Mike Betts, U.S. Army, 82nd Airborne, Vietnam

Published 6:00 pm Friday, April 21, 2023

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When Dwayne Betts was about 10, he went by bus to Quincy, Fla., to spend time with his grandparents.

At the close of the week, his grandmother took him to town to catch the bus home.

As they waited, a photograph of a soldier in the window of the Olan Mills studio near the station caught young Dewayne’s eye.

“I said, ‘Look, Grandmother. It’s a picture of Mike,’ ” he recalled.

Mike Betts was his older brother, who was deployed to Vietnam with the 82nd Airborne at the time. He’d had the picture made when his daddy took him to the bus station after his last visit home before deployment. No one had gone back for the photograph, but because of the random glance, the Betts boys’ grandmother went in the studio and bought every copy of her grandson’s photograph.

Mike Betts was 17 when he volunteered for the service, Dewayne recalled.

“If you’ve ever seen ‘Legends of the Fall,’ he was like Tristan … always looking for a good death,” he said, comparing his older brother to Brad Pitt’s character in the 1994 film.

Scene from a ceremony honoring Mike Betts on Saturday, April 15, at Mitchell Cemetery conducted by the Vietnam Veterans of America, Central Alabama Chapter 607. (PHOTO PROVIDED)

Mike Betts attended boot camp at Ft. Jackson, and went to Jump School at Ft. Benning. It was during his very first jump at Ft. Benning that his parashoot failed and he had to pull his reserve. In later years, if anyone asked him about it, he laughed and said, “That’s why you always check your reserve.”

After boot camp, he trained to be a phone lineman, then went to Panama for advanced jungle training. He turned 18 during jungle training and was quickly deployed to Southeast Asia.

The year was 1969. As Mike Betts and two other young soldiers disembarked in Vietnam, another group of soldiers was loading body bags onto the plane. They told the new arrivals they’d see them back the next week in a body bag. Mike told them no, they wouldn’t. It was his mental toughness that carried him through Vietnam and many other trials, his family said.

In Vietnam, he was served with the 101st Airborne division. He was part of the Battle of Hamburger Hill, in which the U.S. command ordered the capture by frontal assault of the heavily-fortified Hill 937, a ridge of the mountain Dong Ap Bia in central Vietnam near its western border with Laos, even though it had little strategic value. Despite the heavy fortification and the hindrance of bad weather, Airborne troops took the hill through direct assault. The battle became controversial among members of the military and the public back home after U.S. command abandoned it soon after gaining control.

Betts also fought in Tet 1969. While in Vietnam, he earned the rank of sergeant, and was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, as well as numerous commendations.

During his time in combat, he would save the candy in his C-rations and give them to Vietnamese kids.

After returning to the United States, Betts worked as a lineman. He was one of Harper Electric’s earliest employees, and later worked for Florida Power and Light for 30 years, helping restore power after several hurricanes, including Andrew, Ivan and Katrina. He was voted one of the top five linemen in the state in 1994, and competed in the linemen rodeo. He was a bare hand instructor and an apprentice instructor.

He and his family moved to Alabama in 2004. He enjoyed fishing, hunting, riding horses, and his family. He enjoyed making knives and giving them away.

His family said one of his favorite lines was to tell people that nothing scared him because he was an old combat soldier.

That combat soldier succumbed to cancer lung and throat cancer on Jan. 1, 2023, likely resulting from his service in Vietnam. He was laid to rest in the Mitchell Cemetery near Loango. Though his diagnosis was terminal, his death surprised his family members, who thought he would be with them for a few more months.

Given the holiday, it was impossible to organize full military honors by Tuesday, Jan. 3. But members of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Central Alabama Chapter 607, did attend. However, chapter president Jessie Donaldson, a native of Opp, said he and honor guard captain Geoff Colt felt they’d not given their brother in arms a proper sendoff.

On April 15, they brought a few friends from the chapter to the remote Mitchell Cemetery, established in 1826, located deep in the woods. Before a gathering of Mike Betts’ family and closest friends, members of Chapter 607 righted that wrong with a full ceremony, including the national anthem, remembrances, a flag folding ceremony and presentation, the firing of honors, and Taps.

Dwayne Betts recalled that his brother often spoke of two best friends with whom he served, but he would never give a straight answer about what happened to one of them, Benny Lee Johnson.

“Thought I knew more than anybody (about his service) but I found something out this weekend I didn’t know … He came home and named his first son Benny Lee,” Dwayne Betts said. “First he told me Benny Lee and (Tom) McCall and them got separated in fire fight. Then he told me Benny Lee got killed; then that Benny Lee came back from Vietnam and tried to contact him.” This past weekend, he learned the rest of the story, that Benny Lee Johnson died traumatically in Vietnam, right beside his best friend. Dwayne Betts believes that’s why his brother was prone to drink – to fight away the memories that haunted him at night.

Mike Betts was preceded in death by his parents, Jimmy Lee Betts and Janice Nobles; his brother, James Allen Betts; and his wife, Annelle Betts.

He is survived by his children, Sheryl McKathan (Sidney) of Pleasant Home, Benny Betts of Andalusia, and Michael Betts of Okeechobee, Fla.; his grandchildren, Christopher (Becky) Wagoner, Hunter Betts, Josh Betts, Elish McKathan and Ashley McKathan; his great-granddaughter, Reagan; his brother, Dwayne Betts of Fredricksberg, Va.; his nieces and nephews, Tyler Betts, Kayla Betts, Devin Curry and Bonnie Trammell; and his close friend, bubba Ross of Bonifay, Florida.

Sources: Eulogy for Mike Betts, Wikipedia, and family interviews.

Michele Gerlach is the communications director for the City of Andalusia and the secretary of the Covington Veterans Foundation. The Foundation wishes to thank the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 607, for their service to the Betts family and to all other veterans, as well as for their participation in events surrounding the 2022 stop of the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall in Andalusia.