51 years later: Bill Balleza and longtime friend, Jimmy Carter, recall Vietnam War

By Bill Balleza - Anchor

KPRC's Bill Balleza sat down with his longtime friend and Marine sniper, Jimmy Carter, at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

This is Bill's story:

Friendships forged in war often endure long after the fighting ends.

I moved to Houston 46 years ago, in part, because two of my Marine sniper partners from Vietnam lived here. One of them died at the Houston VA hospital seven years ago from exposure to Agent Orange.

The other is there right now. His name is Jimmy Carter, and during this Military-Appreciation Month, I'd like for you to meet him.

For months, Jimmy Carter had to be hoisted out of his hospital bed. He's been undergoing treatment most of the past two years for an array of serious medical issues connected to our service together in Vietnam.

But, he's finally getting better.

"I got in this wheelchair today, almost by myself. I told 'em, 'Give me time, I'll get in it'," Carter said.

Jimmy and I were trained as Marine scout/snipers. Our sniper platoon played a key role in the Tet Offensive of 1968.

"I still wake up in the middle of the night. We ate the same dirt. It was tough," Carter said.

"Yeah, those were tough times. We were 20 years old."  

"Yeah, 20, 21."

"We spent a lot of time in the bush on the long gun. And we really haven't talked about that much over the past 50 years."

"And I still don't talk about it. There was some of the things we had to do that we don't want anybody else to know. You know, that's the bottom line. We did what we had to do to get out of there, and some of them people were not that fortunate," Carter said. 

"We lost good friends there. And a number of them since."

"Oh, yeah," Carter said.

One member of our team, George Wilhite, survived the battle for Hue City physically, but not mentally. He shot himself to death in 1973.

Leo Perez was our sniper team mate, good friend and fellow Houstonian.

Me and Leo Perez carried big packs.

"Y'all had those big packs you captured from the North Vietnamese army. You know, speaking of Leo, I was here at the VA hospital when he passed. He was a good hand wasn't he?" I asked.

"Yes sir," Carter replied.

Although some members of our platoon were killed in action, the bell has tolled for many more in the years since.

"Our platoon is getting shorter. There's not many of us left," Carter said.

Jimmy's son, Kevin, and daughter, Kimberley, were raised by a strict Marine sergeant.

"We weren't Marines, but we were in boot camp for 18 years," Kevin said, Kim laughing along.

When they noticed their dad's health failing, he ignored their pleas to get medical help. Two years ago, they took charge when Jimmy began falling.

"Dad was hard-headed, and so, Kevin picked him up like this, like a baby," Kimberly said.

They carried him here, where multiple vascular surgeries have saved his legs, and his life.

He's had to be resuscitated twice and has had several other setbacks, but he has endured. Like the Marine he has always been.

"I've never told you this, but, I love you, brother," I told him.

"I do, too."

And there is some good news. Jimmy is being released from the VA hospital this week.

Instead of coffee and donuts bedside, we'll be back in his front yard with refreshments of a different kind.

PHOTOS: Bill Balleza and Jimmy Carter discuss friendship, Vietnam War

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