“Visions of Vietnam”: SuperBowl I

It was January 15, 1967. I had been home from Vietnam for about a month, with little on my mind except catching up on the world of leisure. Being a consummate football fan who had no access to the game for over a year (other than occasional updates about the Philadelphia Eagles from my Uncle Dave’s letters), I was more than happy to join a friend of mine for the first ever SuperBowl, known at that time as the AFL-NFL World Championship. Besides, I could think of no greater delight than an afternoon of football and beer.

As the game began, it occurred to me that the entire 1966 football season had come and gone while I was in the jungles of Vietnam. As such, I had little stake in the game, but hoped the NFL’s Green Bay Packers would win. I recall Curtis McClinton’s touchdown for the Chiefs in the second quarter and watched as the scores edged closer: Packers 14, Chiefs 10. Later in the game, I got my wish; the Packers gained more ground and ultimately won, 35-10.

Though I enjoyed the afternoon’s diversion, there was little about life back in the World that could hold my attention. My mind was drawn back to those who remained in combat in Vietnam. I only wished they were safe at home to watch what has now become America’s most popular annual sporting event.

“Visions of Vietnam”: Final Jump Before Medical Training

Prior to going to Fort Sam Houston, TX for my medical training, I made my sixth jump, the first one after Jump School, in order to stay on “jump status” and collect my hazardous duty pay (an extra $55/month for enlisted men or $110/month for officers).

That first jump with the 101st Airborne Division occurred at night and started out like any other jump. We loaded onto the cattle trucks and were driven to the airport. Once in the situational tent, we were updated about the weather and jump conditions, assigned to our Drop Zone, learned about the plane (its specs and what speed we’d be jumping at), and went through some pre-jump drills (looking at mock-ups to reacquaint ourselves with the body positions and exits).

Now, ordinarily, the next step is an equipment check by the Jump Master prior to boarding the plane. Each jumper waits in line and then stands in front of the Jump Master with his hands behind his head. The Jump Master thoroughly checks the equipment and clears the trooper to board the plane. I knew from Jump School not to adjust my equipment after it had been checked. That’s when I knew that this particular jump would be anything but ordinary because some of the more experienced jumpers started readjusting and loosening their equipment once on the plane.

I and the other cherries were sitting there quiet and rigid with our equipment still undisturbed as the plane took off. After hearing the first jump command, “Get ready”, the experienced jumpers re-secured their loosened equipment and waited for the next command, “stand up”.  I could feel the tension mounting. Upon the next command, “hook up”, the men attached themselves to the anchor line cable and became rowdy, yelling “Yo, Cherry! You’re gonna die on this jump!” At that point, I was pretty scared; this was nothing like the regimentation of Jump School.

We all heard the “check equipment” command and, for a brief moment, everyone was serious again. After the “sound off for equipment check” command, the word was passed down to the Jump Master that everyone’s equipment was okay and ready to go. When the doors to the plane were finally opened, the real commotion started.

Several troopers started jumping up and down and moving the anchor line cable, teasing us about our equipment and telling us our chutes wouldn’t open. As I shuffled forward towards the door, I grew increasingly convinced that hazardous duty pay wasn’t worth this hassle. However, once I exited the plane and descended into the quiet darkness, a familiar euphoria came over me which made it all worthwhile. Safely back on ground, the thought of terminating my jump status was a distant memory.

“Visions of Vietnam”: Every Hangover Has A Silver Lining

Back at base camp, I visited my friend, Steve, at the 1st of the 12th Cav. We made arrangements to meet that evening at the Artillery EM (Enlisted Men’s) Club. We chose this club for its cold beer, jukebox, and overall ambiance (its background chorus of H&I fire – harassment and interdiction – was stirring!). Knowing I had KP (Kitchen Police) duty the next day, my intention was to only drink a few beers. As the old saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions…and empty beer cans.” Steve and I left the Artillery Club when it closed, returning to my company area.

At the same time, Victor Charlie (VC) fired a few mortar rounds at the divisional helicopter pad, known as “the golf course”. These few rounds didn’t cause any damage other than to harass the rear area personnel. We were ordered to take positions in the battalion defensive perimeter. Steve and I manned a foxhole together. Knowing that this exercise was a waste of valuable military time (I could have been sleeping!), we were less than serious in our efforts, even breaking out in song at one point. From down the line came the voice of a Headquarters Company NCO: “You two guys better knock it off or I’m coming down there and separating you.” My response was, “If you come down here, you better know the password or I’m gonna blow your head off!”

The next thing I remember was waking up in the bottom of the foxhole, not another person in sight. I staggered back to our medical hooch just as the Headquarters Company CQ was waking the men who had KP duty that day, me included. Already red-eyed and not-so-bushy-tailed, I headed to the mess hall. Being the first KP to report that day, I was offered my choice of jobs. I opted to be a “can crusher”, Vietnam’s version of a trash compactor. In spite of my hangover, there was a silver lining: I was out in the fresh air and away from the cooks!

“Visions of Vietnam”: Cinderfella

At some point during my last four months of active duty at Fort Campbell, while sweating it out on KP (Kitchen Police), I was told that my presence was requested at an awards ceremony to which I would report. (The Army is well-versed in the not-so-subtle art of persuasion.) I returned to my room, shit, showered, and shaved, and put on a set of freshly starched fatigues. When I arrived, there were twenty or so people gathered to receive medals. That day I received the Air Medal, the Purple Heart, and the Army Commendation Medal, which was given for merit, not valor. Because it was given to almost every enlisted man below the rank of E-5 who served in Vietnam, it wasn’t something I wrote home about. Feeling a little like Cinderella as I left the ceremony, I exchanged my highly starched fatigues for my grimy KP garb and resumed the life of an unwanted stepchild.

“Visions of Vietnam”: Hearts of Gold

Whether it was a holdover from Vietnam, believing that “I could be dead tomorrow, so live it up today” or my feelings of guilt and anger, drinking was the only interest I had from the moment I got home. I felt guilty for surviving the war and for having left some friends behind. My anger was directed towards my contemporaries on the block. I viewed them as children who had no understanding of the daily sacrifices being made across the world and knew nothing of the struggle for life itself. I spent a lot of time physically present with family and acquaintances, but mentally and emotionally still living in Vietnam. The world that I returned to was unfamiliar to me and the only connection I felt to anyone was through drinking.

My drinking became so obvious to my parents that my father, who had a drinking problem himself, asked my mother, “Don’t you think your son is drinking too much?” This was after he warned her, prior to me coming home, “When David returns from overseas, his behavior might seem strange. Don’t bother him about anything.” My mother told me that story years later. She never did approach me about my drinking while I was home on leave.

I didn’t realize until recently how much the mothers of sons in Vietnam sacrificed and suffered, many of them in silence and without recognition. In fact, when Jimmy Sampson returned from Vietnam, he went to see David Jolley’s mother to talk with her about her son’s death. Finding that experience so difficult, Sampson chose not to speak in person with David’s wife. The reactions of both my mother and David’s mother remind me that, although many veterans wear a purple heart on their chest, most military mothers have a heart of gold in theirs.

“Visions of Vietnam”: Words of Encouragement

Jump School was equal measures of repetition and harassment, which started at the beginning of the day and ended only when our heads hit the pillow. Of course, the cadre (“black caps”) always found something wrong with our performance, thus requiring us to repeat it until each move became second nature. And when they did find fault, we endured some kind of physical punishment. During most training, a standard punishment was pushups. But, in Jump School, we couldn’t do pushups with a parachute on our back and a reserve chute in front, so we had to do deep knee bends. Everybody did their fair share of deep knee bends through the course of training.

Of course, it wasn’t so bad; to soften the blow, our instructors offered the following words of encouragement: “Private, did your parents have any children that lived?” “Private, if you’re looking for sympathy, you won’t find it here. You’ll find it in the dictionary somewhere between ‘shit’ and ‘syphilis’.” “Private, you look like a monkey fucking a football.” “Private, the best part of you ran down your father’s leg.” Now, who would need more inspiration than that?!

Thank You For Thanking the Vet

This morning, as I drove over to my nephew’s house to care for his dog, my mind wandered to the phrase often spoken by civilians to military veterans, “Thank you for your service”. This phrase was never uttered to me when I returned from Vietnam.  I wasn’t derided, but my service went unnoticed. In hearing other veterans recount their experiences returning from the War, few were greeted with gratitude and kindness. On the contrary, many were scorned and ridiculed for only performing their “military obligation”, which was the legal requirement of young men in that era.

It wasn’t until about ten years ago that I started to notice a change in the attitude towards veterans, for the positive.  Now, the phrase “thank you for your service” is almost common. In fact, I often hear it on the sports talk radio I listen to, whenever a caller identifies himself as a veteran. I put myself in that person’s shoes and recall times when people have said that to me and I feel uncomfortable. I don’t feel as though I did anything special or deserving of gratitude. Granted, I wasn’t drafted; I enlisted, but I did so knowing full well that I would eventually be required to serve. So, perhaps “thank you for your service” has a stronger meaning for those who have grown up in a time when the draft does not exist. For me, the phrase is something I still have to get used to.

“Visions of Vietnam”: A Night In the Red Light District Is Not Always Pleasurable

In the late summer of 1965, I was sent to on-the-job training (“OJT”) at the base hospital at Fort Campbell. It was ten weeks of rotations on each ward such as emergency, pre-op, post-op, and orthopedics, as well as additional classroom work. OJT was great because we dealt with real patients and gained hands-on experience about what to do in a field hospital.

OJT was the only time I worked with nurses; I didn’t have that opportunity in Vietnam. One time, I was in charge of keeping clean the colostomy dressing for a high-ranking patient who had come in for surgery on a blocked bowel and had a heart attack while on the operating table. The ward nurse said to me, “I’ll do all the TPRs [temperature, pulse, and respiration] tonight for all the patients. You just keep your eye on the red light over that room. When the red light goes on, go down and see what the patient needs.” I did just that. I was eager to put into practice some elements of my training.

On one occasion when I was summoned to the patient’s room, he informed me that he had soiled his colostomy dressing. I removed the dressing and began cleaning the incision. Due to his heart attack during surgery, the O.R. surgeons had performed a quick, crude colostomy in order to get him off the operating table and stabilized. So, when I tended to him, he still had two inches of exposed intestines at the site of the incision. As if leaning in close to clean the feces from inside the incision wasn’t bad enough, I was suddenly treated to the melodious sound and maleficent odor of the patient passing gas through the intestine into my face. While doing so, his intestine’s flapped in the breeze like the orifice of a whoopee cushion. That was the lowlight of OJT!

“Visions of Vietnam”: This Chocolate Won’t Melt In Your Mouth Or Your Hands

In an attempt to sweeten life in the jungle, the Army occasionally supplied us with something called, “Tropical Chocolate”, a small bar of six squares of chocolate specifically designed to stand up to hot and humid climates. Tropical Chocolate was so hard that it was unmeltable, even with C-4. In order to share the chocolate with a deserving soldier, one would have to unwrap the delight, place it at the base of a tree, take three steps backwards and empty a 20-round magazine from an M-16 into the middle of the bar! Even then, any attempt to bite into the remaining pieces was hazardous to one’s dental health. As a medic, I didn’t have any experience doing dental work, but I’m quite sure the military dentists had no shortage of patients thanks to Tropical Chocolate!

“Visions of Vietnam”: The Agony of Suspense

The second week of Jump School, which is where I was trained to be a paratrooper, was called “Tower Week”. It helped us utilize everything we learned the week before until it became automatic. It included practicing maneuvers in the Suspended Harness, practicing PLFs in the Swing Landing Trainer, and making jumps from a 34-foot tower and a 250-foot tower.

The Suspended Harness (unaffectionately known as the “Suspended Agony” or the “Nutcracker”) is essentially a parachute harness without the parachute, hanging from ropes and pulleys, which leaves the trainee’s full body weight concentrated on the straps of the harness running through his legs. (You get the picture!) The point was to learn how to pull a “slip” with the T-10 parachute. The Suspended Agony had a way of motivating trainees to learn quickly and all of us were sore for days after our encounter with it.

At the culmination of Tower Week, trainees were hauled up and released from a 250-foot tower in order to practice all the chute maneuvers previously learned and prepare for week three, “Jump Week”. On the day I was scheduled for the 250-foot tower, the winds were too high for us to jump. Instead, we were marched over to the bleachers where an instructor conducted a review of what we had learned. He asked if anyone had any questions. When a few questions were answered and it seemed no one had any others, he added, “Okay. Since we have to be here until 4pm and there are no questions, how about we head out to the Suspended Harness for some additional training.” I never saw hands shoot up in the air so fast! Suddenly there were more questions than could ever be answered before 4pm.