Tualatin Veteran Jack Estes Talks War, Writing and Healing

Jack Estes and his wife Colleen hold up a Quilt of Valor that he just received in mid-April from the Quilt of Valor Foundation, which awards them to service members and veterans touched by war. (Barbara Sherman/Tualatin Life)
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Vietnam veteran and author to discuss his newest novel at THS event

Jack Estes probably would not be comfortable being called the face of the Vietnam War. 

But he might concede that he is at least part of the conscience of that ill-fated war. Over the years, Estes has been very public in expressing his views on the war through three books – a memoir and two novels – plus articles and essays in many major newspapers and magazines.

Now, the public will be able to hear from Estes directly in an upcoming presentation by the Tualatin Historical Society as he reads from his newest book and shares his experiences as an 18-year-old who volunteered to join the U.S. Marine Corps and served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. 

“All my writing is about telling people what war is about and how war affects families, Marines’ wives and their children,” said Estes, sitting in his Lake Oswego living room. “I wrote the first book from the perspective of an 18-year-old, and I had pretty severe PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome).”

Estes, who was wounded in the war and decorated for heroism, said, “I spent the first six months in the jungle with the 3rd Marines. We were as deep as you could possibly go. The only Vietnamese I saw were the ones we killed.”

And he recalled the two incidents he experienced in Vietnam that have continued to haunt him.

“Searching for Gurney” is Jack Estes’ second novel and the focus of his May 5 Tualatin Historical Association presentation.

“Gurney (who is the title character in his second novel) was my squad leader,” Estes said. “He was in the lead with Forrest between us and then me. As we were going around a bend, we were ambushed. As I stepped forward, Forrest was crying, and Gurney was lying flat on the ground dead with a white thing hanging out of his neck. His eyes were open with a look of shock on his face. That has continued to haunt me to this day.”

Later, Estes had an opportunity to join a CAP (Combined Action Platoon), which was made up of 10 Marines, Navy corpsmen and 15 villagers.

“Marines were trained to fight against the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and the Vietcong, and I thought this was an opportunity to meet villagers,” he said. “It sounded like an escape, although the CAP units had the highest attrition rate in Vietnam.”

Estes’ best friend Bob Gregory was also in the CAP, and one day the CAP was ambushed.

“Half the Marines were wounded or terrified,” Estes said. “Bob was shot four times in a rice paddy and was bleeding badly. I tied his arm together with my sock. I pulled Bob to a rice mat and thought he was dead. I went berserk. I went to the edge of the jungle and screamed and fired my bazooka. I went nuts. It is referred to as a berserk stage.

“But when I went back, Bob wasn’t dead and was medevac’d out. He is still my best friend today. From then on, I had no emotion. I lost almost all of my CAP during a firefight. It had a profound impact on me.”

In August 1969 Estes returned home to Oregon, where he had left his pregnant wife behind, “but my wife left me before Thanksgiving,” he said. “I came back pretty wild. I was a big, strong, angry man. I had been in Golden Gloves boxing and was afraid of nothing. I got in a lot of fights, which were quite short. I was in jail three times.”

Slowly, Estes turned his life around and began utilizing skills he first learned at Parkrose High School in Portland, where he not only participated in several sports but also in theater and speech. At Portland State University, Estes joined the speech team, specializing in two events – persuasive speaking and oral interpretation.

“I read poetry and excerpts from stories about Vietnam,” Estes said. “I found out I had incredible passion and drive and became very good. I won every event and won at nationals in the two events. My college professor believed in me and said, ‘I can’t teach you anything. You are gifted.’

“I had the opportunity to go to Southern Illinois University, and I received a Fulbright Scholarship. SIU had a fantastic program, and I connected with people I had met at Nationals.”

Jack Estes’ memoir features his best friend Bob Gregory (right) on the cover with him in the Vietnam jungle.

To be a good speaker, Estes first had to be a good writer. He utilized those skills when he started to write his first book, a memoir called “A Field of Innocence,” which was published in 1987.

“My next two books were fiction,” Estes said. “I use real-life people and events as the basis for the stories.”

“A Soldier’s Son,” published in 2016, is about a father’s haunting memories of war and his desperate attempt to save his son. It was originally written as a screenplay, which won numerous awards, and was adapted for print.

His newest book, “Searching for Gurney,” was published last November. It is about four Marines coping with the effects of a deadly engagement with soldiers from the North Vietnamese Army.

Estes has returned to Vietnam four times since the war. On a trip in 1993, he and his wife, Colleen, delivered medical and educational supplies plus toys to schools, hospitals and orphanages. He returned to the village where he once lived to what Colleen calls his “original point of pain.”

The purpose was to carry humanitarian aid instead of a machine gun and to replace bad memories with good ones. Estes also wanted to try and find a Vietnamese soldier who once helped save his life, and he did, still living in the same village.

“I had people looking for him,” Estes said. “I remember he had a gold crown, and when he heard people were looking for him, he was frightened and took it off. But when we found him, he put the crown back on. It was him.”

Jack Estes credits a lot of therapy for helping him overcome the psychological wounds of war. (Barbara Sherman/Tualatin Life)

Out of that trip, the Esteses created the Fallen Warriors Foundation to honor the sacrifices of American Marines and to help heal the pain of war.  Since then, the Fallen Warriors Foundation has delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical supplies and personnel plus educational goods to the poorest of Vietnamese villages.

He is a huge advocate of therapy to help heal from the psychological wounds of war and has led a group of disabled combat veterans to Vietnam to their “original points of pain” to help them heal. 

And of course, writing about events that are seared into his brain forever also helps.

While Estes found the Vietnamese soldier who helped him, in “Searching for Gurney,” did his protagonist “JT” ever find Gurney, Estes’ real-life squad leader who died in action? You will have to read the book to find out.

Estes’ books are available on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble and Annie Bloom’s Books.