And how appropriate for this Thanksgiving day.
I asked RtB fiend David — a dear friend from many years ago who Facebook brought back to me, yay! — to share his story about coming full circle after the horrors of Vietnam. To my everlasting delight, he said yes. As I bawled in my coffee while reading it this morning, I was reminded again of how lucky we are stateside to have had people like him, who stared down death and lived to tell the tale. Going to war is something those of us who have never actually done it will never understand.
This tale, told in Dave’s own words, gives us a rare and personal view. I’ve read it twice, and was blessed both times. Thank you, David! I love you, and I know that even though you did not write this to wave a flag or engender thanks, I am certain that all my fiends who read here join me in permanent gratitude to you and those like you, who gave much, and sometimes, all. Happy Thanksgiving.
Rite of Passage and the Journey Home
Our teenage years were filled with those life events that doubled as our portals into adulthood; every generation has had them though subject to cultural and generational change. We gained our freedom with our first job, as we now had our own money. The holy grail of passage was getting our drivers license, opening an entire new world to us. We grew and became of age when we could legally drink and vote. These were times of great celebration and as teenagers’ times of wanton fun!
January 1968 I was living the high life; had a job making $1.95 an hour in a steel plant, simply raking in the money. I had my own car, my own place and a motorcycle…life was indeed good. This was exactly what I had planned after High School graduation, take a year from school and simply live; to eat, drink and be merry seemed like a good idea. From May of 1967 that was my life until two weeks after my 19th birthday in January of 1968. That is when I got my personal letter from President Johnson, stating he needed me in his Army…yep I got drafted and had six weeks before I had to report to the Milwaukee Induction Center. I would later learn that January 1968 was the single largest “Draft Month” during the Vietnam era…not a good time to not be in college. Simply great planning David! Lucky me huh?
So, this is my story and I need to say that it is neither unique nor in any way special from the countless stories told by so many. It is just my story, my rite of passage, which changed this boy from small town Northern Wisconsin forever!
I was sooooooo in for a rude awakening; coming from a small, conservative, Leave it to Beaver type of existence; the Army was a whole new world. I can truthfully tell you that, up until being sworn in to defend the Nation, the Constitution and the American way of life, I had never found myself in a room before with 400 naked boys bent over for examination. This was not Kansas Toto! I won’t bore you with the details of military Basic Training except to say that I knew immediately I was being trained to go to war. The training was brutal; all designed to first break you down so you no longer felt like an individual. We learned not to think but to react, to do the right thing at the right time; later they would teach us the think again but not too much…thinking was dangerous. I learned really well how to play the game; I was smart enough to know that if I was going to survive (believe me there many times I wasn’t so sure I would survive) I needed to do “it” and do it well. Coming out of Basic Training I was awarded the Leadership Award for the outstanding trainee in my Battalion at Fort Campbell, KY. The little boy from Appleton, WI was gung ho to be the best soldier the Army had ever seen.
From Basic and the friendly confines of Kentucky/Tennessee I was bussed to “Little Vietnam” otherwise known as Fort Polk, LA and the Army got serious about prepping me for the war in Vietnam. From weapon proficiency to hand to hand combat, everything was designed to prep and mimic what we were soon to experience in Vietnam. In retrospect, some 45 years removed, I know why they did what they did but must say the impact of standing in a field with hundreds of other teenagers with bayonets held high in the sky screaming “the spirit of the bayonet is to kill” changes a person. Some did not survive the training, some simply got by and some excelled…I was the latter. The Army knew they had me…I was offered Officer Candidate school; I was offered Green Beret Medical school both offers required signing up for four more years in the Army and guaranteed me at least two tours in Vietnam. One required that I jump out of perfectly good airplane, I was good, I was gung ho but I wasn’t stupid, I declined all enticements and headed out for my 30 day leave.
Imagine four months of training, discipline, confinement and restrictions and then you are set free for thirty days…lets just say it was not pretty nor civilized. I will leave that to your own imagination. I of course spent time with family, my friends, girlfriends and going to Church. OK, OK…maybe the Church part I made up, the former altar boy in me did not want to come off as an animal.
PFC David West had thirty days before he reported to Oakland, CA and flew to sunny Vietnam August 1968. I vividly remember hugging my parents and six siblings at Outagamie County Airport in Appleton and walking to board a DC 9; my life, already changed, my worldview about to be radically and permanently altered. Forty-five years ago and in some ways it still feels like yesterday…now that is some rite of passage.
I am at that place where one tries to explain that which, unless you experienced it, is unexplainable. The events of my life during the time frame of August 1968 till September 1969 are burned deep into what makes me who I am today. Some of these events are buried and hidden in the scars on my body and more importantly in the scars on my heart. There are everyday events of smells and sounds that are triggers, that at times, transport me back in time. There is great therapy in the telling of ones story, a lesson I have learned over the years and the expenditure of lots of dollars. You should know that the process of dealing with my “demons” has been an ever-evolving process. This process has lasted decades and is ongoing. Psychologists will tell you that stereotypically as Vietnam vets we do not sleep well, have multiple marriages and too many of us keep it bottled up inside. I don’t sleep well, often in two-hour increments and never more than five hours a night; I have learned to embrace the insomnia. I have failed at marriage in the past, because a disconnected heart is near impossible to love or to be loved. I am making no excuse simply stating reason as years of therapy has opened my eyes and eventually my heart.
This is my story; I am humbled that you would even want to hear it.
Nothing in my training fully prepared me for Vietnam, the heat and humidity of the jungle, the dust and dirt, the months without seeing the sun during monsoons…all of it overwhelming. I should tell you that once in the field with your unit life shrunk to its lowest denominator, survival. I was with my unit six hours before I saw my first dead body; a kid from Arkansas that I came over with made the mistake of picking up a booby-trapped explosive. You never forget putting body parts in a body bag. I did not get to “shower” or change clothes for nearly two months; a bath came when we came upon a river. I will never forget my first river bath and learning the easiest way to get the leaches off your body as fast as possible. We ate C-Rations that were boxed in 1949…yummy; cannot eat Tabasco sauce to this day because that is what we put on the C’s to make them palatable.
I was assigned to an Infantry unit whose job was to fly via helicopters (choppers) to any unit that was engaged in combat with the enemy. We humped the jungle in the Central Highlands, looking to engage, searching for enemy troops until we would be picked up and flown into a firefight. Always our most dangerous time was as we approached a “hot LZ” (landing zone); hovering helicopters made big targets. Sometimes we would land, sometimes we would jump from a few feet as the chopper paused, sometimes we would repel because of the density of the jungle. With repelling the trick was to descend fast enough not to get shot and slow enough not to break your legs…many descents started with a “Dear Lord please….” During my year In Country I flew into ten of these hot LZ’s a feat, which earned our unit a Presidential Citation. This was life for one year, every day; the only change was the loss of familiar faces some whose tour was up and they were headed back to The World. Some lost because they had been wounded in battle, some because they had died in battle. Through attrition and I suppose some skill I became Sergeant West, responsible for the eight lives in my squad.
March 17, 1969 was the start of a four-day event that impacted me so greatly that I approach that date today with a mix of fear, reverence and utter sadness. I have relived the events of that day annually for what will be 45 years next March. I am not sure I know how to articulate the depth of loss, chaos or fear during those four days. We were ambushed as we woke the morning of the 17th; sharing coffee, shoot the fat, as relaxed as one can be in the jungle when North Vietnamese mortars shelled our night logger. My squad was sent to find where it was coming from. We went down a ridgeline and ascended up the other side as a Company size NVA unit was doing the same. We nearly ran into each other and with only a few meters between us everyone opened fire. Literally, all hell broke out! Words cannot fully describe what it is like to breathe air saturated with gun powder and blood…if you like watch some movie depicting a firefight then know they did not even come close to depicting the real thing. On that day I held in my arms my hooch mate, “Doc” trying to put his head back together knowing he was going to die. I can never hold back tears…even now. He was as close to me as one of my brothers, a bond so strong I simply cannot describe. The events surrounding these four days would be the strongest source of my survivor guilt, something that haunted me for decades. To this day St. Patrick’s Day is never a celebration for me…never will be.
The last six months In Country was simply more of the same; I had become the “old man” of the unit. I had extended my time in Nam for a month which allowed my younger brother time to get into the National Guard…no way I wanted him to set foot in Vietnam. It was an easy decision!
March of 2009 was the 40th Anniversary of that event and the death of my best friend. I had for years told myself that I would go back someday and honor my friend Doc. Though I intended to do so earlier, when 40 years was coming up I knew the time was right. I was going back to Vietnam! My two younger brothers learned of my impending trip and demanded that they come along…a decision I thought unnecessary but one I am eternally grateful they made. Vietnam: The Brothers Tour was happening. To tell you of all the apprehension, all the emotions of this trip would be near impossible and quiet frankly, simply too private and personal.
We spent two weeks traipsing through Vietnam, mimicking my journey back in 1968 – 1969. We went from Saigon to Dalat; Bam Ma Thout, Plieku (my unit’s home base), Kontom and finally Dak To. We laughed a lot, we cried a lot; my two brothers flawlessly knowing when to be close to me and when to give me some space. Looking back I know now I could not have made this trip without them…I am eternally grateful for their love and devotion. The Country had not changed much, the sense of déjà vu overwhelming at times. I knew that I would be able to get fairly close to the site of that fateful ambush…I did. I can share this with you of that moment…as I approached, the sense of walking on hallowed ground drove me to my knees and I did something I was unable to do forty years ago…I wept like a 19 year old boy! I am not sure how long I was on my knees; my brothers simply tell me it was a long time. The moment filled with the sense of great loss for all the young lives lost that day…their spirits almost palpable. When tears would no longer flow I had this clear sense of the Lord’s comforting presence and I knew!
There is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that became a reality for me on March 17, 2009: “The years tell us much that the days never knew.”
I don’ t know whether to call it closure, because I am not sure the effects of war on the human soul ever “close!” I do know for me, there was a part of that young 19 year old that had never come back home in 1969.
I am so glad that I went back, as frightening as it was to face it down; it was a healing event for me. I went back to honor Doc but in the end I was there to bring me back home. In 2009 I finally returned.
The love of my brothers to “hump the dusty roads” with me is something I cherish in my heart, now and forever. I am proud to say that I served my Country faithfully and I pray no ones son or daughter ever has to set foot on a battlefield again. Peace!