From a Vietnam veteran on Veterans Day: ‘My longest journey and my finest hour’
November 10, 2017
I was drafted into the Army in the l960s out of Grand Junction. The draft notices were often intemperate, even though they did begin with the cliche, "Greetings."
I grew up on a small potato and sheep farm, and I was getting a degree in economics. When the Peace Corps came recruiting to the school, I applied. I was to go to the South Pacific, possibly to the island of Palau, where I was to be an "economic advisor," which meant farm work with a degree. The main cash crop in that area is vanilla-bean plants, which sounded fine. The pay was $75 per month. Wow, big time.
But the draft people got wind of this, and another smart letter arrived: "Greetings." You are not going into the Peace Corps. We know who you are. We know where you are. The Army has legal priority over you and your future, and don't you forget it. The other non-options available, such as fleeing to Canada or creating a medical disability that would declare me "4F" — medically disqualified — were there, but they didn't sound right, either. (When asked about his draft classification, Woody Allen said it was "4H," that in the event of war, he would be a hostage.)
Friends suggested I eat soap immediately prior to my medical entrance exam, as the soap gets the heart to act up, as in "… death impending, Doctor." I heard of one guy who intentionally shot off a toe to save himself. None of this appealed to me. And the war might be interesting, and something different, and you do want to help your country. Right? (What a dodo head.)
“Vietnam was my longest journey and my finest hour. I learned what was important in life and what was less so. And perhaps I could have earned the same thing farming in Palau but certainly not with such profundity. But if my finest hours were in Vietnam, then what does that mean for the rest of my life?”
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In the Army now
Some military people thought I had officer potential, and I was sent to infantry officer training in Fort Benning, Georgia. I thought the Southern states would be reasonably warm during the winter months, but what a total mistake that was … and what an unpleasant course that became. But some of the friends I met there are some of my best friends in life.
I arrived in Vietnam in 1968 as a mint new second lieutenant with a shaved head. The plane trip to Vietnam was 20 hours long in a plane full to the hilt. Gloom and doom seemed to fill the discussions the whole trip, as in my neighbor was sent to Vietnam and he was killed within two months … and he was a lot smarter than me. We all knew where we were going, and we all knew what was coming our way. Planting vanilla beans at $75 per month didn't sound so bad after all.
Upon arriving, the first thing noticed was the heavy, hot air. Your mouth opens and you suck in the heat. A pretty young Vietnamese woman came up to me, put her face into mine, smiled and said something to me in Vietnamese (sex ploy). Then she put her hand under her skirt and then proceeded to urinate while standing up. Talk about different. I did not know that women could do this. I never saw that before in Grand Junction.
While at the in-out processing center, I encounter another lieutenant who was processing out. His arm/shoulder was locked at a 90-degree angle and stuck out in a vertical fashion. I could see the dried blood still on the ball of his shoulder. He looked at me with full distaste. My new fatigues, new boots, new hat, haircut and a clean shave said that I was a FNG, with the NG part meaning "new guy." Perhaps he thought I was to be his replacement.
Twenty months later, I was in the same building in the "out" section, where I noticed six or seven NGs getting off a truck. I hoped they saw my very faded fatigues, my well-worn boots (my third pair) and the deep look in my eyes. I thought to myself, "poor, dumb chumps. They don't know what they are getting into."
New second lieutenant
But then America didn't know what it was getting into either. It was surreal. I understand the nightly news at home would go something like this: "The stock market was down 3 percent on low volume; the Dodgers beat the Mets six to five in 10 innings; and 256 soldiers were killed in Vietnam last week. Now, on to the weather." Gasp.
My first real encounter with the enemy occurred shortly after arrival in my new unit. I was in the back seat of a small, two-seater plane that was sent to check out a report of an enemy supply depot near the Laos border. The plane passed over a large, open area that had been declared a free-fire zone, which meant anyone caught there would be killed on sight, no questions asked.
A Vietnamese woman heard or saw the plane coming, dropped everything and started running for her life to the jungle canopy where she would be safe. I did not fire, as the panic in the woman was obvious, as was, I guess, my empathy for her situation. Her conical hat was blowing behind her, and as the field was rutted, her gait across the area made for a difficult run.
She made it to the jungle about the same time as our small plane arrived to barely clear the tops of the trees. (The event reminded me of the movie "North by Northwest," where Cary Grant was being chased by a low-flying plane as he escaped into a dried cornfield … in contract to a jungle. Also, in my case, it was a good guy who was in the back seat of the plane.)
The pilot was quick to rat out "the new second lieutenant" when we returned. The rebuke by my officer peers hurt. And I vowed that would not happen again. (A reporter once asked this Marine if it were difficult to shoot women, and he said, "No … you just don't need to lead them as much.")
In the details
As an extra duty, or "detail," I often had to be a lawyer for the accused. Hey you, over here lieutenant, type of assignment. (Today, all accused in the military, as in the civilian world, are automatically provided a real lawyer: Good. It used to be just anyone of officer rank was enough.) I had a total of eight cases over 20 months, and I lost all of them "You're doing such a good job." Well, thanks, but I've lost all of my cases — all of them.
But the military doesn't go through the long trial process unless there is very significant evidence of guilt. And all of mine were guilty of even more than what they were charged with. Five of the eight pleaded guilty. And the three others wanted full-blown trials, despite the fact that there were three smoking guns, three eyewitnesses and a charge sheet replete with the word "lascivious," as in "lascivious behavior." They didn't stand a chance. And atrocities committed by Americans over there were far overblown. The troops I knew were all fine, with the usual exceptions of a few screw-ups.
What wasn't fine was the poor leadership. Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon (and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara) all admitted that the war was "unwinnable" (their words). And yet they continued to send the Hispanic from Los Angeles; the street black from Harlem and the poor farm boys from Kansas to their deaths in a war they knew little about and in a place they couldn't even find on a map.
These washed-out presidents continued to do so for years; they are beyond shame. They lied with such facility and frequency. ("Telling a lie and getting away with it is the same as telling the truth" is a comment attributed to Lyndon Johnson). What was a healthy skepticism about government in the country turned into cynicism that exists even today.
McNamara, in his later years, began to cry in public. Normally, when you see an elderly man crying, the Greek word "pathos" comes to mind, from which we get the word pathetic. He and all of those oh-so-smart pinstripes from academia can cry their eyes out until the end of time. There is no charity for them. They have no grace. They do not deserve the company of good and decent men.
The longest journey
My 20-hour trip back home was jovial, as the atmosphere in the plane was so upbeat. I was the senior officer on board, so I had some work to do. I was half-asleep when the pilot announced we would be landing in San Francisco in 30 minutes. The plane absolutely erupted with almost all seats emptied. The pilot came on again and said that he could not land unless everyone returned to their seats, which all scurried to do. The plane landed shortly thereafter, and the eruptions of joy still ring. I set quietly in my seat. I said to myself, "I am back." I was misty-eyed, which I tried to hide, as you can't look that way in public in front of the troops. It's just not done, right?
I asked my parents to come pick me up at the Grand Junction airport. But while waiting, my knees started to shake. I always thought that was just an expression — "shaking knees." But it was clear my legs were going to give out. I braced myself on a railing in a hallway, locked my elbows with my face pasted to the wall to regain control of my legs.
In my awkwardness, I envisioned a large number of Vietnam friends coming to my back and whispering "what an FNG" in my ear, followed by laughter. And while they are some of my best friends in life, every now and then I think a few of them deserve a good punch in the nose. Right?
Vietnam was my longest journey and my finest hour. I learned what was important in life and what was less so. And perhaps I could have earned the same thing farming in Palau but certainly not with such profundity. But if my finest hours were in Vietnam, then what does that mean for the rest of my life?
A trip to Cancun, get a lawn chair to loiter on the beach, get a floppy sun hat, a glass of iced tea, as well as the latest edition of National Geographic. And maybe, if lucky, Miss Cancun might come by and say hello. That's it. Cancun. Right?
Maj. Ret. Montgomery "Mike" Mathias lives in Vail.