American Native Press Archives and Sequoyah Research Center
Vietnam Powwow: The Vietnam War as Remembered by Native American Veterans [a machine-readable transcription]
By Robert Sanderson, University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Figure 1. "Relief Map of Vietnam - Courtesy of The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin."
Without a doubt, this project would not exist had my friend and colleague, Dr. Steve Anderson, not conceived of "the idea." In the fall of 1993, Steve approached me with an idea about editing a collection of narratives about the Vietnam War that focused specifically on Native Americans. Since that time the project has undergone several transformations; however, I will always be indebted to Steve and I'm grateful for his participation.
Writing, any writing, is in my opinion a courageous undertaking. To be sure, I would lack such a virtue had not Ms. Jeannie Moss not mentored me, edited much of my work, and encouraged me in developing an "ease" with the creative process. But more importantly, she evoked from within me the "courage" to write. Thank you, Jeannie.
Of course, none of this material would exist without the sacrifices, charity, and gifts of those individual American Indians from various tribes who offered their stories. It is to these men and women, and the tribes they represent, that I want to pay homage and in this way honor their contributions to the United States and their own sovereign nations. Welalin.
I would be remiss if I did acknowledge the efforts and fine work of others at UALR, particularly, my students. Monee L. Reed and Laura Tharp were two Independent Study students that conducted interviews of two Indians who provided narratives that appear in the collection. They were also involved in the formatting, editing, and organizing of the narratives along with Stuart Hoahwah, Scott Hodnett, Aprille Nersessian-Robertson, Amanda Shea Hubanks, John Hubanks, Shawn Shaw, and Allison Redding, who also wrote several biographical introductions to specific narratives. Also, I must mention my department's former Administrative Assistant, Ms. Prudence Martin, who transcribed much of the work from their initial field notes into a readable form. Prudence was quick with the keys of the keyboard, and "rescued" me from the painful process of administering a "hunt-n-peck" typing style that just about drove her insane. Thank you, Prudence, rescue me anytime.
Thank you to Carolyn Thompson for her significant work in encoding all these documents as well as lifting and optimizing tracks for the MP3s. Carolyn took Word documents and transformed them into web page features. She also researched the Text Encoding Initiative standards and brought the texts into compliance so that they are available world wide and through a variety of sources.
Finally, I am grateful to a few whose acceptance of me and support of my efforts, helped make this a successful project; namely Drs. Daniel F. Littlefield and James W. Parins, my friends and colleagues; and, of course, my wife Sonja and my son Ian, who have endeavored to persevere in all my treks.
The following is a collection of narratives written or spoken by Native American veterans about the Vietnam War. Currently, no such collection is available, a surprising absence in that Native Americans were perhaps the most widely represented group in the armed services during the time of the Vietnam War. According to the 1980 U.S. Census, 82,000 American Indians served in the military during the Vietnam era. Many, undoubtedly, found themselves in Vietnam. Yet, no major study to date has identified Native American veterans as a distinct socioeconomic group in that war. In fact, only recently has any significant attention been given to the social, economic, and cultural needs of Native Americans in general. It is time that Vietnam War era American Indian vets and their families be provided a forum for expressing their views and reflections on America's longest war. Hence, the purpose of this collection is to present in their own voices the experience of Native Americans during the Vietnam War era.
As we turn again and again to assess the meaning of Vietnam and its role in recent history, we find that the official view of the war, the one that could provide the big picture, is a strikingly limited one. It is limited because the experience in the field was not consistent with the accounts put together at the headquarters planning level. It is now commonly accepted that our quantitative accounts of the war body counts, weapons captured, villages `stabilized,' and refugees `resettled' can be highly misleading. Often the figures were outright misstatements. Often, our leaders were telling us what they hoped was the case, what should have been, or what could have been. In short, the war that we were told was happening was often not the real war at all.
No wonder, then, that in the pursuit of the meaning of Vietnam, some researchers have gone the opposite direction from the official view. We now know that what individual soldiers saw, felt, and later reported has great value, despite the obvious limitations. As participants in any activity, we are radically limited in what we observe, and our later report is certain to be a kind of distortion. But this kind of individualized distortion could hardly be more distorted than the official view. And we now accept the premise that a collection of individualized views when taken together could correct a distortion, could clarify a picture.
What has become a standard in the field of Vietnam research are the unofficial histories, often in the form of collections of narratives volumes such as Bloods, Grunts, A Piece of My Heart, Nam, and In the Combat Zone. In these collections, several groups have now had the opportunity to present their experiences in Vietnam: Blacks, nurses, pilots, Special Forces, and so on. Our knowledge of the Vietnam War is richer, wiser, more complete, and more accurate because of these accounts. With them we are closer to understanding the events.
Among the annals and fables of the Vietnam War are many references to `Indian Country,' a term given by American troops to describe the territory held by their enemy, the Viet Cong. As a term, Indian Country conjures images of the unfamiliar terrain inhabited by blood thirsty, heathen savages of American western folklore. Reminiscent are the war-whooping raiders of the Great Plains tribes, circling the covered wagons and the charge of the U.S. Cavalry. Ironically, however, in Vietnam there were no Indian war parties, no attacks on covered wagons, and when the U.S. Cavalry charged into battle, it had the enlisted support of Native Americans whose ancestors were the targets of former U.S. policies in another series of conflicts known as the Indian Wars. Gone were the old myths about the revival of a Pre-Columbia Native America. Gone, too, were the old myths about vanquished Indians being left to vanish on Federal Indian Reservations. A new portrait of Native Americans began to emerge during the Vietnam era. This new American Indian was more independent, autonomous and possessed a greater awareness of his place in American history and modem society. And, for many, the Vietnam War presented this emergent Native American with new opportunities.
After years of bearing the yoke of dependency, created in part by the misguided policies of a seemingly indifferent government, Native Americans began to arise as a more visible and active minority of the American population. It was during this time, when Native Americans were facing the problems of adjusting to contemporary life, that the Vietnam War was increasing its momentum. For many Native Americans, the Vietnam War presented a way out of the cycle of poverty experienced on government reservations. For others, it was a way of demonstrating patriotic pride, and following the warrior's path through active military service. Regardless of the reasons, approximately 82,000 Native Americans served in the military during the Vietnam War era.
The voices of these Native Americans have scarcely been heard. At a time when the chronicles of the Vietnam War have captured the reflections, thoughts and sentiments of many other groups and individuals, the voices Native Americans have remained relatively silent. If they remain silent, if their stories go untold, we risk once again having an incomplete and distorted history. We would be settling for a history with similar distortions to the previous histories that failed to account for the voices of other Native Americans who were instrumental in the cultural, political, and social development of the land we call America.
Steve Gano had just received his AA degree in junior college when he enlisted for three years of service in the United States military, expressing an interest in piloting helicopters. After aircraft maintenance school in Fort Eustace, Virginia, Gano became first-sergeant of his unit in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He fought in the Tet Offensive of 1968 before he had spent more than two weeks in service in Vietnam. Upon his return to the United States, he visited his parents before finishing his thirteen months of service as an instructor in Fort Steward, Virginia. He served in the Army Air Corps, 134th Assault Helicopter Unit (1967-1971) and later in the Montana National Guard (1980-1990). He established his own business in Big Ark, Montana, but was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder soon after he signed on with the National Guard in aviation. Gano spent a great deal of time in intensive therapy for his condition and currently works, through his church programs and other organizations, with Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD.
By Steve Gano
I was fresh out of high school in 1964, and the Vietnam war hadn't really progressed very far at that time. I was young, energetic, and anxious to get on with my life, so college at that time seemed to be the place to go. I spent two years in junior college, studying to be a commercial artist, with no idea what might be ahead for me. Unfortunately, Uncle Sam had other ideas, and they began to come into effect for me. A lot of my buddies were being drafted. That draft at that time was on the honor roll system. Get on the honor roll at college and keep your grades up, and you were pretty much exempt. I didn't have anything to worry about at that period. My grades were up, and I was doing well in college.
As I finished my last year of junior college and received my AA degree, I got to thinking more and more about serving my country because I was at that time young and patriotic. The Vietnam War was starting to build, and my main thought was to get into the war as fast as I could and get into the action so that I could save the U.S. from the communists. So I went down to my draft board and enlisted for a three-year hitch in the military, knowing that if I enlisted I would have my choice on what I wanted to do in the Vietnam War. My choice at that period was to fly helicopters. Helicopters seemed to be a good way to get in the war and to see the country and do things that I wanted to do. I was off and on my way.
My first duty station of course was basic training, at Fort Lewis, Washington. I was in the accelerated training program because they were trying to get us through the program and on our way to Vietnam. On weekends, my drill sergeant would take me out to the airfield to go through the helicopters, since he knew that's what I was interested in, but I didn't have a chance to ride in one at that time. After a six-week basic training course that should have lasted eight weeks I was sent to Fort Eustace, Virginia, where I went through aircraft maintenance school. I also learned how to fly, which crew chiefs in Vietnam were asked to do.
From there I was sent to Fort Bragg, NC, where we built our unit. Being the very first one to arrive, I was first-sergeant of the unit. As the men started to come in we started to put our unit together. When there were fifteen crew chiefs in the unit, we went up to Fort Hood, Texas, where we picked up brand-spanking-new Huey helicopters and flew them back down to Fort Bragg, where we trained with them. At this point in time, our training period was accelerated, and we put things together to go to Vietnam—weaponry, tents, anything we might need to build a camp over there. I distinctly remember scouring the countryside for refrigerators, ice-boxes, things we thought we might need over there to make us comfortable.
You've got to remember at this point we were still young and naive and extremely excited and gung-ho. After our time at Fort Bragg, the crew chiefs were sent up to Oakland, California, where we were put on a merchant marine aircraft carrier with all of our aircraft. It was a 21-day ride to Vietnam by way of this carrier. (The rest of the unit went to Vietnam by troop ship.) On the way over we listened to music and pretty much had free run of the entire ship, doing everything a teenager of that time could do. The excitement, the thrilling feeling of going to Vietnam was overwhelming. We just couldn't wait to get into the battle.
On the way over we rigged our aircraft with gun mounts. We built them up and basically got them ready for combat. We completely gutted the aircraft inside and out, took off the doors, did anything we could to lighten the load of the aircraft until we had just the basic flying machine with lots of weaponry. We made them into what Huey helicopters were supposed to be, the workhorse of Vietnam.
At this point in time we were getting closer to our destination, which was Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam, where a lot of your troop ships brought U.S. soldiers into the country. I can remember coming into Cam Ranh Bay. It was at night and we could see rockets and mortar flares off into the distance. The whole sky was lit up. Suddenly, our excitement turned to apprehension. We were anxious to get on the shore, but now didn't really know quite what to expect. We had no previous training or preparation for going to Vietnam. We were on our own.
The next morning we put all the blades on the helicopters and got them ready, then that afternoon we flew them to shore. Next, we got them ready to fly up to our camp on a piece of land called Phu Hep, half way up the provinces of South Vietnam. At this point in time, our commanding officer (who came in by troop ship) came over to the unit pad where I was stationed. He told me to take the aircraft and crew to a little outpost up in the northern province called Ban Me Thuot.
Well, it was getting close to Christmas time about then, and this was my first mission, mind you. I had no idea what to expect, because we weren't going to be with our main unit at all. We were on our own, attached to a ground unit up there. Before leaving we got the lettering put on the helicopter—at this time we were called the 134th Assault Helicopter Unit. We flew up to Ban Me Thuot, which took several hours from Cam Ranh Bay. It was just a little outpost dug into the hillside there. There were a few guys around to welcome us, and they were saying, ‘Hey, we have a helicopter now. This is great, you know. We can do our flying and see what we are supposed to see.’
Our main purpose at this little outpost was to fly the commanding officer around the surrounding area so he could look for enemy movement. Well, on the second day after we'd flown up there, we did pick up the commanding officer, and we proceeded to fly around the area looking for enemy movement that afternoon. Nothing out of the extraordinary seemed to be happening at that time, so we came back and landed. Well, it being Christmas Eve, some kids from the little town right next to Ban Me Thuot there came in and put on a Christmas play for us, which I thought was pretty impressive.
Hey, this was great, being fresh out of school and fresh into Vietnam. The smell of the palm trees, the beautiful countryside, and the people; it was exhilarating. I loved it. Of course, I hadn't seen any action, and I didn't know what to expect yet. So after the play was over, we proceeded to bed down, and I can remember dozing off and thinking, this isn't bad. Here I am in a strange country, the Republic of Vietnam, and I'm supposed to be in combat. It's relaxing. I don't know what to expect, but I'm at peace at this time.
All of a sudden I was awakened by the most hellish sound I'd ever heard in my life. It was mortar fire, cannon fire, and rockets. We were basically being overrun. It was the Tet Offensive of 1968, and the bunkmate who was sleeping below reached up and grabbed me and threw me down on the floor. He told me to grab a weapon, look out after him, hold off fire, and follow him. So I grabbed a weapon and took out after him and ran to the far edge of the compound and jumped into a bunker. There were people running all over the place, and screaming, and dead bodies lying all over the ground. The dead bodies, I realized, were Americans. They were not the enemy. I got into this bunker with this guy, and he started firing out into the dark. I looked out, and I couldn't see anything, but he said, ‘Just start shooting. Just start shooting.’
I had the M-60 that I took off the aircraft with my door-gunner. He was in the bunker next to me over on the other side and was basically doing the same thing I was. We were bewildered and didn't know what to do. Well, finally the flares started, and we saw bodies running back and forth out there, and we started firing out into the dark. I could see them dropping, but whether I was shooting them or somebody else I had no idea. I do remember my pucker power was being very well used at that point, and if I didn't get hemorrhoids out of that event, I guess I never will. But anyway, we kept firing into the dark until things finally started to quiet down.
Now I'm sitting there in the bunker with this bunk mate and my door-gunner came over, and there are two other guys sitting in there with me. We hear a noise. It's real still and quiet at this time, and we hear a noise over on the other side of these sandbags. I look over, and here's a Viet Cong dressed in his black pajamas and carrying a carbine, crawling through the barbed wire, just taking his own sweet time about it, lifting the barbed wire up, placing it behind him, and so forth.‘Hey, there's a Viet Cong crawling through the barbed wire there,’ I told one of the guys there. He said, ‘Kill him.’ I said, ‘Man, I haven't shot anybody.’ He said, ‘You're going to learn. You're not going to be one of the team until you kill him.’
So I had bought a sawed-off shotgun on the black market. I lifted it up—I remember pointing it over the top of the bunker—and literally blew the VC's head off. I looked at him for a minute, not believing what I'd done. I was kind of numb with the experience, but I couldn't explain the feeling at that time. They started patting me on the back and congratulating me, and saying, ‘You're one of us now, you're one of the guys.’ The first thing they did was put a gold stud in my belt. The air crew were all carrying snub nose .38s with a shoulder holster. (We had bought them on the black market down in Cam Ranh Bay.) They said, ‘Now for every confirmed kill you have you put a stud in that belt. That's going to the mark of your success over here in the Republic of Vietnam.’
That was the first person I killed in Vietnam. The next morning we flew right into a combat mission and started hauling bodies out off this hillside as fast as they were falling. A lot of them were Americans; a lot of them were the enemy. I couldn't tell, when they were putting them on board, whether they were alive or dead. They were stacking them in there like cord wood. I was just completely overwhelmed at the amount of death, and I didn't understand how I was supposed to be reacting. I basically went into state of shock. There were so many bodies on board we could hardly take the aircraft up, but once we got the aircraft airborne, I was able to get into where the bodies were and start sorting through them. I tried to sort out the ones that were dead and ones that were still alive and do what I could medically to save the ones that were alive. I remember this one American—he wasn't very old, he was a young guy—had a pretty large hole in his back, which I suspect came from a mine or something. I was able to put my fist in the middle of a poncho and shove it into the hole in his back and twist it . That was the only thing that stopped him from bleeding to death. I then realized that my main purpose for being in Vietnam was going to be to save lives, not to kill Viet Cong or NVA. At that point in time, things started to change.
By the time we got to the field hospital there was so much blood in the helicopter I couldn't tell if it was my own—if I was wounded or what. The only way I was able to tell was by taking off my clothes. The wash from the rotor blades would pick the blood up off the bodies and sling it back on me. I had it in my mouth, on my hands, and my flight gloves were so sticky with blood that they would actually stick to the gun mounts. That was about my second week in country. I got a real rude and fast awakening to Vietnam.
I then was sent on another mission out of Ban Me Thuot farther up north on the other side of a little area called Anh Ke. The First Air Cavalry was stationed there and we flew support for them. The door-gunner was a guy I had trained stateside with. I remember him very well. His name was Gary Lamb. We became extremely close friends, closer than brothers could possibly be. He was married and had a little baby, and he and his wife would invite me over to the house for dinner. The last thing his wife told me before we left Fort Bragg was to take care of Gary and make sure he came back safely. Me being single at that time, I assured her very much that I would. When we were on this flight at Anh Ke we were flying low-level support for convoys. We'd fly level along the road in front of the convoys trying to look for any kind of enemy movement on the side of the road. We were flying this one morning especially early and happened to spot some gooks running up the hillside off to the right of us. We swung the aircraft around and made another loop back to come over the top of them and got caught in a crossfire. One of the pilots was shot, my door-gunner was shot, and we nose-dived into the ground. We didn't do that much damage on the aircraft because we were low and going at a fairly slow rate of speed, but it was enough to shake us up.
Hey, this was the first time we'd been shot down. What a rude awakening, you know? Anyway, we hit the ground, and the first thing I did was to grab a machine gun off the mounts and set up a perimeter around the aircraft. I ran around the other side of the aircraft to get Gary and found him dead, shot through the neck. I was stunned, but we were also under attack. I knew if I didn't do something, we'd be overrun at that point and either killed or taken hostage.
The pilots were okay. One had a bullet wound in his arm, and I was able to wrap a bandage around that. They set up a perimeter in the front of the aircraft, and we managed to hold the enemy back long enough for the convoy to get up to where we were. Fortunately, that drove the enemy off. I was able to repair it on-site—it was mostly wiring and one fuel line that was shot out—and we flew it out. I would have loved to see the expression on the enemy's face.
Being the section leader over in Vietnam and in charge of all my crew chiefs, it was my duty to write Gary's wife. It was probably one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I literally prayed to God at that time, asking, you know, why, why is this happening? I don't understand this, you know. He was my best friend. I just can't understand it. The pain never did go away.
We flew back in that night. The fuel crews came out and patched up the holes and so forth. The next day, I flew the exact same mission with a new door-gunner. My door-gunners I picked from infantry, who had a waiting list of guys wanting the job. The infantry I would give my life for. They were super, excellent people, and if it wasn't for them, the other two times I was shot down I wouldn't be able to talk about this here and now. So I respect them completely and wholly.
We had another mission the next morning and flew over into a valley called Pleiku, which was under rocket attack at that time. I can remember seeing a lot of bodies on the ground and as we set down, there was an aircraft flying beside us in the tall elephant grass. As it was setting down, it blew up, so we pulled out immediately. We didn't know what had happened, if it was a rocket, or a mortar, or just what. But we pulled up and landed in a field to one side. The troops there started running over and throwing the wounded on board while we were still under fire. We went in because we knew it was our duty to save them, and we just didn't think twice about it. There were so many of them that it was just overwhelming. And I can remember the wounded they were hauling up to the aircraft, some of them minus legs and arms and some of them dying and screaming. I was holding them in my hands, and they were dying and begging me to help them. There was so little I could do, since I also had to man my machine guns and keep the enemy away from the aircraft. When the pilot got shot in the wrist, I had to take over one of the controls. It was all so overwhelming that I dropped down beside the aircraft on my hands and knees and put my head down in the dust and said, ‘Lord, I can't take this, I don't understand it, please stop it.’ And it was worse than it ever was. I remember that day was the day I stopped praying. I just said, ‘If I'm to die in Vietnam, I will die in Vietnam.’
If it's my time, it's my time—that thought gave me a different attitude about the war. You might say I came to enjoy it, to look forward to it. I became the gung-ho John Wayne type, just like everybody else over there. There was so much death, so much killing on an everyday basis that you just had to accept what was going to happen—it you get it, you get it. That made it a little bit easier to get through the war.
I think the sky pilots must have had a terrible time in Vietnam trying to counsel people—sky pilot was the slang name that we gave to a chaplain in Vietnam. They weren't able to hold church services, so they really couldn't do the duties that they were sent to Vietnam to do. I think a lot of them came up with the same kind of attitudes that we did. I basically rejected God at that point, so I was able to slide right though the war with no problem at all. Then it got to a point where we got things turned around, and we were actually looking forward to the killing. Not for the joy of it, but because it was exhilarating to be able to get out there and start firing away and taking out aggressions against people. We were losing a lot of our own people, some of them my close friends, friends I trained with in the states. I became so numb to it I couldn't cry for them anymore. I just couldn't do it. I had one gentleman in my unit who we called Mother. During our training back in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he was always the first one up in the morning who would bang on the garbage can lids and wake all of us up and make sure we got dressed. He was just a super likable fellow. We were flying a mission up out of Dak To, which is up in a northern province in Vietnam, where we'd pick up Montagnard villagers. We'd pick up the chief and fly him around the area and he'd tell an infantry officer and us where the enemy would be walking through the area that day. We would fly him around for two or three hours, then land and shut down the aircraft.
I remember one occasion I was walking around the village and meeting the villagers and, you know, smoking the peace pipe with them—the things you do with the villagers over there. Drinking their liquor just about knocked you on the butt. I was kind of walking around the village just checking things out and trading C-rations for pipes made out of copper and roots and so forth, and spent the rest of the afternoon there and got back in the aircraft and left. The next morning I assigned another crew to go out and fly the same mission, but that night they didn't come back. We couldn't go back in the village that evening, so we waited until daylight, and I remember looking down and seeing that the aircraft was sitting on the ground burned to a crisp. There were three bodies lying beside it on the ground, face down. We called the infantry, who set up a perimeter around the village and went in and checked out the huts. Then we were able to land. The doorgunner was in the burned helicopter. He evidently tried to run back to the aircraft when an enemy patrol surprised them in the village. He managed to get in behind the machine gun before they shot and killed him, then set fire to the aircraft. They evidently were going to take the two pilots and the crew chief, Mother, prisoner because their hands were tied behind their backs. They were lying on the ground face down, each with a bullet hole in the back of the head.
The guilt I felt at that point just about tore me up. I loved the doggoned guy like my own brother, yet I was the one who sent him on the mission. It also scared me because I was in there the day before. We put a stop to that type of mission fairly fast.
But time continued to go on in Vietnam, and we would fly various other missions. We flew a lot of river patrols, where we'd fly low along the river after 6 pm—the curfew on the river in Vietnam. Normally, any boats on the river after 6 pm were free fire because it was normally the enemy, hauling weapons down to South Vietnam. So we used to really try for those missions, so we could get out there and do a little bit of killing. At that point, we were looking forward to it. You know, to be able to shoot somebody was just, oh, the ultimate—the exhilarating part of the war.
I spent a lot of time after that in various camps, flying support for different groups. We did a lot of body runs. We took a lot of teams out, sometimes under fire. We took more risks than I can believe. The war was so accelerated, and in such a small piece of land that we were in combat action daily. There was never a day, seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, the entire year I was there (that I can recall) that we weren't in some kind of combat. It just became normal practice. It was just something you looked forward to, something we knew was going to happen.
We got so complacent that we went from wearing O.D. green t-shirts to white t-shirts. We quit the breast armor—became the gung-ho John Wayne types. I became close friends with a new door-gunner I got—Peewee, a little shrimp of a guy. He was excellent on the M-60's, and I became fairly close to him when we were flying a mission called Cyclops. We would fly level up and down these canyons firing door guns out to the side of the aircraft. A Vietnamese fixed-wing aircraft would fly behind with loudspeakers telling the enemy to give up, telling them they didn't have to be hunted down this way, didn't have to be shot at, and so forth. Give up and come back to us, they said. I remember flying down this one long, deep canyon when I was flying copilot. One of the pilots was back on the guns. We happened to fly out into an opening, right into an enemy patrol of NVA. Unfortunately, we were still in the canyon, and by the time we were able to pull out they put enough fire into the aircraft to sink us. We had one first sergeant on board from one of the First Cav units who got his leg taken off right at the kneecap, and he fell over on the floor of the aircraft. Since we didn't have seats on the aircraft, he had been sitting on his helmet so he wouldn't be shot in the butt. Peewee got shot in the chest and was killed instantly. The pilot who was flying in the crew chief slot took a round that went inside his helmet, around his helmet, then out the back-side into the firewall behind him, where it lodged against the transmission.
We went down too far from where the enemy patrol was, but to our luck there was also an eight-man LRRP team out there. LRRPs or 'Lurps’ were the long-range reconnaissance patrols that would go out to just scout and see what they could stir up, what kind of trouble they could find, and so forth. So these lurps were out there, and they just happened to see us come down and were able to get to us almost by the time we hit the ground, though the enemy was right behind us. We were able to set the aircraft down in the lower part of the brush without much damage. They got up behind the aircraft and were about, oh, I'd say a hundred yards away from us, and starting to fire. But the lurp patrol had enough fire weaponry to keep them pinned down, and we were able to call in Puff, which was a C-130 that was fitted with machine guns and mini guns. It could fly over and literally cover every square foot of an area the size of a football field with firepower. Puff happened to be flying around our vicinity and was able to devastate the enemy right at that point. There was so much excitement I didn't have a chance to see what was going on outside the aircraft. I got out and was shaking so bad I couldn't stand up. I walked around to see what Peewee was doing, but Peewee was dead. I came unglued, but I couldn't cry. The sad feelings were there, but I couldn't get the emotions out.
After we took the aircraft out—it was swung out with a crane—we took it back to a little base not far from Pleiku. It was an area called Happy Valley, just like out of Anh Ke. We did the repairs on it that we needed and took a mission the very next day. We were flying to a hospital in Nha Trang and areas up and down the coastline, hauling a lot of American bodies. Things that went on in Vietnam seem unbelievable, even to this day. I went through more uniforms messed up with the blood of my buddies and never once was wounded myself. I was in a door-gunner position one day when we were just flying over the jungles, and I was leaning over the aircraft looking out. My back got sore from leaning over, so I sat up and saw just kind of a flash before my eyes, and could feel little flakes of metal on my cheek. I brushed then with my flight glove and saw it was metal, little flakes of metal, and I looked up and there was a bullet hole in the ceiling. If I hadn't sat up when I did the bullet would have gone right through my neck. I just kind of lay back and said, ‘My God, I just about bought the farm.’ And that was the end of it.
We used to take a lot of chances over there, some unbelievable chances, but I could say they were all for a purpose. Like, the infantry was great. I worshipped the ground they walked on. We were their lifeline and vice-versa. I thought nothing of going into a town like Nha Trang and stocking up on ten, twelve cases of Coke or pop and magazines then flying them back out into the field on a supply run the next morning. You know, you just didn't think about it. It was a pretty hellish war. It went on like that, you know, day after day after day, and I just became absolute crazy with the feelings that were going on over there. At that time I was trying so hard to keep my sanity by saying, ‘I'm over here; I'm fighting for my country, the United States of America; I'm fighting against Communism.’ When Jane Fonda was up in North Vietnam protesting, calling us jerks and baby killers and everything for being there in the first place, she was fighting us, I felt. It was hard for us to understand what was going on up there. Many a time we'd uncover underground hospitals that the enemy had built, and there would be cases and cases of blood plasma and medicine donated to North Vietnam by Berkeley College [sic] in the United States, donations right direct to the enemy. Berkeley College was protesting war in Vietnam at that time, and seeing stuff like that mixed in our emotions. Yet we knew we were there, and we were there to stay and were serving a purpose.
We had some fun times in Vietnam also. I can recall times when we went water skiing behind the aircraft and other crazy things, you know, like flying low-level across a compound, trying to pick up a tent peg with the skids of an aircraft. Things like that—anything to keep some sanity. It was really a different kind of situation to be in, and coming fresh out of school and going right into an environment like that was the absolute ultimate. I reached a point where I couldn't wear enough weaponry. I had pistols strapped on; I had machineguns, and I had ammo strapped over my back. Believe it or not, I would actually use a majority of it up in a mission. I was fortunate enough never to have to go into hand-to-hand combat with the gooks on the ground.
We were fighting two different factions in Vietnam. We were fighting the NVA, which was your North Vietnamese Army, trained Communist soldiers out of North Vietnam. They were bigger, and had better weapons, and were better prepared than the Viet Cong, who were your Southern enemy. They were your storekeepers and your shop clerks by day, and then at night they'd turn around and try to kill you. So basically, we were fighting two different factions of people over there, which were both pretty unruly fighters. If we weren't fighting during the day, we were being mortared during the night, which was a devastating, scary sound—to be sound asleep and all of a sudden hear mortars exploding all around. You're wide-awake and numb at the same time, but you know what to do. Boy, you dive for the floor; you dive for the bunkers; you get out of there, you get out of there, you get out of there fast, you low-crawl in the sand. Well, anyway, the Vietnam war went on like that, devastation day after day and so forth.
Finally, I had about a month to go. I was one of the so-called short-timers and I still couldn't see the end at that point. I knew I was headed back, but I still couldn't see the end. Things went along fine until the last week came. Then I got scared. Boy, I was a short-timer, and it was my time to get out of Vietnam. I wanted out bad; I wanted out desperately; I couldn't get out fast enough. It came time for me to leave the following morning; we took my aircraft. We were flying to a mission down south to Cam Ranh Bay where I was going to board the aircraft. Mind you, by now we'd lost over half our unit in Vietnam, so at this point we were made up of a lot of scattered aircraft and a lot of scattered people. As we were flying down to Cam Ranh Bay, we were flying along an area just out of Nha Trang called Miami Beach. It was kind of a nickname given to a stretch of beach that was used as a play area for the Koreans who were fighting for us. As we were flying along the beach, we happened to see a firefight going on. Being the only aircraft in the area, we set her down and got what Koreans we could on board. We took a few rounds in the aircraft and at the same time we were being mortared and hit with every kind of firepower you can think of. It was pretty frightening and spooky just at that point. We managed to pull out of there and take a few rounds in the aircraft, plus some smoke damage. And there was blood. I remember one Korean's leg was completely shot off, and I was trying to hold the tourniquet on and fire the machinegun with the other hand. The tourniquet would slip off and blood would squirt all over my fatigues, but at that point you just don't care about it. But anyway, we landed at a hospital just before we got to Cam Ranh Bay, and took the Koreans to their hospital, then flew on to Cam Ranh. I grabbed my bags and jumped off the aircraft and said goodbye to the crew, and the pilot and I ran to the terminal where we were to board the big silver bird back to the United States.
Well, we sat there in the terminal. I remember my face was covered with smoke, and my hands had blood on them. We didn't have time to change clothes, so we boarded the plane in our fatigues, still smelling of phosphorous and every other kind of combat smell you can think of. I still had bloodstains on my fatigues. Twenty-four hours later, I was home in the United States of America, and another twenty-four hours later, (right fresh out of combat) there were my folks, thrilled to see me back. The war had stopped; the war had ended for me right at that point. I walked into the house at home, and mom broke down and threw her arms around me. Dad gave me a big hug. Mom said ‘Thank God you're home. The war's over. I don't want to hear a word about it.’
Dad was the same way. I was to shut the war out at that point. I sat there eating dinner in fatigues that I came out of Vietnam with forty-eight hours ago with blood on them and the smell of phosphorous and smoke. It was a hard adjustment to make, but at that point I started pushing the war behind me. Nobody wanted to talk about it. I still had thirteen months to serve when I got out of Vietnam, so I was sent back to Fort Stewart, Georgia, where I was an instructor for thirteen months, which was devastating, because nobody would listen to me. I was trying to train them the way it was done in Vietnam and prepare them for it, and they'd just laugh at me. It was really a frustrating period in my life. I couldn't wait to get out of the service, and I wasn't about to be sent back to Vietnam again. The war at that time was supposed to be behind me. I was supposed to forget the war completely.
I went on to college and finished, but the protesting was still going on, even as the war was starting to wind down in '70 and '71. I didn't really dare pipe up and say, ‘Hey, I fought over there,’ and all this and that. The protesting was pretty violent, and there were a lot of radicals. Anyway, I finished college, and I got married. I was still on a super-fantastic adrenalin high, so high that it was like being on drugs. It was unbelievable, and I couldn't come down off it. I became a workaholic. I had two, three jobs that I would be doing at one time, and everything I did was a type A behavior pattern where I couldn't do it fast enough or long enough. This went on for quite a few years, and I worked for corporations that would transfer me a lot. About every four years they'd send me in a different territory where I would build up a whole new area. I was good at it and I was fast, because I had a tremendous amount of energy. I was a natural for it.
As time went on over the years, I started missing the war. My last transfer was up to the state of Montana, where I resided in Big Ark. That's been about eight years now, from the date I'm giving this account . I started a new business in Big Ark, and since I was super full of energy it became a big success. It was my own business; I was my own boss, and I worked the business and the territory myself, but it wasn't enough, so I started another business, and I started another one. I had three businesses going and all were doing fantastic. But I was still missing something in my life. The war was trying to creep back in, and I was trying to push it back and bury it. So I finally wound up joining the National Guard. Well, I went into supply at the Kalispell unit and worked as a supply sergeant for a couple of years. I still wasn't getting what I wanted to get out of it, so I transferred over to aviation in Helena, Montana, and became a crew chief, and soon after that, a section leader. I was doing the same exact duties that I did in Vietnam. I was flying. I was in charge over the section and the men; we were flying Hueys, and we were doing assault missions training. I was with the unit a couple of years over there, and realized that something was happening, but I couldn't understand what it was for sure. I can remember between Saturday and Sunday drills I would be laying there in my bunk after a night flight, thinking about the flights the next day and who I'd schedule on them. I'd say, ‘Well, I'll send Andy over on the Billings run tomorrow.’ Then I'd say, ‘No, no, maybe I'd better not. He's married and has got a family and they got to go across the mountains and stuff like that.’ What was really happening was that the war was coming back, I was bringing it back, and I was bringing it back fast, but I didn't realize it then. Well, this went on for about two years, and I noticed after each drill I was more and more uncomfortable. I would have stomach pains and stuff like that, which I attributed to typical military food and so forth. Well, one drill, here about two years ago, we were flying a night flight, and it was up in the Montana mountains between Missoula and Helena. It was at night; it was freezing cold out, and it was cold and dark inside the aircraft. I was doing the map work with the map light, trying to lay out our plot and stuff like that, when all of a sudden I started sweating—I mean sweat was just pouring off me. I started shaking, just really violently shaking, and my stomach knotted up in a tremendous pain. I told the pilot to get me down on the ground right now, right here, that I was sick and didn't know what was happening. I didn't know if I had food poisoning or what. So we landed, right up there in the middle of nowhere. I got out of the aircraft and walked around a while, and felt a little bit better and got back in and felt kind of rotten the next day, which was Sunday, and finished out the drill weekend and went home. I didn't think anymore about it.
The following week I had to put in an extra drill, so I was starting back over to Helena, and I was in my vehicle driving into Helena and just passing Fort Harrison, and all of a sudden I started sweating again, and started shaking, just tremendously and violently shaking. So I went right out to the VA hospital. I walked into the hospital, and I was white as a ghost, and one of the doctors there in the hospital took a look at me and said, ‘What in the world are you scared of; what are you afraid of?’ And I said, ‘I'm not afraid of anything.’ And he said, ‘You are. You're petrified of something.’ And we sat down and got to talking, and went back over my flying and Vietnam and everything, and he told me I had posttraumatic delayed stress syndrome, had every symptom of it. I said, ‘Nah, I heard about it, but I got no mental problem of that type. I got a physical problem.’ He told me to forget drill at this point and just go home and relax and see how I felt. So I went out to the field and told them what was happening and that I wasn't feeling too hot and that I wanted to go home.
As I was driving back home, the pain in my stomach started knotting up. At home I started getting very nervous and anxious. All of a sudden I couldn't eat, and I couldn't sleep, and I started having nightmares and flashbacks. I was having them before, ever since I came out of Vietnam. Some were violent—sometimes I would jump up on the bed and dive head first on the floor, thinking I was in mortar attack. Several times I've wound up with my arm in a sling from diving under furniture. They were continuous, but they weren't real bad.
Now all of a sudden I was having tremendous flashbacks. I mean they were severe. And it wasn't just happening at night; it was happening during the day, and on a daily basis, too. I went down to my family doctor and told him there was something physically wrong with me, that my stomach ached, that I couldn't sleep, that I couldn't eat, and that I was miserable. So he took me in the hospital, checked me in, and ran every conceivable test he could think of. He told me he was sorry, but he couldn't find anything physically wrong with me, other than the symptoms. The nervousness and the not being able to eat, he could solve with drugs. He gave me a pill that gave me back my appetite, so we went the pill route, but meanwhile I was getting tremendously worse. I had a fear anxiety all of a sudden, and I couldn't be left alone. I couldn't work, and my businesses were going down the tubes. I couldn't leave the house; I was afraid to go anywhere, and I was afraid to have my wife leave to go to work. I would hang on to her and ask her to please not leave.
I really, seriously, thought I was going nuts. It was bad. My boys were afraid, and so forth. Finally, my medical doctor told me he could help me. He understood what I was going through, the posttraumatic delayed stress syndrome, but he wasn't an expert in that field, so he suggested that I contact the VA hospital. I did talk to the VA hospital, and they set me up with a doctor down in Missoula. When I talked to him, he told me the program we were going to go on, and how we were going to treat the problem, and so forth. I had posttraumatic delayed stress syndrome, plain and simple. For some veterans, it shows up later down the road. I had gotten it early in the game because I forced the issue with my flying—I actually brought it back myself.
It was best explained to me that when you first go into combat so young, it's a shock to the system. And the war is so severe and so violent, compared to what we are normally used to, that we are kind of numb and in shock and stay that way. Then we come out of the war. It's forgotten; we come out of a wartime environment and twenty-four, forty-eight hours later we're home, back in the safe world and we've forgotten the war and we've buried it. But as we get older and mature, it starts to surface; we start to understand what really happened to us over there. It starts coming back to us; we start reliving the whole thing. The emotions and feelings we buried are trying to get back out, and it's a very serious problem. The doctor down in Missoula flat told me that a lot of vets were committing suicide over this thing, and that doctors really don't know what to do to help them. A lot of doctors were going the drug route, using drugs to calm patients down and so forth. But that doctor didn't know that that was the sure way to do it. It was still a kind of pioneering field. So he had me go into the hospital at St. Pat's down there for a couple of weeks of evaluation and counseling. It was unfortunate because it was over the holidays, the 4th of July, and all the doctors went on vacation. I sat there for a week and watched TV. I felt great. I relaxed and calmed down. But when they took me out of the hospital, I was miserable again, absolutely miserable.
I got back home, and I became even worse. I got to the point where I just couldn't eat, and I went way down in weight. I was seriously, honestly looking towards death. I wasn't suicidal, but I could see myself dying because I was so far out of it. I just didn't know how to handle what was happening to me, or anything else. I could see my business going down the tubes, my life and my family. My wife, of course, was upset. She didn't know how to handle it, or what it was all about. My kids were the same way. So I finally called the VA hospital over in Seattle and asked what they could do about it. They said they bring these cases in for sixty days, drug them, calm them down, and then let them out again. I told them that that wasn't good enough. So I got word of a hospital, a brand-spanking new one, up in Kalispell, called Glacier View. They were a California-based operation, and were primarily there for alcoholics, to cure alcoholism. I called the hospital up there and told them what my situation was. The doctor told me they were starting to take, on a short-term basis, patients who are having emotional problems. He told me he wanted to talk to me, so I went up to Kalispell to see him. He was from California and had handled cases of my type down there. He said he'd take me in for the three weeks to see what they could do. So I checked into the hospital. Mind you, in the meantime, I was in pretty miserable shape; in fact, I thought dead was the way I was going to end up, just starving myself, or whatever.
He checked me in, and the first thing he did was take away every pill I had. I had sedatives, pills to calm my stomach before I ate so I could eat, pills for the diarrhea that came with anxiety, and pills for appetite. He threw every one of them away. I told him he was going to kill me—that I had to have those pills.
He told me we were going to do it his way—that I was going to do it without pills. He got two of the therapists up there, two young ladies, who were excellent in their field. We started grief therapy. For two hours a day, every day, they would take me into a room and set me down, and we would just start in. They had me relive the war completely, every detail, everything I could pull out of it. We would go until I would literally break down and just bawl. I called it emotional vomiting. My emotions were starting to come back. The pain in my stomach started to relieve, and I could get to where I could start eating again. As the first couple of weeks went along, I started feeling good. The third week I started looking forward to the sessions. They had me low crawling in the hallways and everything. The nightmares started to disappear and the flashbacks were slowly starting to go away. I was really starting to feel good. By the third week we figured we were pretty much through this part of it, and the rest of it could be done on an outpatient basis with a local psychiatrist. So I checked out of the hospital.
First thing I knew, I was miserable. I had an anxiety that was overwhelming. I had a hundred and some-odd emotions that all of a sudden surfaced. I didn't know what to do with them, how to place them or how to deal with them. So they checked me back in for another week and used the whole time on anxiety control. It was fantastic, the techniques I learned. I started checking out books on stress and stress control, and diet, and anxiety, and it got to where I was really proficient with it. When I got out of the hospital again, I immediately went back to my job, going around to see my customers. I never at any time tried to hide the fact that I was going through this posttraumatic delayed stress syndrome. In fact, my customers, a lot of them, came up to the hospital to see me. They'd heard about the problem, but never seen anybody who had experienced it. A lot of them said they had been in Vietnam, too. So really I had a tremendous amount of support from my customers. All this time I was in the hospital and out of work. My main corporation in Boise kept paychecks coming, so I was never without a paycheck. So that was kind of a load off my mind, too.
I was really starting to gain a lot of headway with the anxiety control and got back to work and back to my customers and was able to talk to them. I was progressively getting better, and as time goes on I'm getting a lot better. The traumatic stress syndrome is very, very deadly. It can really destroy families. My wife and my children took the counseling with me. They understood what was going on. My wife explained to me what hell it had been to live with me for the seventeen years. I never realized she had felt that way; I thought that I was perfect, that there wasn't a thing wrong with me. Now we've become much closer. I've been able to get my feelings out and express them to her. I went to the pastor of my church, who was a new pastor and had just taken over. When all this was happening with me, I was all torn up and couldn't find any inner peace. I was still overwhelmed and figured the only inner peace I could get would have to come from within God and myself. So I went to my pastor, and asked him how to pray and to receive God again. He didn't know what to tell me. He had no idea, not because he lacked knowledge, but because he didn't understand what I was going through. So I kind of threw him.
Well, I in turn picked up the Bible and started reading Psalms, and I'd read them over and over again, about the pain and the suffering. And I read Job. I was able to identify with Job one hundred percent. That worked out perfectly, because Job was basically acting the same way I was. I started finding inner peace. I now am more involved in my church, working with vets. Having gone through this, and gone through it so violently, I can work with them and understand what they're going through. Hopefully, I can be a great help to them. It's probably going to be another year or two before I'm completely out of the woods on this, but at least I'm learning to live with it and understand it. I'm hoping the public will become more aware of it. We figure that five percent of the United States' population of Vietnam vets resides here in the state of Montana. The figures for 1988 by the vet organizations figure that 60,000 vets will probably commit suicide this year. So it is a very serious problem and needs to be confronted head-on. So I'm praying and I'm hoping that more and more vets will come forth and seek the help that they need, and that with everybody's help and understanding we can come to help these people out.
|All alone and insecure, finding a place with,|
|Those who are there.|
|Trapped in a strange country's land, guess what,|
|It is your enemy's own homeland.|
|Using every skill you possibly can, because,|
|The life of yourself and friends is in your hands.|
|It's time to judge if you can, if the foe in your sights,|
|Lives or dies by your hands.|
|Young hearts away from home,|
|Taken up to die alone,|
|One old soul within a few,|
|Enclosed in dark away from view,|
|Bloodshot eyes with tears now dry,|
|Seeking help as their vision dies,|
|Terror and fright to them no game,|
|Since the first day of bloodshed,|
|Since the first day they came,|
|Gunfire burst from everywhere,|
|You tried to hide, but someone knew, knew you were there|
|You had been in too much pain and could not move,|
|Then it was over and you are through,|
|Crimson red shows on your chest,|
|It is a mark and also your new crest,|
|The silent cries of echoes past, voices sounding out of flasks,|
|Stand with pride and honor true,|
|For those who died and stood with you.|
|IT IS THE FINAL RESTING PLACE IN WHICH THIS SOLDIER DIED.|
John Luke Flyinghorse, born in McIntosh, SD, is a member of the Hunkpapa Lakota tribe. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, continuing a tradition of military service among the males in his family; his father served in the U.S. Army, and Flyinghorse received great support from his entire family concerning his decision to enlist. His experience in Vietnam was with Golf Company in the area of the Thu Bon Mountains and the Ashau Valley in Vietnam, and with Communications Platoon, H & S Company. Though he expresses his pride in having served his nation in the Vietnam War, Flyinghorse also believes that ‘America has lost sight of what made her strong and united,’ and speaks out against further American Indian involvement with the U.S. Armed Services' current activities.
Figure 2. "John Luke Flyinghorse, Sr. - Marine Boot Camp Photo"
By John Luke Flyinghorse, Sr.
There was nothing to talk or think about. It was a given that all males in our family would join the armed services when their time came…so my dad, uncles and my grandfather's started preparing us for war when we were very young…all of us.
A lot of our activities started taking place late at night, especially when it was storming out and the moon was hidden. This included riding horses in electrical storms, when their ears would spark blue, and you could see the blue light dance between their ears. We were also taught to ride horses across swollen rivers, when the ice breaks up and the river is flowing bank to bank when the big icebergs flow past you real fast…we were taught not to show fear or panic because that would spook the horse and we would both drown. As I think back, I am thankful that we had these kinds of teachers…because holding our emotions in check is a leadership trait…
My friends were also my cousins. We had already buried some of my uncles in the family cemetery, and we honored them yearly because they were veterans, so it wasn't like we would just go and die and that would be the end. We knew if something did happen, we would be taken care of…forever.
My grandfathers told us that the white man has a myth about us—that we can see in the dark, hear movement miles away simply by putting our ears to the ground, and with our `acute' sense of smell, we can actually smell out the enemy. Of course, most of these myths are just that…but we prepared anyway. We did go hunting cottontails in the dark…and we were taken high up into the hills while someone was down below making sounds and noises, and we would identify them; our stealth was constantly being tested.
In my hometown of McIntosh, SD, all the Indians went to war; not very many of the white boys went, only the very poorest of the poor; but we all stood together as one in honoring all those leaving and returning. One of my cousins had just returned from Vietnam, and he told us younger boys about it. In the telling he didn't show any emotion or elaborate, he just told what he did and what he saw, so when my cousin George and I were old enough, we quit school and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, for four years each. Since our returning cousin was a Marine, we already knew what would happen to us; it was the brutality of boot camp that was challenging. When our cousin was telling us of his boot camp experience, we all thought he was making up these wild stories, but he wasn't.
My dad's and my grandfather's generations were all US Army; my generation was all U.S. Marines. My father took this especially hard because he always wanted us to join the 101st [U.S. Army Airborne Division] like he did. One of my grandfathers told me that since he knew I was going into combat, he knew I would be safe with the Marines; he just told us to do what we were told and taught, and we would be home safe before we knew it. As for the community, a few days before we were to leave, we were invited to the city bar where even the sheriff bought us beer, even though we weren't old enough to drink legally. This surprised us, but I think my uncles and other relatives had a lot to do with this.
Daily, the drill instructors separated all of us by race, so we weren't the only ones segregated…I think this instilled in us the fact that even though we all came from different backgrounds, we were all there for a common cause. Of course, at first we didn't see this, but as time went on we could see how this was working for the benefit of the Corps; we learned to depend on one another without thinking about it. Through hard work I became a squad leader, and upon graduation I was promoted to PFC, a privilege provided to only eight out of a platoon of 180 men.
Upon learning that I was going to Vietnam, there was a big sigh of relief—a final knowing. This only left the question of when. Vietnam is possibly the most beautiful country in the world…and I was here and I couldn't believe it…like a huge manicured garden. Before I had left for Vietnam, one of my relatives sent me a letter they tore out of the local newspaper. It was a letter written by Kenny Jamerson, who was critically wounded in Vietnam, and he died because of his wounds. But before he died, he had a nurse write this letter home to his parents; they had it printed. I cried when I read that letter, because he wrote of the beauty and the people living here, and that he wasn't afraid to die, nor did he blame them for taking his life.
I was with Golf Company 2/7, 1st Marine Division. We were a bush company working out in I Corps, which included that area from LZ Baldy up to the DMZ. This area also included the Thu Bon Mountains and the Ashau Valley, what we commonly called ‘Death Valley’ because of all the losses our forces suffered here. I was sent out on more ambush and listening posts than most of the others, and I was eventually made the Company Commander's radio operator. I served in a grunt unit. My only concern was for the safety of my men. When not on patrol or cleaning gear, I was playing guitar and singing songs; it was our way of coping.
American Indians always looked each other up…no matter what tribe we were from. That was the only mystique…why? I have no idea, but we had a bond. Its like this: I wouldn't rather put my life in anyone's else's hands than another American Indian, let alone someone else's life; so who better? No matter where we came from, we always walked point, or carried the radio, or were the Company Commander's operator…always.
I feel both honored and humbled at having that opportunity to go to Vietnam; so many vets have said that they wished they could have gone. You won't know why unless you've been there, and I know you have, so you know what I mean. I speak out against sending more American Indians to the Armed Services to go to any war the US is now engaged in, because the reasons have all been changed now. America has lost sight of what made her strong and united.
I landed at LZ Baldy, I Corps, RVN on December 7th, 1969 at 7:00 p.m. My first service was with Communications Platoon, H & S Company, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division as a radio operator. I had arrived a Lance Corporal; we were operators for the `hill,' and later on we were sent out on Listening Posts (LP's) and daylight patrols around the hill.
Christmas in Vietnam: I was out in the bush when Christmas rolled around, and I had gotten a package from my grandmother. It was `papa'—a form of jerky made from mule deer meat, cut into thin slices and dried from drying racks and seasoned lightly. This I shared with `my' men; we shared everything from home. Usually it was just a taste of home, but it meant the world to us, especially to those who didn't get any mail or gifts from their families. I do remember the peas and mashed potatoes washed out of my mess kit because of the falling rain…
My first encounter with death: one night I had the third shift on radio watch. I would physically go from post to post along the perimeter, checking on our radio operators and others, making sure they were all right and their gear was working. I preferred this rather than the meaningless radio calls that others usually did to do their checking on their watch. But we called the LP's and other patrols we sent out at night.
When we reached their position, we found four stripped bodies; they had cut everyone's throat and taken everything they carried. There was no sign of a struggle, and one guy even had a smile. I knew they had been smoking dope, and they had probably all been asleep as well, and I was angry. I also knew that only two or three people had done this, but three would be enough people to carry away all their gear. We called for a medivac and our Lt. came out with the chopper; he was carrying an AK rifle. When he saw the bodies he cursed then he cried, then he said, ‘Stitch them up chief; they aren't going home like this.’
Field duty—working from the hill, we were rotated out on operations with the different bush companies of 2/7; I served with two bush companies, and after having gone out with them, I requested duty with Golf Company as one of their radio operators.
One of my father's younger brother's was a squad leader with Hotel 2/7, and I didn't want to endanger him, so I had requested duty with Golf Company. No sooner had I arrived then I was made the Captain's radio operator, filling a Sergeant's billet, and I was put in charge of the radio operators who were with the company; the man I had replaced had rotated back to the `world.'
When I was with the Captain, I set up the command post, and I carried a PRC-77 and a PRC-25 attached to each other through a connecting cable; the 77 was a cipher unit. But when I was on patrol, I carried the 25. We were severely undermanned, and our Captain was really a 2nd Lt., just like I was really a L/Cpl., but I was called `Sergeant,' or just plain `Chief'; I didn't mind this because I was the Communications Chief. Unlike all the movies, I was the only one who could call in artillery support or air support, besides the Captain, and I helped him write letters back to families of those we lost in combat.
We went to Laos and Cambodia and walked around a lot in the I Corps area; dates, times and places have no meaning to me, unlike my brothers and my two cousins who were also there at that time, and could keep track of all the places they had been and all the places they had seen action. I don't have that recall…and I don't know why, nor do I care.
Some things I do recall vividly…but they are perhaps best forgotten as well. Like the time we were on water patrol, we had all the men's canteens and we were searching for water. I was the second man back from point with my radio; I kept the point man in view, and when we had entered a slight clearing in the heavy jungle, this man in black pajamas jumped up from the trail we were on and started running away, tugging at his pajama bottoms. He didn't carry any arms with him as he made his escape. The point man stitched him up the back, and I saw this man go tumbling, then I heard him open up again; this time it was a woman who was lying in the trail with her pajama bottoms still down. It was apparent they had been having sex and we had surprised them, but we had our orders. Anyone wearing black pajamas or anyone who ran from us, carrying arms or not, we had orders to engage.
New Year's Day 1970…New Year's eve we were atop a mountain overlooking LZ Rider. There was an artillery battery up there already with a support grunt unit; I had just come back from setting up a relay station and had settled in for the night, when a frightening thought occurred to me. I called my Captain and we discussed this, and he in turn called the CO on LZ Rider, down below us, about three clicks away (3,000 meters), and he assured me that everything would be fine, so I left a wakeup call to wake me just before midnight; then I went to sleep. At exactly midnight, down below on LZ Rider, everyone who carried a weapon opened up, firing into the night sky. Pop-up flares and fireworks were set off celebrating the New Year, but within seconds of everyone expending their rounds, we could see the green and red tracers being traded down below, and huge explosions erupting with sporadic white tracers feebly coming back in defeated response from the defenders. The radios went wild, calls for ‘fire-danger close’ and ‘danger-close’ went out for artillery and air support…and all we could do was watch from above, and curse them, cry. The next morning we came into the base camp…
It was a slaughter. Sappers had gotten into the compound and had hidden under the `hooches,' waiting for this moment. Knowing the American psyche better then our own leaders did, they knew what we would do before it was done. While the men on LZ Rider were celebrating, the sappers under the hooches started blowing up the CP, the ammo dump and the fuel dump. And when our men came out of their hooches, they were shot as they came out. They killed 78 Marines that night; many more died from their wounds later on, and it took a huge effort to stabilize LZ Rider. The final body count was over 128 American lives we lost that night. But we didn't read about it in the Stars and Stripes, or hear about it on KFVN…but we were now a very angry bunch of Marines.
July 4th, 1970, somewhere in I Corps, atop another mountain: While Golf Company was at LZ Baldy for a three day rehab, I had been dispatched to give support to an artillery battery on top of some nameless mountain with only a number to identify where we were. One morning at dawn, we had sent out a platoon-size patrol into the village down below, because we had seen a lot of activity there during the night. A Republic of Korea Marine patrol and an Australian Marine patrol was also in the same area, so they set up defensive positions on three sides of the village, forming a triangle with the village at its center, and we waited for night.
We did not have direct communications with either of our comrade units; we had to call Battalion to relay any communications to them, which complicated everything. At midnight on July 4th, again the American Marines opened fire with their weapons and other pyrotechnics into the night sky; this gave away their position and they immediately drew gunfire from the village. When the people in the village opened fire on our Marines, the Australians and the ROK's [Republic of Korea troops] also opened fire on the village; then all gunfire stopped abruptly. What happened next was textbook war strategy, and we watched as we were manipulated into firing on each other.
Our Marine units used white tracer rounds to identify ourselves, and it was known that the enemy used red or green tracers and sometimes captured white tracer rounds, which they used to their advantage. When everything seemed to settle down we thought it was over, but it had only just begun. During this lull, some men from the village had gone out and positioned themselves between our three groups of Marines, and at a given signal they opened fire on all three Marine patrols at the same time. This caused an immediate response from all three Marines units, and they each opened fire in two directions—in effect, our Marines were firing on each other. This continued for most of the night. The next morning we medivaced about twenty men from the Marine units engaged that night, and we found no blood or blood trails, or tracks of the enemy.
There were many patrols and engagements of fire that I participated in, and one thing is certain. Neither I nor any of `my' Marines have ever shown any fear while engaged, only a very deep anger and sometimes a visible and verbal hatred for the enemy; sometimes this hatred has shown through even to our `friendlies'…lots of times.
Personally…I respect these people, very much. I did not feel this anger or hatred until the day my uncle was killed in a gunfight months later, in a place where even air strikes and artillery couldn't help us. A place where we fought on their terms, and we lost. But this anger and hatred left me almost as quickly as I felt it in my soul, and this feeling scared me, so I had to cry out.
From the time of my Vietnam experience, I've had many nightmares I've had to live through. Most of them were of my men being under attack; sometimes I was with them, and other times I couldn't help them. But in each, we were desperately out of ammunition, and the enemy kept on coming. I've lost track of time, and in some cases I cannot recall what happened during these lapses in time—two months once, three days another time, hours and moments in other times; sometimes I would meet and visit with someone, and not remember it. I feel guilty that I did survive and my uncle didn't; my tribute to him is trying to make a life for myself and my family that he would be proud of. I've learned as much about my disability as possible, and I know the triggers that send me into these time lapses and guilt trips, and I try to avoid them as much as possible. I don't hunt, or fish, and I hate the 4th of July.
Thank you for having me write this down. I voluntarily do this from time to time to keep my perspective and my sanity; then, I tear it up. I've found that if `we' can write about this experience honestly and sincerely, we can heal sooner, and we can become better human beings towards others.
Gregory G. Gardner, of Choctaw descent paternally, enlisted in the United States Army in 1969, at the age of seventeen. His father, Billy G. Gardner, is a retired U.S. Army Sergeant-Major and served a tour of duty in Vietnam between 1967 and 1968. For some time, Gregory Gardner was involved with a local forum concerning MIA and POW issues. He was assigned to the 23rd Infantry Division as a rifleman in 1971, and became a squad leader during his tour of duty. Gardner expresses his wish to reconnect with his paternal American Indian heritage, and was, at the age of forty, just beginning to explore certain aspects of his experiences in Vietnam and how they have affected his life.
30 March 1992
To Whom It May Concern:
I have been somewhat hesitant in responding to the notice in the Bishnick Paper from several months ago regarding Choctaws, with stories, who had served in Vietnam. I am still not certain that I could enhance any of your research or aid your project in any way. However, I did wish to convey some thoughts or feelings of mine and hope that they may be of some value to you.
I am of Choctaw descent on my father's side of the family. My father is a retired Army Sergeant-Major. So, much of my youth was spent traveling and relocating through this wonderful country of ours. My father, Billy G. Gardner, was sent to Vietnam in 1967-68, as I recall. That was possibly the worst year of my life, even harder on me than the year that I spent in Vietnam. It seemed a constant worry for me, my father being where he was, and it seemed I had a burning desire to be there in his place. For me to go to Vietnam, I feel, was part of my destiny.
My thoughts have changed some on the Vietnam era since I have grown older. As I recall, I went to Vietnam in 1971, at the age of nineteen. I remember when I came home I still could not buy alcohol in Texas. That used to be a major concern then, being able to buy alcohol. I was young and looked on Vietnam from the viewpoint of America fighting Communist aggression. In a way I still have that minority opinion. I think I keep that feeling because I do not want to believe all those lives were destroyed for greed and power. I felt it was a fight to free people and let them rule their country, just as America was able to be free. If I can hold on to that belief, I think I can live with the memories and the tragedies and joys of Vietnam.
My thoughts now are that it was a war that was not meant to be won. We continue to leave too many stones unturned. My thoughts tear me up when I think of the MIA and POW issues. I was involved in a local forum for a period of time regarding the MIA/POWs. This was perhaps therapy for myself. I still believe there are many unanswered questions on this subject. But I am not able to find the answers.
That is probably as much of my philosophy as you want to hear, so I will try to provide a brief synopsis of my Vietnam experience. I graduated from high school at seventeen years of age and went immediately into the United States Army. I thought I would be a career soldier like my father, but it was not to be. My mom and dad had to sign for me to go in the Army, and my dad would only sign if I chose a field that would be of some value in later years. So I went in the Signal Corps, which was not where I wanted to be. A little more than a year later, I was to get my chance to re-enlist for the infantry and for a tour in Vietnam. I had a lot of pride and felt that I could be somebody in the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam.
In 1971, I went to Vietnam, and was assigned to the 23rd Infantry Division, America l. This was the division that Lt. Calley was assigned to. As history would tell us, the My Lai massacre was the responsibility of Lt. Calley. Having met and talked to Lt. Calley for a brief evening out at Ft. Benning, Georgia and having been stationed with a member of his platoon from My Lai, I believe that there remain several unanswered questions there also. Anyway, Ft. Benning is a story in and of itself.
So in 1971, I went to Vietnam and was assigned to 23rd Infantry Division. We were in the Chi Lai and Da Nang areas of operation. I started out as a rifleman, but you learn and experience many different positions in an Infantry Squad because you never know when you will have to do that person's job. During my tour, I became a Squad Leader. I was pretty efficient with explosives, and for a time I was doing some Advisory work in the Hue and Phu Bai areas. This was when the 101st Airborne Division was `standing down'—coming home—and part of what was left of our Division went up North to occupy their area.
Vietnam for me was part of my youth, part of growing up; it had good and bad times. Some of our best times were coming in from the `field,' jungle, and going to the clubs in what was referred to as the `rear.' With rockets and sapper attacks, this was not always the best place to be, either. But we found some good times there.
I suppose one of my most outstanding experiences, though, was when I was fired on by three of my own men while on ambush. We were on a mountain range in an area out from Da Nang called Charlie Ridge. This was like an NVA base camp built into the mountain. We set up. I put out the mechanical ambushes, claymore mines that were booby-trapped and daisy-chained together. I seemed to be good at this, and was pretty effective. My machine gunner was with me; in case I got killed he would know where they were and how to avoid them. We got back to the ambush site and lay there several hours, into the still of the night. This was a pretty active area not only for Charlie, but also for the NVA, since it was their base camp, or so we had been told. Well, three of my men were returned to me that day in the field. They had been detained in the `rear' because I caught them buying cocaine from the Vietnamese. We inventoried their belongings and found they had been taking to the field—`the bush.'
Well, I figured they had an extra few days rest in the `rear,' so I made them go on ambush that night with me, my machine gunner and my RTO [radiotelephone operator]. Time passed on; we waited and watched and listened. All of the sudden, the silence was broken when all three of these guys opened fire on my position. I had my M-16 ready to blast back, but realized if I did then my other two positions would probably open fire on me. One round tore across my foot, and it felt like I was hit. Well, it wasn't bad, as we found out later. They had stopped after each emptied his magazine at me. My RTO wanted to get a `dust off' in for me, but we were in too thick, and I didn't want to attract any more attention. They would have had a time trying to pull in those mechanical ambushes at night, so we held on.
One of the guys I can remember so vividly because he had been assigned to us from the 101st Airborne Division. The report I had even before this night was that they disbanded his squad from the unit he was assigned to because they had killed their squad leader on ambush one night. We got back to the ‘CP,’ Command Post, the next morning and I got checked out and the ‘CO,’ Company Commander, debriefed me. I was told it would be hard to prosecute these three, because all they needed to say was that it was dark, and they were disoriented. Well, they got shipped out somewhere else, and no one was seriously hurt.
I hold on to this memory because it showed me a lot about people. I am probably not as trusting toward other people these days as I once was. I do recall my machine gunner coming to me and saying, ‘Give us the word, Duke; we'll kill 'em.’ And the one guy I remember so well crawled to my position and said ‘Sorry, Sarge, I didn't mean to do it.’ `Duke' was my nickname in those days. I have looked back on that particular night many times and thought, what if I would have said ‘yes’? But then I realize I wouldn't have lived up to my nickname, and probably wouldn't be what I am today—still believing in truth, justice and the American way. I finally got out of the Army (throwing away eight years), got a degree and became a policeman.
I have been reluctant to try to write anything about that era of my life. A lot of it did not turn out so good. But this experience, as hard as it is for me to accept what happened or why it happened, if I had given into temptation and had taken those three lives, I really think my life would be so much different. I can accept my actions for any lives that were taken in combat. That was, to me, unavoidable.
I have a habit of rambling, when I talk and when I write. I must apologize for that. I hope that this little story is worthwhile for you. I was not certain what you would like or what type of format you preferred, so I just sat down and started this letter.
I am, at the age of forty, just now becoming more in tune with my proud heritage. I am not able to spend much time learning of my ancestors nor can I afford much at this time, but I hope there will come a day when I can devote more to these proud, wonderful people.
Thank you. God bless you.
William Lang served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War and now resides in Tucson, AZ. He received his PhD University of Illinois, MA Case Western Reserve University, BFA University of New Mexico. Dr. Lang is a published playwright and poet. He teaches playwriting and serves as new play development director and dramaturgy. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild and Screen Actors Guild. During the 1994-95 academic year, he taught in Poland on a Fulbright Scholarship.
|Do you think you can go back|
|To those days before you watched the sun rise over the mountain|
|And you were startled by the sound the earth made beneath your feet|
|Aye eee aye eee|
|It's pow wow time in Indian country|
|And the wind sings a song with the beat of the host drum|
|And a child cries and is so comforted|
|And from deep inside where your memory dwells|
|You know you cannot go back to those days before you watched the sun rise over the|
|Aye eee aye eee|
|It's pow wow time in Indian country|
|And the women dance a circle dance|
|And the men look on, their eyes filled with fascination|
|And a child cries and is so comforted|
|The Moon When Berries Are Good And Ripe makes everyone want lemonade|
|And sure enough I have a hankering for one right now|
|And a taste for buffalo burgers and a good look see at those women dancing the circle|
|Aye eee aye eee|
|The wind sings a song|
|And I cannot go back to that time before I saw the sun rise over the mountain and heard|
|that sound the earth made beneath my feet|
|Black, yellow, red, and white|
|My heart longs for sacred visions|
|In memory of my warrior days past|
|Active duty, United States Navy, three years, ten months, and twenty seven days|
|So let me to thinking it's about damn time I danced the gourd dance|
|Cause it's pow wow time in Indian country|
|And the wind is singing a song with the beat of the host drum|
|And my heart is longing for sacred visions|
|Aye eee aye eee.|
|It all came back to me|
|It all came back to me in one brief moment of time|
|The shame of my life|
|‘What's the matter with you?’|
|Holy shit, in a few years I'll be pushing fifty|
|And I'm actually living in The World|
|The land of the free and the home of the brave|
|‘What's the matter with you?’|
|I stared at the menu printed on a sign fixed to the wall|
|I'll tell you what's the matter with me. I just stepped through a door that has been closed|
|tight for twenty five years. That's what's the matter with me. What's the matter|
|Smell the air, sweetheart|
|Do you have any idea of what a banyan swamp smells like|
|How it permeates the very fibers of your soul|
|I loved it. I was where I was destined to be|
|There, filled with adrenaline, out of my freaking fucking mind|
|I cut the throat of a sixteen year old boy|
|I painted his face green and I cut off his ears|
|I wore his ears in a necklace around my throat|
|That's what's the matter with me.|
|My girl, the kid, my sweet treasure and morning sunlight|
|Plays on her junior high school soccer team|
|Tonight we took her and her compatriots as a victory treat|
|To your fast food hot pizza palace|
|For pepperoni and mushrooms, no anchovies please because they're yuckie, Italian pie|
|Triumphant celebration over their wily arch enemy|
|Our conquering junior amazons won over Friends Academy 4 to 2|
|Smiles all around, slaps on the back, tender hugs, grateful tears|
|But for me I walked into a brick wall|
|I saw, standing behind the counter taking my order with a feverish intensity, an Asian|
|child, a boy, appearing to be in the range of sixteen years|
|My breath stood still in my lungs|
|Oh God, do the dead come back to life to haunt us?|
|‘What's the matter with you? Something wrong?’|
|‘You look like you've seen a ghost’|
|She grabbed a handful of white napkins|
|‘This isn't like you at all’|
|‘Honey, you don't know me at all’|
|A chilling pause, not unlike that moment in the morning after a night of making love|
|when a man and a woman, over the breakfast table, look at each other and wonder|
|what the hell they are doing there together.|
|‘Are you going to drink tonight?’|
|‘I wish you wouldn't’|
|‘I can handle it’|
|‘That's not the point’|
|The order was ready for a red head in her thirties who sat with her sullen child in one of|
|‘Why do you do this?’|
|‘You wouldn't understand’|
|‘Maybe I might’|
|‘Maybe you might fly across the moon’|
|A singular sadness settled in her eyes|
|‘Tell Jennifer you are proud of the way she played this afternoon’|
|And then, because she couldn't help herself, she said|
|‘Please, darling, try not to drink tonight.’|
|Have you no idea of what has lived for a very long time in the dark corner of my|
|Have you no idea of what a banyan swamp smells like|
|Have you no idea of what it is to see some gook kid, standing behind a counter marking|
|down pepperoni and mushrooms, no anchovies, on the order for a pizza to be|
|eaten by my own beloved child|
|Have you no idea of what it feels like to wear a necklace of human ears|
|Oh, merciful God, help me.|
Figure 3. "Photo of Phil Red Eagle by Glenda J. Guillmet, Courtesy Of Hanksville.org"
Phil Red Eagle, Salish and Lakota, enlisted in the United States Navy in 1967, at the age of twenty-two, after spending a couple of years at the University of Alaska and Sheldon Jackson Junior College. He was with Naval Support Activities in Vietnam, and served his tour of duty in 1969-'70. In 1975, Phil entered a Naval rehabilitation program for anxiety, rage, and emotional breakdowns associated with the trauma of his war experience, which manifested itself in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 1989, while attending intensive therapy, Phil went through his first sweat lodge ceremony. He graduated from the University of Washington and has received several college degrees. Phil is currently involved with the Canoe Nations project and spends much of his time and energy caring for his parents; he also publishes a magazine called Raven Chronicles.
I went in late, compared to most people, because I spent a couple of years in college—University of Alaska and Shelby Jackson Junior College in Sitka, Alaska. I hung around for a while, drinking and making friends, and finally I turned twenty-two in boot camp. I went in 1967, so I was twenty-two years old. The funny thing about it is that a lot of the guys that I went down with were older guys joining the Navy. I think I initially went to avoid being drafted into the Army, 'cause my mother was always saying, ‘Don't go in the Army; don't go in the Army.’ I think I had a couple of years of college; that had something to do with it, you know, looking at it from a rational point of view. Then I had the other part where my mother and my father were very loyal to the United States in that way. They believed in America. That's one of the things that bugged me for a long time when coming back home. Until now I didn't have that movie, Born on the Fourth of July; I never thought about it until then. But once I thought about it, the thought kind of dawned on me that my parents were really, really American, besides the fact that they were both full-blood. And there's a Native American tradition to serve. All my uncles and everybody (the ones I knew), served in World War II and Korea. So all the stories were about Korea and Europe and the invasion of Italy and the Battle of the Bulge, you know. We had people in all of those places, 'cause we had a high participation rate in all of America's wars. So, here's the funny thing; last year, my dad was eighty-one, and they're always saying, ‘When are you going to get a good job and retire? Get a good retirement pension?’ I don't need that. It doesn't mean anything to me, because I'm doing other things. I just don't want to be a `go out and work my life away' person. I've already done what my dad was talking about. Finally I just said, ‘Ya know, what are you proud of, ya know, in your sons?’ He's proudest of the fact that both Keith and I did Vietnam. Despite the fact that I have a book out, I publish a magazine, and I have several college degrees, that's the thing that stuck in his mind. And that was just last year. It kinda blew me away. Because I've been working just to try to be a person, not going the Indian way. The drunks and the alcoholics died young. And there it [the war] was. In one way it's the greatest thing I've ever done in terms of its impact on my life. It may not have been so great in terms of epic storytelling. Everybody, all those war stories: Ulysses, Trojan War, Odyssey, and the Iliad— all of these things are kinda warrior-oriented. Even in European history. Or maybe especially in European history, because warrior is not an Indian word; it's an English word. So, we got too many of them. In retrospect, it's been the ruin of our people, I believe.
Right now I'm trying to talk like a college guy. But ya know, I never had that advantage when I was in Vietnam, because this college stuff didn't matter. If somebody, an officer found out you had college, you wound up doing the paperwork. And you didn't want to do the paperwork because something in your guts told you that you had to go do the other stuff. Only the nerds and the geeks do the paperwork. But it kept a friend of mine from getting killed. He's a medicine man now, up in Washington. He was in Vietnam. He was in a combat unit. I was in a non-combat unit; that wasn't our job. But that doesn't mean you don't get shot at; things go haywire. He had been, like, to one or two years of college before he went, too. But he wound up (he's Cocomish Indian) in Vietnam in a military combat unit, U.S. Army. They found out he could type, so he became the company clerk. His responsibility was to straighten out the paperwork. Because of the Tet offensive, everything was a mess. A lot of army units, military units got destroyed during that time. Also, a lot of records were destroyed. So they had to go to each man in the unit and do an interview with them and redo their record.
Right now, they have this little dog-tag that carries your record on it. And whenever you go from one area to another they stick your dog-tag into the computer and the military has the only computer that can read it, because it's encoded [encrypted]. So if somebody tried to take your dog-tag and get information out of it, supposedly, they couldn't. But back then everything was pen and ink, or typewritten, and that was his job. So after six months in the field, he came in and spent the rest of his tour straightening out. He was an Indian guy, and in those days the enlistment form, paperwork, didn't have a place for ‘Native American’ on it. When they said race on it: Other. Some people would mark in Caucasian because it wasn't on there. So he'd made sure that the Indian guys were marked ‘Indian, other.’ And he wrote it out for them. So, he was taking care of the Indian guys.
So I went to boot camp, and went to A-camp in '67, went out to Waukegan, Illinois. There's a naval station there. They call it the Great Lakes Naval Station. There's a boot camp there, and a training facility and a hospital. I went with an Irish girl who was a WAC at the hospital there for a while. I did A-school. Got taken before the board once, because I was too wild a character. And they knew I was in college, and they knew I was smart, 'cause I scored really high on the basic batteries and everything. They were all pissed off at me because I wasn't showing it. You know how that is; part rebel.
Course, you don't realize at that time that because you were brought up Native American, you have a lot of problems. A lot of the roots of the PTSD problem with Native Americans now is not rooted in their military experience; it's rooted in their Native American experience in America. That's what we know now. Inherited PTSD. They got it from their uncles and aunts who did WWII and Korea. All of the destroyed families. It's all there. Actually, the whole United States is in a state of PTSD recovery. That's where all of the drugs, alcohol and violence come from. That's why it's so prominent in this culture.
So, I remember in boot camp there were some confrontations with some of the white racists in the company, and I had to beat up a few guys. So I kind of established my authority. We had a recruit company commander. But I was the fuckin' new commander. That guy got to hold all the positions and the authority. But I held the tomahawk. (It's kinda gonna ramble anyway, so it doesn't matter…) And, uh, that kinda continued on throughout my Navy career. Always combat with the racists. Even to the day I got out they were doing the final evaluation in 1976; I got out in April. And this one white southern chief just really raked me over the coals. And the reason he didn't [like me] was because I was sober; I had gone to the Navy rehab in '75—February through March of '75. And he was still drinking. And he didn't like me at all. And the officer who called me into his office said, ‘Look at this.’ The commander there knew I was smart, and I had done paperwork, told him I straightened out the paperwork at the facility in San Diego. So he called me in and said, ‘Look at this, what's this?’
So it stayed in the record, but I felt so bad about the military at that time that it didn't matter; it was just a bad part of my life. (See, I'm jumping around just like my book.) You know, that relationship continued. I had always stood my ground. I would not let people push me around. That was because I was Native American; I knew who I was, and I knew what I was in for, and I just tried to make the effort to stand my ground. That's why I was the company leader. They had it in title; I had it in reality, in boot camp. Very interesting.
I went to B-school and had that kind of relationship there. Barely got out, because I was chasing Waves all the time—going down to Chicago and having a good time. Then I went to my first command, which is pre-commissioning command in San Diego. We're pre-commissioning for the summer. We spent a couple of months there, and November 10th we went up to San Francisco where the ship actually was. So we spent from November 10th to February 10th pre-commissioning. They can actually ship the ship out and do trials with it. U.S.S. Somers DVD34. My first command. I went on board as a shipmate third class, and went overseas, and we went down from San Francisco to Hunters Point Naval Station, which doesn't exist anymore like most of the stations, two Long Beach Naval Stations. Two San Diego stations don't exist anymore.
Well, they really wiped out any traces of Vietnam. Because last week I was looking at the news and they blew up the old barracks at the Long Beach Naval Station. That's the first I'd known they had shut down the base. What they did is they distributed the fleet. We have one naval station in Everett, Washington. What they did is they split up the fleet into task forces. Rather than having two or three ports, they have a dozen or so spread out with each task force, in different task forces. A task force consists of an aircraft carrier and four cruisers and six destroyers, on Class Ships, plus gunboats and submarines. They attach submarines to a task force unit for submarine protection because they built a lot of submarines for a fast attack. That's the first time I went over there; it was in late '69-'70. We did gunfire activity and interdiction. A ship of that class has a lot of duties, and we did all of them. Search and rescue, north and south, launch support, recovery support for aircraft carriers, Yankee/Dixie station, going at night, and fire all night long. So it was like a ship with a twenty-four hour operation. You do that for six or seven weeks and you go in and do a stand down—get whatever was breaking down fixed back up and go back and do it again. And I re-enlisted over there, and I re-enlisted for orders. Because by that time, I had become kind of brainwashed and I wanted to go in-country and do in-country duty. That was a six-year enlistment.
I was stationed in Bombay, between Bungtao, on the coast of Saigon. The Nabai River comes from several sources. They kind of come together around Benwah. The river actually goes around Saigon. One of the sources of the Nabai is the Sai Gon (two words) River. I don't even know what it means. (Right now it means Ho Chi Min city). I went in-country, and my first night in-country, I caught the plane. I went to some special training in San Francisco and then I went to the air force base there—Travis Air Force Base. It was a civilian contract to take the guys over. And I was by myself. I came in as a replacement because the unit was already there. But the Navy did not have that policy that the Army had. We were attached to a unit and that was our unit. That's all we could do. DOR (date of rotation)—it's a date, something, rotation, out stateside, or something. What's the other one, CONUS? There are a lot of little things like that.
And then, after in-country, dress blues came in too. They had no idea I was coming; nobody was there to reach me. It was so hot, it was so blazing hot, that I had to go to the restroom and change into some cotton dungarees. And I got out and said, ‘I'm in the Navy; you guys know where I'm supposed to go?’ There was a truck out there—navy guys.
They said, ‘Why don't you come with us,’ and they took me down to the in/out processing station called Inapolis, which is on Plantation road, which is about a mile or two into Saigon. My first night was guard duty, so my first experience was coming down to do guard duty, which I didn't know we had to do…cause I really was not orientated like the army guys. I was a navy guy trained in the fleet; that was my job.
He said, ‘You take this,’ took off his flack jacket and handed me a flack jacket and I put that on. He said, ‘Take this;’ he gave me a helmet, and I put it on. And he gave me a shotgun and he said, ‘Ya know how to use that?’ and I said yeah, and he says, ‘If anybody acts funny, blow them up.’ That was my orders. So, here we are, sitting behind the net, chicken wire and sandbags, which you never noticed when you came in. And in four hours, I just tried to figure out who was acting funny. Who were they gonna blow up? These guys were coming behind me with Coke cans, they didn't have the pull-tabs back then, pop-top cans. So you needed an opener. Surprisingly enough, those Coke cans, what they used to do is carry these cans around disguised hand grenades and pull them out and throw them at you. There were a couple of guys down there flipping these, looking at us. I had the shotgun trained on them. My second night, I became in charge of the watch. So now I was upstairs on the second deck, and I was in charge of the watch from midnight to 3:30 or 3:45 in the morning. I came in, and I said what do I do?
There was this first class Jr; ‘You sit here and wait for the guys to come in and check in, and if there was any problems, you handle it.’ I said okay, I guess I could do that. Well, about a half hour into the watch this young black guy comes in to the desk. The desk is at the top of this flight of stairs and it goes down, which is the main entrance, which is guarded by these four guys with shotguns, hand grenades and flack jackets. I had done that the night before. Now I was in charge of the watch, because I was experienced. And we also had three M-16 machine guns on the roof with two men for each one, plus four guys with M-16s on the roof. It was only, like, a two story building. It had been a motel on Plantation Road prior to our entrance in the war. And I'm sitting there, just playing with my pencil. This young black guy comes walking in and says there's something wrong with my weapon.
I said, ‘Okay, have you ever fired one of these before?’ I hadn't, either. I had experience with M-14s and M-1s. But they gave us M-16s at that site. I said, ‘Okay,’ because I knew enough that I was able to strip it and put it back together and hand it back to him. And I said, ‘Whenever something happens, don't put a round in here until something happens, because I don't want you to kill anybody or blow your head off.’ I set him up to do that because basically, all weapons operate the same. The M-16 was complex, because an M-14 had seven moving parts and the M-16 had 21 moving parts. But it was a much better weapon for a soldier because of its abilities to do lots of different things that an M-14 couldn't do. One, it weighed two-thirds as much, even fully loaded. Anyway, I handed it back to him and said, ‘Go up there and don't worry; something's going to happen so fast that you're not going to be able to react anyway.’ Here it was, my second day; I'm already a sergeant. I was an E-5, a petty officer in the fleet, coming in and doing an Army sergeant's job.
But I spent a year in the pier before I went into the Navy. So I know about weapons. I was in an FO (Foreign Observer), so I know about [weapons]. I can field strip an M-1, M-14, 45. I know how to call in rounds. So, I already had actually had winter training in Alaska, which is in adverse conditions. That's what the National Guard in Alaska did; they were winter forces. They were the first line of defense against the Russians when they came over through Siberia. So I knew something. Plus, I'd hunted and fished in Alaska. So I wasn't afraid of weapons, or they weren't weapons then. They became my best tools, and when we trained in Alaska with Company B, which is a weapons infantry, we actually went out into the rainforest and did our boot training—how to take cover, cleaning your weapons. I hadn't even gone to boot camp, and I had already been out in the field training with this unit, which was supposedly seeing some of the more Korean Vets. So our guys were Korean and WWII guys.
I wasn't dumb; I was inexperienced in terms of actual combat experience. Then about an hour after I sent that kid back up, another kid comes down, a young white guy, and he said, ‘Hey, there's a guy up on the roof and he's crazy. He's got an M-16; he's got it loaded, and he's pointing it at everybody and he's saying, ‘Chuck is coming; Chuck is coming.’ ’ Well, this is from a guy who had been there; he was in out-processing.
I said, ‘Don't worry about it; we can get him down.’ So we went out, and it was like a (lanai) with a ladder like this. The lanai was only about four or five feet. It was on the second floor, and as I got to the bottom of the ladder, he was up there. And he said, ‘Hey. They're coming. They're coming.’
I said, ‘Yeah, I'm pretty sure.’ (And I wasn't pretty sure.) ‘So hand me down your piece.’ I came up the ladder about four or five steps and said, ‘Gimme your piece.’ He handed it to me by the barrel; he had the grip. So I grabbed the barrel with this clown on the other end. I pulled it down. I dropped the magazine out of it and cleared the round that he put in. I put it on safety and put the round back in the magazine and put it back in, and said, ‘Come on down.’ I knew he was going out of the country, and I said, ‘We're relieving you of your watch, so you can go to bed so that you can get out of here tomorrow.’
And to the guy that came down, I said, ‘Why don't you take him to his rat—I know who his relief is—and bring him up here fifteen minutes early so that we can have somebody else up there.’ He did and the guy came out and gave him the piece and gave him instructions.
The next night I was drunk. I had already been psychologically in it. And I was always looking over my shoulder from that moment on. So I spent another four days there before I was shipped out, which is basically where I worked on boats. So I was on security detail, which is basically where we did the river security, which we moved up around the river at our point. And then we had the village security. We had our craft; some of them were riverboats and some of them weren't. But because of the Vietnamese process, we also had an outer circle of Vietnamese. And one night they fired on us. Guys were blowing the bottoms out of boats all the time. I mean, grenades were going off constantly; that was part of our security protocol.
It was just a hairy year and a half of security detail, patrol detail, and village patrol detail—where you're basically a cop. There were gunfights all the time in the village…people dying all the time. You got hit a few times. Dead bodies floating down the river all the time. Guys drowning themselves in the river all the time. Shooting barracks up with M-16s. It was like lunacy. Total chaos. It was just a constant alertness. I remember one time I went to Saigon to make a call home; I went in, and I was carrying a .45 and my buddy was carrying a .45. So we decided to stop by the Continental Hotel; we were going to eat. Because we heard they had good food there. We went in there, and we were going to go in, and they said, ‘How many MPs are there?’ And they came up to us and said, ‘I'm sorry gentlemen, but I've got to take your weapons.’
And I said, ‘Well, we're not coming in here, then.’ Even if it was a .45, because there was shootings and bombings all the time in Saigon and you didn't wanna be caught without it. And there were U.S. military vehicles all the time. One guy from Alaska got killed the day before I came in. I didn't know it. I heard about it when I came in. Helicopter crashes, dead bodies all the time. Body parts on the street, around the rivers all the time. Anyway, I told the MP, ‘I'm not going to give up my weapon.’
He said, ‘Well, you know, you'll be okay if you give us your weapon. You're back in the building, and we're out here and we're armed, and if you need it, you can come up and get it.’ And we said okay and took it off and went in and ate. And one day I got the duty to drive in some guys that were rotating out. Their enlistment was up, or something. I went into town, and I had an M-16 that time. So I was running around with an M-16.
The kids say, ‘Oh.’ And they'd point over to this six or seven South Vietnamese Army guys and I'd look up and they'd say, ‘We've got it.’ So, somebody was watching your vehicle. And you couldn't trust them, because half of them switch coats at night. But the kids seemed to be fairly honest; you could trust them. But some of them, they used them a lot. They were playing the kids all the time. But I got back to the base and the next day, a guy from Alaska who was on that base too, went in and his window rolled down on the shotgun side, and somebody run up and smashed it, (They won't smash the window, but they'll ram it through so it'll break) and he got burned up. He didn't get a chance to get out. It blew up and burned him to death. And he was from our base. So, it was always on your mind, always on your mind. They were always trying to fuck your brain.
I almost killed an officer one night on security detail. There had just been a shootout, so all you could see was flash, and my partner and me had ducked behind water barrels. We ducked behind there when the firing was going on. Because we only had the .45s, the guys with the M16s were up the street a ways. And we waited there 'til it stopped, and they got a hold of these guys and put an end to that. But they when I ducked behind the barrel I had cocked my weapon and chambered a round and let the hammer down. But after that I just left the hammer down and put it back in my holster, so we could kinda continue to patrol. We kinda felt useless because some of the guys that were causing the trouble were better armed than we were—the Vietnamese guys all the time. See, the Vietnamese guys got to carry these M16s around. M89 is an M16 with an M79 strapped to the bottom of it. An M79 is a 40mm grenade launcher. So these guys were armed all the time, and they were threatening us all the time. They didn't like us, and we didn't trust them and they knew it.
Anyway, that guy there looks like my friend George; George was a Marine over there. He's my buddy now. Anyways, I went into this bar that I hung out in, and I had a girlfriend in there. I started talking with her, and I started talking with this other girl. Well, there was this officer sitting there, and he got all bent out of shape because I was in there talking to this girl; said that wasn't my duty. He was drunker than a skunk. He started calling me a dirty Indian, fucking Indian. Before I knew it, I had the .45 cocked back and ready to blow him up, when my partner grabbed my wrist and pulled it down and the young woman ran at me and strapped my arms up. I would have shot, and on the second thought I was gonna just put one between his legs; because in that millisecond when you go from kill to not kill, by that time you know that you'll do it, and there's nothing in the way. You don't have anything to stop you after a year and a half. That's what happened to a lot of guys when they came back; they didn't have anything there. No rational. See, I'm shaking now. And rational is gone. And that fucker said, ‘Go ahead; shoot me.’ And I almost did.
I learned about a year later that, talking to somebody, somebody brought this up who had been in country, and they said that officers only die in combat. So, how would they justify that an officer dies in combat if they had to bring somebody up on charges for killing them. A lot of violence. You get in tune with a lot of violence, and that's what you carry. About two months in, you stop walking behind walls and ducking behind walls and walking next to things. Because by that time you say, if it gets me, it gets me. If I'm the one, I'm the one, and there's nothing you can do about it; so you just kind of unbend your back and start walking straight and upright. How can you tell the difference between the guys who have been in country for awhile and the guys who just come in? The guys who just come in are kind of walking like this. But when you come back home, that's what you start doing again. So it's not your ordinary Vietnam experience.
Everybody had a different experience that I talked to. In all the guys that I talked to, there's nothing similar about each experience. Navy guys, Marine guys, Army guys, Chopper guys, Air Force guys, different Navy units…I was with NSA, (Naval Support Activities) MacV but our sister unit and we had guys who went from our unit right into the NAG, Naval Advisory Group. So even though we were technically Naval Advisory capacity/ Naval Support, we were technically advisors during the `Vietnamization' period, which was the worst time because there were no ethics at that time. You know, there's kind of this code of ethics in the war. Take care of your own, take care of your guys, and take care of the Americans; that all went away.
I remember I was out working on the boat at the edge of the river, and at the part of the river I was working on, it's about 200 yards. I was sitting there, and my buddy and me were working on the boat. I was sitting up in the boat, and he was down underneath jiggling. And we had worked on several boats there before. But I was relatively new. He had been there for a while. I said, ‘Geez. Weird bug. I keep on hearing it but I can't see the damn thing.’
I said, ‘It goes 'fweee'.’ What it was that they were shooting at us from across the river. Because there's so much background noise there, hand grenades and gunfire and stuff going on, you can't tell. All the noise is the same.
There were three Indians, actually four. I found out last year when I was in Decatur that there was another Indian guy there; he worked that part of the river, but he was not attached to that command. He was an Army guy. And the Army guys had their own boats. So he worked with the Army; they had these MP's that patrolled the river in lieu of the Vietnamization. So, even though most of the 600 or so boats were turned over to the Vietnamese, the Army-held boats and the U.S. Navy-held boats, which weren't quite turned over. And in lieu of the Vietnamization, they had these MP units; plus we were allowed to have our own security. See, we could defend ourselves, but we couldn't aggress.
There was this one guy there; he was quick. And his nickname was `Frog'; he looked just like a frog. And he must have been only about 5'5". He had this really wide face and he had these Muskogee teeth; it's really hard for him. But he was the ugliest Indian I had ever seen. I told him, I said, ‘You're the goddamned ugliest Indian I've ever seen.’
And he said, ‘Yeah.’ And the other guy was attached to another command there. One other Indian was attached to my command; he worked on the boats. He did the same work I did; he did security work and he did close security and boat, and he did the river, local river patrol. His name was Glen Tatusas. You know, that movie guy Jack Tatusas; this was his brother, Glen Tatusas. His cousin, Jack Tatutas, is married to my auntie in Fort Packer. He's Creek. So I got to know him only in the last month or so, but he had been there for quite a while we just had not; we had seen each other and nodded at one another, but we never really got to know one another. So I didn't know really who he was until we left and came home. Came back on the same plane and stayed at my sister's house; then he went back up to Canada 'cause he was being discharged.
I wish I could think of more. Most of the time it was this kind of this high tension, a few outbreaks, shootouts, firing, and you could see the war coming across. It'll be quiet and all of a sudden a plane would fly overhead at about fifty feet off the ground. You couldn't hear them until they were swooshing by. You couldn't see them; you could see the shadow. All of a sudden going boom, boom, boom, boom. Because they used these flashes to take pictures. They were always taking pictures of the area across the river from us. Then after that, pretty soon the helicopters from the base would start going over there like bugs. They'd look around and check around. Then they'd trace; the green tracer would go up and the red tracer goes down. It was really weird. Then we'd go into two weeks of condition red.
I was ruined when I went back to the fleet; I couldn't function any longer except under pressure. I was really good under pressure. Luckily the XO who had been in the country was now on my third shift, and he was on my side; he gave me a lot of breaks. He knew that I had been in country, and he cut me slack. Of course, in my mind I wasn't going to be alive for long. I had gotten too dysfunctional. I couldn't function in a military unit anymore. Actually, I went over again, and the war ended while we were over there, and we went through security for de-mining operations in Hai Phong Harbor, which is the first time I saw North Vietnam offshore. Then I came back, and we didn't do nothing over there except hit quarts. And we came home in September of '73.
I remember one day we were working on some equipment and it was a Development and Training Center/Fleet Maintenance and Assistance Group. Well, those had been two organizations, and what they had come to at that time was that they decided that people with six years of sea duty had to go to shore duty. I was saying, ‘Well, is there a fleet place that I can go to?’
And they said, ‘No, you've got to go to shore duty.’ I said okay; so I went to shore duty, and I went there for two and a half years and then I got out. I quit drinking in January of '75; I went through a Naval rehab. I remember one day in '74, I `blinked' in the shop; and when I came back into rational I was beating this piece of equipment with a ball-peen hammer, and I kind of just stopped. I could feel my head going boom, boom, boom, boom. I was in a rage. I had rage. And I looked around, and everybody had moved about twenty feet off and the Chief came up and said ‘Are you okay?’
I said, ‘Yeah, I'm okay.’ Then over the years I've had these series of flashbacks…mostly when I was in limbo. When you go into an organizational limbo, that's when it hits you. It didn't hit me until I left the service, and I was driving up the coast going to Alaska, going home. All of a sudden I turned paranoid, and I couldn't sleep at night. There was this woman riding with me, and I was saying, ‘oh man, I'm gonna have sex riding all the way up the coast.’ But I was so weird that she wouldn't have anything to do with me. She was kind of trapped with me in my van riding up the coast. There was this weird paranoid guy, you know, couldn't sleep at night, having nightmares.
And then I got home and everything was okay. I was home for four months. Worked in a marine shop, in a marina. And then, when I went back down, I felt a little bit better; I wasn't as paranoid, and I could sleep a little bit if I took some sleeping pills. I hit the University of Washington and boom, went away. Then I graduated. Not one day outside of the University of Washington, it started hitting me again. So whenever I went out of structure, I had these. Whenever I had alone time. So as long as I felt secure and content, I was okay. The minute things started to loosen up, I'd start getting paranoid. Funny how that stuff sticks to you like that. I was going to a relationship at that exact time, and I was hobbling around; I couldn't walk because my knees and ankles hurt so bad. It was really weird. I didn't realize what it was; I was so tense and wound up that it was pulling my ligaments.
I don't know whether this was lucky or not, but the woman I took up with at the time was into acupuncture and acupressure. So she taught me how to relieve it. Then in '85 she sent me off to the first _____. Didn't take. Two years after that, the relationship was over with because I had gotten weirder and weirder. Matter of fact, I had walked around with a broken arm. I had fallen, and I broke my foot and my arm and didn't know it. I splintered my arm…like a stress fracture. I know it because there's a bump there where it healed. I was so used to being in pain that I didn't even know that I had broken myself. Four years later, I wound up going through my first sweat. But I was in therapy up until that time. There wasn't even a name for it. I remember back in '85 the only word that was coming out was `hypervisuals.' I was just getting out of that. There's probably a lot of other things… I think I'm okay; I can sleep all right the last few years. Matter of fact, the other night, I was sleeping well in LA at this cheap hotel a friend had set up for me (because she didn't want me to sleep at her house, because we were only e-mail buddies; she didn't know me). She said that if I ever go to LA, we'd go around and do some things and see some people. So we did that, but we didn't have any sex. Right now, I'm my mother and father's caretaker. I take off two times a year. I do the Canoe Nations project in the summer. Because it's so close to home, every week I have meetings where I do things. But I actually take off for two weeks in July. And then I do this in October, November. These are my two times off. My brother and sister each take responsibility for a week.
In 1988, I had this dream; it was an enlightening dream, and that was seventeen years after I came back from over seas, to the day. I found out later that it was the `seventeen-year click.' A lot of guys after they return over from overseas, seventeen years later they begin to experience the emergence of the process of the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Up and until that time, you're dealing with the PTSS (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome). And then it goes into disorder after that, where you basically become dysfunctional. I had my enlightening dream that led to subsequent dreams, where I process through the healing.
Dear Grandma & Grandpa:
How is everybody doing? I am just fine. Grannie, I won't be home for thanksgiving, but I might be for Xmas. I sure am going to miss that big dinner, but you can save me some chicken and dumplings for Xmas? How is Grandpa doing? Tell him I'm still hanging on. Well, I've been in the army six months now, and I still hate it. If you see Carlos, tell him to write me. It sure gets lonesome here. I don't do anything but sleep. Like right now it's 2:00; I just got up. It sure would be nice if I had some chocolate chip cookies, but that's life.
Well Grannie not much else to say. Tell Grandpa I love him.
All my love
A member of the Apache/Mestizo tribe, Ernie Dogwolf Lovato was born August 30, 1947, in Lingo, Wyoming. His parents were migrant workers. He served in the military from 1966 to 1971 (in the U.S. Marine Corps in '68 and '69) in Vietnam, where he worked as a 21/31 artillery mechanic; he also served as Sergeant of the Guard. He remembers being frequently used in small arms repair, field repair, and mortar repairs in the field. Ernie worked with the railroads for twenty years before he began his work with the Vietnam Veterans of America. He has nine grandchildren, and devotes some of his time to visiting schools and educating students about issues connected with Vietnam veterans and the Vietnam War.
Being in Vietnam, you spent a lot of time dreaming of coming home. Wishing. Sitting out there and looking at a hill and imagining that it's your mountain that you're watching. And all you want to do is to go back. I have no bitterness about Vietnam, I just have a lot of sadness. I went because I didn't want my children to go. But unfortunately, war is war, and we're going to continue to have war. How do we stop it? I don't know. Unstoppable. It's like stopping rivers. We've tried that too.
I think that's the difference between Native people and the White man: we understand that we are part of the Earth. Mother Earth is very generous to us. Extremely. It can feed us. It can warm us. Or it can kill us. And it chose to feed us and warm us. We choose to kill it. That is what our young people are taught. The environment is taught in schools but it's not taught like with the Natives. Anglo kids go to school, and they teach them about the environment. But while that young Anglo boy goes home and tells his parents about what he learned about the environment, the Indian young man gets involved in his kiva and practices it. It is his religion—a one-on-one relationship with Mother Earth. He has an intellectual relationship with the Earth.
I related more to the Vietnamese people than to the Americans. The way they lived, the way they ate, and the way they survived with next to nothing. I felt a lot of compassion for the Vietnamese people, and I think a lot of people felt that maybe I was too compassionate. But to me, ‘war’ is a word that I try not to use in my vocabulary. Our people have been in war since the beginning of time. If you look at the history of all people, and I'm not just talking about native people, if you look at the history of all people, war's not good for anybody. I used that philosophy and tried to turn the worst things into the best possible situation. And I did. I learned a lot from the Vietnamese people and they learned from me. I was with a CAP unit for a little bit, not very long, but it was enough to open up my eyes.
When I was stationed at Hai Phong Pass, my job was to protect the hill, and I couldn't do it because we sat in the opium dens learning what the Vietnamese culture was all about. That was an experience that felt new for me because I had never done drugs before I went to Vietnam. I sat in the opium dens and listened to Papasans and Mamasans, and when I started hallucinating the people around me were actually my Indian people. The den was very much like it was with my people because of how similar their ways were to of some of our religions, especially in the Native American Church. You had someone that cared for you and somebody that was going to watch over you, so you really depended on that person. People I knew who were in those dens usually went in there to get high. I've learned I used that den to find my inner self. I would say their medicine people taught their elders the same.
I found the children in Vietnam to be really joyful. They were no different than any other children, except for the fact that they were subjected to outside influences, mainly the United States. Their first can of Coke: American food. I think those influences hurt the people more than they helped them. You can't change people through war. I feel that what we were doing in Vietnam was trying to change the people, not the government. The Vietnamese people had been at war with the French, and it was obvious that they were very, very intelligent people. You cannot survive if you're not intelligent enough to get away from B-52 bombers that constantly bomb and bomb and bomb and bomb and bomb. Those kinds of things are still on my mind. Not so much the death and destruction, because I didn't let that bother me, though I didn't really suppress it either. I knew it was fact of war. I think what bothered me the most was the sound of war. The guns constantly going off. The talk of war going on. The talk of people.
It bothered me that people didn't want to know anybody. Soon I got callused to that, because I didn't want to reach in somebody's pocket and get their identification just to know who they were, or have to tell somebody that if something happens please let my girlfriend know that I love her. I didn't want to do any of that. Looking back, I feel really fortunate for what I learned there, but I'm also saddened about the reasons I was sent. I didn't understand. Being eighteen years old, coming from sitting in the back of a Chevy, making out with some chick, six months later you're out there training to kill people. It's like a bad dream, a joke. I really didn't take it seriously until that big jet landed in Da Nang and I got off the plane there. It reality hit me because of the stink, the mist, the smell of diesel, the generator sounds. All of this is still in my mind. Not so much the destruction, but those elements that you had to live with everyday…everyday. The smell of the latrine when you lay in your bunk, and the wind came down that way. The smell of the diesel and the generators that created the electricity for your hooch.
If you were an asshole, you were going to be assholed. If you were kind to the people, you got that back. Kindness saved my life, simply because I was trusted by them. As other veterans know, we went in there with every will that they were all VC. Maybe that was true, and maybe it wasn't true, but in my experience, I wanted to treat people how I wanted to be treated, even though it was a zone of war. So called `word war.' I feel very fortunate that I returned. I also feel guilty that I returned. I think this is one of the reasons for what I do here now, and what I have dedicated my life to after railroading. I worked for the railroad for twenty-one years and looked around me and realized I was this $80,000-a-year-man working on the railroads and not being happy. I saw a lot of these guys from either the caboose or from the engine who were homeless, asking me to throw water out there. People in their fatigues asking and begging for water. What a simple commodity.
There are a lot of funny things that happened in Vietnam. I enjoyed being Sergeant of the Guard, because in that job I had the liberty to go around to the different outposts. That was the time that you could really get into the black market with the guys (the black market was a little local-yokel thing). Someone wants whiskey; a bottle of whiskey buys me two cartons of cigarettes. Two cartons of cigarettes buys me something else. And pretty soon you end up with a jeep that somebody stole from the Navy. You bring the jeep back over to the bay, and you paint it green, and you put numbers on it and you sell it to a Lieutenant for something. It was all there, and everybody played the game. I didn't think anything was wrong with it because I saw the stuff they destroyed. They would take the rear ends of jeeps and use a torch to cut them in half simply because the engine was blown. There was nothing to fix in the four-cylinder engine. When I was working on small arms, rifles were thrown away when people came in to exchange barrels. Instead of exchanging the barrels, I would issue new M-16's. When I went to Vietnam I had an M-14 and liked it, until they changed over to the AR-15, and pretty soon they gave us the M-16.
I enjoyed messing around with the newbies. You had to try to keep your sense of humor. It was a tradition to break somebody in, and it happened to me too. When you were in a perimeter in a secured area, you still had guards. As Sergeant of the Guard, I would go into one specific area where I would stay that night, and a newbie would come by. I would explain to him that he had the first shift, and he would fall asleep. I would have some wire all tied up with a piece of string so that I could rattle the cans. Same old routine. Scared them to death. Told them not to wake me up because sleep was very important, so don't bother me with any off-the-wall stuff. So I'd close my eyes, wait about ten or fifteen minutes, and I'd start rattling the cans. And he'd put his helmet down and say ‘Sergeant, Sergeant, they're coming, they're coming. Sergeant, they're coming.’ So he'd wake me up and I'd sit up for a little bit, ten or fifteen minutes. Listen…listen…nothing. I'd say, ‘Look man, you're hearing things. Please don't wake me up unless you hear something.’
So, I'd do the same thing, rattle the cans. And wait a little. I'd rattle the cans and make sure he heard something. He'd say, ‘Sergeant, they're coming, they're coming.’ So I did this about two or three times and finally about the fourth time I said, ‘Man, if you wake me up, I'm going to be very, very pissed. Don't wake me up unless you're absolutely sure you know what's going on.’ I lay down and waited and rattled the cans, and he didn't know whether to wake me up, and I got it louder and louder. He said ‘Sergeant, they're coming, I know they're coming.’ So I got up and listened again and I was listening and I'll be goddamned if them cans didn't rattle without me pulling the strings. The next thing you know we sent up the flare and stuff. I wasted a water buffalo. Water buffalo on the line. I had that one to explain to the First Sergeant and the First Sergeant's Lieutenant. I just got away with it somehow. It cost the government a little bit of money for that water buffalo. Hell, I tried to go get a piece of steak off it. Those Vietnamese were kind of upset at me though, so I didn't bother with the steak.
So, I felt there were some positive aspects of the war. I'm sure that there are other veterans here that view this war as really negative. I view it as positive simply because I'm very fortunate to have a second chance. The Great Spirit gave me an opportunity to work and earn a good living for twenty years with the railroad, but then I knew that I had to do something else, so I began working with the Vietnam Veterans of America. They hired me to do programs, and we've been here nine years, and we're over in funding.
We're about a million, little bit over a million and a half. And it's all for helping veterans, non-vets, and their dependents. There's a lot to do in this country for our poor, for our needy. Not only for our Indian people, but for all. Just the humanities of it. If we don't start taking care of ourselves by taking care of Mother Earth, it's not going to matter. There won't be any wars. There won't be humans. There are a lot of things that are happening now that our forefathers predicted, like the warming of the earth, the melting of the waters. That was said long, long ago by our people. That our children would not be listening. But our people are not known philosophers.
If you really want to see some of the greatest speeches, look at what Geronimo said when he addressed Congress. Look at what the Nez Pearce said. Sitting Bull. If you look at those, there's nothing that touches that. So maybe they could call us primitive, but I would use the word compassionate. There are a lot of stories of Vietnam Veterans being rejected by their culture. We weren't received that way in our own communities. We were well-received, but with minimal honors. We weren't really received, because we never left. We're just welcomed back. We're honored all the time. We're honored in powwows. But powwows are a strange thing to our people, because they are more of a northern plains thing.
The greatest thrill to a young man is to become a warrior and get status within the tribe. That's our ultimate goal. The sad thing about becoming a warrior these days is they're no longer a counting coup. It's got to be a war. So, how do we get our young ones to be warriors without killing them? I don't feel bitter about anybody that didn't go. I'm saddened for those that went to Canada. But I can assure you I don't know of one Native person that went to Canada, except that he lived there anyway. My people are from Canada. I feel strongly that our Indian people have to learn from this war and they have to learn that being a warrior is really not as important as having a son or a daughter, and watching their sons give them children and grandchildren. There are a lot of men out there that will never know their grandchildren. I'm the fortunate one. I've got nine grand babies.
An old, old Apache man told me the story of the Spanish coming into his great-grandfather's community. Being Christianized. A culture has its ways of conducting marriage. They said one man couldn't have all these wives. Pick one wife. And he performed what we call missionary relations. So the Apaches, we figure we have been through four or five hundred different changes, this will be fairly easy. We went along with it for a while. We survived without religion for hundreds of years, thousands. Then all of a sudden somebody comes to save us because our ways of saving ourselves are all wrong, though we had done it for several thousands of years before. Now look at what's happening today, all of a sudden everybody wants to study our religion. ‘Well, what do you do in those kivas? What do you do with that peyote?’ They have the drug mentality instead of the soul mentality. If people were really to take Indian religion to heart, and Indian people would teach their religion to those who are sincere.
The Indian religion is simple; it is real basic, like the penitents. The penitents beat themselves. In a sense, so do we. We suffer with our soul, in our sweats, in our ceremonies, in our runnings, in our bare-feet running. It is a form of humbling ourselves to this Mother Earth. This is how weak we really are. How big are we when that little grain of salt has been here longer than we have? My dust will someday cover that little rock, and eventually the wind will blow my dust away, and that little rock will come up for the next generation. Look at the mountains. Can we create mountains? No. All we can do is destroy them. Can we destroy the Earth? Yes, we can. We're doing it through pollution, killing the ozone layer. Our people never did that. Our people respected the Earth, the Sun, the Moon, the four directions, the winds, the ground. We moved when the ground wasn't fertile. We knew when the Mother Earth had to reseed itself.
We're all fortunate. If you're breathing, you're fortunate. Just understanding that the key to survival of this earth is compassion. And I don't say that we have to agree with everybody, because we all have minds and we all disagree. I don't have to get violent to disagree. It doesn't mean that my opinion is the only opinion and that it should be accepted by everyone. It is for people that give, both spiritually and physically. On the spiritual side I taught the Vietnamese how close they were to our religion, especially in the opium dens. And when I talk about opium dens, don't think that you sat there and sucked up all the opium, and you got yourself silly. They didn't do that. It was a form of meditation to them. It was like a powwow, or after the sweats when they feed you and you get all that you can eat. I shared that kind of thing with them. Teaching one culture to another culture is a very, very difficult task. Even harder than trying to teach it is really trying to understand the other culture and how they feel because of the language barrier. But the mannerisms, the religions in Vietnam were all very, very basic like Native peoples'. They weren't that far apart.
When I worked the yards in Albuquerque, I'd always go talk to these people that were homeless under the bridges. I came to realize that they were cut from the same block I was. They were veterans that couldn't survive back home, simply because of the structure and discipline that the military gave us. When the military released us, there was no structure in release, and you were just thrown back into the environment that you'd left and forgotten. Your loved ones loved you but they still questioned, why did you kill? Why didn't you just come home? Well, that's easy for somebody to say but it was really difficult for an Indian man or any person to say that what they were doing was not right. If my government says it was right, it was right. So I went with it. But having the knowledge that I have now, I know that we were wrong, as a government and as a unit, as people of the United States. And not just as Indian people. I'm talking about people in general.
I feel that Vietnam was a political war, even though I denied it at the time. I read McNamara's book, which people who are interested in this subject should read, and it had a lot of influence on me. After reading that book and reminiscing and looking back about what I've said and watching the homeless off the train, now I believe that they were part of the one hundred thousand men who were drafted simply because a lot of them were illiterate. This wasn't just Indian people that it was happening to; they just chose everybody. The highest rate of people that went to Vietnam were Hispanics.
I don't speak too fondly of the things that I did to hurt people over there. Even though people say ‘it was war.’ It's still a feeling inside a person that we're not taught to take lives. In our old ways before the white man came, counting coup was a great, great way of becoming a champion. When the white man came in and presented his firearms to our people, not only did we kill the white men, but we also started killing ourselves. The shame of not being able to take coup is still here to this day. The people that were out to really hurt anybody were just taught to protect, and I feel that's the attitude that I took in Vietnam. I felt that I had to protect myself.
I step back and analyze at the age of fifty or fifty-one now; I look back and see how wasted my youth was. They say that it was only two years out of your youth. But the sounds are still there, the smells are still there, the criticisms from other people, negative or positive, are still there. The misunderstanding of the war is still there. Our kids don't even know what a POW/MIA flag is. So I go to schools and speak on that issue, and I'm surprised that I've even had people ask me, ‘Is that a gang or what?’ Where were we with all this? What was the benefit of all this? Well, I benefit by it because I've learned, and what I've learned I can pass onto my children. I would venture to say that I am proud to be a citizen of the United States; I am proud to serve my president. I am also proud to serve as a Native. But I'm saddened that my government failed to recognize the humanities, not only for us, but for the Vietnamese. I'm saddened by our government and the compassion that it did not have for our people or for the Vietnamese people.
Figure 4. "Edward Ramon, the author, addresses a gathering on Memorial Day 1990, in Tulsa, Oklahoma."
Edward Ramon served two combat tours in Vietnam with the United States Armed Forces, the United States Navy Seals, and the United States Army 5th Special Forces. Throughout the course of his military career, he received The Distinguished Flying Cross along with forty-four other decorations for his valor in military service. He grew up in Dekalb, Texas with his parents, Edward Sr. and Eva Ramon, and three siblings. His younger brother, Edmond, took his own life on May 4, 1990. Ramon attended graduate school at Oklahoma State University and continues his extensive research on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with the intention of assisting other Vietnam Veterans in healing their own emotional, psychological, and spiritual `war wounds.' Ramon is the father of five children, to whom his book Scars and Stripes Forever! is dedicated.
Probably, before I ever got to Vietnam, I had all kinds of things given to me, primarily by my father, and also two uncles and a grandfather. I grew up a noisy kid, I suppose, although my dad was a quiet person and I often would regret having been too boisterous, to loud or talking too soon. Kind of like having diarrhea of the mouth, and my dad was a very quiet man. So were my grandfather and my uncles. As I became a teenager, an older boy, I began to try and emulate them. I grew up on comic books and a lot of sergeant stripes. I had an uncle who was a commissioned officer. He was a white guy, and married to my mother's sister. But, my grandfathers and my daddy were all enlisted, they were all combatants and they were all tough. I thought they were tough. As a little boy I used to look at those stripes on those sleeves, and I used to look at their ribbons and medals, and I used to think that was really just something special. I had no idea what warfare was all about. I knew that the military was clean and disciplined. Their hair was always cut short and they had immaculate uniforms. I grew up among farmers and cowboys and people who were not that sharp. But they were clean, hard-pressed and wore colorful patches.
My dad talked very little about his combat experience. On occasion when they would congregate, all the men, which was infrequent; usually they would do a little drinking and partying. It was then that I would sit there, as they drank beer and talked, and those amazing stories would come forth.
Figure 5. "Photo taken in the Republic of South Vietnam at the beginning of the author's second combat tour. Already the veteran of an intense combat tour of duty, young Captain Ramon has perfected the 1000-yard stare. -1969"
I went away to the military thinking that I had a bunch of good guys to imitate. It was almost a burden upon me to try to do as good as they did. I was always thinking that if I was going to be a soldier, a warrior if you will, that I had some pretty good guys to copy. I didn't know at the time, but my dad's father had died in France in World War One. I often wondered what kind of man he was. He was a Comanche. I thought about him and his wife, my father's mother, who was of the Oglala people, and I often wondered what she thought and what she was like. My father was deprived of her because she died when he was a very small boy. I had a very, very docile and Christ-like great-grandfather, named Jacob Barber, and his ambition was to have been a Spanish priest. It wasn't truly his ambition; it was the ambition of his aristocratic family. They actually deported him from Mexico because he was seeing a little Spanish girl and he was supposed to be concentrating on the priesthood. He rebelled; it made him very angry. They deported him to the Olivera Ranchero or hacienda in Texas. So, socially and every other way that he possibly could, he showed all a lesson, because he married a Comanche Indian woman, which was a socially low thing to do. I remember her. I don't know her Comanche name, but he called her Mary of the Light, and I thought that was kind of funny. She was very, very subordinate to him, but outside of him she was a hard lady to deal with. She was very mean or cruel, by our standards today. She was a very tough woman, and I was her pet. I don't know why, but I enjoyed some kind of favor with her.
My mother's father was an old-timer when he married my mother's mother. He was the product of a bunch of fellows from up around Gunner's Mountain in Alabama, and being a bunch of young bachelors around there, they married Uchi Creek and Cherokee girls. I discovered a few years back, after telling a lot of Cherokee jokes, that he was on the Cherokee rolls – John B. Soldage. I would suspect that Will, my grandfather, my mother's dad, was probably about three eighths Cherokee, along with her Comanche blood. So with the Lakota, Comanche and the Cherokee, I'm almost full-blood. I also have some Castilian Spanish and German, but that is beside the point. I don't believe that being Indian is genetic. I believe being Indian is a string of thought patterns, beliefs, values, and commitments that sometimes we're not even aware of. But, I know that I went into the military thinking that I needed to be somebody important to my family.
My first permanent duty assignment was as a medic with the 37th Med Battalion, which was a strike battalion, attached to the 82nd Airborne. My first venture into a tough situation, other than field exercises, was to go in the Cuban Crisis. And, I think that in my young nineteen years, probably other than having become a father, that this was probably the most serious test of my thinking. I remember riding a troop train there and I was assigned to the first wave, or the second wave, one of the first two waves going in. I knew then, as a medic, that the casualties would run about 90%. But, I never felt so physically and mentally incompetent. Regardless of the fact that I had some good training, was physically fit, and carried a lot of stuff on my back, I had know idea what I was going to do when I got there, but I figured that would take care of itself. As luck would have it, Kruschev backed down and we didn't go in. Shortly after that, I applied for military flight training and was accepted. At this point in my life, I decided to be a career soldier.
Figure 6. "The author, shot and wounded by small arms fire, climbs from an assault helicopter."
I guess that's following in the path of two uncles and a grandfather. I went through military flight school at Fort Walters and Fort Rucker. Just before I graduated from flight school, I learned that entire classes ahead of me were being killed in combat. By this time I had three children, I was twenty-two years old, and I knew that a serious challenge lay ahead. Like most, indoctrination took care of that. Military pride and training, and maybe a little bit of the native make-up that I had, allowed me to dismiss some of this and focus on the needs of my family and my father, mother, grandparents, and to tend to business before I went to war.
Once outside that circle, I found myself in Vietnam. I felt very much alone and isolated. I don't think it was so much racially, but I was different from everyone, and at the same time, I was the same as everyone. Within a few days I was assigned to the 68th Assault Helicopter Company, called the `Top Tigers.' I began to fit in, I was very green and very inexperienced, and I was definitely looking for acceptance but didn't find any. I didn't understand why, but I learned later that you don't make friends with new guys because it is a different matter of putting a stranger in a body bag then it is to put a friend in a body bag. And these fellows who were there, had already put a lot of friends in a body bag and they didn't want to put me in one as a friend. They had callused out a little bit, they were good people, and eventually they began to accept me more and more. But, it was a really lonely time. I think it was different from being in an infantry line company, where you fight with squads and platoons, and companies and battalions. Being a member of a helicopter crew was more native to me, because it was a small four-man team. You were pretty much of an individual within that small four-man team. Of course, your small crew fit within the bigger scheme of things to make up a flight of ten slick helicopters, and ultimately, to make up an aviation assault battalion. A fellow by the name of Bill Hack, and another one by the name of John Langlatcher, took it upon themselves to be my mentors, which is much in keeping with military, and certainly in keeping with the Native tradition. They both took me under their wing.
My first combat assault, I probably wasn't too much different from a lot of the young boys who would run around the village aspiring to be great warriors, but not knowing what it was all about. As we had the briefing and talked about the seriousness of our engagement, I began to think again, in a different way, and to seek some spiritual stuff. In the morning, before dawn, when we began to pre-flight our aircraft and load the ammunition trays, and do all the stuff essential to launch, there was a lot of activity going on in the dark, and again I began to think. I began to review my spiritual make-up, my communion with God, and, strangely enough, I began to think about my ancient ancestors and what did they when they were getting prepared for battle. I wasn't a cavalryman then, my people weren't, my people were Native, and here I was with the military, mounting up as a cavalry troop to go into battle.
Figure 7. "Warrant Officer Ramon awaits the order to help extract or reinforce a struggling element of the 101st Airborne, inserted in a pre-dawn assault. - 1966."
I remember one thing that particularly horrified me was tight formation flying. I feared that I would run into the helicopter next to me, even though I wasn't flying. It was dark, all the lights were out, but we'd traverse the middle part of Vietnam, in the third corps, headed west where we were to engage the enemy. So after I'd survived the horrors of that tight formation flight in the dark, we finally landed in the LZ in a field. So far, so good. There were some alien things to me, like wearing a loaded pistol across my chest, and wearing a flak jacket. There was a strange feeling in my mouth. There wasn't a lot of chatter or camaraderie; everything was kind of serious and low key.
I began to think about my grandfather and the manner in which he talked to me, in which he addressed the issues as just a matter of fact, and jump onto the point and correct. Just before dawn broke, we loaded up with infantry, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and we going to a place near Kip Hua, called the Sugar Mill, more commonly known as a horseshoe. It was just west of Saigon, maybe a little bit west by northwest. This had been the sight of slaughter of an entire ARVN battalion. The lift companies and assault helicopters that had gone in there had sustained more than average damage. So I knew that the first one was going to be a real contest. I was prepared for that. I was prepared for what I anticipated, but I was not prepared for what occurred.
I remember that we launched behind several other companies. I remember very clearly that I was so fresh and incompetent that I was not really allowed to do any flying, I was just sitting there to absorb and learn. I guess I was some sort of little insurance policy. If the aircraft commander was killed or wounded badly, I did have the skills to fly the helicopter and I probably could have come out of there. But, for the most part, I was sitting there like a sandbag.
My aircraft commander, Chief Warrant Officer, Bill Hack, was very reassuring and comforting. He told me to watch the instruments and gauges, and there was a little bit of humor and dialog between myself and Mr. Hack, the door gunner, and the crew chief. Our leader, Top Tiger One, was William C. Hunnicut, who was and is, a very special man in my life, not only because of his intelligence as a military leader, but also, his tenacity of spirit, because he led us everywhere we went. I sometimes think he was a little bit of a frustrated Napoleon, but he was a very heroic man in Korea, and here I was following him into battle at Kip Hua.
I remember the lead companies going in, and as they went in the radios came alive with reports of receiving enemy fire and aircraft taking hits and going down. That was all new and alien to me, to listen to these men, to listen to history as it happened. But, this was battle; it was not a motion picture. So the next company that went in varied their route in so as not to sustain as many hits and as much damage, hopefully, as they would have if they hadn't changed their direction coming in. Then too, once they dropped down from altitude and started their approach into the LZ (landing zone), their radios came alive with men being wounded and aircraft taking combat damage, and aircraft going down. That further drove the message home in my head of where I was, what was I doing there, and why was I going in there. And then, all of a sudden, values become terribly important. The American flag, my mom and dad, my grandparents, the pride of my people, I had to cling to anything I could find. Of course there was no way for me to step out of the helicopter, I was going in. But for me to emotionally survive that, I had to have some kind of values, and they began to come in a strange way, from somewhere. I really believe that it was because of my Native American beliefs, philosophies and ideas, that wee mostly given to me by my father, my mother, and my grandfather and grandmother.
I remember as we started in that I could see the battlefield. You have to realize that we only had 140 men in this LZ at this time, 140 paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne. I don't know the size of their force. I know it was a big one. So, I was coming in there with 70 more men to augment those 140 that were still alive. This was a very quick insertion, a very quick deployment, but I suspect that over half of those 140 paratroopers were dead or wounded. Being that I had nothing to do but sit there, I was foolish enough to look at the battle, rather than to concentrate on other things. I was ignorant and innocent, and I observed what was going on. The muzzle flashes, the ricochets in the water, the people that were trying to save the lives of other people, the people that were trying to assault the tree line, this was the whole panorama from a front row seat in a helicopter.
I remember as we came out (I knew then), that we were most vulnerable, more vulnerable then when we first went in. However, we were a little bit lighter because we had discharged our heavily laden, seven passengers of infantry. We, like others, had come in from a different direction, and we had sustained combat damage. We didn't lose any aircraft. We had some wounded. As we were going out, we went out a different way, and again we sustained some combat damage. On the way in my instructions were to watch the engine instruments and gauges. We took hits and I was to monitor such things as engine oil pressure, temperature and transmission temperatures and pressures, just that array of instruments on the panel. After my first glimpse of what battle really was I had no trouble looking at that panel. I didn't want to look at anything else, and I almost had to rip my eyes away from it to look outside. I watched the engine oil pressure drop off to zero, and I knew that was the death of an engine, we only had one engine. I also knew in my emergency procedures that if a gauge goes to zero, you look at the counterpart gauge, which is the engine oil temperature. If you lose all your pressure, and if you lose all of your oil, then you will register zero on your temperature. If you lose pressure, but don't lose your oil, then you'll see the engine oil increase the temperature go way up very quickly. If the engine oil temperature remains the same, then it is safe to assume that you maybe had an instrument shot out, or a wire cut in two, or that particular instrument malfunctioned, which was the case with us. The engine oil temperature held steady, but the pressure was gone. So, we continued. We went in and picked up another seven men as quickly as we could, in our flight of ten helicopters. We followed the remainder of our battalion back in again. We made probably seven or eight insertions in combat assaults, until we had a battalion inserted.
One of my problems with trauma is when I go back I hit the peaks, and I don't go into the valleys where all the feelings are, where all the emotions are. The first combat assault was, probably, the most eye opening. I don't know if that's true or not. I do know that my pants became wet, and I had not even realized that I had urinated, and wet myself. I remember my skin crawling. I remember losing the controls over my body while I sat there pretending nothing was wrong. I do know, that with every combat assault that we made after the first one, that it appeared to be, not so much normal, but a little bit less abnormal to be there. My focus at first was to stay alive, for me to not be shot, but to stay alive, and for me to live. Over the next two years, that changed to watch what you're doing with the aircraft, to do a good job, to take care of the enemy soldiers that were aggressing, and to take care of the friendly soldiers you were inserting or supporting. It seemed like if you were doing a good job doing that, then staying alive would take care of itself. You shouldn't focus too much on staying alive, because concern and fear would not stop a bullet.
Eventually you come to that stage in combat helicopter assault, in inserting, support, and extracting the dead and the wounded, that you begin to subscribe to those principles of the ta sunkeska olawan, which is the Whitehorse Society's hymn, or song. It is kolak ta ho…yelo, which is a pledge to brotherhood that goes beyond friendship. It asserts that you do not fear death and that you would love your friend forever, your combat companion, and that you would never leave them lying on the battlefield. I remember that out of all this chaotic thinking, there was always something coming up in my head, from either my high school principal, or my football coach, or the boy scouts. But, I found that of all the things that came up in my head, that the most surprising times would be my grandfather speaking to me, or my father speaking to me. The whole experience, I think is a human experience, or inhuman experience. I know that I survived in combat because of some sort of a self-image bias, or some sort of commitment that I was a warrior, and that the Lakota and Comanche were traditionally good warriors. If I died it would bring honor to me and it would bring honor to my family. If I were to allow myself to show fear or fail, that would show dishonor to the people I loved the most, my immediate family. It was a hard place to be in. I believe that on my second combat tour, that I was already suffering from what is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and probably the thing that allowed me to function would have been some very deeply imprinted, very rote ideas about warfare, and about what a warrior should do to maintain his honor.
At the end of my second tour I was paralyzed from the ribcage down, and I was told that I would never walk again. Although I had been wounded on numerous occasions, I had never been disabled. But, it was this disabling injury that allowed me to leave the combat theater without feeling guilt about leaving behind my brothers who were fighting the Vietnam War.
In the recovery process, or in retrospect, or thinking about the Vietnam War, I talk to a lot of my brothers who are still hurting; black brothers, Hispanic brothers, white brothers, and certainly my Native American brothers. We have found over the years, the beauty and the value of oon hey, being honored by the people, and the wicasa iyotanyapi, forever am I to be a respected individual. Make kin le, mitawaca, I own the earth and akita mani yo, observe and listen as you walk, especially if you are walking for the first time or if you are walking wounded. And it is these things, that will help edify or pull up any human being that perceives that they are not good enough, that they were too weak, or that they failed, or that they do not have the approval of the people. The national environment when we came home from war was not one of acceptance. I know that on a lesser scale, those who went home to their Native families were accepted. I've seen powwows that today, still convey acceptance to some man that won a Purple Heart in World War II, or to someone that was decorated in Desert Storm, or to someone who did well by completing Marine Corp training, parachute training, flight training, medical training, or anything that would prepare a person to help others and to defend others.
I don't look at myself as being a seer, or a dreamer. I know that certain things are Wankan, holy, that are mysteries. I believe that people are made up of three things: their physical abilities and gifts; their mental gifts, their accumulation of knowledge; and certainly their spiritual strength. Much like a three-legged milk stool, you have two have all three to survive as a person, a human, and certainly, as a parent or a leader of people, and as a warrior. I am not truly wanagi yuha, but I own a spirit, but in a way I am. I remember being with the Special Forces teams, and that we had pulled in our people, and the element of emergency had calmed down a little bit. We were certainly concerned about our safety and security where we were, but we were not as compromised as we had been when we had teams out operating in six-man teams. This was an occasion for me to lower my vigilance and possibly to relax. We had not water to bathe with, but at least we could relax a little bit. I remember that lull that came, and it had just begun to rain. We had gone through long dry period, and the rain was a welcome thing to me. I sat there in the rain and that was probably the only thing to pacify me, as if God had come to cool me off, or to wash me, or so many symbolic things. I remember sitting there and I became somewhat catatonic. Via retrospection, looking at what had occurred, the losses, the fear, and the deprivation of human comfort, and perhaps my spirit was weak, I was not wanagi yuha. I was struggling to find the spirit or to build my spirit, but I remember lapsing into what they used to say, ‘it don't matter no more, nothing matters no more.’ It was almost the total throwing in of the towel, short of giving up. It as breathing air and living, but not really living. I was in trouble. I sat there in the gathering darkness beside the trail and I made myself comfortable. I was enjoying the smell of ozone and a little bit of the rain, and I was exhausted, mentally and physically, and spiritually exhausted.
I was about nine or ten months into the war, and I had far exceeded any expectations that I would live that long. I had accepted and resigned myself to die, but death would not come. I did not fall asleep, and I did not dream, but I remember that my grandmother, nako hiani, came to visit me. My Lakota was very weak and not fluent, but I understood every word that she said. She spoke mainly to me without speaking, but she said some words. She was a very pretty woman. She was not condescending or patronizing, but she came there and she looked upon me with something that I interpreted as affection and pride. She conveyed to me a feeling that she was very, very strong. She gave to me a feeling that I had come from her, that she was truly, one of my parents, and my ancestors. In a very feminine way, she looked around me to see where I, as if to tidy up, or to tuck a child into bed. It was in that doting manner that women treat their children, or their men. She hovered about there for a while and she spoke without speaking. Then my grandmother looked at me and told me, ‘You are a good boy, and you are going to be okay.’ And then, she left me.
I felt more than moved. I was perplexed and confused that this gift had come. I was not hallucinating, I was not drinking, I never used any drugs in Vietnam, or anywhere, but this was such a real experience to me. It came at a time when I needed it the most. I remember very clearly that when she left, that I felt stronger physically. I could think more clearly. It seemed like old silver, all my values had been polished and were shiny again. I felt the need to live. I felt the need to serve. I felt the need to be cautious and tenacious. I felt many, many values restored. I never knew my grandmother. I had never seen her except in a photograph. I felt blessed that I was able to see her in three dimensions, walking and moving, and to hear her voice. Today I wonder what went on. I know the consequences of what went on. I can explain or relate the experience. But, I know that it was something holy for me. Why I was not visited by a schoolteacher, a military officer that I honored, a grandfather or someone else, I have no idea. But, I was visited by this woman, my father's mother, my Lakota grandmother, who came at a time when I needed her, and came in a mysterious manner. I progressed on from that time and place to sustain more wounds, to view more carnage and more death, and to meet great demands. I met them with greater fecundity and ease because she had come to speak to me.
There's something about witnessing loss, experiencing death very close to you, that forms within you a theory, or philosophy, or feeling, or some program that you do not want to make friends with anyone. You do not want to share of yourself. You'll share a can of peaches, or ammunition, or you'll share water and things. You'll even share some socially, but you don't really share a bonding or a deep affection. It's almost certain that if you attach yourself to something very, very important, that it would be a death sentence and that person would die. Or perhaps, another thought is that if you don't feel attached to that person, then when they die, they are not a friend, or close brother, they are simply just another soldier.
It is often human nature to find conflict with someone whose views or outlook differs from yours. I remember being assigned a new guy, a new pilot; new clothes, new boots, a new fresh haircut, and he had come to fly with me on what we called `ash and trash,' or just a daily effort within the core area to carry mail, carry food, to move refugees, to do anything that we were called upon to do as a flying pick-up truck.
I remember from the very onset, early in the morning as we departed, that this young man was full of life, and I was full of death. That this young man was filled with hope, and I was filled with resignation. I remember him in his eagerness to make friends with me, but I rejected him, and possibly caused him to try even harder to gain my acceptance. I remember through the whole day him talking about his parents, his home, his dog and his fiancée, his school, and all of his Norman Rockwell life. And I did not respond, I did not answer him. But, I thought he was foolish to jabber and jabber, and to carry on and I ignored him.
We finished our last operation and we were released to go home. It was along flight from up near the Thang Rang forest back to where we would park our aircraft and spend the night. As we departed I contacted Capitol Center, and I told them this was `Top Tiger' and our tail number, off a certain-certain place, and en route to a certain-certain place. This flight filing would, in a way, protect us. If we didn't show up where we were supposed to show up within a reasonable time, then a search would be initiated along our flight path.
I remember climbing to what I thought was a safe altitude, 1500 feet, and this young man had performed well, or reasonably well at his experience level, and I was flying and he was talking to me. Again, it was more of the same, a celebration of life and he was not consumed by fear. He was a curious young man. He seemed to be consumed by some sort of need to make me accept him. He was trying to say the appropriate things; he was trying to appeal to me. I remember something snapping inside, and I told him on the radio to shut up! I told him I didn't want to hear anymore of his mealy-mouth. I told him I didn't want to hear about his girlfriend that he would never see again. I didn't care about his college plans, because he wouldn't live to get there. It seemed to me that in striking out at him that I said everything cruel that I could about him being a poor and a weak aviator, that him being a silly fool, and that he was investing his thoughts, perhaps, in the wrong thing. In the midst of that chastisement, that mockery of him, that the bullets tore through the cargo deck, killing our door gunner and crew chief. The bullets came up through the cockpit, and two rounds struck him low in the abdomen and pierced his back up high. We had taken severe combat damage and KIAs. I remember compressing the radio switch and calling Capitol Center and issuing a mayday. I don't remember if I issued the grid coordinates, or what, but most of that stuff was automated. I spoke until I realized there was no electrical power to the radios and we started down. It was near dark.
We came down on a very steep incline on the side of a hill, not a mountain, but a very steep hill. The angle that we impacted on this hill was favorable to sort of a ricochet, or skipping action. Also, the hill was covered with very thick and tall, old bamboo, which worked as a net or something to slow us down. I remember hitting a large tree and tearing the rotor heads off, and the tail boom came as we were spinning, and so forth. We impacted in some tall grass, still on an incline. A rather instant assessment indicated that the crew chief and door gunner were killed. There was no doubt about them being able to survive, they were dead. I remember reaching up to turn off the console switches and there was no console. There was no window screen in front of me. I was sitting in the armored seat on a deck platform, next to my copilot. He was moaning from his abdominal pain. It was very surreal, almost like slow motion, but I remember hearing the voices of the Viet Cong. They were trying to locate our crash and certainly to take our heads for a 50,000 piaster reward, or to take our automatic weapons, or to just finish up the work. Hearing those voices brought me back to the present.
I unstrapped my restraining harness and jumped out, uninjured, unwounded, and I threw my copilot across my shoulder. In doing so, he screamed out. I remember the horror of hearing him scream in that silent jungle, that it was a guiding beacon for the enemy forces that were very close to us, and were looking for us. I clutched my hand over his mouth in a rage and in fear. I instructed him to be quiet, to shut up. I said he would compromise both of us. I picked him up and carried him in my arms in front of me, and I began to run. He was not a big man, but he was too big for me to run with carrying him in front of me, and I fell on top of him. I remember as we hit the ground, he grunted. He did not cry out, bearing in mind too, that abdominal wounds are the most horrible and painful wounds that a man can endure. I lay down in front of him and rolled him over onto my back, pulled his arms across my shoulders, and picked him up in what they call a fireman's carry, and I plunged into the bamboo, something that only a crazy man would do, because of the giant scorpions, centipedes, bamboo vipers, and the other horrible things that live in bamboo thickets.
We were leaving a pretty good blood trail, and we were separating the saw grass and there would be no problem in trailing us, so I decided to plunge into the bamboo. It was amazing that I was able to penetrate that bamboo, but I did. Within, twenty or thirty yards inside the bamboo thicket, I came upon a clear spot. I t was about a ten by ten feet area. It was a wash, of sorts, and there was water there, you could hear it running. It was very, very dark in the bamboo, and the mosquitoes were thicker than I'd ever imagined them to be anywhere else. If you opened your eyes, mosquitoes would swim in your eyes. If you opened your mouth, your mouth would fill with mosquitoes. Of course, they were buzzing in your ears.
I remember my heart beating so fast, and it was almost like a drum. I could hear a drum. It was a steady beat – boom, boom, boom, boom. And I knew that I was in dire straights. I remember my chest aching, and I wanted to breathe and gasp, but I felt like the enemy could hear every movement. I felt like if I took a deep breath that I would ingest gallons of mosquitoes. I remember trying to calm down, to breathe properly, and to stop my heart from beating so hard. It became very dark in the thicket. I had placed my back against the bamboo in a sitting position, and I had place my copilot between my legs, and he leaned backwards on me. I had my pistol on one side of me and his on the other, and we sat there.
I don't know how long a time passed, maybe an hour or two, and I realized that no one was going to come after us in that bamboo thicket. I remember touching my copilot, and he was extremely hot. The mosquitoes were very bad, and I decided I would crawl ten or twelve feet and get some cold mud, or some wet mud, that I would plaster his neck, face, hands, and arms with mud. I did that. In the process, I learned later, that leeches were attaching themselves to his lips and throat. I seemed to curse that things were that bad, that leeches would make things worse. I was suddenly overwhelmed by shame that I had not treated him as a brother, that I had been nurturing my own wounds and I had been very selfish in being numbed out, and being insensitive. I no longer had any fear of the enemy. I didn't care if they found me or not. I began to talk in a loud voice, telling him about my family, my hometown, my football team, my friends, and I told him every personal thing I could think of about myself, as fast as I could. I don't know how long that went on, but I exhausted every piece of information about me as a boy, as a soldier, as a Comanche-Lakota, my hunting and squirrel hunting, and everything that made up my life, to let him know that I wanted him to accept me. Finally, I felt compelled to sing a song for him, a lullaby. Believe it or not, I knew no songs, maybe Happy Birthday and a few other little songs, but I knew no songs except one that I had been singing with the 5th Royal Australian Regiment, and that was Waltzing Matilda. I began to sing Waltzing Matilda to this man, and it seemed like the louder I sang the more emphasis was there. I suppose, being in a state of shock or psychic trauma, that I began to shout the song. I don't know how loud it went on, or how long it went on, but I remember I lost my voice. By the grace of God, sometime in the morning, somewhere between two and four o'clock in the morning, I estimate, I fell asleep to exhaustion.
I must have slept for an hour or two, and I awoke. The tops of the bamboo were turning and I could see that the light was coming. It was getting dawn and I was in hopes that they would look for the downed aircraft and be able to spot, and that they would find us. I still had no voice. I remember my copilot stretched and moaned. He became very stiff and then gave up all of his muscle tone. I knew that he had died at that moment, as the dawn was coming. That also was a gift, because with his death it seems like I died, too, and there was no need to be concerned or to worry and that I had no problems. Only a few minutes after that, the light had grown a little bit stronger and I heard a man say that he was Sergeant Rodriguez, that he was my friend, that he was a soldier with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. I remember him reassuring me that I was going to be all right.
What followed thereafter has been lost to repression. I was evacuated. I was given a shot by the flight surgeon, and I slept for three or four days. I rose above that to return to combat. I remember that I never did cold-shoulder another combatant. I never did bar or block out any other man that served with me, or on my crew. I felt that I had a need for brothers in battle. Possibly, deaths like these, innocent, non-heroic deaths, they're just simply tragic deaths like these, to me, punctuate the verbiage, the adulation, and tributes that we all manifest to eulogize those who died for freedom.
Larry Mitchell is a tribal member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Indian Nation located near Mayetta, Kansas. In 1969, Mr. Mitchell dropped out of high school and volunteered for the United States Army. He served a combat tour of duty with Delta Company, 2/501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division from November 1969 – November 1970. He recently wrote a book about his tour of duty in Vietnam and the years he struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The book is called “Potawatomi Tracks: The Ballad of Vietnam and Other Stories.” Mr. Mitchell is now retired and lives in Richfield, Minnesota with his wife and two sons.
Firebase Ripcord sits on the ridge of a nearby mountain. It is a desolate firebase that looks like the brown hump of a buffalo. The A-Shau valley, the valley of death, is not far away. Over the skies of the South China Sea, B-52s can be seen going on bombing runs up to Hanoi in North Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh trail is a path of attrition. It starts in the jungles of North Vietnam and goes down a crooked path through Laos and the A-Shau Valley. This land of jungles and paddy fields is where Heaven meets the Earth.
The birth of Ho Chi Minh in Central Vietnam was under a new Patriot moon. Ho Chi Minh led a nationalist movement in a renewed struggle for the land. The yoke of French colonialism was the first obstacle the Vietminh had to overcome. Then the over-whelming military power of the United States came next in the great scheme of things. The build-up of American ground troops in this jungle war started in 1965. America supported a corrupt South Vietnamese government.
Its Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) divisions didn't want to fight, but the enemy did what ever it took to the win the war, like they did against the constant invasions of the Chinese, the Mongols and the Japanese. The government of South Vietnam used repressive ways in the countryside against the peasants. The Saigon government would kill the peasants and destroy their villages and crops. The North Vietnam communist government stood by while this was going on, but the Viet-Cong in the South didn't stand by and watch their people die. The Viet-cong took their guerrilla warfare to the Saigon government and to the Americans. They forced the hand of the communists in the North; the United States was drawn into this quagmire. This war was the longest in the history of America. It would be a defeat because of misguided policies. When all was said and done, over 58,000 Americans died for nothing in Vietnam.
The communists fought for their country and would lose over 1.8 million soldiers in their fight to reunite their country. This policy of independence would come to a peak when the tanks of the NVA overran Saigon in 1975.
I went to the Vietnam War in November of 1969 when President Nixon had his “Vietnamization” plan under way. I would not see even one soldier from the South Vietnamese Army in the jungles or in the rear areas. Two miles from Firebase Ripcord, on a wind-swept hill, fallen trees and broken rocks from recent bombings covered the hillside.
An infantry unit is dug in near the top; this is Hill 805, where the upper command of the 101st put Delta Company. We were put there as bait for a division of North Vietnamese Army, cannon fodder for the NVA. Our lives would be like the pawns upon a chessboard for old glory seekers who play war-games from maps that cover a table in air-conditioned rooms at Camp Eagle. Vietnamese girls with rice eyes wait on these officers hand and foot. Old men plan the war; the young men die. I was an infantryman that served in this rifle company on Hill 805. Under a livid grey sky it took me half a July morning to dig a foxhole. I looked down into the triple-canopy jungle; the sweat came down my face. The drops of sweat fall onto my M-16 rifle and onto the dirty faded jungle fatigues I wore. I looked back on the past seven months; I came to this country on November 28th 1969, having volunteered for the two-year draft at the Holton, Kansas’s draft board.
I had hunted by my Mother’s Sha no kwe's house on the Prairie Band Potawatomi reservation in Kansas as a war-eagle flew at the edge of the sky. A vision of blood and war came to me as I walked through the wooded areas and the gullies of my rez. I would come home with small game to skin. After my mom's suppers I'd watch the CBS evening news; Walter Cronkite would start the six o’clock evening news with "In Vietnam today, 56 Americans were killed in action and 148 were wounded."
For the past three years, the chronicler of these events saw the tribal members from the Prairie Band Potawatomi reservation going off to Vietnam. Joe Hale, who lives across the reservation, served thirteen months in Vietnam, an infantryman in the 1st Marine Division. He was wounded in action in the mountains near the DMZ. Roy Wahquahboshkuk served two tours of duty in Vietnam. Roy was a tunnel rat during one of those tours of duty. It takes courage to go down a tunnel looking for the Vietcong. Roy came back and was a drill sergeant in the states.
Henry Young, Vernon Shohn, and Roy's brother George also served with combat units in Vietnam. They had already proved their courage in the jungles and the paddy fields of Vietnam. People ask Native American Veterans: "Why did you go and serve in Vietnam and fight for a Country that stole your lands?" They should answer, "We went to defend our homeland and protect our Nation; it was our duty."
My wish about going to Vietnam turned true real fast. After only five and half months in the military, I was leaving the Oakland Army base on a 727. That plane made brief stops in Alaska and Japan. After twenty-two hours in the air, the plane descended through the clouds and Cam Ranh Bay appeared down below. That plane roared onto the airstrip in Cam Ranh Bay. Cam Ranh Bay has one of the finest natural harbors in the entire world: a bay of deep blue-green waters, surrounded by endless sand and mountains.
There were 500,000 Troops in Vietnam in 1969. Only 50,000 were in the infantry units out in the bush. 450,000 troops were in the rear areas in a supporting role. The Creator gave out all the easy parts to the guys in the rear. The overwhelming heat welcomed me. As I went into the hanger in my new jungle fatigues, vets were heading for their freedom bird and one said in passing "It's all over but the crying."
We checked into the Cam Ranh Bay replacement center. Greenbacks were a much sought after item on the black market, so we had to exchange our American money for Military Payment Certificates (MPC). After I was assigned a bunk in the transient barracks, I stood in the chow line, hungry and suffering from jet lag. A slow day of details and formations followed; then my orders came down. My orders said I was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division way up in the north. Some guys said we were assigned to the “100 and worst.”
After boarding a C-130 troop carrier plane, it took us from the heat of the south to the monsoon season that was raging in the north. That troop carrier plane landed in the dead of night on the Phu Bai airstrip. A truck took us to the Replacement Center in Phu Bai. All the troops assigned to infantry units were sent up Highway One on an army truck, to Camp Evans for Proficiency Training.
Highway One hugs the coast from Saigon to China. The troop truck took us through ancient Vietnamese villages. It went through the old imperial city of Hue, once one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The little children there in Hue ran up to the truck; some had blue eyes, others had hair that looked like the hair on a buffalo--the sins of the fathers were the sins of abandonment. An old peasant farmer in a big cone hat was on the side of the road taking his water buffalo to toil in the rice fields. In the adjacent hillside, the tombs of past Vietminh leaders could be seen; a reminder of the fate of us all.
The army truck took us through the gates of Camp Evans; they assigned us a bunk in the transient hooch. That is where I first met my friend Richard Trujillo. Richard came over and said, "What's your name and where are ya from?" I said, "I am from Kansas and my name is Larry Mitchell." "I am from Phoenix, Arizona and the name is Richard Trujillo." (Richard Trujillo would spend thirty years in the Army and retire a First Sergeant.) There were seven of us new guys that went through the refresher training at Camp Evans; the Camp Evan's training area was down in the lowlands, and jungle-covered mountains could be seen in the distance.
We received training on weapons we would use in country. We learned some of the history of Vietnam; we watched a demonstration of a sapper going through the wires without setting off any trip flares. The only fun we had was when we rappelled out of a helicopter. Out in the boondocks, we never had to rappel out of any helicopters.
On that last day five of us were assigned to Delta Company. One black guy named Riley went to Alpha Company. His company would be called “hard luck Alpha.” We'd always hear stories about Alpha Company, about all their firefights, and about their killed in action. Riley survived his year in “Nam”--that was saying a lot considering the company he was in. Another black guy that took refresher training was assigned to Bravo Company and he made it through his year, too.
Five of us new guys were assigned to Delta Company. There were two country boys from Georgia, and you got the impression they grew up together. One was named Kimsey and the other Kinsey (Kinsey would die two years after leaving Vietnam; talk about a tragedy). The other guy assigned to our company was a black draftee named Taylor; he was from D.C. Taylor was a great guy to know and he too, was able to go back to D.C. When we were out in the bush Taylor would say, "Today we are gonna hump for a big ass." I was unable to figure out exactly what he meant by that. Yeah! The third squad was a regular melting pot.
That first night in Camp Evans a rear echelon sergeant assigned me to guard duty. It was an all-night pouring rain when my guard duty went down; it was in a bunker with sandbags piled high. In the monsoon rains that night, for the first time, the blues crept into my life, and as time went by that depression never went away. My depression was born in the monsoon season of Vietnam.
O the melancholia days and nights of the monsoon season! In that bunker, in rainwater that went up to our knees, my new jungle boots stayed wet as I pulled guard duty. Our peripheral vision saw sheets of rain turn horizontal, I swore; the gooks wouldn't go out in those kinds of conditions. But we had to do our duty. We didn't want to be caught sleeping on the job. All of us loaded up our rucksacks with our gear. Our four days of training came to an end in the rear. We went out to the helicopter pad and waited, leaning back on our rucksacks, until the choppers came and flew us over the lowlands out to the Mountains.
On our first day out in the bush, we came under fire. Richard and I both hit the ground when the firing started. In that firefight the point man, whose name was Giles, came upon two NVA soldiers walking down the trail. Those NVA soldiers acted like they were out for a walk in New York City on a sunny day in June. They had their AK-47's slung over their shoulders; their careless ways would turn into a dirge song. Our point man killed one NVA soldier; the other one left a blood trail through the jungle. We all walked past the dead NVA soldier's body, as he lay on the side of the trail. He was dressed all in black as the rain fell on his body.
Some infantry units in the Nam would go through the jungles making enough noise to wake the dead. The officers made everyone in our company keep it down. That probably saved more lives than we will ever know. I had gone through the monsoon season in the Quang Tri Province. Nothing can compare to the misery of sleeping in the rains; all night the rain would fall. There was almost perpetuity to the rains. I said to myself, "This rain can't last forever." My feet would get white from being wet all the time: this was called immersion foot.
The leeches crawled on my arms, filling up with my blood. I'd have to burn them off with a cigarette, and then the little bloodsuckers would fall off into the jungle. Jungle rot appeared on my arms, which you get from being wet all the time. Those scars would stay upon my arms throughout my life.
On the times we got mail on the re-supply helicopters, Richard would let me read the letters from his girlfriend back in the world: that was kinda cool. He really loved his girlfriend. One time a guy from our platoon went back to the rear for the Bob Hope Christmas show at Phu Bai. He came back and told everyone Bob Hope was really great. He said that when Bob Hope first came out, he began his show by saying, "Back in the United States, the country is behind you guys 50%." Bob Hope will always be the one and only true American Icon.
I dwelled upon the time I spent in Nam. I was wounded on April 18, 1970. We started to set up camp for the night when the NVA started to mortar us. They knew exactly where we were situated. When the first mortar round hit the ground, I dove towards the trees, but it wasn't soon enough, because when the second mortar round came in the shrapnel ended up in my back and arm. I touched my back and my hand was full of blood. My blood poured all over my jungle fatigues and my arm grew numb. The thought of losing my arm crossed my mind. Thankfully, that wasn't the case.
The medic in our company told our Company Commander that two of us needed to go back to the rear hospital, so the CO called in a medevac helicopter. The medevac helicopter came out to get me and the other guy that had been wounded in the same attack. The pilots on that medevac couldn't land the helicopter because of the triple-canopy jungle, so they put a jungle “penetrator” [a sling-like hoist] down through the trees. Once we were on it, the NVA opened up upon the medevac helicopter. That helicopter dragged us through the treetops. AK-47's bullets were flying right by us. I never held a guy so hard before, cuz down below us was a deep valley in the jungle; it would have been all over if those AK-47 bullets had taken down that helicopter. When the medevac helicopter got some distance from there, the door gunners pulled us in.
We made it back to the rear hospital; there were bullet holes in the side of the helicopter. A medic escorted us into a bunker near the landing area and a field doctor took out the shrapnel. He said, “You are lucky!” I agreed with the Doc. I was in the rear for three days or so to recover. Once the doctor took out the shrapnel in my left arm and back, I was almost good as new.
During the past seven months in the “Nam,” there was a lot of racial conflict in the rear areas between whites and blacks. The black guys walked around in large groups. They met other blacks and did the black power handshake. White officers lurking around with nothing to do, would get angry at those kinda scenes. Those blacks got disciplined for petty shit like that. It's said that when the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination occurred, there were crosses burning in Cam Ranh Bay and Confederate flags were flying in Da Nang.
Some hootches in Camp Eagle were all black; whites were unwelcome there. Then two or three hootches down, there was an all white hooch with confederate flags hanging on the walls. It was a self-imposed segregation much like in a prison. Blacks hung around with blacks, whites hung around with whites, and I hung around with the Mexican guys.
In some infantry units the blacks refused to go out to the bush. The white officers sometimes had to look the other way; sometimes they had to let things slide. They couldn't send everyone to the LBJ ranch near Saigon--that is the Long Binh Jail (the stockade). There were fraggings, beatings, and other confrontations going on between blacks and whites. It got worse as the war dragged on; I came to the conclusion that it was safer out in the boonies. Out in the boonies it was the same mud, the same blood.
I was on a work detail when I was recovering from my wounds. I was getting on this truck and in the back an Indian guy was sitting there. The guy looked like a Potawatomi. "When I first saw you getting on the truck, I thought you looked like a Potawatomi." He said, "My name is Allen Hale and I am from Topeka, Kansas." Talk about a small world!
I had been in country only four months; I had been wounded in action and nearly killed. They sent me back out to the boonies, and I was humping like nothing even happened. The Quang Tri Province is near the DMZ. The demilitarized zone is a no man’s land, where the ghosts of NVA soldiers remain forever to haunt the land, and the flowers of heaven grow upon the ground.
My rifle company got into firefights every now and then. Once the platoon ahead of us came under fire, they took some casualties and we were sent up there to help them. When we got there the firefight was over, firefights in the “Nam” never lasted long. But, in that short amount of time, the NVA had killed four of our people. My platoon sergeant told me to take one of the bodies down the hill to be evacuated. As I came upon the body, it turned out to be an Indian guy from the second platoon. His name was Jay Muncey, from out Nevada way.
I carried him on my back down the hill to the helicopter landing area. They loaded his body on the medevac helicopter. I thought of Muncey's family and how they would take their son's death. There would be profound grief in his family. We want our children to bury us, not the other way around.
The night fell on the jungle. I had made a mistake months earlier and re-enlisted for three years. Gung Ho, or just plain crazy, you take your pick...I was homesick--under a cloud of depression--for the rez. It was a mistake that would always haunt me. There was no good reason for reenlisting in the army. I didn't have any plans on staying in the army.
That time, an army truck took me to the airport down to Da Nang. While waiting in that God forsaken airport, I went into the restroom and while using the bathroom, my eyes traveled up the wall. Graffiti consumed the whole wall. The GIs that passed through that restroom had quite the imagination. There was one saying that stood out “Fighting for Peace, is like Fucking for Virginity.” That was so true.
I left the war-zone from Da Nang for thirty days of leave with a reenlistment bonus burning a hole in my pocket. A whole suitcase of “Nam” weed could have been taken through customs. Just think how popular I could have been with the rez boys. I bought a car, a car my brother Eddie totaled on my return to the “Nam.” We partied till it was my time to go back to Vietnam.
Upon my return to the boonies the monsoon season was over, and the hot season had come to the north. The skies were full of gun ships and helicopters as our search and destroy missions picked up. I caught a re-supply helicopter out to Firebase Bastogne; that was the firebase closest to my unit out in the boonies. I waited for another helicopter to take me out to my company out in the bush. While on that firebase we got mortared, it was dangerous on those firebases in the Northern I Corp area. The NVA could zero in upon the firebase's position and let their mortars thump. I caught the next helicopter out to my unit, at least out in the bush you can move around and not be in one position all the time. That is, till we got to Hill 805.
My friend, Richard Trujillo was like a brother to me. During the few times we were in the rear for stand-downs, we would walk in between the hootches and we would meet Mexican guys from other infantry units and they always talked Spanish to me. Richard would say "He's an Indio." And they would say "Oh! He looks like a Chicano!"
I drank with Richard at the enlisted men's club till closing. The enlisted men's club was just another hooch, except it had a bar in it with tables and stools at the bar. The jukebox would play tunes like "Proud Mary" and "The Tracks of my Tears." It was a bar that looked like any dive you might find in on the plains of Kansas. That bar would be off-limits during the day, and then around five it would slowly start to fill up and it would stay open till about one in the morning. Beers in the EM would cost fifteen cents; a pack of cigarettes cost the same. At a table with our buddies, we would laugh all through the night. We'd never once think about dying or the harsh conditions out in the boonies.
I wrote letters to my mom during my tour of duty in Vietnam. The letters to my mother are not the descriptive masterpieces you will find in books on war. They were just letters telling my mom how much I loved her and how much I missed her. On this night, ten thousand miles for home, I hoped like hell I would see my family again.
The guys in our platoon kept saying they had a bad feeling about the hill we were on. Maybe there was something to those feelings. Up to this time, our rifle battalion was always on search and destroys missions. We always hunted the NVA, and now they were hunting us. Our company was up on hill 805; our company was bait for the NVA. The upper command of the 101st thought that if a few thousand NVA attack us in one area they could be more easily destroyed. That kinda of thinking is a real shame. They said we were sent to hill 805 to support Firebase Ripcord.
The first night on hill 805, no one thought of going to sleep, fear had a contagious hold over this hill, like the clouds hanging on the top of the mountains. We humped up and down. The NVA attacked us about midnight. It seemed like all hell broke loose. The NVA sent a barrage of RPG's at us, huge explosions hitting everywhere, it seemed. Maybe our side of the hill saved all the lives in our squad, because it went down a sheer cliff. That huge rock would have been hard to come up. None of us were able to think about sleep or of hunger. This was the first serious all-night fighting most of us saw. The NVA sent fear throughout our unit. My squad was on the north side of hill 805; we were under attack all that night. Cobra gun-ships came in the night sky and put down constant fire on the NVA, the red tracers like a long death beam from the helicopters. They would make their dives, unloading their rockets first, and then they would circle around and dive again using their mini-guns. They would do this till they ran out of ammunition.
One of the things that stood out about “Nam” was the impressive courage of the helicopter pilots. All those pilots deserved the Silver Star or something for their courage. When daybreak came, there was no changing of the guards, no quitting time for the graveyard shift; it was business as usual. The medevac helicopters came in and took out the wounded. During the night we didn't suffer any killed in action. Our platoon spent the day trying to get an hour or two of sleep. Our squad dug our foxholes deeper, we put concertina wire around the hill, set out more claymore mines, and for sure we cleaned our weapons. We all knew the NVA would attack us when night fell again. Our platoon sergeant orders some of us to go down the side of the hill on patrol and look for dead bodies. All we found were blood trails going into the jungle. The NVA liked to drag their dead away, just so they could demoralize us with no body counts. It was demoralizing to know we killed a few of them, but there were no bodies on the ground to count.
The night came again. The winds were howling and it grew cold. NVA sappers crawled up the side of the hill and got within striking distance of us. Sapper units were attached to the NVA infantry units; they are specially trained for weeks. A sapper could go through just about any kind of wire and go around any kind of obstacle. When we had refresher training at Camp Evans, we saw how good that one sapper was about getting through the wires. But this time around, one of them set off a trip wire. Hill 805 exploded with incoming and out-going fire. We set off our claymore mines. One of the sappers got behind a rock; he killed five Americans before someone finally got him. One of those killed in action was this kid from Chicago; He had married a Thai girl when he was on R& R. After that I think it’s bad luck to go over to Thailand looking for a wife. I got caught up in all the superstitions of the “Nam.” Take for example; when we lit up a cigarette we would never take the third light; that was bad luck.
On the second night the firefights went on till about three. By that time my M-16 had grown red hot in my hands. We don't know why they stopped attacking us. It was like catching your breath. Over the jungle, the South China Sea could be seen, Countless stars were in the night sky, and it seemed almost peaceful. Vietnam has so much beauty, and all these people know is war. There was one time we went through a village. Some of the Vietnamese people came up to us and they would say "Boom Boom GI?" We'd say "No way Mama san." We had heard all the stories of those Vietnamese ladies of the night, having razor blades up you know where and we'd said no thank you. One villager said to me "Same, Same." Maybe there was a lot of veracity in those two words, the Vietnamese fought for their country and their way of life against overwhelming odds. Going through my basic training out in the boondocks at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and my advanced infantry training in Fort Gordon, Georgia, all I heard from the drill sergeants was what the gooks would do to us when we got to Vietnam. The drill sergeants said, "Fight the Communists over in Nam or fight them on the streets of Topeka." Stop the spread of communism! I swear I thought the United States was in Vietnam, because we were there defending that Coca Cola plant in Saigon. It was four and half months of constantly dehumanizing the Vietnamese people, calling them gooks all the time. That was a way of making killing easy when you got to Vietnam.
As dawn breaks over the jungle and we look around, we see guys from other platoons sitting down with that old timeless thousand-yard stare--the stare that was in every war since the beginning of time. My eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep and from all the dust that sweeps over hill 805. The third day the re-supply helicopters came in, and we got enough ammunition to get us through the night. The third day was like the day before; some of us were sent down the side of the hill to check out if any bodies were lying around. Four NVA soldiers were left out upon the killing ground. Their comrades didn't have the time to drag them away. One body was bigger than the rest and someone said that he was a Chinese soldier, I don't know if that was true or not. I hated to go out on those patrols; it was like we were sitting ducks or something. They didn't hit us in the daytime. They waited till the night came.
We took turns trying to sleep for a couple of hours; it was hard to sleep because of the heat. It was in July and the summer is the hottest time in the Nam, summer temperatures always hover over 100 degrees. This heat kicks us all over when we have to hump up those mountains. I played football for three straight years in high school so I was in half-decent shape.
The third night the attack started in the middle of the night; and again it is a sapper that trips a wire. Our unit sends down a rain of bullets and grenades upon the sappers that were in the wire. Our fire didn't let up all night long. The cobra gun ships give us support throughout the night; an NVA squad was shooting a 51-caliber machine gun at us from a nearby ridge. That is until the Cobra gun ships zeroed in on it. 51-caliber bullets are the length of a finger, so it was a good thing for us that machine gun was taken out. One guy in the second platoon got badly wounded and a medevac helicopter was sent for; the medevac helicopter started to go around in circles for a while, because of the high winds. When the winds died down a little, two of our medics put the wounded soldier upon a basket the chopper sent down. The NVA opened up on the helicopter and killed the guy; that is, after the medics did everything they could to keep him alive. One medic was giving him CPR and was getting nothing but a mouth full of blood.
About three that night the firefights stopped and the silence of the grave came over the hill. It stayed that way till about four, and then the NVA opened up again on Hill 805. That second firefight didn't last that long. It was a good thing: all of us were low on ammunition. They say the NVA could have overrun us that night. That thought sent a chill down all of us. The next day they sent out a patrol that found the dead sapper that had killed five Americans; they said his body was bloating up out in the sun. The dead sapper had his arm lying next to his body; a grenade went off as he was trying to throw it back at us. A lingering smell of decomposing flesh stayed in the air. The supply helicopters came in with more ammunition, which we badly needed. The NVA watched from the jungle, they saw our causalities being medevacked out. The fourth and fifth nights were a repeat of the other nights: all nights of fighting. After the fifth night of fighting, the orders came down from the higher ups to leave Hill 805.
Staff Sergeant Dotson, who was on his second tour of duty in Vietnam, told me to go with this other squad as we left the hill; meanwhile, my squad went down ahead of us. It was during a break when a Kit Carson scout (a NVA solider that defected to our side); pulled a grenade out and killed himself and killed two of our guys. One of them was Wilfred Warner, who had walked point with me; we had taken turns walking point. I was supposed to be by his side, but fate decided it wasn't my time to go. The squad I was in walked past Warner laying there on the ground. I could not even recognize him; his body was so blown up. They said he died on the way back to the rear, but I don't think that was the case. No one knew why that Kit Carson scout killed himself. Some said he was afraid that we all were going to get overrun by the NVA. He was afraid of what the NVA was going to do to him. Someone else said that Warner was giving the Kit Carson scout a hard time because the scout was falling back. Warner told him if he didn't stay up with us, he was going to leave him for the gooks. Warner was only nineteen years old when his life was cut short; I thought of him as a friend. I'd say to him "Come on Warner let’s go drink." We got drunk a handful of times at the enlisted men's club in the rear. Richard and I would sit around the table drinking with him. We would laugh together all evening long. I always wished I could have gone and met his family, you know, tell them I served with their son in Vietnam and he was my friend. That scene took place upon a desolate hillside in Southeast Asia, and would always haunt me in my nightmares. The guilt was always there hanging like a dark cloud. Maybe I could have prevented Warner's death.
My company went back to the rear for a stand down. I walked past the first sergeant, and he didn't say anything. The officers in our company were put in for the Silver Star for their actions and for their risks on hill 805. The risks the rest of us took didn't mean anything at all. Our company had eleven Americans killed in action, and fifty-six were wounded on and around hill 805. Hill 805 was like a metaphor for the whole Vietnam ground war. We fought for territory, we lost our people left and right, and then we left. It was all for nothing.
After a couple of days in the rear, the division sent us to China Beach by the South China Sea - the 101st called it Eagle beach - for a stand down. Those ole generals and colonels thought we deserved a rest. Our company would be at Eagle beach for four days. We went to the enlisted men's club on the beach and drank till closing time to try and forget the past week. That is where we heard the rumors of Firebase Ripcord; they said it had gotten overran by the NVA. They were saying the NVA the next morning were drying their laundry on the firebase. That is what we heard over beers as we were drinking. The day was spent lying on the beach and swimming in the South China Sea. The seawater healed all the jungle rot we had on us.
A pale moon rises above the sea; black clouds pass in front of it; down the beach Little Miss Vietnamese whore is charging twenty dollars a pop. VD is a risk a GI takes as he goes down that beach down past the dunes.
One night a movie is showing in an outdoor theater; it is Truman Capote’s "In Cold Blood." It's about the murders of the Clutter family in Kansas, and someone says "Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore!" We didn't take the time to watch the movie.
We had to go back to the bush and go on search and destroy missions again in the mountains. Some guys in our platoon called these search and destroy missions: “search and avoid missions.” Life in the bush was a harsh existence. Helicopters always transported our company; sometimes we went into hot landing zones, BUT regardless, we would come under attack by the NVA. These were called combat assaults. During one combat assault Richard got wounded in a firefight, he caught a bullet in the leg and was taken back to the rear. Richard said later he was at the field hospital in Phu Bai; he said there were GI's at that hospital that had arms and legs blown off. Others lay there with bloody bandages over their faces. After about six days Richard was back out in the boonies. Apparently, that bullet didn't go that far into his leg. If they didn't need bodies so badly out in the field, maybe he could have stayed in the rear a little longer.
I must have seen about forty or fifty combat assaults and for every twenty or so you are supposed to get an air medal. In my year in the Nam, I earned the Combat Infantry Badge, Purple Heart, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Air Medal, and back in the states I had the National Defense Medal bestowed upon me. All those medals go with the territory.
There was a time in my early months in Nam that I had thoughts of extending for six more months. But as time went by, there was too much death. There was too much dying around me. Vietnam was too dangerous to stay. I didn't want to go home in a body bag, and be put six feet under the ground. I didn't want an American flag put upon my coffin just yet.
The oppressive heat and humidity was suffocating. We had to hump up the mountains with all the gear we had on. That gear weighted between sixty to eighty pounds. It was torture when we had to cut a trail in front of us; you could walk right into an ambush. The worst thing was, we knew that we could come under attack at any moment! We had to take salt tablets and Malaria tablets daily. After a long day of humping the boonies, we would set up camp for the night, and after guard duty we hoped for at least six hours of sleep.
Leading men into battle--walking point--is something some of us had to do at some point in our tour of duty. I was put on point for about four or five months. During that time, I almost drowned; it was during the monsoon season. That incident happened while walking slack for Warner, the point man. As I followed Warner step for step across the river, the river pulled me under, and my gear and I went to the bottom like a rock. The water line was a light from near the bottom. My eighty pounds of gear wouldn't come off. I came up once and was gasping for air and then went back down again; it seemed like forever before I was able to rip off my gear. My M-16 was lost in the fast moving river. On the shore while gasping for air, I felt like nobody did anything to help me. That is what always stayed in my memory.
After six months into my tour of duty in Nam they threw someone else up there. During my time of walking point, I was fortunate not to have met any NVA soldiers on the trails, or trip any booby traps, or step on any pungee sticks. On those many trails of death that wound through the jungles, some Americans were not so lucky when they walked point.
The food we ate in the boonies was mostly C rations; I never minded eating that stuff, albeit the boonie-rat diet did get kind of old after awhile. On occasion we got to eat some hot food they brought out to us on helicopters. On those occasions, they also brought us clean uniforms. We'd go days and days without taking a bath, which must have attracted all the mosquitoes that buzzed around us all the time. Many of those nights, I longed for a bed to sleep in; and dreams came to me about home.
They had two daughters, the younger girl they called Marti. She was named after our friend Martin Jim. Martin went to Vietnam and after only eight days in the country, he was killed in action. His name is on a black granite wall in D.C. Martin thought so much of my brother Gary, that he named Gary his Beneficiary on his army life insurance policy. Gary gave the $15,000 from the Army to Martin’s relatives.
After about a month in the bush, after the stand down, my orders came down for R&R (Rest and Recuperation) in Bangkok. Richard's orders came down the same time so we went down to Da Nang to catch a plane to Bangkok, Thailand. Once we landed at the Bangkok airport, we went to an orientation center for a briefing. We made a selection of a hotel, and then they put us on a bus to our hotel in downtown Bangkok. In Bangkok there was a soft bed to sleep on, cheeseburgers, bars (with a woman at every table), soldiers crying in their beer, and the smoke was so thick that it got in your eyes. Thai weed is for the taking and smoking, and everybody had access to the stuff. It was really nice to sleep in a bed again, and have a pillow and sheets. I spent six nights and seven days there, throwing away $650.00 in those days and nights. I woke up one of those mornings and went down to eat in the hotel café. I ordered this one breakfast; it was two fried eggs on rice, and that breakfast was as good as they come.
The hotel switchboard managed to get me through to the states; I was able to talk to my mom for a few minutes, so I called her collect. All through my life, I always got comfort from my mom. This time I needed comfort and strength, because I didn't want to go back to Vietnam. That place was full of death and dangerous as hell. It was tough going back to Vietnam. But I boarded the plane, it left the Bangkok airport, and flew us straight back to the Nam. Once back in Nam, I found myself short sixty days. When someone got close to his or her DEROS (Date of Expected Return from Overseas), they were short-timers and people said, “I'm short. Five days and then I am going back to the world.” We went back to the bush and suffered with everyone else; each passing day was one less day in the Nam. I didn't have to walk point anymore. I was walking near the back of the squad. I must have had about a week and half to go, when our company came to the rear for a stand-down. Richard and I of course went out drinking at the EM club. I got so drunk that night that I wanted to fight Richard. While there were no blows exchanged, my friend never talked to me again. Of all the mistakes in my life, this is the worst one I made. I felt bad about this all through my life. Perhaps in a way I could not say goodbye to Richard.
My orders came down and I was assigned to Germany. I was holding those orders in my hands and a bad premonition came over me. That bad feeling passed after a few moments, but those orders really bummed me out. Stateside duty was never in the cards for me. I am standing there in Bien Hoa, with the guys I came into the country with; we had all made it. November of 1970 came rolling around and my tour of duty was over in the Nam, where the Americans won all the battles but still lost the war. I had survived when so many others hadn't, but it would carry a heavy price with it. I would carry invisible wounds that would always haunt me throughout my life.
On the bus ride to our freedom bird, an Indian guy in front of the bus yells out the window "Short!" to some passing GI's. I laughed; that was kinda funny. I boarded my freedom bird and flew through the sky. The troops before us went through the processing line. Some guy behind the counter would look at the orders the guy was holding in his hand. He would see that the Nam Vet had been awarded a Purple Heart. He then would toss the Purple Heart upon the desk; he wouldn't even bother to hand it to the guy. When I went through there, they ran out of medals. I didn't know it then, but I carried Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with me as I stepped off that freedom bird in Seattle. PTSD could be some heavy luggage to carry around.
There were no anti-war demonstrators in the Airport terminal. At home, there was no welcome parade for me on Main Street. There was no healing ceremony waiting for me out on the reservation. No one said thank you for your sacrifices and for serving in Vietnam. There were no congratulations, no celebrations, no admiration or adoration from our nation. Gratitude would elude my generation that served in Vietnam. There would be a lot of condemnation, a lot of discrimination, and a lot of victimization on the great Turtle Island for the warriors that fought for their country.