In a war zone, –a combat zone that is, or for that matter, in a support unit that is in a war zone, there are very few flags flopping out in the wind, or for that matter, finding soldiers standing erect with dressed greens, gloriously waiting for combat around the bend [like in the movies], sorry, just squads of the military marching, trampling through the rain and mud, dodging bullets, rockets.
The soldiers in Vietnam, for the most part young men, were a little frazzled in the nerves trying to figure out where they fit in, in the scheme of all things that is. Having said that, what was the objective [that is what we all asked ourselves sooner or later]: –to win, stabilize, or contain? Nothing was clear except one thing, or so I found out soon after I arrived in Vietnam, it was not to be won, that is the war, that is, won in the sense of a straight out victory.
Whatever was on the political minds of the decision makers in Washington D.C., the soldiers didn’t know, but it was not to win the war. For we all knew it was or could have been a simple task. But then we did not want to incite Russia, did we, that was our way of avoiding a nuclear confrontation I suppose; likewise, in Korea, we did not want to incite China, and face a nuclear stand off in that area, that is to say, we’d have had to use those big bombs to stop the horde of oncoming enemy soldiers. Or at least that was the way our decision makers were thinking, or so I think.
Back to Vietnam, again, I do not think it would have been a hard war to win [had we not put limitations on ourselves, and overlooked targets for the sake of getting other nations mad at us], but then you had your negative forces working against you/or us, such as Jane Fonda’s [see also Last Words] in addition to the indecisive political minds in Washington D.C., and throughout the states… that made it harder. [As in many wars, you get your wild radicals, even in the Persian Gulf II War, such as Sean Penn, and a few like him.] All wanting to arouse our emotions to go see their movies, and side with them on a protest march, but when you protest against them, they get emotional unstable, they don’t like it [like President George W. Bush, said, “…it’s a two way street…”]. And in most cases the protesters such as they are, have never seen a day of combat, but there is not lack of wisdom with them.
My way of protesting would be when I got home out of Vietnam, I would not go see their movies, although I did see one, and purchased another, but it was very hard for me to watch them. I guess big movie stars have an edge they can get on stage and can give their opinion to millions of people in a matter of minutes, someone like me, well, my only way is, or was, saying it by not supporting them in whatever way possible. Some people feel this way is not the right way to respond, but it’s the only I know, and a non-violent way I knew, and it’s a good old American style way of protesting, I know.
And from what I’ve seen of such times and events, most people couldn’t tell the difference between being assertive, which I think is healthy in protesting one’s view in war or peace, and aggressiveness, which I think is hypocritical at best. But that’s the way it always is. You go on a peace march, and create a war. To me a peace march should be peaceful and so on and so on, but we see the creation of hysteria; exactly what are they protesting, should it not be their own behavior? But that was the way I was thinking at the time.
Life in general in Vietnam [in a support group environment as I was in] had its regular duties as back home, or in Germany, you were cleaning rifles, washing socks, grabbing the warm rain and using it for a shower. The married men were trying not to feel the pain of missing wives; I got a Dear John Letter, saying, my gal from Augsburg, Germany, was no longer going to write me: –as I expected, but I did my grieving on leave in St. Paul, Minnesota, a tear, a river destroyed, or was it two rivers, whatever, I can’t remember anymore, it was too long ago. In war it is best you leave the love letters behind.
But it was over [the relationship in Augsburg], and I was glad, I didn’t want to end up doing like the other guys, —that is, you hurry up and wait for the mail bag to arrive hoping you get a letter or two, day after day you give power and control of your life to that person to decide what and when to write you, –this all plugs up your mind. You think ‘…do I go to war today, die and go to hell, or do you think I’ll make it home.’ This begs the question, who wants to live, for surely Charlie, the enemy does, and as I always said, I do, and I said I’d go home all together, or not at all, and if Charlie got in my way, we’d both go to hell together. But the married men always wanted to go home; were thinking about home. And you knew what was on their mind most of the time: especially if they were, or had been married a short time, they always seemed preoccupied. In a combat zone this can be dangerous.
I didn’t want dark foot steps to awaken me in my sleep, while in Vietnam, so with one eye open I slept all the time while in Vietnam, and if a shadow crossed my path, he would die, or wish he had.
On other occasions, some of my comrades would say,
“Why do you keep your rifle always locked and loaded…?” meaning ready to shoot, “…even when you know Charlie is up in the hills, two miles away, somewhat harmless, if only he stays there.” My response was always,
“I liked it loaded, –it makes me feel good, like I’m in control, the way I want it to be.” It would worry some of my friends, that being, afraid I’d shoot them by accident. And I suppose anything was possible.
Vietnam was many things to me, one might say, that being a pocket full of experiences, somewhat like, but not quite like, Augsburg, Germany, where I ended up in a romance, yup, that was where I was stationed prior to coming to Vietnam. And San Francisco was also quite a learning experience, which was where I was living for a year prior to going into the Army, and being sent to Augsburg. Somehow they all seem to connect because they all blended into one another, ending up here in Vietnam.
Some of my new experiences would entail heroin usage, and finding me dancing on top of a vacant supply-hut in the middle of the jungle, where I and four other soldiers were dismantling the metal supply hut. Again, here we were dancing on the top of the roof, listening to music some of Bob Dylan, I think, and the Turtles, etc., as if there was no war. I still kept my M16 locked and loaded though; –but god forbid should the enemy come; I’d had left it down on the ground by some other garments I put. I’d have had to jump off the roof to get to my weapon, by that time we’d all be dead.
After several hours of our rope-a-dope adventure, we had the place all dismantled, so Charlie could not use it and we then went back to base camp. That was my first usage of the white gold, heroin. Three dollars a capsule and you could smoke it, rub it in your veins, or for that matter, inject it; however you liked it. It was so good I told myself, this was not going to happen again. I would surely end up a dope freak, and this was not the place for it.
As the sun was disappearing that day, we had made it back to our hutches in time for dinner. We had white rice with eggs, hamburger and green peppers all mixed and fried together, it was great.
In the ammo dump, as we called it [ammo supply area], where I’d work now and then, I swatted flies all day it seemed in the little wooden shack we used for an office. And to be quite frank, that in itself is a tiring job, especially if there is no wind cross-venting the place. And just try not swatting them, they eat you alive, that is, they land on everything, everywhere, all day long.
Outside of the hut, was the copper sun descending on top of you as if you could touch the sphere itself; you could cook an egg out on a rock, one of the soldiers tried it, it works. Often times when things got slow, and they often did, you’d be day-dreaming on the porch of the hut, or walking around looking for a stick to wipe your ass with, for there was no toilet paper.
The ones with wives, or lovers back home, were lovesick half time, truly lost in the heat and rains of Vietnam; again I say this because it was cause for alarm at times. I often thought of the Israel Army, to my understanding if a person had gotten married, they would not allow him into the service for a year or so. That made good sense, he had his sex, got his house in order for the most part; and was focused.
Nights seemed star-less, no birds singing at all, matter of fact, there were no birds. Not in the jungle, or out in the ammo dump, only dry-heat, lizards and not too far away the South China Sea coast. No birds, no birds, no sir, never-ever heard them, no birds at all –and if there were I had never seen them. [As I write this I can hear them now outside my windows, chirping, and singing. What a lovely sound!]
It seemed to me I’d make it through Vietnam alive, I guess I never thought I wouldn’t as long as I was breathing and not bleeding. One of my friends got out the hard way, he screwed so many women so he got all these different kinds of venereal disease, some I never heard of, and had to get sent to Japan for treatment. His spine was bent over backwards, like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. We’d talk at night, and he told me point blank, “Chick, I sleep with sometimes three times a day.”
I said, “You got to stop, look what it’s doing to you,” that was a month before he got this disease the 5th time, or was it the 7th? In any case, this time he had a hard time looking up at me, he was so bent over from spine problems, and talking was too painful I could tell, and the next day he was gone. What a way to go, no combat, just bad company. I guess we all chose our sins, and our own way of dealing with them and the unknown, along with boredom and the funny rules they had over here: and most of the ways we dealt with such issues like that were by disassociation [blocking your mind to/or from reality], be it by sex, dope, gambling, fighting, or booze, like I chose often, or whatever was available. I guess war is to be war, not sitting around waiting for the pizza man. That is to say, we should be fighting or training, not doing what we were doing.
And so here I am in Vietnam, the year is l971, halfway around the world, with no poets, no rich people, no lawyers, but one of the guys named Presley, was a relative of Elvis’ [or so he said]. Anyways, the rich and famous were not present, isn’t it always that way? It simply told you, who is and who isn’t dispensable to the government. No disrespect intended, for I do not mind being here, I have no better place to be, no one waiting for me at home, no girl that is. So to me it is simply a trip in the jungle, along the sea coast.
It was the winter of I971 I lived in a hutch at an Army Base in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, looking up and across the dry white sand, and hard-dirt that compressed against the hills surrounding our camp, there was a radar station, right above us. Down by the shore, the coast of the South China Sea, there were a few shrines, temples hidden in the jungle, and a road that lead out to three ammo dumps, Alpha, Charlie and Delta [Alpha being the Air Force dump]. The sand was dry and white, actually perfect for a beach for swimming, and to paraphrase a rumor, there had been talk about this area being turned into a resort type area after the war, it could very well make a good area for a resort, with some financial planning and capitol, it could be perfect, it was actually in the air, or should I say, under consideration, with some American businessmen. I couldn’t picture it as a resort to be realistic, but who knows, dumber things have happened I told myself. War does not always allow you to see two pictures at once, the present and the potential. But it could be reconstructed to be a resort.
I belonged to the 611th Ordnance Company, there were 167-troops to include myself; with two rolls of hutches in our camp site, [four men to a hut]; a mess hall across from the hutches, of which, in-between was a metal floor extending itself from the hutches to the mess hall with holes in it, which covered the courtyard. A safety measure for all the little and big creatures that wanted to visit us, like snakes, lizards and scorpions, and who knows what else.
We also had an orderly room [main office] in front of our military compound [or camp site/complex], a shower room way in the back of the complex, where the outside toilets were, to the left of it, somewhat isolated though; –not bad for a combated zone compound. And right next to our company, was a Military Police Company [MP’s], and their set up was similar to ours. Outside of our compound area was a dusty-dirt road made of compressed hard, very hard dirt on dirt, –well, let me add to that, with some rocks covering the surface also.
Winter in Vietnam was not like winter in St. Paul, Minnesota where I was from. Here in Vietnam, it was hot, hot, muggy and hotter, and at times the humidity was like taking a shower in your hot sweat. There were more lizards than dogs, some as long as six feet. More scorpions than rats, and more jumbo, bull-mosquito’s than wasps, yet there were cats, I think we were equal to them in that category in Minnesota vs. Vietnam, or Cam Ranh Bay in particular. Yes, this was a cat lover’s haven one might say. But these monster long legged bull-mosquito’s and giant cock-roaches, always flying a foot over your head was enough to keep your mind occupied when you had nothing else to think of, and you found yourself walking about at night with a crown of them over your head; — a giant cockroach falling on your face at night waking you up, and sometimes they would bite you. And if you think they don’t bite, you are wrong.
And when I got comfortable in my hutch, I had to spend twenty-minutes out of thirty, killing flies, I know I keep coming back to these fly-issues, but they were everywhere, even in my dreams, yes, instead of sheep jumping over the fence, I had flies I was swatting. But why complain I told myself, I didn’t have to comb my hair, shine my boots, or for that matter, dress to impress the brass [officers], not like in Germany. I suppose everything has its bad and good elements to it.
When I had first arrived in Vietnam, it was a shallow evening, the air was thin, –as if you couldn’t breath, gently we [the two hundred plus soldiers with me from the jet] were moved onto a metal platform [something like our camp had here], again, I suppose, so the scorpions and the other creatures didn’t get to you before Charlie [the enemy] did. We were moved as I said, from the airplane to the platform, and the plane was then pulled away quickly so the enemy could not zero in on it and destroy it. Thereafter, we took busses to this processing center on Cam Ranh Bay. And there in the middle of the night, we waited and waited and waited.
We were like a stream of soldier-ants as long and winding as a football field. And although there were 205,000 soldiers in Vietnam upon my arrival, or so I heard, that was not as many as were here a year prior, –in review, they were withdrawing them slowly, where at one point there were 500,000-plus.
In any event, more were coming and going twice a day from this location, to my understanding.
We didn’t know what to expect those first hours, and nothing was happening, just like the old saying goes, ‘Hurry up…wait.’ The Army is good for that. I only had eight months to go before my tour of duty was up, and I’d get out of the Army, yet I heard they were extending some soldiers an additional six to nine months; –to be quite frank, I met a few that did get extended within a few weeks of their so called leaving Vietnam date. In any case, I felt I could do it standing on my head [the eight months that is] yet, this heat was not doing me much good, and I felt at that time if anything got to me, it would be that.
Being from Minnesota, I was more used to the cold than the heat. Matter of fact, I had spent ten months in Augsburg, Germany just before coming here, and it was a bit nippy, but not bad weather. It seems I adjusted to that easier than I have here-or maybe it was simply familiar back in Germany, and I was fussy with this damn heat.
In Minnesota we actually had extreme hot summers so again maybe my complaining is unfounded, and extreme cold winters. And so I told myself I’d adjust [and so I did]. Likewise, I did appreciate getting away from the snow and cold of both Germany and Minnesota, for the most part.
“Is this it,” commented the soldier next to me [while I was waiting with the other 200-soldiers who had first arrived with me in Vietnam].
[I gave him a nod to assure him I was in dismay, or not sure of anything myself] I didn’t know him.
Another guy to my far south [about 100-feet] found a pop machine and purchased two cold Coke’s, drank them down faster than you can count to ten, and must have shocked his system because of the extreme heat, and dropped over as if he was dead, –but he simply just passed out from the change of body temperature.
[It was February, l971.] I took off my khaki los angeles dodgers philadelphia phillies hawaiian shirt that day, wiped the dirt from my eyes, and lay back against the wall. Something told me it was going to be an all night and possible all day tomorrow thing, that is, processing me into the country along with the over 200-soldiers with me [and it was].
write by Hirna Patel