on 8 march 1968 i arrived at bien hoa air base in the republic of vietnam, after a journey from oakland army base to clark air force base (CA), hawaii, guam and the philippines. as i stepped off the plane, all senses heightened and the fight-or-flight response at full alert, the heat and humidity hit me like a solid wall. in typical hurry-up-and-wait fashion, i spent the next three days broiling at the 90th replacement battalion, long binh army base. fine red dust the consistency of flour was everywhere, in some places a foot deep. at last, i was ordered to board a chopper bound for my assignment, as a radioteletype operator in the commo section of HHB (headquarters, headquarters battery), 23rd artillery group based at phu loi, about twenty miles north of saigon. i didn't know it then, but phu loi was one corner of the infamous Iron Triangle, an area rife with hit-and-run contact with VC guerrilla fighters and NVA regulars.
thus began the most vivid year of my life, twelve months in which i would be mortared, rocketed, and sniped at (as a radio/RTT operator, i had a bounty on my head); suffered a bout with malaria; exhibited the odd moment of insubordination; worked twelve hour nights, seven nights a week; got sent into the field for two two-month TDY (temporary duty) assignments with mobile artillery batteries, when i was on duty 24/7; learned to sleep in blistering heat and wretched cold and with my feet resting in a puddle of water; went on a (thankfully unseccessful) homicidal hunt for the chaplain's assistant who screwed me out of my R&R; made friends with a young vietnamese school teacher who was trying to improve her english; unarmed, forcibly adopted a puppy being brutalized by an ARVN (our south vietnamese army allies) soldier armed with an M-16; experienced torrential monsoon rains in which you could not see ten feet away; watched as MPs assassinated a young GI who'd gone crazy and shot his companions in a perimeter bunker; helped carry injured soldiers, legless or gutshot or with sucking chest wounds, on litters to a waiting medevac chopper through a darkness illuminated in surreal fashion by exploding incoming mortar rounds; saw an amorphous gob of brains on the ground, all that was left when a soldier sitting playing cards was accidentally shot in the head by his best friend standing nearby; learned by instinct the black humor that those surrounded by prolonged danger and death adopt, to maintain their sanity; fearfully admired a live cobra, hood spread, staring me down from the tall grass i'd just passed; was nauseated by the smell of nuoc mam, the fermented sauce made from rotting fish that is a staple of residents' cooking; went (in the field) for as long as thirty days without a shower or a clean change of clothes; listened to the planet cataclysmically shatter when i made the mistake of parking my RTT rig too close to a battery of 155mm self-propelled howitzers, whose next fire mission called for them to aim directly over my head (imagine the sound you would hear if you put your head to the pavement, and someone dropped a car off a twenty-story building and it landed a foot away from your ear); became buddies with guys from all over the country, all races and ethnic backgrounds; at age 21 was considered an old man by the 17-19 year olds who made up the bulk of those serving in country; was radicalized against the vietnam war within two weeks of my arrival, and dehumanized by the knowledge that those of us returning home to the u.s. were being spat upon, cursed as baby-killers, and regarded as mindless cogs in the war machine, when the truth was that, as in all wars, when you come under fire, it's no longer about democracy or communism or patriotism, it's about you and your buddies helping each other survive one more day, in spite of the best-laid plans of presidents and generals; did my job diligently and well, and came home with only the slightest of physical wounds, but a subterranean case of PTSD that would take years to surface, so well did i stuff it down once i was back in The World.
i took many photos during that year, with a cigarette-lighter-sized minolta 16mm camera with controls for f-stop and shutter speed. but i did not keep a journal, to my everlasting regret. still, the memories live as though it all happened yesterday. for me, it did.