Hodges, formerly a Sergeant Infantry in the U.S. Army, fought battles in Laos that are unrecorded by historians — and officially denied by the United States government.
Speaking at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, Hodges told his audience that the moment he first saw the crater-marked terrain of Vietnam with his own eyes, his dreams of military distinction disappeared.
“From that moment,” said Hodges, “all I could think is what the hell did I get myself into, and how am I going to get out?”
From January to March, 1972, Hodges was sent repeatedly into Laos as part of a 5-man unit. Stripped of their dog tags and dressed in Vietcong uniforms, the unit’s mission was to “track and disorganize” North Vietnamese battalions using explosives, force multiplication, and hit and run tactics.
“We made them think they were facing the entire U.S. Army and they reacted appropriately — they scattered and ran for their lives.”
The fifth and final time Hodges was sent into Laos, he was the only soldier in his unit to return to the rendezvous point. After a two-day march to the designated airlift coordinates, he waited two more days and realized no one was picking him up.
He then began an eastward march, toward the American camp on the Vietnamese side of the A’Shau Valley, that lasted 72 days.
When he finally arrived at a road and encountered fellow U.S. soldiers for the first time since his unit was left in Laos, Hodges was literally starving. “I was a rabid dog.” he recalled, “I would have killed anything that got in my way.”
After returning to camp and demanding an explanation, Hodges was told by his superiors to keep quiet — he had signed an oath of silence prior to the Laos missions. He was one of the last American troops to depart Vietnam.
“I left the U.S. weighing 196 pounds, and strong. When I got back, I was 124 pounds. I told my dad I was home. He said ‘Boy, that’s a sick joke.’ He didn’t even recognize me.”
Hodges received a standing ovation from the audience at the Ford.
Pictured, left to right: Grand Rapids radio personality Andy Rent, Hauenstein Center Assistant Director Brian Flanagan, Jim Hodges, Gleaves Whitney, and Hauenstein Center Research Assistant Mandi Bird.
The event was not only history; it was healing.
During the question and answer session following Hodges talk, the widow of a soldier who fought in Laos during the Vietnam War moved the audience by reading letters that her husband sent home in 1971.
She recalled the very day she received her husband’s letter saying, “You’ll be the first woman on the block to know we have American forces in Laos,” Walter Cronkite reported on the evening news, “There are no American troops in Laos.”
Pictured, left to right: Gerald R. Ford Museum Deputy Director Jim Kratsas, Mandi Bird, Brian Flanagan, Jim Hodges, and Seidman College of Business Professor Carol Sanchez.