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Vietnam vet: Combat to calm

By Kay S. Pedrotti Life is much calmer now for Ehme (pronounced ‘aim’) Brass, an Air Force veteran American Legionnaire who lives with his wife Kay on a small farm at the south end of Lamar County. In his five years of military service in the 1960s, Brass was in on the beginning of AF Special Forces at Eglund Air Force Base in Florida, had a first look at the British Harrier ‘jump-jet’ and taught ground survival to Air Force pilots. ’I was classified a radio repairman,’ said Brass, ‘but I never repaired a single radio.’ His 729th Tactical Unit was trained and equipped to go anywhere in the world within 24 hours, take an area and set up air traffic control for Air Force planes. His duty stations included Ethiopia, Puerto Rico, Panama — and then Vietnam. In a mountainous area ‘in the middle of nowhere’ near Qui Nhon, Brass and about 20 other Air Force personnel served with the Republic of Korea’s Tiger Division Cavalry Regiment. Pilots flew missions around the location, guided to targets by ground forces, and would then mark the targets with ‘Willie Pete’ (white phosphorus) drops. Then patrols including both Koreans and Americans would go out in all directions to hunt down Viet Cong. Brass bunked with two buddies, Ed Bans and Mike ‘Harpo’ Humphrey. Not long ago, he received a jampacked CD of photos from their Vietnam days from the other guys. ’We had a house fire and lost everything,’ Brass said. ‘All my medals, records, photos, everything was gone. That’s why they decided to send me the pictures.’ The location where the ROK and Air Force personnel were billeted was called ‘Camp Thunderbolt.’ The photos show a bleak site with few luxuries, not uncommon in war zones. Brass admits he ‘came back an alcoholic’ from Vietnam. When he contracted a bad case of pneumonia and spent four months in a VA hospital, that’s when he says he got treatment for his alcoholism and posttraumatic stress syndrome too. ’Of course over in Nam there was an unlimited supply of alcohol for everybody. We all did a lot of drinking, even the pilots — but not when they were due to fly. Not long after I got home, I did bar-tending for a friend and then set up my own bar — not a good way to quit drinking too much. ‘At the VA I learned you have to talk about the things that happened in Vietnam. It’ll damage you permanently if you keep it all bottled up,’ he said. ’I’d tell all young people to stay away from alcohol and drugs, be yourself and find work you enjoy.’ Brass grew up in South Dakota near Sioux Falls, where his German-heritage family farmed for generations. He came to Lamar County because his son Jeromy enlisted in the Army and was stationed at Ft. McPherson in Atlanta. The son bought acreage in Lamar and went to work after the Army for Pittsburgh Paint and Glass. That company transferred him to Little Rock, Ark., so Ehme and Kay came south to care for the land. The first weekend here, Ehme said, was Buggy Days — ‘the American Legion Post 125 had a booth and I joined immediately.’ He was a member in South Dakota for years. Brass’s first wife Carol died in 2002 and is the mother of Jeromy and three daughters, Rachelle ‘Ranie’, Shelley and Abby. Ehme and Kay had grown up together in South Dakota and married when they ‘got tired of living alone — and we enjoyed each other’s company,’ he said. They share a love of reading and are frequent visitors to local book sales. The best part of his retirement, he said, is watching his grandchildren, especially a little boy with special needs, enjoy his train room. He built the scenery and buildings and did the wiring for lights. ’I’ve always had a case of tinker-itis,’ he said, ‘and it’s wonderful to live simply and always have something to do.’

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