I was a line dog in the Nam the first time around. I enlisted for airborne infantry (paratroopers) shortly after I turned 17. I was still 17 when I got out of jump school (Aug,'66) so they sent me to Panama. (Couldn't go to Vietnam untill you were 18)
I could have stayed there my whole tour but I enlisted to fight--I wanted to see combat. My Dad was a combat vet, my uncles were combat vets and I saw it as the ultimate test. ( and it is, but of what I'm not sure) I volunteered for Vietnam the day after I turned 18. (Dec '66)
They didn't approve my requests immediately like George Bush got all his requests approved, so it was April 67 by the time I got there.
I was a grunt with the 101st Airborne for my first 5+ months there. The 101st traveled light and traveled hard--after the first week of preliminary training and acclimatization, I slept every one of the next 160+ nights on the ground, rain or shine. The motto of the 101st was "Rendezvous With Destiny," but it should have been "Homeless People With Guns." Its hard to imagine a war like Iraq where they go back to a safe (comparatively) bed, good chow, days off.
Our "days off" were usually spent in some fire base, leaning on sandbags. We "showered" just by pouring a can of water over ourselves, or just wading into a creek and lying down.. I didn't get one hot shower this whole time and I can count the hot meals they gave us in the field on one hand. But that was war as our fathers knew it too so it wasn't entirely unexpected.
they liked to keep the grunts out in the field all they can, theyre discipline problems back on base. Sorta hard on the grunts, but thats war.
During this time, one of the things I took part was what they called operation Roundup---basically going through a valleyy (the Song Ve)rounding up all the inhabitants and their livestock and putting them on trucks for a refugee caamp. then we burned down their houses and the whole place became a free fire zone. Although we didn't know it then, our battalion recon team, the Tigers was coming along behind killing whoever didn't go (this was called the Tiger Force massacre--google it for more info)
This was the worst job in the world and the worst job to give young highly motivated guys that really were there trying to save the world. Everybody hated it--and it was obvious the Vietnamese hated us for it. I have regrettted taking part in that my whole life but I was just a kid trying to stay alive and get home in one piece.
I saw then that we were going to lose the war--that there was no way these people would ever support us after this. We treated them like the enemy. And they knew it.
I have to address here what a racist war it was--and how could it not be? We were a racist country with institutionalized racism--for over half the life of the Vietnam war to supposedly bring the Vietnamese basic human rights we denied our own citizens basic American rights because of thier color. (Think the Vietnamese didn't know that?) we called the Vietnamese gooks, dinks, slopes, whatever came into our heads and we definitely treated them like they were just dumbass little people to shove around to our own needs.
Racism was the company culture..... and I bought into it, just like everyone else. As the saying went: " We're not racists--our niggers hate the gooks too." ( I am NOT making any of this up!)
One day, after the biggest battle I was in, I was sitting in the rain trying to open a can of breakfast with a bayonet and this captain approached me and asked me if I wanted to join the lrrps. I didn't really know what this was but I had the feeling it couldn't be worse than this (and I was right!) I stood up, gave away everything I had, stuck my .45 in my pocket and followed him away, to go to Recondo School. (this captain was shot dead a few days later riding in a helicopter)
They were forming up a new lrrp company. Lrrp stands for Long Range Recon Patrol and they called us The Poor Man's Special Forces. A lrrp is a very heavily armed spy dressed up like a bush. What we did, mostly was patrol in 5 and 6 man teams along the western border of what was then called II Corps. this is the Cambodian Border and what we were watching was the Truong Son Route--what we called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This was actually an extensive series of trails and we would watch the worker ants carrying the war supplies down the Trail, occasionally capturing or killing a few, maybe planting a few mines and booby traps of our own, callling air support on them and Artillery when it was available. (Paybacks a bitch, aint it?)
the lrrps were later renamed Rangers in Jun '69: went to bed lrrps and woke up rangers.(after I had been discharged--All the lrrps were grandfathered into the Ranger Association, even though we didn't go to Ranger School.)
we would be so far out we'd have to post teams half way to relay radio messages. we didn't usually have artillery support we were so far out, just air support. And there was no one out there but us--and a lot of North Vietnamese who were all looking for us, trying to kill us. We would call ourselves "Only Law west of the Drang" because, well, we were (this is actuaally a misnomer: the Drang runs east to west)
It would get very exciting sometimes: for instance once they dropped us almost right on a platoon of NVA. Another time, quaking in the bushes, I was peed on unwittingly by a heavily armed hostile peasant who was looking for me to kill me. (Did I say he had lots of friends nearby?) another time a reinforced company, about 200 men, set up camp right next to where were, all around us and it took us all night to crawl out. Lots of exciting times, no doubt! But it was still better than being a 101st grunt--got hot chow, showers and beds occsionally, a chance to go downtown. If i hadn't joined the lrrps, I wouldn 't have had any fun at all in Vietnam, and no error.
I was the pointman/asst team leader most of the time. the key attribute to a point man was being first to pull the trigger. I didn't think I was going to survive. You have to accept your own death in order to function in combat. Thats the thing you never come back from. When you walk up to the edge and look over a long time, it stays with you.
And you understand how cheap your life really is...and you think if your life is that cheap, so is everyone else's.
I left Vietnam in Apr 68 after a year, was given an early out for college in Jan 69, age 20. It was almost a year before I was old enough to vote or buy a beer in my home state (Ca)
I walked away from Vietnam swearing that was one place in the world, I'd never go back to. I got involved in protesting in a minor way, was on the New Mobe committee in my junior college. I thought the wwar sucked and from my own on the spot observations knew it would never be won (by us)--I saw too much moving down the Trail going completely unchecked. They needed more law up on the Drang
but time goes by, things change, so do people. Set the Wayback machine forward to 2003, Sherman, and we find your boy heading back. I had to see it again--it was the biggest part of my life--the most important thing I ever did. And I wanted to see if I was brave enough to walk around Vietnam unarmed.
I went with my wife and another Vietnam vet and his wife, a two tour vet with the 101st and 82d.
I was compleeely blown away by what I saw. I sorta expected a rigid regimented country like NKorea. but it wasn't at all, at least out front. Didn't see any armed police outside of airports, frinstance. The Vietnamese are like no one else.
One of the things I saw first was what a racist I'd been--that we'd all been. It was easy to push these people around when they wore black PJs and cone head hats, they looked so... so...foreign. But now they look just like people you'd see at any mall in our country. They looked....just like....people. Hard hats and soccer mommies, business executives and store clerks, cops and firemen.
I was overwhelmed with shame that we thought different--and it was our downfall. we completely underestimated these people due in large part to our own racism. Thats why we lost--we didn't deserve to win.
We went out to Cu Chi--the tunnels are a major tourist attraction now all set up with tours, snack bars, even cables in the parking lots for tour buses. Crawling through these tunnels, I though again--how did we ever think we could beat these people?
The stores were bursting with cheap Chinese junk--just like Walmart. There seemed plenty to go around but what struck me most was the kids. When I was there the first time, you couldn't go anywahere without little kids tagging after you begging for food or money or pimping their sisters. Now they were approaching me tryig to test out their English, which they learn in school. I'd walk by a school and they'd all be lined up waving and saying hello hello...and I'd be choking back tears. I did not see one beggar my whole two weeks there, no whores, no sleazy bars...and no kids begging. Theyre doing SOMETHING right there, anyway.
we drove from Ho Chi Minh city up to Ban Me Thuot and then Pleiku. This road paralells the old Trail, I used to be on it a lot.. All the houses I saw, even the shacks had electricity and TV antennas sticking out. There was much new construction going on, houses and roads. Every little ville had a vidoe rental place, there were faxes and internet cafe's all over.
North of Ban Me Thuout, we found where the old helicopter base was we worked out of. I was mortared, shelled and rocketed here for two days during the Tet offensive after they ran me out of town barefoot (I said there was exciting times, didn't I?) My friend had also spent time there.
When we found where it had been, it was now ....wait for it....a waterslide park. I could not stop the tears coming up--the best use of a old military base I ever saw. I think thats what I needed to go back to see.
I didn't hardly see any trace at all of the "American War," the Vietnamese have moved way beyond that. I think it means a lot more to us than them now.
One thing for sure--going back convinced me that protesting that war and getting out as soon as posssible WAS the right thing to do. Having come back and protested it made it a lot easier for me to look the Vietnamese in the eye.
In perhaps the most ironic twist to the war, we got what we wanted after all--a friendly country, a trade partner with a government that satisfies its peoples needs. I have no doubt that within my lifetime Vietnam will be approaching something like a democracy.
We won! And all we had to do was pack up and go home. Bush read this completely wrong, probably because the closest he got to Vietnam during the war was El Paso. If we had stayed longer, we'd still be fighting that war. And all we had to do was pack up and leave.
I think the Vietnamese have a message for us: The war is over---you can go home now. Thats what I went back to learn.