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I’m not sure how many Vietnam veterans might be out there in Ricochet Land. Perhaps a few; perhaps none. Our numbers are dwindling; we’re beginning to die out for one reason or another. Just yesterday, my VFW post provided the Honor Guard for another burial.
With each burial, it’s difficult for me to not think about my own approaching mortality. And, it’s equally difficult for me to not think about the path that took me nearly 9,000 miles from my home.
I graduated from my small rural high school on a Saturday night, 29 May 1965. Two days later, I was on a bus with several other recruits bound for Fort Knox, KY. I had a number of reasons for enlisting at the age of 17. Like a lot of other guys in my graduating class, my parents didn’t have the money to send me to college. As my other choice was to get a job at the local steel mill, I didn’t really agonize over my decision; it was time to put Appalachia in my rearview mirror. I suppose that there might also have been an element of patriotism that went into my thinking. However, I believe that for many of us on that bus, there was also a feeling of “it’s just my turn.” Our grandfathers had fought in World War I and our fathers and uncles, part of the “Greatest Generation,” had fought in World War II. If they hadn’t hesitated to put their lives on the line, why should we be any different?
Nine weeks of boot camp, another 12 weeks of advanced training, followed by an 11-month assignment in Japan. Finally, it was time; in October of 1966, I arrived at my base camp in Bien Hoa, South Vietnam.
In terms of terrain, South Vietnam was not a lot different from many other places that American troops had been in battle. I would compare the area that I was in (the III and IV Corps) to Guadalcanal or parts of the Philippines. (Since I spent my entire 13-month tour in those areas, I can’t speak directly to the topography of I Corps or II Corps. However, they were distinctly different from what I encountered.)
Owing to the use of the helicopter (for troop movement, medical evacuation, and close fire support) there were naturally some changes in tactics. However, once American troops closed with the enemy, fighting was no different than on the battlegrounds I previously mentioned; violent, sometimes confused and always bloody. We didn’t have many named battles; nothing like Anzio or Iwo Jima which would be forever etched in history (Ia Drang and Khe Sanh being two of the exceptions). Instead, we had a long series of operations with forgettable names that have long since disappeared from memory. (I only remember Cedar Falls and Junction City since I was in them.)
When I arrived at my unit (roughly equivalent to the Corps level of World War II) I was assigned to the combined G2/3 (Operations and Intelligence). Upon arrival, I noticed that my duty MOS had been changed to an 11F (Infantry Operations and Intelligence Specialist; an MOS that no longer exists). I was a bit startled at this but I needn’t have been; at the Corps level, it was entirely different from the LRRP snake eaters that went out for weeks at a time. That folks like myself and LRRPs sometimes shared the same MOS was evidently another of the jokes that the Army sometimes played on the enlisted folks. Other than a couple of dicey helicopter rides, an occasional mortaring and a few snipings, my time in Vietnam was much better than that of a Rifleman in the line. (For the Rifleman’s MOS, 11B, it was often suggested that the “B” stood for “Bullet Stopper.”)
When people ask me what I did in Vietnam, almost all of them are taken aback when I tell them that I was a heavily armed bean counter. It sounds strange but that’s what it amounted to. In World War II, success was relatively easy to measure; the amount of territory taken from the enemy, or the number of miles advanced in a particular time period. True, the US had been concerned with “body counts” but it was almost secondary to that of territory seized. Vietnam was entirely different.
In Vietnam, we counted everything. Enemy bodies, weapons, types of weapons, rice captured (yes, rice). You name it, we counted it. Within III and IV Corps there were three infantry divisions, one armored cavalry regiment, and two light infantry brigades. All were expected to report, on an almost daily basis, their “numbers” measuring their success (or lack of it). From rifle companies, to their battalions, then to their divisions and finally, to us at Corps, came the data. Mostly, the data came to us by courier. When it didn’t, it was up to me and a few others to go get it, either by jeep or chopper. Like the mail, the data had to go through. Then, it was up to us to aggregate the data and send it on to US Army Vietnam. From there, it went on to the “Statistician in Chief”, the Secretary of Defense, Robert Strange McNamara.
In 1966, a lot of us didn’t realize it yet but we were in a war that was being managed, not led. More importantly, the reliance on statistics and quantitative analysis made our endeavor seem more like a corporation to be run rather than an Army in which leadership was paramount.
At the Corps level, I certainly had a different view of the war than a rifleman in an infantry division. And, even at the green age of 19, I could see that there were things that didn’t seem to make much sense. On one wall of the G2/3, there was a giant map of the III and IV Corps. At any time, one could look at the map and see where fighting was taking place and the units involved in the action. I thought about that map nearly five years later as I was watching the movie “Patton.. There’s a line in it in which Patton said to one of his British counterparts, “I don’t pay for the same real estate twice, Freddie.” When I heard that line, I snickered to myself. That’s exactly what we did in Vietnam; paying for the same territory time after time.
Yes, yes, I know. That’s the nature of “guerrilla warfare,” or “counterinsurgency” or as we hear today (mostly from “experts” trying to make themselves look smart), “asymmetric warfare.” Still, I had to wonder, why didn’t McNamara seem to care how many times our units had to go back and fight over the same piece of territory?
At times, it seemed to me that we were making up doctrine and tactics on the fly. Some were a remarkable success; others were a dismal failure. It has to be remembered that we were at the height of the Cold War. A large portion of our troops was stationed around the Fulda Gap, waiting for a Soviet invasion that never came. Another large portion was in Korea, stationed there for the same purpose. Years later, I came across a quote from General Omar Bradley which pertained to the Korean War, “The wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.” I think that many of us who made the trip probably felt the same way toward Vietnam.
Still, we soldiered on. In 1966, most of us still had the idea that we were there to win. After all, didn’t LBJ himself (on his visit to Cam Ranh Bay) tell us to “put the coonskin on the wall?” In reality, there were two Vietnam wars; the first from 1964 to 1968 and the second from 1969 to the withdrawal. In the first part of the war, troop morale was fairly high; in the second part, not so much. In the first part, drug use was minimal and fraggings were almost non-existent. In the second part, drug use went up and fraggings became more frequent.
For me, the months went by. Inside the G2/3, I became familiar with terms like “Free Fire Zones,” Strategic Hamlets,” and “Chieu Hoi.” Outside the G2/3, I became familiar with the terms “Lifer,” “Ticket Puncher,” “REMF,” and “Short Timer.” (Not to be confused with a “Short Time,” which was more or less a business transaction.) I learned the three classes of officer: ROTC (usually OK), Mustangs (sometimes OK), and West Pointers (aka, “Ring Knockers” to be avoided at all costs). I learned what the phrase “Long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror” truly meant.
Finally, I penciled in the last day on my “Short Timer’s Calendar.” It was time to go back to “the real world,” the “land of round-eyed women.” I can still remember walking out to get on the plane and stopping short in my tracks. The fuselage of the Braniff 707 was painted a bright orange (with silver wings). I was thinking to myself that it was going to make a great target when I got to the ramp and looked up at the flight attendants. They were all dressed in these wild Pucci outfits that barely came down to their mid-thigh. All of us waiting in line just stared at them; I don’t remember a single word being passed. Even though the plane was packed, it took less than 15 minutes for us to get seated. As we were taxiing out, the entire plane was deathly quiet; none of us wanted to add to the KIA on our last day.
As the plane lifted off, the silence continued. Finally, after one or two minutes, there was a bit of tentative applause followed by a loud ovation. I think the sentiment of “My God, I’m actually going to survive” was being felt by every GI on board. I glanced over at one of my seatmates. His eyes were shut; his hands were clasped. He was clearly giving thanks that he was still alive, in one piece, and going home.
Because I still had seven months left on my hitch, Uncle Sam was determined to get his money’s worth. So, in its infinite wisdom, the Army assigned me as an instructor (at the ripe old age of 20) to an Army Reserve unit. The reservists looked at me with an air of curiosity and, perhaps, some envy. At that time, the Reserve and Guard were havens for those who wished to avoid Vietnam. In some places, a person had to have “connections” to even get on a waiting list for a unit. I didn’t really have any animosity toward those guys; I just wanted to get my time in. Finally, my time was up and I was, again, a civilian. However, I was to find out that my time in Vietnam hadn’t exactly endeared me to many of my countrymen.
In 1968, Vietnam War protests were a daily occurrence, especially on college campuses. In an attempt to avoid any potential conflicts, I quickly donned the “uniform”; faded jeans, ragged sweatshirt, and an army surplus store fatigue jacket. (My own jacket still had all my rank and unit insignia, so that was out of the question.) I let my hair grow long and cultivated a Fu-Manchu that would have made Joe Namath envious.
I had heard of numerous incidents in which returning veterans had been spat on and harassed. However, during my undergraduate career, I didn’t have all that many problems. Sure, I heard veiled references directed toward us “baby killers” every now and then but my strategy of keeping a low profile kept me from any classroom confrontations. However, for Vietnam veterans, there was one area from which we could not protect ourselves and that was Hollywood and the Mass Media.
I’m not sure when I initially noticed the negative portrayal of Vietnam veterans. I didn’t watch television too much in those first few years after my return to civilian life. Since I was working and going to school, I didn’t have much time; evenings and weekends were largely spent in the library. However, in the little time I spent in front of the TV I began to see a pattern, especially in the cop shows, where the villain in the episode would be some sort of deranged, drugged-up Vietnam veteran. Shootings, stabbings, kidnappings, exploding vehicles and buildings; they were all crimes in the Vietnam veteran’s wheelhouse. In the book, From Hanoi to Hollywood, the point was made that “The Vietnam vet would play a strung-out, criminal psychotic who could go off at the sound of a backfire. During the 1974 TV season, for instance, the vet was seen as a hired killer on Columbo, as a drug-dealing sadistic murderer on Mannix, as a suspected yet innocent murderer on The Streets of San Francisco, as a shakedown artist on Cannon, and as a “returned hero” who “blew up himself, his father and a narcotics lab” on Hawaii Five-0. In each instance, the vet threatens law and order, with a criminality founded on his tour in ‘Nam. These were not isolated instances. Throughout the 1970s, it was difficult to turn on a cop show and not see a Vietnam vet portrayed as the villain.
The movies were even worse. The list of movies that portrayed us as psychotic killers and losers would fill more pages than I have for this posting. Even my hero, Dirty Harry Callahan, had an episode in which the villain was a sadistic Vietnam vet (labeled a “paddy jumper” by one of the characters in the movie). In the finale of the movie, Harry cheerfully obliterates the scoundrel with a shoulder-fired rocket.
Even when he was not portrayed as a killer, the Vietnam vet was still a goofball. As From Hanoi to Hollywood pointed out, “When the early 1970s had depicted him — never her — as a mad threat to law and order, the late 1970s turned him into an always irreverent slightly crazed eccentric who was subject to the occasional flashback.” Not much of an improvement.
Everyone in the United States should have asked themselves, “Why, why are our veterans being portrayed in this manner?” It doesn’t take much in the way of brainpower to realize that E-3s, E-4s, and E-5s do not make policy. So why did the Hollywood fat cats consider us as fair game for their anti-war propaganda?
The net result from this, as the authors of From Hanoi to Hollywood note, “Being a veteran was not something to be proud of, as it had been historically. Rather, it was something to forget or hide.” And, that is exactly what I did. When I graduated from college and entered the job market, I did not list my military service on my resume. In any job interview, if an eagle eye in HR asked me about the three-year gap from my high school to college entrance, I would quietly say that I had been in the military and inwardly hope that I would not be penalized for it. (In his excellent book, Stolen Valor, author D.G. Burkett recounts one of his first job interviews, this one at an Atlanta bank. The executive looked at his resume and abruptly stopped reading. “I’m not hiring any Vietnam vets”, he exclaimed as he ripped up Burkett’s resume. “I’m going to get a cup of coffee and I don’t want you here when I get back.” He then got up and walked out of his office.) It seems that there were different ways of spitting on the troops and this “executive” had found his.
It seemed that the final nail was driven into our coffin by an individual who was purportedly one of our own and that person would be John Forbes Kerry. In testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Kerry solemnly swore that American troops had told him that “they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside…”
Supposedly, the source of this grotesque behavior came from a group known as the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Actually, I had attended a meeting of this group shortly after it was formed, more from curiosity than anything else. What I found at the meeting was a group of guys who were throwing around language like “bring down the imperialist American war machine” and things of that nature. Some of them looked a bit “off” and when I would ask them where, in Vietnam, they had been, they became somewhat evasive. That was my first and only encounter with the group.
Later, I found out that the “Executive Secretary” of the VVAW was a creature by the name of Al Hubbard who claimed that he had been a pilot (Captain) in the Air Force and that he had been wounded flying a transport into Da Nang in 1966. After many years of carrying on this charade, it was discovered that he had no record of being in Vietnam; that his highest rank had been as an E-5 and that his only injuries had been sustained playing basketball.
However, Kerry’s testimony, as false (and ludicrous) as it was, tarnished our honor for years to come. To this day, I hate him with a cold passion. In the 2004 Presidential election, I was asked several times why I would vote for a “draft dodger.” My answer was always the same. I didn’t know about Kerry’s “Christmas in Cambodia.” I didn’t care about the circumstances surrounding his receiving the Silver Star. I didn’t even care about his three (dubious) Purple Hearts. What I cared about was the fact that he slandered each and every man and woman that went to Vietnam. He personally trashed the name of every man and woman on that black rock known as the Vietnam Memorial. And, he did it for no other reason than to score cheap political points. He wasn’t just awarded my hatred; he earned it. (Oh, by the way, did I mention that I despise John Kerry?)
But, by 1986, some changes of heart began to emerge and much of that change came with the release of Platoon. On the cover of Newsweek was a picture of the movie cast with the heading of “Vietnam as It Really Was.” Two weeks after the movie opened in Atlanta, a friend at work stopped by my office and said, “You know, I didn’t really know what you guys went through.” I smiled at him. I wanted to tell him that he still didn’t know; he had learned what Oliver Stone had wanted him to know. Still, it was a beginning. (I still haven’t see Platoon although I did buy the soundtrack from the movie. “Adagio for Strings” is one of my favorite pieces of music.)
Suddenly, to be a Veteran veteran was “in.” People at the office that I barely knew seemed eager to strike up a conversation. “Did you get shot at?” (yes) “Did you get hit?” (no) And, of course, my favorite, “Did you kill anyone?” (not that I was aware of) Once in a while, a question would come right out left field, “Did you see Bob Hope?” (No, but I did see Nancy Sinatra. In a white miniskirt with white boots up to her knees; she was magnificent.)
The most bizarre of those who sought to strike up a conversation were guys who generally started out, “Well, I was never in the military, but I know this guy who was in Vietnam and he told me that…” With these guys, I would just inwardly sigh and fold my arms. I knew that I was about to hear some tale of derring-do. Maybe it would be a gory recounting of a firefight; maybe it would be about some interrogation in which a VC would be thrown from a helicopter in flight. These guys always puzzled me. Were they trying to compensate for their lack of military service by calling in their “imaginary friend?”
Still, I wasn’t rude to any of them. It was much better than being called a “baby killer.” Eventually though, the thought struck me; nearly 15 years before, Hollywood portrayed me as a vicious murdering psychotic to these very same people, and they believed it. Now, Hollywood was telling them that maybe I wasn’t such a bad guy after all, and these folks did a complete 180-degree turn in their thinking. What was going on? Did they not have the ability to comprehend anything beyond what Hollywood told them?