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.
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.