War is something that you read about in textbooks, not something that you will ever have to experience first hand. This was the belief of a young man from Long Island, until the United States Army drafted him in the year 1969.
He was faced with the decision of whether to go to a country thousands of miles away from his newlywed wife or to dodge the draft by going to Canada. Opting not to move to Canada and not wanting to go to war, he deliberately tried to fail his physical seven different ways, none of which worked. Out of the seven guys he hung out with, six of them, including himself, were sent to a country called Vietnam.
"If you are going to be shot at, $500 a month is better than $150."
Now a soldier at 22 years of age, he was sent to Fort Gordon, Georgia for basic training in early June of 1969. Once trained in basic military combat, he was shipped to Fort Polk, Louisiana for advanced infantry training and jungle school. By the end of this training he was ready for daily combat, but as part of a promotion he was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia for Non-Commissioned Officer Training where he became a sergeant. "If you are going to be shot at, $500 a month is better than $150." After nearly a year of training he was given a short leave of absence to spend time with his family before traveling half way around the world to the war torn country of Vietnam. The day that he was scheduled to return to base was his younger brother's wedding day with the following day being his own one-year wedding anniversary. Due to these circumstances, he went AWOL for two days. He knew that he would face sanctions upon his return, yet these two days were important enough to him that the consequences would be worth the benefits, "besides, I couldn't go to a worse location". When he did return, he was shortly there after shipped out to Vietnam with short layovers in Colorado, Washington State, Alaska and Japan.
Arriving during the rainy season, he immediately noticed the overwhelming "heat, humidity, and smell" of this unknown country. It didn't take long for him to experience the true severity of war. During his first night in Cam Ranh Bay, his base was heavily mortared. Being thousands of miles away from the only life he had ever known combined with the constant threat of never being able to see that life ever again was enough to cause insomnia that night.
Assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division, consisting of approximately 12,000 troops, he was shipped to the Northern Mekong Delta and eventually to the Central Highlands. The 1st Cavalry was divided into 3 brigades, then further broken down into battalions, companies, platoons, and squads. Each brigade consisted of about 4,000 troops. Brigades were divided into 4 battalions of 1000 troops each who were led by Lieutenant Colonels. Captains led the five companies in each battalion. Companies consisted of 200 troops each. Lieutenants were in charge of one of four platoons of about 50 troops each. The smallest unit within the 1st Cavalry was the squad. Each platoon was divided into four or five squads consisting of approximately 10 troops each. Sergeants, such as this young man were placed in charge designated squads.
"The average infantryman in Vietnam saw about 240 days of combat in one year thanks to the mobility of the helicopter."Source: www.vhfcn.org
The 1st Cav as they were commonly called, was an air-mobile unit; meaning that they went wherever the action was. All troops had to be ready to pick up and go at all times. The effectiveness of the cavalry units was dependent on fast action. This young man felt a sense of pride being in the 1st Cavalry because "it was the same Cavalry as George Armstrong Custer's only helicopters replaced the horses." Bell UH-1D helicopters, or "HUEYS", as they were known by the soldiers, carried up to 8 troops at a time into remote areas not easily reached by foot. "The average infantryman in the South Pacific during World War II saw about 40 days of combat in four years. The average infantryman in Vietnam saw about 240 days of combat in one year thanks to the mobility of the helicopter. The LZ, or landing zone, was determined to be "hot or red" or "cold or blue". Hot and red zones were hostile areas where there was known enemy activities while cold and blue zones were dormant or friendly at that time. By determining the LZ before touchdown, the troops knew what type of environment they were entering. When being dropped into or picked up from a red zone "the Hueys would usually go in with machine guns and rockets blasting" while the men knew they had to be extra cautious "as well as fast", but even in a blue zone their guards could not be let down.
Being mobile while carrying 60-70 pounds of supplies each was not easy. Most soldiers were issued an M-16A1 5.56mm rifle while others carried M60 machine guns. Every soldier carried 300-400 rounds of ammunition for their rifles as well as 200 rounds for the squad's M60 machine gun. A standard issued steel helmet was also carried in the field. Soldiers wore fatigues with deep pockets to carry as many supplies as possible. Ruck sacks help things such as claymore mines, flares, a bayonet, three days worth of food, a mesh hammock to sleep on, a blanket, a towel, a poncho, smoke grenades, a first aid kit, and any personal belongings such as cameras, radios, and letters from home. Soldiers also kept a knife in their boot as an added source of protection. Web belts held 6-8 grenades that were about the size of a baseball. Everyone also carried canteens of water, but because of the weight, only limited amounts could be carried at any given time. "During the rainy season, soldiers learned to collect the nightly rain water instead of carrying several days worth of heavy water." Machetes were also carried to help create paths through the dense jungle. During night missions, each squad was given a night scope to aid sight in the dark. These scopes made it possible to see in virtual darkness by magnifying the moon light by a few hundred times.
Life in Vietnam was a life without luxuries. Although every division's schedule was different, the 1st Cav ran on a basic rotation of 24 days in the field and 6 days at base camp. While in the field, soldiers did not wear underwear because of jungle rot. Jungle rot is equivalent to athlete's foot and is caused by a combination of heat and moisture due to Vietnam's tropical climate. Every three days helicopters would meet up with the squads to resupply them, "bringing food, mail, extra ammo, water or whatever was needed for the next mission. Clean clothes were delivered every two or three missions." Simply walking through streams and rice patties often resulted in numerous blood sucking leaches attaching themselves to various parts of your body. Despite the constant threat of mosquito bites, few however, actually realized the actual threat they posed. This young soldier was no different until he was diagnosed with malaria within one month of his return home.
"Most [South Vietnamese] did not even care who ran the government, all they wanted to do was farm their land."
While in the field, the troops were expected to perform many different types of missions. Reconnaissance missions were set up to explore and survey enemy territories. These missions were particularly dangerous because no one knew what to expect. Ambushes were offensive missions in which the element of surprise was essential. Squads would select a location and lie in wait for enemies to stumble upon them. These attacks were usually short but very intense. Troops often setup claymore mines around their perimeter and set them off when enemy troops approached. Downed friendly aircraft were often supported by nearby ground troops "to protect the crew and lend support until the aircraft was removed". When firebases came under attack, extra troops were brought in for added support. Probably the least glorified type of mission was the search and destroy mission. The objective of such missions was to search for and destroy weapons in South Vietnamese villages. The mass media in the United Stated wrongfully portrayed soldiers as heartless and barbaric for such missions. The public only saw what the media wanted them to see, not necessarily what was really happening. The public saw our soldiers burning "innocent" villages, not realizing that women and children from those villages were responsible for attacks on our troops. This young sergeant fought from Tay Ninh on the Cambodian border to Binh Long in the east. His territory covered coast to coast. He fought in dense jungles as well as flat grasslands. The Vietnamese who were ruled by the French, the Japanese, and other countries for hundreds of years, saw the United States as just another dictatorship trying to gain power in their country. Many Southern Vietnamese did not believe or understand that the U.S. troops were there to protect them from communist rule. "Most did not even care who ran the government, all they wanted to do was farm their land."
When the soldiers returned from their 24-day shift out in the field, hot food, showers, bathrooms, and beds awaited them at the base camp. Life at the base camp was a lot less stressful, yet it was not without its duties. Soldiers performed daily patrols checking barbed wires and digging bunkers around the base, but almost every soldier was glad to do this type of work rather than being on patrol in the jungle. Soldiers took advantage of this time to relax and catch up on sleep before facing the task of daily combat back in the field. For most of the war, a soldier's tour of duty was twelve months with one week R&R. Soldiers went to countries such as Australia, Thailand, and Japan to spend their rest and relaxation. This was a time when soldiers could let down their guard and truly relax. In a sense, this soldier was lucky because he was drafted towards the end of the war. Vietnamization, or the reduction of American influence in the war had already begun. This meant a tour of duty of ten months for those who entered in the later stages of the war. Due to the birth of his first son on Christmas Day, this soldier spent his R&R back home in the U.S. with his newly expanded family. The joys of seeing his first born son were quickly upset by an abrupt return to duty. The U.S. war in Vietnam turned out to be the longest and second most costly in United States history. Public opinion polls show that two of three Americans judge the Vietnam War to have been a "mistake". Unfortunately, few claim to know what the U.S. should have done differently. More than half do not have "a clear idea" what the war was about; a third cannot remember which side we supported. It is a shame that over 58,000 Americans had to sacrifice their lives to come to these conclusions.
After the war, this soldier was faced with the task of putting his life back together again. Repressing vivid memories of a war not easily forgotten has not been an easy task. To this day, more than thirty years later, this man still ducks at the sound of fireworks because of shell shock. These memories are permanently engrained in the minds of all who served in this war. The important question is how they deal with these memories. The lack of emotional support that the American public offered to the returning veterans did not help them in the healing process. Never before in U.S. history had returning veterans been so coldly received. It was hard for the soldiers to understand because they did what the government told them to do and all they received was criticism. Many Vietnam veterans were further scared when amnesty was granted to all draft dodgers. The veterans risked their lives while fighting honorably for their country and those who chose to take the United States' freedoms for granted were forgiven. The construction of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial in Washington D.C. helped many veterans come to terms with their past.
This young man did his best to deal with these painful memories. He had personally lost several friends during the war. Now with a family, he repressed many of these feelings and dealt with them on a personal level. Two years after the birth of his son, his first daughter was born. Having the responsibility of supporting a family helped him cope with his feelings. On October 31st of 1977, his third child was born. I thank God for that, because if this child had not been born, I would not be here to tell my father's story.
I could not be any more proud of all of the Vietnam Veterans especially my father. As I look at all of his awards and metals in his scrapbook, I realize that my father was and still is a real hero. It takes an extraordinary person to overcome such enormous obstacles to become such a role model. I am not sure if he will ever be able to completely come to terms with the after effects of the "Vietnam Conflict". I am proud to say that my father is a Vietnam Veteran. As a veteran and as a father, he has done more to earn my respect than any other person that has ever walked the face of the earth.