"Introduction to War"
by Kenneth G Riley
Vietnam in 1967-1968
You just may meet a guy who was over there (a term used to describe military service in Vietnam). Perhaps you already know him as your father, an uncle, or husband. Although we may not talk about our war, give us your respect, because we have earned it many times over. Maybe we strike you as different. Maybe, just maybe, we did not have a choice.
It occurred to me there are things I should say for the record. During 1966 a busload of new recruits left every week from our sleepy hometown to fuel the buildup in South Vietnam. We became combat troops, a distinction meaning although only one of every seven soldiers in Vietnam actually fought, we took virtually all the losses. On this comment I would like to make it clear that I do not ridicule the other six who served, otherwise known as support troops. We would not have survived without the mechanic, cook, mail carrier, and so forth. They made a hellish climate as bearable as possible. We envied them since they knew they would be going home when their time was up. On the other hand, I got used to the idea I may not make it to the next day.
Several major distinctions make a Vietnam Veteran different from others. The soldiers there knew the differences, but virtually no one else does. The government spent thousands of dollars trying to figure out why objects are left at the Wall (The Vietnam Memorial). They want to know why so many Vietnam veterans never experienced the closure, which was such a piece of other wars in which Americans fought and died.
Why are so many veterans still wondering what went wrong? Why are our opinions so different from those who did not serve in the armed forces? First off, political climate. Sure, it was the tune in, turn on, and drop out sixties. But in reality only a few were hippies. Many of us were regular people just making an entrance into the work force, or entering college; trying to get our little segment of the American Dream. Vietnam was a far away location. The nightly news programs showed the war as the first televised war. We did not watch carefully edited Movie-tone News as happened during World War II. We saw body bags, napalm, and accounts of how American soldiers were defeating the Communist plan for world domination.
As Queen (the musical group) later said: "We were the champions", standing for all that was right; trying to help a poor under-fed country stave off the evil guys from the north. Sure, a few American soldiers were dying, but we were politically correct. After all, the government of South Vietnam asked us to come, knowing they could not do it alone.
It was the fall of 1966 and not enough of us were dying to be a national issue. The armed services drafted thousands of teenagers each month. They dealt with us as cattle in every respect. The military de-humanized these recruits toward a path of blind obedience. The official opinion was there can be no individual or the system would not work. No independent thoughts or we would be second-guessing our superiors. Sounds really awful, huh? The fact is it worked!
Each crop of new soldiers was the most God-awful mix of young people I ever saw: students, American Indians, ghetto blacks, artists; you name it. But in several short months, they act and function as a trained killing machine. After all, that is it, is it not? The object of war is to kill more of the other side so the armed conflict ends, right?
This caused a dilemma for Joe-average. One side of me said: "Yeah, John Wayne, mom, and apple pie. Let's get it done like dear old dad did in World War II!"
But, another side said: "Wait one minute young trooper, is it really okay to kill people I do not even know?"
Twenty-eight days on the Pacific, then disembarking in Vietnam. It is hot and it smells. Less than fifteen minutes after entering the country, I saw a civilian use the main street for a toilet. The people stared at me as I stared back from a vehicle with prison bars on the windows. We were the exception coming by ship. The overwhelming majority flew there. But, eventually it happens! My best friend loses one of his limbs on a booby-trap; a lovely girl sells us an ice-cold coke with glass in it. Occasionally, we got into a stand-up fight, but oftentimes we cannot find the attackers. Slowly, we lost one guy after another. I noticed the people whose country we tried to save hate us for tearing up their rice fields. They will not tell us where the enemy is located since American firepower will destroy their village. Or, the Viet Cong (VC) will find out who helped us and they would promptly kill or mutilate the complete family, or even an entire village, if an example must be set. We begin to despise the people, the country, and the conflict; just about everything. I focused only on one thing: staying alive to get home. How can we fight those we can not find? The frustrations mount as many of my friends die or are terribly wounded. I now became the Vietnam warrior, inhuman, unfeeling; ready to explode an old man's head with a bullet the size of my fist, just because I think he knows where the enemy is hiding. I am tired, hot, smelly, and even a cold shower would be a luxury.
Many of us caught malaria, including a friend of mine, which resulted in a drowning in a canvas bathtub filled with ice cubes and rubbing alcohol. He almost fell out of the helicopter on the way to the infirmary because of the chills. They did not have a door gunner and he took over the position. Although quite delirious, I recall him saying he would rather die throwing hot lead at the enemy, than on a hospital stretcher.
Amazing how someone could throw normal compassionate behavior away when he so wanted. During the evening they mortared the infirmary and Glenn spent several hours under a hospital cot where it was safe. Compared to what? A cabin on the Titanic?
I started to question as well as hate. We worked with the South Vietnamese Army on numerous occasions. They wandered around until they stumbled onto some Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers. Then, they pulled back waiting for us to take the fight to their enemy. I remember hauling our dead out on an armored personnel carrier (APC) as they looked on, smiling, waving; as if they spent the entire day at the seashore. Where was their resolve, their commitment? Whose country was this anyway? The entire interval there, I saw little aggressive activity from any (in general) South Vietnamese soldier. I questioned the wisdom of the whole thing. They send us to a nameless hill or village, full of bad guys. We called for air support and artillery and they pound the place to oblivion for hours, sometimes days. Then we went in and still took heavy losses. Eventually, we are victorious and the place is ours. We count our dead and we count theirs if we can. Then, we pack up and move on. The place had no real importance of any kind. My nerves are shot as I watch a Huey (slang for helicopter) take the body away of a fellow I went to school with or who just saved my butt from a booby-trap I did not see. Then we mount up and roll away. Now, that is victory?
Mentally and physically I deteriorate even further. Basically, I am a cold hearted shell of a man, who just a short time ago was only concerned about a good grade on an essay. I am lean, tan, meaner than cat shit, and I care about hardly anything except getting home. For a year of my life, they forced me to live at the most primitive kill or be killed level. I survived the mental ordeal of not knowing if I would return alive. To survive I put many normal human feelings aside and some of them did not return, ever.
The sun cooked me at over 100 degrees and I endured weeks of unending rain, living in a mud hole for days, eating food that arrived when it could, with mail weeks old. I watched my very best friend bleed to death, since a Medivac (a helicopter used to transport wounded) could not get into the perimeter. This enemy did not recognize the Red Cross, as was the circumstance with other wars. I endured repeated evenings of sheer terror as shadows danced in the jungle, and sticks snapped from the unknown, out there…beyond the wire.
On any given day I may have gone a week without hot or even warm food. I drank the only safe water available, which tasted similar to a metal can filled with chemicals, because that is what it was. We may have spent an entire week in a sea of razor sharp grass tall enough to hide the unknown, in a downpour so heavy it seemed more as a drenched fog. They shot at me, a friend tripped a booby-trap, and I jammed my M-16 rifle three times. But, it was only a shabby day because my toilet paper got wet. If we went to town the question was what soft drink was poisoned and which nine-year-old child had twenty pounds of explosives on them. I saw young girls so beautiful they took my breath away, and then I found out they smelled terrible, the result of a constant diet of Nuoc Mam, a crude fish sauce they put on everything. Most girls older than twenty had bad teeth, caused by chewing the narcotic fruit, betel nut.
So I go back to base camp, the only home I had. If I am blessed they will not mortar it tonight. Perhaps I can find a lukewarm beer, although the smells of burning waste from the latrine always seemed to blow my way. I brush a half-inch of dust off his bunk, the result of endless truck convoys on the dirt roads. I gawk at my best friend's mattress, its' owner now in a frozen metal container winging eastward to a grief stricken family. Opening a rain soaked billfold, protected by a leaking plastic bag, I stare at a picture of my girlfriend at home. I think of the snow in my back yard and the smell of turkey and cookies.
Used with Permission
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(c) 2001 Veterans of the Vietnam War, Inc.