Valentines Day 1969

by Jesse Lockhart

On February 14, 1969 I’m not sure I was even aware that it was Valentine’s Day; much less thinking of flowers and candy. But this story is not about me, but a friend who gave his life for me, 1st Lt Gary Lee Miller.

 I only knew Gary for about a month before he died. He was born and raised in a small town in the western part of Virginia, Covington, almost on the West Virginia state line. Gary graduated with honors from high school and attended Virginia Tech. At Tech he joined the ROTC program and graduated with an Engineering Degree and 2nd Lieutenant Commission in the United States Army. After commissioning Gary went to the Infantry Officer’s Basic course at Ft. Benning, Ga. I don’t know what his first duty assignment was but he ended up in Vietnam assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, 3rd Brigade, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry (named the Black Lions) in Company A.

I’m sometimes asked by kids if I’m a brave person. I tell them no but I knew and served with some brave men.

This is where I met Gary. I was Mike Platoon leader. The time was late January 1969 and although I had only been in Vietnam three months, through attrition, I was the senior platoon leader (which in retrospect was really scary considering the lives I was responsible for at the old age of 21 years old). Gary showed up just as we had lost two platoon leaders,,1 killed,1 wounded and Gary was assigned as the replacement to Lima platoon. I was assigned to “mentor” him until he was ready to operate on his own.

It’s now February 14, 1969; Lima and Mike Platoon were on a joint mission and had been on patrol for three or four days without any contact with the VC/NVA. Our ambush site that evening was a trail junction with the main trail going north- south and an intersecting trail going east- west. The trails weren’t that well used, they looked like any cow path you see in a pasture. I told Gary to set his platoon up ambushing the main trail going north- south. We usually set up our ambushes in a straight line boxed off at either end. The main section of the ambush was covered with claymore mines and the boxed ends were manned with M-60 machine guns.

I set up my platoon (Mike) facing the east –west trail. I didn’t expect any activity that evening and was looking forward to some sleep. Well, that didn’t happen. About 3 AM I was suddenly awakened by claymores being exploded and rifle and machine fire going off. My platoon lay in their ambush positions waiting for movement in front of them (like a a football offensive line waiting for the snap). I got on the radio and asked Gary what was happening. He told me that his platoon had seen movement on the trail and had set off the ambush. I remember thinking that I hope they weren’t trigger happy because I would be the one to explain to the CO why they screwed up. It was pitch dark so I called for artillery illumination rounds andwalked about 50 yards over to Gary’s position (that was probably not too smart because the guys had just popped the ambush and would still be jumpy) I was yelling my call sign and telling them to cease fire. I found Gary and could see three or four dead Viet Cong laying in the “kill zone” no US causalities . Since this was Gary’s first ambush, I let him call it into Headquarters giving the details and body count.

This is where the mission began to fall apart. The Battalion XO (Executive Officer) wanted a body count confirmed.  Gary and I could see three or four bodies but the BN XO ordered Gary to sweep (walk) the “kill zone”. At this time I should have told Gary to wait 5 minutes and report a standard operation reply 5 VC dead carrying AK’s and rice, but I didn’t, hell, it was 3 AM in the morning and the bodies would have been there at sunrise. What was happening was; in the Army information flows up and down the “chain of command” and the Battalions report to the Brigades who report to the Division for their 6 am General’s briefing  on to the Corp Headquarters, and this is where the good folks back home got their daily body count for the six o’clock news. Gary and I lined up a squad from our platoons to sweep the kill zone. As the men were searching for bodies, artillery illumination flairs were the only light we had and that wasn’t very much. You could barely make out the profiles of the men, I certainly could not identify which platoon was which. Gary and I were standing together discussing how stupid this sweep was when out of the darkness I heard a couple of rifle shots. The shots sounded like an M-16 and I thought the shots were from our men so I yelled “cease fire” to keep someone from getting shot from “friendly fire”. The next few moments happened very fast, but over the past 46 years I’ve slowed them down and replayed them hundreds of times in my mind.

hell, it was 3 AM in the morning and the bodies would have been there at sunrise.

have to understand the only light was artillery illumination and the terrain was thin grass about three foot high; there was confusion/talking about the recent ambush. The men’s adrenalin was pumping as we searched for additional dead VC. This was not a training exercise; this was combat and people get hurt/killed if they’re not careful. As Gary and I stood talking about how stupid this sweep was and what a mistake theBN XO made while he was 10 miles away in a safe bunker… something suddenly hit me in the chest. It reminded me of my baseball days and felt like I had missed a catch of a baseball from a kid and bam it hit me. Next I yelled something to this day I don’t understand why other than training and instincts kicked in.  I yelled “grenade” and dove to my right. There was an explosion but it was not loud it was kind of muffled. I felt something on my back, a burning sensation. I remember later thinking being wounded didn’t feel like I thought it would. It felt like a cut with a sharp knife. My survival instincts kicked in and I immediately started looking for my rifle and through the dirt and darkness I couldn’t find it. I looked over at Gary, he wasn’t moving. I touched him and immediately knew he was dead.(Gary had covered the grenade with his body)  I yelled for a medic and when I turned him over, I could see his shirt was blown open and my rifle lay under him. The Doc looked at Gary and shook his head. I picked up my rifle and saw that the magazine and receiver were blown up. I grabbed Gary’s rifle, checked it out, put in a new magazine and started looking for the VC who threw the grenade. I knew he was close because he had just tossed a grenade at me. I was crawling on my stomach when I saw him. Luckily for me his attention was directed at the men on the sweep. I stood up took care of him.

I went back to Gary knowing that he had just given his life for me. Emotionally his death didn’t really hit me for a couple of days. I’ve often wondered why I reacted the way I did  but in retrospect I had been calloused by all the death around me and I had had a job as a leader to regroup the platoons to prepare for a counter attack. We didn’t know what was out there in the darkness. I had the men gather up the VC’s weapons, and both platoons formed a defensive position and we moved Gary’s body to my CP. In about an hour or so the sun started to rise and I started talking to the Battalion CP and requested a dust off for Gary’s body. The dust off came and we loaded the AK’s and Gary on the Huey. Lima platoon’s men were shaken because they had lost two platoon leaders in less than a month, so I had to remind them that we were still on a combat mission with a job to kill VC’s.

Gary was written up and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. In 1978 working for B.F. Goodrich, I was transferred to Richmond and I wrote Gary’s Dad a letter asking if there was anything I could do for them. He called me and said that he and his wife were OK.

Every year on the last weekend in April the First Infantry Division has a “Black Tie” dinner in Washington for the officers who served with the division in combat. In 1993 I asked Gary’s Dad if he wanted to be my guest at the dinner. He agreed and my wife and I drove to Covington and carried him to Washington. On the drive to DC he quizzed me on the death of Gary wanting to know all the details. I found out that Gary had been honored at Ft. Benning by naming a building after him. The city of Covington named a school and a park in his honor. Gary had been the younger of two sons.

To this day I go over that night playing “what if” and how things could have come out differently. I get chocked up knowing that someone gave his life for me and I live with that every day.

Gary’s Dad passed away and the funeral was 10/3/15. I didn’t find about it until mid-day that Saturday and could not attend. 

In those two days February 14 and 15, 1969 in the Army’s infinite wisdom I was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star with “V” and a Purple Heart. I had one piece of shrapnel come to the surface in the late 80’s and removed. I still have a couple of pieces in my back and memories that forever linger. 

I’m sometimes asked by kids if I’m a brave person. I tell them no but I knew and served with some brave men.

Medal of Honor orders for Gary L. Miller

Medal of Honor orders for Gary L. Miller

 

 

            

The Village

by Randy Harritan

Harry and Quirt were working a platoon size operation to sweep a large area around a Vietnamese village. An American Major General was to visit the village and deliver a speech regarding strategic hamlets and the value the Americans placed on cooperation against the northern soldiers. This village, in the eyes of the Generals, was doing a good job of assisting in the war effort.

They were to be accompanied by members of the Army of The Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers. This was Harry’s first time working with the ARVNs and he was apprehensive about how Quirt would react to them. Later he would find out this was not a worry.

The village consisted of huts made from straw and bamboo woven together. Some were partially made from beer and soda cans with the tops and bottoms removed then straightened into colorful thin shingles. The smell of burnt wood from the cook fires rode on what little breeze there was.  Human and animal waste was used to fertilize the rice paddies nearby. It provided its own aroma. This mixed with the wet pungent odor of fires being put out with dirty water and re-lighted over and over again. A strong odor of Nuoc Mam, a fish sauce made of rotting fish, was on all the villagers’ breath. It could be smelled yards away. A smell that Harry thought must be driving Quirt crazy but he didn't seem to mind. After all he thought a dog's ass smelled good.

This was Harry and Quirt’s first village search. Quirt was first into each hut with his nose held high. Sniffing each item and giving his approval. He would circle the interior and come out very proud of himself. With no booby-traps the grunts would completely up-end the hooch.  Cook-pots were knocked over. The food inside thrown to the ground. The fires themselves were stirred looking for tunnel entrances. No stone was left unturned. Harry did not participate in the searches. He thought they were heavy handed but it was not his call. The Vietnamese people were stone-faced and showed neither anger nor resentment. Harry guessed this was not new to them and any show of emotion to the wrong person could lead to dire consequences. Like salmon they all knew when to swim upstream.

The Vietnamese were afraid of these big dogs. Their dogs were small and cur like, walking with tails tucked under. Not tall and proud like the Army dogs of the Americans. They gave these animals a wide berth. Never made eye contact with Harry. Faces always turned down, humble, supplicant, hiding something. Sneaky little bastards. There was a conspicuous absence of young men in the village. Only women, children and older people.

As the jungle was getting thicker, the men closed up somewhat so as to not lose contact.

The ARVN soldiers, in contrast to the Americans, were dressed in fatigues creased and clean with no sign of wear. They looked like a Boy Scout troop out for a jamboree. Wearing maroon berets they strutted like bantam roosters. Very cocksure and superior. These skinny little soldiers holding M-16 rifles that were too big for them looked like something from the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. A bad casting of actors in a B movie.

A young woman, a teenager, standing by the doorway to one of the hooches, was being interrogated by a morose ARVN officer. Holding a baby that looked to be only weeks old she protectively held it close to her. Her hand gently cupped behind its small head. Harry couldn't tell if the man was angry because all Vietnamese dialogue seemed to be loud and challenging with lots of clipped tones and harsh sounds.

In the blink of an eye he raised the butt of his M-1 carbine and smashed it into the face of the young woman. She went down immediately as blood gushed from her face. The baby went flying, his little arms grabbing for something, anything. He skidded along like a toy doll being discarded. His head bent at an odd angle. He made no cry nor protest. Its mother crawled over to the child and cuddled him in her arms moaning and wailing like a wounded animal. Not words, but guttural sounds formed with the absence of lips. Her lower jaw, unhinged, hung askew and her tongue protruded grotesquely from the side of her mouth.

The unmistakable rattle of rifles being brought to bear. Nearly every American pointing his firearm in one direction as if ordered to do so.

The platoon leader screamed "Nobody move!" and scrambled to stand guard over the ARVN animal who just hit the woman. Afraid that one of the Americans was going to shoot that asshole, the Lieutenant loudly reminded them that "this was their country and you must not interfere." He also stated "you men were briefed on this prior to the joint mission." Even Quirt cowered and stood behind Harry. These dogs weren't afraid of anything! Harry was shaken. It was all he could do to not put a bullet in that son-of-bitch or at least pop him in the mouth. The conversation between the two people was a mystery, but if he ever saw the guy again, in the proper situation, he would kill him.

As the platoon was making preparations to move out Harry told the Lieutenant that Quirt needed to smell all the ARVN so he wouldn't alert on them. "Don't worry," said the Lieutenant "they aren't going with us."

"What the fuck! You mean we're going to leave this village in their hands while we go out and do the grunt work?" Harry was still trying to deal with what he had just seen.

"Life sucks," said the Lieutenant and they moved out. The Lieutenant seemed to be a squared away guy and Harry was glad to have him aboard. This type of patrol was normally run by buck sergeants. Clearly more horsepower was needed today.

Harry was on point with Quirt leading the way. They were working a three man front, one left, one right with Harry and Quirt slightly forward in the middle. Quirt was "off-leash" trained and moved out 20 meters in front of the troops and set a slow and steady pace. He and Harry were so tuned to each that "search" was the only command needed. Quirt was on duty and would be until Harry released him. The rest of the platoon were staggered behind in threes with the Platoon Leader and Radio Operator (RTO) somewhere around the middle of the group. They would go approximately two kilometers (clicks) from the village then turn and sweep a large circle around the village hopefully ending up where they started.

It was about 95 degrees with the humidity at 100 percent. Harry was happy he didn't have to wear a helmet like the grunts in back of him. This would come back to haunt him. Special units could wear whatever headgear they wanted as long as it was military. A boonie hat qualified. Harry wore his turned up on both sides like a cowboy. He wasn't trying to make a fashion statement but that seemed to afford him the best view from under the hat.

About one click out they came upon an ancient pagoda, multi-tiered and covered in vines.  Harry, a history buff, was intrigued. He would have loved to study this old artifact but gave it a wide berth. These things were hundreds even thousands of years old but were notorious for being booby-trapped. The Vietnamese visited their ancestors there but Harry didn't want to visit his.

On day two they kept the same formation and continued to make a huge left hand turn around the village when the stillness was broken. A whish in front of Harry's face like someone throwing a stick and missing. Off to the left, a noise like hitting a brick wall with a hammer. Then the rifle report. An agonized cry and a man went down. Everyone hit the dirt and began firing into the trees hoping for a lucky hit. The M-60 began firing. Comforting! The deep base staccato sound of the big gun was like the bugles of the Calvary. The medic crawled up and bandaged the trooper’s leg but couldn't locate the man's kneecap. There was just a gaping hole where it had been.  Harry knew where the shot was intended. If he had taken another quarter of a step, or if the wind had been blowing at him instead of from his back his brains would be where that kneecap was. Thank God for morphine and medics. Medics would have a special place in heaven. Maybe he would rethink wearing a helmet.

By the time they got him medevac’d it was lunchtime, so everyone enjoyed a savory c-ration. Harry pinched off a piece of C4 explosive and heated a can of ham and lima beans followed by apricots, which were his favorites. Quirt had a dry dog biscuit which was made to look like a hamburger paddy. Did he care?

The food was good and they enjoyed every bite. Quirt finished his quickly and lay down next to Harry. It was too hot to stroke him so Harry just let him rest. Death calling but letting go made simple things wonderful. Eating, drinking, smelling the air. It was good to be alive and Harry sat back under the banana tree and tried to take in all the sights and sounds around him. He watched the other men and realized they were all special even though he didn't know any of them. They were all so young. Full of life with toothy smiles. Each and every one some mother's son.  He prayed for their safety for the rest of the patrol. He hoped he and Quirt could do their jobs. No mistakes. Self-doubt rearing its ugly head.

Saddle up was the command and they headed out again. The sniper was hopefully long gone.  They were moving into heavier jungle so the sightlines would be greatly reduced. Quirt would now stand a better chance of getting his scent before he could see us if he was still around. Harry was aware of the wind. It could be friend or foe depending on the direction. Wishing would not change that.

As the jungle was getting thicker, the men closed up somewhat so as to not lose contact. Purple beautyberry, asian maple and perigone vines along with bamboo, always bamboo, had to be pushed through. Aromas from strange plants endemic to Vietnam wafted through the air providing a treat for the senses. Even hell must have some beauty. Nightfall brought with it the usual animal calls found in the jungle. The "re-up" bird with its high pitched call annoying the troopers with it constant message to re-enlist. The "fuck-you" lizard that seemed to answer most of the birds pleadings with an alto cry that shortened the first word and stretched the last for several beats. Harry liked the fuck-you lizard.

One of the rewards for walking point all day was no guard duty. He and Quirt cuddled up. Harry in his poncho and Quirt touching him with some part of his body. He always maintained contact. Harry felt a warmth spread over his body. Of comfort. Of safety.  He felt sorry for the other grunts. Harry never had any trouble sleeping in the bush. Asleep at dark and awake at dawn with no dreams in between.  As he lay there he noticed that his hands were shaking. A weird shaking from the elbows down. Adrenalin bleed! It would pass.

Day three, the last day of the patrol began uneventfully. By noon the sun was up in its full glory and the heat was merciless. The jungle was thinner now and allowed the full force of the sun's rays to hit them. Water was useless as a thirst quencher but necessary none the less. It was warmer than the surroundings and tasted like hot piss. In fact, piss may have been cooler. Harry thought about the water fountains at home. Push a button and cool water would flow endlessly. His mind wandered. He dreamed of drinking his fill, then letting it run over his face, then ducking his head and letting it run down his back. Cooling his..........

Quirt alerts!

 Harry took a knee, turned his head and quietly said to the man behind him "get the Lieutenant up here."

"What's going on?" asked the Lieutenant assuming a position beside Harry.

"Alert at 11 o'clock. Based on Quirt's alert I don't think it's personnel but don't take any chances." His mind flashed to the sniper yesterday. It was uncanny how Harry and Quirt could read each other. Six months of training together in the States and now already three months in country. Harry signaled Quirt to stay. Hand and arm signals were just as effective as voice commands. Quirt would not move.

"1st Squad, check it out!"

During the wait Harry sat beside a tree and kept his Car-15 pointed in the direction of the alert. Using his hands he signaled Quirt to come. No use leaving him in the open to roast in the hot sun. Quirt knew he had done a good job. Harry praised him and let him lie down.

Ten minutes later a PFC came back and reported a sizeable food and weapons cache hidden very well in the jungle up ahead. It was underground but covered with a thatched bamboo roof. The camouflage was close to perfect. From the sky it would be invisible and even from the ground it wasn't readily apparent. So well camouflaged it wasn't even booby-trapped.

As they uncovered the cache tons of rice were found, a hundred weapons, thousands of rounds of ammo along with explosives. It was called in and they waited until two choppers and a crew of men came to deal with the booty.

 They were to proceed with the mission. Harry and the guys were never told whether the contraband was to be destroyed or recovered but they didn't give it much thought as they still had to give the jungle some more of their life. Someone else would take credit and probably be thrown a party back in base camp. Maybe even get a medal.

They arrived back at the village by late afternoon, set up camp at the edge and settled in for the night. The ARVN were gone. Probably left immediately after the patrol. No word about the girl. Probably in one of the hooches convalescing. No one asked. Quirt was congratulated by the men and was treated to extra chow in the form of c-ration meat. Harry had to limit the amount he was given because neither man nor beast could handle much of that stuff. Harry had a can of spiced beef with lots of Texas Pete to hide the taste and pound cake with peaches.

The next day the platoon formed a loose ring around the village and watched as the American and Vietnamese flags were installed in great abundance. Two bright shiny helicopters brought many dignitaries, including the General.  All the inhabitants of the village were scrubbed, dressed and assembled. The General waxed poetic about allies, cooperation and the value of friendships. He thanked the villagers profusely and promised more aid and protection, mounted his bright shiny helicopter and rode away.

Harry and the guys knew that the rice and weapons cache just outside the village was being serviced and maintained by the villagers for use by the enemy.  The sniper, also, was undoubtedly one of the little men who smiled so broadly for the dignitaries. The General droned on, through a translator, for a while. Then stopped and bobbed his head as he turned back and forth while surveying his kingdom, all the while with a stupid smile on his face. An exalted head of an exhausted people. He didn't bother to learn any Vietnamese. Not even a word or a simple phrase. Why should he? If he spoke slowly and loudly enough they would get the message that he was their protector and benefactor. Wouldn't they?


Iceman

by Glenn Miscikowski

Didn’t know how I was going to handle combat with the aftermath of casualties and death. The mental pictures were vivid; reality was on hold.

I watched the freedom bird accelerate down the Cam Ranh Bay runway with the lucky bastards heading back to the world. Nam is my home for the next year. Walking to the first formation, my jungle shirt was already soaked, clinging to me. Cam Ranh Bay was an inferno.  The military base reminded me of a small metropolitan city bustling with activity; the war was not evident. 

All I could think of is why the hell did I volunteer for the draft, my deferment number was over 300.  I’m a pacifist at heart.  College was becoming boring, my girlfriend and I split and family life was abrasive. A change was necessary, but did I need this?

Cam Ranh Bay was a transition base for soldiers; new orders are processed for their next destination.  My MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was 11B40, light weapons infantryman.  No delusion about my ultimate destination; I conditioned myself to accept my fate.  Chopper pilot was my objective; but after finding out I was color-blind, dreams died fast.

Daily formations plus infantry classes were required for the new cherries. Bumped into Sgt. Phil at an infantry class; he was from my Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) school at Fort Lewis Washington. We are listening to an NCO explain how to rig a claymore.

Sgt. Phil and I called Milwaukee our home. We had mutual friends and visited the same hangouts. As hard as we tried, our conversations were strained and terse; but bumming with him was better than dealing with my thoughts. 

Didn’t know how I was going to handle combat with the aftermath of casualties and death. The mental pictures were vivid; reality was on hold.

Second day in Nam, a GI named Bill initiated a casual conversation; his cot was close to mine. He asked if tomorrow I would share a drink with him. My first comment was what the shit. Bill explained his wife is pregnant with twins and after he phoned her from the Red Cross office, his wife thinks tomorrow will be the day.   I told him it would be a privilege to toast the twins.  

Curiosity got the best of me; I questioned Bill about any recourse available to him. Bill indicated the Red Cross is working with the Army in getting his orders changed to stateside duty. The change would take another thirty to forty-five days before new orders were cut.

Night two was suspenseful, alarms went off. A rocket attack was happening; the pops were distinctive and far off.  Everyone was scared and looking for shelters.  I bumped into Bill. He was getting his boots on. The activity outside the tents had a herd of cherry GI’s running nowhere and cussing for the sake of cussing.

The alarms blared for two minutes. Just as quickly as the alarms started, they stopped.  The depressed reset button put everything back to the way it was before the rocket attack.

Cam Ranh Bay provided a false sense of security; the conflict, the death, the suffering was outside of the perimeter. The Grim Reaper waited for any soldier crossing over the concertina wire. I was seeing a resort town surrounded by a war zone.

Bill grabbed me as I entered the tent and said, “Don’t forget.” My reply was, “Just let me know.” 

Sgt. Phil and I received our orders at the morning formation.  Orders were cut for me to board a plane the following afternoon to Da Nang; Duc Pho was my final destination. 

Around 1830 Bill approached me. He was shaking my hand; I asked if the wonderful event happened.  Bill replied, “I am the proud father of two baby girls, Judy and Janet. We had the names picked out. The Red Cross told me mother and twins are doing fine.  I went to the city and purchased a bottle of Johnnie Walter Black Label for the occasion. Would you like a drink?”

I reluctantly declined; told Bill a number of Wisconsinites and AIT guys are getting together at the NCO club for a few beers. I invited him to join the group, he declined. Reassured him I would not forget to have a toast with him this evening.    

Sgt. Phil and I met the NCO’s at the bar; they all had their orders.  The beer bottles were stacking up; I was feeling no pain.  Talked to the group about Bill and his plan for new orders stateside; no one seemed to give a damn. They were facing their own demons. The jokes were loud and crass, but the underlying feelings were subdued; everyone looking at each other as to who will be the winners and losers.

After 2200 we wished everyone good luck; Sgt. Phil and I headed back to the tent.  A group of GI’s were looking at something near the tent; a soldier was on the ground.  The soldier was dry heaving, puke all over him.  Looked again at the soldier lying in the fetal position; Bill looked like shit. He continued to dry heave. A low moan was audible.  A bottle of Johnnie Walker was next to him.

I forgot all about my promise to have a drink with him. “Shit.”  My head was spinning and I just wanted to get back to my cot. 

Sgt. Phil and I lifted Bill onto a cot.  The medics were summoned. One medic arrived. After doing a cursory inspection of Bill; the medic indicated it best to let the fool sleep it off.  I asked the medic if Bill should be taken to the medical tent.

The medic gave me a quizzical blank stare and left.

Flopped on my cot and I don’t remember the next few hours. In the wee hours, I heard a commotion and thought it was GI’s with nightmares. 

Next morning I woke up.  My head was pounding and my mouth felt like sandpaper.  My duffel bag was packed and ready; the flight was not scheduled until 1500. I wanted to make sure Bill was OK; his cot was empty.  A soldier informed me around 0300 two medics with a gurney left with Bill.  I must have had a real buzz on not to have heard all of the commotion.

I wanted to tell Bill good luck with his family and reassignment. The medical center was a short distance from the tent.  I met a medic who was on duty last night; he wanted to know why I was interested in Bill.  I told the medic, I just wanted to say hi and bye. 

The Medic said Bill was operated on last night; he died on the operating table.  The whiskey he was drinking was thirty percent battery acid; the acid dissolved his stomach.

Walking back to the tent, I met Sgt. Phil and informed him of Bill.  We said nothing to each other. We shook hands and wished each other good luck.

Everything was in place for Bill to leave Nam and get reassigned stateside. 

I wondered what the Red Cross was going to say to his wife.  The birth of the twins was a time to rejoice. Now Bill’s wife had a tragedy to face.

I walked away from the tragedy with a sad heart, thinking about his two daughters who will never see their father. What really pissed me off was that he was dying as he toasted his daughters.

 He died but not because of enemy fire. But what’s the fucking difference; he was a casualty of war. I realized life is not always fair; the Grim Reaper won this round.    

The tragedy was a life changer. A piece of my heart got chipped off.  I didn’t want to feel this type of pain again.

The Iceman went to Duc Pho. 


Vacation

by Richard H. Geisel

A break in the routine was coming. I had been working 7/24 for months. Just think of it, new clothes, hair cut, regular hours, majestic sunrises, palm trees, gourmet meals, single man about town ready to howl at the moon.

I had been transferred from leading a hunt and destroy squad to nurse maiding a platoon of armored personnel carriers. They were having down time at the base but I had to carry on, they had the vacation and I just kept patrolling. 

The lights went out. Some vacation. Instead of walking point now I have a 3 man team walking out of the gates of the support base. This Shangri-La, in the middle of rice paddies forming waves with the wind, herds of water buffalo grazing silently and buffalo dung. Buffalo dung everywhere, especially in my nostrils. Every time I hear the virtues of organic, I smell the dung and see the fields being organically prepared for someone’s table.

For eight months my life had been a world of silence, listening for sounds not in my hearing frequency.  I have no doubt my ears are growing larger. Rustle of leaves, limbs out of joint, ants marching across dry leaves, voices and the piercing sound of silence. It’s hard for me to believe but “yes, I can hear ants”.

Picking my steps through the bush became a ballet of movement; my sounds could not become a disguise of the sound of danger. Sounds used to be beautiful and I would search for them. Now sounds are my enemy.

My ears hurt. I must hear something, but it is better not to hear anything. It is dangerous to hear and not to hear.

Now, I am assigned as a grunt squad leader to protect the APC’s. Silence; there is no silence. The men talk and scream trying to be heard above the diesel engines. The metal tracks clang along the earth, shaking it, cutting into it and chewing up all under the metal. I couldn’t be a larger target than if I were a clown with a bouquet of rainbow balloons in a one ring circus. I am going to die.

My job was to search and destroy, kill people, silently and efficiently. Now the hunter has become visible. There are no discussions, no committee meeting; an order comes down, my life changes.

“Okay, the orders for the night are; set up an outpost 500 yards from the fence and watch for any gooks.”

As I reached the coordinates I called back to base and the lights were turned on to protect the base perimeter. We were the early warning of menace. The 500 yards we crossed had been exfoliated with Agent Orange and the CAT dozers had stripped the trees aside. The pastoral scene had been violently exorcised by machines. The undulating terrain makes for a good dig in for the night.

After we set up I radioed in and said it was alright to turn the lights back on in my sector.

“Okay, we’ll have the normal night rotation and radio check.  I’ll take the first watch.”

There was no moon and the stars were a blanket across the sky. There are stars in the States but not the same stars that light your way as in Vietnam. These are a cold white, larger more brilliant. The terrain was barren with a few tree stubbles. I had a clear field of fire. In the daytime the rules of engagement were different than at night. Nighttime was a free fire zone. I had always lived in free fire zones, day and night.

The other posts started to call in with hourly observations. Post 1 clear, post 2 clear, post 3 clear. I radioed in the same. “I think we are going to have a quiet night.” I thought of my German ancestors who would say “don’t jinx yourself.” Well, I did.

Through my scope I could see something in the distance, three spheres close to the ground.

“Here, take a look with the scope.”

“I don’t see anything.”

“Look again, right in front, 200 yards.”

“Nope.”

“Give me that.” Sure enough; I could see just the smallest top of three heads. There was no movement, but they were there.

“Try again.”

“I see them this time, very small, close to the ground.”

“Base, I have several gooks 200 yards to my front, please confirm.”

“We don’t see them.”

“You got to see them. We see them. Call the other posts and check for movement. They’re coming.”

“The other posts don’t have any sightings nor are there any sightings from the perimeter.”

“Okay, we’ll keep watching ‘em and let you know of any movement.”                  

“I’ll call in the coordinates for the target.”

More posts checked in; still no sightings from other sectors. My gooks just stayed where first spotted; no movement.  Hour after hour straining for any movement, nothing.

“Stay alert. They could start running at us anytime.”

I see movement but they’re not moving forward. What’s going on? Do something!  Movement as wheat swaying in the wind is taunting. To get a better view I raise up from my position with the scope.  One figure gets taller.  What are they doing?  Must be scouts for the main body.

“Base, can’t you see one of them now?”  “Nothing there” comes back on the radio.  I slowly get back to my position and my nemesis gets smaller.  He can see me.  What we have here gentlemen is a conundrum.  I slowly raise my arm and wave it.  My nemesis also waves.  What?

We are the enemy.  Those are our shadows projected out in the field. We’re lit up like ducks in a shooting gallery… see the ducks, shoot the ducks.

My ears hurt. I must hear something, but it is better not to hear anything. It is dangerous to hear and not to hear.

“Base, turn the lights off and leave them off or I’m coming in!”

“It looks like it’s gonna be a quiet night.”


Taking Fire

by Steve Tedder

TAKING FIRE! TAKING FIRE! I’M HIT! I’M HIT! MY OBSERVER’S HIT! MY OBSERVER’S___!!!

Those words come back to me at the damndest times. Not every day but often enough. At times I recall them while driving, cutting the grass or simply lying in bed before falling asleep. I don’t consciously bring it up, it just happens. Here is a little background on who said it and why.

It had been 19 months since I had arrived in Viet Nam. Except for my brief stint with the 334th Assault Helicopter Company I had served the entire time with the Silver Spurs, A Troop, 3rd Squadron 17th Air Cavalry Regiment. I had been a “Grunt” with the Aerial Rifle Platoon, Door Gunner/Platoon Sergeant with the Lift Platoon and a Scout Observer with the Scout Platoon. A man of many talents you might say.

All of my time up until now had been down in the Delta located in III Corp with a few months in IV Corps at Soc Trang. The Delta had a few mountains but the vast majority was jungle and rice paddies. My new home would be much different. Not only would I be a member of the famous 101st Airborne Division but now there would be mountains and valleys to fly around.

I reported to A Troop 2nd Squadron 17th Air Cavalry on October 1, 1971. Upon turning my orders over to the Company Clerk the First Sergeant came out and welcomed me to the Troop. He glanced over my orders and said that I would be assigned to the Blues (Infantry Platoon). I told him that I had extended my tour for the second time specifically to fly scouts and that I had over 300 hours flying scouts down south.

He then explained that since my MOS was infantry, and that they needed experienced infantrymen I was going to the Blues. He was determined that I would not be flying with Alpha Troop and I was just as determined that I would. After all, I had already spent 19 months in-country and the first 9 months had been as a Grunt in the Blues. I told him that if they didn’t need experienced Observers please send me back to where I had come from. I did NOT extend for another six months to be back in the infantry.

At this the First Sergeant left and disappeared towards the rear of the Orderly Room. He returned a few moments later and told me to follow him. We went to the rear office and was introduced to an officer who happened to be the Troop Commander, Major Teddy Allen. Major Allen asked me how many hours I had in Scouts and when I answered him he asked why I had wanted to transfer to his unit. I explained that I had heard of Alpha Troop and wanted to serve in such a great unit like the 101st. I was dismissed and told to return to the Orderly Room later.

Not having been assigned a hooch I just hung around the Orderly Room talking to the clerk. A few hours later I was called into the C.O.’s office and introduced to Captain Robert O. Baker who was the Scout Platoon Leader. Captain Baker grilled me on my experiences in Viet Nam and after answering several of his questions I was dismissed and told to wait outside.

Afterwards Major Allen and Captain Baker departed and the First Sergeant called me back inside. He told me that Captain Baker wanted me in his platoon on a trial basis. He would take me out to the AO and if I passed muster he would keep me. He also told me that he didn’t know what kind of unit I had been in but Grunts did not fly in Alpha Troop. Therefore, if I was going to fly my MOS would have to be changed to Crew Chief. I had never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be a Crew Chief.

The Crew Chief was actually the most important person in the crew when the aircraft was not flying. He was the only person actually assigned to that particular aircraft. When flying he acted just as an Observer. When not flying he was responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the ship. After every flight the pilot would fill out the logbook noting the condition and state of readiness for the next flight. Once a mission was completed and they returned to base the pilot would report to the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) and complete his after action report. Then he would usually mosey over to the Mess Hall or the Officers club where he would regal the other officers about his exploits.

The Crew Chief would tie down the rotor blades, disarm the ship, check the write- ups in the log book and note if fluid checks were up to date.  He would also take any necessary oil and fuel samples, clean the air filters and generally keep the ship in flying condition. He would take time for chow but it may be hours before his job was done and he could leave the flight line. In short it was HIS aircraft in every sense of the word.

The missions we flew were extremely hazardous. When flying you didn’t give much thought to the ship’s maintenance. You simply relied on the aircraft to do what the pilot told it to do when he told it to do it, no sudden vibrations, no warning lights flashing at you. It had to perform flawlessly every time. It was the crew chief that assured us the ship would handle and perform this way.

To be an Army helicopter crew chief meant you had completed Army Advanced Individual Training at Ft. Rucker. Eight weeks of intense training that taught you not only how to keep your aircraft up but also the task of manning the M-60 machine gun and the XM-203 Rifle/Grenade Launcher.

I had never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be a Crew Chief.

Here my new First Sergeant was telling me that I was now a crew chief. No training, no experience whatsoever.  Poof, I now pronounce you something you’re not. Little did I know what a crock that was or how it would change my mind about a career in the Army.

Early the next day I reported to Captain Baker at the flight line. He introduced me to Sergeant Tom Mundell, who would be responsible for teaching me my job as a crew chief. At that time Tom and I armed the Loach while Captain Baker performed his pre-flight. Tom explained that they had plenty of real crew chiefs and that my only responsibility would be taking fluid samples, cleaning the air filter and arming the aircraft. I was absolutely NOT to do anything else. That was okay with me, the same duty as in my last unit.

Captain Baker must have been okay with me in the AO. Nothing much happened that day. I didn’t even get sick from his wild gyrations ten feet above the trees. When we returned that evening he shook my hand and welcomed me into the Scout Platoon.

I flew a lot with Captain Baker after that. Over the course of the next month I got to know him pretty well. It was always Captain Baker or Sir, nothing informal. But it turned out we had a lot in common as far as the Army was concerned. We formed a bond, as much as an officer and an enlisted man could in the Army. He was one of the best role models a young “lifer” could have.

He was from California and had enlisted soon after graduating from high school in 1963. He was also a Mustang which meant that he had signed up as an enlisted man with an MOS in Armor. After a few years he decided to make the Army a career and volunteered for OCS. Upon graduating he again volunteered, this time for flight school. Upon graduation he was one of that mythical breed of men known as Army Aviators.

In January 1971 he had been assigned to Viet Nam for his second tour. He had been the Platoon Leader for the past six months. I asked him once if he was married and he responded that he was, to the Army. Looking back after all these years it makes it all seem so sad and oh so wrong.

For the next month I had many interesting experiences flying with Alpha Troop. It was so different from what I had been used to. I saw Fire Support Bases on the very tops of mountains and we went into some LZs that could only be described as strange. Some could only handle one helicopter at a time, having literally been carved out of the jungle amidst boulders the size of semi-trucks. 

The morning of November 5, 1971 started off like any other day for me. Chow in the Mess Hall at 0530 hours. Go to the flight line at 0600 to arm the aircraft while the pilot performed the pre-flight. Then off we’d go. We would lift up, maneuver out of the revetments, hover over to the air strip with the two Cobras behind us and the C&C Huey following. The take-offin itself was a thrill, all that power going up into the air, looking for Mr. Chuck and ruining his day. Actually, hopefully, to end it. We weren’t called Hunter-Killer Teams for nothing.

The first mission was outside of the old Marine base of Kha Sanh, snooping along the many trails running towards the Laotian border. After two hours we hadn’t found anything so we returned to Phu Bai to refuel.

After refueling we formed up and headed west. We were headed to the A Shau Valley. The A Shau was the main infiltration route favored by the NVA.  We had found beaucoup activity there over the past couple of weeks and would normally have one or two teams working there every day. Mr. Todd had even found large D-9 size bulldozers hidden there. A few days before Lt. Green found a truck park camouflaged next to a large stream. Yep, the A Shau was the hottest place in all of Nam.

We were flying at our normal cruising altitude of 2000 feet actual. As soon as we arrived to our assigned area Captain Baker cork screwed the aircraft down to the deck. While going down I pulled the pin on a white phosphorous grenade and placed it in an empty can that had the top removed. I then held it outside the door with my left arm extended ready to drop it if and when we found a target. The Cobras would automatically roll in on the smoke and kill whatever was there. I cradled my XM-203 automatic rifle/grenade launcher with my right hand pointed out and down with my finger on the trigger.

We spiraled down over a brushy grass area with a beautiful rock strewn stream on my side of the aircraft. The green grass reminded of the pictures you see of Ireland, just a beautiful bright green glade. The stream really stood out also, not muddy but so clear you could see the bottom. I was looking down at the water rushing over the rocks looking for a trail or some signs of Charlie next to the stream. We were flying uphill about five feet above the scattered trees when we popped up over a small ridge doing about 50 - 60 knots.

I’m still looking out my side door when out of nowhere Captain Baker yells over the radio “I’ve got Gooks in the Open, Gooks in the Open, COMING HOT. I jerk my head to the front just as he opened up with the mini-gun. The mini-gun is mounted on my side of the aircraft less than three feet from my seat. It makes a hell of a noise and I saw something we could only dream about. Less than 50 yards directly in front of us were about fifty NVA soldiers wearing pith helmets and khaki-green uniforms. Some had camouflage and they all wore small packs. We were close enough that I could see the shocked looks on their faces with mouths gaping wide. They had been in the process of crossing the stream when we popped over the small ridge and caught them completely off guard.

Captain Baker kicked the pedals and made the Loach fishtail as he continued firing. This made the stream of bullets spread out and the carnage was both terrible and beautiful to see. Bodies were disintegrating right before my eyes. Body parts, blood, weapons, packs, tree limbs and dirt were flying everywhere. An ungodly amount of blood sprayed over it all. Then the craziest thing of all happened. Captain Baker banked the Loach to the right directly over their position. He was looking down at them and I was looking up at nothing but blue sky. I couldn’t drop the Willie Pete or fire my weapon accurately. This certainly was ass backwards!!!

This lasted for just a small moment but to me it was an eternity. I tossed the Willie Pete out and away. Even though I did not have a target I started firing my 203 emptying the 30 round magazine with one continuous burst. Then the shit hit the fan for real. The NVA didn’t lose any time coming out of the shock of us blowing their column all to hell.    

It sounded like an entire company lined up at the firing range firing all at once with everything they had. The only problem was we were the target now. The gunfire was so loud I could barely hear Baker yelling on the radio. The first thing that registered in my mind was the incredible amount of tracers coming up and flying through the open door on his side flying in front of my face. I swear that they were mere inches from my nose. Not one or two, it seemed like hundreds. Maybe even a thousand. At the same time I heard the zap zing pow of rounds hitting the right side.

Then I swear someone hit me in the ankle with a sledge hammer. My foot actually jumped to the left. Captain Baker had already started yelling on the radio, “TAKING FIRE, TAKING FIRE, I’M HIT, I’M HIT, MY OBSERVER’S HIT MY OBSERVER’S___!!! That’s all he got out before the radios blew apart sending metal and plastics shards all over my arms and chest. He got us out of there just before my white phosphorous blew up. I had immediately reloaded another 30 round magazine and fired it off. A tremendous rage came over me when my foot flew to the side and the bullets were flying.. KILL ME?, KILL ME? YOU BASTARDS, YOU THINK YOU CAN KILL ME. HOW DARE YOU!!! WATCH THIS YOU COCKSUCKERS!!! Somehow later on we found three empty magazines lying on the floor of the ship. I was amazed that I was able to get that many rounds out. It all just happened so fast.

We were not out of trouble yet. We climbed up to altitude and Baker made gestures with his hands asking if I was okay. I looked down and only two small holes in my left trousers leg with a little trickle of blood. There was also a small shard of metal sticking out of my right boot at the ankle. All I felt was a small sting. I gave him a thumbs up yelling that it wasn’t bad at all. Remembering his yelling that he was hit I asked him if he was okay and he in turn gave me a thumbs up. Then he reached over, smacked me on the top of my knee and yelled“Good Job, Good Job”. That kind of stunned me, I certainly couldn’t recall having done much.

Soon one of the Cobras came up alongside us. The pilot, Captain Bob Karig communicated with Baker by hand signals that he would check us out. After maneuvering all around us Karig gave us a thumbs up. I guess he was telling us we weren’t leaking fluid or had anything falling off. At about this time I reached down and pulled the metal shard out of my ankle. I stuck in in my shirt pocket as a souvenir.

As soon as we had come upstairs Captain Baker pointed us in the direction of Camp Evans where the US Army18th Surgical Hospital was located. Soon afterwards the Cobra disappeared and was replaced by our C&C Huey which took up station at our six o’clock. Having heard our last transmission the other pilots quickly figured out we were headed to Evans and why. Following along behind us the Huey pilot, CWO2 Robert Segura radioed that we were coming in with wounded on board. Now the comedy begins.

We came straight in, no circling the helipad, just fast and straight. While on short final to the helipad with the big red crosses I saw a scene straight from MASH. There was a group of people standing there with two stretchers holding a hand above their eyes looking up at us. They immediately started jumping up and down waving us off. Captain Baker and I immediately reached the same conclusion, Shit, they must have mass casualties coming in and we’d have to wait. Baker veered off and started to circle around the way we came in. The Huey naturally followed us and then we realized just how stupid assumptions can be.

The doctors and nurses had seen the Huey and since Medivac Helicopters were normally Huey’s they assumed that it held the wounded. In fairness to them most wounded soldiers did not fly themselves in. Realizing their mistake when the Slick followed us in the turn they quickly put their arms up in the universal sign to land.

The Huey followed closely and before the skids touched down the crew chief, a fellow I knew as Dago, jumped down and ran over to my side of the aircraft. He grabbed me with both hands and tried pulling me out. The big problem here was I was still securely buckled into my seat and wasn’t moving. Realizing what the problem was Dago quit and stood there laughing. I handed him my weapon, unhooked the safety harness and climbed out. Then they all tried helping me lay on the stretcher which to mean seemed ridiculous. I pushed them away and limped off to the hospital entrance.

Once inside I was directed to the operating room where I was helped onto the table. The nurse wouldn’t wait for me to roll my pants leg up. She cut them open all the way to my crotch. A young Captain, who looked like a kid with longer than regulation hair, introduced himself as a surgeon and asked me if that was the only wound I had. I replied that I had pulled a piece of shrapnel out of my ankle. I then pulled it out of my pocket and showed it to him. That was the first time I had looked at it closely and I realized it was the copper jacket from a bullet. It must have been one of the ones that hit the radios and in passing through the jacket had been stripped off and struck me with enough force to punch through the leather of my boot.

Upon examining my ankle the doctor proceeded to give me an ass chewing for taking it out. What if I had pulled and it had cut an artery? I didn’t say anything, just agreed that it was stupid and I would never do that again. As he was stitching the graze on my left leg Major Allen came in and watched the doctor for a minute. He then looked at me and said” Hell son, that’s just a scratch. You are both were very lucky. At that he walked out and soon thereafter Captain Baker came in. 

I followed Captain Baker out to our Loach where a crowd of people were looking it over. There were a lot of oohs and aahs being said. One of the guys told me that they had counted twenty-seven bullet holes. All were underneath the right side and behind the pilot’s seat. While bending down having a look Captain Baker came up to me. He told me that several rounds had hit the armor plate under his seat with enough force to think that he had been hit. Amazingly the fuel cell located on the bottom of the aircraft had not been hit. Amazingly a lot of important things hadn’t been hit, like our heads for example.

After catching a ride back to Phu Bai with Mr. Segura, Captain Baker asked me if I was game for another mission. I thought a moment and answered sure, why not. To tell the truth I was feeling pretty damn lucky right then.

The next mission was in the same area but the NVA were long gone and we turned up nothing. The Cobras had worked it over hard with rockets. Big guns, 155mm and 8 inch howitzers had also done a number on it. Funny when you think about it, how good the NVA were as soldiers. Our Cobras had made a few gun runs, another Hunter-Killer Team had come in a half hour or so after us and except for a bunch of craters and a lot of blood puddles it looked just like it did before. All the bodies, weapons and packs were gone.

After returning to Phu Bai at the end of the day I asked Captain Baker why he slapped me on the leg and said “Good Job”. He just said that I had reacted exactly in the right way. Not only by returning fire but also by tossing the grenade. He told me that he was looking right into the face of a gook armed with a RPD machine gun that was trying to kill us when he saw my grenade sailing through the air. He didn’t see it explode but it definitely took that guy out, and a lot of his buddies.

I liked that. I had not only done my job but I did a Good Job.

A week later I learned that I was receiving a Purple Heart. I didn’t think that I had actually earned it and I asked Captain Baker if I could refuse it. He calmly told me that he could understand my feelings but that he and the CO felt it was right. Even though I hadn’t lost much blood I had been wounded by enemy fire.

At the award ceremony one of the other pilots made an off color remark about it being a scratch. I kept my mouth shut and didn’t respond. The next day that same pilot regretted his words. Karma’s real and Karma can be a bitch. His name is 1st LT Larry Palma and that’s another story.


Dawn

by Richard H. Geisel

Stars dim and rotate, moon slides to the earth

Grey marches after dark, grey morphs to white pinks

Shadows grow, weaving across the flora

Here, the waltz of death

Buds awaken, petals catch dew

Fauna stirs, dampness rises to sticky humidity

As far as I can see, As far as I can smell

As far as I can hear, My world grows

Three nights and waiting, senses piercing

Are we the only people on earth

Eat, drink, sleep, watch, listen

Does anyone know we’re here

Squelch of the radio, morning check

All quiet, no count

Claymores not tripped, flares at the ready

Breathing pinpoints me, eating is a cacophony

Wait for movement, wait for resupply

Chatter at the bridge outpost below

There, the smell of life, the music of living

Here, the waltz of death

I reach out, my hand and arm cut by the grass

I bleed, I am real, I am here

A parallel world holds me, protects me

The distance is measured in blinks

My soul has not made the trip

Unlearn, learn

Coldness, darkness are my companions

Is this the morning, is this the day

Will random fates meet

The ultimate gesture, curse or reward

Can there be a good day to die

The long low sound of a 747

Freedom Bird from Ben Hoa, disturbs the air

No time to wander, no time to drift

Start the dance

Bender

by Jess Lockhart

Time:  Summer, 1969

Place: A/1/28th Inf Company Headquarters, Lia Khe Viet Nam

Mike Platoon was just finishing a scheduled 3 night – 2 day R&R after a month of patrol missions.

I told the Platoon Sergeant to form the platoon in front of the Company Headquarters. I stood in front of the platoon looking at a bunch of guys that could have been character actors in a hobo movie. They had ammo bandoleers, claymore mines, and socks filled with C-rations hanging all over themselves. As rag-tag as they looked they were my men and brothers. We had mostly arrived in country within a few weeks of each other and had learned our trade together, and we were pretty good.

I yelled in my best 22 year old command voice “Report”.

The Platoon Sergeant answered: “14 men present – 2 on R&R – 1 in the platoon tent”.

I went over to the Platoon Sergeant and asked in a low voice “What do you mean 1 in the platoon tent?”

He replied “Bender refuses to come to the formation.” I told him to take charge of the platoon and stomped off to the platoon tent.

I opened the flaps of the partially lit large tent and saw Bender sitting on the edge of his cot staring at the walls. As I approached Bender I told him, “get your gear and get out in formation.” Bender replied, “I ain’t going”.  I sat beside him and asked him “What?” He told me that he had had a dream the night before and if he went on this mission he was going die. I tried to explain that we all had moments when we were scared but we worked through it and this was just a dream. Again “I told you I ain’t going”. “Do you know that you could get Court Martialed for missing a movement?” Again, “I ain’t going.”

I went to the Company CP and told the 1st Sergeant that Bender was in the platoon tent. I returned to the platoon to board trucks and load on helicopters to be inserted somewhere on an unnamed trail to start our 14 day mission.

After we got settled in our ambush site I ask my RTO what was Bender’s problem? He told me that before I took over the platoon they had almost gotten almost annihilated, only 6 men survived, 2 of which were wounded. What had happened was, a man on watch fell asleep and the VC walked up on them and sprayed the men as they slept, killing 10 men. Bender was 1 of the 2 men wounded. He got an AK round in his butt and was in the hospital for 3 months. Bender was the last of the survivors left in country and he had only 2 months left in his 12 month tour.  

After 7 days we were resupplied and I got a note from the 1st Sergeant that Bender was up on charges to be Court Martialed. Two months earlier I had written Bender up for a Bronze Star with a “V” for pulling 2 wounded men back to the medic during a fire fight. So here he was getting Court Martialed and he had a CIB, Bronze Star with a “V”, a Purple Heart, an Air Medal (for 40 + air assault missions) plus the other Viet Nam medals. This guy was not a coward, he was just a 20 year old kid who got scared.  

Bender refuses to come to the formation.

I later found out Bender did get Court Martialed and was sentenced to spend the remainder of his tour in LBJ (Long Bien Jail) and received a Dishonorable Discharge.

The next time I saw Bender was at the Platoon’s reunion in 1995. During the reunion, I got him off to the side and asked him how were things going? He told me that he finished his tour in LBJ and come back to the States where he was discharged. He returned to his old neighborhood in Newark where he had gone to school and grew up. He was ostracized by his neighbors and he was deprived of a soldier’s privilege of telling war stories showing his medals that he had earned, plus he couldn’t get a decent job because of the Dishonorable Discharge. Bender finally found a lawyer and he got the discharge upgraded. He continued on with his life but with this shame hanging over him. In his mind he felt he had let his brothers down and was a coward.

That night back in the motel room I told my wife that Bender had broken my heart because I felt I had let him down. I should have done something that morning rather than walking away and leaving him to face a Court Martial. I considered myself a good combat leader but as a 22 year old the Army had not prepared me to cope with the psychological challenges of an Infantry Platoon Leader. After Viet Nam the Army recognized PTSD as a disease and trained leaders in identifying and helping soldiers with those symptoms, rather than simply kicking the soldier aside and possibly ruining his life.

Sunday afternoon at the reunion as everyone was hugging each otherand saying their goodbyes Bender came up to me and thanked me for letting him come to the reunion. With a lump in my throat, I told him “Bill you were just a 20 year kid who got scared, you have nothing to be ashamed of. We were all scared, you just dealt with the problem differently. The Army handled the issue wrong. You were drafted and served your country, and you didn’t run to Canada or try to avoid the draft as a conscientious objector. You will always be a part of this platoon.”

Bender has come to a couple of reunions afterwards and I always give him a hug.

I’m now almost 70 years old and it’s been 47 years since that morning in Lia Khe and I sometimes wonder what I could have done differently to keep Bender from facing a Court Martial. I knew most of the Officers on that board and I know I could have explained Bender’s frame of mind. I wasn’t there for him and I’ll have to live with that decision. I never judge a veteran’s service, because we’re all brothers and sisters with common thread of compassion that runs through us.  


The Chu Prong Mountains

by Randy Harritan

Harry was to be at the chopper pad at noon to join the 2nd of the 35th Infantry Regiment already in the field. The flight was at tree top level with the skids striking tree limbs. Harry didn't know if the pilot was a newbie or super experienced but this was one wild ride. Upon arriving the pilot flared the bird, then pitched the nose over to a hover. The unit had been in contact earlier in the day and the chopper was none too eager to hang around. At a hover of five feet He and Quirt were encouraged to disembark. This in the form of a combat boot attached to the left door gunner. After a sprawling dismount and a mouthful of dirt they watched the helicopter roar straight up and disappear.

Nothing was stirring. No people. No sounds. Nothing. Had they dropped him in the right place? He had no radio. No way to contact anyone and was seemingly totally alone. What the hell was going on? His not-so-friendly companion, fear, raised its ugly head and panic clawed its way up his goosed-bumped back.

He made his way to the top of the dirt capped mountain. Huge boulders were strewn about like a giant’s toys ringing the top of the mountain. Their sharply angled faces looking everywhere at once. A place for covens to practice satanic rituals. Sitting cross-legged in the middle of this pernicious Stonehenge was a dust covered and tattered soldier hunched over his dead buddy. He didn't look up. The only movement his shoulders undulating with his sobs.

Eventually he looked up at a clean dog handler sitting against a boulder across from him. His eyes were red and sunken. His face streaked with rivers of grief. Speaking as if Harry had been there all along with no indication that that he didn't know him and the dog intimately he said "What the fuck are we doing here?" His voice clear and concise but heavy with grief. He fixed his stare on Harry as if he expected an answer. To be absolved from his pain. To have this instantly accepted newcomer assuage his internal conflict of life and death. Harry held his stare but had no answers.

He looked away from this defeated and dispirited young man only to see a lush green beautiful valley below.

He looked away from this defeated and dispirited young man only to see a lush green beautiful valley below. Rolling hills and winding ribbons of silver. The abundance of life and beauty only seen from the mountain top of a tropical paradise. How could one place, one moment be such a dichotomy?  Harry felt ashamed of his thoughts. Maybe there's a limit to what a man can handle. Maybe a mind has to take a break.

A faint thunk, thunk, thunk. Oh shit, mortars being fired. Find cover. Try to drag man to safety. Won't move. Just sits there. No cover. Harry presses his face against a boulder and gets as low as possible. The rounds impact with a thud throwing dirt, rocks, steel. More mortars being fired, exploding, then silence. The man is unhurt, as is Harry and Quirt. They have been in the jungle for less than a half hour. No wonder the chopper was in such a hurry.

The main body comes meandering up the mountain. Grunts and groans, equipment rattling, heavy breathing from a hundred Infantrymen consolidating their position. Coming back to regroup and make ready to go into harm's way again. Harry was glad to see them. He recognized some of the guys from working with them before. Some he knew from Infantry School in the States. They look tired. One of the guys was a shake and bake at A.I.T. He had another stripe. Good for him. Harry admired his zeal even in training. It's not 1300 hours and yet these guys are beat. Some of their ammo bandoleers are empty.

Harry made his rounds and went through the routine of Quirt smelling everyone and checked in with Lieutenant Bill Burdick, Commander of Bravo Company. The CO informed him they will be moving out in half an hour and to be on their toes. Beaucoup NVA in the area. Had a taste of them this morning with minor contact. Harry has seen the results. The Old Man says there's a regiment of NVA in the area and they are trying to locate them. He tells Harry he will supply a point man for this mission and Harry and Quirt are to follow. Although unorthodox, the absence of presumption and the timbre in his voice did not invite question. His eyes registered desperation and resignation but no hint of capitulation.

It was early afternoon when they got underway and already the stink of men in combat floated in the air. The pace was slow. Much slower than he would have gone. They were walking on cat's paws. The point man, having experienced combat earlier in the day, was in no hurry to ride that wave again. This was Harry's first time following another man. Harry wondered where America found these young men. Brave. Moving through this stinking jungle looking for a fight. Willing to die for each other. Willing to be ordered to kill and be killed. Napoleon said that men were willing to fight and die for a few bits of ribbon on their chests. Harry didn't think so. Where they as afraid as him? Or were they, like him, afraid to be seen as afraid.

“Fox,” Harry whispered to the point man. “I've got an alert. Dead ahead.” The point man was called "Fox" even though his name was Ken Eldridge. He stopped and took a knee as did Harry. Quirt remained sitting on the dusty trail. Nose testing. Probing. Waiting for orders.

Enemy personnel ahead. Close. Was relayed in muted tones back down the column to the Company Commander. The jungle was thick and hilly and Harry could not see past the man behind him and could barely see Fox. He felt alone. Exposed. He and Fox and the young man behind him were the only people in his world. Ahead was a regiment of enemy soldiers. Hundreds of them waiting to fulfill their mission of killing white men. Born in the north to die in the south was their mantra. They wrote it on their canteen covers and pith helmets. Each three man cell protecting one other. Watching each other's back. Ratting the other out if one of the cell wavered from the communist doctrine. All for one and one for all in their maniacal mission.

"Move out." was the only reply that came back up the line. Harry was tempted to send an answer of "bullshit" but knew what his options were. Go now or go later but he still had to go. He approached Quirt and praised him for doing his job and with a shrug of his shoulders told Fox to move out.

In less than a heartbeat all hell erupted. Madness and mayhem spewed from the jungle.  They must have been watching the whole time. They were all firing on automatic, spraying the jungle with rifle and machine gun fire. Harry was startled even though he knew this was going to happen. His eyes big as saucers. He felt as if he had turned to stone and could not move. The noise was deafening but he knew to get on the ground first and then look and find targets. If only he could make his body respond. Fox dove off the trail and in doing so lost his rifle and steel pot. Unarmed and lying in the brush he was defenseless.

The NVA saw what had happened and three soldiers advanced to retrieve the weapon and kill Fox. Harry saw it all unfold as if in slow motion and knew that Fox was a dead man. He had no way to intercept these men from his position lying concealed in the brush. Without another thought, or even a deep breath, Harry jumped up amid all the rifle fire and charged the three dinks firing on semi-auto, one man at a time. Be calm. Look at the sights. One down. Two down. Three down. The rifle didn't jam. Oh thank God the rifle didn't jam. Quirt running by his side, Harry jumped back off the trail and took up a position in a slight gully. Quirt tight against his left side. With Fox spotting for him he engaged the enemy. He could see to the right but had no field of view to the left. Fox would call out "left, on your left" and Harry would fire in that direction, then resume his cover of the front.

Fox yelled, "Do you see the man crawling? He's gonna kill me. He's trying to get position. Do you see him?" Harry could not raise his head. The ground in front of him was erupting in little geysers due to the rifle fire. His face turned to the side looking at Fox, pressed into the dirt. They knew where he was and were unloading on him. Covering for the man trying to flank the Americans. He kept crawling. Closing the gap. Again, Fox implored Harry to shoot the crawler, terror in his voice, but Harry could not. The fire was too intense.

He was as thirsty as he'd ever been. He had water but knew if he tilted his head upward to take a drink he would lose the top of his head. He was stone still. Not praying but looking at Fox with empathy. Fox's face contorted, pleading. The picture of a man who had lost it all.

Suddenly rifle fire from behind. It was an American. Laying down cover fire. Had he been there all along? Why the hell hadn't he been shooting. Or maybe he had. In a jumbled jungle setting time, distance and reality always took a back seat to fear. Now was Harry's chance. He raised his head ever so slightly. The waist high grass to his right front going down like a lawnmower slowly being pushed by an invisible man. Harry could not fully raise up so he gripped the handle of his M-16 like a pistol and fired and continued to fire. High, low, left, right. Die you son-of-a-bitch. Fuck you, you're mother, Ho Chi Mein, you're ancestors, and all you commie bastards. Did he hit him? Did he? He didn't know but the grass stopped moving and never moved again.

Grenades! Now they're throwing grenades. Boom. Boom. Boom. Time to move. Harry raised a thumb and pointed back over his shoulder. Fox responded instantly while Harry lay down cover fire. The soldier to the left rear went with Fox. Time for Harry to un-ass this AO. He sprang up and started down the mountain at full speed until he realized that he was going much too fast. Actually, out of control. His legs couldn't keep up and a tree was looming straight ahead. He threw himself off to one side but his left leg hit the tree and spun him around like a boomerang. Rolling to the bottom of the hill he could hear bullets whizzing over him. Hitting the tree probably saved his life. Pain shooting through his leg. Oh God, please don't be broken. Down the valley was Fox, his head protruding from the mouth of a cave waving for Harry to get inside. Harry and Quirt scrambled inside to find Fox and another soldier hunkered down. Later Harry would discover that this soldier was Michael Boyle and this was his first mission. Unlucky bastard.

The NVA could be seen running back and forth in front of the cave but, as yet, hadn't looked inside. Outside hammocks hung between trees, fire pits and other signs of life having been  lived in relative comfort. Oh Jesus, they were in a NVA Base Camp. The three soldiers and dog had stumbled into the mouth of the tiger.

"Fox, Boyle, Quirt." Faint sounds. Men were calling to them. Too many dinks around. They could not answer. The rescue party would be slaughtered if they came for them. Harry found it interesting that they were calling Quirt and not him. Oh well, they were one in the same anyway. It was comforting to know they were missed.

Artillery was called in. The ground shook with an intensity they had never experienced. They had to stay put. Praying that the enemy would not seek shelter in the cave. Praying the cave would not collapse. There was a whole mountain on top of them. Helicopter gun-ships came next and raked the area with machine-guns and mini-guns. Hearing the rounds hit first and then the guns was surreal. The ripping of the rounds hitting the ground followed by what sounded like the revving of a race car engine. Six thousand rounds a minute. Seven minutes to put a round in every square foot of a football field. The truly terrifying was yet to come. Jets. They came screeching in low dropping five-hundred pounders before igniting their afterburners and peeling off to come around and do it all again. Splitting the air. They worked in pairs so when the noise of one died down another took its place.  They were experiencing Dante's Inferno. The cave filled with smoke and dust and skin cells. The trio was bounced around like bingo balls. Each time checking each other to see if they were bleeding. Noses bled but not ears. Thank God, not ears. The 20 millimeter Gatling guns from the jets were another abomination created by a Mengele-esque scientist to terrorize humans. The explosive contagion of four-thousand rounds a minute followed by the banshee whine of the guns as the jets peeled away. Make it stop. Please God, make it stop.

Silence. Although the high pitched hum in their ears stole the silence from them they relished the calm.  PFC Boyle poked his head out of the cave for the first time in five hours. It was time to go. The three reluctant spelunkers and Quirt slipped from the cave and made their way along the valley floor. Half crawling, always hunched over they traveled several hundred meters before seeing a figure in a bush high up on the side of the mountain. Not a good hiding place, the man's form was clearly visible in his shelter. Harry, again required to kill another human, painted him with the sights of his M-16 and began to squeeze the trigger. Take a breath, hold it, squeeze, be surprised by the report of the rifle. Wait. What if it's one of ours.

"Hey, it's Fox and Boyle and the Dog Handler." The form scurries up the hill like a scared rabbit. Oh Crap, it was one of them. Harry prods Boyle with the end of his M-16. Move. They start crawling. Crawling fast, Boyle in front. He starts slowing down. Exhausted. Harry with his finger in the trigger guard prods him again and orders him to move. The safety is not on but Harry continues to poke Boyle in the back and butt. Move damn it. In later years he would think about how dangerous and stupid that was but he was scared and scared trumps common sense or even training.

It was getting dusk and several figures rush down from the top of the hill. They take up positions below the ridgeline. Well disciplined, maximizing their advantage. The trio does not move but it is clear they are overmatched and outflanked. Harry rolls the dice and calls again to the shadows.

"It's Fox, Boyle and the Dog Handler. Shoot us or cover us but God Dam it say something."

"Come on up, we'll cover yo ass," came the reply from heaven above. They had never heard such a beautiful southern accent in their lives. As they scurried up the hill the dinks opened up on them. They may as well have been shooting blanks because nothing was going to stop these men from climbing that mountain and joining their unit.

One of the Lieutenants had been shot, his life running off the end of a poncho in red rivulets.  He called Harry over and told him they thought them dead after the patrol received no answer. He said it had already been called in. He was badly wounded and could not move so he asked Harry to bend down so he could shake his hand. Harry shook his hand and then bent over and kissed this man on the forehead. He didn't know why, in fact he didn't even know this guy, but he was compelled to do that and felt no shame.


Rocks on the Roof

by Randy Harritan

Neil Banlow, Harry's best friend with whisky on his breath and mischief on his mind, needed a companion. He explained that they should throw rocks on the tin roofs of the other War Dog hooches and yell incoming. What a great idea, slurred Harry. They'd just finished celebrating the platoon sergeants rotation back to the States with whiskey and steaks and it was late.

Banlow, Harry's best friend gave him the moniker Harry. He had been a school principal before being drafted and was uncharacteristically a joker. His girlfriend and some of her friends, male and female, sent full frontal nude pictures of themselves to Banlow on occasion.  He would share them with Harry while providing vignettes of who was who. Banlow waxed poetic about his love for this girl who was, by the way, gorgeous and told Harry that he would marry her when he got home. Harry never asked who the best man would be but the thought made him snicker. Harry, a hay-seed from North Carolina, had seldom ventured outside his hometown city limits before being drafted but was enthralled by his new environment. He'd never seen Paris but, still, you'd never get him back on the farm.

The stoning idea seemed good but first they needed to set fire to the piss tubes. These were plywood enclosures around a half buried pipe thrust into the ground and used as urinals. One for each Dog Platoon. This, in Harry's mind, would make it more realistic.

A full moon watched the pair creep to the motor pool on drunken feet and collect a mixture of diesel fuel and kerosene to splash on the plywood walls. They were lit and rocks were thrown.

Incoming!

All the hooches, except the 50th platoon, emptied quickly with half-dressed guys running to defensive positions. With the crapulent perpetrators giggling in the background, the piss tube enclosures were extinguished and order was restored.

Sherlock Holmes' half sister could figure out the guilty party was from the 50th and only two of those jokers smelled of kerosene. So, as they say, it was elementary. Neither could figure out why they thought this a good idea the night before but the damage was done and someone must pay. They confessed in the true tradition of the United States Army, besides everybody knew it was them.

The punishment was quick and severe. Banlow and Harry were to burn the shit for the next week. This was accomplished by dragging the cut-off drums from under the outhouse, mixing the contents with kerosene and diesel fuel and burning it to ashes. The problem being it needed to be stirred constantly for full consumption. A Papa-San, assigned to do this was paid $30.00 a month, a very good salary. In fact, in the top ten percent, not counting President Thieu or Nguyen Cao Ky, who stirred a different kind of shit.

The next day, with the tropical sun as sultry as Brigette Bardot and the sky as blue as a jazz singer, the crapulent pair sulked off to fulfill their mission.

In pigeon English and sign language the rogue pair told the Papa-Son the Lieutenant was number ten and was taking the man's job and assigning it to them. In the Vietnanese/American vernacular things were either number one, very good; or number ten, very bad. Never anything in between. The Vietnamese, if they were really upset would insert American vulgarities, and call you number hucking ten. They couldn't pronounce F's. They explained they didn't want the job but had no choice.


The Papa-San assumed a defensive stance with his shit stirring pole and wouldn't allow the pair anywhere near the barrels. When the Lieutenant came to check on them, the Papa-San chased him around the hooches until he climbed aboard his jeep and sped away in a cloud of red dust, all the while being pursued by a screaming five foot Dink waving a shit pole.

The next day the Lieutenant confronted the two innocent and cherub-faced men. They stood at full attention, arms at their sides, fingers folded, thumbs lying in the crook of their index finger, eyes slightly elevated in the illusion it made them look more angelic. No one was fooled. A new punishment was meted out for the rock throwing episode. They were to fill the shower barrels by hand for the rest of the week. Certainly they couldn't screw this up. A tank of water was dropped near the shower and the two men were put to work hauling water with buckets up a rickety homemade ladder to the roof.

The company shower was fed from three 55 gallon barrels mounted atop a rudimentary building with pallets for the floor to allow the run-off. They were normally filled by a pumper truck. The barrels had immersion heaters, a device fired by kerosene, designed by the Army to heat water to wash dishes in the field. Hot water being the only thing that would clean the greasy pots. The heaters were normally fired off at 1600 hours.

After filling the barrels only half-full the two decided it was plenty of water for the evening scrub-fest and lit the immersion heaters. It was only 1300 hours but by lighting them now they could take the rest of the day off. Besides, doing it right was never an option. The 50th Platoon was warned not to take showers that night.

Banlow and Harry were at the kennels when the first of the showers were taken. The screams and yells of the lobster colored men coming from the showers was enough to wake the dead. The co-conspirators looked at each other and wondered if they'd gone too far. Hoping that no one was really hurt, they decided to stay with the dogs rather than venture back to the hooches. Discretion being the better part of that scenario. 

The next day the two were ordered to load up and go to the forward fire base and await a mission assignment. The Lieutenant knew that the fire base was the proverbial briar patch but this move was more humanitarian than punishment. He knew that if these two stayed in base camp any longer they might be killed by members of their own unit.