Robert R. Lee, nicknamed the “The General,” served two tours in the Vietnam War as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army and part of the Army’s elite 11th Armored Calvary Regiment, known as the Black Horse Troopers, between 1968 and 1971. In his first tour he was part of the Army’s M-48 A3 Tank force and in the second, was a helicopter door gunner.
He has earned several prestigious medals including a Purple Heart, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with valor, an Army Accommodation Medal with valor, and numerous Air Medal Awards. He was a member of the Army Reserves for seven years after his time in Vietnam.
Lee has lived in Maynard for 40 years with his wife Angela Lee Cossette, working for the Digital Equipment Corporation for 20 years and then the U.S. Postal Service before retiring in 2008. He is still an active charter member of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 116 out of Leominster.
What prompted you to enlist into the army?
I originally got drafted. Then I was told I would stay home for another six months, so I changed my draft into an enlistment. That made it so for one extra year I could get specialty training instead of infantry training. Back in those days when you are 19 you are thinking, “I think I would rather be on a tank than an infantry soldier.” What did I know? Plus somebody mentioned going to Germany where all the girls are, so at 19 I enlisted for an extra year to make it three years and to get specialized training for armor.
What was the story behind your awards? What do they mean to you?
The Silver Star has always been something that has always meant a little extra to me, mainly because that day will always live in my memory as the day I probably should have got kicked in the butt instead of being pinned on a Silver Star.
Editor’s note: the Silver Star Medal is the third highest award for bravery in the U.S. military.
I did some things that I wasn’t sure I was capable of doing, but I knew I had to do and the outcome was the award. I was on an M-48 A3 tank and we were taking fire from both sides of us. Our tank got hit by a rocket propelled grenade and before I knew it the tank commander was down and severely wounded. Everyone was trying to communicate and we had our radios blown out by a rocket-propelled grenade.
I grabbed my personal weapon and I got help. While I was running to the next tank to let them know we’d been hit I stumbled onto an [enemy] bunker complex that was right in front of me. I decided to start shooting into it.
As the story goes, the guys in the helicopter were watching me with a set of binoculars saying, ‘who is that idiot playing John Wayne?’ For many years I tried to not play that in my mind because I know lots of people that got shot up and wounded that day, including myself. But then I came to the determination that it is something I should be proud of and I am proud of. So I decided to start talking about it and I found that talking about it brought me to a different place in my life.
We all love our country and we all love our brothers and each year around this time on Memorial Day we all remember the ones that didn’t come back.
Can you describe the bond you share with your fellow Vietnam veterans?
The bond is unbelievable. Yearly, we do a major reunion, last year in Orlando. We are all in our mid-60’s now and not a lot of them wanted to go to Orlando, but 1,200 of us showed up there to have dinner together and break bread and remember those that didn’t come back.
The reunion comes up once a year, this year it will be in Indianapolis. But we’ve been in all the major cities across the states. We’ve had 37 actual reunions and it took about 15 years for the thing to get going. Then 15 years later a lot of people still didn’t want to get back into reunion mode, but little by little a couple of guys, then a couple other guys come and are honored. We have guest speakers and we get together and have our time together. We are united.
How important is it for people to think about and honor our veterans?
I hope people don’t forget the sacrifice that these men make. I know I won’t.
How important is it for veterans like yourself to fight and stand up for this country?
In my mind it will always be America first and love of life and the freedom that we share because of all those guys and it will just always go on. The day I don’t see a Memorial Day parade, I hope I’m not here.