“The awards don’t mean that much. What’s really the most important thing in my life, looking back on it, was an opportunity to serve America, its families, and its youth, and to make a difference with my life.”
Those are the words of retired Four-Star General John Wickham, who dedicated 37 years of his life serving his country in the United States Army, and whose influence continues to resound in those who now wear a uniform.
Though Wickham doesn’t much concern himself with his numerous military awards, the list is too extensive, and too much a reflection of his patriotism to be ignored.
In his rise through the ranks, Wickham, now an Oro Valley
resident, was awarded the Silver Star twice for battlefield valor, a Bronze Star for valor, a Purple Heart, 11 Air Medals, four Legions of Merit, eight Distinguished Service Medals, a Combat Infantry Badge, an Expert Infantryman Badge, a Parachutist Badge, and 21 foreign decorations. Wickham was also named by the Army Times as one of the ten leaders to most change the Army. He was also presented with the Distinguished Graduate Award in 2005, and a year later, the Doughboy Award, which recognizes an individual’s outstanding contributions to the Army.
His career was one that defied all odds- even death.
As a combat commander in the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese attacked Wickham’s firebase after an elaborate ploy.
“They sent in a mother with her injured child, and we let them in,” said Wickham. “They were cared for in my tent. We later found out she (the mother) had drawn a map of the inside of the firebase and where my command center was. They planned on killing everyone in the firebase.”
The map was then given to waiting Vietnamese assassins, also known as “sappers,” who began to infiltrate the base by tunneling in.
At about 3 a.m., an explosion went off just two feet away from Wickham, instantly killing his operations officer, and littering his own body with shrapnel. As Wickham began towards a foxhole for cover, he was shot between five and 10 times by an enemy’s AK-47.
But the leader he is, Wickham continued commanding his troops.
He even called off assistance from his superior officer, who planned to fly a helicopter in to take over control.
“You’ll be killed, and the chopper will be taken down,” Wickham told him via radio. “I can still command.”
And he did just that, leading his men to fight off the Vietnamese and radioing for artillery backup.
“After the Vietnamese heard my radio broadcast- because we didn’t have code books and had no way to encrypt what we were saying- they realized the sappers had failed, they had failed to kill off the leadership, so they called off the attack. We killed a lot of their men trying to come in, and essentially saved the battalion.”
Three hours after sustaining his injuries, Wickham was moved from his foxhole to an aid station, where it was determined he lost an astonishing ten pints of blood between his injuries and the removal of the shrapnel.
“They had given up hope that I could make it, but obviously the good Lord had more for me to do,” said Wickham.
Wickham survived though, and was awarded a Purple Heart for the battle. He was moved to Walter Reid Hospital in Washington D.C., where doctors told him he would likely never walk again, and told him his career in the Army was finished.
Yet, Wickham defied the odds once again, and when he left the hospital, he left on foot.
“I walked out of that hospital and back into the Army,” he said.
Wickham’s career in the Army only accelerated from that point, as he commanded the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry in Germany, and returned to Vietnam as the Deputy Chief of Staff, at which point he was recognized with negotiating the release of American prisoners of war, one of which was Arizona Senator John McCain.
Wickham’s leadership abilities continued to be recognized, and he was eventually promoted to Director of the Joint Staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Wickham’s career reached its peak by 1983, when he was appointed Chief of Staff of the United States Army under President Ronald Reagan.
Though his career is honored now, Wickham said the same was not always so, as many Americans hated the military during the years of Vietnam.
“When I came out of Vietnam severely wounded, I was in uniform at Grand Central Station in New York, and a well-dressed, middle-aged woman strolled up to me and spit in my face, and called me some of the foulest words that you can imagine.”
Wickham said while he doesn’t see that treatment with military men and women now, he questions whether the government is properly caring for its soldiers upon return to the states.
“Less than one half of one percent of the American population ever serves in uniform,” he said. “The sacrifices that come from war and service in war and the separation with families is unknown to most Americans. Virtually all of our legislators at the state and federal levels know nothing about the sacrifices made, and consequently are sometimes unwilling to vote on budgets to support the military. We are paying for our wars on the credit card.”
Wickham added that soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq today are facing three times the unemployment rate as the average American, as well as the highest divorce rates, suicide rates, and disability rates the nation has ever seen from its soldiers.
For Wickham, it was his family who helped him through times of war and injury. He has been married to his wife, Ann Lindsley Prior since 1955. They have three children and six grandchildren.
“The military was an opportunity to give something back and make a difference,” he said. “I am enormously blessed with the fact I got another chance to live, and that I’ve been blessed with children and grandchildren.”
As the Fourth of July has arrived, Wickham shared some final thoughts on what the holiday, and America mean to him.
“This is a chance to celebrate and make us mindful of all those blessings that have come as a result of men and women in uniform,” said Wickham. “We’ve had quality individuals serving in the military years past, we still have them today, and we will have them in the future.”