Guest post written by Anonymous
May or June 1969 to November 11, 1969
When I again walked through the Orderly room door of the Ninth Division MP Co. following three months with the grunts you could hear a pin drop. It was surreal, as though all the air was suddenly sucked out of the room. The same First Sergeant sat at the same desk but now his eyes bulged and would’ve popped clear out of their sockets if not attached. No doubt he immediately grasped from my demeanor that he was a “dead man walking.” As I surveyed the scene, a song by the Box Tops, “The Letter” played in the background on Armed Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN). Nothing had changed in the two or three hundred square feet where I stood staring down the man who tried to kill me with his Levy. Nothing, that is, except everything about me. The myriad of dreams, waking and sleeping, where I envisioned this moment flashed through my mind. What I would feel standing over this gutless Remington Raider while sporting a CIB (Combat Infantryman‘s Badge) on my jungle fatigues. The satisfaction of pulling the pin from a fragmentation grenade, counting off the seconds to ensure detonation at the precise moment it rolled under his desk. I wouldn’t bother yelling, “Fire in the hole!” or hitting the deck myself. I wanted to witness his little beady, yellow, cowardly eyes at the moment he realized he fucked with the wrong man. He sent a naïve young man into the bowels of Hell with scant chance of surviving mentally or physically. However, survive and prosper I did and now returned for my satisfaction. Most of all, I coveted being his final memory, his last earthly image, and prayed my face would haunt him throughout eternity. Alas, there were too many witnesses. Within a couple of days he disappeared anyway. No one was sure where he went. Maybe he was levied…!
From the moment I returned, jealousy and disbelief ran rampant in the Company. Most refused to believe I ever served with the Infantry, though twice MP’s espied me with the grunts en route to a lift off. As the profound changes in my personality became increasingly evident, the suspicion waned and many were envious of the CIB I so proudly wore. For those who may not be aware, a soldier may not adorn their uniform with an award or medal unless orders from the Department of the Army are in their possession. I had no such orders, primarily because I was never awarded an Infantry MOS during my entire nine years of Army service. As purely punitive harassment, my platoon leader demanded I produce orders or remove the CIB. He went so far as to sneak a peek at my 201 File, (individual Army records), highly irregular at best, perhaps criminal, to satisfy himself of my alleged malfeasance.
Ah, but there is no rest for the wicked! If you looked up pathologically useless in the dictionary a picture of 1stLieutenant ________ (fill in the blank with your favorite LT), (platoon leader), might emblazon the page. He probably ran track in high school if his speed in running to a bunker at the first sound of incoming mortar fire was any indication. One night he grazed his head on a bunker support beam jostling to be first inside. The “wound” didn’t require a Band-Aid, much less a stitch, but he nonetheless, put himself in for a Purple Heart, (award for being wounded in combat), and I‘m certain, dons it proudly now at every Memorial Day and Independence Day parade. Things finally came to a head when, in front of witnesses he gathered for his moment in the sun, he issued a “Direct Order” that I remove the CIB or be subject to Courts-Martial proceedings. Having unmasked and humiliated the imposter, he and his pussy posse wiggled off to entertain each other at great length with variations of their heroic deed.
Truthfully, recollection of events following my return to the MP Company are sketchy at best. To my memory, I never performed as an MP in Dong Tam again though I remained assigned to the Company. After my “disgrace” over the CIB I have little memory of day to day activities. I drank beer as often as possible. Anytime the Company had a shitty job away from Dong Tam, I was dispatched. Most often, these assignments meant going to a forward fire base where the units were routinely “in the shit,” (mortar attacks, snipers, fears of being overrun, etc.).
The mission of Forward Fire Support Bases (FSB’s), (small garrisons housing artillery pieces), was supposedly to utilize their firepower to protect our troops and make life miserable for the enemy in their AO (area of operations). During my OJTWB, (on the job training with bullets) a few months earlier, I quickly learned that calling in artillery strikes was a crap shoot and best avoided whenever possible. Luckily units in the jungle were sometimes assigned an artillery spotter whose sole function was formulating and transmitting strike coordinates via a PRC-25 radio to the FSB‘s; in which case you had a 50-50 chance, (some spotters were better than others), of escaping a barrage hammering of your position instead of Charlie’s. From 50-50, your odds fell dramatically should one of your Lieutenants or Company Commander be called upon to regurgitate a four hour block of instruction he slept through during OCS, (Officer Candidate School), at Ft. Benning, GA a year or more ago. “Short rounds” presented an ongoing concern. This occurred when prepping an area prior to a body count sweep. In theory the rounds were intended to strike an area to our front. All too often they fell “short” into the requesting unit’s lap killing and/or wounding (Friendly Fire) American soldiers.
A far better alternative when available were the Cobra gunships, (attack helicopters). Nomenclature of the weaponry aboard these angels of death escapes me but they were devastatingly effective killing machines. Their kill zones, the area you wished saturated, could be established using different colored smoke grenades, lessening the possibility of friendly fire casualties. On Mother’s Day 1969, my Company was pinned down, taking heavy enemy fire. In less than ten minutes two Cobras eradicated any semblance of enemy activity. Thereafter, the Cobra’s were affectionately referred to as “Mother.” Calling in bombers was also preferable to artillery because they could be given coordinates further from the requesting units position, and scared the daylights out of everyone within a ten mile radius, me included.
Most FB’s maintained a sand pile just outside the perimeter. This grit was used to fill sand bags which, in addition to barbed wire, claymore mines, etc., served as a first line of perimeter defense. Bunkers were also fortified with layers of sand bags and they worked fairly well in absorbing mortar shrapnel except in the event of a direct hit. In rear areas like Dong Tam, most GI’s slept in barracks and ran for the bunkers during an attack. In forward areas however, the frequency and intensity of attacks escalated and most troops lived and slept in the bunkers. They were dark, dank, and equally well suited to indigenous vermin, mainly rats which grew to the size of a small dog and fearless. I joked that I was afraid to shoot them with my .45 caliber pistol because I might piss them off.
The sand piles were multi-purpose. When not on ambush patrols or search and destroy sweeps, the grunts were tasked with shoveling sand into the bags, never a big hit job wise, but great for staying in shape. Everybody appreciated the protection they afforded, but volunteers to scoop proved elusive. Since the pile was usually without the confines of the FSB, they also afforded a bit of privacy for local prostitutes arranging “dates” in the daylight and plying their trade in the evening. MP’s, constantly searching for ways to protect and serve our boys in uniform took delight in raiding this nocturnal enterprise and running the hostesses off. This, of course, made Johnny Law highly unpopular with the ladies and the clients. As happens in war, American ingenuity saved the day. The MP’s began allowing the enterprising females to carry on, provided they slept in the jail bunker at night and filled sand bags all day. This prevented their reporting back to the local VC, kept those willing to risk disease serviced, and as an added bonus, filled a few sand bags. What more could you ask for?
At another FSB, I met the prototype combat MP NCOIC, (Non-commissioned officer in charge). Rarely did an FSB MP detachment rate an RLO, (Real Live Officer). These sergeants for one reason or another wore out their welcome at Company Headquarters; usually alcohol was involved, and they were summarily shipped to the unit’s most remote and dangerous outpost. They normally had not attained enough rank to justify their years of service and had been regularly passed over for promotion. Their one overriding leadership trait was instilling fear through violence or the threat of violence in those under them and fear of what they might do next in those they reported to. Some could be courageous, though alcohol induced, but the majority were just cowardly bullies; nothing more, nothing less. The individual under discussion makes the point. He refused to wear a uniform, shave, have his hair cut, or engage in perfunctory hygiene practices. While awake and/or upright, he smoked or chewed tobacco constantly, and drank at least a quart of vodka every day. For his personal enjoyment and to amuse assembled gawkers he used an M-79 Grenade Launcher to determine how near a water buffalo he could lob a live projectile without actually striking the animal which often had a child or two aboard. This specimen of military manhood managed to extend his one year tour of duty into three and counting, with no intention of leaving “paradise.”
I met Hoa at the laundry pickup and drop off station in Dong Tam. She was a nice young woman and we became friendly. About this time the 9th MP Company determined they and I were better served by ordering me and my no CIB having ass permanently out of Dong Tam. I was assigned to a small detachment, ostensibly to perform MP duties but in reality my purpose entailed re-enforcing a bunker with, you guessed it, sand bags! Here I could stay in shape, drink my beer, wallow in self-pity, spend hours rumination how I would, “Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out”, and fill in occasionally if an emergency MP was needed. I jokingly asked Hoa to go with me and was dumbstruck when she agreed. She found a place in Tay Nihn (sic); I believe was the town’s name. For a time I filled bags all day and spent the nights with Hoa. I must have been crazy. Legally and technically I was A.W.O.L. in a combat zone, by itself considered desertion and punishable by death from a firing squad. On top of that, I carried my .45 cal. Pistol and assorted knives for protection. I placed myself at risk of being killed or worse, taken prisoner. In the mornings I walked right past the MP’s who were guarding the facilities’ front gate. By this time my attitude and demeanor caused everyone to either fear or respect me enough to stay well out of my path.
On one extremely rare occasion when pulling guard duty at the gate, I observed a jeep approaching and thought I recognized the occupants. Imagine my joy when I realized it was the Company Commander from my Infantry unit who pulled me out of the My Tho River, and “Blood,” the grunt who helped me over the canals. They of course, didn’t have enough time in Vietnam to be sent home when the 9th Division allegedly left for the parade in Seattle and were levied to other grunt units. After profuse handshakes and hugs I, almost apologetically, briefed the Captain on the CIB issue. This West Pointer didn’t hesitate a second. He said, “You were out there, you earned it, wait here and I’ll return shortly.” He whipped his vehicle around and headed back into the compound. An hour later he returned with multiple copies of Department of the Army Orders, giving me the right and authority to wear the Combat Infantryman’s Badge on my uniform forever after.
Those Orders were the answer to my prayers. Now I possessed tangible evidence of serving my Country in combat. Henceforth I could proudly look the detractor’s and naysayer’s in the eye and watch them slink away. Naturally I wasted no time in visiting Company Headquarters in Dong Tam and personally placing a copy of the Orders in my personnel file while retaining the original and several copies. First, however, I tracked down the platoon leader and intentionally made him aware the CIB was pinned above the left pocket of my uniform blouse and, appropriately, over my heart. He came unhinged and it was all I could do not to laugh in his face as I shoved a copy of the Orders he so demanded in his hand. He perused the Order hoping to discover some technicality to void my Award while I glowered and smirked. No question I overdid rubbing it in but what goes around does in fact, come around.
As the direct result of misappropriating my personnel file and continual harassment he was deemed persona non grata in Dong Tam and ordered to Tay Nihn (sic). I loved observing him seethe every time I passed him wearing the CIB. He also fumed because I refused to address him as “Sir,” only LT or Lieutenant, “Yes LT, no Lieutenant.” For his get back he ordered me confined to the compound, ending my visits to Hoa. I have long felt guilty over my treatment of Hoa and pray she wasn’t treated badly as the result of her liaison with me. As for the Lt., he ordered me into his quarters one night for a man e man. There he ordered that I address him as “Sir” at all times. I came to attention, saluted sharply, said, “Yes, Lieutenant,” executed a smart about face and walked out.
For this indiscretion I found my name on the gate guard roster, twelve hours a day, seven days a week. During my final eight weeks in the country, I was placed in charge of the gate to the tiny local airfield. The daughter of the airfield trash collector was a beautiful French/Vietnamese girl who attempted to use her charms to keep me from having the guards search the refuse trucks. One day my men confiscated hundreds of dollars in contraband but the miscreants were back the next day. Whoever they paid had more rank than a lowly MP gate guard.
Most of the guys showered in the afternoon thus giving sun ample time to heat the water in the overhead tank. On my Vietnam departure day I showered before first light, not minding the chill one bit. It was slowly sinking in that I survived and would be returning to my beloved Cathy and Vallejo, CA with the only military distinction I gave a rat’s ass about, my CIB. Somehow, having no formal education, no marketable job skills that didn’t include use of a firearm, and going back to a nation deeply divided over our presence in South East Asia didn’t overly concern me. I arrived in Vietnam ten months earlier totally alone, as was the case with the vast majority of troops there, and would be leaving the same way. The World War II Veterans returned stateside on transport vessels and were, in many ways, more fortunate. A similar camaraderie, as well as the opportunity to process shared experiences would have been invaluable in alleviating our sense of isolation. Leaving the jungle on Friday and processing out of the Army at the Oakland Army Base on Monday next without winding down or making sense of our involvement in the American war in Vietnam was nothing short of catastrophic to many combat returnees.
My situation could be viewed as comical in some respects. The first message we received during the mustering out process was: Do not wear your uniform off Base, as you are likely to upset the anti-war people and even the citizens who support you won’t dare admit it in public for fear of verbal or physical reprisals. Even the Veteran’s Service Organizations, the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) in particular turned its back on us. My best friend’s stepfather, a Korean War veteran, reached out to me by taking me to dinner and later to the local VFW Chapter where, much to his embarrassment, I was denied membership because I didn’t meet their exalted criteria. Since the American war in Vietnam was never declared by Congress it wasn’t a “real” war and I wasn’t a “war” veteran. I walked out, bearing a grudge that continues unrelenting to this day. As the VFW’s numbers shrink they have begun actively recruiting Vietnam Vets, “Good luck with that”. Later I worked in a hardware store with Mormon boys who thought it was cute to watch me jump and dive for cover when they tossed firecrackers behind me Welcome home GI!
We weren’t even given complete discharge physicals, just told to sign the medical forms stating all was well or risk having our discharges held up. Blood work was offered to those who thought they might have brought something back to their wives. Otherwise, keep signing the documents to expedite the process. Many a vet regretted not insisting on a thorough physical exam, when years later he sought benefits from the Veteran’s Administration. These trumped up records were dangled in the Vet’s face as proof positive the malady was not service connected and, ergo, the VA legally absolved itself of responsibility. This sleight of hand was never truer than in the case of PTSD, (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). The VA refused outright to consider this diagnosis for many years after the United States abandoned Vietnam.
The coup de grace was administered at the pay window. The last station in the discharge process is turning in your military ID card and receiving whatever pay you are due. I wasn’t about to relinquish my ID card for fear of not being served in the drinking establishments I couldn’t wait to be unleashed on so I falsely claimed it was lost. I stood in line watching my fellow vets collect Hundreds, and occasionally, Thousands of dollars. When my turn came the pay clerk forked over $2 and some loose change, a fitting conclusion to the roller coaster my two years of service entailed.
My hope is the reader understands, as I now do, the duality of my life. Having been stripped of any personal power as a child through the multitude of abuse perpetrated upon me, I starved for a sense of self. The powerlessness which engulfed me as the natural consequence of my environment led to believing absolutely in my uselessness and cowardice. When circumstances at long last allowed me to stand up for myself, I, at least momentarily, gratefully donned the jacket of Superhero, anything being preferable to the belief that I was worthless and gutless.
My primary motivation in volunteering for the draft, for service in Vietnam, and, in a way, infantry duty, hinged on permanently eradicating these twin demons. After finally becoming a “combat soldier” and quickly developing an aptitude and passion for its mission, I was disillusioned and devastated by being placed in a position that necessitated taking the life of possible innocent non-combatant(s). Here was the worthless bully and coward persona I joined the infantry to shed rearing its ugly head. Forty-two years later, typing at this computer the knowledge of why I could extinguish a human life without hesitation or remorse is haunting. I lived all the intervening years since the war subconsciously hoping, begging, pleading, for the chance to prove to myself that I was more than a shedder of innocent blood, that I did have courage, that I could be brave. To that end I was fully prepared to terminate the life of anyone who I perceived displayed the bullying characteristics I so despised in myself. Not surprisingly I employed an array of mind altering substances, both legal and illegal, to suppress my nearly overwhelming violent impulses. My actions over the years, though threatening enough, paled in comparison with the macabre and mayhem swirling behind the often vacant stare. I can only thank God I lived long enough to regurgitate this information while I possess the opportunity and willingness to make such amends that are possible at this late date and effect long overdue changes in my thought process. To truly understand what drove me, nearly to the nadir of self-destruction, we must start at