Click on the names below to read stories submitted by veterans and their families concerning their thoughts and experience from war.
TESTIMONY OF GARY E. MAY
Associate Professor of Social Work
University of Southern Indiana
on the Proposed Constitutional Amendment to Ban Flag Desecration
before the House Judiciary Committee May 7, 2003
Good morning. I am extremely flattered and humbled by your invitation and interest in listening to my thoughts about the proposed amendment to the Constitution. I gladly accepted the invitation as yet another opportunity for me to be of service to my country.
As a Vietnam veteran who lives daily with the consequences of my service to my country, and as the son of a WWII combat veteran, and the grandson of a WWI combat veteran, I can attest to the fact that not all veterans indeed perhaps most veterans do not wish to exchange fought-for freedoms for protecting a tangible symbol of these freedoms. I oppose this amendment because it does not support the freedom of expression and the right to dissent.
This is among the core principles under our Constitution that my family and I served to support and defend. It would be the ultimate irony for us to place ourselves in harm's way and for my family to sacrifice to gain other nation's freedom and not to protect our freedom here at home.
My late father in law, Robert E. Speer, endured horrible, prolonged combat as a member of Merrill's Marauders. My older brother, Edward C. May, saw duty with the Army in Korea during the Vietnam era.
I barely knew my grandfather who died when I was young. I do know that he saw combat while serving in the Army during WWI. His service included his being gassed. He never received any government benefits. My father didn't know all of the details of his father's service, but he has no recall of grandpa referring to the flag as a reason for his service and sacrifice. After the war, he returned to his Winslow Indiana home and worked to provide for his family.
My Father, Charles W. May, who died nearly a year ago, was a WWII Army combat veteran who served in the European Theater of Operations from 1944 to 1946. He saw combat with Battery "B" 500th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 14th Armored Division. The flag or its protection was not a powerful motivating force for himself or any of his fellow combatants. It was the fight for freedom that really mattered.
I joined the U.S. Marine Corps while still in high school in 1967. This was a time of broadening public dissent and demonstration against our involvement in Vietnam. I joined the Marines, these protests notwithstanding; because I felt that it was my duty to do so. I felt duty-bound to answer President Kennedy's challenge to "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country". My country was asking me to serve in Vietnam, ostensibly because people there were being arbitrarily denied the freedoms we enjoy as Americans.
During my service with K Company, 3rd Battalion, 27 Marines following the Tet Offensive of 1968 in Vietnam, I sustained bilateral above the knee amputations as a result of a landmine explosion on April 12, 1968. My military awards include the Bronze Star, with combat "V", Purple Heart, with star, Vietnam Campaign, Vietnam Service, and National Defense medals.
While serving in Vietnam, I never once heard one of my fellow Marines say they were there protecting the flag. Frankly, most of us didn't know why we were there, but we knew it was important to do what was necessary to stay alive. Additionally, most of us there were the sons of WWII veterans whose decisions to serve were influenced by family traditions and a sense of what was right and expected of citizens.
Upon my return from Vietnam, I enrolled at the University of Evansville where there were occasional student protests of the war. I felt a strong identity with these protesters, because I too, felt that the war was wrong and that that feeling demanded expression—after all, this is what I had served to protect.
I was graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology. I earned my Master of Science in Social Work degree from the University of Tennessee in 1974. I am married to the former Peggy Speer of Haubstadt, Indiana. We have two children, Andrea, a middle school teacher in Indianapolis, and Alex, a supermarket manager.
Now, over 35 years, after I lost my legs in combat, I am again called upon to defend the freedoms which my sacrifices in combat were said to preserve. It's been a long 35+ years. I have faced the vexing challenge of reconciling myself with the reality of my military history and the lessons I have learned from it and the popular portrayal of veterans as one dimensional patriots, whose patriotism MUST take the form of intolerance, narrow-mindedness, euphemisms, and reductionism—where death in combat is referred to as "making the ultimate sacrifice" and the motivation for service and the definition of true patriotism is reduced to dedication to a piece of cloth.
A few years ago, near the anniversary of my injuries in Vietnam, I had a conversation with a colleague at the University. I mentioned the anniversary of my wounding to her and asked her what she was doing in 1968. Somewhat reluctantly, she said "I was protesting the war in Vietnam." I was not offended. After all, our nation was born out of political dissent. Preservation of the freedom to dissent, even if it means using revered icons of this democracy, is what helps me understand losing my legs.
The strength of our nation is found in its diversity. This strength was achieved through the exercise of our First Amendment right to freedom of expression—no matter how repugnant or offensive the expression might be. Achieving that strength has not been easy—it's been a struggle, a struggle lived by some very important men in my life and me.
In addition to my own military combat experience, I have been involved in veteran's affairs as a clinical social worker, program manager, board member, and advocate since 1974. I have yet to hear a veteran I have lived or worked with say that his/her service and sacrifice was in pursuit of protecting the flag. When confronted with the horrific demands of combat, most of us who are honest say we fought to stay alive. Combatants do not return home awestruck by the flag. Putting the pretty face of protecting the flag on the unforgettable, unspeakable, abominations of combat seems to trivialize what my fellow veterans and I experienced. This depiction is particularly problematic in light of the current events in Kosovo.
I am offended when I see the flag burned or treated disrespectfully. As offensive and painful as this is, I still believe that those dissenting voices need to be heard. This country is unique and special because the minority, the unpopular, the dissenters and the downtrodden, also have a voice and are allowed to be heard in whatever way they choose to express themselves that does not harm others. The freedom of expression, even when it hurts, is the truest test of our dedication to the belief that we have that right.
Free expression, especially the right to dissent with the policies of the government, is one important element, if not the cornerstone of our form of government that has greatly enhanced its stability, prosperity, and strength of our country. This freedom of expression is under serious attack today. The smothering, oppressive responses to publicly expressed misgivings about our incursion into Iraq and ad hominem attacks against those who dare to express them are alarming. "Supporting our troops" does not mean suspending critical analysis and muffling public debate and discourse.
Freedom is what makes the United States of America strong and great, and freedom, including the right to dissent, is what has kept our democracy going for more than 200 years. And it is freedom that will continue to keep it strong for my children and the children of all the people like my father, late father in law, grandfather, brother, me, and others like us who served honorably and proudly for freedom.
The pride and honor we feel is not in the flag per se. It's in the principles that it stands for and the people who have defended them. My pride and admiration is in our country, its people and its fundamental principles. I am grateful for the many heroes of our country—and especially those in my family. All the sacrifices of those who went before me would be for naught, if an amendment were added to the Constitution that cut back on our First Amendment rights for the first time in the history of our great nation.
I love this country, its people and what it stands for. The last thing I want to give the future generations are fewer rights than I was privileged to have. My family and I served and fought for others to have such freedoms and I am opposed to any actions which would restrict my children and their children from having the same freedoms I enjoy.
The proposed amendment will apparently prohibit yet to be defined abuses of the flag which are deemed offensive. Who shall write the definition? Will destroying the flag in the interest of registering strong objection to a military excursion violate the law? What about reducing this revered icon to a lamp shade? Would the inclusion of a flag in a wall hanging violate the law? What if used as a curtain? Who defines decides?
If one peruses the pages of the periodicals of the traditional veterans' organizations, many of which apparently support this amendment, one will observe many uses of this revered symbol. Do those who object to a flag motif in clothing have recourse under the proposed amendment? If the flag can be worn on the uniform shoulder by safety and law enforcement personnel, is it permissible for it to be worn on underclothing? Who will check?
The proposal seems unenforceable. It raises the specter of the "flag police," whose duties would include searching out violations and bringing offenders to the bar of justice. That this is defended in the name of freedom and in the memory of valiant sacrifices by millions of this country's veterans is duplicitous and cynical.
If we are truly serious about honoring the sacrifices of our military veterans, our efforts and attention would be better spent in understanding the full impact of military service and extending services to the survivors and their families. Our record of service to veterans of all wars is not exemplary. In May 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, WWI veterans had to march on this Capitol to obtain their promised bonuses. WWII veterans were unknowingly exposed to radiation during atomic testing. Korean veterans, perhaps more than any living U.S. veterans, have been forgotten. Vietnam veterans are still battling to obtain needed treatment for their exposure to life-threatening herbicides and withheld support upon their return. In my area, businesses and churches are soliciting donations to support the families of U.S. troops in Iraq. The list goes on...
The spotty record in veteran's services is more shameful when one considers that the impact of military service on one's family has gone mostly unnoticed by policy makers. The dimensions of this impact and the efficacious responses of funded programs nationwide are chronicled in The Legacy of Vietnam Veterans and Their Families, Survivors of War: Catalysts for Change (1995. Rhoades, D.K., Leaveck, M.R. & Hudson, J.C., eds. Agent Orange Class Assistance Program. Government Printing Office). In this volume, Congressman Lane Evans opines that:
"Although the government's legal obligation extends primarily to veterans, I believe the government also has a strong moral obligation to provide services to those family members who are affected by the veteran's experiences. Services should be offered to children with congenital disorders whose conditions are related to their parent's military service. Counseling should be offered to the family members of veterans with psychological or substance abuse problems related to their military service. By providing appropriate services and benefits, through either government or community-based organizations, the government would admit its responsibility and offer the assistance that some veterans and their families desperately need." (p. ix)
The programs which were supported by the Agent Orange Class Assistance Program were later represented by Veterans Families of America, an organization whose member agencies demonstrated effectiveness in meeting veteran family needs, but whose continuation was ended due to lack of funding. I proudly served as a member of the board of Veterans Families of America.
Is our collective interest better served by amending the Constitution to protect a piece of cloth than by helping spouses understand and cope with the consequences of their loved ones' horrible and still very real combat experiences? Are we to turn our backs on the needs of children whose lives have been affected by their parent's military service? The Agent Orange Benefits Act of 1996 was a good start, but we shouldn't stop there. Veterans of Gulf War I are still left languishing, uncertain if their service exposed them to insidious health threatening contaminants. Does our obligation to our current combatants extend beyond labeling them heroes? Is our obligation to protect the flag greater, more righteous, more just, and more moral, than our obligation to help veterans and their families? I think not.
I respectfully submit that this assault on First Amendment freedoms in the name of protecting anything is incorrect and unjust. This amendment would create a chilling environment for political protest. The powerful anger which is elicited at the sight of flag burning is a measure of the love and respect most of us have for the flag.
Prohibiting this powerful symbolic discourse would stifle legitimate political dissent. If it is to be truly representative of our cherished freedoms, the flag itself must be available as a vehicle to express these freedoms.
This is among the freedoms for which I fought and gave part of my body. This is a part of the legacy I want to leave for my children. This is among the freedoms my grandfather was defending in WWI. It is among the freedoms my father and late father in law defended during their combat service during WWII.
Please listen to these perspectives of ordinary veterans who know first hand the implications of tyranny and denied freedoms. Our service is not honored by this onerous encroachment on Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
WE WAS THERE
by Rick McCarty
We was there
To comfort your sons and daughters.
We was there
To hold their hands at the last moment.
We was there
For the last tear to fall.
We was there
When they asked for forgiveness.
We was there
When they seen their last light.
We was there
When God come for them,
'Cause we was there
When their lives ended.
We was the soldiers
That fought beside them.
We was there.
'Cause I held my best friends hand
When his life ended.
'Cause I was there
When my life ended.
Interview by Jerry Waxler
The Vietnam War memoir "A Temporary Sort of Peace" by Jim McGarrah, struck me with its fearless honesty. So much can happen to a person during war. The terrible experiences become embedded in mind as terrible memories. So what does it take to convert these terrible memories into a story that can be shared with other people? To learn more about what that feels like, I asked the author a few questions about his memoir writing process.
JW: You talk in the book about how hard it was to face your war memories. And yet, you managed to write a whole book about it. I am hoping you can share some of what that felt like.
JM: Yes, I did write a whole book, but I was thirty plus years and a lot of therapy past the war before I could look at it objectively and with the honest perspective of an old man, able to admit my own character flaws and willing to face the fact that politicians use words like honor and patriotism to manipulate their personal agendas. You can't write a credible war memoir if you're still stuck on either end of the extremes – pumped up with pseudo-glory or bitter from reality. I've felt both ways in the past and I had to learn to balance those issues emotionally before I could describe them and reflect on their influences personally with any credibility. Any attempt at honest reflection involves some painful introspection.
JW: When did you first start thinking you wanted to write about those years? What were your initial thoughts, misgivings, or plans?
JM: I wrote an essay about ten years ago for a magazine called Southern Indiana Review. The subject was returning to the Veterans Administration out-patient clinic to be examined for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The VA had only recently begun to admit that such a condition existed, even though historians as old as Tacitus, among others, were describing similar symptoms in Roman soldiers 2,000 years ago. After the article was published, I put it out of my mind and went on to other things.
When we invaded Iraq five years ago, the parallels with the 1960′s came immediately to mind. Politicians and journalists were even using some of the same phrases to fire up the population for a limited war with a third world country. One of my university students, a beautiful and sensitive and talented young writer, had joined the National Guard the year before the invasion to help pay her way through school. She was called up and returned home a paraplegic at the age of twenty. At that point, I went back and looked at the old essay and started to wonder how I had managed to get myself involved so easily in an event that influenced my life so heavily for decades afterwards. Not only that, but I wondered why we had learned so little between Vietnam and Iraq.
So, I started writing a series of inter-connected essays about that period in my life in an attempt to understand my own thoughts and feelings at the time. I believed that by doing this I might somehow discover why history seems to always repeat itself. My only misgiving was that I might not be talented enough to do the subject justice. After a few of those essays had been published and I saw there was an interest in the subject, I also saw that what I was doing was evolving into a book. I don't really plan projects. I start writing about things I feel and try to discover something worth knowing in them.
JW: What sorts of steps did you go through to gather the skills, and organize the information and arrange the structure?
JM: The first step in writing about life is to live it. As an editor, so often I read stuff that is technically flawless, but says nothing interesting. As writers, we are translators, not creators. And, what we translate is specific experience, or composites of experience, into language that's both accessible and full of emotional substance. If we have never involved ourselves emotionally in the process of living, we have nothing to translate and it becomes difficult to make a connection on a level that resonates with a reader.
Secondly, we have to overcome our own fears and our own feelings of self-importance. We're making ourselves open and vulnerable so others may learn something about what it is to be human. I put these things down as steps because they often require conscious discipline to accomplish. Another very important step is reading. I read constantly and I read everything lying around, from labels to Ladies Home Journal to James Joyce to Salmon Rushdie to Gaston Bachelard. I've read the Bible several times, not because I'm a religious man, but because it's an anthology of forty great poets and story tellers. Not only does reading help you gather skills and see how they are used, it also teaches you variations of structure and organization.
Possibly the most important step I ever made, and it's a one time step that never quits, is moving my writing from a means of expression into a tool to search for meaning in life or discover something or relearn something that we forgot about human nature. Then we create an opportunity for a reader to learn something new as well. Robert Frost once said, "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." This is the quality that sometimes allows writing to approach the level of true art.
JW: What sorts of feedback or coaching did you get?
JM: I was privileged to study with some of the best writers currently working, not necessarily the most famous, but the best. From 1999-2001, I went through the Master of Fine Arts in Writing program at Vermont College and the faculty at that time was simply amazing. I don't know how else to put it. The class I graduated with is responsible for dozens of good books in the 21st century, largely due to the influence and encouragement of the faculty that was there at the time and the intensity of the curriculum.
JW: What did you tell yourself, to sustain your commitment to putting these difficult memories on paper.
JM: I just kept telling myself that besides exorcising my own demons, I might actually help some other person deal with similar circumstances. I forced myself to believe that what I was doing might make a difference, might turn out to be greater than the sum of its parts. I have always believed that my experience was not unique, only my reaction was and through a record of that some connection might be made with someone else. Judging from the responses I've received by people who've read the book, I'd say the assumption was true, and I'm thankful for that.
JW: What reactions did you get from other combat veterans?
JM: One example – I gave a public reading last December. In the audience, I noticed a man whose eyes started to get moist. After the reading, he came up to me and asked if I remembered him. I confessed I didn't. He told me his name and that we went to high school together. He had enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduation and gone to 'Nam. I hadn't seen him in forty years, but he thanked me over and over again for finally getting things right, for telling the world how it really was. That was a very humbling and inspiring moment for me. I've had several more like it. I've also had some older vets from WWII who felt like I was unpatriotic for talking about the war the way I did.
JW: What did you find surprising about the response to your book?
JM: What I've found surprising is the overwhelmingly positive response I've been getting from younger, college-age, readers. Many of them who have never studied much contemporary American history wondered how baby-boomers could relate Vietnam to Iraq and had a much clearer understanding after reading this memoir. Also, I've had several students come up to make after readings and say "thanks, now I understand my dad better."
JW: Do you speak to groups, or reach out to other veterans or other trauma survivors about your experience?
JM: I speak to as many people as I can as often as I can and I ask a lot of questions. I also do public readings and book signings and teach writing workshops in various places. But, that's contingent on my time schedule and whether or not I can earn enough money from the engagement to pay for the trip. I'll go just about anywhere.
JW: I hate admitting my frailties so I am impressed by your telling of experiences you weren't proud of. How did you feel about writing so frankly?
JM: No human is all good or all bad. All humans equivocate. If you create a character in fiction that is all one way or another, that character doesn't read real. He or she reads as a stereotype and the text becomes boring very quickly. If you write non-fiction and you describe a real person as all one way or another, you're lying. To write a memoir, an author must be able to confront himself or herself with honesty and integrity, no matter how humiliating the experience. Anything less and you're cheating yourself and your audience. Good readers know immediately if they're being led down the path of bull shit.
Also, what makes books interesting is drama. What makes drama is conflict. A person in real life is conflicted about most things, no matter how insignificant, on most days. When you capture that on the page, it FEELS real to a reader. As to how I felt – relieved.
JW: But it seems so final, putting yourself in this light in a published book. You can never retract it. Doesn't that bother you?
JM: if I worried about wanting to retract them, I wouldn't have written them. Not everything we write is pretty. Not everything we write is accurate, or with the best judgment. But, we are responsible for everything we write. Therefore, if you don't want to communicate something keep it off the page. When it's printed you are saying to the world, right or wrong I accept the consequences of this language. Being a writer requires a thick skin and a certain mental toughness that most people don't have. Everyone thinks they can write wonderfully until they try and find out they don't have the stomach to do what's necessary emotionally.
JW: As a memoir writer, you looked back across time, and saw your own life moving through decades. I wonder what lessons and discoveries this long view gave you about how your life has worked.
JM: That's a very complex question without an easy answer. I can't say that, looking back, there weren't things in my past I might have done differently, or better. On the other hand, I don't regret the experiences I've had because the sum total of them is who I am today and, for better or worse, I like who I am today. I have received a lot of privileges in my life and I've shared my benefits with others. I've raised two fine children and influenced a lot of people, both positively and negatively. But, a long view of my life tells me my life has worked for me and I'm truly appreciative that I've lived long enough to enjoy it. Many of my closest friends didn't.
JW: What's next?
JM: My newest collection of poems, "When the Stars Go Dark," is due to be released nationally this winter as part of Main Street Rag's Select Poetry Series. I'm working on a second memoir that picks up after the Vietnam war that examines where my generation went after the war and why.
View Original Post at http://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/interview-vietnam-vet-memoir-mcgarrah
I Make a Decision for Myself
I made a decision on my own when I turned 18, I joined the Marine Corps. Two weeks after graduating from Reitz High School, I was a bald headed recruit at Marine Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina – now someone was making every decision for me, when to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, every minute of every hour, of every day was filled with activity determined by someone else, so much for making my own decisions.
It was finally time for me to give up being a child and learn to be a man (although I would not truly think of myself as a man until I returned from Vietnam). I learned discipline and through that discipline – pride and confidence. I could run 3 miles and was hardly winded, I could march through every command of the drill and ceremony manual with snap and precision, I could field strip my weapon and put it back together in a few short minutes and then I could take that weapon and shoot it and hit a target 500 yards away. I could quote you my chain-of-command from the President of the United States to my junior drill instructor SGT McIntosh.
After "boot camp" I went to Camp LeJune in North Carolina where I went to motor transport school – I learned to drive military vehicles, a 10 wheeled, three axel truck on road and off, through mud, sand, water 4 feet deep, on a trail, or making my own trail. I was 18 years old and finally felt that I was learning and doing something useful.
Skip ahead a few months and I was in Vietnam, foreign culture, hostile environment, but I really felt that I was contributing to the American way of life, being a patriot and not just sitting passively by as an observer. I learned the horror of war, a rude lesson for someone raised on John Wayne movies, war has only one purpose for those doing the fighting – kill your enemy before he can kill you. It is a lie to say there is anything noble about war, there is nothing honorable about war - it only has one single purpose - to kill. That is the bleak and stark reality; war is an ugly, hideous, act of unbelievable violence.
I also learned of cowardice in Vietnam (the biggest lie there is – is that Marines are heroes), a lesson that stays with me to this day. In Vietnam I flew on helicopters as a door gunner. We were flying re-supply missions one day, the pilot was a major – I believe our squadron executive officer. We were taking a water buffalo, a 500 gallon trailer of fresh water, out to a unit that had been in contact with the Vietcong. Approaching their position we could see sporadic small arms fire, so instead of coming in low-level, we came in at a higher altitude to give our escort of Huey Cobra gunships time to make a couple a strafing runs and then we dropped in to deliver their water. We were about 100 feet off the deck and took some machine gun fire – nothing heavy, what we called harassing fire. The major said "fuck it" and jettisoned the trailer "they got their water", the trailer exploded when it hit the ground, but we were already in a steep climb getting out of the area. I do not know when those guys ever got any water; I only know I felt real dirty when we got back to our safe little airstrip. I swore that day, if I ever got the chance to lead men, I would never act like that major acted.
I got that chance later in life after I graduated from Indiana State University Evansville and received my Bachelor of Science degree; I was offered a commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army which I accepted. After graduating from the officers basic course I was stationed with the Second Armored Division, Fort Hood, Texas, where I was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment. I had a variety of jobs: Fire Support Officer, Fire Direction Officer, Firing Battery Executive Officer, being promoted to First Lieutenant along the way. I also held staff positions at the Battalion and Division level and I had a TS-BI security clearance – so I could study and learn just about everything you wanted to know about nuclear weapons.
After four years I went back to Fort Sill to attend the Field Artillery Officers Advanced course learning more on leadership and management, logistics, and tactics. I then went to Korea for a year as the Deputy Installation Camp Commander of Camp Stanley, Second Infantry Division.
One Day in Vietnam for a Nineteen Year Old
We fly into the night not knowing what the next one or two hours will bring, death is always a possibility. We are the new "turret gunners" like the bombers of WWII, we are door gunners flying in Marine helicopters and like our forefathers, the WW II turret gunners, we have a short life expectancy about 3 times less than other combat troops. I had been flying for 4 months.
We rise into the air, the clapa-clapa of the rotor blades beating out a tempo to some unheard song that was swallowed by the void of the night. I grasp the handles of my M2 fifty caliber machine gun and pull back the charging handle, releasing one of the six-inch long, half inch round, shells wondering if it is the phosphorus tracer round, the armor piercing round, or the ball round. Not that it mattered, the venerable M2 fired at a cyclic rate of over 400 rounds per minute. In 30 seconds the 200 round belt of ammunition, I had just loaded, would be spent. The rounds are strung together like popcorn on a Christmas tree; one tracer, one armor piercing, three ball rounds in an endless belt (you can link the belts together if you are fast enough).
We are flying night med-i-vacs we were going to pick up wounded Marines. I enjoy these missions; it makes me feel like I am doing something worthwhile. I volunteered the last three months to fly med-i-vacs, not many people want to fly them – they are dangerous. I am proud of the fact that anyone we pick up alive – we deliver alive – not one person had ever died enroute.
We near the LZ (landing zone) and my body tenses like it is racked with an orgasm from head to toe. Not sexual, but so intense that every nerve is on fire. I smell the rot of the jungle mixed with the smell of JP-4 (the high octane kerosene that powers the Lycoming turbines of the Marine CH-47 helicopter). My eyes strain to see through the black shroud that covers everything. Ears are unable to hear beyond the static in my helmet and the rotor blades as they slap the air in all out combat to keep us in flight.
The static in my helmet come to life as the pilot talks to the ground controller who is vectoring us to the proper coordinates for our pick up. He comes over the intercom and announces, "gunners be alert we are about five klicks out. Return fire only if fired on, friendlies are only at the LZ, all others are hostile." "Crew chief aye aye sir." "Port gunner aye aye sir." And finally I answer, "Starboard gunner aye aye sir". We are ready for what ever the next few minutes have in store for us.
We are up about 5,000 feet, a mile in the air, which is a pretty safe distance from any small arms fire, and if the VC had a SAM (Surface to Air Missile) well we would only know about it for a second or two. We start our descent.
Though is it cool flying at 5,000 feet, as we descend, the inside of the chopper is stifling. We drop out of the blackness at a rate of about 500 feet per minute. At about 2,000 feet we are in range of their small arms fire and other weapons they may have, especially their mortars which they aim by hand with an all too often deadly accuracy.
of us are trying to see the tell-tell sign of a muzzle flash of small arms fire, or worse the green arc of Chi-Com tracer rounds from a machine gun, or even worse the muzzle flash of their hand aimed mortars, or the very worse the tail of fire from a SAM. All have the potential for death.
We come into the landing area in a wide sweeping circle- 1,500 feet, 1,000 feet hoping to draw any enemy fire while we are flying and able to maneuver, once we transition to hover, we are at our most vulnerable. Five hundred feet and we begin our transition, trees come into view and we see the marking smoke telling us where our friendlies are located. I aim at a point beyond; out into the black infinity where anything can appear, it is a place where our fears live, where nightmares become reality. The blackness is death.
We are into our hover kicking up a cloud of dust and debris as thick as the smoke grenade used to guide us into position. I am half way out of my window, leaning over the top of my machine gun methodically searching my half- outside of the chopper. You cannot panic and try to look everywhere at once, or stare at one place you 'think' an enemy might be, you have to be cool, calm, and systematic; left to right, near to far, left to right, near to far all the time scanning for a shadow that should not be there or any other sign that looks out of place. Thumbs are on the butterfly trigger of the M2, I know just the amount of pressure needed to release a hail of death and destruction.
Now, technically, the Geneva Convention prohibits the use of a fifty caliber weapon on human targets, you see a fifty caliber bullet is too large to use on a human target, so it would be inhumane to shoot a person with that large of a round. But, it is OK to shoot at equipment, (actually that is what it was developed for, most WW II turret gunners used either thirty or fifty caliber machine guns to shoot at enemy fighter planes) so we all had a standing story that we were just shooting at Charlie's equipment and he just happened to get in the way. The whole story continued with the "old man" asking you what equipment you were aiming for and you would reply, "his canteen".
We are on the ground for 30 seconds and it seems like we are homesteading the place. I risk a quick glance inside the chopper and see Marines carrying stretchers onboard. One stretcher has a Marine who has had his leg blown off. I do not remember if it was his right or left leg, what I do remember is that he was holding the remaining stump as if the tourniquet could not be trusted. No screaming or tears, just that grim look of determination that he would keep himself from bleeding to death; he would be responsible for his own fate.
At last we are loaded and the crew chief raises the ramp, our pilot has already applied power to the six rotors that once again go to war with the laws of physics and gravity pulling us into the night air. The interior of the chopper smells of burnt flesh and blood, I stick my head even further out of the window and concentrate on the night, it doesn't help and bile still rises in my throat.
We are up over the tree tops and gaining altitude as fast as we can; mercifully we are in and out without any enemy contact. Now it is a race of time to get back to DaNang. There are two places we could be going, to DaNang harbor where the USS Sanctuary (a hospital ship) is anchored, or to the main hospital in DaNang. Since it is night my guess is the hospital in DaNang, landing on a ship at night is risky, and the facilities are better at the hospital – we had some pretty bad wounded on board.
As we reach 5,000 feet there is finally time to relax a little, I look back inside, bathed in the red light of our blackout interior lights, and I see the faint shapes of the wounded we have picked up. Down the middle of the aisle I see the black lumps of the body bags that we also picked up. I want to cry, but there are no tears left.
Our pilot lets us know we are approaching DaNang and we will land at the hospital. We drop out of the sky very fast, auto-rotating from 5,000 feet to probably 1,000 feet in less than a minute, then full pitch as we flare onto the landing pad at the hospital. There are corpsmen and medics there to meet us; they will have our wounded unloaded practically, before the ramp is fully lowered. Then they come back to unload the body bags. Now the chopper, once again, only carries the pilot and copilot, the crew chief, and both of us gunners.
Back in the night sky we head back to Marine Air Group 16 at Marble Mountain, it is a short flight and we are soon taxiing to the ready hanger, the night is only half over, we will stay on alert until 0800 hours when we will be relieved by a day crew. The pilot goes through his shut down procedures, the Crew chief lowers the rear ramp and goes to get a couple of water hoses.
The other gunner and I secure our weapons, unloading them and making sure everything is in order. As the crew chief returns, the three of us complete the worst part of the mission – washing out the blood. You don't think about it, the fact that you have been walking through someone's blood, or the smell, or the grime-faced Marine who holds the stump of a once whole leg. If you thought about it, it would drive you insane.
Our tasks completed, we head to the Quonset hut that serves as the quick reaction ready room. Inside are cots with bare mattresses, we collapse on them and wait for the next blast of the alert siren.
I went on to fly for six months, winning my air crew wings with 3 combat stars, along with the Air Medal/4 (four awards of the same medal for flying over 100 missions). Our record of always bringing the alive back alive held true – a fact that I am very proud of. I survived 3 crashes, walking away from each of them without injury. I served a total of eight years in the Marine Corps and won Marine of the year for Det Company K in 1977. I later received a commission in the United States Army where I served an additional 15 years before retiring as a Captain.
I passed the mantle on to my son, Jason, a Green Beret, has over 7 tours of combat in the Persian Gulf.
My Grandson, Tim, is currently on his 1st tour in Iraq.
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"The details of warfare may have changed since Vietnam, but O'Brien's semiautobiographical account of a young platoon on a battlefield without a front, dodging sniper fire and their own misgivings, continues to win legions of dedicated readers, both in uniform and out."
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