WILLIAMSON – The Mountain State had more soldiers per capita to die in the Vietnam War than any other state. Thousands more were wounded and came back scarred – both physically or mentally.
One of those who were wounded was Chris Ooten of Williamson, who earned two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star for Valor.
Like many red-blooded American boys, Ooten grew up loving sports – especially football. He lived in the East End of Williamson where football was king and a neighborhood that produced a lot of good grid-iron players.
Like Ooten, many of them went on to play at Williamson High School.
Ooten played for the late John Moricle from 1963 to 1965 as a hard-hitting linebacker and tough-nosed guard. He was a WDN All-Area player and honorable mention all-state.
Ooten was offered several scholarships including Marshall University in nearby Huntington, W.Va. Tech and Bluefield State. He visited Marshall’s campus and was hosted by former Belfry lineman Gene Phillips. But he just didn’t enjoy his visit.
After graduation in May of 1966, he played in the annual Kiwanis Senior Bowl, which was his last appearance on the football field as a player. Ooten decided not to go to college and worked the next year at the old Banks Miller Supply Company, which was located where the current Brick Street Antique Store is now.
Then the next summer, still being courted by W.Va. Tech through Matewan’s Eddie Queen, he still wasn’t keen on going to college. Queen was playing at Tech at that time.
In February of 1968, Ooten got a letter from Uncle Sam asking him to report for a physical. He knew this meant he would soon be drafted. So instead of going in the draft, Ooten did his patriotic duty and visited the local recruiting station. He talked to a man in a sharp-dressed blue uniform and the next thing he knew he signed on the dotted line. He had joined the U.S. Marine Corps.
“It was an era where most people were patriotic, but the ones that weren’t took off,” Ooten said. (Many dodged the draft and the war by heading north to Canada to avoid Vietnam.)
“I was going to serve my four years. I didn’t really want to go to war,” Ooten stressed, but he did his duty to his country.
On July 1, 1968 during one of the most heated times of the Vietnam War, Ooten went “in country” and set foot in the South Pacific in Vietnam. In just a few days he was sent to the front line.
Ooten was first wounded after getting hit by some shrapnel in his leg when another soldier stepped on a land mine.
Then, walking point on patrol on January 1, 1969, Ooten heard the “pop, pop, pop” and was shot six times by the Viet Cong. “I was wounded six months to the day I went into Vietnam,” Ooten recalls.
“I was supposed to go on R & R in just four days,” Ooten recalls. “But I didn’t make it. My New Year started out with a big bang.” Instead of going on his rest and relaxation period, he spent the next 14 months in a military hospital. Ooten had been shot in both legs, his chest, hip, stomach and jaw. One bullet went into his cheek and came out his mouth clipping his lip. He also, to this day, walks with a permanent limp because of the injuries he suffered in the jungle that day.
“The burning sensation is what I remember,” Ooten stressed.
Ooten received permanent retirement due to his injuries, but he still worked once he returned to Williamson and to the native soil of good old Mingo County. “Very few people served the amount of time I did and received a 100 percent full retirement,” Ooten said. “I got a letter from the Secretary of the Navy stating that I was being retired from the U.S. Marine Corp.”
He first got a job working with the Disabled American Veterans in Huntington, but a year later they wanted him to transfer to New York. Ooten didn’t want to move out of the region, so he decided to leave that job.
“The night of the Marshall University football plane crash, I was moving back to Williamson,” Ooten said.
He first worked for Lewis Jessie, a local CPA. Then he got a job in his old East End neighborhood working for Hogan Storage and Transfer Co. He worked at Hogan’s for 10 years.
Ooten has three children, two daughters and a son. His son Chris recently graduated from WVU Pharmacy School. Like his father, he played for the Wolfpack. Both father and son are in the WHS Athletic Hall of Fame.
Ooten retired for good in 1980.
“I didn’t retire because I wanted to. I was forced to retire by the Veteran’s Administration physician,” Ooten added. “He said I was doing damage to my back that would cause me major problems in the future.”
He has been a member of the Williamson Park Board since 1998 and also coached and ran the midget league football program for several years. He is also on the WHS Athletic Hall of Fame board of directors.
Ooten has a letter from the President of the United States and Commander of the U.S. Marines. It states in part, “For heroic achievement in connection with operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam while serving as a Rifleman with Combined Action Platoon 116, Third Marine Amphibious Force. First Class Private Ooten’s unit was investigating a suspected hostile emplacement during a search and destroy operation …. He organized five soliders and although outnumbered by the hostile unit, fearlessly exposed himself to intense enemy fire and led an aggressive assault on the fleeing men.”
“I’m proud of my service,” a modest Ooten concluded. “I didn’t necessarily want to go to war, but I did my duty.”
Here is a list of soldiers from Mingo County killed in Vietnam according to the web-site – http://www.virtualwall.org/istate/istatwv.htm
- · Pfc. Arley George Abraham (listed as Madison, but he lived in Williamson), Cpl. Rell Crigger, Jr., Pfc. Raymond Howard Highley, Sp4. William Wayne Lester, Pfc. William Eugene Null, Sgt. Lawrence Buford Prater, Sp4. Marvin Blair Stuart, Jr., all of Williamson
- · Pfc. John Paul Stepp, Kermit
- · Cm Sgt. Edward Milton Parsley, Naugatuck
- · Cpl. Howard William Bannister, Delbarton
- · Sfc. David Butler Kiser, North Matewan
- · Sgt. Danny Martin Hayes, Edgarton
(Kyle Lovern is the Managing Editor for the Civitas Media Mountain District including the Williamson Daily News and Logan Banner. He can be contacted at [email protected] or at 304-235-4242, ext. 2277 or on Twitter @KyleLovern.)