War Talk, American

In 2008 Medic met the distinguished photographer Jeff Wolin, then working on his book Inconvenient Stories: Vietnam Veterans. Jeff has kindly lent permission to excerpt several of those stories and their accompanying photographs.

 

Michael-Rosensweig

R. Michael Rosensweig
U. S. Army Rangers  Specialist E-4
1969-1971

“After my first tour of duty in Vietnam I had orders for Fort Bragg. I got back to the states and at that time my family was in Baltimore. I was walking up Howard Street in downtown Baltimore—I was still in uniform. A truck backfired about two blocks behind me. I just yelled, ‘Incoming!’ and hit the pavement. It just freaked everybody out. I said, ‘To hell with this.’ Next morning I took the bus, went down to the Pentagon and had orders changed to go back to ‘Nam—just wasn’t ready to come back to what we like to call ‘civilization.’ I wasn’t done fighting my war—there was still a cause to be fought for.

I enjoyed the combat—the adrenalin. Don’t mistake that. Don’t mistake the love of combat for the lack of fear. We were all scared—just some of us got off on the adrenaline…

As far as getting orders changed, it was no problem. I just went down there, told them I wanted a change to go back to ‘Nam. Eighteen days later I was back in country. I went through Rangers school—we had our own school in Vietnam. It was ten days of sheer hell. Our training was geared to guerilla fighting. I was stationed in the same area as my first tour, Central Highlands. The company was based in An Khe.

I loved being with the Rangers. We were a six-man hunter-killer team. Our mission was to go out and kill. Go in, strike, get out—covert. Sometimes if there were too many NVA we had to call in air strikes. Sometimes we had to call them in a lot closer than was allowed by military regs. In some cases it was do that or die anyway.
War just leaves scars that will never heal up in your head because of the overall trauma. The first person I ever had to kill was an eight-year old boy. We were escorting the 101st Airborne in the A Shau Valley. A little boy ran out of the village with a grenade in his hand heading straight for a truckload of GI’s—kind of hard to balance that one out. The grenade was in his hand. We tried to get him to stop—‘Dong Lai!’ ‘Stop!’ He just kept running with that Chi Com in his hand—it’s a Chinese Communist grenade with a string fuse. We didn’t have a choice. If we hadn’t killed him he would have ended up throwing it in a truckload of GI’s. He was about 25 yards away. There are too many other instances like this to list and I say that in all sincerity. I just can’t talk about them.

They deactivated my company just a few months after I left when they started the withdrawal. A lot of guys who stayed went to either Special Forces or went to work for the CIA as black ops in Cambodia. The time I served with the Rangers was the pinnacle of everything I’d ever wanted to be. And when I lost that, I couldn’t see past the war.

They sent me to Germany to an artillery unit as a mechanic and four months later I was out. A couple of Puerto Rican guys from New York were having some kind of big war among themselves and they made the mistake of coming through my room in the middle of the night. You don’t just take somebody fresh out of combat and startle him in the middle of the night because he ain’t going to hide his head under the covers—he’s coming out attacking. And that’s what I did. The first I threw out the window; the other I pinned up against a locker and stuck a bayonet right up against his throat. I almost killed two of our guys—four months later I was out. There’s a lot of stuff especially with the Rangers that’s still classified and I can’t talk about.

I have plenty of firepower. I stay pretty heavily armed at home and everybody that knows me knows better than just to drop in—I’m in my bunker. The woman I was married to for fourteen years was scared to death of me the whole time we were married because of the nightmares—wake up in the middle of the night crying, screaming, roaming around.

You know, because of my background in Vietnam, we had to watch our tempers more than anyone else. Society did not give us the right to get angry and shout. If we did that we were considered lethal. I got fired more than once just for doing nothing more than anybody else would have done—got mad at somebody for doing something really stupid. Yelled at him. The reason I was given was because when I get mad, all people see in my eyes is death.”

 

SimbaWiley-RobertsSimba Wiley Roberts
U.S. Army Specialist E-5
1968-1969

“Everybody was real tight in my platoon—we were like a brotherhood in the field. There were a lot of dudes we called the ‘blue-eyed souls’. They realized, ‘Hey we’re all over here together. We should be sticking together.’ These were the white guys who didn’t mind walking with the brothers because the brothers got together over there. The only racial problems were back in the rear with the punks with the gear. We’d come in from the field to the base at Pleiku. They wanted us to give up our guns so we stayed in the motor pool with our tanks—told them we were part of the ‘quick reaction force.’

I remember this one particular time, me and a bunch of the guys walked into a bar on the base. There were these guys sitting there in new fatigues and shined boots and looked like they ain’t never been out in the sun. And it was generally like that. The majority of the guys in the rear with the gear were white. And one of them said, ‘Here come a bunch of them damn boonie rats.’ Another said, ‘Yeah, boonie rats, niggers. It’s the same.’ You know, stuff like that. We just walked by.

It was an enlisted mens club. I would roll up my sleeves so my E-5 rank would not show and I could go in with my buddies, because the majority of my buddies were E-4 and below. And I didn’t like going into those clubs where they only played country western. Plus this club had the best entertainment: Philippine girls singing like Diana Ross: ‘Stop in the name of love.’ Everybody was going, ‘Yeah! Sounds like Diana.’
But we was in there and I’ll never forget that night because those guys were throwing beer cans at us. About ten beer cans came flying over from them chumps and we still said, ‘Hey, man, let it go.’ Everybody got a frag grenade in their pocket. It kept going and eventually the place started to close so everybody was talking and I said, ‘Hey, man, let’s just go out and deal with this right now.’ I’m thinking my buddies heard me. So I walk out of the club all bad and this little short guy, kind of bald-headed, said, ‘Yeah, that’s right, nigger!’
And man, I punched him upside his face and was working him over. I picked him up; I had him down. I felt kicks in the back of my head—apparently my boys didn’t hear the word; it was just me out there on the ground. All of a sudden it felt like an earthquake, like a stampede and then the fight really broke out—those crazy dudes from the tanks were ready. They were tearing up folk, man. And I remember grabbing that little guy by his leg and dragging him out of the mess so I could work him over some more. That was funny, man. I hope that guy’s doing ok today.

The MP’s came and we all started running. We didn’t know our way around base camp. I remember falling in these drainage ditches because there was so much rain up there in the Central Highlands in the monsoons. And man, I remember falling into ditch after ditch. Nobody got caught; we all got back. We laughed about it…
After I got home to East Texas, me and Ray, a Vietnam vet buddy of mine, went to pick up the money the Army owed us. We were so happy. We’d been all over the world. I was based in Germany, man. I didn’t go out on the town for a year. I couldn’t. When people asked me, I said, ‘No, man. Where I come from you don’t do that with white folks.’ For a whole year me and the Playboy bunnies had an intimate relationship. But after going home to Texas on Christmas leave and finding my first love in the arms of another man—after I had been so true to her for a whole year—I was numb. So I finally went downtown in Erlangen, Germany; I was making up for lost time. I met a woman named Heidi, which was a blessing. Then I was in Vietnam for a year. There was a thing among African Americans: my father and every generation going back fought for our country in whatever war was going on.

Anyway, me and Ray drove over to Fort Polk, Louisiana to get our money. There was a little club on the way back where we wanted to stop and have a beer. We walked in this place and the guy said, ‘We don’t serve niggers here.’ I looked at Ray and he looked at me. He said, ‘Did he say what I thought he said?’ I said, ‘Yeah, he did, Ray.’ He said, ‘All right, let’s go.’ Can you imagine? I’d been all over the world and everywhere I was a man except when I came back to America.”

 

Grady-HarpGrady Harp
U.S. Navy Physician Lieutenant
1968-1969

We Docs had a lot of resentment being taken away from training and going to a war we didn’t believe in, but the saving grace for us was that we weren’t going to fight or kill anyone—we were going to treat sick people. And so you tried to erase everything else from your mind except, ‘I might as well be a doctor over there as a doctor over here.’ Time has taught us that physicians who take part in a war are much better surgeons and physicians because you learn to react instantaneously without scratching your head. That kind of training is invaluable. I trained at Los Angeles County Hospital, which is its own Vietnam with the gang wars and all. So I was used to that kind of pace.

You could forget about the war because your concentration was on patients, until those times when the fighting stopped, until you go into periods where you had to deal with the guys falling apart emotionally. When they weren’t having to go out and shoot, they just had to sit back and look at what was happening, make a count of how many friends they had left and wonder what was going to happen next.
Vietnam was a war with no front. The front was underneath you; it was behind you; it was beside you. The method of survival in Vietnam was for the Vietnamese to be dedicated to the U.S. troops during the day because we were fighting North Vietnam, but the Viet Cong were so embedded in the country that even though they had a different allegiance, they were so threatened that the South Vietnamese who worked for us worked for the VC at night. Someone could be very devoted to you as a doctor—your private nurse, or your house mouse, the women who came and cleaned and kept our boots free of snakes—but at night they might get orders that they had to go in and destroy us.

We had an instance where a couple of Vietnamese nurses who worked for us burrowed into one of our bunker hospitals one night and opened fire killing all 26 patients that they’d been treating plus three of the corpsmen. One of these was a brilliant surgical nurse. She was captured by the Marines the next day. It was discovered what she had done and so the Marines tied her to two helicopters that took off and pulled her body apart.

It was hideous conceptually, and it was deplorable but when you were fresh from what just happened, it was difficult to admit that you almost had a feeling that that was ‘okay.’ Once you got some distance from it, you knew what pressure she was under so that you got the guilts for ‘participating.’ We’ve all heard the stories about My Lai and Lt. Calley and about Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Unless you’ve actually been in that situation, it’s hard to imagine man’s inhumanity to man. When you’re in the middle of it, sadly, it doesn’t somehow seem so heinous, so inhuman. It’s only upon reflection that you then absorb part of the guilt of what I think this whole nation has for what we did to Vietnam.

One of the things that was most difficult to deal with was the number of guys who had self-inflicted wounds trying to stay out of the field. We had a kid come in—it was back on the hospital ship. He was just one medevac, one grunt, probably only 17, underage for the military, a sweet kid. He was going to be sent up the Cua Viet River into a situation where he was guaranteed, being so low on the totem pole, that he was going to be killed. And he was so terrified about it that he decided to shoot himself. What he wanted to do was simply shoot his toe off but he missed and got his ankle instead. They brought him in on a chopper in the middle of the night. He was in such denial. He said, ‘I’m not going to go up that river. Don’t cut my fucking foot off!’
I said to him, ‘There’s no foot to come off. It’s already off.’ And he said, ‘I won’t stay here any longer. I did it myself.’ I tried to rationalize with him, ‘Whatever the shot was that did this, your foot is not there.’ Finally, one of the corpsmen raised his bootless leg up and showed him his foot was gone. Then the stunned kid turned his story around and said he stepped on a mine—he would be court-martialed if he shot it off himself. I tried to never find out how that was dealt with by the authorities.

It happened frequently. Guys would stab themselves in the hand or refuse to soak their feet in the salt water baths so their jungle rot would get really bad—anything to stay out of the field. The guys would confide in you because they didn’t look at us as ‘military’—it was doctor/patient relationship. They knew I wasn’t going to report them; I never reported anything like that. I was very against what was going on and I wasn’t about to turn a kid in who was so desperate that he would do something like that to himself. What human being would?

As a doctor you had to commit to two years of military service. If your first year was in Vietnam, you could choose anyplace in the U.S. for your second year. I’d always wanted to live in New England so I was assigned to the Fargo Building, the Marine Corps Brig in Boston, which is down by Jimmy’s Seafood Restaurant by the harbor. I couldn’t afford to live close to that. I lived in a little village, Newton Upper Falls above Wellesley—beautiful countryside. I chose it because it would show all four seasons and maybe that would let me have a year of purging everything.

The first time I drove to work—I had a new VW Squareback and I was in uniform—I took a shortcut to go through Harvard Yard. I’d never been to Harvard and I wanted to see what it looked like. When the students saw my uniform on campus, they pulled me out and beat me up. I somehow got back to the car and drove to my station. I ran into the commanding officer. I didn’t look very good and I told him what happened. He said, ‘Never wear your uniform off base.’ And I said, ‘With all due respect, I’m not going to wear my uniform this year at all.’ So I didn’t.

And you know, now with a little bit of hindsight and a lot of time passing, I can understand that it wasn’t me being attacked, it was the idea of the uniform and people being against the war. They had no idea that I was a doctor. I represented the ugly other that everybody hated. So that’s what they were beating up. They weren’t beating up Grady, a doctor, who had been in Vietnam basically as a civilian. But it made all of us who’d been through the war have a really different outlook on protesters. Even though I protested the war, I fell victim to what protesters can do and that’s emotionally intolerable.”

 

James-SpilmanJames Spilman
U. S. Army Specialist E-4
1969-1970

“I think it was July 3. We just came in on a three-day stand down when they came to us about 8 o’clock at night. ‘Get ready to go. We’re going to send you out—there’s movement in the area. We think they’re building a base camp and we want you to check it out.’
So we went out that night and set out at the bottom of a hill and started up. Delta Company was on the other side and they walked into a horseshoe-shaped, battalion-size NVA base camp. It cut them to pieces. The NVA opened up with automatic weapons fire. I got behind a log. Every time I’d raise my head to look out, someone with an automatic would open up. I’m lying there thinking, ‘They’re going to walk up and shoot me in the head.’

You could hear guys hollering for the medics. The NVA had gotten in between my unit and had gotten people’s dog tags and called out their names saying they’d surrendered. An NVA called, ‘Medic, medic!’ and when the medic got there he got shot in the face.

Once we took the hill we found no NVA soldiers—not one dead body. There were GI’s all over the place. They put us on a detail picking up the bodies—take a poncho, roll the guy in the poncho, drag him down the hill. I don’t know how many of our guys we dragged down. I couldn’t look at them any more. It really bothered me. I was thinking, ‘I could be dead too.’…

I lost a friend named Ross. A week before he was killed, he and two other guys came across four or five NVA soldiers eating. Instead of shooting them they got into hand-to-hand combat and killed the NVA. They were decorated. I thought he was really brave.

We were in a firebase and it was morning when I saw him approaching the base. I was standing on a bunker and I yelled out, ‘Hey, Ross, come on; I’ll buy you a beer.’ He looked up and just then the guy in front of him who was walking point dropped to the ground and an NVA sniper shot Ross in the chest. I ran out and was holding him in my arms and I said, ‘You’re going to make it.’ I stuck my thumb in his chest to try to stop the bleeding and I realized half his back was gone. He choked to death on his own blood. It was stupid of me to run to him because the sniper was still out there—the medic wouldn’t go. I remember punching the medic for not going. I held Ross in my arms while he bled to death. I felt a little guilty and later I left a letter to him at the Wall in Washington because I’d lied when I told him he’d make it and that the helicopters were coming. I thought if I hadn’t called out to him he might have seen the sniper. It bothered me to watch the life run out of him.

We had a lieutenant who was a West Point graduate. He’d been out in the field for six months and typically they’d give them a job in a base camp for the remainder of their tour but he volunteered to come back out. One day he took his Radio Telephone Operator and said, ‘I’m going to check out this trail.’ We knew better than to walk the trails. This RTO came running back a few minutes later and said they’d captured the lieutenant. We found him three days later. They had buried him up to his neck. They’d peeled all the skin off his face and shot him through the head. We thought, ‘Man these people are cruel!’ We had to change all the call signs and maps because he’d had all that stuff on him…

I was in country for three months and we hit this bunker complex. There was a ten, fifteen-minute firefight. After it was over this woman came out of a hole in the back of a bunker. She stood on top of the bunker; she was pregnant. She said, ‘Chieu hoi,’ which means ‘I surrender.’ This guy with a machine gun said, ‘Chieu hoi, my ass!’ and hit her with a burst of M-16 fire. She fell backwards and the guy took a knife and cut her stomach open, took out the baby and drop-kicked it like a football. And he said, ‘Well, I got two for the body count.’ I couldn’t believe it—I was shocked to see this.

This guy was in country for eight or ten months and somebody was smoking dope in the rear and he reported him. It was at Blackhorse. The next day they found him hanging in the showers. He was beaten to death, I remember thinking, ‘That’s what he deserves for killing that woman.’…

I have nightmares every night. When I first came home I drank so much trying to block everything out. It wasn’t until I quit drinking that I started having flashbacks of incidents that happened to me in Vietnam. For a long time I’d have flashbacks every time I heard a helicopter. I remember when they dedicated the Vietnam Memorial in Cincinnati three helicopters flew in and one came in really low. The next thing I know I’m crawling on the ground.

I’ve been in group therapy for combat veterans since 1980. When I came back from Vietnam I had jobs. My co-workers would do stuff to aggravate me. They’d come up behind me and drop skids to watch me jump. I tried to kill a guy at work one day. My doctor told me, ‘You can’t work any more. You have to go on disability.’
I’ve learned with PTSD what you can do and what you can’t do. I was feeling depressed a few years ago. I sat on the toilet and put this SKS assault rifle under my chin, pulled the trigger and it went ‘click.’ My wife came in. I looked at her; she looked at me and I said, ’Shit! It didn’t go off. It must not be my time.’”

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