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My Vietnam War, 50 Years Later (Part Two)

Memory, Writing and Politics

I actually saw men like Kien on two occasions. The first was when a very gaunt, hungry man in black with a khaki pith helmet, sick with malaria, turned himself in on our firebase perimeter. There’d been a wild shootout along the perimeter the night before, apparently the NVA testing the camp. The second time, I was about to go outside the perimeter with paper to move my bowels at the rough facility, when a rather bemused infantryman told me to hold up. “Maybe you don’t want to go out there night now, pal” he said. He had me look into a pair of night glasses he had set up on a tripod. Just beyond the shitter, I could see little white ghosts moving back and forth. It was news to me that we were virtually surrounded. My bowels tightened up and I returned to my little bunker, where I made sure my M14 was in good order and I had magazines loaded and ready. I later learned the lieutenant colonel who commanded the battalion had ordered leaflets dropped into the jungle challenging the NVA to hit our firebase. He was virtually calling the NVA “pussies” if they didn’t attack his fine base. The NVA didn’t fall for the bait and decided to move on. The colonel had ordered mines to be placed around the perimeter, and once the surrounding NVA left, he ordered them to be removed. Of course, a detail of privates was assembled, one of whom blew himself to kingdom come. I heard the BOOM! Then lots of hollering and running medics. In the end, a chaplain led a detail of other privates picking up the loose pieces of the unfortunate young draftee. I also learned that lieutenant colonels like the man who led this battalion served six-month tours and often asked their men to do brave things to accrue glory to the colonel’s record so he could make rank in the competitive environment of Vietnam. It was known as “punching your ticket.” Later, hearing Jonathon Winters do his routine as Colonel Robert Winglow -- “OK, men, you can feel secure knowing I’m a thousand meters behind you up on a hill watching through the long lenses. Forward, men! I have you in the long lenses.” -- I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I’d be remiss in not recounting how this lieutenant colonel left our firebase on a stretcher. He passed by me carried by two men, headed toward the LZ and a Huey back to the division hospital. The tough warhorse to the bitter end, he was hollering, “Get that son-of-a-bitch! I want that bastard!” In his wounded condition, the colonel thought an NVA sniper had nailed him. Alas, this was not the case. A young private near me had been cleaning his M16, and not realizing there was a round in the chamber, had sent a round into the colonel’s tent, through the colonel’s gut and then through the executive officer’s calf. The two field grade officers had been discussing tactical issues. I’m not sure what happened to the poor private. A new lieutenant colonel was flown out to the firebase to punch his ticket and spur the unit on to even greater glory. Of course, I was there to help the colonel point his men in the right direction.

story | by Dr. Radut