.
As he reflects on his time in the service, he says there's not a single regret.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would do it the same way,” he says. Then grins. “I think I'd do that last ambush a little differently though.”
At 74, Herndon takes short deliberate steps. The wounds and injuries from war and the Army have taken their toll.
In 1956, shortly after joining the Army, he broke his back when he landed in a tree during a night time parachute training jump near Fort Bragg, N.C. That injury landed him in the hospital for six weeks. His back is a big source of pain for him today.
Herndon says the proudest moment of his military service was when he graduated from Special Forces training. With that, he received the qualification flash on his green beret.
As a member of the Special Forces, wherever he went fire fights and combat were sure to follow. He was in the thick of the action. People died — friend and foe.
“I was very lucky,” he says. “Very lucky to have made it out.”
“Camaraderie,” he says without thinking. Time spent with his fellow soldiers was the best part of his service.
But with Special Forces, the death rate was very high, he says somberly.
Every soldier he served closely with has passed away, most killed in action, he says, again with a deliberate nod.
In 1986, he traveled to Washington D.C. and visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. More than 58,000 names of soldiers are carved into the black polished granite.
“I went to the Wall,” he says, then pauses thinking of that day. “It was more emotional than I thought it would be.
“How emotional can a piece of granite be? I really didn't think it would be emotional, but it was, it really was.”
He remembers two soldiers, two comrades, he served with. Two good friends.
“There were two guys, we all soldiered together the whole time. We started in Special Forces training at the same time. They were there,” he says about the Wall. Names of his two friends were etched into the Wall.
“That was pretty emotional.”
Running his hand over the polished granite, he traced their names.
W. Cliff Herndon always wanted to be a soldier. It will be a time that he will never forget.
Vietnam was a deadly, violent time for Herndon. He's proud of his time in the service.
He lost friends and comrades and served his country with valor and pride.
As he strolls away, leaning on that walking stick with the symbol of freedom at the top, Herndon's pride and pain can be seen with every step.