At 74, Marlin resident Eugene “Gene” Mullins, 74, willingly admits he has developed Alzheimer’s. Although he can still remember his youth in a general way, specifics sometime elude him. In fact, Mullins can still remember the 12 years he spent in the U.S. Army, including two tours in Vietnam. And while some details are missing, the feelings he felt and the overall experience is still with him to this day.
Mullins was raised in Haskell and spent his youth picking cotton. In high school, he was an outstanding football player and earned a football scholarship to Cisco Junior College, but an injury put him out of the game. He decided to join the Army.
He had just $.35 cents to his name when he signed up for the Army at age 19 and boarded a bus bound for Fort Ord, Calif., for basic training. “We were as poor as a snake,” he said.
Mullins became a personnel specialist (71h) and, for a time, was sent to Ft. Lewis, Wash., and then later to Paris, France. He spent four years in France.
When he returned to the states, he was assigned to the William Beaumont General Hospital in El Paso, but as Mullins puts it, “I was restless.” That’s when he volunteered to go to Vietnam.
Mullins was assigned to the Headquarters Company and became part of the Inspector General’s team. In this capacity, he traveled by helicopter to different units. Though Mullins never actually engaged in hand-to-hand combat, he was constantly in harm’s way.
“You were never safe there,” he said.
Soon, he found himself in the middle of infamous Tet offensive in 1968, where the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese launched coordinated attacks at key locations in South Vietnam. He and his team were in a tower in the upper floor at USARV Headquarters, where they had been working on paperwork for those who were due to go home.
Barricaded with no weapons
“All of the sudden, all hell broke out,” Mullins said. Even though they were supposed to carry rifles, no one had one with them because of the nature of their work. When Mullins and the men saw three Viet Cong coming up the stairs, they barricaded themselves in the room and kept quite until American troops came in and drove the enemy out. Not a sheet of paperwork was lost, and those preparing to go home got their orders, as promised. His superior officer put him and the men in for a Bronze Star.
“You should have seen the place the next morning,” Mullins said. “People lying on the ground, debris everywhere.”
His term ended in Vietnam and he was assigned to lead a team for a year at the Pentagon. It was part of his job to decide deployment duties for the men, and many were sent to Vietnam. After a while, he decided because he sent so many men there, he should be willing to go, so he re-enlisted for a second tour in Vietnam. This time, it was to help with the withdrawal of troops.
Surrounded by danger
Once again, though he wasn’t engaged in actual combat, he was often surrounded by danger. On one occasion, when it was his turn to serve guard duty, a sniper fired at him when he stood up to stretch. Fortunately, it hit the sandbag.
Also, when he was leaving Vietnam, “I heard this boom, boom, boom,” he said. The enemy was sending mortar rounds that literally followed the path of the plane. Mullins remembers looking back and seeing the craters it made and how close they came to the plane. That very same evening, his bed in his “hooch” (hut or living structure) was blown to bits. It’s safe to say he was glad to be headed home.
He had other assignments throughout the 12 years he spent in the military, including service as a recruiter in Pennsylvania and delivering military death notifications in Oklahoma. After three total enlistments, he retired from service in 1973 as a sergeant first class, earning six commendations, the bronze star, and many other medals.
Top student in graduating class
Mullins went on to attend Southwest Texas State, where he earned his bachelor’s degree and graduated with the highest honors as the top student in his class. He took up coaching and met his current wife, a fellow teacher, Beth Wasserman; they have been married for 32 years. Each of them brought two children to the marriage, but one of his sons, Lance — who was well on his way to becoming a professional golfer — died in a car wreck in 1992.
In spite of his hardships, Mullins has lived a full life, including penning two books, Bear Paw and Dog Bark, which integrates his love of Indian lore, western stories and history. He was set to publish an entire series, but his medical condition, which includes Parkinson’s, pre-empted that goal.
“I plan to take it a day at a time,” he said.