Peace and War in the Heartland - Veterans Stories - A005


Sergeant in Viet Nam 6/1969 to 4/19/1970 - A005

I was born October 22, 1947.

I was drafted into the US Army in May of 1968. Believe it when folks say they got a letter that started out with “Greetings.” That is true. I did my initial training in Missouri and was sent to Fort Gordon Georgia where I was trained as a Military Policeman. I tried for the Army Band but was told I was tone deaf. The odd thing is that I am a musician and can tune a piano with the proper tools.

My first “tour” of duty was in the US at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico desert. This is the same place where the atom bomb was tested and there is literally nothing out there but snakes, rabbits and Roadrunners. To this day I am not sure what in the world I was guarding but they gave me live ammo for my pistol so it must have been important to someone. During this period of time the way it worked was ½ of the guys you went to training with went to Nam and the others did stateside service. After about 9 months they came home from Nam and then we went.

I landed in Saigon in June of 1969. My first recollection was when we got on the military bus to take us to a barracks area for assignment I noticed there were bars and wire mesh on the buses. I asked what that was for and found out it was to prevent hand grenades etc. from entering via a window. My first assignment was being stationed in a dug out bunker at the huge Long Binh base. After a couple weeks of being surrounded by snakes, having a scorpion on my neck and shooting a cobra I volunteered for the “tower duty.”

I was 60 feet in the air and a perfect target but at least there were no critters. I was then trained as a Forward Observer and that meant I went out into the “Bush” two times a week and if the enemy was spotted I called in artillery or helicopter gun ships. Funny thing is that in the southern part of Viet Nam the enemy did not wear uniforms so no one knew who was who at any time.

While trudging through the jungle and the perimeter area it was obvious that something was killing off the vegetation. Later in my life I realized it was the defoliant Agent Orange and it has since had devastating effects on soldiers who served over there. Many of my friends have been lost early in life to bizarre cancers or other diseases. It is an issue that is deeply concerning to me.

There were two seasons in Viet Nam. Monsoon and Dry. The monsoon season is something that must be experienced to believe. Just think of 4 to 5 rainstorms a day where you swear the rain came from the ground as it was so terribly wet nothing stayed dry. My feet were wet for at least 4 months and weapons had to be well maintained as the M-16 rifle had a bad habit of jamming. The dry season was hot, 110 degrees etc. Your rifle became filled with dust and debris so once again keeping them clean was imperative. Trust me if you were ever walking through a knee deep in water rice paddy the last thing you wanted was for your rifle not to work.

Being in a “rear” unit most of the time we had 9 days on and one day off and the shifts were 12 hours. After getting back to base you usually went to a soldiers club and drank till you fell over or ran out of money. After reaching the rank of Sergeant I was able to go to the nicer clubs and drink hard liquor. Most soldiers during this period either drank a lot, smoked dope a lot or did both. Drugs were not something one did much of while on a patrol but once back at base anything was possible and always available.

We lived in what one called a “hootch” and we had a young girl that did laundry etc. for us. Our house girl - called a “baby san” because she was so young - was eventually killed in the wire one evening as she was attempting to sneak back on base as it turns out she was Viet Cong. The alleged enemy.

After about 3 months “in country” as a real combat veteran will call it, I pretty much went the way of the drug user and alcoholic. Drugs were so available and so cheap that many many soldiers became addicted and soon became demoralized as we saw the people in the states were having fun and the music was awesome and we wanted to be part of it.

At no time did I feel that protests in the US were demoralizing to me simply because they wanted us home and out of a non winnable situation. This could be called my awaking period. No longer did I think any of this was worthwhile. I took terrible and risky chances while on patrol. I disappeared for days in Saigon and my friends found me and basically saved my life by getting me out of the section of Saigon where no one in their right mind would go.

Like most soldiers I received my “Dear John” letter in a different way. The girl I had been going with for years had her picture in the section of my hometown newspaper and she was in her wedding gown. Well that pretty much did it for me. I got into fights, drank, smoked and just did not care. All I wanted to do was go home like my friends did.

I think it important to mention racial tensions back then. Being that I was a musician and I even had a cheap guitar over there I hung around with some pretty hip folks. Many were black and back then the handshake between “soul brothers” was unique. I was raised in the south near St. Louis Missouri and my family even had a Black Nanny so I had come a long way. I learned that color makes no difference in a war. What you worried most about was can the soldier next to you shoot straight and can they help you in a bar fight. One of my dearest friends was named Vince Braithwaite. Vince was from New Jersey and he just happened to be black. Vince and I became true soul brothers and I was accepted into the comradeship of the black soldier community. To this very day I remember his face and his smile and what he meant to me.

As I close my brief story the one thing that stands out more than anything is that during Viet Nam soldiers did not go over in Units as they do today. We also came home usually alone. One day you are sitting with your friends and the company clerk says pack your bags you are going home. Naturally you have nothing much to pack and you say your goodbyes to people you have fought with, and have depended on for almost a year to protect your life if need be. The friends you have that are currently on duty in the field or whatever you cannot say goodbye to.

You get on a jeep and head for the airport. You promise all that you will write etc. but you really only have one thing on your mind. You are headed back to “The World” on the “Freedom Bird.” After a few years you realize that you will never see any of these friends again. You did not come home together so you have no home addresses etc. It is only by chance that you may meet one of them in the future. That did happen to me but I still think and cry once in awhile about those I loved but never saw again. I think of Vince and wonder is he alive? Dead? This was one of the real horrors of the war in Viet Nam. I thank God that soldiers today do not have these issues.

Blessings and Peace. Sergeant US Army 1968-70, President, Veterans for Peace, Mpls.




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