07 March 2009


on 8 march 1968, i arrived in South Vietnam for my one-year tour of duty. i was a radioteletype (RTT) operator, assigned to HHB 23rd Artillery Group, II Field Force, headquartered in Phu Loi, which is roughly twenty miles north of Saigon, near one corner of the infamous Iron Triangle. although my training and security clearance should have meant spending my time in-country within the perimeter of a secure base camp, i actually spent two two-month periods in the field, attached to mobile artillery batteries (155mm self-propelled howitzers). my travels ranged from fire support bases (FSBs) in the Mekong Delta to Saigon, Cholon and Tan Son Nhut AFB, from Cu Chi to Tay Ninh to the Parrot's Beak on the Cambodian border. not necessarily in that order.

[footnote: HHB 23rd in 1968 was one of the few units in Vietnam still being issued the older, heavier, and more reliable M14 battle rifle, which uses 7.62mm ammunition. by this time most other units were using the lighter M16 assault rifle, which fires 5.56mm ammunition. i always kinda liked carrying the more substantial M14, with its wooden stock, which with its longer range was used as a backup sniper rifle in two-man sniper teams. the M14's recoil compares to a 20-gauge shotgun, while the M16's recoil is barely more than a .22 rifle, which is to say, negligible.]

whether in base camp at Phu Loi, or at a remote FSB surrounded by jungle and rice paddies, i was always a target. actually two targets -- (a) a random target, by virtue of my being with other u.s. soldiers in a given area; and (b) a specific target, since i had a price on my head. there was a bounty paid to those who could prove that they had killed a commanding officer, a medic, a machine gunner, or a radio/RTT operator. during that long, lonely year i was variously mortared, rocketed and shot at, any time of the day or night. at no point was i ever in direct, hand-to-hand combat, though several times our FSB was in danger of being overrun by Viet Cong or North Vietnamese regulars. my work day was 12 hours on, 12 hours off, seven days a week in base camp. in the field, i was on duty 24/7.

i turned 21 a few weeks after arriving in country. that, coupled with my two years' college, made me an old, educated man in contrast with the average enlisted GI, who was 18-19 and lucky to have a high school diploma. it isn't an accident that the military actively seeks out the young for recruitment. young bodies are strong and resilient, young minds are malleable and susceptible to propaganda. sadly, both young minds and bodies are vulnerable to all the forms of damage, dismemberment, disillusionment, trauma and death that war can dish out.

you can get a more detailed idea of my time there by reading my entry from last Veterans Day, 11 nov 08. bottom line, each day of this past year has been a forty-year anniversary of an event in that jungle war.

on 7 march 1969, i boarded an airliner (Freedom Bird) at Bien Hoa airbase, and after intermediate fueling stops in japan and alaska, and a hurried outprocessing at Oakland Army Base, i found myself in San Francisco, a civilian again. 24 hours from war zone to cosmopolitan peace. no counseling, no preparation for the social strife surrounding the war, or for the hostility and suspicion directed at military veterans by the public, or for the cold indifference toward vets from our government and support agencies. we'd been used, abused, maimed, killed, gassed, and cut loose to fend for ourselves. so we turned to the only ones who would ever understand -- each other. many vets fell through the cracks, never to recover.

this is in stark contrast to the treatment of those returning from WWII. back then, soldiers were trained as a unit, shipped overseas as a unit, remained with their unit during the course of the war, and returned as a unit to the u.s. in particular, the return trip was valuable, since it was by boat, giving GIs valuable time for decompression and sharing their experiences before release into civilian society. this solidarity and familiarity served my father's generation well. he is still close to many of the men in his railroad detachment.

It is also a stark contrast to the treatment afforded those returning from iraq and afghanistan. slow learners, the military and the public did take a few lessons from the vietnam experience. now young vets are treated with dignity and affection, their needs seen to as a matter of policy. this is as it should be. how tragic that so many in my generation were scarred or lost, to make it happen.

so here i sit, to a casual observer a more or less well-adjusted, well-educated, perceptive and articulate individual. but forty years later, still hemorrhaging inside. vietnam will always be with me. i've sought counseling and therapy, i've read voraciously, i've talked and listened and thought and thought. and it will always be with me.

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