I find it odd at times when I think back on the Vietnam War and compare it to the wars we have now: The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. The times were bad, the country divided and somehow as opposed to now, the men serving were blamed for the war, even the draftees.
I never served in the military, but was almost drafted in 1970. I was a full-time student and could have received a Student Deferment, but did not; I could have also volunteered but did not. No, I decided to wait out my time and let fate have its way. When I received my lottery number (39), I knew that it was just a matter of time before I would receive a notice for induction from my draft board. As most of you know, it was a nervous time, but somehow I was drawn to the war and knew that whatever happened, that it was my lot in life.
Once I arrived at the Induction Station in Jacksonville, Florida, the Marine greeting us informed 11 others and me that we would be one of the 10% of the draftees who would be going into the Marine Corps. When I asked the Navy Corpsman the reason, he smiled and said sarcastically, “To replace all of the Jarheads who are getting killed.” I did not want to die, but somehow his words meant to me that I was going to have it the roughest, to be one of the toughest, one of the few, one of the proud. It is for that reason that I have always been drawn to the Marine Corps; they had it the toughest, often had the worst equipment, they could “hack” it, they were the finest we had to offer up and I have felt guilty ever since that August day in 1970 when I failed my physical exam in Jacksonville, Florida.
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In my research for my novel 1968 written under my pen name Kenton Michael, I met Retired Marine Colonel William Dabney who was the Company Commander of India/3/26 and the unit which replaced Bravo/1/26 on Hill 881S in late December 1967. India was similar to Bravo along with countless other Marine units in Northern I Corps of South Vietnam in 1968, in that the men volunteered to be there (except for the few like myself who were drafted). They were scared, resolute in doing their job, griped and complained, and took care of each other. After several initial interviews with Col. Dabney, I determined that he did not fully believe in the reasons for the US being in Vietnam. I asked him, “Why was it you actually volunteered to be a company commander in Vietnam if you did not believe in the reasons we were there?” He paused, then simply stated, “It was the profession that I chose; I did not make policy, I carried it out. Those brave young Marines chose to be there and I believed they deserved a fighting chance to survive and that meant they needed good leadership; that is why I volunteered, no other reason.”
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To meet Ken Rodgers through email by chance, and to see the documentary BRAVO! has touched my soul. Growing up in Tampa, Florida, I knew Dennis Baptiste whose older brother, Michael, was in the “Ghost Patrol” and was one of the men left to the elements after dying on February 25, 1968. I have thought many times of the fear that those men in that patrol felt when they knew they were cut off, seeing their fellow Marines falling all around them, the loneliness, the hopelessness, fearing they would never see their loved ones again. Then what it must have been like for the survivors of Bravo Company to sit there day in and day out getting pounded by the relentless NVA artillery and rocket fire, knowing less than a 1000 yards away lying there were the bodies of their brothers and the NVA who ambushed them. (As a side note, the Baptiste family was briefly given hope that the body of Michael might be someone else when one of the Ghost Patrol Marines who was supposedly buried in the mass grave in St. Louis, PFC Ronald Ridgeway, stepped off the plane as a freed POW in 1973, but to no avail.)
Ken Rodgers told me he was not a hero; he was not correct. Col. Dabney of India/3/26 told me every Marine who endured Khe Sanh was a hero. From the constant fear of incoming, to the fear of being overrun as the French were at Dien Bien Phu, to the lack of proper food and sanitary conditions. Surviving Khe Sanh meant as I said while waiting for my physical exam, being a US Marine meant you could “hack” it. BRAVO! tells the story of these everyday Marines who were just common US men who found themselves in a dire situation who displayed uncommon valor; no different from the men of Iwo Jima and the Chosin Reservoir in Korea.
Ken Frier is a 5th generation Floridian who attended the University of South Florida and pursued a career with the United Stated Postal Service. He now lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia, where he is working on his second novel. You can find out more about Ken’s novel 1968 here or here