A Limestone County resident and Purple Heart recipient now feels more at ease with his status as a Vietnam veteran, despite being mistreated after returning from overseas.
“When I first came home, I was spit on and called all sorts of names,” said William “Bill” Ellison, a Monroe, Michigan, native who now resides in West Limestone. “People respect us more today than they did in the 1960s."
He was working at the Ford plant when he was drafted by the Army in March 1968. A year later, his life was in jeopardy.
On March 27, 1969, Pfc. Ellison of the 11th Infantry Brigade was wounded by mortar fragments shortly after arriving in Cam Lo, South Vietnam. His actions after being wounded resulted in Ellison receiving a Purple Heart.
Instead of tending to his wounds, he acted in “complete disregard to his own safety” and focused his efforts on the evacuation of his fellow soldiers, according to his Purple Heart citation.
When told to get on a helicopter, Ellison refused and instead worked to put wounded soldiers on helicopters. He stayed with his company for the next six days, fighting the enemy until the pain became so unbearable he collapsed while on a sweep.
“Pfc. Ellison's courage and calmness were most instrumental in the success of the company's mission,” the citation reads. “By his unparalleled application of exceptional imagination, fearless courage and unrelenting determination, the unit succeeded in locating the enemy and destroying them.”
Ellison was given an honorable discharge and returned home to Michigan. The Army wouldn't let him reenlist, though he said he would have.
“The time was right, and things were starting to cool down (in Vietnam),” he said.
He went back to work at the Ford plant, but he left after a short time.
He enrolled in an electronics course at Monroe County Community College in Michigan. The training prepared him for a 45-year career as an electrician in the nuclear industry. That career brought him to Limestone County 31 years ago when he took a job at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant.
He and his wife Betsy have four children, all of which live in Limestone County.
“We're a tight-knit group,” Ellison said.
He still has a few physical reminders of his time in Vietnam, including back pain from four broken discs in his lower back. He also occasionally breaks out in rashes from exposure to Agent Orange.
Last year, he received an honor that he said “humbled me pretty good.” Ellison was one of three Michigan veterans to receive a specially crafted Purple Heart plaque from the VFW and Knights of Columbus.
The plaque was presented to Ellison prior to Veterans Day 2018. The plaque, which was made by Michigan native Doug Pickel, is comprised of five different woods:
• Maple from Michigan, which symbolizes purity soldiers leave behind;
• Padauk, a reddish African wood that symbolizes blood;
• Zebrawood and Pommallie, which are also African, which have wave-like patterns representing waves of soldiers going into harm's way; and
• Purple Heart wood from South America, which symbolizes lives lost defending the nation's freedom.
When asked about his thoughts on Veterans Day now, Ellison said it has a special meaning for him now.
“It means I'm glad to be alive and I'm here to celebrate it,” he said. “I'm proud for all the veterans of all branches of service.”