When the United States Air Force sent Staff Sgt. John Campbell to Laos in 1970, the mission was so classified he wasn’t told where he was going.
“I had to ask the pilot on the plane,” Campbell said. “Technically, we weren’t in Laos, so it was all secret.”
What happened to Campbell, a 23-year-old Californian at the time, followed him home. So did the secrecy.
“I’ve been married 46 years,” said Campbell, who now lives in Gig Harbor next door to his son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons. “Until a few years ago, I never told my wife or son what happened in Laos. They didn’t even know I’d been wounded.”
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The military kept that part of the war in Southeast Asia classified, and when Campbell saw his service record nearly 40 years later, it didn’t show he’d been there.
If the government wanted to forget that chapter of the war, Campbell could not.
“I was assigned to a special squadron out of McClellan Air Force in Sacramento,” he said. “My training was on aircraft the U.S. gave the Laotian government. I was sent there to repair and modify those planes.”
Campbell arrived at a small compound with an airstrip in December 1970 and was told not to wear his uniform. Instead, he wore a Laotian pilot jumpsuit.
“We took sniper fire most of the day Dec. 31. I was there with a few other Americans, and we only knew one another’s first names. We knew it was dangerous, we knew it was secret, so I don’t think we wanted to get close,” Campbell said.
“The planes started flying out and one Air Force captain, James Cross, flew in. He’d been shot at and said the compound was virtually surrounded and advised us to get out. The only plane left, though, was his.”
Cross could have flown out alone, Campbell said, but chose not to leave them. Instead, he took command of the Hmong fighters defending the base against the North Vietnamese Army.
“Late that night, after midnight, they hit us hard,” Campbell said.
Cross had the Americans barricade themselves with sandbags, and everyone took an M-16. Campbell had never been in battle.
“I had to take lives. When I looked at my comrades, I thought, ‘I’m in survival mode. I’d do anything to protect these guys — and I don’t even know their full names.’ ” he said.
When a mortar shell landed in the center of the compound, Campbell felt intense pain on the right side of his face and right arm. He passed out.
“When I came to, a Hmong soldier handed my M-16 back to me and pointed to the runway. Captain Cross was using the radio in his plane to direct fire on the enemy,” Campbell said. “When dawn broke, I saw the crater from that mortar shell. Four Hmong fighters and Bob and Tony were dead. Dennis died later that day.”
Campbell was medevaced to Thailand.
“Capt. Cross died later in 1970 flying a mission,” Campbell said. “I was the only one who made it home.”
By the time he did, his wounds had healed after surgeries. Feeling survivor’s guilt, he never mentioned them to anyone.
Campbell left the Air Force, became a general contractor in Santa Barbara. It took 20 years later for Laos to catch up with him.
“In the ’90s, I started having these episodes. A smell, the ground shaking, Fourth of July fireworks would trigger them, and the right side of my face would swell and my body would freeze up,” he said.
Campbell was suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome, but didn’t realize it. In 2009, he went to the Veterans Affairs hospital, trying to find out what was causing his face to swell.
During one episode there, Campbell began having flashbacks, and talking about Laos. Nurses transcribed everything he said, though he remembered none of it.
“That’s when my wife, Gail, first heard about it,” he said.
Laos had been so classified, Campbell had never received a Purple Heart. He asked for his medical records, and got a single-typed page – with many details and the location blacked out – describing his treatment for wounds in Thailand.
Campbell took his case to Sen. Patty Murray’s office, and reapplied for the Purple Heart. On Sunday, in a ceremony presided by U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, Campbell received his medal.
“It’s not all about me, it’s about comrades left behind,” Campbell said. “I didn’t know them well, but they were protecting me when they died.
“This has brought me some closure. At some points over the last 45 years, I actually wondered if any of it really happened. Part of my therapy for PTSD now is to talk about it.
“Finally, I’ve reached the point where I can do that without crying.”