I thought about what I would title this post, but after some heavy brainstorming, I realized that a fancy title couldn’t possibly do justice for this one Vietnam Veteran’s account of war. What you are about to read is honest and graphic, and as I can imagine, it was very difficult to explain in words, but this anonymous vet did a respectable job explaining the terrors of war and how it causes PTSD. I only hope that this can bring the realities of war to the surface and instill some appreciation for our veterans.
18 March 1970
I think it very important that I put this event into perspective, as to when it happened during my tour of duty, which was the early part of my second month in combat. This event really brought home the horror of war, and that no one is physically or emotionally “ready” for the aftermath of emotional strain. I was the new kid on the block. They had a nickname for the “new meat.” They were sarcastically referred to as “F.N.G’s,” (Fucking New Guys.) If you were an F.N.G. you were lower than pond scum. They wouldn’t even call you by your given name. You had to earn the respect of your fellow soldiers, which for many guys, because of the combat environment took about three months. You were assigned every shit detail there was, that included the stirring and burning of human waste stored in fifty gallon barrels from under outhouses, at forward fire bases. My nickname early on was “Alphabet,” because I had a long name that no one could pronounce. Later on once I was accepted as a human being, and part of the army unit, a soul brother who I bunked with back at the fire base, gave me the nickname “Foxie,” and it stuck the rest of my tour. I have two close friends that still call me “Foxie” today. Go figure.
Prior to the death of four soldiers killed on 18 March 1970, I had been in a combat environment where soldiers had been killed and wounded, but I didn’t feel an attachment or closeness to these casualties. On 18 March 1970, two of the four killed were F.N.G’s like myself. I had known these two brothers from Louisiana, who were 18 and 19 years old. I had first met them in January of 1970 at American Division Headquarters in Chu Lai, where all new in-country soldiers go through a two-week in-country orientation that tries to orient and teach what will be expected of you, once you’re assigned a new job. Sort of like on the job training, for kill or be killed. This may sound crass, but it was the reality of war. It was who we were, where we were, and what we were about to embark on. This wasn’t the movies, John Wayne, the six-o’clock news back in the world. The world was what we called America, and that was a place a lot of us wouldn’t return to, and for those of us who were lucky enough to go back home to America, we would forever be changed from our experiences. I didn’t think a lot about my survival in Vietnam prior to 18 March 1970, but once this even took place, my outlook for my future changed dramatically, and not for the better. The event brought into focus how quickly death can and does happen. We were now not in control of our destiny. Shit ass luck can play a vital role.
My first time getting shot at, I messed up big time and it was a typical fucking new guy mistake. We had started to receive R.P.G.’s and small arms fire from what appeared to me as an “L-shaped ambush.” This is when you enter into an area called a kill zone. The enemy is firing at your position from two different angles, and if you’re not careful with your return fire, you can end up shooting at your own soldiers, from your own weapons, and this tactic is what the enemy wants you to do. During this ambush, my track commander took a grazing wound to his neck that started a large gushing of blood. He couldn’t stop the bleeding and he was more concerned about returning fire than stopping his bleeding that by this time had sprayed my face, arms and front of my shirt as I was right behind him on top of our armored personnel carrier. I took my field dressing from my pouch and wrapped it around his neck to stop the bleeding. He was having a hard time breathing and in the excitement had partially swallowed his tongue and couldn’t talk but gave the universal choke sign with his hand to neck area, and I was able to pull his tongue from his partially clogged throat. He was just one of many casualties that happened during this ambush. With help from two other soldiers we were able to put him in a blanket and get him to a medevac helicopter. We were in a rice paddy and the enemy was shooting at us the entire time. We were trying to run in water, which from the weight of a body slows you down anyway. The helicopter actually landed near our track but we still had to get our wounded on board. All the time that chopper was taking fire and very vulnerable waiting for us to get our wounded on board. We could hear the pinging of bullets going through that chopper. When we finally got my track commander on board we realized the door gunner and pilot were both wounded but the door gunner continued to fire his M60 machine gun and the pilot lifted off with three casualties from our platoon. The guy we put on that chopper did survive his wounds, spent about six weeks in a field hospital and returned to our unit for a brief time before he went home for good. We had a good laugh about this day when he came back but it’s a good story for his grandkids, if he had any. I thought I had accounted myself pretty good, after all I had stopped the bleeding, cleared his airway and with the help of two others, got him on the chopper, all while being shot at. What I didn’t even think about while this was happening was that I used my field dressing on the neck wound. I should have used his field dressing on his wound, that way if I had gotten shot. I wouldn’t have had any bandages for myself. The excitement of the event clouds your judgment but it was a valuable lesson nonetheless. The guys who had been there longer than me, had in no uncertain terms, explained how different things could have ended for me.
The one KIA I remember before 18 March 1970 was when the company commander’s track hit a land mine, killing his driver in a beach area near the South China Sea. I wasn’t close enough to see it, but that event would impact my entire tour, as I took that driver’s job, that same day. Not an easy situation to be put into but especially because I was still and F.N.G and still learning the ropes of combat. Being a driver is the worst job in a cavalry tank unit. You sit right next to the diesel engine, inside the track. Typical days are 100 plus degrees but inside that driver’s seat it feels like 120 degrees. When you’re driving a tank vehicle, your head sits above the body of the vehicle, thus making an inviting target for snipers. The enemy knows you kill the driver, the tank stops, and the tank becomes a sitting duck. The crew of a tank has to get the wounded body out, and a new body in to drive, to get mobile again fast. This all takes precious time and the enemy knows this. Most head wounds are fatal, and as a driver you rarely even get to shoot back, as it’s your job to drive and create a moving target, not a stationary one. A typical day, you might drive about 20 miles in 18 hours. For a car, 20 miles is a short ride, but in the jungles of Vietnam, there are no highways. What you have is triple canopy jungle, rice paddies, and hedgerows. Many times you can’ t see what’s ten feet in front of you and this unseen area could be mined. The mines are usually marked in some way but you have to know what you’re looking for and easily missed by seasoned vets.
Now to the events of 18 March 1970, now that you have a background of events and situations which led up to the actual incident of the APC hitting the land mine that obliterated an eleven ton vehicle and four of its crew. Even forty-three years later, my memory recall is fresh and visual. It was an especially hot day for Vietnam, probably around 110 degrees. We had just stopped for a short break in our day. It was early afternoon around 1:00pm and during our stop we got a briefing from our commanding officer. We were about to cross a large open area that potentially could be a good ambush site, one that could also be heavily mined. Looking back now, my company commander must have had a little Nostradamus in him, as the mined-potential area was about five minutes after he told us. The third track in our convoy hit a land mine, but when it happened I wasn’t aware of what happened. All I saw was a huge ball of fire about thirty yards to my front and the explosion was deafening to my ears. Maybe three seconds after the explosion, everyone in our convoy opened fire on the tree lines to our front and sides. We didn’t know until way after this explosion that no enemy was ever seen in the area but it was a natural reaction to just return fire to any suspect origin of fire. Within seconds of the landmine explosion, small fragments of flesh and metal rained down from the sky on top of our convoy, which was now stopped in place. A large piece of human flesh, not identifiable but clearly human, landed to the left of my APC. It was later explained to me that the piece of flesh in question was a human stomach. The centrifugal force of the explosion filled the stomach with air and then exploded, landing near my track. I’ve often questioned this theory, but at the time I was very green to combat. I suppose it was possible. I would see a lot more death and casualty during the rest of my year, but none would come close to what happened right in front of us that day. When we stopped firing our weapons it became deathly quiet. We formed all our vehicles in a circle and sent out patrols to investigate the tree lines. No enemy was ever seen before, during or after the explosion. Nobody was even talking to each other-just following orders and trying to cope with what had just happened. We were handed four body bags and about sixty of us lined up in a straight line leaving half of our force on our tanks and A.P.C’s while the sixty men on the ground policed body flesh into the body bags, not knowing which partial pieces of human flesh belonged to which individual killed. They choppered a chaplain to talk to our unit. We were all now survivors, but it wasn’t in our thoughts at that time. We really didn’t have a lot to say to each other for hours after this event happened. Knowing what I would later learn about shock, I think we were in shock at that time, lost in our individual thoughts. Slowly I started to hear from some guys that the fault of this explosion was with the driver of the vehicle, which was a natural reaction to place blame on a new driver. From my standpoint, knowing what I would later learn from experience, I can’t explain the blame on any one soldier. He could have done everything by the book and still get blamed for it. The reality of war is soldiers serve and soldiers die. Wrong place…wrong time. They did their best, they gave their lives. I was there, don’t judge them.
P.S. After all these years…still not easy to write about. Many have told me over the years that this trauma will get easier over time. Haven’t found that to be true.