A newspaper clipping details David Tolbert’s being awarded the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and the Silver Star for actions in Cambodia while serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Tolbert, a deacon at Beech Haven Baptist Church in Athens, would continue living out in service to others as a nurse and, most recently, a rescuer of hikers. DAVID TOLBERT/Special
ATHENS — In 1966 David Tolbert enlisted in the U.S. Army without telling his parents.
He was only months removed from graduating from Northside High School in Warner Robins. Instead of starting college, his mom and dad received a phone call that their son would soon begin training to go to Vietnam.
“The family story is my mom ‘took to bed’ for three months,” Tolbert told The Index.
A family member going to Vietnam during the conflict there wouldn’t have been new to the Tolbert family, as David’s father went there during that time as a civilian contractor through the federal government. Their son’s experience would obviously place him in different settings, though.
The year Tolbert enlisted marked a massive surge in American troops to Southeast Asia, more than doubling that number to approximately 389,000. He joined with plans to become an Airborne Ranger/Rifleman. However, in training he was sent to officer candidate school, becoming one at 19 years old. At 20 he rose to 1st Lieutenant and was assigned to Fort Benning’s 197th Infantry Brigade. Officially, his obligation was complete. He had served his duty with nothing more expected of him.
But in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, Tolbert re-enlisted. He says that to some his reasons may come across as kind of “sappy.”
“I had done a lot of historical reading and felt that as a citizen soldier if I didn’t go [to Vietnam] then somebody else would have to go in my place,” notes Tolbert, today a deacon at Beech Haven Baptist Church in Athens. “I was a Christian by then and didn’t want someone dying for me. Jesus had already done that.”
During that tour Tolbert was an artillery officer with the 1st Division and a duty officer for a tactical operations center for six months. “Whenever an infantry unit got in contact with the enemy, a forward officer would call me at the TOC. I’d look at the maps and determine where the artillery rounds should be fired.”
Toward the end of this time in Southeast Asia, American troops began to be called home. As an officer, Tolbert was transferred to be a military advisor to the Vietnamese on the Cambodian border near the Mekong River. “I was stationed at an entry point to the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” he says, “fighting Communists.”
By this time Tolbert had married, with he and his wife, Charlotte, taking care of a two-month-old daughter. It was Charlotte’s father, Columbus preacher Charles Grenade of Whitten Baptist Church, who had talked to Tolbert about having a relationship with Christ. Grenade would also go on to serve a number of years as director of Columbus Baptist Association.
A seed planted at VBS
Tolbert didn’t grow up in church. However, he does remember at around five years old being invited to a Vacation Bible School in Warner Robins. Though he can’t remember the name of the church, he’s convinced a seed was planted that led to his eventual conversion as an adult.
After returning from Vietnam, he embarked on a 20-year career in sales. Tolbert then pondered a call to become a missionary and even attended Southern Seminary for about a week. “But I realized I wasn’t called,” he says. “However, I did still feel a pull to help people.”
So, he enrolled at Athens Technical School in the early 90s, earning his degree in two years. Retired now for around two months, it’s given Tolbert time to give more attention to a new passion, hiking. It’s also placed him in the right place at the right time for at least two groups of fortunate hikers.
“Hiking Mt. Whitney requires a special permit because so many people want to do it,” says Charles Jones, a member of Beech Haven who is also the transitional pastor at Oak Grove Baptist Church in Gainesville.
On Sept. 14 Jones and Tolbert joined Michell McCormick, also a member of Beech Haven, and Toni McNiel, a member of Prince Avenue Baptist Church in Bogart, on the hike up Mt. Whitney, located in California and the highest peak in the contiguous 48 United State.
McNiel and McCormick, friends and avid hikers, had each put their names in the lottery to increase their chances for a permit (which included a guest) to hike the mountain. When both won they asked Tolbert and Jones, who they knew to also be hikers, if they’d like to use the other permits.
“The permits are only good for 24 hours, so you have to make the hike in a day,” Jones explained. “That’s 22 miles with a 6,300-foot elevation gain. People usually begin the hike early at the morning.”
Or extremely late from the night before. The group of Georgia Baptists began their 12-hour hike at 1:45 a.m. (In case you’re wondering, Jones is 62 and Tolbert – who had completed hiking the 2,2000-mile Appalachian Trail the week before – is 71.)
At the top they took a group photo with a homemade poster with Philippians 4:13 on it.
With the summit behind them, the group began their way down. However, they soon came across two women having difficulty. One, in fact, wasn’t responsive. Her friend had been able to call a rescue helicopter before losing the signal, but now couldn’t regain that signal to provide coordinates to their specific location.
For the next two hours Tolbert and the others provided the woman with water and electrolytes. Jones gave her the Subway sandwich he’d been saving for later. “That perked her up,” said Tolbert. “Her mental status changed quickly. We were able to get some potato chips in her, too.
“We were praising God for this and told her we’d never leave her nor forsake her. When I said that she fell into my arms. This whole time Charles ministered to her friend.”
Eventually, a helicopter did show up. But Tolbert could only talk to the pilot in guiding him to the victim from a specific place where he had cell coverage. Tolbert had been drawing on his career as a nurse, but at this point his military experience also kicked in.
“I know how to deal with helicopters,” he says. “I knew the information they needed to get that woman off the mountain. If they didn’t have the right coordinates those propellers could hit the side of the mountain at any time.”
It took two passes for the helicopter to finally get to the victim, with her friend and Jones helping get her in the helicopter hovering over the side of the slope. The group of Georgia Baptists had been the last ones coming down the mountain that day. If they hadn’t come across the two women a night of freezing temperatures above the tree line would have awaited them.
The remainder of the hike still beckoned. Jones estimates by the time they got back to the car and he arrived at his hotel, they’d been up 27 straight hours.
‘I can do all things …”
“Philippians 4:13 took on a whole new meaning for us as we came down the mountain,” Jones says. “We were pushed to the limit, but God got us through and to see that helicopter fly away with her, it gave us a whole new perspective of that picture at the summit.”
Last week Tolbert and Jones went on another hike, this time on the Appalachian Trail to meet up with Tolbert’s grandson. Once again, a group of hikers were blessed to meet the two. This time it was a family of seven, the youngest a toddler, who had misjudged where the trail was going to end and were 11 miles from their rendezvous point. Jones and Tolbert had their cars and drove them the distance to extended family awaiting their arrival.
On Mt. Whitney, Tolbert says he relied on his past to help him in the present.
“In the military when people are distressed you learn to explain to them calmly and carefully what you’re going to do. On that mountain it helped them calm down so we could take care of them,” he testifies.
The day began with friends going to a mountaintop and see God’s splendor. It took a different turn on the way down when McCormick and McNiel, hiking ahead of Tolbert and Jones, encountered the women on the trail. When asked if they could provide the help needed, the two Georgians apologized that they couldn’t, but then pointed up the trail.
“Those two men can take care of you. One is a nurse and the other is a preacher.”
Scott Barkley serves as editor of The Christian Index.