The chain Edward Butler wears around his neck every day is no ordinary necklace. It’s the Purple Heart he earned for helping his ambushed men during Vietnam — an experience that led him into 20 years of military service and 25 years in law enforcement.
Born in Independence, Louisiana, the now-Brentwood resident first joined the military at 17.
“I was going to get a job at (Louisiana State University) to be a printer,” he said, “but the hiring manager said he would like to hire me. But the minute he hired me, I was going to get drafted. So I decided to enlist.”
Butler went for basic training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
“When I did the AIT, I knew they were going to send me to Vietnam,” he recalled. “So they dropped me off (in Vietnam), and I’m brand new — just out of high school — and they were firing, they were shooting at me. One of the sergeants said, ‘Did you just get off the chopper?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I did.’ He said, ‘Do you know where you’re going?’ and I told him, ‘Nobody told me anything.’ So he said, ‘You’re with me.’”
Butler quickly became a squad leader. One assignment he called “a suicide mission” sent Butler and three other men to rescue comrades who’d been ambushed. Between trying to help the men who had been shot in front of him, and feeding rounds into the machine gunner’s weapon, he was hit by a bullet that barely missed his spine.
The medivac arrived to evacuate the group, and Butler was sent to Japan where surgeons removed the bullet.
“Nurses would come in and check on me every day, and ask if I could feel my legs,” he recalled. “I couldn’t. But then, one day, I felt needles all over my legs.”
Butler called the nurse and described the sensation. He still couldn’t feel her touch, but when she told him to move his big toe, he could.
“I’d been worried at that point that I’d never walk again,” Butler recalled. “But thank God, I came out alright.”
After surgery and only a couple months of rehabilitation, Butler was sent back into battle with three months of time left to serve. For his efforts to save his comrades and getting wounded in battle, Butler was recognized with the Purple Heart in 1968.
Upon his return home, however, Butler found himself feeling out of place. He’d changed and no longer fit in with the friends who hadn’t. He couldn’t stand any noise; chairs scraping along the floor in the apartment above or a car backfiring made him drop to the ground. And while his family was happy to see him return, the welcome wasn’t so warm from many Americans.
“When we came back, we heard a lot of people saying to us, ‘You’re a baby killer,’” he said. “I still battle with the dreams, and every Thursday I go to counseling at the (Veterans Affairs) center. They make sure we don’t have thoughts of suicide.”
Despite the hardships that came with service, Butler had a calling to return to the military. He hadn’t lost his rank of sergeant, as a full year hadn’t yet elapsed since he’d left. He managed to secure a position that kept him out of the battlefield, handling weapons and supplies at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, with his military occupational specialty (MOS) changed from infantry to supply. He stayed in the military for 20 years before getting into law enforcement, where he remained for another 25 years until his retirement.
Butler recalled his worried mother’s initial reaction to the job change.
“My mom said, ‘You jumped from one bad job to another bad job,’” he said, adding that she’d fainted upon first hearing of his injury in Vietnam.
But he credits his time in service as what kept him on a steady course.
Grasping the Purple Heart hanging from his neck, he said, “I wear this every day, and I wear it proudly.”