Cleveland Mason said his life’s journey has taken him through one of the most turbulent times in American history, the Vietnam war. He was a scout sniper, one of the riskiest jobs a Marine could have.
“I know God guided me through all of the incidents and brought me home,” Mason said.
Despite his experiences in Vietnam and the public’s hostility toward that conflict and those who serve in it, Mason has no regrets now.
The 65-year-old has lived in Atwater for about 10 years. A retired heavy equipment operator, he was reunited last month with Marine comrades he hadn’t seen in 45 years.
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The close-knit companionship and caring he experienced in Vietnam came back during the three-day reunion in Omaha, Neb. His 30 comrades, all in their mid-60s, acted like rough-and-tumble teenagers once more, to the amazement of their wives.
“We shared moments and memories of years gone by and laughed together,” Mason said. “It was just like we were 18- to 20-year-olds again. One of the outstanding aspects of my military service that stands out was the camaraderie among the snipers. We were just as close as brothers.”
After returning from two deployments in Vietnam, a total of 27 months, Mason received a Bronze Star for heroism. He served with Headquarters Company, 26th Marines, 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade.
Early in the morning of Feb. 23, 1969, the regimental command post at Da Nang was assaulted by a North Vietnamese army platoon. Mason killed two enemy soldiers and led a five-man reaction force against the North Vietnamese, pinning them down and killing them all.
The action lasted about 45 minutes, an eternity during combat, Mason said.
“We were in combat together, we slept together, we ate together and we survived together,” Mason said. “Some of us died and some of us were wounded. At 18, 19 and 20 years old, that had such an impact on our lives.”
Mason said he has God in his life and is a member of Friendship Baptist Church in Merced.
“I have no doubt God exists,” he said. “That’s the most important aspect of all, faith in God. I have no regrets. It’s all in God’s plan and I am at peace with myself and God.”
When he left the service in 1971 as a sergeant, Mason said, there was a stigma attached to veterans that was undeserved. They were perceived as baby killers and losers, and jobs were difficult to find.
In the past 15 years, he said, things have changed, and now the public is grateful for veterans’ service. Mason belongs to the Disabled American Veterans and Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 0691.
After the service Mason was addicted to drugs. He said he has been clean and sober for about nine years and encourages others at Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
“I’m so proud to be able to announce it,” he said. “I got my life back together; I’m doing well in life now. I have adjusted now.”
Babbette Piggott of Merced was involved with the local Vietnam veterans group for about 15 years, along with her husband, Charlie Piggott, who died six years ago. She considers Mason and his wife to be two of her closest friends.
“The same bravery and sense of duty that earned Cleveland a Bronze Star in Vietnam carries over into his life today,” Piggott said. “Though he still battles personal demons, as it is with many combat veterans, Cleveland continues to give outstanding personal support to his community and church.”
Mason said another reunion of the is planned in 2016. Of the 70 to 80 snipers in his unit, he estimates about 20 were killed in combat. Some of the survivors are victims of Agent Orange, other illnesses or addictions, he said.
Mason enlisted in the Marines at 17 in Champaign, Ill., where he grew up. In addition to his service in Vietnam, he was stationed at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, the Philippines, and Camp Lejeune, N.C.
After 18 years driving earthmovers, bulldozers, backhoes, scrapers and loaders for Granite Construction, mostly in the Monterey Bay area, Mason retired in 1998. He and his wife, Denise, have two children: Zindy, who lives in Denmark; and Jonathan, in Champaign.