“I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.” Newly inaugurated President Lyndon Johnson, November 24, 1963.
Good thing I didn’t waste time worrying about someone patting me on my back (where I had been injured) upon my return to Bong Son.
“I don’t know what kind of shit you pulled in An Khe, but I’m still your boss, did you get the interview?” Lt. Blankenship greeted me upon my return to Bong Son.
“Yes, but my tape recorder was KIA, sir, though I may have saved somebody’s life,” I answered. He countered, “Yeah, yeah ok, so you didn’t get the story, and you destroyed government property, is that about right, Swan?” I didn’t answer.
“Alright, get outta here and get back to work and be sure to take care of your wounds,” he snapped sarcastically. This is what awaited me upon my return from the scare at the Stream.
I had noticed that Lt. Blankenship, after my reporting on the Ambush, was treating me differently and not in a good way. I could not fathom why. Now I felt it getting worse (like his condescending greeting above). Understandably, my morale was low.
During this difficult period, little did I know someone was looking out for me. I would come to believe it was none other than the two-star general who happened to run the 1st Cavalry.
I had the occasion to interact with Maj. Gen. John Norton, not long after my lieutenant had dressed me down. He was giving his last interview as commanding general with a reporter where I was present hosting the newsman.
He remembered me from the field where he presented the Silver Star to Hagemeister, shortly after the Ambush (Chapter 17) when I interviewed him. The General seemed sincere when he asked me how everything was going. I stuttered with my response, without anything specific. I believed he sensed something was amiss.
Within a couple of weeks, I was promoted to Spc. 4, and called back to Camp Radcliff with a new assignment. I was to be a DJ on the recently reactivated AFVN in An Khe!
I suspect the General had an aide call Major Witters, head of PIO, ask to speak with him presently or pronto with a return call. The difference in rank from major to a major general is considerable.
I thrived at AFVN, An Khe. I dedicated songs to choppers pilots, artillery, engineers, infantry, men like the ones I had met in the field, soldiers who were doing the real work.
Of course, men who were in the shit would not be listening to AFVN. But in the field, somehow, the troopers found a way to listen to the hits emanating from An Khe.
There were reports, from GIs in the field, their transistor radio was second only to their M-16. Chopper and other pilots could pick up my broadcasts on their FM frequencies.
It was good for morale; songs they had listened to with their wives and sweethearts like (You’re) My Soul and Inspiration by the Righteous Brothers, When A Man Loves a Woman by Percy Sledge and Cherish by the Association. Most importantly, they were reminded of what awaited them “Back in the World.”
Occasionally, I got fan mail from women who lived in nearby villages. One in particular asked me to play songs for GIs she’d met, I can only surmise, while they were in the village of An Khe, aka Sin City (probably when they were picking up their laundry). I didn’t dedicate the personal — “From Kim to Larsen and Knelly”— but I did play the songs she requested, doing my part for “Winning the hearts of minds of the people.”
There were no Arbitron ratings in the combat zone. But among the 25,000, or so, GIs who had access to my show, it was estimated (tongue in cheek) that I had almost as many listeners as Hanoi Hannah.
As for the over-hyped “Good Morning Vietnam” thing made famous in a movie of the same name, by the late Robin Williams; many GIs detested the “greeting” and in some rare cases, grunts, after hearing “Goooooo-o-o-o-o-od Morning Vietnam” one too many times, promptly shut down their radio’s courtesy of an M-16. Obviously, these men found no “Good” in their morning and didn’t need some smug DJ, sitting in the comfort of an air-conditioned studio in Saigon, telling them it was.
As for our little station in An Khe, my only real friend in Vietnam, John Bagwell, (1st Cav PIO) was enthusiastic about our operation and did many things to improve it. He got current hit records and some oldies sent to us from Seattle’s KJR rock station. And unbelievably, by just writing a few letters, he convinced a popular production company (in US) into recording professional jingles for 1330 AM & FM AFVN, An Khe, (valued at $2,000 in 1967 money).
He was a true radio guy and did a lot for the station and made our operation better for the troops we served. Late in his tour, he saved the life of a cameraman working with an NBC reporter he was hosting near Khe Sanh,* and Bagwell almost lost a foot in the engagement. He received the Bronze Star for Valor and Purple Heart. “John, I will never forget you and the good you did in Vietnam. You never got the credit you deserved for your deeds in An Khe and beyond. I hardly made any friends because I traveled so much. With so few, thank goodness, I had a friend in you.”
Although I didn’t get to know many of the men — remembering what my 1st Sgt. said about not making too many friends — here are some who were with PIO, An Khe: Maj. Witters, Capt. Coleman, and Master Sgt. Bradley. Others whose rank I don’t remember: Larsen, Grizzle, Knelly, Basile, Ferrel, McGrath, and Jim Pruitt. (Not sure of all spelling.)
I was proud to be recognized for my efforts at PIO and AFVN, An Khe. Here’s a clipping that ran in the 1st Cav’s official newspaper, in 1967, The Cavalier.
Songs than stand-out from my time as a DJ in Vietnam are Happy Together by The Turtles, Strawberry FieldsForeverby the Beatles, 96 Tears, by ? and The Mystreians and naturally, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place by the Animals.
Although I had an easier job now (and no interference from Blankenship), I was anxious to get home to Marty. I still had a long eight months remaining. I used to pinch myself—yeah, I’m really in Vietnam.
*I was back in the states when I received a letter from Bagwell, who was still in Vietnam, telling me that my replacement was killed shortly after their move to Khe Sanh (I had missed Khe Sanh and Tet by just a couple of weeks).
We do this [escalating U. S. military involvement in Vietnam] in order to slow down aggression . . . We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw either openly of under a cloak of a meaningless agreement.” President Johnson, April 7, 1965.
On the subject of Vietnam, one can find an argument for just about anything. But her beauty is not one of them. From tropical lowlands to densely forested highlands, the Annamite mountain range, the Mekong Delta, Coastal lowlands, 12 great rivers and beautiful beaches on the 1,650 kilometers of coastline, Vietnam is beautiful indeed.
I stand corrected, there is an argument. Some foot soldiers and Marines disagreed. All they remembered was dirt and mud, the jungle and rice paddies, squalid villages, ancient men and women, naked-dirty-hungry children, bomb craters, barbed wire, sandbags, impenetrable jungles, soldiers burning shit, natives crapping in public, a lot of ugly things.
My purpose was not to enjoy her beauty, or the ugliness of war, but to work seven days a week in the monsoons with mud sucking at my jungle boots; in oppressive heat where insects, booby traps and snipers were plentiful. Although I was assigned to AFVN, An Khe, I still had field assignments, included recording Hometown News Interviews. “This is Specialist 4 Don Swan near Bong Son, Vietnam, and today I’m talking with Sgt. John Gilliam of Columbia, South Carolina. John is a squad leader with A Company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). Sergeant, what do you have to say to the folks back home and the work you’re doing for the people of Vietnam?”
After a dozen or so interviews, they were packaged and sent to the Hometown News Center in Kansas City (where I would later be assigned) for distribution to the radio stations in the soldier’s hometown. Although not my favorite job in Vietnam, it was a good program. Citizens of the community got to hear from a soldier, perhaps one they knew, serving in Vietnam. For family and friends, no doubt, it was good for their morale, maybe even a source of pride.
I was still doing a few field assignments beyond Hometown Interviews that included some blood and battle,* but nothing approaching the Ambush in Binh Dinh. There were some plum assignments as well, like Masters of Ceremony gigs at Bob Hope’s USO shows thorough Vietnam.
I interviewed the icon after one of his shows, for AFVN. It was to be a greeting from Mr. Hope for those unable to attend the show (which was almost everyone). I failed to get that message across in the interview. I still remember the producer’s words: “You got nothing here [fit to air].” One of my easiest assignments in Vietnam, and I blew it.
Nevertheless, just before my tour was up, I was promoted to Specialist Five, perhaps as a reward for staying a PFC much longer than usual. Or maybe the U.S. Army thought my ingenuity and diligence with the Ambush scoop, Stream deed, AFVN talent, and so forth merited another promotion. (Nobody ever said the Army was perfect.)
December had finally arrived, I was officially Short with just thirty-six days (and a wake-up). I really began to believe I was going home; that I would actually make it. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so optimistic after hearing the story of one man’s last night in Vietnam.
A soldier who had already “processed-out” would be heading “Back to the World,” on a “Freedom Bird” early the next morning. He had only a wake-up remaining.
Tonight he sat on his bunk, reading the most recent letter from his wife and gently rubbing his index finger over the picture of the daughter he had never met.
He tried to stay cool and get comfortable with the feel his OD boxers.** His jungle fatigues had already been traded-in for khakis. Ribbons — the medals he’d earned here — were precisely mounted, then pinned above his left front pocket, and his unit patch hung under the other. He had neatly folded his khakis, which lay atop his tightly packed duffle bag. His shiny-black low quarters sat nearby.
Late that evening, he had shaved and showered, one less detail for tomorrow morning. AFVN was playing Strawberry Fields Forever. When the call came, he would be ready in an instant.
Soon after he fell asleep, no doubt dreaming about his small family that awaited him, and unnecessarily rehearsing his first moves, like kissing his wife while caressing the soft skin of his baby. His mind most likely wandered to some of the worst times in the field, but somehow he overrode that vision. He continued with the good dream, that in a few hours, he was leaving Vietnam forever.
On the same overcast evening, somewhere in the darkness, less than a mile outside the perimeter of the airstrip, a small team of VC was setting up a tripod, and adjusting distance and direction. At 0200, a 60-mm mortar burst from its tube with a ssss.
In less than two seconds, a 12-inch rocket flying at 336 mph arced toward the tent of the man scheduled to leave in just hours. The mortar impacted near his cot — exploded in a ball of fire — shattering his dreams, charring his body, and extinguishing his life evermore.
He would still be returning home. Just not in the cheering section of the jet with pretty, good smelling, round-eyed female flight-attendants. He died in this stinking, godforsaken country with just a wake-up up remaining!
Incredibly, like the man above, 1,448 servicemen died on their last scheduled day in Vietnam!
“We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view . . . I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing.” General William Westmoreland, November 21, 1967.
It was an unseasonably cool 70 degrees, under a high cloud ceiling, when I boarded my 707 out of Tan Son Nhut on Jan. 7, 1968. Ecstatic passengers and a happy crew; all seats were filled with cheering GIs for the roughly 17-hour flight “Back to the World.”
A couple of hours before we were to touch down at SFO — in our country, the land we had fought for, dreamt of, and yearned for more than a year — the pilot told us not to expect “Thank You For Your Service,” but to be prepared for organized protests in San Francisco against returning soldiers.
*Thankfully, the majority of my assignments did not include blood and battle.
**Most GIs who were in the field for extended periods wore no underwear.
There were no bunkers, no sound of canons or weapons, no booby traps to defeat.
No snipers in trees taking a peek.
Didn’t see any bodies without arms, legs or feet.
No helmeted men with AK-47s jumping from the heat.
No smell of sulphur in the air, none in the street.
(Some words above from: It’s A Pretty Good Day So Far.)
Finally, I had made back it to the Promised Land. I was on United States soil!
Judy In Disguise (With Glasses) played as I rushed through the corridors at SFO for a commercial jet that would get me soonest to Wilmington, North Carolina. With the unpleasant reception, I got at the airport, I’m not sure that I would have worn my uniform on the flight, had it not been required to get the substantial military discount.
When I called Marty from the airport, she didn’t recognize my voice; hadn’t heard it in more than a year.
Knowing the date and scheduled time of my arrival, members of Marty’s family and local citizens (remembering I‘d worked in Wilmington) had assembled a group of one-hundred or more at the airport, where they gave me a hero’s welcome.
I awoke from that dream not long after I touched down. It was just Marty at the airport, and that was good enough for me, the girl I’d been dreaming of my entire time in Vietnam.
After more than a year apart, the girl who had waited for me was now standing in front of me, even more beautiful than I had remembered. Marty was tall and thin with sparkling blue-green eyes, short bleached blond hair, and was in love with me. She was 18, I was 20.
We were wed the next afternoon, one day after my arrival. The ceremony was conducted in a spare bedroom of the preacher’s house who married us. There had been no bridal or wedding shower, no gifts of any kind, just advice.
All of three people attended. Unfortunately, one was Marty’s aunt “Hill” who kept squawking in her shaky ninety-year-old sounding voice, “Don’t forget to pay the preacher.” In my ear, one minute later, “Don’t forget to pay the preacher.” To get her to shut up, I palmed him a five-dollar bill before the vows.
Marty was not in a formal gown, but radiant. She had a nice yellow gold wedding band for me. For her, I had a small silver-gold ring to match the engagement diamond she had already lost. She said it was swept up by the surf, on the shores of the Atlantic, while playing with her little niece.
We headed south out of North Carolina and began our mini-honeymoon with our first stop at a new Holiday Inn in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. (The city still had a way to go before it would become a trendy tourist attraction that it is today.)
On the way to see my parents in Mississippi, we drove west through South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama searching the airwaves for our songs (while 9,305 miles apart). Hits like You’re My Soul & Inspiration, Happy Together, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, and Dedicated to the One I Love.
No shower or wedding gifts in Mississippi either, just advice. But we were given the use of Aunt Dara’s unoccupied house, sans indoor toilet. Quite a way to make an impression on a new bride, but it was otherwise nice and a free place to extend our honeymoon.
Seven days after leaving North Carolina, we had gone through the small amount Marty had and the $200 or so that I brought with me. For my one year in Vietnam (where my income was less than $3,000) I spent money on my R & R, paying off Marty’s engagement a ring, savings bond debit, a small allotment sent to my folks back home and to Marty; still, I managed to save $300.00 which the bank sent me before our cross-country trip continued.
We extended our honeymoon, enjoying the benefits of sleeping together as husband and wife, and resting in cheap motels, along the 1,958.3-mile route to California for my next assignment.
We’d already driven 900 miles from North Carolina in Marty’s Springtime Yellow 1967 Mustang GT hardtop, with little room for all our worldly belongings, no A/C, threadbare tires and a broken gas gauge (we ran out somewhere in Oklahoma).
Actually, it was a pretty nice car, but somehow she had managed to get saddled with a monthly payment of $105 (about $778 in 2019 money) on a car costing less than $3,000.
Angel Of The Morning, Young Girl, played as we motored through Arkansas, KindOf A Drag, Magic Carpet Ride, rang out in Oklahoma, Green Tambourine, I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight, in Texas. Itchycoo Park, Bend Me-Shape Me, Spooky, in New Mexico and Arizona and all the hits of January 1968 played as we searched for stations on the long trip west.
Much of our travel West on I-40 ran parallel to Route 66 in many places. We went through cities like Tulsa, Amarillo, Albuquerque and towns like Shamrock, Tucumcari, and Needles. Our one tourist stop was just a 12-mile detour down old Route 66 to see the three-quarter mile wide Barringer meteor crater near Winslow, Arizona. Impressive.
Early in the evening, after three days travel, we rolled into big LA. A spectacular site, Los Angeles; by far more lights than Marty had ever seen and certainly as many I’d seen in large cities.
I’m surprised we found our way through the more than four-thousand square mile city that incorporated some 80 municipalities. Now as a passenger, I began celebrating as soon as we hit city limits with 40oz can of cold Colt-45.™ We had to traverse most of LA — Marty not infrequently stopping at service station restrooms for me — to get to our destination in San Pedro, near the Port of Los Angeles.
We settled into a “furnished” one-bedroom apartment just across the street from the hospital at Ft. McArthur in San Pedro, California. We bought new tires and California coverage for the Mustang, some Melmac® dinnerware and a 23″ B&W Emerson® TV that came in a wheeled cart.
After getting my travel pay, we decided to celebrate a bit. After all, we had made in cross-country and me from Vietnam. And oh yes, marriage. Peppy’s was a San Pedro restaurant with a reputation for excellent food. After a great dinner there, including a good bottle of wine and desert, it was $20 including tip, (over $153 in 2019 money).
There would be no more outings like that because on day one, we were underwater financially. My base pay was $226.20 per month plus a $105 housing allowance. (Average pay for civilians was around $750.) After rent, car payment, insurance, and so forth, we had just over $100 on which to subsist for 30 days.
The $300.00 we had left Mississippi with was almost gone. I procured toilet paper from work. We made love as Love Is Blue played on KHJ. An hour later, we agonized over money.
At Ft. Mac Arthur, a few weeks after I reported for duty at the 37th Command Information Detachment, the officer in charge handed me a tattered box. He smiled and said: “They must have really liked you.” Inside was a Purple Heart, Air Medal (both unexpected) and Army Commendation Medal. (Maybe someone put me in for those medals, knowing what happened with the Bronze Star, below.)
I was, of course, honored and also a bit disappointed. I’d heard from a friend in Vietnam that Lt. Blankenship, before his DEROS,* had told the sergeant responsible enlisted awards, “No Bronze Star** for Swan.” I have no ill feelings for the man, Blankenship will self-destruct all by himself if he doesn’t get his insecurities under control. As for myself, I’m disappointed for even sharing this story. Why?
Soldiers doing the real work were the men in the bush, grunts walking point , pulling Listening Post duty in the middle of the night, under constant threat from snipers, ambushes, booby traps, and punji stakes.
Infantrymen in extreme heat or monsoons, in the on-again and off-again rain, who were lugging 80 lbs or more in rice paddies, through elephant grass, mountainous terrain, and fording rivers and streams.
Ground pounders who were harassed by snakes, spiders, leaches, wild monkeys, tigers and poisonous creatures by the dozen. Frequently thirsty, not enough food, jungle rot, (infected sores, ulcers, lesions, blisters, etc., on the feet, legs, underarms, and groin from long exposure to dampness) — men who saw their friends injured and killed.
The majority of the soldiers who did the real work — the men I honor above — didn’t get a recommendation for a medal at all;*** and most were sent home as E-4s, a rank lower than I achieved.
And I carp about not getting my Bronze Star!
A 1st Cavalry trooper stationed in Vietnam with the 7th Cav wrote about a common refrain used by many GIs, “Don’t mean Nothin’.”
We said it every miserable day of our miserable lives. It became our mantra. We said it in all kinds of situations for all sorts of reasons, and we said it a great deal, most often when we were miserable, which was pretty damn often . . . . We said it when it rained, and when it didn’t rain and when it was really hot and when it was even hotter. ‘It Don’t Mean Nothin’ was said a lot.’
We said it to keep from crying, we said it when we stopped moving and when the bloodsucking insects attacked in swarms, and our faces swelled and our hands swelled, and our lips swelled, and our ears swelled and when we thought we were getting malaria, (should we quit taking our pills?) and we thought about how good that would be because you got out of the boonies if you got malaria unless you died from it. Dying from malaria sucked . . . but the prospect of staying inside the wire, sleeping on a cot off the ground, under a dry tent at the hospital, with hot chow, clean sheets and nobody shooting at you made the risk of a slow agonizing death from a deadly tropical disease seemed totally worth it. How bad could it be? We were kids. What did we know? ‘It don’t mean nothin.’
Something just don’t feel right. So shout up and saddle up, Trooper. Your night on LP, your turn on point, but ‘It don’t mean nothin.’ Jack “Boz” Parente.
*DEROS: Date Estimate for Return from Overseas.
**Most soldiers serving in a similar job as me, in PIO, were awarded the Bronze Star; higher than the Army Commendation Medal I received.
***There were two medals (“Vietnam Service & Vietnam Campaign,”) that were automatic for those who served in Vietnam, needing no recommendation. In addition to those medals, Infantry soldiers who spent the required time in the field received the Combat Infantry Badge, not an insignificant award.
I had nightmares, about Vietnam, most every night during our honeymoon and month’s thereafter.* And I had turned into a wimp, a side Marty had never seen, and a disposition I never had. One day, we were having a get together with some of my buddies from the post; Marty was acting a little testy, and one of the guys turned toward her and said, “What’s the matter you on the rag or something?” I laughed with them instead of telling him to knock it off, not to talk that way to my wife.
I was acting like a wuss (Marty called it cowardice), and she was very disappointed in me. It was a problem in our relationship. In a few years, I did and an about-face, eventually to the point of wanting to rip off somebody’s face. (Marty called it backbone.)
Just back from Vietnam, I wasn’t trying to live high, but after the mess I’d been in over there; maybe dinner with drinks once in a while.
But that wasn’t to be. After the $20 outing when we first arrived in LA, the luxury of dinner and drinks was over. Der Wienerschnitzel™ once in a while, maybe.
By the 20th of most months, down to just a few dollar bills, we were looking for change in the sofa and between the car seats. One day while leaving our apartment, I found a five-dollar bill lying flat on one of the steps. Nobody was around. With that five, I got four sacks of groceries at the commissary.
Then a week or two later, I was on gate guard duty (graveyard shift) at a satellite location of Ft. Mac, primarily used for Reserve training. Listening to (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of the Bay on 93 KHJ, at about 0200 a carload of reservists, who had apparently taken advantage of being away from home, appeared at the gate. I was about to motion them in when the driver palmed me a twenty-dollar bill. I assume he thought I was overlooking a missed curfew or their state of inebriation, if not both. My only orders were to determine that a vehicle and its occupants were authorized on post.
Twenty-dollars; that for me was a lot of money, especially when you’re broke. Did I feel guilty (no) or tell anyone? No. I splurged with a fifth of Canadian Club®, and Marty got her hair done at a salon, and I still had money for groceries for over a week.
We had been in California for just a few months, and Marty kept saying she’d been out with girls again and “Everybody’s Pregnant.”
I had a pretty stay at home Mom and no baby. Stay tuned.
We had work duty on Saturdays at Ft. MacArthur, though sometimes we were relieved at noon. We were also on constant alert because of the incendiary nature of 1968. Think: Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy assignations, the Weathermen, Black Panthers, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, SDS, Vietnam War Protests, as is oft said, “To name a few.”
There was a rotating on-call system for soldiers like me. Those living off base were required to arrive at our assembly point, within a half-hour of notification. Even if not on ready-alert, one could be called and told to remain in place for standby. The Army required that you be reachable at all times, unless on leave or pass; check in with the Command Post before going out to a movie.
Not for those restrictions; I had a chance (after an audition) to be an on-air DJ covering two six-hour weekend graveyard shifts at the Number 1 Rock station in LA, 93 KHJ, and a check for $48. With that gig, I’d have had a better chance at securing a prime-time slot — although still a long shot — in the highly competitive LA market,** the third largest in the U.S.
I’d make it from AFVN An Khe to LA; just not to KHJ. It could have all ended right there.
*Still do sometimes.
**Los Angeles became the second-largest U.S. city in 1984.
After Vietnam, my expectations may have been a little high. Life would not be perfect nor close to perfect. Ice cream, I’d dreamed of for a year, didn’t even taste as good as I had remembered.
Although I intend to remain faithful to my promise to write honestly and to give you the unvarnished version of how I was feeling, reacting, or coping at any given time, I believe I complained a bit much in the previous chapter.
Rather than sniveling, I should have said: “I’m out of Vietnam, back in the World withno worry of being shot by a Kalashnikov; no booby traps — no incoming. I have no field expedition requirements, and despite my on-call status, I’ve not been apart from my wife for more than 24 hours, and I sleep next to her warm body every night in a comfortable bed.”
SoCal is a Hip-Laid Back megalopolis, and we had already visited Disneyland. Ft. McArthur was a beautiful and historical post, named after one of our most famous generals. It was a great assignment.
I was working in the HQ building on the second floor in the Awards and Decoration section one day in Mid-1968 when I heard raised voices from downstairs, a slight commotion. Someone was yelling, “Where the fuck’s personnel?”
It was a young man in civilian clothes, a bit scruffy with an attitude, standing near the Sergeant Major’s office. With no authority over someone he didn’t know to be in the military, and not in uniform, the senior NCO was in no position to dress him down, but he was doing so anyway. The man had walked into the HQ of an active army post using profanity after all; what gives?
Turns out — I kid you not — he was looking for the personnel office, so he could pick up his Medal Of Honor! We were astonished when we found out he was not joking.
While the Sergeant Major hyperventilated, I began chatting with the former soldier. He wanted no ceremony, no publicity. I asked him if he had considered staying in the Army, as the Medal Of Honor (MOH) would surely be a boon to his career. “Fuck no, are you dinky dau?” he snapped, “I’m hanging drywall, making five-dollars an hour.”*
I considered telling him the story that I’d heard about President Truman, a combat veteran, who upon presenting a soldier the Medal Of Honor in the White House remarked: “I’d rather have [earned] that medal than be President.”
Oh, well. This superhero, presumably, returned to his apartment in Downey, tossed his MOH in a drawer, got up the next morning, and went to work — hanging more drywall.
On the subject of work, I wondered what plum assignment a warrant officer in our section had. He would come into the office looking sharp is his Class-A uniform, stay a few minutes, and was gone the rest of the day.
Then I found out. He was occupied with notifying LA area next of kin of those killed in Vietnam. When a family is informed, the military member must be at least equal rank as the KIA. Most helicopter pilots in Vietnam were warrant officers. Our soldier of that rank, outside of bloody combat, was fulfilling the worst duty in the military — ringing those doorbells. This dreadful detail would not only continue, but increase. The deadliest year for US troops in Vietnam was this year, 1968, and that included lots of helicopter pilots.
I can imagine him wheeling a big olive drab ’65 Ford Custom 500 staff car, without power steering, around the streets of LA. The yellow three-inch tall lettering on the front doors read: “U.S. Army For Official Only.”
He was a great target for citizens, who occasionally gave him the finger. It may have come from those active in protest movements, or people who just hated the U. S. Army for what it may have done to them or their families.
With likely outdated paper maps, he crept slowly through neighborhoods looking for that address. Spotted by service member wives, daughters, sons, or parents, they pointlessly retreated to the back of their houses, trying to hide from their front doors, but listening still, for that knock and praying that it never came.
Back in the States, away from the war, I hadn’t thought much about General Norton’s declaration. That was until May 1968. I was out with four or five friends from the post, TV playing in the background, when the news came on. I saw Pres. Johnson at the White House place the Medal Of Honor around Hagemeister’s neck!
Excited and surprised, I raised my voice over the din in the club, “Hey, I know this guy, I was out there with him. That’s Chuck Hagemeister!” The guys were twisting their faces, “OK Swan, OK, sure, all right then,” they grumbled — never looking up from their game of pool. I tried once more, “No really,” and then just gave up. (Unfortunately, Hagemeister’s father would not live to see his son receive the monumental honor, he died when his only son was just four-years-old.)
I often think of that day in 1967, about Hagemeister, about the brave men who got no medal at all, and about those who gave it all. Now I live secluded near the ocean, count my blessings every night in a comfortable bed. I’m no longer worried about taunts from my fellow citizens — like those at the airport the day I arrived from Vietnam — or incoming from the enemy we fought for so long, so long ago, so far away.
As for those who may have said, "People who served in Vietnam were Suckers." I disagree. "No Thank you for your Service Suckers" just doesn't have the same appreciatory ring.
Instead, it might be appropriate to say of the "leaders" who sent us there: The only domino's that fell were on the 58 thousand plus souls sacrificed and the survivors, many of whom are still suffering.
This concludes my In Country chapters on Vietnam. But it will be a source of discussion in the next two chapters: How We Could Have Won In Vietnam & The 1st Team In Vietnam.
“And Men will not understand us . . . and the war will be forgotten.” All Quiet On The Western Front.
Vietnam . . . let that hang in the air for a moment. What comes to mind? War, of course: The Vietnam War. And the requisite discussion begins. If you are one of those who believes We Should Have Won The War, this is your chapter.
Anyone with a scintilla of imagination knows how the United States could have most likely won the Vietnam War; tactical nukes, bombing Hanoi back to the Stone Age, allowing the military to fight the war with no restrictions, and so forth. But at what costs?
Could we have won without acceding to those exigent measures that might have provoked China or the Soviet Union? In this chapter, I will present my proposal on how we could have — and should have won in Vietnam.
I don’t feel the need to bloviate about the mountain of research I have conducted from scores of books, articles,* interviews, and my own Vietnam experience in reaching my verdict. This endeavor was more difficult than I had imagined, yet it is not an academic treatise on How We Could Have Won in Vietnam. There is a plethora of scholarly research and even more books concerning turning points in the Vietnam War. My conclusion — outlined in this extended chapter — is specific and straightforward.
In the succeeding paragraphs, I will first provide scenarios of strategic opportunities missed before Tet.** Then I will proffer specific battlefield conditions and circumstances during Tet that should have been a clarion call for a new strategy.
STRATEGIC OPPORTUNITIES PRIOR TO TET (Jan 30, 1968)
1) As early as 1966, General William Westmoreland (Commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam) drew up plans for a campaign where U. S. troops would cross the border into Laos. Westmoreland’s men would blunt enemy infiltration into South Vietnam and deny the North Vietnamese Army (NVA, also known as the People’s Army of Vietnam) usage of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. President Johnson rejected his request. (Archives. Gov.history/mil)
2) In mid-1967, 5′ 0″ General Von Nguyen Giap (Commander of all communist forces) opposed an all-out offensive against American forces and cities in the South (Think: Khe Sanh, Tet, Hue, Easter Offensive). He believed such an invasion by the NVA, into the South, would spur the U.S. to attack just north of the DMZ where his main contingent congregated. He thought it logical that Westmoreland would be “provoked to invade Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” the top-ranking NVA general reasoned. “[My] major concern is that the United States will expand the conflict beyond South Vietnam’s borders and that an American landing in North Vietnam might have disastrous consequences for the North Vietnamese regiment,” Giap rationalized. (Vietnam Magazine, History Net.Com, Post-war NVA documents)
3) Hanoi needed to determine how the Americans would respond to a communist buildup and offensive. Giap decided to launch attacks near the DMZ. The U.S. response would help formulate and develop the offensive he was set to command. His battles along the DMZ (from March to August 1967) near Cam Lo, Khe Sanh, Con Thien, Camp Carroll, Quang Tri city; the Rockpile and Route 9 served as the test. The NVA soldiers incurred heavy losses. But when the U.S. did not send troops across the DMZ or Laos, Hanoi believed the U.S. would continue to react only defensively. Now Giap felt his chances for a successful offensive were good, and his men would continue with their charge into the South. (Post-war NVA documents as reported in Vietnam Magazine and other sources)
4) Gen. Giap wanted to test America’s strategic intentions one final time before giving the green light for Tet. He staged his buildup of forces at the juncture of Laos and North and South Vietnam. If his corps-size presence did not trigger a U.S. invasion of North Vietnam or Laos, his offensive plans would continue. Since the closest U.S. base to Laos and North Vietnam was Khe Sanh, his final test was to attack there. (Post-war NVA documents as reported in Tet, The Turning Point)
5) On December 21, 1967, Giap’s division tangled with U.S. Marines near Khe Sanh. Westmoreland then ordered the Marines at Khe Sanh to scout assault routes for a possible Laos incursion and, on December 27, 1967, sent a Flash cable to Washington with an urgent request. His proposal outlined, in detail, the need for a strike across the border to blunt enemy infiltration. A few days later, Westmoreland received another rejection from LBJ for the Laotian strike. (The Vietnam War Almanac, Interview with Maj. Gen. John Tolson and other sources)
6) After the massive bombardment of the Marine Combat Base at Khe Sanh by the NVA on Jan. 21, 1968, the U. S. responded the same way it had during the past two years, according to Giap. The communist general was certain the U.S. would not counterattack outside the South Vietnamese borders. (Post-war NVA documents reported on History Net.com) Hanoi’s ambition and overreach was Westmoreland’s opportunity to bury Giap’s divisions under a cascade of bombs, and a cross-border strike the NVA were dreading. Westmoreland was never given the chance; Tet was on.
7) The U.S. command did not, of course, know of Giap’s specific intentions, but U. S. intelligence knew of his presence just beyond the DMZ, and rumors of a major campaign that became Tet was no secret in Westmoreland’s command. Two weeks before the Jan 30, 1968, Tet strike, Westmoreland even asked the President of South Vietnam to cancel leave (that most of his troops would be on) for the Tet holiday. Westmoreland was rebuffed. (Vietnam Magazine, Vietnam: A History)
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES DURING TET:
1) General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Feb. 8, 1968, cabled an urgent message to Westmoreland in Vietnam. Johnson was not prepared to accept defeat just yet, adding: “If you need more troops, ask for them, we’ve entered a critical phase, request what you believe is required under the circumstances,” Wheeler highlighted in the Top Secret communiqué. “Capitalize on their casualties [in Tet] to materially shorten the war,” he relayed to Westmoreland. Johnson had already contemplated calling up the reserves. The President, he said, was ready to pursue “A winning strategy.” The Tet battles had crippled the communists, as Westmoreland knew and Johnson had proclaimed. On Feb 28, 1968, Westmoreland sent his detailed proposal to Washington for 206,756 more troops. (The History Place™ and public domain)
2) Now that we have the benefit of the Hanoi regime’s records, we know they were struggling after their losses during Tet; as many as 60,000 in the first month! Our intelligence knew they were in peril. The Viet Cong (VC) especially could no longer fight as a cohesive force, and even the communists agreed their combat readiness was in “jeopardy.” (Postwar NVA/Hanoi documents as reported in Vietnam War Almanac and Public domain.)
3) On the Internet today, there are stories quoting Gen. Giap: “You had us on the ropes [after Tet]. We knew it, we thought you knew it. But we were elated to notice your media was definitely helping us. They were causing more disruption in America than we could in the battlefields.” I was unable to verify the above quote with 100% accuracy. It does, however, coincide with conditions in the field and how U. S. media were reporting on Tet. The following quote, however, is not in question: “Do not fear the enemy, for they can only take your life. Fear the media far more, for they will destroy your honor,” Gen Giap said on more than one occasion. (Public domain, The Guardian.Com, Bookings.Com)
4) For a brief moment, after the Tet offensive began, Americans rallied around the flag in predictable patriotic fervor, with an upward spike in support. A Nov. 1967 survey revealed 55 percent (of U.S.) wanted a tougher policy on Vietnam with stronger military operations. (New York Times) “Tet was a military disaster for the NVA but a political victory for them in the West,” New Yorker Magazine wrote in Feb. 1968. Even Walter Cronkite — before his famous denunciation of the war— reported on his February 13, 1968, broadcast: “First, and simplest, the VC/NVA suffered a military defeat [in Tet]. Its missions proved suicidal.” The Washington Post and New York Times made similar assessments.
Then came Cronkite’s broadcast of Feb. 27, 1968; many thought it was the death knell for LBJ’s war in Vietnam when he reported:
“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest that we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say we are mired in a stalemate seems to be the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion.
On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. In the next few weeks and months we must test the enemy’s intentions . . . .” (Author’s note: Isn’t that an opening for a surge?)
But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could. ” (CBS archives)
5) On March 23, 1968, Westmoreland learned LBJ would send only a fraction of the 206,756 men he had requested. Just 13,500 were approved. (An increase of approximately 22,600 troops were deployed in all of 1968) (Washington Post). On the same day, the Chicago Tribune ran a 72 point headline: “WESTMORELAND RECALLED.” He would remain commander in Vietnam until June 1968. (Vietnam, A History and other sources)
6) Still in charge, Westmoreland saw an opportunity where he could “take advantage” of an enemy in peril that would not require Presidential approval. The U.S. Marines in the battle of Dia Do April 30 to May 3, 1968, were outnumbered 10 to 1, yet they cut off routes at the DMZ terminating infiltration of an NVA Division. The enemy suffered 1,568 killed, U.S. losses were 91. Two Marines earned Medals Of Honor in the campaign. (The History Place™, Vietnam Magazine) Westmoreland planned to sent fresh troops to decimate any floundering NVA in and around the DMZ, had the extra troops promised in March arrived and not for what happened next; mini-Tet. Westmoreland needed all available resources when the VC/NVA launched simultaneous attacks on 119 cities and military installations, May 5, 1968.
I have written the following speech; the speech LBJ should have given. It is my strategy on How We Could Have Won the War In Vietnam.
I have asked for this airtime tonight to make two major announcements. Firstly, I will not seek reelection as your president (pause to let that sink in) and Secondly, I have initiated an all out campaign of Surge and Strike to end and win the war in Vietnam before the expiration of my term in January.
To that end I have called up the Reserves so that our military will not be spread too thin and I have extended indefinitely, the tour of those serving in Vietnam. Although winning this war will take more than the sheer size of our force, I have already approved an increase of 50,000 more combat troops. As I speak, several hundred are already in the air over the Pacific headed to that war zone. Presently, more than 150 U. S. aircraft are carrying out offensive operations over North Vietnam.
My commanders will have at their disposal all the might of the U.S. arsenal and I have ordered them to use all necessary force to end this conflict with a victory. I’m serious about winning and win we will. I do not wish to expand this war beyond its present borders, but noting is off the table in my determination to bring this war to an end — with a win.
The only way to stop the U. S. Surge and Strike Offensive — from the ground and air — is for the communists to withdraw immediately all of its troops from South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and the immediate closure of the Ho Chi Minh trail. All our POWs must be immediately released unharmed and with full accountability. We will not give the enemy a chance to regroup during any cease-fire until it is clear that our demands are being met.
Too much blood and treasure has been lost to give up now, and everyone agrees that this war has gone on far too long. And without having to worry about a reelection, I will devote all the time necessary to win this war for the United States, and the people of South Vietnam. Initially U.S. casualties are bound to rise, but the enemy will lose much more — the war. To the loved ones of our fighting men: My goal is to end this war before my term expires in January. In the unlikely event that our all out effort falls short of my expectations, I will begin the immediate withdraw all our forces from Vietnam before the end of my time as your president.
I will not answer any specific questions tonight about this campaign, I believe I have said it all. To reiterate, we will do what is necessary to end this war in our favor. Finally, I am convinced the majority of the American people want this war to end with a win and I, along with our brave men in Vietnam, intend to do just that. God bless our troops and the people of South Vietnam. God bless the U.S.A.
The above speech that I wrote — the one LBJ should have given — is my strenuous but surmountable strategy for a U.S. victory in Vietnam.***
WHY THIS WOULD WORK:
1) The Commander In Chief is now committed with all the might of the U.S. Military and has ordered his commanders — who have been itching for a chance — to execute a winning strategy. The General’s would now have the green light to expel the enemy from its sanctuaries, wherever they may be. Any VC/NVA force in a one-on-one battle, especially with the likes of the U.S. Marines and the 1st Air Cavalry with its U. S. Navy and Air Force air assets — would be crushed.
2) I believe as they say in my hearts of hearts and with my head too; if the commanders began prosecuting the war to win — the men could tell. Morale would spike. Our troops would fight with a fury to get out of that stinking country and be home by Christmas as victors. Our allies the ARVN (Army Republic of Vietnam) would surely fight alongside us with more vigor. It would become obvious, the more we punished the communists — the easier it would be for the ARVN to defend themselves upon our departure.
3) The U.S. population, in general, might be more supportive of the war, knowing we were fighting for a quick resolution. Relatives at home should feel a little better, knowing their loved ones were fighting in a war that was winnable and soon to be over.
WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED:
1) We let Tet, Khe Sanh, Hue, Walter Cronkite, and the anti-war movement defeat us; Well, LBJ did! Thanks, Walter. Thanks, Jane.
2) March 31, 1968, LBJ announced on National TV that he was not seeking reelection, he also declared plans to: “Limit the war [in Vietnam],” and later to cease all bombing above 17th Parallel and then announced withdrawal talks with Hanoi. (Brookings.com, Public domain sources) He capitulated and sent a message to the communists and the rest of the world: “I’m giving up, let the next President deal with it.” (Authors percipience).
3) What was LBJ thinking? “Let’s have a few more ceasefires to give the enemy time to regroup, and then [to save face], we’ll keep fighting on the communist’s terms.” (Authors elucidation) Let someone else deal with the mess I created.
4) In case you don’t remember how it ends: Our fighting men soldiered on for five more years-plus while our troops and our pilots were hampered by ridiculous rules of engagement. Many men in the field were also frustrated with the tepid motivation and questionable fighting ability of the ARVN, who was supposed to take charge of their own war so U.S. troops could go home. Sagging morale was inevitable as the men marked time — just trying to stay alive — realizing their fighting would not result in a victory. Even though offensive field operations in the last two years by U.S. troops were limited, men were still being castrated by landmines and losing limbs and life.
5) After LBJ failed to take advantage of the opportunities, in late 1967 and early 1968, the war would drag on five more years-plus; while our POWs suffered and more than 38,000 additional Americans were killed — and untold numbers of Vietnamese! Let that hang in the air for a moment.
“During the day on Monday, Washington time, the airport at Saigon came under persistent rocket as well as artillery fire and was effectively closed . . . . I . . . ordered the evacuation of all American personnel remaining in South Vietnam.” President Gerald Ford, April 29, 1975.
The next day the communists took Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City (Washington Post). But not before two U.S. Marines assigned to Embassy Guard were killed in a mortar attack on April 29, 1975, one day before the fall of Saigon. They were the last U.S. servicemen to die in Vietnam proper, and if that were not enough, their bodies were left behind and not returned to the U.S.until early 1976! Charles McMahon had been in Vietnam eleven days, Darwin Judge less than two months. (The Last Men Out)
I am ending this chapter in memory of 58,220 U.S. souls who perished so far away, so long ago, for a people to be free.
“Painful as it is to remember — Least we forget.” The Vietnam War. Donald Swan, December 21, 2018.
*Numerous books, articles, and documents were researched in the compilation of this chapter: Wikipedia; The History Place™; New York Times; Washington Post; New Yorker;USA Today: Archives.gov; History-Army.mil; BBC.com; The Guardian.Com; Brookings.com; The Hidden History of America At War, Kenneth Davis R. Dee publisher; Vietnam War Almanac, Col Harry Summers Ballantine Books; A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan Random House Publishing; The Best And The Brightest, David Halberstam Random House; Vietnam, A History, Stanley Karnow Viking Press; After Tet, Ronald Spector Hatchet Press: The Hidden History Of The Vietnam War, John Prados Ivan R. Dee; Tet: The Turning Point, Don Oberdorfer De Capo Press; The Fallacy Of The Turning, Mark Bowden Atlantic Monthly Press; VietnamMagazine and public domain not requiring credit. My library contains some 100 books on the subject of the war in Vietnam.
**Tet: Both sides agreed to a truce for the most important Vietnamese holiday. The communists used the occasion for a series of surprise attacks on cities, towns, villages, hamlets, and U.S. installations throughout South Vietnam Jan 30, 1968, and beyond. Considered a turning point in the Vietnam War, there were heavy fatalities on both sides, especially for the VC/NVA.
*** Other Alternatives: 1) It could be argued that LBJ simply use his speech of March 31, 1968, to declare victory and begin immediately withdrawing of all of our troops.
2) One might also make a case for withdrawal after the bloody battle of Ia Drang (the first major battle of the Vietnam War for the U.S. Nov. 1965). Although it was a clear victory for the U.S., it was very costly as well. LBJ could have said something like: “We are not quitters, and as JFK said just three years ago, ‘We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’ I, however — after careful consideration and consultation with both houses of Congress and my conscience — have determined that the cost of this war is too high for a job the boys of South Vietnam should be doing for themselves. I will begin the immediate withdrawal of all combat troops from Vietnam. The U. S. will continue to provide some support for the government of South Vietnam in its efforts to stop the spread of communism.”
3) Finally, it could be argued the Vietnam War was not winnable, and LBJ could have begun a withdrawal at any time he chose.
Author’s Note: Every effort is made that all my writing be 100% accurate. Any misstatements or errors by the author are unintentional and should not distract from my premise on How We Could Have Won In Vietnam. firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author: Swan is a decorated Vietnam veteran who served in the U. S. Army as a Combat Correspondent with the elite 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). He’s authored several feature articles about veterans and their combat experience. Swan holds both BA and MA degrees from the University of Denver. He was a senior Public Affairs Officer in the U.S. Air Force, a Denver DJ, Semi-Pro race car driver and author of “My Life At The Limit,” an autobiography. He lives on the Pacific in Northern Calif. with his wife and three canines.
The stereotypical image of Vietnam veteran was well established in the consciousness of the general public by 1970. We were all assumed to be incurably and permanently traumatized by the war: Drug-addled, unemployable, homeless misfits; or soulless psychopathic killers deserving of fear. The typical villain-of-choice in Hollywood films and cop shows of that era was the “deranged Vietnam vet driven by combat experiences to commit homicidal mayhem. Years of daily bombardments by: all the Bad news that’s fit to print.” Media coverage of the war convinced the public that those who fought in Vietnam were poor, ignorant dupes who should be either pitied or feared –“no in between.” (Jerry Morelock from article in Vietnam Magazine)
It is no surprise, then, that in my community at large, as a well-known writer and veteran, people occasionally ask me about Vietnam. Was there mutiny, drug abuse or racial hostility among U.S. forces, during the war? I saw zerosuch activity during the 12 months I was there in 1967 with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). I didn’t see men drunk, smoking pot, burning villages and screwing the local whores. I didn’t see any of that. I did hear of problems of excessive drinking, rowdy soldiers visiting Sin City, incidences of occasional pot smoking by soldiers who were not in a combat posture, and a couple of fragging incidents that occurred within the division. This was fairly early in the war, 1967, and there was still hope of winning, especially in the elite 1st Cav. As for race issues, it practically disappeared in the field when often time one depended on another person, black or white, to save their butt. Was everybody happy, of course not? Soldiers were anxious, more alert, and trying to get home without death or serious injury. Being in Vietnam was a major stressor, and later in the conflict, some drug and race issues materialized.
During the time I served, I observed soldiers who saw purpose in the mission in Vietnam, and their jobs typically took precedence over spit and polish. No matter where, soldiers bitch and moan (especially lower enlisted) at just being in uniform.
Most people I hear from are more judicious in their queries and want to know about my experience in Vietnam as it relates to how well we were executing our mission, our motivation, and so forth. I was In-Country Jan. 67 to Jan. 68, and I can speak assuredly about my unit: 1st Cavalry Division. Although my tour in Vietnam was no easy ride, I was honored to have served; especially as a member of The First Team.
You will remember, from previous chapters, that I traveled extensively while in the 1st Cav and was on the ground with the troops during several operations. I had practically unfettered access from the PFC to the CG (Commanding General) and to classified information. I believe that — as an unassuming, ordinary soldier — I was more likely to get my subjects to speak freely and give me unfiltered responses.
So, when I impart my opinion and observations, you can trust I am in a position to do so.
The overwhelming majority (about 95%) of the hundreds of soldiers I met, from cooks to colonels, were highly motivated and serious about our mission in Vietnam. How confident were we? A group of us used to talk about how someday we would be relaxing in a condo on the beautiful beaches of the South China Sea — subsidized by the grateful people of South Vietnam — because we saved them from communism.
As for our morale and fighting spirit when I was on the ground in 1967; The 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) with its 16,000 Skytroopers, 434 choppers; Infantry, Artillery, Engineers, Scouts, Airborne, Rangers, Reconnaissance and other specially trained troopers was a motivated and lethal fighting force in Vietnam. We were The First Team, gung-ho and kicking ass.* There was a bounty on our men; the VC/NVA offered a monetary reward for the capture, dead or alive, of any 1st Air Cavalry combat soldier!
Below is a tribute to Combat & Support Units of the fighting 1st Cavalry in Vietnam,The First Team:
1st Battalion, 5th Cav Black Knights. The CGs ready strike force. The Cav Commander lauded these men, saying their Cambodia campaign was one of the Cav’s most impressive operations. In addition, 1st/5th operated in Binh Dinh Province, participated in Pleiku and several other campaigns. I was in the field with this unit when a medic from A company distinguished himself by earning the Medal of Honor
2nd Battalion, 5th Cav. Ironhorse. Relief at Ia Drang, fighting in Khe Sanh, Bong Son, and DMZ. I spent time in the field with this unit.
Fifth Cav. Fatalities about 800 men.
6 Medals of Honor earned.**
1st Battalion, 7th Cav. Garry Owen. The bloody battle of Ia Drang Valley, one of the primary unit’s featured in the book and movie We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young. Sixteen campaigns, including fighting at Hue. 2nd Battalion, 7th Cav Garry Owen, battle of Ia Drang, Masher, White Wing, Khe Sanh, and Cambodia. I spent time with this unit.
5th Battalion, 7th Cav, Garry Owen. Arrived a year after other units of the 1st Cav. Air assaults in Binh Dinh Province, Operation Pershing, Thayer II, decisive battle at Hue.
Seventh Cav had about 1,000 fatalities, more than any Cav unit.
7 Medals of Honor.
1st Battalion (Airborne) 8th Cav. Jumping Mustangs. Straight to Bong Son, Operation Irvin, Crazy Horse, Navy-Cavalry ops. and other campaigns. I spent time with this unit.
2nd Battalion (Airborne) 8th Cav. Stallions. Plei Me Campaign, Cambodia, and others.
Eighth Cav fatalities almost 700.
5 Medals of Honor earned.
1st Squadron, 9th Cav. Headhunters. Known as the Cav of the Cav. Reconnaissance Scouts, one of the most active units in the Division. Numerous campaigns including Cambodia. Attached units: Rangers and Long Range Recon. Patrols (LRRP). I spent time with this unit.
Ninth Cav. Loses about 550. 3 Medals of Honor earned.
1st Battalion (Airborne) 12th Cav. Always Ready. Operation Lincoln, LZ Bird, and several other campaigns. Made one of the largest assaults in Vietnam, I spent time with them.
2nd Battalion, 12th Cav. Thunder Horse. An Khe Defense, Masher, Bong Son, Tet, decisive battle at Hue and other campaigns.
Twelfth Cav losses almost 750.
6 Medals of Honor earned.
227th Assault Helicopter Battalion, Spearhead. Battle of Ia Drang, Laos, numerous campaigns. Nearly 700 fatalities.
1 Medal of Honor earned.
229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, Winged Assault. Battle of Ia Drang, Laos,numerous campaigns, spent time with this unit.
About 600 fatalities.
2 Medals of Honor earned.
15th Medical Battalion Angels of Mercy About 35 Fatalities.
Although far from being a player in any direct combat role, my own company of record, 15th Admin. with finance, supply, casualty, legal and the like suffered 10 Fatalities, including 4 from our fifteen member PIO.***
The 1st Air Cavalry fought in all (4) Corps Tactical Zones in Vietnam, including Laos and Cambodia. The prestigious Presidential Unit Citation and scores of other awards were accorded to the 1st Cav for its bravery in battle. Sky Troopers of the 1st Cav earned more Medals of Honor by far — 30 (19 Posthumously)! — than any other division in Vietnam.
Had the town where I was born lost as many souls as did the 1st Cav in Vietnam, it would no longer exist. The 5,621 killed in 1st Cav would more than wipe out the entire population of Amory, Miss, at the time of my birth.
Each soul a sacrifice 5,621 times over.
A salute to all who served, especially those who can never return it.
1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) Vietnam 1965-1971 (5 yrs & 6 mo.) The First Team. Indeed.
*This is in no way meant to glorify War. It is not pretty, people die, including our own, of course. **Sources for Fatalities and Medals of Honor: 1st Calvary Division Assoc. Book Of Honor. The listing may not include every single unit of the 1st Cav nor all of its attached support contingents. ***Over a five-year period.
What’s a young married couple, just starting their lives together, struggling financially, and repeatedly arguing to do? Have a baby, of course.
I was awakened by our alarm clock radio playing Honey by Bobby Goldsboro. It happened to be Marty’s favorite song. I quietly eased out of bed and was in the bathroom shaving when Marty pounded on the door. Her morning sickness had begun. There was no time to comfort or contemplate. I had to make formation at the Post in half-an-hour. I left her in our 400 sq. ft. apartment throwing-up. Marty was 19 and away from home for the first time, 2,623 miles away to be exact.
It was July ’68, I had less than a year remaining on my enlistment; too short for another tour in Vietnam but, hopefully, enough time left to see Marty through a complicated pregnancy. No civilian doctors were apt to treat her at this stage, and besides, we had no health insurance once my enlistment ended.
I would do what a year ago was unthinkable — subjecting me to another tour in Vietnam — reenlist in the U.S. Army for three more years! The good news was a re-enlistment bonus of about $1,800 and continued prenatal care.
My peers on the post thought I was a total idiot, called me a lifer (pejorative term) ridiculed me even after our top Sergeant told them to knock it off. “Swan, I never saw you as being that stupid,” was one of the milder comments. But none had a wife pregnant with twins!
We made arrangements with the company, that financed Marty’s Mustang, for an uncontested repossession. Then with some of the reenlistment money, we bought a slightly used pale blue ’68 Chevy Impala, 4 door.
November 28, 1968, Thanksgiving Day. Twelve hours of hard labor, seven minutes between baby one: Lisa (pseudonym) 6 lb 8 oz. and the breech birth of baby two: Laura (pseudonym) 7 lb 9 oz. Fraternal twin girls — squalling and screaming. Luckily for me, fathers to be, weren’t allowed in the birthing room.
Family leave hadn’t been invented in 1968, so I took all the regular leave I had to assist in round the clock duty for the twins. Lisa and Laura overwhelmed Marty and me. With two babies, it was always somebody’s turn. Imagine young first-time parents, with twins, waking up at different times during the night, whimpering and wailing. For the first few months, we got little sleep. We did not have the convenience of disposable diapers, and there were no relatives within two-thousand miles. Neither of us got a break from the twins, not even a half-hour.
Now I had a pretty stay at home, miserable mom.
Not long after the twins were born, I got a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) notice, thankfully not for Vietnam. We were leaving hip SoCal for the Sacramento Army Depot. We packed all of our worldly belongings in the 327cid Impala, traveling for the first time as a family of four.
We listened mostly to 93 KHJ on the way hearing songs like Do You Know The Way To San Jose by Dionne Warrick. No, we’re headed for Sacramento, thank you. Then we picked up KYA San Francisco with Magic Carpet Ride by Steppenwolf, Spooky by the Classics IV. The twins were finally asleep, and I dared not turn up Hey Jude by the Beatles.
In Sacramento, we would have no trouble getting around after navigating big LA for a year. We got a small furnished 2nd-floor apartment near the Capitol. I was assigned to the 317th Maintenance Co. at Sacramento Army Depot. It was a phantom unit and a cover for the classified work a small group of us were conducting around Gov. Reagan’s residence. (Reagan lived in the governor’s mansion for just four months.)
I was also an operator-technician at the Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) site at the army depot. Our 24-hour facility took calls from stations overseas, which we transmitted via a commercial telephone line. The person receiving the call, say from Vietnam, would only pay the toll to Sacramento.
In less than a year, we departed the Depot for another PCS to Ft. Lewis, Washington. We headed to the Pacific Northwest in our brand new ’69 Mustang Mach 1, 351cid with rim blow steering wheel and AM/FM radio.
Why? I still had a few reenlistment dollars and traded the ’68 Impala. I figured the army was a pretty secure job, and we just did it. A smaller car and a larger car payment. It sounded fine to us.
During our drive toward Tacoma, somewhere along the Pacific coast — listening to In the Year of 2525 by Garz & Evans — I saw where the sea and the mountains converge and thought that would be an ideal place to live someday, maybe during retirement.
I might be getting a little ahead of myself. I was 21 with a wife and two infants and a career to create.
On the four-speaker Mach 1 radio, we listened to Sugar Sugar by the Archies and wow, two hits by Elvis finally; In The Ghetto and Suspicious Minds, the latter was his first top ten hit since Crying In The Chapel in 1965.
At Ft. Lewis, I was assigned to the Visitors Welcome Center, part of the Post Headquarters. The Officer in charge of our small unit said he had heard good things from visitors and others about my public relations skills; that I had represented Ft. Lewis and the U.S. Army well.
A couple of months later, I was told to report to Post Headquarters. Major General Willard Pearson called me to attention and pinned on staff sergeant stripes. A below the zone promotion to E-6 conducted by a general officer! I had been in the army just over three years. Such a promotion usually took six years, or more, and certainly not in a ceremony with the Post Commander.
My monthly basic pay (in early 1970) was $372.98, and soon I began receiving tax-free Proficiency Pay of $50 a month.* A sign over our front door read: SSG SWAN. Inside was our spacious three-bedroom duplex in base housing, no rent, no utilities. As a family of four, our income tax was minimal, and Marty had been doing some babysitting.
D. B. Cooper had recently jumped from a 727 possibly within a few hundred miles of us, but we never attempted to score any of the $200,000 that may have been scattered in the forest. We went instead to Beneficial Finance and left with a check from a high-interest loan we used to purchase household furniture, new pots and pans, and a Philco®-Ford™ Console Color TV.
My monthly salary was still well below the $806 median income for civilians, but “free” health care, tax advantages, and living quarters made up for some of the deficit. Finally, our finances were in decent shape, and we would not be getting any more cars that we couldn’t afford.
Marty still struggled with the twins. A quick way to strain a friendship, we learned, was to have them watch Lisa and Laura for an hour or two. But I wasn’t on alert status at Ft. Lewis and had more time to help with the girls. The Pacific Northwest with the Puget Sound, snow capped Mt. Rainier, and rugged forests made for a magnificent year-round spectacle. Life was pretty good.
It wasn’t to last. We would be leaving the beautiful Pacific Northwest for another PCS and even farther from Marty’s family. A lot farther — 4,309 miles precisely.
*Awarded to enlisted men who scored in the top five percent on their annual exams and efficiency reports.
A light dusting of snow covered the Puget Sound, just as Spring had arrived, adding to its beauty on this March day in 1970. I was sitting on a cold table in a strip-mall surgical suite somewhere in Tacoma. I was here to get fixed, sniped, you know, a vasectomy. It’s the most effective birth control for men, and I figured a set of twins was enough. I didn’t think the U.S. Army would perform such a procedure, and didn’t even ask. Today, they pay for sexual reassignment.
When I returned to my office the next morning, there was a call for me from a captain at Post HQ. “Congratulations, Sergeant Swan, you’ve been reassigned to Germany.”
Congratulations, eh? We didn’t quite see it that way. We were comfortable at Ft. Lewis, and it was a major move, especially with two infants to tow, and have to travel 2,861 miles just to get to the point of debarkation and then another 3,857 over the North Atlantic to Frankfurt. Luckily, we were afforded concurrent travel which meant the entire family would be together for our trip to Germany.
There was a lot to be done before we left for Deutschland, like getting our immunizations, passports, out-processing, pick-up of our household goods, briefings, and so on. We also needed to liquidate the Mach 1. Ford™ bought it back at Kelley Blue Book® value. Since it wasn’t paid for, they didn’t allow the car to go overseas and out of their control.
We flew from Sea-Tac (SEA) to see my parents in Mississippi. There I picked up a 1966 VW that Dale had refurbished, with parts from the one I had wrecked in 1964. This time I would buy it.
My parents thought the twins looked sickly, too skinny, and wondered why they cried so much. Of course, they were proud to see their first Grandchildren and gave us lots of advice.
From there, we headed to North Carolina in the noisy non-air conditioned Beetle to visit Marty’s folks. American Woman by the Guess Who droned from the small speaker and War by Edwin Starr was played often. It was no Mach 1 but paid for.
Marty’s parent’s patience was tested, as well, when these first-time Grandparents wondered why they cried so much. Lisa was way too skinny, were we feeding them properly? They worried about our trip abroad with the twins, and then we got lots of advice.
We picked-up 1-95 North for the ten-hour drive and soon were getting tired of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Everything Is Beautiful by Ray Stevens. We rested overnight near Newark.
The next morning, we dropped off the little VW at the Bayonne port for its boat ride to Bremerhaven in Northern Germany. Later that day, we took off from Newark International (EWR) for the roughly nine-hour (non-stop) flight over the Atlantic.
As the 707 (300) ascended into thinner air, our eighteen-month-olds and other small children cried out as their eardrums popped. Then they cried on and off for the entire flight, I guess that’s what young children do on airplanes, eardrums popping or not.
Intriguing medieval bridge houses in Bad Kreuznach, built around 1300. The town itself, famous for its spas, dates back to the Stone Age. In the 5th Century BC, it was occupied by the Celts and Romans. Its population in 1970 was around 40,000, not including 8,000 U.S. troops. (Photo courtesy Wikipedia)
We landed at Rhein-Main in Frankfurt. There, in our temporary lodging, Marty and I contracted food poisoning. In my opinion, that’s about as sick as one can get without dying. Caring for two small children when that ill, very challenging.
I was stationed with the 8th Infantry (Pathfinders) in the Public Affairs Office at Rose Barracks in Bad Kreuznach (BK) for a three-year tour. We were in Germany to discourage any over the border attack from the East, and the Soviet Block controlled East Germany.
The Berlin Wall was the 96-mile zigzag border between East and West Germany, which included 27 miles that separated East and West Berlin and fanatically controlled by the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Their definition of democratic is certainly antithetical to most of the Western world.
The last time there were no U.S. troops in Germany, a World War broke out. Interestingly, as part of my job at the Public Affairs Office, I arranged Berlin Tours for U. S. military members that included the Brandenburg Gate, the East-West checkpoint.
Our quarters at Bad Kreuznach were in an old five-story building circa 1935. Fortunately, we landed a 2nd-floor unit, as there were no elevators.
The Armed Forces Network Europe (AFNE) did not broadcast TV to BK, just radio. Local phone calls were 25 cents each.
Marty didn’t bother to get an international driver’s license. With the exception of trips by taxi to the commissary, PX, or taking the twins and herself to the dispensary, she was stuck in our dour apartment with two two-year-olds — All day. All night.
At my new post, I was part of a small Civil Affairs (G-5) team that was the army liaison with local property owners. These were the folks whose farmland we damaged and chickens we killed with our tanks on maneuvers.
I was also responsible for scouting locations of public affairs units around Baumholder, where we trained with our Allies. As had been in the case in Vietnam, I was anxious to get out of the rear echelon Public Affairs Office. I wanted something more exciting here as well.
I requested and was accepted to attend the selective Seventh Army NCO Academy in Bad Tolz, the oldest and most highly regarded in the U.S. Army. Graduating from this intensive eight-week course, run by the 10th Special Forces Group stationed there, was usually a ticket for a below the zone promotion. Little did I know it was a school within a school.
I departed for central Bavaria, careful to stay out of the fast lane on the Autobahn, in my five-year-old black Beetle, almost three-hundred miles south from Marty. I could call her, but she could contact me only in case of an emergency. Marty had access to my military pay, most of which was deposited by allotment, in the American Express® Bank in BK.
Upon arrival at the academy, the commandant congratulated us on our acceptance. Then he asked for volunteers who had a Top Secret clearance, some language proficiency in Deutsche, and a sinew for a special assignment. Those selected would attend a rigorous training regime. Yet, anyone failing to complete it would revert to the regular academy course without prejudice, the Command Sergeant Major promised.
What was it? Those showing interest were told, something none of us had heard of, Operative Protection Specialist (OPS), a solo assignment to shadow Operatives in the field. It was an undercover operation that came with $65 per month extra pay, excitement, and special weapons.
It seems there was a shortage, and DOD asked the Academy if they could recruit and train a few for these special missions. Throw down that gauntlet to a group that included some young, fearless, egotistical combat-tested soldiers, and what do you get? Twenty volunteers, one of whom was I.
Seventh Army Academy gained my release from Public Affairs back in Bad Kreuznach for an open-ended Temporary Duty (TDY) assignment.
You may remember from an earlier chapter that I was wimpy shortly after returning from Vietnam. No more. Eight weeks of Special Forces led rigorous physical, specialized, and firearms training later, I graduated near the top in the small class. Half of our group of twenty did not; some withdrew, were injured, or failed. My 6′ 3” frame was buffed to a solid 229 lbs. I became a credentialed and sanctioned OPS and sent to Frankfurt for orientation and assignment.
It was with a sense of pride that I took another look at my confidential orders confirming my new assignment, and officially declaring me an OPS, before heading onto the A95. I motored through Munich, and Stuttgart, then picked up the A8, and finally B428.
I took in the beauty (though the autobahn in not the most scenic route) while recalling some history of the last hundred years, or so, in this part of Germany. During my six-hour trek on the mostly no-speed-limit-autobahn; cars flew by, trucks too, leaving the old Beetle that maxed out at 115kph.
I was happy to see Marty and the twins at our quarters in BK. She was impressed with my physique and anxious for us to have some time together. But it was not to be, I had just one day to spend. She was understandably stressed, and could use some companionship and help with the girls.
We were still involved in field exercises with the well-known REFORGER (Return of Forces to Germany) training, I told her. “That’s the price we pay when on active duty in the U. S. Army. This is far from Ft. Lewis not just in distance; we are patrolling soldiers who are patrolling us — a Soviet Block country that, with just one provocative move, would heat up the Cold War. I love you and the twins and will, hopefully, see you soon. For now, duty calls.”
Before leaving, I purchased a beige 1969 VW® Squareback with automatic. I left it with Marty, just in case she decided to get her International Driver’s license. She didn’t.
The Wonder Of You by Elvis was playing on AFNE radio as I motored from Bad Kreuznach in the old black Beetle. Why wasn’t I in that sterile and safe studio in Wiesbaden introducing the King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll, or talking about Elvis’ recent meeting with President Nixon at the White House? Because I wanted something more exciting, something a little more hands-on in our effort to discourage East Germany from crossing the border into West Germany. I could be doing a second tour in Vietnam, I suppose, if I needed serious excitement, but I had already done that.
What had I gotten myself into? It was becoming clearer after my final briefing in Frankfurt when I was issued a “Do not Deter, Detain or Disarm Document”* signed by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and authorized by NATO.
There, at the I.G. Farben building, I was picked up by a Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) driver in a black 1970 Mercedes® 220. He recommended that I sit in the front passenger seat — not chauffeured — making me less of a target. Whoa, okay. In jest, I asked Karl if lying flat in the back seat would be even safer.
As we speed down the autobahn, I joked with him about a possible detour to Scotland, where the Rolling Stones were about to perform in Glasgow. He didn’t appreciate the juxtaposition and maintained his heading south on the A5, in the Merc at steady 130kph, on the way to meet my charge.
Renown I.G. Farben building near Frankfurt, Supreme Allied Commander Europe Headquarters. Gen. Eisenhower occupied this building as Commander, April 1951 to May 1952. I was here on temporary duty several times in 1970-72 when Gen, Andrew Goodpaster was Commander. (DOD)
When I tried conversing with Karl in just Deutsche, I did not do well; It was embarrassing, actually. Thankfully, the trip was soon complete, and I bid my “Chauffeur” Auf Wiedersehen.
Awaiting me at my destination was a gray 1968 BMW® 1800 containing the very weapons I’d trained with in Bad Tolz, considerable ammo, a life-saving kit, a TAR-224A crypto radio, several hundred dollars cash in three currencies and a specially tailored 42L trench coat that would conceal a twenty-four-inch weapon. And my charge?
I didn’t know the man I was to protect or for whom he worked. Unassuming, he looked like a manager of a carpet depot in Tacoma. We would collaborate over the next few weeks and play out enough scenarios for a spy novel. He worked unarmed and carried diplomatic cover, both of us wore German civilian attire. I thought he deserved protection, just for the amount of cash he carried in Deutsche Marks, French francs and U.S. dollars.
Once operations began, there was no comingling. We communicated just enough that I was cognizant of his missions and that we were vigilant of each other’s whereabouts.
I had just one job: protect my asset, including eliminating the threat — with extreme prejudice. As for who would protect me, I was on my own. My only contact other than the Operative was a source at SACEUR in the I. G. Farben building in Frankfurt. This was classic Cold War.
Armed with a D2 K-Bar,™ silenced H&K™ VP70z** with an 18 round magazine, and a subcompact SIG Sauer™ for backup, I stayed close and shadowed him everywhere, which seemed to be every club and brothel in the cities we worked.
By now, I knew my man (code name Hans) was a Defense Intelligent Agent (DIA), but I was no spy and never a part of any intelligence-gathering or recruiting. Eye on my Operator, concealing my hand cannon, ready to dispatch it in a split second, kept me occupied.
I could resign, if not under investigation, as this was a volunteer and high-stress assignment. Under normal conditions, a qualified replacement was required for me to be released. The Operative could relieve me at any time. No time was wasted with long and hyperbole filled efficiency reports. He rated his OPS to SACEUR with a simple: Satisfactory.
During the more than three months of shadowing my operator, I never fired either weapon in anger. But I could do a mean stare-down. A working girl feeling me up was tricky, and some other encounters had forced me into revealing one gun while at the ready with the backup.
My weapons were always at condition one, as neither had a manual safety. I honed my shooting skills when off-duty, and was fanatical about keeping my weapons operating at their peak. Still, I worried about screwing up. I worried about my family. Sometimes I vacillated from being lax, to getting jumpy and anxious.
OPS was an interesting, mostly exciting experience. My per diem was generous and without any scrutiny. I stayed in good hotels, ate well, and I visited several fascinating cities and areas that were pivotal in the second World War. But 100 days was enough for me. I made contact with my source at SACEUR and requested that I be relieved and allowed to return to my previous assignment.
Several weeks later, I walked into the Public Affairs Office (where I was originally assigned) at Rose Barracks, still buffed and back from TDY. I felt the presence of someone approaching my six.*** I swiftly swung toward him, about to execute a crushing elbow thrust to his neck and a quick and hard knee to his groin. I realized, just in time, it was the lieutenant colonel in charge of public affairs wanting to give me a hug from behind. The reunion was nice, but I was looking for a way to get out of Germany. I had over a year left on my tour.
As for the joys of touring Germany, France, and other European countries, we did some (see photos), but my work, finances, and the twins prevented us from traveling more.
Marty soothed her loneliness somewhat by ordering lots of stuff from the Spiegel catalog, listening to AFNE radio, writing letters home, and seeing a psychiatrist. Taxi service — in a Mercedes diesel no less — to the hospital, commissary, post exchange, and around town was very reasonable.
Two great opportunities arose after I returned to BK. The first was a message emanating from Washington, D. C. for qualified enlisted to apply for a fully funded Environmental Science and Engineering program at Texas A & M University. Upon graduation, the member would become a commissioned officer. I started my application immediately. It was a daunting and drawn-out procedure and a packet (needing to be perfect) that contained about a dozen pages, including attachments. I received lots of encouragement that culminated with the Commanding General of the 8th Infantry Division endorsing the application with: “Highly Recommend Approval.” Off the packet went to D. C.
The second was an opportunity, a few weeks later, inviting qualified enlisted to apply for Recruiting Duty, with a choice of station. That meant we could go to North Carolina and be near Marty’s folks. The other good news, if selected, we could leave Germany presently, a year early. It wasn’t like becoming an officer, but it was a great opportunity with incentive pay of $75 a month and a chance for early promotion.
After Marty’s two years, mostly alone in Germany with the twins, I was willing to and did withdraw my application for the engineering program and give up my chance to become a commissioned officer.
My recruiting application was approved.
*Document read: “By order of NATO and Supreme Allied Commander Europe: The holder of this document is on an assignment of great importance and shall not be Delayed, Deterred, Detained or Disarmed. Individual is authorized to carry special weapons and other lethal devices and is entitled to special access up to, and including, TOP SECRET CRYPTO. If deceased, this Document is to remain with the corpse.”
Signed over the imprint of SAUCER Seal by General Andrew Goodpaster and picture and thumbprint of document holder. The Document contained warnings of severe penalties and imprisonment for its fraudulent use.
**Just released and known as a Machine Pistol, it had a detachable 8″ stock and was capable of a 3 round burst.
***Six 6 o’clock is directly behind, and 12 o’clock is directly in front, commonly used by fighter pilots and others in the military.
Only the best, the U.S. Army says, are considered for recruiting duty, and from those, fewer still are chosen. But I was selected anyway.
We departed Germany a year early for my new assignment in the States. Children still cried on the plane, including our own, but the trip home was better than our flight over, two years ago.
Awaiting me at Newark was a brand new 1972 Gremlin X V-8 that I ordered in Germany through a special overseas program and paid the $2,400 price in cash. Laugh at your peril.
It was modified by Randall Motors, authorized by the factory, and pumping out about 250 h.p. It weighed just 2,600lbs, had a Chrysler® sourced torque flight three-speed automatic, 4.10 gears, and HD suspension. The black sleeper had reasonable insurance rates, and it was the only V-8 available in that price range. It ran a 13.9 sec. quarter-mile, as fast any production car in 1972 including a base Corvette®, and slightly quicker than a 1972 Trans Am™ 455. I surprised a lot of people at stoplights in small Carolina towns and on country roads.
Dear valued reader: If you had rather not hear the details of my struggles with diarrhea and all the unpleasantries that
came with it, including incontinence, problems at work and at home, surgeries and the like; I understand and ask that you
skip to next Chapter: "Kansas City Here We Come" I will discuss the problems I had with my colon in future chapters because it was a big
part of my life, but try not to dwell on it.
Once again, I found myself at Ft. Benjamin Harrison; this time to attended Recruiting School. About three weeks into the eight-week course, I began having frequent stools, diarrhea.
That is symptomatic of what one might get when arriving overseas, usually not upon returning, as I just had from Germany. It was almost as bad as the dysentery I had off and on in Vietnam. I always tried to be near a bathroom, and there were a couple of times I didn’t make it. That was a real confidence-builder, while in a demanding course, especially when giving a presentation. I toughed it out and graduated on time. This is surely a temporary thing.
We make Guarantees not Promises, Robeson Co. U. S. Army recruiters.
I was a recruiter in Lumberton, North Carolina, where we bought our first house. It was a pleasant town of about 17,000 in Southeastern North Carolina located on I-95, the halfway point between NYC and Florida. We were just 80 miles from Marty’s parents, her older married sister, and a younger brother.
My recruiting partner in our Lumberton station was a Staff Sergeant just as I was, but outranked me by his earlier date of promotion. That wasn’t an issue until my health deteriorated.
We were a successful team. He was from the area and had been in the Army Reserve before becoming a recruiter, and knew the best places for Barbecue — argued by many as best in the country. As for my recruiting style, there was never any pressure, and that seemed to put the potential recruits at ease.
We always met our quotas, and we received commendations for our performance. After a few months on the job, the diarrhea and cramps that I experienced in Indianapolis not only returned, but worsened.
I went to the doctors at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina (about an hour from Lumberton). After describing my symptoms, the doctor said my diarrhea was probably a result of the pressure of being an Army Recruiter. And how was my marriage? Are things OK with you and your children?
He scoped my rectum and sent me on my way with four Atropine™ (anti-diarrheal drug). The medication helped as long as it lasted, like one day, and my symptoms continued unabated. Unabated as in about six semi-liquid stools per day.
Naturally, trying to work while the symptoms persisted was difficult. Playing a role as father to the twins, who were sweet and loving, and husband to Marty who was stressed, was difficult and at times, impossible. She continued to see a psychiatrist, as she did in Germany.
After several weeks with no improvement, my recruiting partner and our supervisors in Raleigh were not understanding. How could someone have third-world type dysentery, here in the United States, to the point they couldn’t work full-time? They had never heard of such a thing. I wasn’t surprised; seems the doctor’s had never heard of such a thing either. Fatigued, with bloody stools and a bleeding rectum, I returned to see the doctor. I had a perianal abscess.
A Proctoscopy exam using a rigid 10-inch steel scope through my raw and inflamed rectum was ridiculously painful. The results were normal but consistent with someone who had been in the throes of diarrhea, i.e. inflammation and blood. I considered not complaining to avoid those procedures. The doctor prescribed six Atropine, antibiotics, and suggested sitz baths three times a day. The frequent stools continued.
I wondered what would be happening had I been in the Environmental Science and Engineering program at Texas A & M, (last chapter) instead of recruiting, and having the same symptoms. The Army might be thinking this guy just couldn’t cut it, wasn’t officer material. That might have been worse than my present dilemma. But I digress.
Within a month, I had a fissure and fistula of the rectum, which required surgical repair. Incidentally, while at Womack Army Hospital in Ft. Bragg for the surgery, the main architect and loser of the Vietnam War, LBJ, died. An irreverent patient, making a joke about what LBJ may have done with farm animals in Texas, had me chuckling. A good laugh is not wise when you’ve just had rectal surgery.
My partner and officers from the Raleigh station came by for a jovial visit. OK, you’ve had surgery, now get off your ass and get back to work full-time, was their expectation.
No, perianal surgery does not cure dysentery. I was released without any Atropine, “Get that from your GI doctor, we’re the surgeons,” they reminded me. Once I started eating again and returning to work, the frequent semi-liquid bloody stools continued, as did the abdominal cramps, incontinence, and dehydration. Since arriving from Germany, seven months ago, I had lost 35lbs!
I’ve heard of and read about patients who were very ill, some with terminal conditions, whose relatives said they never once complained. My theory: If you’re not complaining — you must be too sick to, or not miserable enough.
Unbelievably, the doctors and my supervisors still assumed that the high-stress job of being a recruiter was the primary cause of my diarrhea. The doctor reminded me that my proctoscopy examination was normal (except for “non-specific inflammation”). Oh, and how was my relationship with my wife? Now not so great, she’s not causing the diarrhea, she’s frustrated because I have it. And you’re doing little to help.
Finally, the doctors decided to give me a refillable prescription of Atropine and some rest: “No Field Recruiting Duties until further notice.” I did better having my medication in ample supply and recognition, at least, by one doctor that I needed a break.
Off-duty from recruiting didn’t mean I was just going to sit home on my painful butt. WTSB in Lumberton knew that I’d been a DJ and asked me to do an on-air shift at their station, and I happily complied. A few weeks later, I got a call from a competing station, WFMO in nearby Fairmont, and they talked me into working for them.
I didn’t feel guilty about doing a four-hour shift in radio and leaving my recruiting partner in a bind. I had already signed up several people for the Delayed Entry Program that met my quota for two months after the doctor took me off recruiting duty.
Working as a DJ, I didn’t consider a job anyway, certainly not compared to 10-hour day recruiting. Plus, I was producing and airing Army Recruiting Public Service Ads and receiving “trade-out” certificates, instead of cash for my radio gig.
For a few weeks, with restrooms nearby, I was playing Big Bad Leroy Brown by Jim Croce, We’re An America Band by Grand Funk Railroad, Kodachrome by Paul Simon, Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) by George Harrison and occasionally some oldies from Elvis.
I happened to be on-air the joyous day our POWs were released from North Vietnam.
A couple of months after the doctors gave the order that relieved me from recruiting, I was given a PCS for the Army Hometown News Center in Kansas City, Missouri.
We had been in Lumberton for just 18 months. Fortunately, we had no problem selling our house and even realized a small profit. As for Marty, leaving her relatives; being close to them wasn’t as good as she had imagined.
After our household goods were picked up, we packed up the twins and all the other stuff we could fit into the little Gremlin and eased out of the driveway one last time.
Marty had liked Lumberton,* and I had enjoyed recruiting — both were now in our rearview mirror.
* 2019 update: Fox8 TV in High Point, N.C. reported Lumberton to be the worst place to live in the state, based on high crime, high unemployment, and low wages. USA Today reported similar findings about Lumberton, N.C.