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metro &  state Saturday, December  2

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Man thrived in war but not in peace

By Susan Smith
Austin American-Statesman
Saturday, December 2, 2000

The Vietnam War finally ended for Ronnie Tisdale, who died last week in a Texas prison.

Tisdale made it back from Nam in 1969. But he never really made it back. He wasn't a high-ranking officer. Just a squad leader with a rifle and an uncanny knack for survival in the bush. He wasn't a commander in chief. Just a corporal. But he was just as flawed as President Clinton, who returned from a state visit to Vietnam days before Tisdale, 54, died in a hospice in the Michael Unit in Tennessee Colony.

Tisdale was serving 15 years of a life sentence for aggravated sexual assault when he died of brain and liver cancer the Sunday after Thanksgiving. He had recently been diagnosed with cancer and sent to the hospice in East Texas.

Some people suffered because of him. Some people are alive because of him. That was Tisdale's defining paradox. And that makes his story all the harder to tell.

Tisdale's fellow ex-Marines will memorialize the soldier, not the convicted felon, at a service today in Temple. A man who saved many lives, including Gary Hunt's, couldn't save his own life.

"He participated in seven or eight major operations, as well as the day-to-day patrols and ambushes that wore us out completely," said Hunt, who lives in Austin and had been trying to help his former squad leader.

Clinton was the first president to visit Vietnam since the war ended. But the war didn't end for Tisdale, a high school dropout who joined the Marines and earned eight ribbons and medals. He spent the years after his tour of duty in Quang Nam province in a mental state that was darker than any heart of darkness. He carried the violence with him from Vietnam to Bell County, where he grew up.

His friends don't excuse his crimes, but argue that the criminal justice system in Bell County threw the book at a vet who was acting up and acting out. Tisdale, a squad leader in Vietnam from February 1968 to February 1969, mastered life during wartime. But like many Vietnam vets, he never mastered peacetime. He was arrested for selling a barbiturate and sentenced to five years' probation. In 1985, he was sentenced to life in prison for aggravated sexual assault of a woman he had been involved with for several years.

Hunt spent months trying to publicize his friend Ronnie's story and enlist former Marines and squad members in requesting a pardon for Tisdale. Eventually, he was able to create a defense fund with financial support from other former Marines who had fought in Vietnam. But they found Ronnie too late to save him.

"Ronnie represents a lot of the people we didn't get to say goodbye to," Hunt said.

Today, Hunt and other ex-Marines will be pallbearers at Tisdale's funeral. A group of white guys carrying a black guy, said Hunt, who sometimes ends his e-mails to former squad members with "Semper Fi and blessings."

Tisdale won't have a formal military burial, although his buddies will bury him as a soldier: Cpl. Ronnie Tisdale, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

Susan Smith's column appears on Wednesday and Saturday. She can be reached at 445-3871 or

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