The wooded knoll sits just above the putting green on the 17th hole at the Purpoodock Club in Cape Elizabeth. To the average golfer, it’s part of the scenery – nothing more, nothing less.

To Sam Kelley, it’s a crucible.

“I cannot go by that spot without thinking that I’m going to get shot,” Kelley, one part successful businessman and one part Vietnam veteran, said in a recent interview. “Now, I know it’s not going to happen. I’m positive it’s not going to happen. But it’s there. Every single time.”

At 73, Kelley has been on this earth for just under 27,000 days and counting. But of all of them, one will forever stand out. As Kelley puts it, “It’s obviously the most traumatic thing that happened in my whole life.”

It was Dec. 8, 1969. Kelley, a first lieutenant with the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 199th Infantry Brigade, was leading his reconnaissance platoon through the thick “elephant grass” of Hau Nghia Province, just west of what was then Saigon.

Despite his PTSD – or perhaps because of it, Sam Kelley volunteers with the “Vet to Vet Maine” program, where veterans old and young help one another find peace with the lingering effects of their war years.

The initial plan was to set up a position to ambush the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army troops who roamed the “free-fire zone,” where anything that moved was considered hostile. But before the platoon could set up, an enemy unit suddenly appeared about 200 yards away.

Kelley, having moved up just behind his point man, summoned five or six soldiers, including Pfc. Bill McCarron, a machine gunner from Queens who’d just turned 20. On Kelley’s command, they opened fire on the enemy platoon.

Recalled Kelley, “It was a pretty big firefight.”

Two things stand out.

First, Kelley spotted an enemy soldier in the nearby grass, aimed his M-16 rifle and fired. The soldier lifted up on the ground, enough so that Kelley thought he’d somehow missed. So, he squeezed the trigger and fired again – and once more, the body jumped upward.

It was only then, Kelley recalled, “that I realized that the round hitting him literally raised him up.” Because most firefights were from longer range, he said, “you usually never saw the actual impact” of an M-16 bullet hitting a human body.

The second freeze-frame occurred moments later, when a member of the platoon called out that McCarron had been hit.

“I picked up my rifle and ran over there. And he was maybe 20 yards away and as I approached the area, I could see he was sprawled out,” Kelley said. “I couldn’t tell whether he was dead or alive – he was in the elephant grass, so, he was kind of covered.”

What happened next will forever be a mystery to Kelley.

The platoon’s radio man, a guy named Patrick O’Regan, kept a written diary virtually every day he was in Vietnam. It was only decades later, after he’d compiled the entries into a book and connected with Kelley at a reunion, that O’Regan showed his former platoon leader an excerpt detailing how an enemy grenade landed near McCarron and how Kelley picked it up and threw it back.

“There was no following explosion,” O’Regan wrote. “It was a dud.”

Does Kelley remember his act of heroism?

“No, I don’t,” he replied, still perplexed. “I just don’t.”

All he remembers is that McCarron, the kid with the machine gun, was dead.

“He was the only guy I lost,” Kelley said quietly. “But losing him was tough.”

Upon returning home and saying farewell to the Army in December of 1970, Kelley would go on to marry his wife, Jane, raise three kids and start his own business, MBI Trailers, which he owns and operates to this day.

He started going to reunions of his old military unit about a dozen years ago. He worried at first about how he, a former officer, might be received by men he once commanded, but his jitters quickly melted away in the warm glow of comradeship.

Last April, one of those men, a former medic, called his onetime lieutenant to share a piece of news.

“Sam, I’m applying for PTSD benefits,” he told Kelley. “And you have PTSD and I want you to go too.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder? Say what?

“So, I came home to my wife,” Kelley said. “I’ve always suspected a little bit of PTSD and I said to my wife, ‘Do you think I have PTSD?'”

“Yes!” Jean replied without hesitation.

She’d seen it in the way he always headed for a rear corner – back to a wall and full view of the exit – whenever they went to the movie theater. In the nightmares that disrupted his sleep year in and year out. In his startle reflex – at times she’s thought she should clap or ring a bell to alert him before she enters a room.

And Kelley himself saw it every time he approached that 17th green during his weekly golf game and looked uneasily at that small wooded overlook. It was, after all, the perfect spot to set up an ambush.

Earlier this year, Kelley went to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Portland Vet Center. He told the counselor there about his lost soldier: “Wlliam P. McCarron, Jr. He was my machine gunner and he died on Dec. 8, 1969.” Sure enough, he was diagnosed with PTSD.

“I haven’t applied for VA benefits for PTSD,” Kelley said. “It wasn’t about getting the benefits.”

It was about healing.

Kelley has found two strategies for coping with what he still calls “the most important event in my entire life.”

First, he volunteered a year ago with Vet to Vet Maine, a non-profit now based in Biddeford that for the past four years has matched veterans in need of help – a lunch outing, a home visit, a trip to the doctor or the VA – with other veterans who haven’t forgotten the true meaning of camaraderie.

Kelley’s veteran is Paul Potvin, now in his early 90s, who served in the Navy during both World War II and Korea. He lost his wife, Rita, last March and now lives alone in Old Orchard Beach.

Kelley stops by for an hour or two each week to chat or help connect Potvin with this or that veterans service. Some weeks he’ll even head out and do Potvin’s shopping.

He also attends monthly meetings for Vet to Vet Maine’s 100-plus volunteers, who sit in a circle and share stories that might otherwise go untold.

What keeps him coming back?

“I think empathy,” Kelley replied. “That’s my feeling. Just sheer empathy. Being on the other side, you’d want that help if you needed it.”

Kelley’s other therapeutic outlet involves his own struggle with the day that scarred him for life. Year after year, starting on the first anniversary of Bill McCarron’s death, he called the fallen infantryman’s parents in Flushing, N.Y., just to pay his respects and let them know their son was not forgotten.

After the parents died, Kelley tracked down McCarron’s then-fiance. She’d gone on to marry a good man – a Navy veteran who, rather than push back on Bill’s memory, honored his wife’s loss.

The summer before last, the couple hosted Kelley and his wife for brunch. The table was set for five – two for the hosts, two for the guests and one, left empty, for Pfc. Bill McCarron.

Kelly looked at the empty place setting, swallowed back the wave of emotion, and sat down.

Half a century later, the battle goes on.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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