It all began with a dispute in the principal’s office: Student Phil Ayers would swap his cowboy boots for Marine boots, and the nightmare of combat in Vietnam.
The scene: Just over a year had passed since the death of Phil’s mom, Oct. 1963. Angry over that, he had had a mediocre season on the Andrew Lewis High School football team. But legendary Coach Eddie Joyce seemed to take special interest in him, now ready to play baseball.
“Game day” required players to attend classes in coat and tie. Phil did so — even ironed a shirt — but owning no dress shoes, he polished his black cowboy boots.
An enraged Assistant Principal “Weenie” Barnett thought he was mocking the school policy. He summoned him to the principal’s office, where Phil was told he would be suspended for three days. Word got to Coach Joyce, who “almost tore the hinges off the door,” Phil recalled. Barnett and Joyce yelled at each other and “almost came to blows.”
But Phil interrupted, turned and walked out. Pride injured, advice rejected, he waited until his 17th birthday and joined the Marines.
And on Phil’s first visit home from rigorous Camp Lejeune, Coach Joyce led the now-muscular Marine to see Barnett. Phil asked if his polished shoes met with his approval. Barnett lowered his head and retreated to his office.
Such personal stories of his journey are in Phil’s new book, “Marine: Featuring the Battle of Hickory, May 1967.” Gritty details depict the horrors of combat — and show why Sergeant Ayers was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal. (“You [soldiers] were just kids. How did you stay alive?” wife Lois would later ask.)
But the story doesn’t end there — and it gets to his reasons for writing the book: He wants to reach “veterans about life after war.” He was also challenged by a Black Hawk Down (Somalia operation) squad leader to tell his story for future generations.
The nightmare of PTSD made writing difficult. But, he said, response has been wonderful. One Vietnam vet told him he had run from those days all his life, but now will face them.
Phil went on to college, received his doctorate from Liberty Theological Seminary and has been senior pastor for 29 years at Glade Creek Baptist Church in Blue Ridge.
He’s recovering from surgery on a foot injured in Vietnam, but will speak about his war experiences at Goodview Baptist Church this Sunday, Feb. 3, at 11 a.m. “I hope that it will be the start of many speaking opportunities,” he wrote via email. Indeed, he has much to talk about.
“Marine…1967” is available through Xulon Press, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. His web site: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to Lorain St.Clair Myer for alerting us to our schoolmate’s topic.
P.S. The Mill Mountain/Roanoke College Coffeeshop Series starts Thursday, Feb. 7, 8 pm. Topic: Economics of Health and Healthcare.