How is everything going on LZ Kelley-McCoy? By the time I get back there I hope you have everything pretty well squared away. This rear echelon life is definitely making me soft.
I was admitted to the hospital yesterday, Sunday, and by then my leg was so swollen and sore that I had to have crutches to walk. Don't bother to feel sorry for me though I feel sorry enough for myself.
This morning the good doctor lanced my leg to drain out all the puss and shit. My first question was "Doc, are you going to deaden it ?" This he proceeded to do with the upmost of skill. Then a few minutes later he began cutting away on my leg and I was just lying there Just grooving on the whole thing. Suddenly he announced that he had found another deeper pocket of puss. As he cut into that I just about went through the ceiling. And the pain---was---tremendous!
Anyway it is now early afternoon. The way it looks now I'll probably be here for another couple of days. Then a little sham time back at the company area. I kind of hate leaving you guys short handed because I know what that's like. Incidentally in the bunk right next to me is a guy from third platoon who took some mortar shrapnel in the shoulder. He's been in country just one month.
Guess I better close for now. Tell everyone hello for me especially El Ponce the Bull. Will try to get back out as soon as possible.
P.S. How is my good friend old George getting along?
It's mid July 1969. The heat outside is stifling. I am in the Brigade hospital back in Duc Pho recovering from an injury to my leg. The hospital staff has an extensive collection of musical tapes---anything you want to hear as long as it is Roy Orbison's Greatest Hits. Roy Orbison over and over and over again. I'm so sick of Roy Orbison I could throw up. With each passing day I increasingly long to return to the bush just to escape tyranny of Roy Orbison.
Then one day Rebel comes to visit me. He brings the news. My squad's position on Hill 411 was hit a couple of nights ago by enemy sappers. Ramos and Reynolds were killed. Dusty was shot up badly and was evacuated out by chopper. Status unknown. The only survivor is Okino. Shock waves roll over me like a runaway locomotive. I don't know whether its day or night. I should have been there but I was not. I'm here in the hospital. I get up out of my bed and hobble slowly over to the cooler to get a drink of water. A Roy Orbison song is playing softly on the stereo.
Preface to this letter:
This letter I wrote home to my folks in May of 1969. My Dad sent the letter to our U.S.Congressional Representative Edith Green. The letter was then read aloud on the floor of the U.S. Congress and entered into Congressional Records.
Today is Tuesday, I am sure of that but I am not sure if the date. I want to recount for you as best I can the events of last Saturday, May 24th.
Our company was shuttled by choppers to a nearby mountain ridge. ( This is called a combat assault, CA). Running up and down the coast of Vietnam Nam is the country's only major road. Know as Highway Number One or the "Red Ball". We use the Red Ball extensively for moving truck convoys and during the past couple of weeks numerous of convoys have been getting ambushed along the highway. Our company was lifted to the west of the Red Ball and were to sweep east attempting to flush out snipers. On the east side of the ridge and the west side were brush fires and they dropped us right in between them. Due to our position we had to move north down across a small valley and then uphill again to another ridge top. And the fire was burning right in our heels. Everyone was covered with soot and cinders and the sun shown yellow through the smoke. The heat was intense and the fire made it noticeably hotter. We reached the second ridge top and everyone hoped that we would get some sanctuary from the fire. We already had taken a couple of heat casualties but nothing serious so far.
We had no more than dropped our gear then strong gusty winds whipped the fire up towards our position. The word went out to move down to the Red Ball which was directly below us but we were so high up that it looked ten miles down. This time we moved due east down the side of the mountain through semi-jungle vegetation. Do you have any idea how thick "semi-jungle " vegetation is? It didn't matter much at the time because the fire had closed in so rapidly the company was in near panic. I was up towards the front and we could hear those in the back yelling to move faster. But we were in high gear as it was. If the fire had gotten onto the east slope of that mountain, well, Alpha Company would be no more. It took two hours to move our way down to the Red Ball through the heavy foliage. When the whole company was finally down all kinds of gear and ammo were missing. We had something around a dozen heat casualties and the worst part was we didn't have any water as it had been almost 24 hours since our last resupply. Somebody found a nearby stagnant pond and everybody began drinking water, stagnant water. As far as I know no one has gotten sick from that water, but we were just lucky, that's all. By this time it was about mid afternoon. There is no effective way to describe the total and complete exhaustion that we all experienced. Not only from the physical exhaustion but the intense fear of being caught in that fire.
Now comes the killer, we received orders from battalion to move back up and secure that same ridge top overlooking the Red Ball. The company at that point reflected the epitome of demoralization. We moved out later in the afternoon and step by agonizing step worked our way back up the same slopes that had earlier chased us off by fire. I want to tell you, that night when we finally reached the top of that hill I was just about at the end of the line. Not from just fatigue but morale-wise too. I didn't give a dam about anything and most others felt the same as me.
Three days later we are still sitting on the same mountain top with the purpose of observing truck convoys passing below us. They brought up an 81mm mortar with the hope of zeroing in quickly on any snipers that may start shooting at convoys. Our company is providing security for the mountain. But Charlie is no idiot unlike most of our military people. He knows exactly what we are up here for so yesterday the VC moved their ambush site to the north out of our range and attacked 3 convoys. But we go on about our work of securing this hill, clearing brush, laying barbed wire and digging gun positions. Probably within a week or so we'll move off the hill and all of our work will have been for nothing. "Mine is not to question why, mine is to do or die."
In your last letter you made some statement about dropping an atomic bomb on North Vietnam. It has become my opinion that our best course of action would be just the opposite. Pack up and get the hell out of this God forsaken place. I do not know one GI over here who would trade even as much as a single teaspoon of US soil for this entire country. I sincerely feel that just the mere presence of U.S. Military Forces are doing more to perpetuate this war than any other single factor. I am not a conscientious objector because I cannot say that all wars are futile, but this one is futile. If I should die over here there is no way that you could justify or anyone could justify the loss of my life, I have not seen or even heard of any military objective over here that warrants the loss of a single American life. The propaganda argument that we are fighting for our country in Vietnam is the biggest bunch of shit I have ever heard. If you were over here and could see the way the people respond to us and the way we respond to them you would fully understand. I also fail to see how aggressive Communism in a backwards very primitive country like Vietnam on the other side of the world poses a threat to the security to the United States.
I guess I have raked Vietnam over the coals long enough. The manner in which the army conducts operations in Vietnam and just the fact that we are in Vietnam in the first place it is quite easy for me to understand why there is so much dissent and rebellion among the youth of our country today. The resentment is deep and it is going to get worse before it gets better. Frankly, I am resentful against my commanding officers for some of their decisions and orders. I place too much value on my life to allow the U.S. Army to sacrifice it for some obscure and totally meaningless objective in Vietnam. I think this is perhaps at least part of the root of the rebellion against the "military industrial complex" of today. Gotta go for now. Write later.
PS. Please send me one dozen packages of unsweetened Kool-aid. All favors except lime.
This letter was written to my lifelong friend Jill Edgar. Her father had passed away during the summer of 1984. She was in deep grief. She wasn't the only one.
December 10, 1984
Quang Ngai Valley, August 1969 ------
As I observe the scene unfolding before me, as far as I can see in every direction, I see the troops and the materiel of war: tanks, solders, artillery of war, armored vehicles of all kinds. This is a search and destroy operation --- to search out the enemy and destroy him and destroy his home and destroy his sustenance ---- to kill. I am here to kill. A song begins to run through my mind, "The Eve Of Destruction" by Barry McGuire. And I realize that we are the Eve of Destruction. Indeed, the Eve of Destruction is Me!
A Fire Fight -----
Contact with the Enemy. A life and death struggle. And the carnage begins. Soon, all too soon, the cry goes out: MEDIC! MEDIC! All around me the ground is littered with the dead and dying. Brave young men cry for their mothers. Why do some die so arbitrarily while others live so arbitrarily? I have not a scratch on me.
As the contact commences, initially there is a rushing sensation, a kind of high with an intensity quite unlike anything else in the human experience. There is no drug one can take to duplicate this high. Some men devote their entire lives to military command just to experience those few fleeting moments when you hold in your hand the power of life and death over another human being. And some men go into a blackout, a blind rage which devastates them and from which they never recover.
But the high is only fleeting. Very quickly it is replaced with a numbing fear and excruciating terror. I once heard it said that when there are no more decisions to be made the fear goes away. That may be true enough but what you're left with is an indescribable horrible feeling of loneliness and emptiness. There is no place to go, no place to hide, no place to get away from it. "--- come and get me you little bastards, come and get me---". In a sense you soul has abandoned your body in anticipation of death and in that sense one is truly alone.
An enormous explosion a short distance off to my right flank. Dust, debris, and black smoke shoot high into the air. Oh, dear, God. Who will die today? I run over to see what's happened. I find our platoon lieutenant and a couple of others crouched down behind a rice paddy dike. The lieutenant says one of our guys is lying out in the rice paddy 10 or 12 yards in front of us. I peer over the top of the dike I see someone out there laying face down in the dirt. Is he dead, is he alive, we can't even tell who it is. We have to go out and get him. As the others put down a cover of rifle fire I jump over the top of the dike and run out into the rice paddy. I reach down, grab in by the shoulder and roll him over. I'm momentarily stunned. It's my friend, Ponce, my closest friend. He is lying in a pool DEAD! Just moments before on a short rest break we had talked and laughed together. And exchanged cynical jokes about the absurdity of it all. I recoiled back like having hot venom splashed in my eyes. For an instant time stands still: and the image of death and those lifeless eyes staring back at me will remain with me forever.
Later that afternoon I loaded Ponce's body along with the other dead onto a helicopter to be taken away. I watched that helicopter disappear into the sky carrying those dead men. Along with the death destruction and violence of which I have been apart, a part of me has also died. But from Ponce's death a new facet of me has been born. From my friend's death I have learned how to cry.
The Present Day ------
Two days before that time my platoon was 29 men strong, the strongest field strength we ever had. That evening there was eleven of us left: battered, bewildered, shocked. It took two decades to understand and comprehend the inferno into which I had descended: the animal which I had become. There is a beast that lives deep within all of us and with some it lurks just beneath the surface. I live each day of my life struggling not so much with the moral dilemma of having killed but with the knowledge that I am capable of doing it. There is but one act that can rival the futility of taking life and that is the joy of giving life --- the birth of my two children.
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