Feature: Saluting a Hero

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Highly decorated veteran and best-selling author David Hartline continues his service to new and former soldiers through a state post.

story by LARUE HARDINGER | photos by RANDY GRIDER and courtesy David Hartline

He was born the fourth of 12 children to Robert and Maude Hartline on a cotton farm near Lookout Mountain and became a Gaylesville High School dropout in 10th grade.

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Things were hard. The children needed shoes. There was no TV, running water or electric stove. He chose to help his father run the farm, raising cotton, corn and watermelons.

He was a U.S. Army draftee at age 18, a decorated Vietnam veteran at age 20 and later became the Cedar Bluff, Ala., police chief and a graduate of Georgia State College, earning a degree in education.

He became a college instructor, the proprietor of Hartline Timber Company and a 15-year veteran of the National Guard, stationed in Atlanta, Centre and Fort Payne in Alabama and Nashville, Tenn.

In 2014, Gov. Robert Bentley named him Alabama State Veteran of the Year and American Legionnaire of the Year – both awards the result of popular votes among 24,000 members of the Alabama American Legion.

This year, David Lawrence Hartline was sworn in as American Legion state commander. As such, he leads 162 American Legion posts in Alabama and monitors 22 committees whose purpose is to help needy and disabled veterans and to encourage youth to become active in government. Chartered by Congress in 1919, the American Legion is the United States’ largest service organization for wartime veterans.

Hartline is the celebrated author of a New York Times best seller and a devoted family man with four children, 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Some 15 miles of Highway 273 in Cherokee County were dedicated in his honor in August 2014. The David L. Hartline High-way stretches from Leesburg, Ala., to the community of Blanche.

This is the fascinating man I am about to meet, get to know and write about. I had read his best-selling book, “Vietnam: What a Soldier Gives,” but nothing can replace the human experience, right?

As I eagerly await this hero’s arrival at the Gridiron Restaurant in Centre, my thoughts are swimming with his accomplishments and with curiosity.

At last I catch sight of Hartline entering the café and, without introduction, I know it is him. His stride is confident, and his proud posture speaks volumes. Yes, his body language is military.

But as I shake his hand for the first time, I feel as if I have always known him. His bright blue eyes are kind and knowing. There is no pretention, no ego.

I instinctively sit in a position with my back to the door, allowing Hartline a seat opposite me, which places his back to the wall.

Personally, I know this is not negotiable with most combat veterans and police officers. It is a post-traumatic-stress-disorder thing.

Turns out I made the correct choice. Hartline candidly divulges he has a Veterans Administration Disability rating of 50 percent for PTSD and 30 percent for his physical injuries from enemy fire in Vietnam.

He suffers from nightmares, as most PTSD victims do. “But writing my book was cathartic,” he says. “It exorcised those demons. It took me 17 months to write 1,200 pages, free-hand.”

As we sit down over coffee in the conference room where his Cherokee County American Legion Post 62 meets monthly, I am instantly impressed.

Hartline is organized, focused and eager. He is intent on helping me understand exactly what he’s all about: “Family, faith, freedom – and veterans’ rights.”

He lays out copies of all three books he has authored. He auto-graphs them for me: “Only a few Americans know or care about the high price of, ‘What ALL Soldiers Give’. You do.”

I realize Hartline is a soldier still on a mission – to save his bud-dies. Only now, many of them are suffering from wounds inflicted in the homeland; and Hartline does not flinch in his bold propositions to the federal government regarding veterans’ rights.

Why is he so dedicated to this cause?

“When I graduated from Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia, back in the heat of the Vietnam War, there were no civilians there to see us graduate,” he says thought-fully. “I promised myself then that if I lived through what was coming, I would support all those who came behind me.”

Since my time with Hartline, I have read all three of his books. I cried, I laughed. I digested the horrors our citizens have blocked from their collective minds.

Hartline is the most decorated living veteran in Cherokee County – having received 14 medals, including two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a pair of Bronze Stars. These he received for his heroic actions as an Army reconnaissance patrol specialist in Vietnam during 1968 and 1969.

Upon landing in Vietnam, Hartline dis-embarked his plane at the Bien Hoa Air Base about 25 miles north of Saigon. He recalls his first impression: “The awful heat, the stench – rotten vegetation and sew-age. There were old buses carrying us with screen wire over the windows, to keep ‘Ole Charlie’ from throwing explosives inside.” He explains that “Ole Charlie” was slang for the enemy.

Hartline learned his destination would be Wunder Beach, a rear base near the demilitarized zone where supplies were unloaded off ships in the South China Sea, then carried to American bases.As part of a U.S. Army Special Operations unit, Hart-line would be working in tandem with Navy Seals, Force Recon Marines and Air Force communications specialists.

Hartline’s Special Ops unit completed a grueling, 52-day mission along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to gather intelligence and set up ambushes.

In the DMZ, Hartline would face off with uniformed Vietnamese soldiers. After just weeks in the thick of battle, one firefight nearly killed him.

He was riding on the right rear of a track vehicle as M60 machine gun operator when ‘Ole Charlie’ fired a rocket-propelled grenade that blew into the vehicle’s side right in front of him. He was catapulted some 15 feet into a rice paddy, losing his weapon, his bearings and his hearing.

Hartline’s legs were riddled with more than 20 shards of shrapnel – pieces of metal so hot they cooked the flesh. Seeing his vehicle ablaze and enemy bullets kicking up mud all around him, Hartline knew his survival depended on somehow making it to a ditch 30 yards away.

“I was in shock,” Hartline relates. “When I was trying to get up and had made a few stumbling steps, my right leg was blown out from under me.” Hit by rifle fire and in searing pain, Hartline ran, with fear overriding everything else, until he jumped at full sprint into the waist-deep ditch.

He crept up to its edge and peered over, only to witness the horror of his track vehicle exploding again and again as on-board ammo caught fire. There was no doubt his driver and friend, whom he affectionately called “Trucks,” was dead.

He caught sight of three others who had been onboard running toward him. “They were stumbling, frantic, grabbing each oth-er and finally made it to the ditch,” Hartline recalls. It was then he felt his right boot filling with blood and removed a boot string to cordon off the flow.

A nearby track vehicle picked the men up and drove them to a clearing, where a helicopter met and transported them to a tented, MASH-type field hospital some five miles away. There, Hartline learned he had been shot twice in the upper right leg, and both legs were full of shrapnel embedded close to the bone.

He was sent to Camrann Bay Hospital on the coast of the South China Sea for further treatment before being placed on light duty at Camp Evans, about 100 miles away. But Hartline says he had already become fed up with “cold beer, eating and drinking and watching war protestors on TV.”

“My friends were out there being shot at,” he says. “I couldn’t even sleep at night. I told the doctor, ‘If I’m not bad enough to be sent home, then please send me back to my unit.” I asked him every day for the next three days.”

His doctor finally relented, saying, “Hartline, if you really want to go back, I’ll let you, but those legs aren’t well yet.” He was issued his own supply of gauze and ointment with orders to stay aboard his track vehicle and out of the bacteria-ridden rice paddies.

Hartline returned to serve near the DMZ, but received orders a short time later to re-locate to the delta in the south, where there were no front lines and the Viet Cong were villagers and farmers. “We didn’t know who the enemies were,” Hartline recalls. “They never did wear uniforms. They mixed with the population. They could be cutting your hair in the morning and killing you that night.

“We wore no unit patches, and we didn’t wear rank. They got promoted and a bonus for killing an officer. If their own people helped us in any way, they would be tor-tured and killed. We saw heads on bamboo poles. They were terrorists.

“They’d rather wound you as kill you. They knew we would leave no man behind. They would attack those of us who came back for our wounded.”

By the time Hartline arrived in the swampy delta, he was sure of one thing. “In only five months, I had become a soldier,” he says. “I knew what it was like to be in a hell of a firefight. I knew what it was like to kill the enemy close up, and I sure knew what it was like to be scared half to death. I knew what it was like to be wounded and nearly die.”

Hartline says his nightmares, which are traumatically realistic, don’t come often anymore. “I had to relive my combat experi-ences to write them down in my book,” he says. “I haven’t had many bad nightmares about combat since I finished writing my story down.”

Hartline says his book also exposes buried emotions of “being treated with rejection, as a second-rate citizen, here at home, and the guilt of not doing more in the war – not being able to save my buddies’ lives.”

He recalls marching with 814 troops from Fort Lewis in Washington state for 12 blocks to the Seattle Civic Center, where there was to be a fish fry for the first combat battalion of returning soldiers.

“I will never forget – they were playing the song ‘This is My Country’ as we marched … and people were opening windows from the skyscrapers and were dumping garbage on us. They were throwing tomatoes and eggs, and had signs up that said, ‘You’re not wel-come here. Go back to Vietnam!”

“That was really heartbreaking. We were treated like we soldiers lost the war. The government wouldn’t let us win; the people wouldn’t support us. We were shamed and then blamed for serving our country.”

At the civic center, soldiers were told they had to be 21 to get in the beer line.

“General William C. Westmoreland, who had flown from Washington D.C., said, ‘With all due respect, I didn’t bring any boys home,’” Hartline recalls. “We all – even the chaplain – were in the beer line.”

Hartline says he rode a Trailways bus from Tacoma, Wash., to Chattanooga, Tenn., in his Class A uniform. “I wanted the country to see that I was proud to have served my country,” he says.

Hartline immersed himself in farm life for two weeks before the mailman delivered his station orders. The mailman was Arthur Pershing “Tarzan” White.

Hartline is now writing his fourth book about the life of the late Tarzan White, who had consider-able influence on his own life. “He was high school football coach, the mail carrier and a man who loved to work with young kids.”

In 1934-35, White played All-American offensive right guard for the University of Alabama football team alongside Paul “Bear” Bryant, who was the offensive left guard. He then became a profes-sional football great for the New York Giants and the team that is now the Chicago Bears. White went on to become a professional wrestler who twice earned a World Championship belt.

The orders White delivered sent Hartline to Fort Hood in Texas for his remaining five and a half months in the Army. There he re-ceived regular medical care at Carl R. Darnall Medical Center.

His best memories of Fort Hood would be of meeting a young, beautiful nursing student – Patricia Hollister, a Pennsylvania native – who helped care for him. “We got to be friends,” Hartline smiles. “And there was such bonding. I knew she was the one for me. I married my best friend.”

Hartline now has the rank of lieutenant colonel, retired. He was stationed with the Army National Guard for 15 years and stayed in the Army Reserves until leaving the military in 1992, for a total of 23 years served.

Hartline continues to give civic speeches, manage his Hartline Timber Farms on the family land where he was born and carry out duties as American Legion state commander as he writes his Tarzan White manuscript. Still, he manages to balance all this with family time, which he says is “most important.”

Hartline says his first love re-mains America’s military. He holds motivational classes with Army basic trainees at Fort Benning.“I tell these young soldiers, ‘If I can succeed, where I came from, so can you,’” he says. “‘If a high-school dropout of age 16 who was raised on a farm out in the country can be promoted to an officer in the U.S. Army, so can you.’”

Copies of “Vietnam: What a Soldier Gives” are available upon request at Books-A-Mil-lion and in military book stores or by contacting David Hartline at: David L. Hartline, P.O. Box 65, Gaylesville, AL, 35973, 706-506-2505 or david.hartline@hotmail.com.[/s2If]