Fred Richards’ story could have ended nearly 53 years ago.

It was 9:30 a.m., Feb. 4, 1969, in Vietnam. A member of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, the then-19-year-old Richards was among those ambushed and severely wounded in combat.

“I was wounded in both of my legs and missing my fifth finger,” Richards, now 72, said. “We lost a lot of men that day. Two Navy corpsmen died trying to save me. One got his head and shoulder blown off. Another got both legs blown off, so he died instantly.”

Richards’ injuries, which also included a wounded back and concussion, required two operations and three subsequent tendon transplants. He faced an extensive recovery process.

“I was med-evaced and taken to the Da Nang hospital, where I was in a full body cast,” Richards said. “I don’t remember anything (of the transfer). I remember waking up in the hospital in a full body cast.”

From Vietnam, Richards received medical treatment in Japan, Alaska and subsequently the Charleston Naval Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina. He spent one year at the hospital before receiving a medical discharge.

“I was unable to perform my present duties. I had two tendon transfers in my right hand so I could move it and later on, I received another one. They gave me physical therapy and once they did that, I was allowed to have leaves so I could go home on the weekend. I was still in the hospital and still had to be there in my pajamas by Sunday night,” Richards said.

Alongside learning to reuse his hand, Richards also had to reuse his legs and muscles.

“I learned to walk again. Through my weight training, I was able to get my strength and build my muscles back. Now I’ve gone on the other side, so to speak. It’s getting worse. But, I’m here and that’s the most important thing,” he said.

Richards received two Purple Heart honors in recognition of his wounds. His unit’s actions in combat earned members the Bronze Star Medal.

“They gave that to our unit for what we did. It was given to the whole unit, a unit of seven, for going beyond our duties,” Richards said.

Time and his injuries have made an impact on Richards. He recalls being part of a seven-member unit, but doesn’t remember faces and names. Originally from South Carolina, he started his military service in 1967.

“I had a brother who served. He went in a month before I did. He’s still living,” Richards said.

On the morning of Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, Richards and his wife Rosalind were preparing to leave Fairmount for Foley, Alabama, and onto their home in Atlanta. The couple travels in an RV. A former personal trainer, Richards was forced to change his line of work as he aged.

“The wounds I had in the war, the older you get, they get worse, not better. I still have shrapnel in me from the war and they can’t dig around and get it out because of the nerves. They don’t want to open up and mess something up that I then can’t move,” Richards said.

Rosalind Richards knows her husband’s limitations, which include chronic pain. Nevertheless, he said he would rather be in pain than on pain medication.

“If I was on pain medication, I wouldn’t be able to operate the way I do,” Richards said. “I like to travel and see some of the things. I’ve got good eyesight — with glasses. North Dakota is a beautiful part of the country and people are very nice here.”

Richards’ interview in Fairmount came just after he completed another sugar beet season for local farmer Mark Meyer. Fred and Rosalind Richards arrived on Sept. 26, 2021 and stayed for just over a month. How a Georgia man came to North Dakota is a story involving YouTube and re-channeled talent.

“I saw videos from AdventureVanMan when he was doing some sugar beet harvesting in Drayton. Well, I’m an RVer, so I got in touch with Mark Meyers. I called him and I started working for him four years ago. I had been a truck driver for a long time. I loved driving a truck,” Richards said.

Richards loves working for Meyer, he said. They’ve gotten used to the annual call to make sure that Richards is coming back to Fairmount for harvest work.

“Most of the guys up here are very good people, very friendly. They all know my name,” Richards said.

Over the course of more than 50 years, Richards has seen changing attitudes and renewed respect for America’s veterans. With Veterans Day approaching, he shared his insight and thanks.

“The Vietnam veteran, when we came back, it was terrible,” Richards said. “You didn’t want to say that you were a veteran, that you went to Vietnam, because they said something was wrong with us mentally. They had no idea what was actually happening. Now they call it post-traumatic stress.”

There were two things Richards never thought he would be: hungry and thirsty. When he was in Vietnam, he was both.

“Couldn’t eat, couldn’t get water. The only thing they dropped down to us was ammo and food. You don’t want to take too much food. You can only take your ammo, so you have to bury your food. Because you don’t want to be caught without ammo. I’m a combat veteran. I was out there in the bush,” Richards said.

There were only two endings for someone in combat, Richards said. It was either getting out alive or dying. If someone was injured, they got out. You might get lucky and not get wounded, but it was rare.

“If you’re out there in that bush, you can expect to get wounded or killed,” he said. “You don’t think about that when you’re young, but the older you get — it’s something.”

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