Unsung Hero: Gillis Mullins

........................................................................................................................................................................................

The year was 1969.

News-Bulletin file photo: Gillis Mullins, the commander of the VFW Post 2387 in Belen, salutes the flag at a recent Memorial Day event. Mullins, has been awarded the Purple heart, a Service Medal, a Campaign Medal and a Combat Action Medal. He has unofficially earned a Bronze Star.

Gillis Mullins was only 19 when he stepped off the aircraft in Danang, South Vietnam. He may not have known it at the time, but he had just entered a violent and irrational world, one so profane he couldn’t have imagined it as a boy growing up in the tiny farm community of Datil.

Welcome, my son, welcome to the ‘Nam.

Sometime after he reached the ripe old age of 20, Mullins was seriously wounded when the First Marine Division “Husky” — an all-terrain tracked vehicle — he was riding in struck a land mine. It exploded under him and several other young men, at least one of whom was killed. He was sent to a hospital in Yokosuka, Japan, to mend. That’s where he would spend his 21st birthday.

When he recovered sufficiently, it was back to Vietnam to complete his one-year tour of combat duty. Altogether, he would serve six years with the U.S. Marine Corps.

Today, 43 years after his first tentative step onto Vietnamese soil, there are some things Mullins doesn’t like to talk about. Some of those he would surely like to forget.

But one thing is absolutely certain: He is a true patriot who wouldn’t think twice before volunteering again.

“Oh yeah!” Mullins responds without a moment’s hesitation.

“That’s the kind of guy he was, as I remember,” says Mike Newell, an even younger Marine who was riding in the same Husky that day so long ago and who was also injured.

Newell, who lives in Moodus, Conn., recalls going out on that “operation” in 1970. When the land mine exploded, the Marine driving the vehicle was killed instantly. His passengers were perhaps luckier.

“Gill was blown out of one side, me out the other,” Newell says. “Me and him were buddies. They flew me out by helicopter, but Gill had to walk back to battalion before they realized he had a broken back.”

He also suffered a broken hip and multiple shrapnel wounds. Newell also had shrapnel embedded all over his body and perforated eardrums.

Mullins was a “very easy-go-lucky guy, great to get along with,” says Newell, now 61.

After the war, the two decorated veterans lost track of each other. Then a few years ago Newell learned how to use a computer and, after a few false starts, managed to locate Mullins.

“We send emails back and forth every now and then,” Newell says. “All these years we’re still buddies at heart, but I haven’t seen him since July 21, 1970″ — the day of the land mine.

Today, even though they correspond only periodically, Mullins calls Newell a “really close friend.”

The physical injuries and scars he suffered in ‘Nam weren’t the only baggage the war would bequeath. In Vietnam, the seeds of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder were sown. Although it is something he will have to live with for the rest of his life, Mullins — with his wife’s immense help — has learned to deal with PTSD.

And, he says, the care he receives at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Albuquerque couldn’t be better.

For his service in Vietnam, Mullins was awarded a Purple Heart, a Service Medal, a Campaign Medal and a Combat Action Medal. Unofficially, he also earned a Bronze Star. His response?

“I’m no hero.”

After the war, back in civilian life, Mullins took up driving a truck. After 20 years behind the wheel, he took a job at Kirtland Air Force Base as a hazardous materials specialist in a transportation squadron, handling munitions, bombs, radioactive material and the like.

He was also a rapid deployment specialist and helped develop a program that the Air Force still uses. After 20 years at Kirtland, he retired again.

Mullins and his wife of 21 years, Susan, live in Bosque on a plot of land he jokingly refers to as a “two-acre weed farm.”

In fact, Mullins is full of one-liners. In 1990, when Operation Desert Storm came along, he wanted to volunteer again.

“But I was too old, too fat and had too much hair on my face,” he recalls.

A big, friendly man with a firm, beefy handshake and a quick and sincere smile, he has been the commander of VFW Post 2387 in Belen for the past five years or so. Today, he spends much of his time dealing with VFW business.

But the veterans organization often proves to be all consuming. And because of ongoing health issues, he says without elaborating, he may resign his leadership position soon.

The VFW post has more than six dozen war veterans on its roster, but only about 12 are active members.

Mullins also stays busy working around the house. One recent morning, for example, he was up at 4 a.m., getting ready to pull an engine.

He and Susan have 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren who also help them occupy their time.

When told that Mullins had been named an Unsung Hero, Barbara Bowman, commander of Belen’s American Legion Post, was delighted. “That’s terrific!” Bowman said. “I think he’s a wonderful person. He works really hard for veterans. He’s a veteran’s veteran.”

But the first thing Mullins said when told he had been selected was, “I’d like to decline that honor. I don’t do anything. I don’t deserve it.”

However, like Bowman, others feels differently. The Boy Scouts whom he and other veterans work with on Flag Day, for example. Every June 14, VFW Post 2387 holds a retirement ceremony for old flags. The scouts come by to help out and to learn.

“It’s our duty to teach all people how to properly respect the flag,” Mullins explains.

He will, in fact, abruptly hit the brakes on his silver pickup if he sees an obviously worn flag — to advise the owner that it’s time to get a new one.

VFW Post 2387 also runs ads in the newspaper every year asking people to turn in their old, tattered or damaged flags so they can be disposed of fittingly during the June 14 ceremony.

Fellow veteran George McKee says Mullins shows a tremendous interest in the Flag Day event. He also plays an instrumental role in other VFW efforts. Earlier this month, for example, he and McKee — a former post commander — were pictured in the News-Bulletin presenting a check to the Belen Area Food Pantry. The VFW also supports Toys for Tots and a free backpacks for needy children program.

Mullins’ leadership is key to the success of such programs.

“He’s done a lot for the VFW,” McKee says. “He’s all right, a good guy. He’s very committed to veterans’ affairs. He shows that by helping other people.”

Delmar Wendel, another former post commander, describes Mullins as a caring, polite person. He notes that Mullins is an active participant in Belen’s annual 911 Memorial program and that, under his tutelage, the VFW has a strong funeral detail.

“We show up even if it’s not a VFW member,” Wendel says.

Wendel relates a story that exemplifies Mullins’ clear sense of duty. A few months ago, George Hanley, VFW Post 2387′s longtime quartermaster, died. The Albuquerque funeral home that took care of his body said it would transport his ashes to Santa Fe National Cemetery for burial — when it had accumulated enough bodies and remains to make the trip economically worthwhile.

“Gill said ‘No way!’ So six or seven of us (VFW members) picked up his wife and transported the ashes to Santa Fe. We made sure George had the dignified military funeral he deserved,” Wendel says. “Gill did that. Otherwise, they would’ve just dumped him off.”

Personally, he says, he thinks the world of Mullins.

“Gill has been a really good commander. He’s a very quiet individual. We don’t tell many war stories, and he doesn’t brag about what he did.”

Growing up in Datil, about halfway between Socorro and the Arizona state line on Route 60, perhaps his greatest influence was his father, Vernon Mullins. The elder Mullins is also a decorated Marine who served with distinction in World War II.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and like his dad, Gillis Mullins is a hero — a true hero.