I arrived in Vietnam in February 1968. American’s counteroffensive to the infamous Tet offensive was fully engaged. I was assigned to the mostly volunteer 101st Airborne Division’s Screaming Eagles as an infantry platoon leader. Reading about this time, you find little about the war other than the communist offensive. Yet although poorly chronicled, the fighting in 1968 was substantial. I turned 21 a month after arriving and found myself leading a platoon of mostly younger men through the jungle 12,000 miles from my home. This how it looked to us.
We thought constantly about “the world,” calculated daily our “Deros” (date eligible to return overseas) and dreamed of the girls back home. There were two seasons-rainy and dry. During the rainy seasons we were always wet; during the dry season we were always thirsty. The insects were incredible. Bombarding flies, swarming mosquitoes, leeches everywhere, and two-foot-long centipedes. The jungle was beautiful, but at times you couldn’t see 10 feet in any direction. We encountered what we called “wait-a-minute” vines, which would grab you and could suspend you in the air.
We became accomplished cooks, combining C-rations and LRRP-rations (long-range reconnaissance patrol) with sauces sent from home. We sealed envelopes, whose glue had become useless from dampness, with peach jam. We warmed our meals with fuel made by combining peanut butter with insect repellent. Our faces were an unpleasant combination of whisker stubble, insect repellent, sweat and grime. We buoyed our morale by describing our favorite meal or our favorite car back home, and always talking about our favorite girl. We lived for letters and “care packages” from the U.S.
Fire fights were intense, horrific and terrifying-explosions so close you would lose your wind or water. The sights and smells would make you retch. Within hours a dead body would be crawling with maggots, and a day later it would be black, bloated and unrecognizable. Your body rebelled under the weight of a 40-pound rucksack, eight canteens of water, ammunition, a weapon, helmet and other equipment necessary to survive. Comfort, privacy and security were nonexistent. A sound night’s sleep was only a memory, a dry pair of socks a luxury. We matured quickly even as our youth allowed us to carry on.
Images became seared into the mind for life as the names of fallen comrades were to be engraved forever on a wall in our nation’s capital. The sight of a tank commander machine-gunned to death as he surveyed the area, partially exposing his body out of the protection of his turret. The image of a tall Louisianan dying in your arms, his stomach blown away. The look of horror on the face of an enemy soldier as he is confronted at a bend in the trail, realizing he did not have his weapon ready. Seeing a terrified soldier propped up on his remaining arm, having lost the other and both legs. Time and relationships would help, but still the inexplicable fall into the wracking sea of numbing images occurs with warning. You understood the speechlessness; the emotional paralysis was incomprehensible.
We chased the North Vietnamese army from the outskirts of Hue, through the jungles of northern South Vietnam, through the A Shau Valley and into Laos. We stopped at the border waiting for the order to continue fighting. The order never came. We knew we were winning our battles against those with names like Daun, Thanh, Giap and Bui Tin. We did not know we were losing the war to those with names like Jane, Tom, Bill and Ramsey. Our leaders in the field fought side by side with us.
We talked tough. Conversations were laced with terms like “widow maker,” “strike force” and “reconnaissance in force.” “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death…” the little ditty would begin. But God knew the truth, because it was to him we talked praying with each breath. We had not heard of male bonding but survived because of espirit de corps. We trusted each other with our lives. We needed to be alert, so we did not take drugs, saving our intemperance for beer in the rear area. It has been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. We discovered there were no racists there either.
We were surprised by our bravery and equally surprised by how scared we were. We were profoundly changed. Some of us were changed by torn bodies, crushed psyches and broken spirits. Some of us were changed by what we learned. We learned about courage, determination, camaraderie, selflessness and an appreciation for living.
Returning home brought another, disappointing lesson. We were, it seemed, not welcome. In college a fellow student told me she did not date Vietnam War veterans. I did not expect a hero’s welcome, as I was not a hero. I did expect an appreciation for the willingness to endure the ordeal of combat. Rightly or wrongly I believe we were in a mortal fight against the world-wide threat of communism. The “domino” theory made sense to me, and if I hadn’t been willing to fight, millions of people might fall under the domain of what Ronald Reagan would later call the “evil empire.” I left Vietnam 28 years ago and still doubt that most Americans understand what we went through. I pray that my children will never have to take up arms to protect the liberties they and I cherish. But if they do, I hope they will be welcomed home with respect.
1998 Tim Lickness