Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fear and Courage - Memories of Vietnam

I was watching the gritty documentary Restrepo, the story of American soldiers serving in an outpost in Afghanistan, and it caused me to remember some of my combat experiences in Vietnam. During my year there, I was involved in over 200 ground combat missions. As the memories came back to me, I realized that many of them involved incidents that happened on the front end of my tour, before I actually had my first combat experience.

I remember the first time I thought seriously about what might happen to me in Vietnam. I was still a cadet at West Point, sitting in a class on military history. In 1966, American soldiers had already seen some serious action, but most of the history of that war hadn't happened yet. At the time, it was politically incorrect to call it a war. They called it a "conflict."

So they found this instructor who had been there and asked him to talk to us about it. He was a tough-talking colonel. Back then, colonels and generals talked tough about Vietnam because the worst hadn't happened yet, and because they experienced the war mostly from inside of Tactical Operation Center bunkers inside the perimeter of a base camp - far from where the action was actually taking place. Whenever they wanted to get closer to the action, they'd do it in a helicopter at 2,000 feet. Anyway, this tough-talking bozo said this: "Y'all are going to get your chance soon enough. It isn't much of a war, but it's all we've got."

My West Point class was small - only 583 graduated in 1967. Three years later, over 30 of them had been killed in Vietnam.

My first memory of Vietnam was of a peculiar smell. The plane that brought me there landed at Tan Son Nhut airport outside of Saigon. As I stepped out of the plane, I was hit by a blast of hot air. I looked into the blinding sunlight and saw several Vietnamese men squatting next to some shack-like buildings. A darkish smoke rose from behind the building, and it had a harsh, unnatural petroleum smell to it. It was pretty strange. Men weren't supposed to squat in a row in the heat, and air wasn't supposed to smell like that. I later learned that the smell was the result of disposing of human feces by mixing it with diesel fuel and burning it.

My first duty was to attend a school for advisors. But I would stay in a barracks in Saigon for a couple days before reporting. At night, I heard the sound of helicopters coming and going and the loud thunk of artillery. The war sounded close and my untrained ear didn't know if it was incoming or outgoing. This uncertainty, plus the humidity, made it hard to sleep that first night.

The advisor school lasted a month. I learned a little Vietnamese, and I thought fine, time in school is time I won't have to spend in combat. During my last week there, they explained how to properly fortify a bunker. As an illustration, they told the story of Mobile Advisory Team 84, which had recently come under attack. An RPG (rocket propelled grenade) had blown into the team's bunker in the middle of the night, killing two of them and injuring two others.

On the last day, we got our assignments. I would be the new team leader for guess what - Mobile Advisory Team 84.

I was transported from the school to my assignment aboard a small, single-engine Air America plane. I sat next to the pilot, a tanned fellow who wore aviator sunglasses. He was all business. I watched the terrain below as we flew above 2,000 feet. About 20 minutes into the flight, he said, "We're here." Then he banked the aircraft hard and headed straight downward towards the ground. At the last minute, he pulled out of the dive and we landed in an open field out in the middle of nowhere.

"This is it," he said. I got out of the plane and he quickly took off. I wondered if there had been some mistake. I was a little nervous, because there were no buildings and no one was there to meet me. I looked around in all directions. It was quiet, but I wondered what might happen next. A half hour later, a jeep showed up to collect me.

Before going on to Team 84, I met the District Senior Advisor, an infantry major. He had some bandages wrapped around his left arm. "You're replacing Lieutenant Silliman. The captain was killed and he's standing in. He's a good man. I'm putting him in for a Silver Star for his actions a couple days ago. Bravest thing I ever saw. You're here just in time." He grinned. "It's Saturday, and your team has a party every Saturday night."

After introducing myself to my team members, I asked them about this Saturday night party. Both my sergeants had been in Vietnam continuously for over two years. "Yeah, that's right," one of them said. "We come under attack every Saturday night. It's a real blast, all right."

And that's what happened. About ten o'clock that night, mortar rounds started landing around our small compound. I didn't know what was appropriate. Were we supposed to take cover? I decided to watch and learn. My team members started hooting and hollering and grabbing weapons. "The party is starting," one of them said, and they all ran out of the bunker. I grabbed a grenade launcher and followed them. They were all firing in one direction into a tree-line about 300 meters away. They continued firing even after the incoming mortar rounds stopped. Not to be left out of the festivities, I let loose a couple grenade rounds into the darkness.

The next day I would accompany one of the sergeants on my first combat mission. There was a firefight and three Vietnamese solders were wounded. My sergeant took charge of the battle, walking around exposed as if he were invincible. In retrospect, I think he wanted to show me how brave he was, and his behavior was tacit coaching that I was expected to bring a similar level of courage.

It was an interesting year. To me, the most amazing thing about it was that I returned home without a scratch.

But those first few weeks must have made an impression on me. I was introduced to fear, and the message was that I would have to learn how to deal with it.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength .


Sarcastic Bastard said...

Thanks for sharing this. Thank God you returned home without a scratch. Sorry you ever had to go, Denny, but thank you for serving.

You are loved.


Hodgesb said...

Interesting story Denny. Like SB says, thanks for sharing. I can't imagine how I might have responded to a situation like that. I missed Vietnam by 1 year. The class in front of me some went with the draft.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the story.Im a Afghanistan vet and we had some Vietnam vets working as civilian attaches to improve village life in Kandahar provinces.They carried weapons and had some intense stories about nam and Cambodia.Anyway thanks for sharing.