Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Khe Sanh,Other Musings

March 30, 2011

Welcome Home–Musings On Anniversaries

Tags: , , , ,

Thirty-eight years ago yesterday the United States withdrew the last combat troops from the Republic of South Vietnam on March 29, 1973. I remember the moment, hearing it on the news driving home from a long day working at a big feedyard near my home in southern Arizona. It was a bitter instant for me, sitting in the passenger seat of a Datsun pickup, the A M radio blaring out news of what I took as a personal defeat. I slumped down in the seat and hunched my shoulders and wondered why we paid so dearly to gain so little.
And forty-three years ago, today, and two days before I left Vietnam, I was involved in a battle at Khe Sanh. At the beginning of our advance, a mortar landed next to me and blew me off my feet and a chunk of shrapnel thudded into the bone below my left temple. I rose and forged on.
My platoon—Second Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines—stood up on a hill and watched our first and third platoons, with attached weapons and combat engineers, assault with fixed bayonets and decimate a North Vietnamese regular army battalion entrenched in a fortified position on a hill southeast of our positions at the Khe Sanh Combat Base.
Down below where I stood, I watched our men, their helmets bobbing in the NVA trenchline as they surged forward, stabbing with their bayonets, firing their weapons, taking incoming mortar and RPG as they disappeared one by one, casualties in the fierce fighting. My hands shook and I could not stop them. My heart pounded and my mouth was dry like old bones. I remember that like it was happening right now.
And then word came for Second Platoon to charge into the breach and we did. And Marines with flame throwers scorched the insides of enemy bunkers. Satchel charges and grenades tossed into tunnels exploded with resounding thumps and the enemy position was cleared. Dead Vietnamese in the trench, dead Americans in the trench. The sallow skin tints of their passing made it hard for me to distinguish who was friend and who was enemy unless I looked at the uniforms.
I saw wounded Marines evacuating more seriously wounded Marines back to an aid station to our rear. I saw Marines lying in the mud, firing at anything that moved. I saw the company command group take a salvo of mortars, blood and bodies scattered around a big bomb crater.
I saw a Marine Corps machine gunner named Rivera lying in the mud, firing his weapon. As the platoon sergeant and I passed him (I was the second platoon sergeant’s radio operator that day) on our way up to the front edge of the battle to call in artillery cover, Rivera yelled, “Kenny,” (no one called me Kenny in the Marine Corps and I was surprised he knew the diminutive of my first name) “what the hell are you doing out here, you are too short.” And I was too short, and I remember thinking about it as we ran by, stumbling over the sallow faced bodies of dead men lying in the trench, I am too short. But by then my shaking fingers had given way to calm elation, I fairly soared along behind Sergeant Alvarado, soared and all the roar and mayhem and death around me seemed like it was sealed off from me, as if I was protected by a cocoon.
On the front edge of the battle, we marked our position with a yellow smoke grenade, and instantly, rounds from the combat base’s 105 MM howitzer batteries sluiced over us with a hearty roar and slammed into the red mud, fifty meters to our front. And then we moved back. Second Platoon fanned out over the battlefield, mowing down counter-attacking North Vietnamese, locating and toting wounded men back to the aid station. I saw a young Marine second lieutenant step out of the North Vietnamese trench and trip a booby trap that hit his bottom jaw with an eruption of white phosphorus. I saw dead Marines carried down the road to the combat base as we withdrew.
Later, I stood in our trench as the remnants of Bravo Company’s Marines and corpsmen filed past me, their faces set with looks of grim victory. Lights flaring from their tired eyes yelled, “We are satisfied.”
Yes, I remember it now, that satisfaction, that light-footed feel in the legs, the solid plump in my gut, the top of my head like a helium balloon. I was satisfied.
And now, thirty-five years and eleven months after the last Americans hightailed it out of Saigon just before the NVA arrived in town on April 30, 1975, the U S Senate has declared March 30, 2011, “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day.”
When the majority of the Vietnam Veterans got home from the war, the welcome we received was mostly from friends and family. My recollection of it was, even though I was satisfied with the war I had fought and damned glad, yes ecstatic, to be on my own home ground, the reaction of the general public was just ho hum. A lot of my comrades suffered more demeaning welcomes and by 1973, when we pulled our combat troops out of the country, I was as glum and silent about the war as I could be, even though I had been a witness, I had been a part, on that day, March 30, 1968, to what men join the Marine Corps for, battle, and I had been tested and I was satisfied. But I could not tell anyone that. They were not interested.
Only now, after all these years, do we get a welcome home. I guess I should be satisfied, like I was on March 30, but somehow it seems a little late.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.