Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Veterans,Vietnam War

July 11, 2018

Abandoned

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At my folks’ kitchen counter, it was harsh black coffee à la my father’s tastes, accompanied by unfiltered Camels. I’d consumed two pots of the old man’s bitter javvy because I’d been up all night partying around the hometown with a lot of my old friends from high school. One of them was working that summer as a lifeguard and I went with him to a swimming party at the town pool. Except I wasn’t swimming.

I had donned my new civvies and was out looking for a good time. I’d just gotten home on my second leave of the summer, upon transfer from 5th Battalion Recon at Camp Pendleton to the Marine Barracks at 36th Street Naval Station in San Diego.

I had no intention of swimming but as the party rocked on, several of my old school mates, one who was in his next to last year at the Air Force Academy and the other a Marine getting ready to do his second tour in Nam, decided I should get in the pool whether I wanted to or not.

What’s left at the end. Photo courtesy of Mac McNeely.

Somehow, I managed to defend myself by turning the tables on them and throwing them in the pool. The confrontation rankled and in an attempt to calm my rage I managed to consume excess quantities of Coors. Thus my need for lots of coffee. And as for the unfiltered Camels, I loved, after filling my lungs with the smoke, the way that itchy little sensation snaked its way down my throat, ballooning into a marvel, like a narcotic, as it infested my blood, my muscles.

But what really brought me up short, sitting there at the counter, listening to my mother talk on the phone to some cousin who I was never sure how she was related, and my two nephews playing in the living room, shouting and shrieking, making my hangover more deadly, was the article I found in the Arizona Republic about the US abandoning the base at Khe Sanh.

I read it and drank a cup of coffee. Then I inhaled another Camel, which when I’d smoked it down as far as possible, I stubbed out in the heavy ashtray that looked like it was made from expensive cut glass. I read the article again, and again, and again as I drank more javvy and smoked and smoked and smoked.

I think I needed to keep reading it because it didn’t sink in. The information just couldn’t get past my eyes into my brain. Finally, it hit me like a doubled-up fist in the solar plexus. Betrayal, like your best friend sneaking off into the night with your girl friend, or worse, like being deserted out in the bush, left to die at the hands of the enemy.

As the notion that Khe Sanh was no longer a functioning base sunk in, faces popped into my mind, and names: Frenchy and Furlong, Aldrich and Kent, McRae and Norman. What the hell had they—and all those other Marines, and sailors and soldiers and airmen—died for?

In the years since we started making BRAVO!, I’ve met historians—military historians—who have explained to me that given the nature of the war, and the fact that the United States and its allies didn’t have a sufficient number of warriors to defend every place that needed to be defended, what happened at Khe Sanh—the leaving it, the abandonment—was necessary.

But I live my life on a personal level. What happened there in 1967-1968 happened to me. It happened to Frenchy and it happened to Kent. For me it wasn’t—and it damned sure isn’t now—generals and colonels sitting somewhere down in Saigon looking at big maps of South Vietnam with symbols depicting the various locations of our forces and the enemy’s.

It happened to me. I was sent to defend a place—Khe Sanh—that seemed so vital to our aims that we expended record breaking amounts of munitions to repeatedly beat back the NVA. The killing, the maiming, the destruction of the surrounding environment. What we left behind. Unexploded ordnance. Agent Orange. And the faces of the lost, their names.

In 1969, a year after sitting at my parents’ kitchen counter reading about the abandonment of Khe Sanh, I met a young Marine who came to the Marine Barracks at 36th Street Naval Station. His primary MOS was combat engineer. When he found out I had been at Khe Sanh, he told me he’d been part of the team that destroyed the base just before we finally turned tail and left the place. He told me how they’d blown up a lot of the familiar landmarks, headquarters bunkers, revetments for choppers, how they had blown up equipment that got left behind. As he told me about it, I could see he was proud of the job that his fellow engineers and he had done to destroy Khe Sanh Combat Base.

As he told me all about his joy about doing a great job of blowing stuff up, I sat on my bunk in the barracks. I pondered my pride, too, in my service during the Siege, and the thoughts of the destruction of the combat base, the abandonment left me again coming to the realization that all my comrades had died for….for….for what?

Author Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara.

But nothing subsequent matched how I felt that morning with my harsh black coffee and my Camel after Camel after Camel. My hangover, my sullen memory of the night before having to battle friends to avoid going swimming in my brand new civvies, and the way those letters in that article in the paper about giving up on Khe Sanh seemed to leap off the newsprint and slap me in the face like a foreign language that I needed to learn before I could really understand the abandonment.

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NEWS!

BRAVO! is now available in digital form on Amazon Prime.

This link will take you directly to BRAVO!’s Amazon Prime site where you can take a look at the options for streaming: https://amzn.to/2Hzf6In.

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