A Marine Corps Drummer Was Sent to Vietnam as a Scout Sniper

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Marine Corps scout snipers sight in during training in Vietnam. The first Marine Corps scout sniper platoon to be trained exclusively in combat would later be nicknamed ‘the Rogues.’ (Walt Sides)

Gary Jenkins had a feeling his score on the range might come back to haunt him. He was right.

Even 50 years later, he still remembers the sound of explosions going off around him like it was yesterday. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) haunted him for years.

He wants others to seek help, to get treatment. He's currently in treatment for his own struggles with PTSD and wants others to find the relief from their symptoms that he has found.

"The memories of hand-to-hand combat, using a bayonet," Jenkins recalled in a video from the U.S. Air Force's 17th Training Wing. "Those things stay with you for life."

In the video, he describes how he was assigned to the Marine Corps Band to play the drums. But while training on the rifle range at Camp Pendleton, California, he achieved the second highest score of all the Marines in training at the time. The Corps had bigger plans for a skilled marksman.

Six months later, that score caught up to him.

"I thought I was going to have a nice, safe career, doing music and everything," he said. "They said, 'Nope! You're going to Vietnam.'"

He would be trained as a scout sniper during his first three months in Vietnam. Then came his first real-world sniper mission.

"Imagine you're walking down the street -- or in the jungle -- and you're laughing and talking with your buddy," Jenkins said. "All of a sudden, you see a flash of light and hear a boom, and body parts are going everywhere. And that's your friend who's gone."

In the video, Jenkins goes on to describe how he hears family and friends of returning service members who were in Iraq and Afghanistan say the same things he used to hear from the Vietnam generation's family and friends.

"'When they left, they were one way,'" he quotes the families as saying. "'When they came back, they were totally different.'"

Talking about his own experience with PTSD, Jenkins discusses dealing with bad memories, ongoing nightmares over the course of years, sleeplessness, waking up in a cold sweat and other symptoms of the disorder.

"I wanted to be open with this because other people are hurting, other people are going through this," he said. "We don't have to be ashamed of it anymore. It's OK to get counseling from a psychiatrist. ... Don't hide this from the world. That doesn't work."

After leaving Vietnam, Jenkins worked on President Richard Nixon's personal security team, one of the first African Americans to hold the position. He also worked as a journalist and television news anchor before joining the 17th Training Wing's Public Affairs Office, from which he retired in April 2019.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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