Monday, May 2, 2011

More Treasure

This is the only photo I have of Van. He's the one looking at the camera. We were walking up Highway One when I took the picture. He is resting his back because the rucksacks we carried weighted from 60-80lbs and we carried them in humid heat, many days exceeding 100 degrees. We were called "grunts" because that's exactly what we did after battling the awkward weight on our backs. They should have called us "turtles" because if you sat down with it still strapped to your back, you would need someone's extended arm to get up or master a movement mimicking a drunken dridel, slowly spinning from a kneeling position upright and hope you then don't spin back down as I often did.

Van Wray was from Stoneville, North Carolina, and spoke with the soft cadence of grace. He was better than most of us and better than Vietnam. He died on a terrible morning in May, 1970 and since that day on, the world was not quite as good. He is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, Washington, DC, panel 10w-line 36. He was 21 years old when he died.

The amazing thing about this picture is that no children have a deformity or missing limb. Many kids did. As troops, we carried weapons and took our chances. Our only wish was to do the year and go back to the US, a place of relative safety and sense of normalcy. These kids' world was populated by unexploded ordnance and gunfire - that was their normal. It wasn't fair. It wasn't just. In Vietnam, any caring you wanted show ran into a lot of heavy traffic.

Among the civilians, our eyes viewed a constant harvest of needed compassion. I hated working the mountains, but there were no civilians there; just us and the NVA; no innocents and no children so there was a clarity and simplicity to the mountains and hills. In early spring after the monsoon season, our company was brought down to the lowlands and valleys where we got to see what 10 plus years of constant war can do to a people. There was not enough compassion to go around, but what we had we always gave to the kids.

After this photo was taken, the picture-taker ran off with the camera and I had to pay one of the kids $1.00 to get it back. I couldn't and didn't blame him, he just saw an opportunity to gain something of value.

In thinking further about compassion, at first it struck me as strange that when one of us died, that person was never spoken of again; almost as if we lacked compassion among ourselves. Initially, I thought it was a "jinx" thing since that term was mentioned often - a vague belief chasing its tail - randomness as a hoped for cause and affect phenomenon, but I then realized it was grounded on survival. We couldn't afford to talk openly and mourn our buddies amongst each other. That sadness could cause a lack of focus that could bump up against the here and now. We mourned, we just did it privately and quickly and put the sadness and loss on pause, knowing there would be time later to let the feelings flow. We had to be other people than ourselves until we got home.

Lt. Verdone and the Sergeant

On the left is Lt. Verdone who is the only one in our platoon that completed his year uninjured and made it back to his beloved California during my 7 months in country.
The sergeant on the right did not. I wrote about him in an earlier post, The Hurt Locker Hurts, March 8, 2010.
The Sergeant is on the Wall, panel 10W-line35. He was planning to be a college professor of English. He was 21 years old.
Steve Bittel(Kansas), Lassie, Al Tristan(Brownsville Texas), the arm of the handler.

One day in June, 1970, we were brought to an AO (area of operations) that no American unit had covered. We were spooked. As usual, we were not told much and imagine our surprise when our platoon was assigned point with a scout dog and handler. I ended up walking point on patrol one day in a mixed brown and white ocean of high grass with no break in the flatness; except I wasn't walking point because the dog and handler were in front of me. The trail was a wide path like a dirt jetty in that sea of grass and that trail had no curves on it,which made for an inviting fire lane for the "other team". The handler and the dog had no sense of noise discipline or combat awareness. The handler kept talking to the dog in a loud voice, walking with an uneven pace and generally not paying any attention to his surroundings. He and the dog kept slowing down which caused them to bunch up with me and those behind me: a big no-no since everyone then became an inviting target. I had almost reached the end of my string and a thought of accidental weapon discharge in his general direction was considered. Just to get his attention mind you since my whispers and increasingly frantic motions weren't working.

Then the dog stopped and sat on his hind legs.

He would not move and didn't care what the handler commanded. Both of us spread supine on the trail and couldn't see anything - even checking from different angles.

Then one of us saw it (I forget which one). The tripwire of a booby trap was usually slightly elevated an inch or two off the ground to be triggered from the gait of a boot, but this wire was laying on the ground, perfectly camouflaged, waiting for someone's slow shuffle of that boot. No human would notice, but the dog did. It could have won a major award in the booby trap category. The wire was attached to two hand frags on each side of the trail, covered with light debris. If I didn't trigger it, then one of those behind me would have, and taken out himself and maybe another.

I started to like the dog.

The photo was taken that night or another. Just for a short time, being around the dog allowed us to be human again. Remembered feelings of growing up with pets, remembered feelings of home. Lassie joined the platoon and became part of our lives for a short time and most of us would try and find reasons to be around him during any down time in the bush. I don't remember if I tried to swap out some C-Rats for some cans of dog food, but I probably tried.

After a time we went back to the firebase and one morning I was turning a corner on a sandbagged bunker when Lassie, tethered to a large chain, plunged for me, teeth showing and growling. He was a large and powerful German Shepard that could have seriously hurt or killed me. As luck would have it, I was able to jump just enough out of range of the chain. The handler came out of the bunker to see what the rumpus was about then nonchalantly started to pet the dog as if nothing had happened. After that, I made sure only to be around Lassie with the handler present.

I've heard that a journalist wrote a book about Vietnam and called it, Fire in the Lake. It seems a perfect description in a place where up is down and down is up. One day the dog saved my life and a short time later the dog tried to take it..Vietnam...Fire in the Lake.

I don't know where or when this picture was taken, but I'm pretty sure that's Doc Winder in the lower left hand corner. It looks like he was incidental to the photo, just quietly doing his job, taking care of us as a medic, getting water to purify or clean something. As I pointed out in a previous post, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on May 13, 1970, but as I see it, the Medal was awarded him and the medal should be proud. He lives on the Wall, David Francis Winder, age 21, panel 10w-line 37.

I wrote on the back of his photo, May 14, 1970, Nghai Hanh Valley. I cannot believe that one day after the worst day of our lives, I would be taking pictures. As I stated above, I wrote about part of the day on a previous post, March 8, 2010. On May 13th, our company walked into a buzz saw and had 20-25% casualties, many of them fatal. We were not given any artillery or gunship support because we were told it was a civilian populated area even though there were no civilians within sight. At the end of the day, after much blood and death, that support was given. So after the fight, our Company Commander, out of shear anger and frustration, called in a strike on an empty field.

As you can see, the photo doesn't have the usual smiles. I must have taken the picture more as a record to remember us by. A short time later I wrote a "just in case" letter giving suggestions about my burial arrangements. I didn't want to upset my parents so I sent it to my sister. After that day, I'm sure others did the same as well.

Picture on Left: Charlie White (Winston-Salem, NC), Vic again (wow-he's in a lot of photos!) Picture on Right: Kim, James Lucas, me

There were two kinds of heroes. Some were like Doc. Others were like Charlie White (Squad leader) and James Lucas. "Luke" and Charlie directed us in a decent and calm way. Through their efforts, we managed to consume some chunks of time in the bush knowing they were looking out for us. When they were scared, they said so; allowing us to feel that emotion also. They played no favorites and were looked up to by other members of the platoon. Sometimes you gain appreciation only by contrast and in a violent, unpredictable and frightening world, we had the direction and voices of Charlie and Jim to open the door for us from one day to the next.

I left before they did. Charlie had two purple hearts. If you didn't need to be dusted off from wounds and received a third, you won a cushy job in the rear. I hope Charlie got that 3rd purple heart without medical incident. James Lucas just wanted to make it home to his wife and kids in Birmingham, Alabama and as he once said, "never leave that city again." If that's what he wanted, I hope it came true.
This is Lt. Verdone's last day before the dreamed of DEROS (Date Estimated Return Over Seas). To his right is Al Tristan from Brownsville Texas, squatting with the bush hat.

Al came from a large family in Texas. Although computers were not in widespread use in 1970, he believed they were the future and wanted to go to school to learn everything he could about them, be successful, and help his parents provide for his brothers and sisters. He died in the first week of July.

We were patrolling in an area north of our firebase and approached a large rice paddy complex bordered by brush and tall palm trees on 3 sides, resembling the letter "U". The open apex of the "U" fronting one side of the paddy lay the village, a complex of thatched huts, some with thatched walls, some without. The paddies were squared with narrow berns of various widths, but none accommodating more than one person in line. It looked like a large checkerboard; some squares flooded with water and fertilizer, some dormant. Women were working in a line,, some with children, some without, planting rice while others were harvesting. Men were guiding the crude wooden plows powered by large water buffaloes. With the rice fields fronting the village and the village fronting the hills and mountains, it looked like a Vietnamese type Hudson River School oil landscape. Calm and peaceful.

We approached the rice field from the bottom of the "U" and experience dictated we would work our way through the treeline up to the village. Common sense always taught you to use the topography and never walk in the open unless you had to. But we had a brand new Company Commander whose mind only traversed an area containing arrogance and lack of that common sense. He thought in straight lines, not understanding when told by others who had been in country longer than he, that straight lines increased medivac traffic. No rush to go in straight lines, serpentine was safer and more effective; after all we had 365 days. Our squad was walking point for the company so we kicked off first across the open of the paddies. I remember Al and I were yelling at each other; nothing important, probably just scared at how unnatural and how wrong the open approach was. We took that fear out on each other, but we tried to take comfort that the villagers were working in the fields and the NVA/VC would never shoot at us through them: too many innocents in the area. They would abide by decency wouldn't they?

We were wrong.

They let our the first few members of the patrol get deep in the paddy complex so the main body of the patrol was exposed and like a light switch that went from the "off" to the "on" position, the NVA opened up on us from one side of the treeline. They must have used the women and children to judge distance, then used them as aiming stakes. Firing automatic weapons through the villagers and shooting them, to clear a firing lane to shoot us. When the shooting starts, time stops, so I don't remember how long the ambush lasted. We hugged the ground or dove into the water for protection as best we could. We couldn't really return fire since the villagers were in the way and trying to gain cover themselves. When the ambush ended I saw a medic from the second platoon run to a lump on the ground behind me. I went over to help and when I got there saw Al, the color and life draining out of him. The medic was frantically trying to find a wound to treat, but couldn't find any marks on the skin or blood. I held Al in a sitting position, cradling him as the medic ripped off his shirt. The medic finally found a small hole under his bandolier, a pin prick really, right over his heart. We were told he died in the dust-off chopper on the way back to the hospital, but he died on that rice paddy. We called Vietnam the "land of one mistake", but it didn't have to be your mistake that caused the problem.
Albert Flores Tristan, age 21, Brownsville Texas, died July 6, 1970-Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, panel 09w - line 125.

In the platoon, we tried to take care of each other as best we could. After Al died, I had seen enough. I reached the end of my string and couldn't sleep much. Three weeks after that day in the rice paddy I was shot around midnight right after standing guard. I wasn't killed while sleeping since I was on the surface of sleep and not really sleeping. I was able to react fast enough to dodge the rest of the strafing fire. So in a sense, Al took care of me three weeks after he was killed.
I read The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. He is a fine writer and winner of a National Book Award. He was in the same unit as me, and worked in the same area of the country so I wanted his thoughts. I found reading the book unsettling because he seemed to try and gain meaning and value within himself to made sense of the war. I think he failed because Vietnam, or any war, is a bigger experience than any of us and the only way to realize it (we can never conquer it) is to look outside ourselves to reach some accommodation. For me it was God. Doesn't work for you? Then fine, find something else, but I think you have to explore something larger than you, otherwise your thoughts will just travel in a large circle, never growing, never gaining - just undirected movement of thought. Just my 2 cents.

And 2 cents more.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington DC is a wonderful and magnificent display. It is awe-inspiring and people become quiet when they approach it. If you get a chance, visit it - you don't have to know anyone on the Wall.

I will consider voting for any politician or any party if they pledge to spend 1/2 hour a year at the Wall and then go over to the Korean War memorial and look at the angst, fear, and dread of the soldier statues on patrol. I am not a pacifist, but I am anti-war. I think we need more anti-war politicians or politicians who are more thoughtful about deployment. The events I have written about occurred 40 years ago. Most of our attention should be on those currently in uniform, but I wanted to show you my friends. They lived 40 years ago.

They mattered.

William James Olson, age 21, Chicago, panel 10w - line 35
David Winder (Doc), age 21, Pennsylvania, panel 10w - line 37
Willmer Matson, age 20, Nebraska, panel 13w - line 131
Rhea (Billy the Kid), Kidd, age 26, Kentucky, panel 10w - line 34
Van T Wray, age 21, No. Carolina, panel 10w - line 36
Arthur Munson, age 20, Colorado, panel 10w - line 35
Albert Flores Tristan, age 21, Texas panel 09w - line 125
Richard Humphrey, age 20, Maryland, panel 10w - line 33
Curtis Ringhofer, age 25, Minnesota, panel 10w - line 36
Raymond Souza, age 20, California, panel 10w - line 37

There it is.

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