Cletis “Babysan” Sinyard married a longtime friend of mine, Deborah Fullington. She was one grade behind me in school, plus we were neighbors. Our paths seldom crossed in recent years. When they did, it was usually at Harmony-Smyrna Cemetery.
That’s where Deborah introduced me to Clete. It only took a handshake and a smile to decide he’s a nice guy. Modest stature and quiet manner offered no hint of a valorous past. I learned more of his story on an afternoon visit by my favorite stream.
Clete’s father was a Baptist preacher, an evangelist who also farmed in north Alabama. At 75, Clete is the youngest person I know with mule expertise. “I’ve done everything that can be done with a mule,” he said,” mentioning Kate and Aida by name.
Maybe that’s why he partnered with Uncle Sam at age 17. His father wouldn’t sign but his mother agreed. When I asked why he enlisted, he said, “I was talking with a buddy and decided I wanted to join the Army and jump out of planes.”
Patriotism was probably an influence. That gene runs strong in the Sinyard family. Clete and his three brothers served a combined 48 years in the military.
Fort Gordon is where he underwent Basic Training then Advanced Infantry Training. He was five feet six inches and weighed 120 pounds when he went into the Army, certainly not an imposing figure. An incident in the barracks, however, shows there’s more to Clete than meets the eye.
A fellow in the bunk above him was playing a radio after mandatory lights out, unconcerned about an early-morning five-mile run. Clete asked him three times to turn the music off but was ignored, so he grabbed the radio and slammed it onto the floor.
The barracks shook when the big guy’s feet landed, but the Platoon Sergeant intervened. I don’t know who would have won that fight. What impresses me is Clete didn’t know either.
Jump school at Ft. Benning is where the 11th Pathfinders Company interviewed volunteers. About 40 were chosen for special training for an elite group with a sobering motto: “First In – Last Out.”
On Clete’s 18th birthday, July 28, 1965, Lyndon Baines Johnson announced the 11th Pathfinders Company would be going to Vietnam. The USS Darby left Charleston in August for a 30-day cruise with ocean views. Helicopters transported the Pathfinders to a jungle site. Their assignment was to secure the landing zone, mark obstacles, and guide helicopters safely by radio communications as infantry troops were inserted and extracted on combat operations.
When Major Bruce Crandall, a decorated helicopter pilot in Vietnam, came under fire he requested someone sit in the open door to shoot back. Clete preferred adventure to digging stumps, so he volunteered. An M60 machine gun was tied to the chopper’s roof with parachute cord, a temporary innovation for a developing style of warfare.
Clete, a Green Beret, was in the Special Operations Group and did two tours in Vietnam. He has enough honors and awards to fill a column, but one he especially values is unofficial.
The Montagnard, indigenous mountain people of Vietnam, partnered with our soldiers. A group of them walked into Clete’s camp to make a request. “Babysan,” said one, “we want you to lead our team.” Babysan means young one. The Montagnard had been quietly watching before making their choice. They saw through the camouflage of a youthful appearance.
At a Special Operations Group reunion a few years ago, an older Vietnamese gentleman saw Clete in a hotel hallway. “Babysan!” exclaimed the man, “You saved my life!”
“Who was he?” I asked. “I have no idea,” Clete wistfully replied. As the two men embraced, Deborah said she burst into tears. Soldiers rarely meet the people they save.
I don’t know much about Vietnam, but I’ve been reminded that we are surrounded by humble heroes. Their sacrifices are mostly unknown or forgotten.
When Clete smashed that radio, he no doubt earned the respect of every man in the barracks, even the boisterous fellow on the top bunk. During 20 years of service he kept earning respect. Courage and honor make a good pairing.
It only took a handshake and a smile to decide he’s a nice guy, but there’s more to Clete Sinyard than first meets the eye. I learned that on an afternoon visit by my favorite stream.
May God bless our men and women in uniform, both past and present. Thank you for your service and your sacrifice.
Clete, thank you for your bravery and sacrifice for our country! You have to be a great man to have Deborah as your soul mate.
And thank you Neil for your stories.
Amen!! Thanks for this tribute to Clete, as well as to other military personnel! Thank you for your service, Clete, and thanks for your boldness to stand up to the big guy on the top bunk.
Our oldest son was an Army Ranger, and our youngest son is presently in the Air National Guard. All of our US troops deserve so much respect and honor. They hold a very special place in my heart. ❤️🇺🇸