Coming Home From The Vietnam War
Since I returned from the Vietnam War in 1969 I have forgotten the names of most of the men in the two units I served, the names of places, the names of ordinance and weaponry, the types of helicopters and aircraft and much of the slang spoken during that time. LZ stood for landing zone. I remember that. It was one of the places where you might have expected to die young.
What I have not forgotten are the four days from the morning I left my unit at Cu Chi Base Camp at the end of my tour to the morning I descended from an airplane onto the runway of the old municipal airport in Kansas City, Missouri. It was during those ninety-six hours that what I had suspected during my first days in Vietnam became clear. I had been used by my government to help perpetuate a callous and arrogant foreign policy and aid in the reelection of Lyndon Baines Johnson, then discarded onto the streets of my hometown like an empty C-ration can.
This is not just the bitter riposte of a draftee who not only lost his vocation and career as a teacher of literacy and literature for low income and inner city students like myself but his lifelong peace of mind and heart, a marriage disrupted early by a senseless war and children who suffered the fallout. As of this writing in 2012, the historical record of the war has been well documented in the Johnson tapes, in a tragic confessional by Robert McNamera, the Secretary of Defense during most of the war, in his book, “In Retrospect,” published in 1995 revealing that he knew quite early in the war that it was futile and could not be won; in books like “A Bright Shining Lie,” by Neil Sheehan; the fictional account, “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brian, and in movies like “The Deerhunter,” the unrealistic but metaphorically sound account of four young men who volunteered to serve in Vietnam after believing the lies of a scheming government and military command.
One of the soldiers in the movie is depicted after his return from the war coming upon a deer during a lone deer hunt and diverting his shot from the deer he intended to kill. Ironically, I wrote a poem entitled “Rabbit Hunting,” years before I saw the movie about a hunt at an uncle’s farm that was organized by my brothers and cousins to reach out to me after I came home from the war. My closing lines read: “I will not shoot another living thing / By God, I will not.” And I never have.
My own metaphors are many but none more distasteful to me than the steak I was forced to eat as part of my out processing at Oakland Army Base in December, 1969.
I know people today who begrudge Vietnam veterans their ongoing anger and grief. They say they tire of hearing of veterans who still anguish about their experience, who still wander the streets searching for something lost or blown away, who drink or drug themselves into oblivion. Some critics say these tormented souls would have been on the streets or in the hills or in mental institutions or in jails regardless of their Vietnam War service. They point to the thousands of veterans who have returned to normal lives. Most are unaware that the experience varied widely depending on the year, the place, the duty, whether in combat or not. But now that Vietnam War veterans have become older and begun to talk about the war it becomes clear that all is not well, that much has been concealed and held inside. Unlike the soldiers of other wars who traveled to the battlefield together and returned home together, many Vietnam War veterans went to and returned from Vietnam alone.
I also know Vietnam War veterans who believe the time has come to stop agonizing over the injustices of the war. Perhaps wisely, they have decided to leave the war in their past and not allow the war to define them or dominate their thoughts. But for many, to rationalize away the experience in this way betrays those who died, who were severely wounded or MIA. It is to forget them and, in forgetting them, to bury the truth as far as truth can be humanly known. Too much fact in American history has already been buried or hidden in myth or propaganda. For Vietnam veterans and our Vietnamese adversaries the American War, as they know it in Vietnam, was their Holocaust, and it is for the survivors to bear witness and tell the story of the real experience. There are people who want Vietnam veterans to be forgotten or marginalized like old timers from the Spanish-American and Korean Wars, who still refuse to believe or understand what they did or what happened, who are apathetic and uncaring about such matters of American history, such as the horrifying degradation of human beings called slavery that made early America an economic power, the genocide of the Native American Indians, those who only want to see the America of those periods of American history on their own terms and not as they were. They want to shrink the bodies of the dead into tiny letters etched onto a marble wall. They want the Vietnam War veteran out of mind and off the streets. They seem ugly and inconvenient. It is for these deniers and more recent generations that our stories must be told. It must not be a subject of propaganda but a matter of forensically documented, fact based history.
My own estrangement from my country began the day I received orders to go home, two weeks before I left my unit and rode in the bed of a pickup truck back to Long Bien. I have felt estranged since. Though I was spared dire consequences by a willfulness not to give into them — those who I feel betrayed me — by naked luck and by the fact that my actual combat experiences were not as severe as those of many others, I see the effects of that journey home in the faces of those who suffered then and continue to suffer now. Like me, someone fed them a gristly welcome home steak at three in the morning and kissed their ass goodbye.
My orders to go home came as a surprise to me. They were early. I had expected them in January or February of 1970 at the earliest but they were for December, 1969. When I held them in my hand, I boogied in the dirt like an idiot. My two close calls in the field had not bankrupted my good luck. I saw the early orders as another sign. For the first time in months I felt hopeful.
I had arrived at that point via a route that I thought might have discouraged Job. All I ever wanted to do in life was make love and write poetry. The idea of hunting down defenseless men, women and children hiding in holes in the ground for the purpose of propping up a corrupted and effete wealthy class never appealed to me. But like many other young men and boys in the early 1960’s I didn’t know what was going on in Vietnam. Looking back, I see that many of our diplomats and military leaders didn’t either.
My draft notice came in the mail the spring before I was to enroll in graduate school. Through a process of haphazard curiosity, my undergraduate interests had strayed from English Literature to epistomology and from there to the study of perception. I committed the unforgivable error, totally under the guidance of my faculty advisors, of attending college a fifth year to acquire enough undergraduate hours in experimental psychology to apply for graduate school. At the end of that year I was in the process of obtaining a grant to attend a prestigious school of psychology when my draft notice arrived. It was my scholarly interest and that fifth year that cost me my deferment.
I was the first in my family of ten children to pay his way through college. My father did not want me to go to college. He wanted me to work for the government like he did and be able to afford moving out of the house. Instead, by luck and serendipity I was able to defy the odds.
My high school today would be considered an inner city school. It was operated by the Benedictine Order under the supervision of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and was not the best of schools. I think my teachers did what they could. It was a racially mixed school, mostly white, but with a fair number of Mexicans, African-Americans and a group of troubled teenagers who were bused in from a boys home in the country. The great lesson I learned there was how to survive the four blocks from the bus stop at 39th & Troost to the school at 37th & Forest without getting the daylights beaten out of me. Rockhurst College, an all male school, had a program that provided the top boy in each of the eight inner city Catholic schools with a two-year, half time scholarship. I was second in my senior class but the top male student at our high school had the unfortunate circumstance of needing to support his elderly parents and work full time to care for them. I was awarded the scholarship by default. That was my good luck.
The serendipity took the form of a 50 hour a week job at The Kansas City Star. It came to me this way:
As a high school freshman I tried out for the junior varsity football squad. I was short in stature and slight and made the team, I like to think, by means of cunning. During a practice session the following summer I tackled the team’s star quarterback, a talented player who went on to become the quarterback for the Missouri Tigers at the University of Missouri and later its head football coach. I tackled him head on and I was a slow, very slow, getting up. After practice the coach pulled me aside in the locker room and said:
“Billy, you’ve got a lot of heart and guts. But son, you’re just too damned small to play varsity football. You’ll get yourself hurt. I can’t let you do that. How about you becoming the team manager?”
I had no choice but to agree and pouted around in the following weeks in grievous disappointment. I had a great friend in a nun, an English teacher, Sister Philomena who discussed books and writing with me after school and the problems I was having with my father and my dangerous and risky behaviors on the streets at night. My father was an unmedicated manic-depressive and I eventually left home at seventeen to escape his anger and craziness. She could tell how depressed I was to not be able to play football, the one extracurricular activity I truly enjoyed and the only way I could safely avoid my father by staying after school for football practice several afternoons a week.
“Billy,” she said one day after school. “I have an idea for you. You are a good writer and the school newspaper could really use a sports column. Think about it.”
At that time there was a columnist at the Kansas City Star I admired by the name of Bill Vaughan who wrote a column called, “Starbeams.” He was a paragrapher, meaning his column was in the form of short witty paragraphs on politics and social issues. Over the next few days I wrote several sample columns in the paragrapher style and left them on the good sister’s desk one afternoon after school.
The next morning she greeted me at the front door of the school, flushed of face and very excited.
“I have a great name for your column,” she said. “BB Shots!”
Well, the name was a downer but I didn’t want to dampen her enthusiasm and I realized I would be guaranteed some ink in the school paper. It was a logical, though corny title — get it, “Bill Bauer,” BB; taking pot shots. Okay.
My column came into play when I was invited to attend a fraternity rush party at the college. School had already begun and I had enough money to cover the balance of my tuition for the first semester but I didn’t think I’d be able to continue after that. It was a cold October day and I arrived at the party in my high school uniform: a ragged black trench coat with about thirteen inches of tire chain in my right pocket. I had no idea about fraternities and no hope of having the time or money to belong to one. I filled out a name tag, stuck it on my trench coat and stood in one corner of the student lounge observing what I considered to be a group of squirrelly suburbanites in royal blue blazers decorated with a gold coat of arms shaking hands and pretending to be good old boys like their fathers. In my neighborhood shaking hands might have been an occasion for being laughed at or punched in the face.
An older member of the fraternity walked up to me. He was rather shabbily dressed as was the custom of well-to-do hippie wanna be’s, sporting the well worn fashionable desert boots of that era. In summer, it would, of course, have been sandals.
“I noticed your name on the roster,” he said. “Are you the Bill Bauer who writes BB Shots?”
I took a step back.
“How do know about that?”
“I work on the sports desk at the Kansas City Star,” he said. “High schools send us their newspapers to us to be evaluated. Your school sent the sports desk your school’s paper because of your column. I’ve been reading it for three years. I’ve really enjoyed it.”
I couldn’t help but beam. Gosh, a compliment.
“Here’s the thing though,” he said. “How would you like to work on the sports desk with me at The Star? I can’t work full time anymore. I’m involved in too many activities here.”
I’m not that quick on my feet, a slow learner. And I was thinking money.
“How much does it pay?”
“Two hundred a month.”
I calculated. It would be tight. But maybe I could still caddy on the weekends and work part time at a plastics factory where I had worked that summer before OSHA became law and I learned the value of unions. During the second semester I also added a work-study job in the school library.
“What would I do?”
“You’d come in about four o’clock in the afternoon. You answer the phone, give out scores, look up answers to sports questions in the sports encyclopedia, take copy to the pressroom, run errands. You get off around two in the morning after the last edition. After a while, you’ll take down the high school and small college scores that the stringers call in, do some typing, write some high school sports stories and sports shorts like holes-in-one. That kind of thing. If you’re good, you can always move over to the news desk later on.”
That was not only a career break. The job may have contributed to saving my life several years later on the Cambodian Border.
I studied for undergraduate courses and wrote my papers between editions at The Star and in the student lounge between classes, napped in chairs and sofas while my friends whiled away the hours playing bridge or chess. I had no complaints about this schedule. I was happy to have a partial scholarship and a chance to go to college. I worked away in muted defiance of my father’s plans for me.
Everyone has special gifts. I am a fast and skillful skim reader, about 600 plus words a minute. My reading ability allowed me to consume and retain course material in short quick segments. I could write papers as fast as I talked. I researched them during lulls in my work-study routine in the library where I was often roughly awakened by the resident Jesuit flunky librarian with a puddle of drool on the page of a reference book.
When my draft notice came in the mail five years later I was devastated. I had overcome a dismal high school education and made something of a mark for myself scholastically in a difficult Jesuit college. I had supported myself, often paying my way from one day to the next, and pursued my academic interests when I could. My scholarly interests led me to a fifth year of college while my fellow students moved on to various graduate schools, medical and law schools, and jobs. What I wanted was to discover a way to explain how we could verify what was real and what was imagined. I was lured to epistemology to look for the answers. These are the kinds of questions a young man asks and an older man chuckles about. But I wanted to know about “The Truth.” How do human beings know what is real; what is not real? I finally decided that philosophy did not offer the answers to those questions and that I might find them in experimental psychology. Magical thinking on my part. I later conceded that neither could. I hounded those answers stubbornly, sacrificing all I had to hunt them down. I had read something about Vietnam in the newspapers and overheard the senior reporters at The Star discussing the war. Some of my friends had joined the Army or Marines. But then so had other fellow students during the Cuban missile crisis. Knowing them, I figured these enlistees were just bored with the college humdrum or wanted to find a short cut to a career or were deluded patriots. I felt no sense of national emergency and had no concept of what it might mean to flee the country into Canada or some other place. Deep down, I was still mourning the death of President Kennedy and what I felt was the premature end of a meaningful vision for America.
My draft notice arrived in the mail in late May of my fifth year of college. It came on a Saturday, the day my older brother was married. The family had stopped off at our house for more pictures before the reception and in between picture taking and chit chat my dad pulled the mail from the box on the front porch and began sorting through it.
“Look here. A letter for Billy,” he deviously grinned.
I was surprised. I didn’t live there anymore. I didn’t really have an address. At that time I was living in a friend’s basement.
But there it was.
“Shit!” I said when I opened the envelope.
“What is it?” everyone wanted to know.
“It’s a goddamned draft notice.”
They broke out laughing. “Ha! Ha! Billy’s got to go into the army,” my family laughed. “Ha! Ha! Billy’s got to go to the war.”
They don’t remember this incident when I bring it up now. I’ve never really held their laughter at that moment against them. Teasing and oddball humor were safe ways in our dysfunctional family to let off steam. We were a competitive bunch. We had a special camaraderie that derived from our mutual need to deal with our father’s craziness. After all we would make pin darts out of match sticks and needles, hide and shoot each other in the buttocks with them, agree on cease fires and then begin our guerilla warfare anew. The pin darts hurt but we laughed at the sheer audacity of our ambushes.
They didn’t know what I knew about the Vietnam War, what most people didn’t know about the war then, what I had learned late at night at The Kansas City Star during the “fire run,” a nightly tradition of drinking beer and chewing over the news after the paper was put to bed. Had they known, they would not have laughed. I myself didn’t fully understand the implications for myself and other soldiers-to-be of what I was hearing there. What was being said was too vague and abstract for me to visualize then. I had not been outside the states of Missouri or Kansas.
In 1963, I believe it was, The Star sent one of its most prominent reporters, a level headed and honest newsman named Robert Pearman, to Vietnam with a group of reporters invited by the Pentagon. During several fire runs Pearman voiced his doubts about the war and was the first person I heard to use the words “lies” and “deception” in regard to the misinformation the government was distributing in its news releases and telling reporters. Up to that time I had only heard the word, “Vietnam,” here and there and had no idea where it was located on the world map.
At that moment looking up from the draft notice on the front porch of my childhood home in the laughter of my brothers and sisters I recall looking out at the beautiful Missouri springtime, the flowers and flowering trees that are so lovely and fragrant in the Midwest when the spring is right. I was heartbroken. All of that work, those great papers I wrote, my hopes for a literary life and a teaching career, my promising grant applications, vanished into the sweet air and the joy and celebration of the occasion of my brother’s wedding. I could foresee not only the loss of many good years but the sheer boredom of being locked into a military routine.
At first, I refused to believe that a goal as noble as mine could be yanked away from me at such a critical moment as rudely as a vulgarian rips a page out of a telephone book in a public telephone booth. I approached my draft board calmly and presented my case. I applied for a deferment for another three years, time enough for a master’s degree and Ph.D. After that time, I would be willing to allow myself to be drafted or even commit to join the Army or Air Force. I was refused. I will always remember Esther Lockwood, the head of the draft board, for her smug bitchiness.
In the interim, I learned about a program offered by the Air Force that lasted six years but provided the opportunity to complete a master’s program. I flunked the flight physical due to night blindness but was accepted for the six-year academic program. The only detail that stood between me and the swearing in ceremony was a forty-five day deferment. For some reason, unknown to me, I could only enter the program on July 15 of that year.
Again, the draft board refused without explanation. I appealed and lost.
As a writer and a Romantic, I thought of myself as the Gingerbread Boy who got caught.
In anger, I searched for an alternative. A friend told me about an opening in the Kansas National Guard. I had never considered the reserves as an option but now they seemed my only hope.
I joined the Kansas National Guard out of spite. My chances of obtaining the graduate school grants were lost anyway due to timing and scheduling difficulties. I wasted four months of basic training and advanced infantry (AIT) training at Ft. Polk, Louisiana and Ft. Lewis, Washington and three miserable, boring summer camps at Ft. Riley outside Junction City, Kansas that seemed more like boy scout nonsense than military training. At Ft. Lewis I got sideways with a crazy drill sergeant who accused me of elbowing him off a wooden plank walkway during the rainy season. In truth I had turned to avoid bumping against him and his foot slipped. He landed in the drink and filed an Article 15, a court-martial misdemeanor, against me. Because of his mental instability he was transferred out of the unit and all of his Article 15’s were dismissed. I do admit to having an attitude about crazy authority figures and he must have sensed it. I felt like a political prisoner anyway but knew it was unlikely that habeas corpus could be applied to a draftee.
After boot camp and AIT I kept trying to find my way back to school but my money had run out, my advisers moved on and my scholarship and grant applications had become obsolete.
I had had a relationship with the same woman during my last year of high school and five years of college and the moment came when a decision needed to made about marriage. After the delays and disappointments with my scholastic career and working two and three jobs to survive, I wanted to get my life started. My college friends were well into careers, beginning families and buying first homes. Out of sheer impatience and tired of being broke, I found myself what everyone in my family insisted at the time was a “real” job. I began working at a reinsurance company on January 1, 1967 in what they called the Libel Department — a strange little enterprise that offered libel insurance to newspapers and radio and television stations — based on my experience at The Star, and was married the following November.
Within a few months of moving into an apartment and trying to create a life, the race riots of 1968 erupted across the country. There were fires, shootings and looting throughout Kansas City. In February, our unit was activated to guard the bridges and patrol the streets. As we moved through the city in the back of five ton trucks and shivered in the wet winds that lashed over the steel bridges of the Missouri River, the word began to spread: we hade been nationalized and would be going to Vietnam.
Most of us grinned and shook our heads. We had heard these and other rumors before. But our temporary activation never ended. Within three weeks, we were packing bags, kissing wives and girlfriends goodbye, loading trucks and moving the entire unit to Fort Carson, Colorado. Our unit, the 69th Infantry Brigade, was disbanded there and as individuals we were put on a list called, “the levy,” that worked I suppose much like the lottery that was established later on. Nationalizing the guard was a strategy to take the heat off Lyndon Johnson for the ever unpopular draft and the quickly rising number of casualties. We were among the sacrificial lambs he felt he needed to help insure his reelection. We helped to keep the draft numbers down.
I spent the summer at Fort Carson waiting to be levied. My recollection of that time is of an inmate in a gulag. Martin Luther King had been shot, then Bobby Kennedy. I was in the line for the evening mess when news was passed down the line that Bobby had been shot. I wanted to be out of that dismal place and a part of things. I wanted to be at the Democratic convention of 1968, raising hell and speaking my mind. I lay awake for the next several nights weighing the merits and demerits of going AWOL, finding my way to the Democratic Convention, then to Canada. Newly married and uneasy about the woman I had dated the previous six years, and realizing that her father, a WWII marine who had been wounded three times at Iwo Jima, would never forgive me, I had to decide between her and my convictions. I wavered. I wanted to try to resume my academic career when I returned. The draft had already cost me two years when I might have been edging towards a Ph.D. I had worked too hard to get as far as I had. Just being in the military at all jarred my sense of justice and what I had already learned to be the rapid passage of time, wasted time over nothing, nothing but other’s people’s desultory crap. Reluctantly, sadly, I decided to stay. I had not yet mustered enough courage to be myself. Except for my two children and meeting my second wife and true love, I regret that decision to this day.
To avoid confrontation with my superiors and vent my claustrophobic feelings at Ft. Carson, I volunteered for duty at the top of Cheyenne Mountain to test a new type of gas resistant suit and build a model Vietnam base camp. There, as his helicopter banked to catch a final view of our masterpiece, I stood in all my camouflaged glory, bushy tree branches hanging off my helmet, to give the finger to General William Westmoreland.
Not long after in Colorado Springs, the hometown of Ft. Carson, I went head to head with the type of business community that feeds off the military and exploits members of the Armed Forces, especially the enlisted men, and now, women. It was even worse in 1968 for draftees who had no control of any kind over their day-to-day destinies. Not knowing if or when I would be going to Vietnam, my wife and I decided to rent a house and live together there as long as we could. She joined me in The Springs in late August and we opened joint checking and savings accounts.
At about 7 o’clock one Sunday morning we were awakened by very loud rude pounding on the front door. I felt no need to answer the door but after it continued for about ten minutes and was soon accompanied by noisy shouting and carrying on, I decided to check out what kind of idiot would have cause to disturb our sleep. I cracked the door and there stood a very tall state trooper in a Smokey The Bear hat trying to thrust a wad of paperwork through the door.
“You stupid idiot,” I said. “What the fuck do you think your doing?”
“Hey, soldier, you don’t talk to me that way. You’re the one who’s in trouble here.”
“What have I done now,” I asked, “besides being kidnapped by the federal government?”
The contents of his tirade are irrelevant and I never did let him in the door. To wit, my wife had inadvertently written several bad checks and I was being served with some kind of warrant. I didn’t argue the case; the facts would have served no purpose. The next day I got permission to go to the bank, and I met with a scowling bank officer. My question was:
“Okay, so my wife accidentally wrote some overdrafts. I have a $2,000 savings account with your bank, why didn’t you have enough sense to just call us and let us know we needed to transfer some cash from the savings account to the checking account. Do you ever think of doing anything like that?”
He scoffed, and again the content of my brilliant tirade about his stupidity and his threats of having me arrested and reported to my commanding officer aren’t worth repeating except to say that I learned I no longer had any rights as a consumer and a U.S. citizen. From what I know, this power of the business community in military townships over soldiers and their families continues to prevail today. Which is probably why there is so much opposition to closing down obsolete military installations. Why would the local Chamber of Commerce want to oversee the loss of the fattened calf? I was not allowed an appointment with my commanding officer but the First Sergeant of our unit explained to me the way the real world works when it comes to enlisted military personnel. I was even ordered to return to the bank and apologize to the knucklehead but I never did. I was powerless but to pay the overdraft penalties which were twice as much as stated in the bank’s written policies.
When my name was finally called for Vietnam in November, 1968, I felt relieved. My political imprisonment and potential death sentence had been passed upon and my body prepared itself for the eventual blow. I spent a heady Christmas with my family and relatives, laughed and drank myself silly, and almost missed my flight to Oakland. One funny in-law bought me three colorful short-sleeved shirts. As I unwrapped them one by one, she laughingly said, “Don’t cut off the tags. We may not see you again. We can return them and get our money back.” I laughed with her. Why not?
We flew to Vietnam on a commercial airliner. We didn’t know one another so the flight was passed in silence and sleeping. A few of us read books and magazines we brought with us. The stewardesses were Swedish and very pretty, their perfume enticing. Smelling them caused an emptiness in my gut. I knew I wouldn’t be with a woman for a very long time, maybe never again. The stewardesses moved through the cabin automatically, speaking only to give instructions.
The flight was long, hot and claustrophobic. As we approached Ton Son Nhut I needed severely to urinate. Just as I started to get out of my seat the pilot announced, “Stay seated. We are going to circle a while. There is an attack on the ground.”
From out of the window I could see tiny, bright explosions. Rockets. The attack lasted several hours and when daylight broke the pilot brought the plane down in a steep dive. I still had not gone to the bathroom. My bladder and kidneys ached horribly.
Finally, we deplaned. Soldiers milled around in groups, some with duffle bags. They were going home. Many sneered and laughed at us in our spanking brand new dress green uniforms. After roll call, we were allowed to find the latrine. It resembled an old fashioned, wooden outhouse, only longer, with eight holes, and smelled sick. The entire base camp smelled of a kind of sickness I have not smelled since, a toxic mix of the odor of burning human waste, JP4, and jeep and APC exhaust.
At first, I was unable to urinate. My bladder was frozen. As I stood atop the hole, a mama-san waddled in and stood next to me. She wore the traditional white head wrap, black silk pajamas and sandals made of tire treads. Her teeth were blackened with beetle juice. She lifted one leg and propped her foot on the wooden plank, pulled up her pajama leg and pissed a straight stream directly into the center of the hole. Once she was finished, she lowered her pajama leg, turned to me and spat into my face.
“So,” I thought, “these are the people I have been sent here to defend.” Later in my tour I noticed that whenever the mama-sans who worked at the base camp failed to show up for duty, there would be an attack of some kind. They knew. I felt they were complicit. Many were no doubt Viet Cong or otherwise terrorized by them, their own South Vietnamese soldiers (ARVN) or the corrupt officials of the South Vietnamese government. Like us, they were trapped in an impossible situation.
My negative feelings about the Vietnamese intensified during my tour.
After I was transferred to division headquarters at Cu Chi after being in the field, I was bunkered in a hooch for odds and enders, most of whom were combat artists, that had an actual cement floor and metal roof. We slept on cots and over time scrounged up enough discarded lumber from mortar shell boxes and construction sites to create individual rooms protected on one side with bamboo matting. The army hired a large number of Vietnamese to work in the base camp during the day to give them employment doing laundry, clean up, trash etc. Each hooch area was assigned several hooch maids to clean the hooches daily whether they needed it or not. Forced to relate by our mutually distasteful circumstances we couldn’t help but become friendly with each other. One of our hooch maids was a sweet older lady. Who knows how old any of them really were; the women aged quickly, because in that culture they did most of the work, domestic and in the rice paddies. It bothered me that Momeee as we called her was always hitting us up for cash. She was quite an actress and drama queen and could do a great Sara Bernhardt.
“You give to Mom-eee-san some moon-ay? Mom-eee, she no got some. You give to her? She no gots none,” she would beg, feigning great sorrow and distress.
“No fucking way, Mom-eee,” was the standard reply.
“Eh, you numbah ten, G.I. You no fucking good. You mom-eee have rotten son.”
Giving money to any Vietnamese was strictly forbidden and we were told to report any who asked. What made it worse was that she would not take MPC (Military Payment Certificates) which could only be spent in the camp. She just wanted U.S. When MPC was flashed to her as a joke, she stuck up her nose and turned away. I don’t think anybody reported her. If they had, we would never have seen her again. Word that was the money would go straight to the VC though I also think U.S. dollars spent better on the black market which was the main economy at the time. It was surprising to me too how quickly the pigeon English of some of them could suddenly be pronounced in such perfect American dialects.
Our mama-san seemed okay to me and did a lot of small things I never asked her to do like clean my boots. I teased her and she teased me. When there was a puddle of water on the cement floor, she would stand over it with her broom, point and ask, “You do?”
During the moon landing, Tony, our company clerk, managed to get a TV and hook it up in the hooch. We had a moon landing party, stood around the TV and cheered when Armstrong touched down. Mama-san peeked in and out of our circle with her usual puzzled, disgusted take on our American ways, wondered what the heck was going on. When we finally made her understand what was happening, she thought we were teasing her, crumpled her face and walked away shaking her head in disbelief.
“No can do,” she smirked. “No can do. Too much boolsheet.”
One morning I found her sitting outside the hooch crying and holding her jaw. She seemed to be in great pain and I figured she had a toothache. That afternoon Tony requisitioned a jeep from the motor pool and we drove her to the dental clinic. Waiting most of the afternoon, I read a tattered paperback copy of “War and Peace.” She emerged from the tent smiling and cheerful and holding out a gold tooth.
“Now I buy teevee,” she grinned.
Tony and I shook our heads. Screwed over again. An afternoon off shot. For what? Turned out she wanted to buy a TV for her daughter who was getting married. For the Vietnamese, gold was their savings account. They stored much of it in their teeth and pulled them when they needed to buy something or pay a bribe.
There were times too when our mutual predicament brought us face to face with our shared humanity.
At Tay Ninh where I was assigned an infantry company along the Cambodian Border, we had nothing that remotely resembled a shower. When we were gifted with water, we took what is crudely known in our culture as a “whore’s bath,” out of our helmets. After I was reassigned to Cu Chi seven months later I moved a step up in my bathing habits. Some innovative G.I.’s had built a 20′ x 30′ shed with a porous wood slat floor out of mortar round crates. They somehow scrounged an empty 250 pound bomb shell and mounted it on a rack that resembled an arboretum. To that they attached an ordinary hose spigot that could be operated by means of a narrow chain by pulling on it to release narrow streams of water. Mama-sans used the same shed as a laundry to scrub our jungle fatigues, underwear and socks in plastic pans. Over time I had lost any sense of privacy but I still felt a tad uncomfortable at first in the shower, that is, soaping off my specials in front of a group of chattering mama-sans giggling and pointing at me as I cleaned up. After a rinse of sorts, the next step was to shave in a little round travel mirror hung by a nail on an upright. The women laughed hysterically when I stretched the skin of my face this way and that to give my razor a smoother ride. One morning they stopped dead in the middle of their laughter. In the mirror I noticed the stern face of a middle aged, bare chested Vietnamese man standing close enough to touch me, staring at the back of my head. His eyes looked narrow and cold. I thought my time had come — a VC with a false I.D. card. My M-16 and bayonet were being kept by a fellow hooch mate. When I prepared myself to confront him, he smiled brightly and I turned slowly to face him. In the middle of his left cheek was a dark mole about the size of a dime and from it hung a single long thick black hair extending to his belly button. He grasp his marvelous extension near its follicle and slid his thumb and forefinger down it until he almost reached the end, then held it into air with a proud nod of his head. “See,” he was showing me and the mama-sans in a non-verbal display, “I have hair too. I am also a virile man.” I almost expected him to pull down his shorts and show me his crotch.
He repeated the gesture several times, each time emitting a long drawn out lilting nasal sound, “Ehhhhhhhh-eee-uh. Ehhhhhhhhh-eee-uh.”
My first impulse was to grab it and swipe it off at its root with my razor. Had I done that, who knows what might have happened? I smiled, nodded back and whooped, “Wow zee dow! How about that? What a deal, what a deal, what a deal!” and whistled back and forth between him and the mama-sans. After a series of exchanges and more whistles, he bowed and backed out of the shed. I discovered he was an overseer of the mama-sans. Whenever I passed him again in the base camp, I nodded in the direction of his single facial hair, lifted my eyebrows and whistled. He bowed, lifted his famous strand, very pleased with himself. As I write this, remembering how abruptly he appeared behind me, a ghost in the mirror, I am thankful I did not try to take him out. How different we were! How odd to be flung together with this strange man in a country thousands of miles from my childhood home on 4700 Terrace Street, Kansas City, Missouri.
Since Vietnam, I have become quite a priss about bathrooms and showers. An avid and exited camper as a boy, I can’t begin to imagine living like an animal again. I am prone to saying that there are only four things I really like about these United States of America: the luxury of having our remarkable Constitution, hot showers, air conditioning and The Bomb. Other than those gifts, the “Greatest Country In The World,” doesn’t seem to me to be much different than any other.
I must admit to this day to harboring an intense visceral distrust of Vietnamese and Asians in general. This is irrational and stereotypical thinking, ignorant and unkind. I am sad about having such these negative feelings and thoughts. Yet science tells us that we do not create our feelings and thoughts; they simply occur. I am not happy about many feelings and thoughts I developed during the war but to be honest with myself I have learned I must own them. I have tried to work through my feelings about the Vietnamese and let them go but am not always successful. I feel them to be duplicitous sneaks, untrustworthy and disloyal. I cannot help but feel uncomfortable around them and I won’t let them at my back. My distrust is hard wired. I assume, again irrationally, that they picked up their duplicity from the French whom I found in my business dealings with French Canadians and their European counterparts to be liars, shifty, no good at keeping their word or commitments, unreliable business partners and chickenshit allies. During World War II some of them betrayed their own countrymen.
As for the Vietnamese, I believe, with no proof at any kind, that they developed these traits as a survival strategy given the horrific cruelty of their French masters and colonial rule. I keep my pockets buttoned and my cash tight in my fist when I am around them, Vietnamese and French alike. For me that is but another tragic personal legacy of the war.
After landing at Ton Son Nhut, I had three weeks of training at Cu Chi, primarily to learn what was supposed to have been taught in basic training and AIT. For reasons I do not understand and probably for no reason at all, I was assigned to another two weeks of training devoted to assassination techniques. That was fine with me. Anything to keep me in the base camp and out of the field. Strange though to me, and the other men in my small training unit, was the man in charge of that training. We could never decide or find out if he was regular army or some kind of mercenary or soldier of fortune. His uniform had no insignia or name tag. He spoke with a thick German accent and in harsh commands. We referred to him as, “The Nazi.” Who knows? He seemed to be about the right age, in his fifties, and very knowledgeable about how to take down another human being with stealth, speed and in cold blood.
I was discharged into the rest of my life with those skills and a ready capacity to kill people without remorse but with no person upon whom to exercise my expertise and I am the least likely person I know to want to use them. It’s a burden for which I never asked or volunteered that weighs heavily on me and I resent very much having to live with them.
The day following the end of the “course” I was handed my orders to join the Fourth of the Ninth Infantry Battalion, Manchu, at Tay Ninh. I was driven in the back of a pick up truck down Highway One with two other soldiers. As the pick up passed through the gate we were jeered by other soldiers along the makeshift road with shouts of, “New guys, new guys, green horn G.I.s.” When I hopped out of the pick up at the place where I was to camp, a small circle of wooden ramshackle hooches, a soldier whose name I can no longer remember walked over, slid my duffle bag from the bed of the truck, slung it over his shoulder and smiled, “Move in with me.” He brought me up to speed on the routines and left to go home a few weeks later.
The word, “unit” was a misnomer. The group operated more like a nomadic tribe. I could have hidden in one of the bunkers or easily gone A.W.O.L. in country as many did and no one would have missed me. As it was, I discovered a sense of duty in respect of my fellow grunts. I didn’t feel good about them going out on ambush patrols or RIF’s (Reconnaissance In Force) while I cowered in a bunker at a base camp or toured Vietnam by helicopter. So I went with them.
There were no nights or days. It was as though a giant hand had reached out of the sky, plucked me out of time and deposited me into the middle of a B movie. I don’t remember sleeping, only being awakened by the distant booms of B-52 bombs shaking the ground, the searing sounds of jets sweeping outside the spirals of barbed wire, the ear piercing sound of, and occasional in coming rocket. More than the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese or the arrogant sound of second lieutenants bossing me around in their shrill, childish voices, what bothered me most was the overwhelming stench of human excrement, the suffocating heat, the scarcity of water and the nastiness of the latrines. The simple natural challenges of living in a triple canopy jungle should have earned every G.I. some kind of prize. I saw daddy long leg spiders half a foot tall and roaches two hand lengths long. There were snakes and red ants. Say nothing of mosquitoes, sand flies, gnats and other strange looking creatures. To hell with Albert Schweitzer. Some bugs, like humans, may do some good; others attack and carry disease. In Vietnam I learned if it’s between me and the bugs, the bugs have to go. That applied to Charlie as well. As Mohandas Gandhi, one of my few heroes, wrote, “Self-defense is the only honorable course where there is unreadiness for self-immolation.” Though I am a pacifist at heart, I also strongly believe in common sense and realpolitik.
Once in Tay Ninh, I dutifully carried the radio (my MOS was communications though I’ve never been mechanical), loaded and unloaded ammo, ferried parts and supplies to fire bases in and on the Cambodian Border, filled sandbags, stood bunker guard, served on ambush patrol. In all my nights outside the base camp, I never encountered an armed VC face to face or blew a claymore mine unless ordered to do so. The only live VC’s I saw eyeball to eyeball were detainees at the base camp gate. As far as I know, I never directly killed anyone. In some ways, it was part of me that died. One part was my sense of joy.
We had no place to sleep so we spread our ponchos on the ground, covered ourselves with much coveted pieces of used parachutes that felt comforting and protected us from the mosquitoes. The nights I wasn’t on bunker guard or out on ambush patrol I slept in brief segments or not at all. The humidity and mosquitoes and hard ground kept me from deep sleep. If at all, it came just before daybreak. I woke groggy and feeling hung over from dreams.
Except for Tet of 1969, known to veterans of the Tet of 1968 as Second Tet, overall enemy activity was down from previous years. Several days would pass between rocket attacks or sniper fire or contact with the Viet Cong out in the field. Peace talks had begun but no one knew whether the North Vietnamese had slowed their movements along the border in consideration of negotiations or simply to reposition themselves. It was a time when fragging of officers by their own men increased and fights frequently broke out among us. When we heard grenade explosions within the base camp we assumed an enlisted man was out to extract revenge.
I spent much of this time loading and unloading supplies, ferrying them from one fire base to another, crouching in bunkers at night along the Cambodian Border. I was stationed in and around Tay Ninh about seven months. I didn’t keep a journal. Had no pen and paper. No camera. Had no need to want to remember anything. I just wanted time to pass. I sent home what money I had to my wife and skipped an R & R. We would need the money for when I came home, if I ever did.
I had been in Tay Ninh only a few weeks when I had my first chance encounter with death. I had just returned from ambush patrol. The other men in my squad ambled into the abandoned hooches we used as our permanent address and some had already fallen asleep. My fastidiousness about brushing my teeth saved me. Toothbrush and tin cup in hand, I weaved between hooches, tents and supply shacks searching for water. Often the water truck failed to show but I knew that the officers hoarded water in five gallon cans that were hidden under the flaps of the mess tents. First light appeared and with it, a general feeling of security. Rockets were usually fired at night. I had only been looking for water a few minutes when I heard the rocket leave its tube. I could tell from its sound that it was a homemade rocket and that it had been launched from the no fire zone between the base camp and a little village to our north. The no fire zone meant that we were unable to respond to enemy fire or a rocket attack coming from that area. The Viet Cong knew it was a no fire zone and they used it often. I was still disoriented from lack of sleep and it took me a second to realize that the rocket was headed directly into our area. I had not wandered far from the hooch and instinctively turned back to it. But when the sound of the descending rocket became loud and sharp, like a swooping jet, I dropped to the ground and waited. For the moment, I grew calm. My curiosity as a would-be scholar replaced fear with anticipation. I remember thinking, “Well, maybe now I’ll know if there is an eternity or not.”
In the meantime, another ambush patrol had just returned and was bedding down in a hooch to our right. I was later told some of the men had already closed their eyes and were sleeping. They were awakened by the sound of the rocket and, in their drowsy confusion, rushed out of the hooch onto the narrow dirt road and into the rocket’s path. The explosion and contusion bounced me up and down and over the dusty ground. It was followed by a long moment of silence, swirling dust and smoke. The sound of the explosion crackled through my ears leaving them clogged and me halfway deaf. The sirens blared and I could hear indistinct voices shouting commands. Then I heard the screams.
Nothing had prepared me for those sounds. I hear them still. It is said that such an event is registered indelibly on the neuron pathways of the brain and is rebroadcast again and again at random. Regardless, I have not been able to forget those screams. They were the wrenching, desperate howls of the gravely or mortally wounded. They were the screams of horror most of us only hear in television dramas or movies, the sudden realization that an arm is missing, part of a face gone, legs twisted out of joints and crushed flat, viscera hanging out of cavities.
I stood shakily and tried to move in the direction of the screams, stumbling as I went. Dust and haphazard gravel had been driven against the skin of my face and arms.
Those who had been hit lay strewn like broken dolls. Some lay quiet with their eyes closed, others moaned and rolled. “Somebody help us over here goddamnit,” an hysterical bystander roared in a coarse and angry voice. I never learned how many died or how many wounded. Often, we never did. All I remember is a number of MP’s pouring into the area and cordoning it off with tape or rope as they might a crime scene.
That was the day I began to understand true fear. If I had felt no fear as the rocket fell, I felt it then. The illusion of danger and pain, the bloodless image of war on the silver screen and evening news, was replaced by a brilliant image of horror and morbidity. Someone out there wanted me dead. It was no game. For a while, fear became a habit. Then it became a permanent expression of my body. From then on I watched. I listened to any movement or sound. I looked over my shoulder. I still do. In restaurants I try to sit with my back to the wall, close to a kitchen or exit for an escape route. Sudden loud noises rattle me. More than once I have upset a dinner table at the bang of a car on a metal grate, the breaking of dishes, a backfire.
A few weeks later as I carried a box of radio equipment from a chopper through the wire of a fire base, I witnessed a young shirtless, rugged looking soldier in a blond flattop lift a sawed off shot gun and blast a Viet Cong as he peeked around the corner of a bunker. He had probably snuck in during the night and had been hiding. Blood and muck blew into the air behind him. The force of the two rounds flung him up and backwards several feet. It became another picture burned into memory. The shooter laughed, proud of himself. “I nailed that motherfucker,” he bragged. I was glad he did, but only for the reason that I might have run into Charlie myself unarmed, my weapon several feet away, leaning against a bunker. I am still haunted by my reaction: better him than me.
The choppers I rode back and forth from the fire bases occasionally took rounds. When I heard bullets pinging through the chopper’s skin, I looked for a place to hide but there was none so I simply hung onto the hand strap and hoped my luck would hold out. Like a good soldier, I wore my helmet and flak jacket wherever I went.
If I had been unable to sleep at all before the rocket attack, I slept less after. Bunker or not, I knew that a direct hit by a large rocket could penetrate any configuration of sand bags.
A day would come when I grew tired of being afraid. I resigned myself to my destiny and woke light spirited and calm. I joked a lot. Pot and opium were free flowing but I stuck to an occasional warm beer or a canned martini that came from my oldest brother in the mail. I grew as cocky as a fighter pilot. “Okay, mofo. Come ahead. Come on. I’m here. I’m waiting. Let’s do it. Just you and me.”
During firefights along the perimeters of fire bases or in the shrieking descent of rockets, I hunkered down and tried to think smart. I tried not to think of home. I tried not to think of love. I tried not to think of survival. I came to wonder if I would ever go home.
I was looking forward to my three beers one hot afternoon as I returned to Tay Ninh Base Camp from a fire base in Cambodia. It was two in the afternoon and I had another run to make. If I was lucky I would be back in camp at six or six-thirty in the evening and free until the next morning.
I never got to drink those beers. I didn’t know it then but I was to be flown from Tay Ninh by a second angel of good fortune. As soon as I jumped off the chopper, head bowed to avoid the blades and scattered dust and rock and scurried out of its circle of wind, the sinewy, Diaz, the sun dried sergeant in charge of my unit, ran out of the milling group of G.I.s waiting for a chopper and grabbed me by the arm. Diaz was a good guy, a fair guy, who tried to be fatherly to the younger men, most of whom were still boys. I was twenty-four then, older then many of the others, and Diaz and I gravitated to each other when we had time off. I hated the radio programs we would get on boom boxes and stereos. Diaz had a wife and so did I and we spent our evenings talking about things.
Diaz and I nursed a dog that had its rump crushed under a wheel of a jeep. Diaz also had a monkey he kept tethered to a post in the center of our section of the camp and the monkey’s circle served as a base camp square. Our platoon gathered around the monkey for meetings and to shoot the shit when we drank our beers and to report for bunker guard or ambush patrols or RIF’s or to get news or changes in orders. Dog packs ran rampant in the camp and were always teasing the monkey. The monkey had learned to save scraps of food or bits of gravel or turds to throw at the dogs or at any G.I. who laughed at it or moved in too close. One afternoon the monkey leapt on the back of a mangy provocateur and pissed on the back of its head, apparently stinging its eyes. It yelped, shook its head mightily and dashed off.
The monkey and the dog we called “Butterball” played together. The monkey had some kind of deformity in one of its arms and maybe that’s why dog and monkey felt an affinity for one another. Butterball had been struck by the jeep a few days before I arrived. Diaz carried him to the medics and they stitched his viscera back into its sac and made a cast for its shattered leg. One of my first duties in Tay Ninh was to hold Butterball through the night to keep him from putting weight on his leg and stress on his stitches. That’s how Diaz and I bonded, caring for the tender little mutt. The wounds hurt Butterball intensely. He whined and cried and rolled from side to side and I found myself tearing up too when I rocked him. It was his warmth I felt and sweat, his fever and pain. Though I was new in country at that time I immediately sensed I was being forced to participate in something inherently evil. I could see it on the faces of the Vietnamese and my fellow G.I.s. I rocked Butterball and soothed and sang to him as I would a sick child. Maybe I was rocking myself.
Diaz and I remarked on his daily progress and, when he regained his health and grew taller, how he became mean and combative like the other dogs. Once, after Butterball snarled at him, the monkey jumped on his back and bit his ear. We had to wrestle Butterball down to keep him from killing the little guy.
Jumping off the chopper from the fire base that day, the same day when I witnessed the VC being blown away with a shotgun, seeing Diaz distraught and still distraught myself, I felt alarmed by the way his thin strong fingers dug into my arm.
“Hey man,” he yelled in the thump thump of the chopper, “no shit. Get your stuff packed. I mean now, man. Now!”
He ran me along, both of us dodging, sometimes tripping, over debris on the ground.
At first, I worried I was in some kind of trouble. While I had become a bit hardened and cocky, I had lost self-confidence in other ways and no longer felt in control of my life. I couldn’t think of anything I had screwed up or left undone. Had someone overheard my conversations badmouthing the war, read my treasonous thoughts? Then I began to feel elated. Maybe the governor of Kansas, the little fuckhead who had caved in to Johnson and allowed our guard unit to be nationalized, had managed to get his shit together and realize he had made a mistake. Maybe he had managed to get his guardsmen back early. All of this, after all, this war, was based on a lie.
Diaz left me in the hooch to pack. I lit a cigarette and exhaled with expectation. I alternated between excitement and apprehension. I had vision of being with my wife, being back on the streets of Kansas City driving a car. I would try to be good to her. Maybe we could have children, a nice little house. I could go back to school. We could sit by fires in the winter and read.
Diaz stuck his head in the door of the hooch and shouted above the din of jeeps and choppers.
“You don’t understand, man. They’re waiting for you. You got to bust ass. No shit, man.”
I had no idea why Diaz seemed to be so fired up, agitated, intense and scared. He was a lifer with only a few more years to go before retirement. It was unlike him.
“Hurry up, dammit. They got a chopper out here waiting for you.”
“What is it?”
“Change of orders. Straight from the general’s office. That’s what they tell me. The general’s office.”
I stuffed everything including my prized blanket into my duffle bag, grabbed my M-16 and ammo belt and jammed my helmet onto my head. I was filthy, hadn’t shaved for days and my boots were made of mud.
Diaz returned a second time and nearly pulled me out of the hooch. He yanked me back through the maze and around a Chinook toward a two-seater I called The Bumblebee that danced up and down in the dust. He helped me stuff my duffle bag behind the seat, gave me a lift aboard, then handed me my helmet and M-16. That was the only goodbye we had.
The pilot wore headphones and only looked at me once. His expression soured as we lifted off. I had no idea why he was angry with me. Usually, he would have smiled and given me the a 60’s handshake.
For a few choice moments I pretended I was on vacation and this was an aerial tour. I could see puffs of smoke on the ground and APC’s in various formations. The triple canopy jungle below me was a beautiful deep blue green in shapes that resembled the beehives of 1950’s women’s hairdos.
When we landed at Cu Chi Base Camp on the official helipad of the headquarters of the Twenty Fifth Division’s bright red and yellow Tropic Lightning insignia, the pilot nodded me off the chopper and pointed to a jeep parked at the edge of the circle. A black driver was seated at the wheel and a young second lieutenant leaned against the back fender with his arms folded. I was really scared now.
I ran from the chopper with my gear and M-16 directly to the second lieutenant. I had nearly forgotten about saluting. My hands were full and I hesitated. Just as I recalled the need to salute, he yanked his head to the back of the jeep and said, “Get in.”
I felt like a new guy again. The base camp seemed more orderly and modern than Tay Ninh. The dirt roads seemed like streets and litter was not to be found.
“What’s this all about,” I finally asked at the back of the second lieutenant’s head.
“You’ll find out,” he answered without flinching. I could see just how young he was. But he was well built and rugged, dressed clean and sharp in a starched uniform and must have been some kind of military star.
The driver parked the jeep not far from the sign that announced we were at Division Headquarters. My stomach tightened. I’ve never fared well in the face of authority. My innate rebelliousness tends to reveal itself in my overall countenance. I am not genetically calibrated to carry out someone else’s orders.
“Leave your shit here,” the second lieutenant pointed to where my duffle bag sagged over the inside of the jeep’s fender. Then he turned to me.
“Now listen, Bauer. You’re going to be standing toe to toe with one of the baddest asses in the whole goddamn army. So you better remember quick how to stand tall and salute properly. Got it?”
“Okay, let’s go on in.”
A full bird colonel sat sideways at his desk chewing someone’s ass. He no doubt ate nails for breakfast. He struck me right off as a bully who enjoyed tearing other people apart. He had homicidal green eyes, the eyes of an attack dog hysterical at the end of its leash. Spittle gathered in the corners of his mouth as he barked and, as his lips drooled, it sprayed out with his words. His neck sprouted thick, hairy, bulging veins from his collar where it joined his head. His teeth had little spaces between them that gave his contorted and angry mouth an especially grim and bitter countenance. I would hear a new story of his cruelty on a daily basis, one that said he had ordered a tank commander who had argued with him at the officer’s club to take his company out at night, an undertaking that would have been as irresponsible as it was dangerous. The tank commander refused and the colonel ended his career on the spot by ordering a court-martial. Later, I would see that tank commander dutifully slinking around the headquarters buildings performing menial tasks, emptying waste baskets, as he waited for the court- martial to take place — all of his war academy training dumped into the same trash can. Time Magazine published an article in the early 1980s about that same colonel whose last name I cannot recall. First name, George. He had been promoted to general and given command of the U.S. forces headquartered in Germany. The article reported that he was being mustered out of the army because his suffocating discipline had totally demoralized the troops.
He slammed down the phone and whirled on his chair towards me and the second lieutenant.
“Ten-hut!” the second lieutenant snapped.
“What in the fuck is this piece of shit?” he growled at the second lieutenant as he shot to his feet.
He smashed the top of the desk with his fist and circled it with two quick strides. I thought he was going to grab me by the neck with the same big fist and snap it in two. I must have lurched backwards.
“Young man, you are a goddamn disgrace,” he said, his eyes only a few inches from mine. “Look at you. What the fuck is the goddamn army coming to? Young man, I don’t want to ever see or hear of you again standing before an officer of the United States Army looking like a sack of shit.”
He shook a short, thick finger at the two of us and snorted.
“This never would have been tolerated. Never. Not in World War II or Korea. Look at this sorry little bastard. Filthy. Unshaven. Out of uniform. Get that goddamn necklace off your chest, boy.”
The chewing went on and on. The second lieutenant stood perfectly still but his face colored and I could see it harden out of the corner of my eye.
“…get this nasty looking little sonofabitch out of here and get him cleaned up and be back here in one hour.”
We did a precision about face and I followed the second lieutenant outside. He gave the driver instructions to drive me to the quartermaster shack and in the following hour I had my head scalped with an electric trimmer, was ordered to shave my face with the suds of a bar of disinfectant soap, sprayed with an ordinary lawn hose, and issued a new set of jungle fatigues with my name hastily sewn onto it, a new pair of camouflaged boots and a bright green jungle hat.
As I dressed and laced my boots, I could see the second lieutenant sitting glumly in the jeep and wiping the toe of his right boot with a cloth. He looked up as I approached and visually inspected me.
“Okay, get in.”
“Sir,” I asked. “Can you tell me what’s up?”
“Just shut up and get in.”
On the short drive back to headquarters he explained my new orders. The commanding general of the Twenty-Fifth Division was unhappy about the quality of the reports written by his staff. The colonel was in charge of a major whose responsibilities included the writing of the field reports and so it was the colonel’s ass too that had been chewed. I had been chosen from a computer run that disclosed my experience as a junior reporter at The Kansas City Star. The colonel was going to have me tested and, if I did well, I would finish my tour at the base camp. If I did not, I would be reassigned to another infantry unit.
When we returned to the headquarters building, the colonel was reading a printed piece of paper I assumed was my resume and had calmed considerably. He seemed halfway normal.
“So, that’s what you look like, Mr. Newspaperman,” he snarled. “Oh well, that’s better anyway. Now sit down over there and do what Major Carr tells you to do.”
Carr had been sitting in the corner of the office unseen. He jumped to attention from behind his desk.
“Sir?” Major Carr clinked.
“Major, see what the kid can do. I’ll be here until 1700 hours.”
The colonel turned to leave and then swung back and stuck his face into mine.
“Son,” he said, much to my surprise in a somewhat soft and I thought almost fatherly voice, “you do this well and it just might save your life.”
After he passed through the door into the next office, the major motioned for me to stand in front of his desk. He was a tall, balding man in a crisp uniform contoured to a trim, firm body. His mouth twitched in short habitual smirks. It occurred to me that the military, like the police, provided a cover for a multitude of psychopaths in uniform.
He showed me the format of a typical report. I could see that I would not be involved in writing sensitive, top level reports. This was a daily report summarizing enemy contact in the division’s area of operations: the number of G.I.’s KIA, WIA, and MIA, mines detonated, vehicles or weapons damaged or destroyed, enemy body count, prisoners, ordnance, maps, location, type of contact etc. It was difficult to see how anyone writing or typing the report could get it wrong. For me who was experienced in taking info over the phone and rewriting it within a half hour or less to meet a deadline, it was elementary.
Carr handed me a pile of printouts, reports from the field, and set a forty-five minute time limit. I finished the report in half the time, looked up and saw he had been watching me with an amused smirk. He grabbed the report and began reading.
“Hah!” He shouted, wagging his head and looking relieved. “And here I thought you were an English major.”
He inserted a missing comma, read on, tossed the report onto his desk.
“It’s passable,” he conceded, pursing his small mouth and wagging his head. “Looks like you got your ass a safe spot, Bauer.” He glowered. “For now.”
He relaxed and told me about my other duties. I would help him with the publication of a glossy booklet about the 25th Division that was handed out as a souvenir to division soldiers returning to the States and for combat art books that were published three or four times a year depending on how much and what the artists were able to produce.
That’s how I met Tony, the company clerk, a black guy who could have charmed even the crusty old colonel. He looked like he’d been born in jungle fatigues and hat. He became my best friend. He moved me into the combat artist hooch a few city blocks from division headquarters. He knew the goings on around the base camp, how to get booze and steaks and mattresses, how to get promoted and how to set up R &R’s. He revealed my dilemma to me: Major Carr did not write well and I was brought in from the field to back him up. The colonel liked Carr as a military man and was trying to get him a tank company because he was gung ho and wanted to be back in the field. He’d been temporarily demoted to a desk job because he was perceived to be a crazy bastard who put his troops at risk. That, anyway, was the story. Carr never missed a chance to find fault with me.
One morning without thinking or perhaps feeling too familiar with him for his having confided his marital problems to me, I allowed my mouth the freedom of too many words. I sat directly across from him on a wide weathered wooden desk.
“Hey, Bauer,” he sniped as he reviewed the prior day’s report, “I thought you had to be smart to work for a newspaper.”
“I used to be smart,” I shot back automatically, never looking up from my typewriter, “until the army got a hold of me.”
His hand sprang to the handle of the Forty-Five. He popped the snap on his holster.
He sat frozen for an instant, his eyes darting back and forth between me and the handle of the Forty-Five. He withdrew it halfway and stared directly across the desk at the center of my forehead. I knew he had killed before. His face told me so. It burned chili red with an odd exhilaration. Then he exhaled and just as slowly lowered his weapon and slid it back into the holster.
“You better watch it, smartass,” he said, through gritted teeth, wagging his head. “Next time you shoot your mouth off, you are one gone little shit.”
Maybe he was just hotshotting but I believed him. Later, Tony told me he was known for his temper and had been in several fistfights at the officer’s club. I learned to agree with him, his frequent philosophical musings about longhairs, bleeding hearts, punks.
In one of his “warmer” moments, Carr looked up from his side of the desk that separated us and told me a personal story.
He had just hung up the phone.
“That motherfucker,” he snapped as he stood up and paced.
“Just got off the phone with my wife, the stupid kraut. Kids need more dental work. That’s all she had to say. Right? Naw. She goes into a long tirade. How come you never play with your boys? I say, ‘When are a boy, you play like a boy. When you are a soldier, you fight like a soldier. You don’t play games with little kids.’ Then she says, ‘The dentist says they have lots of cavities. He says I don’t bring them often enough.’ ”
He gritted his teeth, squared his jaw. Ruminated.
“The last time he said that, he said it to my face. You know what I did? I grabbed that motherfucker by the collar of his phony white jacket, lifted him off the floor and slammed his sorry ass against the goddamned wall and I said, ‘You asshole. You little prick. Don’t you know the world is bigger than a circle of twenty-three teeth? Huh? Huh? Is that all you know? Two fuckin’ rows of teeth.’ I bounced his head against the wall and I said, ‘You ever say that to me again and you’re a goner.’ ”
He wagged his head and smirked.
“I told that little prick, ‘You got that, Mr. Cavity?’ The wimpy little shit squirmed around like a limp worm. ‘Yessir. Yessir.’ I thought the little shit was going to cry on me. But now that I’m not around, he’s trying to sabotage me with my wife. And she’s going along with it. When I get some leave, I’m going to slap the living shit out of both of them. And her two little brats along with her. She needs to stop feeding them all that candy and ice cream. And that dentist, the motherfucker… ”
He gripped the handle of his Forty-Five.
“Yeah, the two little bastards too. I ordered them to brush, morning and night. But they’ve been slacking off. Their fucking rotten little teeth cost me half my pay.”
He glowered at me.
“You get that, you small aleck little shit.”
“Yessir,” I answered, noticing that his hand was still gripping his Forty-Five. He nodded in satisfaction, eyeing my forehead.
I learned a month later the colonel was right. My new reassignment to Cu Chi did save my life. Almost to a month after my transfer I had an afternoon off and hopped a chopper to Tay Ninh to visit Diaz and my friends there. I didn’t recognize a face. I finally found a soldier who told me Diaz had been killed after an ambush patrol and others in my platoon had been either killed or wounded along with him. They had been sidewhacked early in the morning on their way back to the base camp.
In many ways, I saw over the desktop at Cu Chi a much broader view of the war than I had ever had as a grunt working out of Tay Ninh, probably more than many officers in the field.
I saw it was easy to get lost in the heat and the sweat and the fatigue of filling sandbags and loading and unloading heavy equipment and mortar shells. I saw how the numbers that passed through the office each day generated their own excitement, how the numbers could be arranged and rearranged and endlessly debated like the numbers, columns and standings on a sports page.
By chance, I found a book in the back of the center desk drawer with a title I generally remember as, “The Social, Economic and Political History Of The Republic Of South Vietnam,” written by the army as background for its officers. Its thesis, as I understood it, was that the war as it was being waged could never be won, that the insurgency was the result of decades of exploitation of the general populace by a small percentage of wealthy landholders and the French rubber companies and that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to gain support of the peasant population through military means. It was a “hearts and minds” commentary. After having been in the field, knowing and working with the South Vietnamese soldiers and being around the villagers, I could see what a fool’s errand it was. Seemed like something written up by graduates of Ivy League universities, military colleges, political science faculties. In hindsight, what I came to see was that the lower class Vietnamese were simply France’s niggers.
I overheard bits of conversation spoken by the younger officers in subdued voices that suggested to me that they no longer believed in the war, that they were simply biding time, hoping that the peace talks would conclude quickly.
I figured that General Williamson, the 25th Division commander, no longer believed in waging the war. That was my own take on it. Just watching him when I got a glimpse. I had never seen a general up close. They had the reputation of being as powerful as kings, little gods. They held the power of life and death over their troops. They surrounded themselves with mad dog colonels to preserve their imperial bearing and give uplifting speeches. This general was Hollywood handsome with perfectly groomed silver hair, polished and gentlemanly in his movements, soft spoken. The process of Vietnamization of the war had begun and he seemed determined to minimalize division casualties. Under his direction, the number of RIF’s dramatically declined. One of his strategies was to lift an engineering company to the Cambodian border and have it construct a fire base in one day’s time. He then would man the base with an infantry platoon, a gunner crew and a few big guns, and wait. When the North Vietnamese decided it was safe, they would cross the border and hurl themselves at a seemingly defenseless little base camp. But the general had already arranged for a massive air attack from Guam and the jets were on alert or in the air, waiting too. He sprung this trap again and again, and claimed large actual body counts. Those who had seen the sites of destruction talked about bodies strewn over areas the size of a football fields, an anomaly, given that most body counts were theoretical, made up or greatly exaggerated, often based on drag trails. Carr, who also acted as a field historian, once brought me with him to take notes in a fly over in a chopper so he could take photographs. He delighted in showing me photos of other actual body counts. One was of a North Vietnamese unit of at least a dozen soldiers who had take taken a direct hit from a bomb. They were heaped in a pile coming down a trail off a hill. I cannot forget the body of the point man, his clothes blown from his body, the look of shock on his face and his swollen naked erection sticking up from between his legs, pointing to the sky.
I made friends with a Chieu Hoi, a Viet Cong who had surrendered under a program that, translated into English, meant “Open Arms.” It promised surrendering VC’s freedom in exchange for their services as a scouts and spies. He looked the age of a graduate student but was forty-nine years old and had not seen his family in eleven years. The Viet Cong infrastructure in that region, he told me, had been largely destroyed and he was utterly exhausted and demoralized. He had been trained in Moscow and spoke perfect American English. The most startling thing he told me was that most of the B-52 bombs we dropped fell on empty spaces. As of a certain date early in the war the U.S. had agreed to clear all bombings through the South Vietnamese army to prevent civilian casualties. But through bribery and threats to the families of South Vietnamese officers and officials, the Viet Cong got notice well in advance of most of the bombings and were able to avoid the massive destruction the American public thought was being inflicted on the enemy.
From my desk at Cu Chi, I discovered the existence of the so-called Rubber Squad and eventually talked personally with some of the men in the platoon. Its mission was to patrol the Michelin Rubber Plantation and count the number of trees damaged or destroyed by American artillery and bombs so compensation could be paid to the Michelin Rubber Company. The squad took heavy casualties because it was easy for the Viet Cong to spot them from bunkers with openings just high enough above the ground for the sights and muzzles of their AK-47’s to pass through. They shot at shins and knee caps, hoping the sight of a crippled G.I. at home would intensify anti-war sentiment. In my own mind, I felt members of the rubber squad who died in the rubber plantation gave their lives for the Michelin Rubber Company and for the sake of keeping the peace with an ally — France. It was only one of many concessions made to the French who were embarrassed by their military losses, especially at Die Bien Phu in 1954. It seemed to me we tippy-toed around them and I have read that our bombings of Hanoi were tailored to avoid any targets the French thought to be sensitive or against their national and business interests. I was able to confirm some of what I read when I visited Hanoi in 2000 on a trip with an non-profit governmental agency.
I learned about the Phoenix Program, an operation to assassinate suspected Viet Cong in their villages, mostly at night while they slept with their families. I heard the brass discuss the pros and cons of the weapons they used and how these individuals and their families could be killed more effectively. From these conversations I formed the opinion that the war was being used by the army as a testing ground for new weapons and equipment.
I witnessed the workings of the extensive black market. It offered a clue as to why many of the older non-commissioned officers re-upped so often. They were making fortunes selling off army equipment and supplies. Though I was never there, I was told of a fire base not far from Cu Chi whose sole purpose was to house a plush nightclub for the NCO’s. The rumor, which I heard from many sources and soldiers who said they had been there, claimed that the club was cooled by four large air conditioners, one on each side of the four sided bunker complex. Several soldiers had been killed defending it. Now and then, some of the prostitutes who were secretly let in through the wire and were VC in disguise, used the occasion to gain information from loose talk and indentify openings that allowed the VC to enter the camp.
In any case, the usual scum that flock to wars were everywhere to be seen. The legitimate U.S. corporate members of military-industrial complex that Eisenhower had warned about in his famous farewell speech in January, 1961 profiteered as they always do at the expense of we cannon fodder and the generally apathetic American people. The “King,” who is one of the main characters in James Clavell’s novel, “King Rat,” an American corporal who callously runs a black market operation in the WWII Japanese prisoner of war camp at Changi, would surely have prospered in the Vietnam War’s black market. Everyone knew about it and accepted it as part of the lie. Those who had the inclination and could get away with it happily participated. Why not? It was there for the taking. That’s the underbelly of America that no one wants to talk about. What’s pitiful is that the attitude is now commonplace in 2012 American business culture.
The office where I worked was air-conditioned and this ate at me even as I welcomed it. I thought about the friends I had lost and our living conditions in the field. I sometimes thought about volunteering to go back to the field if I could and then I remembered my new wife and considered the fact that the war was a hoax, a farce and a cruel lie, so I stayed put. I turned down many of the amenities offered to me at the base camp as a small protest. Though I still served on bunker guard several nights a week, Cu Chi was well protected. Sometimes we had incoming tracers and an occasional rocket attack but the gunships were quick to respond and the space between the sky and the earth was filled with red rain from the miniguns. One night a rocket struck close to my hooch, penetrated the wood slats of the wall and blew me off my cot. When I snapped on my flashlight, I spotted a cantaloupe sized piece of jagged shrapnel spinning next to me on the floor, hissing and smoking. My only other close call at Cu Chi came when a new guy triggered a blasting cap I was getting ready to hook into a claymore mine. The explosion blew a hole just above my elbow. The wound required no stitches but I was given a tetanus shot, patched up with surgical strips and sent back to the bunker line. After the medics left, I grabbed a short length of steel pipe I found on the ground and pounded the new guy on the top of his helmet until my arm got tired. He might have shot me but I think he was already too befuddled by just being in Vietnam to do anything but obey my orders for the rest of the night.
Since high school where fights were commonplace, I would have never thought of physically attacking anyone like that. But I was different now. I didn’t give it a second thought.
I could hear the B-52’s at night, feel the reverberations of the bombs shaking the ground. I didn’t worry any more about the Viet Cong on the other end of those bombs. I already knew what those bombs could do. I thought about myself and how badly I needed to sleep and how the bombs kept me alive.
After I had been back in Cu Chi a few weeks, the Red Cross showed the movie, “The Graduate,” and handed out popcorn and soft drinks. I had seen the movie before and was savoring the irony of seeing it projected onto a white sheet tacked to the side of a bunker. About half way through, a tremendous explosion lit the sky down the road. A fireball swooped upwards into the darkness and the sirens rang out. The projector clicked off and we scrambled for a bunker, banging into each other in the darkness. While we waited, I imagined that sappers had made their way inside the wire as they had the year before by tunneling under the camp. I thought it would be a sorry way to die, crammed against other sweating bodies in a muddy trench that smelled of urine and garbage. I waited for a sapper to toss a satchel of plastic explosive into the bunker. But the sirens stopped and the spotlights outside blinked back on. We slowly crawled out to look around. In a few minutes, two M.P.’s walked quickly down the road away from the site of the fire and announced over megaphones for us to stay put, stay away from the wire.
“What up?” we wanted to know.
“Chopper caught on a power line and flipped,” one of the M.P.’s said.
“And the pilot? The gunners?”
I looked up the road and felt a familiar feeling of dread, not for myself, but for the nameless pilot and gunners hurrying in from their last flight of the day. When I looked back away from the road, I was amazed to find that the projector had been turned back on and the audience already joking and talking and eating popcorn, watching the movie, without losing a beat. At the time, I thought a sickness had overtaken them, that something as essential as ordinary goodness was dying inside them, and I went back to the hooch and cried and prayed for the three dead men and their families. By the time Tony brought me my going home orders several weeks later, I had learned that the other moviegoers couldn’t dwell on their feelings of dread and fear and remorse. Not then. That would have to come later, many years later. For that night, they needed to swallow warm beer and simply munch on a brown paper bag of dry saltless popcorn.
The day Tony handed me my orders, I laughed like a ninny. I held the papers out in front of me and all I could do was shout and hug him. I danced. “Godammit, Tony,” I shouted over and over. “Goddamn you anyway. I think I am in love with you. I want to kiss you. No, no, come back, I want to kiss you right on the lips.”
Though I had witnessed short timer’s syndrome in many of my friends and other departing members of my unit, I had never seriously considered it as a possibility for myself. Yet, I don’t recall many who escaped it. The pattern resembled separation anxiety. After someone received a definite date for leaving Vietnam, a subtle process of distancing began, both in the short timer and in his buddies. It happened to me.
Short timers were notorious for promising to write or send care packages or perform personal favors once they returned to the States. They seldom did, and that in itself created resentment. One of the combat artists in my unit, a guy named Jock, who played a great folk guitar and concealed many other talents under a shaggy beard and the drowsiness of opiates, was one of the few who did write back to our unit. For months before he left, he had been sending large shipments of marijuana to his girl friend in San Francisco through an arrangement he had with a friend in the supply center at Long Bien. “Wait ‘til my friends get a whiff of this shit, man. It’s better than any of that Columbian stuff,” he was famous for saying. He responded to our skepticism by swearing we would hear from him. We had almost forgotten him when, six weeks later, Tony brought us a card addressed to the entire unit. It was an announcement of the opening of a tobacco store. The postcard size announcement read, “Jock’s Pipe Shop. Rare Tobaccos And Paraphernalia.”
Jock’s last days had been relatively smooth. He played guitar and we sang songs from The Beetles, “A Day In The Life.”
I remembered only one altercation, a fellow artist who felt slighted because Jock willed his brushes and paints to another friend. It ended in a screaming match but nothing more.
I felt I would be above all that. But no sooner had Tony left the hooch the morning he handed me my orders when Stringer, the only other guy there at the time, yelled over at me, “Hey, don’t forget my blanket. I want it back.” At first, I thought he was teasing. It wasn’t like him to be petty or argumentative. Perhaps I had overlooked the fact that he had just reupped for another tour to shorten his overall service. Though the war was supposed to be winding down, the North Vietnamese had been sending large numbers of troops down the Ho Chi Mihn Trail and there were rumors of large scale attacks in the coming months. He may have regretted his decision and was vexed by my excitement about going home.
“You’ll have it before I leave,” I said.
“No asshole, I mean I want it now.”
“Why do you need it now? You’ve already got one.”
“I just want to be sure you won’t run off with it. So hand it over.”
“Look, you can wait. I’ll be out of here in two weeks. I won’t need it back home. I guarantee you’ll get it back.”
Stringer, who had been kneeling by his bunk getting his gear ready for bunker guard, sprung at me from across the floor and grabbed me by the neck, choking and shaking me. Stringer stood a slender six foot two and he was exceptionally strong. I had no way to stop him short of kneeing his testicles and engaging in an all out fight.
“Give me the goddamn blanket, you asshole,” he kept screaming, then suddenly stopped and pushed me back to the ground.
He pointed, shook his finger and shouted between breaths, “I better have that blanket when I get back tomorrow morning,” he said, then grabbed his gear and stomped out. I dug the blanket out from under the mattress on my cot where I kept it hidden during the day and slid it under the mattress on his. He ignored me after that even though we had been part of a group that drank together at night and sang folk and anti-war songs with Jock.
A few nights later I myself picked a fight with my major irritant, an asinine high school science teacher from Oregon named Pritchard who assumed he was an authority on any issue remotely connected with any field of science. When I questioned his authority, he became defensive and tried to quickly shift attention back on me. Regardless of the subject, his opening statement always began with, “Well, what we’ve found is…” or “they say that…” or “Our research shows…” and when I questioned the validity of his relationship to the “we” and the “they,” he invariably wagged his head knowingly and smirked at me like I was a doofus. In reality, he only had an undergraduate degree in education, a minor in general science studies and had never participated in any meaningful scientific studies or research.
That night we were discussing adolescent crime, or juvenile delinquency as it was known then, a topic that Pritchard in his fundamentalist vision never failed to link to some inherited and unspeakable evil in certain teenagers.
“What we’ve found…” he began that night, but I interrupted him.
“Who’s we, Pritchard?” I snapped.
“Well, those of us in the scientific community who…”
“What have you ever done or studied that qualified you to become a part of any scientific community?”
Pritchard wagged his head and smirked and rolled his eyes at the other hooch mates who were sitting or standing in a group just outside the hooch door.
“Well, I’ve been teaching science for eleven years now on the secondary level and…”
“I mean, in addition to that. What experiments have you designed and conducted, what studies have you participated in…”
“Well, I’ve done research all my life…”
“Like what?” I cut him off. “Be specific.”
“Oh, fuck you, Bauer. I don’t have to sit here every night and list my credentials.”
“Yeah, and you don’t have to sit here every night like a pompous ass citing nonexistent studies to support your bigoted ideas about people who don’t fit your mold.”
“I’m no more bigoted than you are. Probably less so.”
“I don’t pretend to be an expert when I’m not.”
“No, I agree, and that’s because you’re an expert at nothing, and you’re the kind of guy that’ll never amount to shit because all you know how to do is knock people who are doing something…”
I swung. It had nothing to do with what Pritchard said but I had decided it was time to dismantle his smirk. It was my misfortune to start the only fistfight of my army career in full view of a company commander. He had ambled by on the way to the officer’s club.
“Okay, knock it off,” he barked, grabbing and shaking us. He gave me a hard look and then looked over at Pritchard.
“You two want some time in the brig?”
“No sir,” I answered.
“No sir,” Pritchard said.
“If I catch you at any of this shit again, you’ll do time in the brig and in Cambodia. Back in the field. You got that.”
He snorted and moved on. But when I woke in the middle of the night, I wondered what had possessed me and why I had allowed Pritchard to goad me into a situation that might have led to a change in orders or duty time in the field.
As the day of my departure neared, I felt the others move away from me. Their hostility was not overt, but one by one they began to ignore me, pretend I wasn’t there. Even Tony, who bunked next to me and been involved in many late night chats and the sharing of life stories, acted disinterested. I could hardly get him to attend to checking me out of the unit and helping me find out what releases I needed for equipment, bedding, weapon and ammo so I could leave on time. Major Carr, who seemed to enjoy goading me in a friendly way despite my poorly concealed dislike for the military, rarely talked to me except for daily business matters and to order me to train my replacement.
I concentrated on my orders and the timetable for my departure. Though our schedules had not allowed the men in my unit to spend much off duty time together, we had some close moments late at night, talking about what we would do when we went home, what a sick joke the war was, what was wrong with our society and what we would do to make it better. Except for Tony, I did not count on any of them as a close friend. It did feel odd to be frozen out and not a part of what little togetherness we had shared. And because of the loss of my friends in Tay Ninh, I left Vietnam with no real friends, with no one who later might be able to share what had happened and how it felt to be there. Unlike the soldiers of World War II who held reunions and revisited old battlefields, I would only have myself with whom to relive my experiences and test them against reality. Being in the Vietnam War was not one experience; it was many. I left Vietnam as I had come to it – by myself, holding my feelings inside.
The insouciance that replaced fear earlier in my tour gave way to dread and paranoia as my date of departure approached. Stories abounded of G.I.’s killed in their final days by a rocket with their name on it or an unlucky sniper round or a freak accident. I avoided going anywhere by chopper. One morning someone emptied an M-16 clip across the road and, after a brief interval, part of another. M.P.’s surrounded the First Sergeant’s hooch and the sirens were turned on. We saw Tony a few minutes later looking wan and upset through his dark skin, shaking as he tried to light a smoke after he rushed across the road to our hooch. A grunt from the Wolfhound Battalion had just blown away the First Sergeant, apparently over an order to cut his hair and trim his moustache, and then had blown himself away. The sounds of the shooting and the telling of it sickened me and churned my anxiety. I wanted to be out of there more than I ever had — now, at that moment. I was finished with it.
I worried too about how I would be treated when I returned home, if my wife would still be attracted to me, if my bonds with old friends had survived. I was down to 117 pounds and, when I looked into my small, round, shaving mirror, my face stared back at me with a gaunt and wizened look. I became so concerned about my weight that I stopped smoking. The withdrawal from a pack or two a day left me lightheaded and unsteady on my feet. My hands shook and my fingertips tingled. I had headaches so severe that all I wanted to do was lay my head down and sleep. I lost my appetite. I had to force myself to eat.
I had been gone less than a year but the world I left seemed remote and fading. I had carried my M-16 everywhere, cleaned it daily, slept with it by my side. It would feel odd not to have it nearby. Even now, I miss it. Only recently have I been able to sleep without having a baseball bat, a hatchet or a knife, and a flashlight near my bed.
I had grown comfortable in my jungle fatigues, jungle hat, camouflaged boots and green underwear. My I.D. tags clanked together lightly as I walked. It would feel strange to wear civilian clothes again.
I slept little the night before I was to leave for Long Bien, afraid of oversleeping and missing my truck. I was up early, shaving, taking a shower in the little stream that dribbled down from the spigot screwed under the 250-pound bombshell. A few of my hooch mates moaned a sleepy “goodbye,” and “good luck,” “write me,” as I swung my duffle bag over my shoulder, knowing I had forgotten to ask them to write down their addresses, didn’t really care if I ever saw them again, in a hurry for my get-out-of-jail-free card, and headed down the road to the chaplain’s hooch.
The chaplain’s farewell prayer was the first item on my checklist of required formalities. There were six or seven of us sitting on duffle bags waiting for him to show up. After waiting close to two hours, I began to worry about catching my plane the next day at Ton Son Nhut. When he finally jumped out of his jeep, he brought a sergeant, a recruiter, with him. I quickly saw that the point of the whole exercise was to try to persuade us to sign up for another tour or an extension of our current tours.
The chaplain gave a rambling recitation of our obligations as citizens and soldiers, reminded us that our buddies and fellow Americans still faced danger in the jungles and along rice paddies, and needed us to be with them, if not physically, which would be preferred, then at least in our hearts. Before he gave us his blessing, he wanted the sergeant to explain the benefits and bonuses we could gain if we re-upped or extended. The bonuses sounded like bribes, fairly large chunks of money at the time, large enough to widen the eyes of a nineteen year old. One left with the sergeant to sign the forms and two others took brochures to read on their trip to Long Bien. They could take a short leave before their new assignments.
We listened to these pep talks for another forty-five minutes, option this, option that. When the chaplain and the sergeant saw they had accomplished all they could, the chaplain spoke a short prayer that again reminded us of those we were leaving behind and asked God to help us to see our duty and to have the courage to perform it.
The chaplain rose from his knees and he and the sergeant turned heel leaving us with no additional instructions. The eager recruit followed them. Those of us who remained looked at each other in silence, shrugging, smiling cautiously. They were strangers to me and I was in no mood to make small talk. It was every man for himself. In another half hour a Spec-5 drove down from the road into our area and asked if we were going to Long Bien. We loaded our bags and two boom boxes into the back of his pick up and held on desperately as he banged and swerved over the dirt road. I don’t know what route he drove but it seemed an unusually long journey back to Long Bien.
We were transferred to another truck and then to a bus. I didn’t know the area but I assumed we were somewhere between Long Bien, Ton Son Nhut and Saigon. The bus dropped us off in an area of weathered brown aging barracks that appeared to be a processing center, both incoming and outgoing. It was not the same place I stayed during my first few days in country.
The busses kept coming, making the lines at various checkpoints long and hot. There was a line for verifying orders, another recruitment line, and a brief physical for venereal diseases and unhealed cuts. Except for those returning from second and third tours, most of us stood in line silent and subdued. We weren’t back home yet.
The barracks were a mess. Not all the beds had mattresses and those that did smelled of urine, vomit and sweat and felt alive with attacking but unseen bed bugs. The close air was thick with mosquitos. I tried to sleep half sitting, half lying against my duffle bag near the entrance and out of boredom tried to smoke but the cigarette nauseated me. Some of the men walked past me during the night to urinate on the ground outside. Just after midnight we could hear explosions and machine gun fire and the sirens sounded. Several M.P.’s and NCO’s rousted us out of the barracks and issued us flack jackets, M-16’s, two clips of ammo, and helmets. Saigon was being attacked and they needed us on the perimeter of whatever flank of the city we were on. We loaded onto five ton trucks and bounced and banged against each other. We took positions along the bunker line and loaded up.
We could see miniguns on the gunships flashing red rivers from the dark skies in the distance and hear the passage of jets slicing the air, roaring above us. It appeared that a firefight was taking place to our extreme right. There were explosions, probably mortar rounds or RPG’s and then silence. A few incoming tracers veered periodically to either side of us but the heaviest activity was over in less than an hour. I spent the night sulking and praying and slapping mosquitos. I was never happier in my life to climb back aboard a five ton truck and return to those rotten barracks. We turned in our gear and lined up in formation waiting to be marched to breakfast. I had not stood in formation since I left the States and wondered why I had to do so now. I resented being treated like a recruit in basic training. The breakfast was bad, a slosh of scrambled eggs that was inedible and we tossed the mess into the ditches by the road.
We were assigned aircraft and flight times. I felt anxious until my name was called fearing Tony might have screwed up and left my name off the roster. We loaded the buses for Ton Son Nhut. The small airport at Ton Son Nhut was a beautiful sight, not much different than I remembered it. Planes landed with new arrivals and they eyed us jealously. I knew the feeling.
The flight to Oakland Army Base lasted about thirty hours. It was impossible to sleep. The plane was packed, hot and stuffy, two rows of three seats a row. I felt a twinge of claustrophobia and fought giving in to it. I wanted to commandeer the plane and land it so I could run into open air. When we stopped in Guam to unload cargo, we were allowed to step off the plane and walk back and forth on the ramp for ten minutes. I felt like screaming.
I began to lose my sense of time. Lack of sleep and the fatigue of the flight disoriented me. Towards the end of the flight the toilets were clogged and stank throughout the plane. Thankfully, no one had been sick or gone berserk. We landed in Oakland late at night and cheered. A young captain boarded the plane and yelled for silence.
“Okay, listen up. I want this plane unloaded in an orderly fashion. When you hit the tarmac, you exit the runway and go where directed. No talking, running, yelling, or grab ass. Got it? Okay.” He pointed to some of the men in the first few rows. “Move it.”
There was a line of the captain’s men running from the bottom of the stairway to a gate that led off the runway. They began screaming at us as soon as we touched the tarmac. It felt like a hazing on the first day of boot camp.
“Let’s go. Let’s go. Hurry it up. Let’s go. This way, stupid.”
The last instruction at the other side of the gate was to line up in formation.
“Come on, line it up. Arms length.”
Those of us just off the plane looked at each other in disbelief. Though we hadn’t expected a brass band and confetti, we didn’t much like the idea of being yelled at. A few milled around in a gesture of defiance but jumped into line when they saw the cadre meant business.
A fine, cold mist fell out of the semidarkenss created by the night and the dim flood lights overhead. At first, the cool air felt refreshing, a respite from the hot, cramped plane. After a half hour, with the wind whipping through the drizzle, I shivered and felt the cold through the thin material of my jungle fatigues. We waited yet another hour before we received the command to stand at attention, right face, and march. By then I could hear cursing and remarks about the rain and cold. We marched several blocks with the cadre snapping at us as we turned corners to stay in line. The march ended at the entrance of a large building that materialized inside as a gymnasium with bleachers on three sides, a basketball goal on the other. About the same time two trucks drove up next to us loaded with duffle bags. We were marched into the gym and told to be seated in the bleachers. A sergeant formed a detail for the unloading of the duffle bags and they were laid in rows on the gym floor. Several card tables had been set up and base personnel were flipping through drawers in filing cabinets. I noted this was probably a twenty-four hour operation.
I wanted to strip down, get out of my clothes, go to the bathroom and have a hot shower. My skin felt grimy and my mouth tasted dry and filmy. I wanted to wash the war off, the stink of it. We were allowed to go to the bathrooms in rows. I felt close to wetting myself. Once all of us had returned to the bleachers, the captain took center stage with a microphone and told us to stand and come to attention. The lights in the gymnasium were faint and it was difficult to fully make out the features of his face.
A major and two second lieutenants emerged through a side door. The major walked over to the captain and took the microphone. He announced he was the commanding officer of the processing center and for the next three or four days we would be taking orders from him and his men. We would be expected to follow military procedure and carry out instructions exactly as given. The sooner we completed our checklists, the sooner we would be out of there.
The major whispered something to the captain and spun around and exited behind the colonel. The captain put us at ease, told us to sit down and asked if any of us was ill. A few raised their hands and they were directed to one side of the floor. The rest of us were given a photocopied check list that included a haircut, a fitting for a dress green uniform and dress shoes, medical and dental checkups, verification of orders, a greeting from the chaplain, and a welcome home steak. I don’t remember all of the items on the check list but it became apparent that I was in for a time consuming, tedious process, that the lines would be long and the delays many. I itched for a book or newspaper to read, a television to watch, a radio.
We slept on the cement between the wooden bleacher seats. Later, I decided the bleachers were a small break because to check out bedding would have only delayed us further.
Towards early morning I must have dozed. I jerked up and awoke to the sound of the cadre shouting at us to form ranks on the gym floor. We marched several blocks to a mess hall for breakfast. During the day we marched to the tailor and to medical and dental appointments. We stood naked as we had at the induction center in Kansas City. They were checking us for herpes and other venereal diseases, made us bend over again, stiffed our scrotums for hernias. They pulled open our mouths as veterinarians do to farm animals.
The session with the tailor struck me as particularly wasteful. I don’t know how much a full dress green uniform might have cost in 1969 but I suspect several hundred dollars. I would wear the uniform home and hang it in a closet or give it away. I have the jacket still. The government obviously didn’t want us to be seen in jungle fatigues. Maybe it would have brought the war too close to home. People would have had to see us as we really were, a bunch of sorry ass motherfuckers.
They drew blood and took urine samples during our medical appointments, testing again for venereal disease, the “red siff,” as we called extreme forms of herpes, and for drugs. The medical officer asked a general question about how I felt about my physical condition and moved to the next man. “I simply said, “okay.” I wanted my check mark. I just wanted to get out of there, be back home and get laid. I could honestly tell my wife I had been a good boy.
We marched to the barber shop to have our heads shaved and inspected for lice. If we didn’t already look like refugees and shadows of our former selves, this last insult guaranteed we would stand out in a crowd in that era of long hair and beards.
The weather was still cold and wet and I was glad to return to the gym. It was almost one o’clock in the morning. I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on a conversation I had had that afternoon with one of the Spec-5’s processing our orders and reciting the next steps that would lead us to the airport. I went over the details several times. At least, I would not be held up in Oakland by my own confusion or poor attention as would some of the men around me.
During the day I reclaimed my duffle bag, emptied its contents on the floor for inspection, and turned over all evidence of Vietnam except for my underwear. My souvenir box had been mailed to my in-laws in Kansas City where my wife had been living. I lay back on the end of my duffle bag and drifted into a deep sleep.
I was in the middle of a confusing dream about being lost outside Tay Ninh Base Camp when the shouts of the cadre ordering us to wake up and get into formation brought me back. The dim lights, which were on continuously, cast the gym in a dreamlike haze, and I thought I was still dreaming when I looked up and saw a sergeant shouting in my face and pointing directly at me.
“Come on, let’s go,” he repeated. At first, I thought he was Diaz.
I grabbed my checklist and scrambled to the gym floor. The wind had picked up and, warm with sleep, chilled me in the moist air. We must have marched halfway through the camp before we stopped in front of a mess hall. When someone asked a PFC on duty at the door of the mess hall what was going on, he grinned and motioned inside, “Hey,” he announced, “It’s time for your welcome home steak.” I looked at my watch. It was three a.m.
The inside of the mess hall looked like it had been decorated by the Daughters of the Revolution, colonial style. I had never seen Early American furniture in a mess hall or red and white checkered table cloths. The lights were soft and welcoming. At least it was warm. I was still half asleep and the smell of food and kitchen grease made me queasy. I flashed back to Fort Polk, Louisiana where I had gone through basic training. The early morning smell of greasy cooking from the mess hall always nauseated and filled me with a dread of the coming day.
As we went through the line with our trays, I noticed the food had been heating in the serving pans for some time. The steak itself appeared to be a piece of round steak or a sirloin that had been run over in an accident; the baked potatoes were overcooked, dry and wrinkled. At the end of the line a master sergeant snapped an order as we lifted out trays, “Eat it all. Every bite. You’re not gettin’ it checked off until you do.”
I looked down at the blackened piece of meat that I was told was provided with good intentions by the local chapter of the Chamber of Commerce in appreciation for my service and broke out laughing. They had no idea. No idea at all.
“What’s so damn funny, mister,” the master sergeant snickered. “Wipe that smile off your face, wise guy.”
Such a pitiful effort: lukewarm, blackened, fatty at the edges, yet so chewy and hard it needed a chain saw. I managed to carve off one hardened end of the potato but it was mushy and brown inside. I stuck with bread and butter and a few bites of meat before I remembered I had to leave with a clean plate. Children were starving in Africa, I supposed.
The NCO’s monitoring the feast beat on the table tops with large serving spoons, yelling, “Eat! Eat!” just as they had in basic training. “Eat it all. You have ten minutes. Eat up. Chew and swallow. Chew and swallow.”
After all, this was my reward for almost getting my ass blown away. I needed to show some appreciation. Plus, it was a check mark closer to home.
I did what I was ordered to do. I wanted to vomit all that and the entire war into the middle of the mess hall floor. I don’t know what might have happened if I had done so but it was a tempting thought.
We marched back to the gym and had an hour before another trip to the tailor to collect our dress greens. My dress hat with its stiff shiny bill was too small for my head but I stuffed it on any way just to get through the line and later wished I hadn’t. It kept falling off my head.
Back in the gym, a chaplain said a few words to us and one of his assistants stamped our checklists. I finished my checklist late that night, was given a plane ticket and taken to Oakland airport on a bus. My plane didn’t leave until seven the following morning so I took off my hat, loosened my tie, slipped off my shoes and fell asleep sitting up in a seat near the gate.
Again, I was awakened by shouting. Three M.P.’s circled me. One waved a nightstick in my face.
“Hey, buddy, you want some time in the brig?”
“Huh?” I must have garbled.
“Huh? It’s ‘Sir!’ Get off your ass. Get your shoes on and sharpen up that tie. Come on, get with it. Act military. You’re not civilian yet. You’re out of uniform.”
For the shortest segment of time I considered putting out one of his eyes. I wanted to kill him. Killing had become a natural thought and, if I could have killed him and gotten away with it, I would have put him away without hesitation or guilt. In Cu Chi I had been trained to assassinate other human beings in their hooches. I had never had to kill another human being in that way but to this day I daydream about how I would do it if I was angry enough. I had learned all the techniques: the quick blow to the Adams Apple severing the windpipe, the garrote, Thirty-Eight to the temple, a bayonet up the heart, a machete into the center of the skull.
I looked instinctively for my M-16 and realized it wasn’t there. I considered blasting the M.P. with a kick to the jaw or kneeing him hard in the groin. I had no problem with killing him. But I held my wrath, knowing I would have been beaten to mush and jailed. I was too close to home to lose control. I took a breath and tried to think.
They ordered me to put on my dress jacket and hat and stand at attention there in the airport while they reviewed my orders. One of them argued for taking me in. I could see some of the others troops who had come to the airport with me on the same bus scrambling to put on their shoes and dress jackets. I stood at attention for fifteen minutes or more. Civilians walked by with their luggage and gawked at me as though I had done something wrong. I had been tried and convicted without a court martial or jury of my peers.
“Coming back from Nam?” the senior-looking MP asked.
“Yes, sir!” he shouted in my face.
Again, the impulse to kill. I had to kiss ass, as I had always had to do because I was a mere draftee. I was just a piece of shit.
I did what I was forced to do. I lied. From what I had learned at Cu Chi base camp, me once just a little boy from Kansas City, Missouri, I could have killed him then in a few seconds. At least, I thought I could. Because I did not kill him then, I kill him now in daydreams, at the oddest of times in the most unusual places, driving down the highway, at dinner in a restaurant in the middle of a conversation with friends. A pointed fist to the Adams Apple. A broken nose. A slam in the ear. A finger through his eye to the brain. Broken ribs. Punches to the heart and kidneys. Heel kicks to the frontal lobe.
He conferred with the other two. Then he said:
“Ok, little buddy, uh, specialist who? I want to tell you something. Until you’re off duty and until you’re off the street, you wear that uniform the way it’s supposed to be worn. If I come back by here and catch you out of uniform again, I’m taking you straight to the brig. Comprende?”
“All right, okay, then,” he nodded smugly. They moved on.
I spent the rest of the night shaking inside and thinking of ways of killing them, all three of them. I had visions of rolling a grenade at their feet and watching their bodies lift upward and fly back when it exploded.
The night moved slowly and I paced the waiting area in full uniform, tried to read a book I found on a seat in the gate area. I kept going to the bathroom to look at my face. I looked pale through the deep tan I had acquired, skin pulled taut across my jaws. I thought my bones had shrunk, that I had lost height as well as weight. When the airline agent opened the check-in counter for my flight, I had to force myself to approach her with my ticket. I hadn’t seen a beautiful Caucasian woman for a long time and I imagined myself just as another short, grubby, ugly G.I. in uniform.
During the flight to Kansas City my feelings of dread returned. I wanted to be excited about going home but I couldn’t. For a while I daydreamed about running away and living alone in the woods. When the plane landed, I sat for several minutes waiting for the other soldiers to deplane. I could see my family standing behind a fence near the runway, my mother holding up my youngest brother, who was four or five, so he could see above the bobbing heads. I saw that my wife had walked onto the runway and stood at the bottom of the plane’s stairway waiting for me to walk down. She was crying, afraid that I wouldn’t be on the plane. She wore a yellow dress with a red rose corsage that had drooped in the cold wind. Neither of us knew then that the spectre of mental illness had crept silently into our lives and would tear our young family apart.
I looked around and saw that the plane was nearly empty. A stewardess stood by the outside seat of my row, nodded at me and motioned with her head toward the door. I pushed myself out of my seat and moved slowly on what felt like bird legs to the door, then turned onto the top of the stairway. When I took the first step down, I wobbled. My family cheered.
That was the beginning, not the end of an odyssey.
That first Christmas home went by in a blur. My body and brain were still in South Vietnam. I vaguely remember a haze of booze and dinners and the practiced hilarity of the holidays. My Christmas presents included the three shirts I was given the year before with their tags still attached. Seeing them again fit my sense of gallows humor.
One night after a party my sister-in-law led me into the kitchen and said:
“There’s something very wrong about Patti.”
“I don’t know. Since you’ve been gone, she’s been very irritable and hard to get along with. Sometimes she doesn’t make sense. She worries all the time and doesn’t sleep.”
At first, I was too preoccupied with myself to notice but her illness quickly revealed itself. She had a B.S. in nursing at a time when the degree was somewhat rare. She not only was a charge nurse for a medical floor at a large Kansas City hospital at a young age but also taught nursing. One night after Christmas she returned from a 3-11 shift in tears, almost hysterical. She felt she had given an elderly patient the wrong medication and the patient had died as a result. She would not be consoled. After a few nights of this, I finally convinced her to call the woman’s doctor. In a three-way conversation he quickly stated that the woman had simply died of old age; there was no sign of a medication error. I was relieved and considered the situation resolved. But the following week she returned home from the hospital weeping and hysterical with the delusion that she had killed another patient whom she greatly disliked in the first place. So the cycle continued, her illness progressed and children were born against my wishes after she tricked me into conceiving them by secretly not taking her birth control pills. In the ten years that followed she tried to kill me with a butcher knife on three occasions, was fond of setting the house curtains on fire, running naked down the street screaming, jumping up and down like a mad woman in front of our small children and generally sabotaging everything her family and I tried to do for her. She made six serious suicide attempts and almost succeeded. There were times when I wished she had. One day our family doctor, a Roman Catholic, called me into to his office to tell me he had visited her again at the hospital and had the opinion that she would never get better, only worse. He suggested that I go to church, kneel down and pray about whether I should divorce her for the sake of the children or hire a nanny and resign myself to living a caregiver’s life. I am loyal by nature and the thought of a divorce was too foreign for me to consider, that is, until one night on a narrow highway en route to the state hospital when she again attempted to kill me, grabbing the steering wheel several times to drive the car into a ditch. The children were six and three years old. The court granted me custody but she continued to interfere with my life and the lives of the children until her death at age 57 from heart disease.
After my return I had collected forty graduate hours in English literature on the G.I. Bill but when I reached the point where I could write my thesis and apply to a Ph.D. program she tore up the house and had to be hospitalized for the umpteenth time. By the time my divorce was final in 1977 I was close to $100,000 in debt and in 1979 out of desperation I founded an international insurance firm. I had two choices: go on welfare or start a business. The reinsurance company I worked for over an eleven year period took me for granted and paid me peanuts. I could see that the brokers with whom we did business were by and large just salesmen and they made all the money while I did all the work. So, when the risk manager of a large publishing company I insured suggested that if I started my own company he would be my first client I jumped at the opportunity.
At that time there was also a third choice I briefly considered but quickly put aside: change my identity and run away. That choice was no delusion. I had the courage and knowledge to pull it off. In 1977 one could still get away with it. I chose my children over a more carefree life and do not regret that I did. But much like the impulse I felt to go AWOL years before at Ft. Carson I have to wonder what might have been if I had.
For the two months after that first Christmas I moved through a world I once knew but was no longer there. I was angry, angry at the government and angry at my wife for being crazy and not interested in a sex life or companionship. I quarreled with her. I argued with my family and friends. My friends told me many years later they didn’t know me. They missed the happy-go-lucky little shit with the smart aleck, funny mouth they called, “The Kid,” and “Silly Billy.” They didn’t care about the war. One of my old girlfriends actually joked, “Bill, we don’t care about the war. You don’t need to tell us about it.” I couldn’t help but laugh.
About two weeks after Christmas I had a surprise call from a sergeant at the Kansas National Guard Armory. I’ll call him Sergeant Marginal. He never could never remember my name or pronounce it correctly.
“Barr?” he shouted over the phone.
I was taken aback. Who the hell was this?
“Oh hey, Sergeant. How they hangin’ ?”
“Where in thee hell are you?”
“Well, right now I’m in my apartment putting together a little fish tank. I got all the shit. The filter, the motor, the rocks, plastic plants, a little waterfall…”
“You were supposed to report in two weeks ago. I just spotted your paperwork. You need to get your ass over here.”
“You know what for. Didn’t you read your orders?”
“Oh, hell no. I pitched them out with all that other army bullshit. I don’t even have a uniform except for my dress greens.”
He was dead still.
“I’ll tell you what. If your ass ain’t over here at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning, there’ll be some mean ass MP’s a’ knockin’ on your door.”
“Well, my ass ain’t a’ comin’. How about that, cocksucker?”
“Hey, you don’t talk to your superior like ‘et. You’re still in the army.”
“The hell I am. I’m done.”
“No you ain’t. You still got four months on your six year commitment. You’re AWOL. You better get your ass over here tomorrow at 7 a.m. or you’re going to jail.”
“Is that so? Well, I’ll just have to think about that.”
“You better think good.”
I hung up. The phone rang again and again. There was no Caller I.D. in those days but I knew it was him.
My wife couldn’t believe it.
“I thought you were finished.”
“I did too.”
I hadn’t thrown my orders away. I just told him that to piss him off. I shuffled through them and sure enough I had orders to report two weeks prior.
I told my wife:
“Fuck it. I’m done. They’ll have to come get me.”
She got hysterical. By then I knew she was a nut case. Let me say that’s not really how I regard mental illness. That was just my state of mind back then.
What about your job? she shouted. What would they think about my going to jail, being AWOL, a deserter? What would her father, the decorated marine, think? What would our friends think? My family?
Humm, “Where is me in this equation?” is what I thought. I set my alarm, put on a pair of jeans and sneakers, an army surplus military jacket I had from a while back and showed up exactly on time.
The Kansas National Guard armory was in Kansas City, Kansas. It was a large building that looked like a high school with a gymnasium, classrooms, offices, storage rooms, a car pool and several outbuildings. When I drove up, there was only one other car parked in the lot. That told me something right off. I couldn’t be the only fool from my unit not to show up.
Marginal’s office was on the bottom floor with the other offices and work rooms. I could see the light in his office from the doorway. Just seeing that pissed me off all over again. He was one of the old timers in the Kansas National Guard, meaning a mooch. Prior to the war, the Guard there was not much more than another social club. These jokers were a bunch of losers who hadn’t gotten over their boyhood games of playing soldier and dressing up for parades and holidays, whose only value was to maintain obsolete military vehicles and weapons and help stage social and athletic events and fund raisers. They were a collection of ne’er do wells, social climbers, petty local politicians and businessmen who liked to march and wave flags on the Fourth of July. When the draft started to run out of blacks, convicts and lower income whites and reach into the ranks of the upper middle class — professional types and college guys like me — most of them turned to the National Guard or reserves hoping to avoid being inducted into the regular army, losing their jobs, positions in their employment or deferments, and being sent to Vietnam. That was the plain truth. Guys like Marginal were crass bloodsuckers. In addition to being an old timer eligible for a salary and military pension, Marginal was also a state employee who looked after the premises, a kind of glorified janitor. He was also eligible for state pension and health and other benefits and Social Security when the time came — a triple dipper. Like many of the Guard’s lifers he managed to avoid going to Ft. Carson with the rest of us or being levied to go to Vietnam, because he was needed to stay behind to mind the store. He didn’t know squat about what went on over there in the Nam.
I knocked on his door and he swiveled in his chair to snarl at me.
“See that push broom outside the door there. Get started on the hall. When you’re finished, you can sweep the hallways upstairs. Then, I’ll get you started on the rooms. I’ll let you know when you can have a smoke break.”
I shrugged. What else could I do? I started at his end of the hall, swept past his door. The more I swept and the further I got down the hall, the madder I became. At about three-fourths the way down the hall, it occurred to me that this was pure bullshit, another surrealistic enterprise. Where were the others? Was I just stupid? Was I doing Marginal’s job?
“Fuck this shit,” is what I said out loud.
I stomped down to his doorway and just stood there.
“What?” he growled.
“Sergeant Marginal, you see this broom stick?”
“Well,” I said as calmly as I could. “You can take this broom stick and shove it up your ass.”
“Hey,” he stood up. “You cain’t talk to me like ‘et.”
“Well, I just did. And furthermore, I’m walking out the front door, getting in my car and going home to fuck my wife.”
“Now, you wait just a minute, mister.”
“Don’t you ‘mister’ me. Those days are over. I just got back from Vietnam and I don’t need to take any shit off you or anybody else.”
“Ten-hut!” he shouted, which cracked me up, and I couldn’t stop laughing.
“Ten-hut!” he shouted again and I laughed louder, snorting as I laughed, silly and out of control.
“Fuck you, Sergeant Marginal, you asshole,” I said, turned, slammed the push broom at his feet and tromped down the hall.
I can still hear his voice — alternating between enraged and plaintive — echoing down the hall.
“Barr! Barr! You get back here!”
As looked back at him, the ragged old bastard, he looked pitiful. That was the only word for him — pitiful.
I kept going.
I almost felt sorry for him, the sorry loser. He sounded desperate and helpless.
I drove home. I thought my wife was going to have a breakdown then and there. She began crying, wringing her hands, yelling at me. I decided to go to the pet store and buy some guppies and neon tetra, dried flies and other fish food, and a lamp for my fish tank. My attitude was, “Come on, mofo. I’m here. Come on. Come get me. Let’s do it. Let’s have at it. Come on. Get it over.” I came home and my wife was gone. I found out later she had driven to a friend’s house to have her nervous breakdown du jour. I put on some Crosby, Stills and Nash, Bob Dylan, John Fogarty and Joan Baez, poured myself a major Scotch and began happily to assemble my fish tank while the guppies and neon tetra were becoming acclimated in their welcome home plastic bags at room temperature in the water in the kitchen sink. The phone rang four or five times but I was basically into the music and the Scotch and having a good old time in the peace and quiet of my new apartment. I relished the scent of new carpet and paint.
In the following days I waited for the police to show up. I went back to work and waited for them to march into my office. They never did. Four months later my honorable discharge arrived in the mail. I was done.
During the next year I started receiving medals and citations in the mail. I didn’t know what they were or why they were sent to me. I only opened them to see what they were and tossed them into my wooden souvenir box with the rest of my Vietnam crap. Many years later when I decided I needed to see someone about my PTSD symptoms I was asked to show my DD-214. I had no idea what it was. It is, in fact, a short, typically one page, official record of one’s military service. Some men have been caught lying about being in Vietnam or about what they did there. The DD-214 does not lie and it is very difficult to forge or alter. I had never looked at mine. It was included in a large envelope with my orders. My VA psychiatrist asked me to read aloud Section 24, “Decorations, Medals, Badges, Citations, and Campaign Ribbons Awarded Or Authorized.” It reads, “National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Bronze Star Medal.” That was the first time I knew I was considered to be a decorated veteran. I am still baffled by it. Who knows? Maybe I did something at Tay Ninh they thought was special. After I moved to Colorado in the mid 1990’s my second wife urged me to display them in a curio. I was reluctant to do so because I didn’t want to have that memory contaminating my home but I didn’t want to make it an issue so I finally agreed. Not long after, returning from a business trip, we found them stolen. Worse, the thief had also taken a pair of brand new jungle boots I had managed to smuggle home in my souvenir box. I had actually worn them once on a hike but had forgotten about the necessity of breaking them in and they rubbed huge blisters on my heels and bottoms of my feet. In a vaguely paranoid way I still felt the war tearing at my soul.
I have never claimed to be a war hero, to have run up a hill to take out a machine gun emplacement, step in front of a bullet to save another soldier’s life, cover a grenade or lead a platoon into a firefight. I think about sending the medals back. They still hang in frames on an obscure wall in a storage room. I could toss them in the trash. I don’t know what keeps me from doing so. Maybe I think it would be disrespectful to those who wanted me to have them.
The idea that real war heroes do not or should not talk about their service is a stereotype and cliche’. Who knows how much better off the combat veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam might have been if they had, how much lower the incidence of alcohol and drug addiction, how much lower the divorce rate, the number of suicides. The myth of the tight lipped, tough guy, hard core soldier has no doubt caused more tragedy than can ever be measured. I say, “Good for them,” the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who do have the courage to share their experiences and empty themselves of negative feelings. Real men learn how to do this and pass along what wisdom they may have acquired to others.
Soon after the medals arrived I began receiving some checks and deposited them in my savings account because I thought they were mistakes and I might have to return the money. They stopped after several months and I was glad they did. I needed the money but it was not the kind of money I wanted. I didn’t want anything from the army. Nothing. It was simply a muddle to me.
I spent a lot of time sitting in front of my fish tank in our new apartment mesmerized by the fins and tails of the colorful tropical fish and thought of Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate,” doing the same, trying to make some sense of his life. My wife was getting worse and I wasn’t able to concentrate at work. It was hard for me to talk to people, to go to old favorite places, to be interested in much of anything. I was still over there. Days passed in anger, resentment and confusion.
Driving my Volkswagon Beetle home from the grocery store one Saturday afternoon, I came back from my daydream of Vietnam and saw the middle of a red Buick a few feet in front of me. The crash pushed in the snub nose of my revered little car and both doors of the Buick. The half gallon of whiskey, the quarts of gin and vodka I bought at the store were thrown from the passenger seat and shattered at my feet, and bits of glass shot across the floor mats. Until the day I gave away the little biege VW I called, “Tan What Am” — alluding to Dr. Suess — the first car I ever owned, I could hear the broken glass crunch under the accelerator pedal.
That night I had a talk with myself. I had to get my act together. I was endangering my marriage, alienating my friends and doing poorly at the job I hated at the reinsurance company. My poor young wife had lost her noodles and I had to be on the ball day and night.
I decided to swallow Vietnam and try to forget it. I stayed up late the night of the accident writing a long poem I called, “Red Autumn,” which I have since lost. I put it away in a drawer and shoved the drawer shut, I thought, forever.
I said or wrote little about Vietnam until 1983. I was vacationing on the island of Nantucket and as I walked through the lobby of the hotel on my way to breakfast the banner headline, “200 Marines Killed In Beirut,” flashed at me from a newsstand. My submerged rage about Vietnam returned in a rush. Months later, flying home to Kansas City, I read a quote given to the New York Times by the chaplain of the Marine battalion landing team in Lebanon who suffered the loss. He lamented that his men wouldn’t talk about the bombing and the incident had become a ghost. “Sometimes,” he said, “you have to look the ghost in the eye.”
That image forced me to look at my own ghost and I wrote a series of poems that became a book entitled, “The Eye Of The Ghost,” about what I had seen and felt and what I had heard from others in Vietnam. The last poem of the book begins, “Today I wrote my last Vietnam poem / fifteen years after the fact.” I really did believe I had written my last poem about the Vietnam War and I wanted it to be the end of my thinking and daydreaming about the war. I still fear that the more I think and talk and write about the Vietnam War, the more I will become captive to it. I don’t want to feel that I have lost my personal, internal battle with the politicians, diplomats and generals who allowed their arrogance and ignorance to lead so many young men to their deaths. I have been told this is a grandiose, paranoid thought. It may be.
But there has been no last poem, and I wonder if there will ever be one. I have written more poems about the war and I undoubtedly will write even more. I think about the war every day. At first I wept to myself when I saw newscasts on Veteran’s Days and vets taking rubbings off The Wall. I saw how old they had become at such a young age and how tormented they looked.
Through the years I have been divorced and remarried, raised two children, helped start and sell a successful business, and retired from the working man’s world at the age of 49 to escape unregulated and corrupted capitalism, the kind that slaughters and exploits so many innocent women and children, so many boys, men and women who only ask for a little peace and joy in their lives.
Ironically, because of what I learned in the war, I found that the business game was not so difficult after all. It was full of cliches and shallow, cliched little men who knew very little about how to create, produce or sell things or how to make money, many of whom could hide their incompetence and enjoy a lifetime of job security by just being born into Old Boys Clubs. I felt fearless standing toe to toe with hapless Wall Street types and Fortune 500 bullies. Luck was a huge factor too. By absorbing the guerrilla tactics I had watched work so well for the Viet Cong, I had been given a step up. I literally became, much to my surprise, a legend in the international specialty insurance market. Lloyds of London was one of my most loyal backers. By insuring media companies against claims for libel, slander and other First Amendment lawsuits — in effect insuring free speech — I was able to make money and help advance a cause I believed in at the same time. My company contributed from the sidelines in defending the lawsuit that General Westmoreland brought against CBS for the documentary, “The Uncounted Enemy,” that exposed the falsification of enemy body counts by the army under his command and at his direction. Giving him the finger on Cheyenne Mountain had come full circle.
In Vietnam I decided that if life was going to be a game I would play it smarter, better, faster, but this time around I was going to play it honestly and with as much integrity as I could find within myself. I found that the business game could actually be transformed into a meaningful service to others.
When I reached a moment when it made sense to sell the business, I hoped to step out of the whirlwind and find peace in my life but the ghost of Vietnam haunted me with a vengeance. I moved to a villa I had built in the Caribbean, a beautiful place with a Moorish style red tile roof and clean, white tile. In the stillness of the beach and the soothing sounds of the ocean, the monsters of the war returned. My nights were racked with ghoulish nightmares and my days by an inner turbulence so troublesome I could not concentrate on anything more than a few minutes. I had outbursts of anger, followed by days filled with lethargy and hopelessness. I drank too much. I grew anxious and suspicious, withdrawn. I found it difficult to converse with all but a few people and I isolated myself. It took a powerful antidepressant and years of therapy before I could settle down and try to be myself again.
One of the physical reminders of the war is a constant ringing in my ears, a condition called tinnitus. At various times, it sounds like the shaking of broken glass in a bag, cicadas buzzing or a high pitched tone. A few months after my return my hearing was so impaired I asked to be tested by an audiologist. He found that the nerve endings in the higher ranges of hearing had been destroyed by firing the M-16 rifle, the M-60 and the M-50 machine guns and being near mortars without the protection of earguards. He urged me to file a claim with the VA to document my condition but I wanted so desperately to be free of the military that I ignored his advice. I have met a number of Vietnam vets, now in their late fifties and sixties, who also have impaired hearing from similar exposure to the firing of weapons. There is no cure for tinnitus. The war will always be with us in that way.
In 2006, drinking heavily, feeling worthless and depressed, I went to VA for counseling and medication. At the mental health unit I met a psychiatrist who was a pioneer in post-traumatic stress disorder. After I told him the story of my welcome home steak, he reached over his desk, took my hand, looked me in the eye, shook my hand and said, “Welcome home.”
I was overcome. True or not, I could not remember anyone ever saying that to me. I cried in my own arms on the worn wood of his desk.
It was then it occurred to me I had not cried for many years, not about anything. Then and now, I have grown cold inside. The psychiatrist told me:
“Sometimes the old nerve endings just burn out.”
I think about the war every day, several times a day. Instead of counting sheep I go to sleep plotting assassinations. If someone crosses me, I put them down in my thoughts. I am sometimes not in the present. This, the psychiatrist told me, is called disassociation. My second wife of thirty years tells me I will suddenly become cold and blank. That look frightens her.
A philosophy professor visiting our Colorado home in the 1990’s and who had read some of my poetry looked up at our magnificent view of the mountains one morning, extended his arms and said, “But where is the angst?” I could have told him everything or nothing. I could only shake my head.
In 2007 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer which has been attributed to my exposure to Agent Orange. To my knowledge, no one in my family or extended family has ever been diagnosed with it. I am the only member of my family to have served in Vietnam. It has been successfully treated so far by radiation therapy which scarred my prostate gland and affected my sex life. I must now take expensive medication not fully covered by VA to try to continue with the healthy sex life my wife and I enjoyed prior to my diagnosis and treatment.
Some soldiers were not as lucky as I was. They lost their genitals in combat. It’s one thing to steal a man’s heart and soul, another to take his manhood from him.
I have been lucky to have found a second wife who loves and puts up with me and to have fathered two remarkable children. My daughter inherited her biological mother’s schizophrenia and she died a few years ago at the age of 34 of a massive seizure. Sadly, I had no tears for her. Perhaps even more costly for me than the loss of tears, is that I have never regained my sense of joy. Then again, I think about the vets who had to endure heavy combat on a regular basis, who were forced to see and be a part of even more horrifying events, who carried the bodies of wounded and lifeless friends and I am grateful that I did not have to be there with them.
I watch them, the boys, men and women who were there, on the streets searching trash bins and gutters for leftover food and booze and cigarette butts, living in forests and mountain camps, searching for something else they find difficult to name. I see them mired in themselves as deeply as their boots were mired in rice paddy mud. They are still trying to leave Vietnam and come home, to discover the magical key that will unlock that place in the mind where peacefulness lives. For them, a welcome home steak was not enough. They still serve.
They didn’t need medals or statues or posthumous parades or monuments. They only needed to be welcomed home as were veterans from other wars were welcomed home. They didn’t need to have to fight and beg and sue for compensation for their wounds. They needed to be cared for and listened to. They didn’t need preaching and AA meetings. They needed for someone to explain why they had to sacrifice so much for so little. They needed to know that their feelings of confusion and torment were a realistic response to an immoral situation and not to their own craziness.
Many had been told by their fathers or uncles or by judges that going to Vietnam would make men out of them and teach them to respect their country. They had been told the war would help them to realize how much they had and how blessed they were. And as they chewed their welcome home steaks, they swallowed these lessons in tough, charred bites. Now in middle and old age themselves, they want to move beyond Vietnam, but they don’t know how. They continue to wander, as if in a reoccurring nightmare, in the jungles and rice paddies and rubber plantations of another country. Behind their backs they feel the blast and stink of a Chinook, the smell of blood, death, burning excrement and JP 4.
I do not feel guilt over anything I did in Vietnam. Guilt is not in my vocabulary for I believe it to be a cover for the anger we feel towards other people or “God” and then turn on ourselves for fear of reprisal. I do not feel guilt for the actions of my fellow soldiers or of those who acted in good faith or out of gullibility who were deceived by the lies they had been told. I do not hold Lieutenant William Calley who commanded the My Lai Massacre innocent of his actions but I am also aware of the double bind and frustration that may have led him to order the killing of innocent civilians. As he testified at his court-martial:
“I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy…That was my job on that day. That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women and children.”
What is perhaps not so obvious in his statement is the fact that many Vietnamese men and women at one time or another also served as soldiers and committed atrocities and that children were used as human weapons, and that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were often brutally cruel in torturing, dismembering and killing American soldiers. During the Tet Offensive of 1968 it is alleged that they savagely killed close to 5,000 of their own Vietnamese civilians during the fighting at Hue.
Human beings have behaved in these ways in all wars. They are charged with disabling and killing the enemy and in this process of attack and counterattack can become corrupted themselves.
What I feel is regret that the American soldier was thrown into these circumstances for all the wrong reasons. It was not our war.
Rather, I am ashamed of those Americans who led us into the war and those well knowing after it began that it could not be won, that it was a mistake and a lie in the first instance. The words of Robert McNamera are too obtuse to explain his acquiescence and complicity as Secretary of Defense in continuing the war long after he realized this indisputable fact, or why he waited so long to openly express his misgivings until after his resignation. But it is clear from his book, “In Retrospect,” despite his frequent equivocations and rationalizations, that his regret runs deep. At least, he tried to fess up. I honor him for that.
History has revealed and will continue to make known motives and conduct and how leaders in the future can learn from the mistakes of the Vietnam War, and now in the Iraq and Afghan wars, if only they will humble themselves enough to study history and accept its lessons. I do not believe in “Truth” with a capital “T” but look for forensic-based facts. The facts of history and their consequences, if ever fully known, often are not available for decades or centuries after events occur. This has been true of the Vietnam War. Some of the facts are these:
It officially began on November 1, 1955 and ended on April 30, 1975. The escalation of the war in 1964 grew from a lie known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The war was thereafter conducted with arrogance, incompetence, political motive and deception and ended in complete chaos and disgrace in a surrealistic event atop the U.S. embassy in Saigon that was televised for the whole world to see. For most U.S. citizens it was not much more than a television war anyway, broadcast and watched in snippets on the evening news. Estimates of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who died as a result of the war range from two to five million. 58,159 U.S. Armed Forces were killed. In 2011, it was estimated that as many as 150,000 Vietnam veterans had committed suicide. The number of broken marriages, displaced children and PTSD victims resulting from the war can only be inferred, but anecdotes are many. For all of that, nothing much was accomplished in the defense of our country. All the lies, arrogance, ideology, demagoguery, political and social turmoil, corruption, wasted time, money and resources, alienation of our youth, death, broken bodies and souls, and shattered ideals came to naught. The cost was too high.
This says nothing about lost time, lost wages and careers, the boredom, monotony and forced labor that is imposed on draftees as has been the result for those conscripted in unjust wars throughout history.
The politics, personal motives and arrogance of the perpetrators can be heard in their own words:
Lyndon Johnson, 1964: “If I left (the war in Vietnam) and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser…”
Lyndon Johnson, 1965, privately on the Gulf of Tonkin incident: “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”
Ronald Reagan, 1965: “We should declare war on North Vietnam…We could pave the whole country and put parking strips on it, and still be home by Christmas.”
Richard Nixon, 1969: “I am not going to be the first American president to lose a war.”
They might have listened instead to what Ho Chi Minh said to the French in the late 1940’s. “You can kill ten of my men for every one of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.”
Harry Truman might have given ear to Ho Chi Minh in 1947 when he begged for U.S. intervention against French tyranny in Vietnam. He might have recognized the work that Ho Chi Minh had done on our behalf during World War II in rescuing American pilots who had been shot down over Southeast Asia. Eisenhower might have noticed how badly the Viet Minh defeated the French in 1954 at the battle of Dien Bien Phu instead of blindly accepting the questionable Domino Theory that predicted the fall of one Southeast Asian nation after another to Communism if the war for liberation in Vietnam succeeded.
In 2000, I returned to Vietnam. Other than an abundance of motor bikes and a few fancy hotels not much had changed. The people in the countryside were still terribly poor with annual incomes averaging $150 or less. I visited the cemeteries of the more than two million we killed in defense of… well, what? Wealthy Vietnamese collaborators, French corporations like the Michelin Rubber Company? I mourned for the little ones whose lives disappeared in the bombing, were torn in the strafing, horribly scorched and scarred by napalm, had their young bodies poisoned by Agent Orange.
And why were we forced to serve in their war for liberation? Those whom we needed to be fighting for, not against? That’s what still plagues us, myself and the veterans I know and talk with about it. We grasp for reasons and purpose in flashbacks and dreams. Our brains replay the days and nights, the screams, the sounds of machine gun fire and explosion of bombs. We hear the songs we danced and partied to, see the faces of the young women we left behind. We taste again the ashen bitterness of our Welcome Home Steak.
These are the things politicians and their constituents who have never been in combat need to think about before they wave the flag and pound their chests and recklessly cheer about patriotism and waging wars, they who’ve never seen the dead and dismembered body of a soldier on the ground. In real wars there is no romance, no music in the background, no soldiers charging up hills, no cavalry riding to the rescue, no credits at the end, no Oscars or critic’s choice. And they wonder why the American flag is dishonored, not only by some Americans but by others abroad. Respect is not something that is automatically given; respect is a special regard that must be earned from one day to the next.
They need to think instead about what really happens when they start a war, about the soldiers they send into battle, what happens when they return, the soldiers who reach out into lost autumns for leaves of hope and repatriation that senselessly scatter before them.