Sniper finds love in war of seclusion
Though he was one of the best, nobody wanted anything to do with Jack Proulx.
Maybe it was because his only friend was a sniper rifle that could erase you from a mile away.
Maybe it was because he never missed.
Whatever the reason, he didn’t really care. He had a job and he followed orders; that was all that mattered.
Until he met Wilhelmina, his resolute protector. But we’ll get to her later because Jack had a war to fight.
His life began in 1954 in Penticton, courtesy of Paul and Alice Proulx. Sadly, they divorced when Jack was only six years old.
At age 12 he was old enough to tell a judge which parent he wanted to live with; he chose his father in Penticton as opposed to his mother who moved back to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Five years later he found himself in trouble with the law in the deep south.
“I had a chip on my shoulder; I would fight at the drop of a hat,” Jack said, recalling his less than desirable upbringing.
In front of one judge in Louisiana, he was charged with assault after seriously hurting someone in a fight.
The magistrate acknowledged that he wasn’t a bad person who simply needed some direction, and since he liked fighting so much, she gave him a choice – jail for a year or he could sign up for the army for a two-year hitch.
“I don’t like crowbar hotels (jails), been in a few prior to that.”
Okay, where do I sign? he asked.
“I had nothing going for me. I was, like she said, a lost soul who needed direction.”
At 17, he went down the hall, signed the papers and that was it. You had to be 18 to join the military back then, but the army made an exception because the judge requested it.
Jack treated the order as punishment and found his first three months in the army very difficult. He often questioned the officers and the orders they gave him, which was taboo in the army.
One day his drill sergeant told Jack he was a good soldier but had to lose the attitude.
“All we’ve done is try to make a better man of you, so you need to get that chip off your shoulder and forget about your past and start living for the future.”
Days later jack received an invite to the sergeant’s house for dinner. Oh, no, here’s another lecture, he thought. But after three days of being treated like family, something happened.
“When I left that house and went back to my barracks, back to duty, my life just changed, Jack said, choking up. “I understood what they were trying to tell me.”
After graduating from advanced infantry training in Missouri, Jack was shown a film about the Special Forces division, which trained top notch soldiers. He wanted to be one of them, so he signed up.
Among many skills, he learned how to jump out of a perfectly good airplane.
In the end, he was one of two recruits who graduated from the program; the other three dropped out.
After 30 days leave, he shipped out for his first tour in Vietnam in 1971. From 1972 to 1975 he was training people around the world, training them how to shoot since he was an elite sniper.
Jack got out of the service in 1975 and became a civilian for six months, but he couldn’t handle it because he needed a regimented lifestyle. So, he re-enlisted and returned to Vietnam, landing in Saigon in September of 1976.
“I remember that I got off the plane and the chaplain was there,” he said, recalling the Special Forces rituals where soldiers talk to priests before their assignments.
“It’s hard because this is part of who you are; you train, you live, you breathe, you eat this (profession).”
Jack never talked about his assignments after he left the army. It was too private, too difficult.
“When I got out of the army, I was married, um, I uh, was gonna lose my wife because of my . . . life. I was shocked, I was wounded, I figured the world owed me.”
If someone made a loud noise around him, he would crawl underneath a table. If there was thunder outside . . . “I don’t know how many times my wife dug me out of the closet.”
Jack came home after his second tour and had the scars to prove it – a gunshot and stab wound, which he sewed up himself.
As a sniper, he and his spotter lived a life of seclusion without a medic.
“There’s no chow line, there’s nothing. You eat your rations and that’s it.”
He noted that being a sniper is a very lonely existence because no one wants anything to do with you. According to Jack, a sniper is basically classified as a murderer, a killer.
“Nobody likes him. Nobody. Not even your commanding officer likes you, they don’t because you are above them. They’re scared of you.”
Jack said his finger is only now starting to get its print back.
“I used to sit for hours with a fingernail file and file that finger because of the fact that when you pull the trigger, you want every sensation on that trigger.”
Jack admitted it was not a good feeling being a killer.
“Hell, (even) my spotter didn’t want anything to do with me.”
But when you are given orders, you must carry them out, and you just “pray to God” that they are right.
Jack always prided himself on knowing exactly that he was doing the right thing.
“They had to prove to me that this needed to be done before I pulled the trigger.”
When he finally came home from duty, Jack stayed isolated from everyone, even his own family.
One day when his mother woke him up for his medication, he instinctively lashed out and broke her jaw, which took 86 wires to mend. He felt so low after that he “needed a stepladder to kiss a rattlesnake’s butt.”
That’s when he decided to get help by signing himself into a psychiatric hospital in Calgary. He remained there for six months.
Back to the jungle
Jack was always camouflaged with his surrounding area during assignments. He carried a 50-calibre Barrett rifle which he treated like solid gold. His farthest (and last) shot was a distance of 1,785 yards, taking many factors into account, such as windage, elevation and light.
He had a starlight/starbright scope for day and night missions, which were dictated by his superiors.
Jack said the intelligence gathering was good in those days.
“I always double checked to make sure it was. I never, ever pulled the trigger on an innocent. I didn’t and I will not, and they knew that.”
Jack and his spotter had to walk to wherever they had to set up, and just waited until the opportunity arose.
“I’ve sat and waited for five days. You take shifts sleeping, you take shifts eating, you take shifts going to the latrine.”
His targets were all high-profile people, such as generals and commanders.
“They were shots that were necessary. They were shots that were . . . these people were instigating more and more fighting and we had to shut them down.”
His superiors knew that if they took these targets out, it would disrupt the enemy and give U.S. ground forces more leverage.
“I’m not a hero; I was just a soldier, just one little piece of the big picture,” said Jack, who doesn’t want the hero badge and never asked for it.
But many times he found himself behind enemy lines, and if he would have got caught . . . he doesn’t even want to think about it.
“They had a price on my head when I left there, for the Vietnamese who would kill me. It was $50,000 U.S. for somebody that could take me out.”
Jack knew there were enemy snipers after him, in fact, there were many times he had to firefight his way out.
He said the unfortunate fact about Barrett is its muzzle flash, which can give away your position.
“Once that muzzle flash went off, you better hope to hell you had a good escape route because they were coming after you. They knew where you were.”
Jack said he never missed a shot in his life.
He recalled one assignment with his spotter (nicknamed Priebbe), who was a “short, sawed-off little runt.” But, boy, was he good, Jack said.
They got sent into a place to take care of a problem, a warmongering general.
Jack and Priebbe did their usual reconnaissance and waited for four days. Finally, the target showed up and Jack made the shot.
“Just as the shot sounded, all hell broke loose. I don’t know how they found out where we were that fast.”
Normally, the target is laying on the ground before you hear the shot, Jack explained. But this time they came under fire immediately. So they ran like hell to their landing zone for extraction. But on the way they encountered three Viet Cong, which forced them into hand-to-hand combat.
Jack took a bayonet in the arm, and Priebbe got one in the leg,” Jack recalled. But they managed to take care of business and make it to the extraction point.
In the chopper, Jack proceeded to sew up his own arm, while Priebbe took the sewing needle to his leg.
Jack’s last shot (a general) in Saigon was just as memorable. At the time, all of the American forces were trying to pull out of Vietnam.
He said nobody could ever get a clear shot at this general, however, their intelligence told them he would be at a certain spot at a certain time.
The shot was more than a mile (1,785 yards), but Jack figured if this was going to put a stop to the “bullshit,” he was going to do it.
It was the only time he missed the exact mark he was aiming for (off by one inch).
“He still dropped. He wasn’t going to walk again, he wasn’t going to live again.”
After the shot, they headed to the landing zone, with Priebbe leading the way with the M16 (to deal with any resistance).
“We didn’t think anybody was behind us, honestly.”
Jack was shot and he went down, and he heard the helicopter pilot tell Priebbe to leave him because he was dead. But Priebbe said he wasn’t leaving anybody behind, especially Jack.
“So, you hold that f–king bird and you keep it on the ground or I’ll shoot you out of the air,” Priebbe told the pilot. He then threw Jack over his shoulder and piled him into the chopper, where a machine gunner was laying ground fire with an M60.
Jack remembered waking up in Frankfurt, Germany where doctors tended to his wound, a bullet in the buttocks. And he still has the bullet in there because it’s lodged in the lower part of his spine.
“If they take it out they (doctors) can’t guarantee I’ll ever walk again.”
Jack was sent home to the loving arms of his wife in Louisiana in 1977.
He reminisced about the time he met Wilhelmina, a Dutch girl. He was on leave and decided to explore Holland. Well, he and his comrades got “tanked up” and they wanted to visit the red light district, but Jack decided to check out a local tavern.
He couldn’t remember where his hotel was, so the barmaid (Wilhelmina) invited him to her home to stay overnight. But he explained he wasn’t that type of guy, to which she replied she lived with her parents.
He slept on the couch and awoke the next morning to an older lady standing over him talking in Dutch.
“My mom wants to know what you want for breakfast,” Wilhelmina said as she came down the stairs.
That night he went back to the tavern to see her and they just “hit it off.”
“Finally, (after two and a half weeks) I said to her, ‘let’s get married.’”
She said, “Ya.”
“We just knew, we knew. I could start a sentence and she’d finish it. She could start a sentence and I’d finish it. We just knew that we were meant to be.”
Rummaging through his war memorabilia, Jack came across a letter she wrote to him 45 years ago:
“Sweetheart, I love you very much. I can hardly wait for you to come home. You’re the most important person in my life. No one or anything else is more important than you are. Before I met you, I thought all men were the same, but you proved me wrong. You gave me everything I ever wanted in life. You don’t have to worry about me being unfaithful to you because I will never screw around on you. I’ve got what I want in life and that’s all I need.”
Jack paused a moment before saying that Wilhelmina now has dementia and is in a care home in Penticton. Sometimes she forgets who he is but he still calls her his “rock.”
“She has always been right beside me. Always. When I came home (from Vietnam), I don’t know what I would have done without her,” he said in tears. “She saved me. She was my rock. Five foot nothing, a hundred and five pounds and she was my rock.”
That love letter was in a hope chest that survived a fire that destroyed their home in Louisiana.
“When the house caught on fire, I literally threw her out of the bedroom window. Went running back in, got my two kids and threw them out the same window, and the last thing she said to me was, ‘Grab the hope chest.’”
They sat there and watched their house burn to the ground. What they had left was in that hope chest.
Jack said he is the only one left in his original platoon, noting everyone else either committed suicide or died in accidents or drug overdoses.
“When we came home from Vietnam we were not liked, even by our own people. We were called baby killers, we were . . . (shunned).”
Jack had to pick up odd jobs to support his family. He was never one to freeload and never relied on employment insurance.
He visits Wilhelmina, 72, whenever he can, despite her memory getting worse. “She hardly remembers me,” he said.
Last week she was having a good day and told Jack to find another woman because “you can’t live alone.”
“I told her, no, nobody can ever even come close to you.” The standard (set) is too high.”
Jack turns 66 on Remembrance Day.