Tuesday, May 4, 2010

My Wake Up Call

I’ve talked with many war veterans and most can tell you the exact moment when they realized war was not a game, the moment when they were blasted out of all their preconceived notions and fantasies about themselves as a soldier in a war, when their illusions of invulnerability were finally and ultimately shattered. They were no longer the hero of the story, but just another schmuck doing their best not to get themselves or their buddies killed. The following incident was that moment for me, my wake up call.
For the first several months in Vietnam I worked as an Intelligence Analyst. I kept files on enemy group size, location, weapons etc. and updated the maps to reflect the most current intelligence information. I voluntarily transferred to the Interrogation section because I didn’t want to continue being mainly a desk jockey and wasn’t getting along with my superior officer. I admired my friends who were Interrogators. I was trained as both an Intelligence Analyst and a POW Interrogator. Interrogators mostly worked at the base camp interrogating detainees, but routinely went out into the field to help the Infantry locate weapons or food caches or to screen villages. Except for Basic Training, I had no experience or training to prepare me for Infantry field operations.
The first mission I was sent out on was with a Marine platoon. They suspected VC activity in and around a small village and requested someone from Army Intelligence to question the local inhabitants. Chang, a Vietnamese Interpreter, and I were sent in one morning to question the villagers about the previous evening’s firefight. Chang was from Saigon and the other interpreters called him “Cowboy’. This was a term generally used for young Saigon punks who caused trouble. It was used affectionately when applied to Chang. He was a cocky little guy with a good sense of humor. I would work side by side with him for most of my year in Vietnam. He was out of the war for several months after being shot by “friendly fire” on New Year's eve 1967, but he recovered and we were back in business.
I was excited and nervous about my first field assignment. The Huey that transported us, landed in an open dry rice paddy. As it was touching down, the pilot yelled to Chang and me, his only “cargo”, to jump out quickly because the chopper was drawing fire and needed to get out of the area ASAP.
The skids didn’t even touch the ground when we jumped out. We found ourselves standing in front of a line of soldiers lying behind a shallow berm with rifles pointed toward the village. The officer-in-charge stood at the end of this line and was motioning for Chang and me to lie down, which we did. The sound of the helicopter was now far in the distance and silence surrounded us. We heard no gunfire. We lay listening for what seemed a long time. Then on the Captain’s command, we all rose and began walking toward the village.
In the village Chang and I began questioning the villagers, who consisted of old men, old women and children. The Marines had lined a bunch of them up for us. Not one of them knew anything about VC activity on the night before. It was my job to decide which ones to take back to base camp for further questioning. I asked Chang to make his best guess and he and I picked out a few people who seemed most suspect and most likely to spill the beans under persuasive conditions.
We then headed out and down the road to another small hamlet. Walking along the road in single file, I thought about the TV show Combat that my Dad and I liked to watch together. In the show they did a lot of walking along dirt roads. Inevitably they would begin to receive fire from the woods and the soldiers would all have to take cover. That’s exactly what happened to us. We heard automatic rifle fire coming from the thick brush and we all jumped to the side of the road and lay there quietly listening. I still had not broken out of my romantic view of combat. My heart was beating fast and as I lay there with my M-16 ready to return fire, I thought, This is really cool.
As a kid I used to imagine I was the star of a television show. I was usually a spy in enemy territory, a James Bond type character slipping in and out of my house unnoticed while my parents, the enemy, sat watching TV. I was also the narrator, “And now our hero Mike Yeager, under the cover of darkness, slips into the enemy headquarters and locates the secret papers.” The secret papers were usually located in my bedroom dresser. If my mom said “Mike, what are you doing in there?” I momentarily broke out of my TV fantasy, sort of like a commercial break, and answered “Nothing mom, just looking for something”, and then smoothly transitioned back into the plot of the story. “That was a close call for our hero Mike Yeager, whose position was almost detected by the officer-in-charge.” I, of course, always managed to sneak back out of the enemy headquarters undetected and with the secret papers in hand.
The automatic rifle fire stopped. Nobody was hurt and so we continued along the rode until entering a small cluster of huts surrounding a well. While the Marines searched the huts, Chang and I stood by the well questioning a young woman. I heard a shot and a bullet ricocheted off the top of the well inches from where I was standing. That was my wake up call. That son of a bitch was shooting at me. The Marines kicked into gear and took off into the brush toward the area where the shot came from. One of the sergeants asked me to cover him while he walked out across an open area. “What do you mean cover you?” I guess I couldn’t remember what Rick Jason and Vick Marrow in “Combat” did in a situation like this. He calmly told me to stand at the edge of the clearing, keep my eyes and ears open and be ready to fire while he walked across the clearing. The rest of the Marines headed up the hill toward where the rifle fire was coming from. My mental state had changed completely. This wasn’t cool anymore. These seasoned Marines were reacting as they should. I remember thinking, These guys are crazy, they’re going to get us all killed. At the same time, I knew my life was in their hands. I was the “green soldier” and as the saying goes, if they told me to jump, I would have replied “How high?”
During the entire mission I was on high alert, keenly aware of my surroundings. But after nearly being shot, I became aware of a growing fear deep within me. I learned how to manage it and continued to function in my duties as a soldier, but by the end of my year tour, I dreaded missions out in the field. I had seen too many horrible things that can happen in war and I became progressively more certain that I would not make it home alive.
On that first mission, the Marines never found who was shooting at us. And our hero "Mike Yeager" was no where to be found and did not save the day. The romance of combat was gone forever.

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