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A life of trouble, a moment of immortality

Jun. 21, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  

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COLUMBUS, GA. — Ruediger Richter barely recognizes himself in the yellowed military photograph hanging in his den — one of the best-known images of the Vietnam War.

A sinewy GI stands in the middle of the frame, staring into the distance; behind him, another soldier looks down at the body of a comrade, wrapped in a poncho. The photo, enshrined in the National Archives, came to be known as "The Agony of War."

Richter is the man at the center, though he does not look the same. Partly, it's because of age — he was 25 years old when the photo was taken, and he is now 73, with two grandchildren. Partly, it's because of war's ravages — months after the photo was taken, he was shot in the head, and he spent years coping with anger, alcohol, addiction to pain medications, post-traumatic stress.

But Richter himself will tell you that he does not resemble the man in the picture because he is no longer the man in the picture.

"I was a killer then," Richter said on his front porch, the wife who helped save his life by his side, birds chirping in trees rustled by the breeze. "I have made my peace here."

___

On Aug. 14, 1966, Richter's job was clearing a landing zone in South Vietnam so helicopters could evacuate the wounded and dead after a mortar attack hit his unit.

Watching the scene unfold from a safe spot, Army paratrooper and photographer Paul Epley ignored an order to stay down to make the photo, which was used in newspapers and magazines worldwide after it was transmitted by The Associated Press.

"Climbing up the rocks, I saw the image coming together. I chased the light and caught it at the decisive moment," said Epley, now retired and living in the woods of southern Virginia after a career as a commercial photographer and, later, a veterans' service officer.

In the photo, Richter looks skyward with his mouth open and his arms raised slightly. Sgt. Daniel E. Spencer Jr. of Bend, Oregon, looks down mournfully at the body of PFC Daryl Raymond Corfman of Sycamore, Ohio; Spencer also was killed in action, in 1968. The scene is shrouded in smoke.

People have attached a range of emotions and attributes to the photo through the decades: Richter was praying, he was questioning God, perhaps calling upon angels.

Richter dismisses those interpretations with a profanity. "I was looking at a helicopter," he said.

"That picture is genius because you see the smoke behind me," he added. "It was a red smoke grenade I threw."

The story of how he came to be in that place at that time is an extraordinary one.

Born in Berlin in February 1941, when Hitler's Nazi troops already had been marauding across Europe for years, Richter's earliest memories are of bodies outside bombed-out bunkers and bright flares dropped by Allied bombers.

"We called them Christmas trees. They were beautiful," he said. "You could hear the sirens going off all over Berlin."

Richter said when the war ended in 1945 and the Allies sliced the city into sectors, he was fortunate enough to live in the American district, where GIs were a soft touch for a young German boy begging for food. With few options in Berlin, Richter said, he joined the German merchant marine at age 14. That three-year stint ended when his ship docked in Calais, France, where he and other sailors were arrested after a bar fight.

"They put us in a dungeon with water dropping down, just like in a movie. There was just a little window with bars," he said.

After three days in lockup, a judge gave the penniless Richter a choice: Stay in prison or join the French Foreign Legion, which was battling rebels in French-controlled North Africa. He was too young to join legally at age 17, Richter said, so he was given a new name — Horst Timm — and allowed to enlist.

Richter does not know how many men he killed with the Legion, or how many night-long marches he made through Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. But after five years, he left the Legion and regained his true name. An aunt and uncle living in Columbus suggested he come to America to restart his life, so he did in 1964.

Richter grew bored with his job constructing helicopter landing pads, so he enlisted in the Army in 1965. According to his military file obtained from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, he shipped out to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and landed in Vietnam in June 1966 with the 4th Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Richter became an aide to Col. Michael "Iron Mike" Healy, he said, and Healy — who went on to play a major role as a commander in Vietnam — was just outside the frame when Epley snapped the shutter.

The moment captured, Richter kept going. He transferred to a reconnaissance unit. The war finally came to an end for him on March 25, 1967, when a bullet hit him on the left side of his face.

The slug destroyed his upper palate — an injury that still makes it difficult for him to speak. It shattered his teeth, left him blind and deaf on the right side. As he was evacuated aboard an Army chopper, Richter used a fork and a ballpoint pen to make his own tracheotomy just to keep breathing; the scar is still there.

___

"I hate war. I hate guns because they are the root of all the bad things in the world," said Richter, who won two Bronze Star medals for heroism and other awards that he has since thrown away. "People come up and say things like, 'You're a hero.' I hate that. It makes me mad. I did my job."

But when the job was done, the effects lingered.

Today, after about a dozen reconstructive surgeries at Walter Reed hospital, Richter's appearance is pretty typical for a man his age, save for scars that are mostly hidden by glasses. He avoids wartime buddies and military reunions — he didn't go to North Carolina for a battalion dinner held Friday during a reunion of the 173rd Airborne — and doesn't like to talk about his experience in Vietnam.

In 2012, when the AP was preparing to publish "Vietnam: The Real War" — a book that would include "The Agony of War" — a former comrade said Richter rarely spoke with anyone. But Richter agreed to talk this spring partly because of his long-ago friendship with AP war correspondent Henri Huet, killed when a helicopter was shot down over Laos in 1971.

The story he tells is distressingly familiar. He came back from Vietnam mad at everything and everyone; he didn't like his appearance, didn't like how he sounded after the injury, didn't like the way he was screamed at by war protesters as he arrived home.

Out of the military on disability after attaining the rank of sergeant, Richter and his first wife moved to Pensacola, Florida, where Richter spent his days taking too many pain pills, drinking too much alcohol and fishing on the city pier. His marriage collapsed; desperately in need of a new start, he returned to Germany.

It was there, in 1978, that he met Martina, who was free only because her father dug a tunnel under the Berlin Wall to rescue her and her mother after the Soviet clampdown.

Richter had a harder time feeding his addiction to prescription drugs in Germany than in the Florida Panhandle, but his life was still a swirl of fury and awful memories. Martina made the difference, he said.

"I didn't accept the way he was," she said. "If I was going to stay he had to change."

He beat his addictions, and the two married on Aug. 25, 1982. They have since had two sons, half-brothers to the three boys from their previous marriages.

Richter couldn't work because of being on disability, but the Veterans Administration benefits kept coming and the exchange rates were good. The couple built a home in Berlin and then another in rural Bavaria before moving to an isolated farm south of Budapest, Hungary.

"We were always looking to get away from people," said Martina. "We had four horses, two sheep, 30 chickens, four ducks, 17 cats and 14 dogs. It was a dream."

They returned eventually to Berlin but Richter said it became tougher to get medical care for himself and his family following U.S. troop reductions in Europe at the Cold War's end, so he and Martina returned to the United States in 2007. The next year, they bought the rural patch where they now live, miles outside of Columbus.

Richter doesn't want the exact location given or his photo taken. He wants to remain anonymous, and mostly avoids his neighbors. They don't know the story of the old hippie, with his ponytail, beard and earring.

Richter finally sought help after he found himself unable to breathe during a session of online computer gaming, a passion of the couple. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Today, medication helps Richter sleep and tamps down the dreams of guns and battle and death.

Two of Richter's sons served in the military, and one fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Richter has few mementos of his own military service. Among them are three photos on his den wall, put there by Martina.

One photo shows the handsome young man in his French Foreign Legion uniform; another is Richter in his U.S. Army uniform. The third is the original, black-and-white print of "The Agony of War."

Richter said the famous photograph means little to him. It was but a split second along a road to hell and back.

"Just a moment in time," he said.

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