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Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Veterans,Vietnam War

March 22, 2017

Ghosties–Redux

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Forty-nine years ago yesterday, Second Platoon, Bravo Company, First Battalion, Twenty-Sixth Marine Regiment went outside the wire at Khe Sanh. BRAVO! Marine Michael E. O’Hara muses on his memories of that day in this re-posting of a guest blog he wrote six years ago.

“Flanders”, a novel by Patricia Anthony, is set in France in WWI. It tells of a Texas farm boy, Travis Lee Stanhope, who joined the British Army and fought there Mar/Dec 1916. As time passes and casualties mount, Travis Lee begins to have dreams, dreams of a beautiful garden, the sweet smell of lavender, and a girl in a calico dress who assures him she will watch over his friends, his “GHOSTIES”, buried in the glass covered graves there.

It is 21 March 1968. It has been nearly a month since Bravo lost the third platoon and has been confined to the trenches. The mud, the rats, the constant incoming artillery, sixty days without respite. Bravo just lost another five Marines on the 6th of March as we watched a C-123 get shot down, which was also carrying fifty-two other personnel. We are becoming very anxious and are about to tangle with Charlie once again.

Left to right: Michael Carwile, Steve Foster, Michael O’Hara, Quiles Jacobs, Doug Furlong, Ken Rodgers. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara.

The second platoon, Bravo, leaves the wire pre-dawn. We position ourselves in front of FOB 3 where the Army controls the wire. We sit down in an “L” formation and wait for first light. We begin to rise at about 8 a.m. and it starts immediately. Red tracers from our rear (USA) and green to our right (NVA), then the mortars and RPG’s. My squad leader, Quiles Jacobs (Jake), is right in front of me and his flak jacket explodes in my face. It causes him to stagger a bit but he does not go down. He has been hit by a .50 cal bullet (USA). To my immediate rear are Doug Furlong and Dan Horton. They go down, hit by an 82mm mortar barrage, along with others. We are getting caught in a crossfire from the USA and the NVA. Someone failed to get the word we are in front of U S Army lines. Fortunately the friendly fire is soon checked and our heavy artillery quickly silences the mortars and small arms fire coming from the enemy tree line. I find myself, literally, holding both Horton and Furlong as we apply first aid and wait for the stretcher bearers. Many years will pass before I ever hear their voices again.

Amazingly, we are ordered to continue the patrol even though nearly twenty have been wounded and I think four have been evac’d. After a while I notice much blood running over Jake’s trousers from under his jacket. When I ask if he is alright, he just tells me to take over the point so we can finish our mission and get back. When we do, they put over 120 stitches in his back without any anesthesia and he still refuses to be med-evac’d.

We have gathered much on this patrol. We found siege work trenches, way too close to our lines, meant for a jumping-off point for a full frontal assault on our positions. We were able to locate many probable mortar and machine gun positions. The enemy trenches were scattered with dead NVA and beaucoup booby traps. Little do we know it will only be nine days until we all re-visit the ambush site for our final revenge. Jake, still wearing his bandages, will lead our squad headlong into hell once again. Flamethrowers, fixed bayonets, overhead heavy artillery, close air support (I do mean close) and napalm will rule that day.

Quiles Ray Jacobs and Dan Horton. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara

Tonight, all of Bravo will rest easy and dream of the beautiful garden, the sweet smell of lavender, and the girl in the calico dress who is watching over our “GHOSTIES” in their glass covered graves. Soon though, she will beckon thirteen more from Bravo to join her.

Present Day

Although Charlie did his best to lessen our numbers it would be a silent killer that would continue to cause casualties. Jake was the first on 19 April ’95 when the country’s eyes were on Oklahoma City. 1998, Bill Jayne and I would bury Don Quinn at Arlington. 2001 it was Doc Tom Hoody, then sometime along the way we lost Steve Foster. Many more would follow.

Dan Horton and I hooked up again in ’93 and had some really good times together. I was contacted around 2002 by Doug Furlong. He lived in Australia. I never saw him again but was able to enjoy our occasional conversation. Then in the fall of 2010 it was becoming obvious both these guys were in some serious danger. These were the two I held in my arms on 21 March 1968 and here they were both casualties again. Doug would leave for the garden on Halloween night and Danny, in all his glory, went there on 10 November, the Marine Corps birthday. I was absolutely STUNNED that it was these two who were wounded together, suffered together, and would die together some 42 years later. CANCER! All of them.

I attended Danny’s service in Detroit. He was laid out in his dress blues, rosary in his hand, and I found I just had no tears. I was so damn proud of him. He was Marine to the bone. Oorah!

God knows I miss them all so. I still set time aside each day just for “my” Marines.

Michael E. O’Hara during his interview for Bravo! Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.
Photo by Betty Rodgers

As for me, I will continue to dream of the beautiful garden, and enjoy the sweet smell of lavender, as the girl in the calico dress watches over my “GHOSTIES” in their glass covered graves, until such time as she beckons me also.
Sweet dreams, Marines!

Michael E. O’Hara grew up and continues to live in Brown County in Southern Indiana.

Michael and his partner Maxine have been together 43 years.

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If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

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

March 10, 2017

Bookie 762. . .Redux

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Betty and I and our guest writers have been maintaining this blog site for six and one-half years. From time to time we venture back and read what showed up on the site in the past. Here is a blog I wrote in March of 2011 as we were weorking on the intial edits for the film.

Photo of a Marine Corps C-123.

Photo of a Marine Corps C-123.

On March 6, 1968 a planeload of Marines on a C-123 with a call sign of “Bookie 762” flew in from the real world in Danang and upon arrival at Khe Sanh combat base was damaged by incoming North Vietnamese Army .50 caliber machine gun and 57 millimeter recoilless rifle fire. She lost three of her engines, and the pilot veered off to return to Danang. From our vantage point, she got lost in the fog. Later, we learned she crashed. No survivors. There were 5 Marines from Bravo Company on that plane:

Herbert Aldridge

Willis Beauford

Joseph Brignac

Winford McCosar

Ron Ryan

Ron Ryan shortly before the Siege of Khe Sanh began. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O'Hara.

Ron Ryan shortly before the Siege of Khe Sanh began. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

At the time, when the word came down the trench, the faces of the survivors in Second Platoon wore expressions of fear, shock and surprise.

I knew Corporal Ron Ryan fairly well, as well as that curious battlefield intimacy we enjoyed at Khe Sanh allowed. He was a machine gunner who’d been with Bravo Company, I think, since early October, 1967.

At the time, it all reeled by in my mind like movie cartoons. My breath shrunk in my chest, grew shallow. Red mustache, dirty dungarees, big smile, Ryan kicking asses when catching Marines asleep on watch. Our shared miseries like no water for showers, not enough chow, constantly cleaning rusty rifles, incoming attacks, more incoming attacks, how we surfaced after they let up and laughed and laughed and laughed. We would see him no more. My head spun.

Lance Corporal “J” looked at me with his huge .50 caliber eyes and shook his big, helmeted head. He glanced down at the red mud in the trench bottom and kicked at it with a scuffed jungle boot. He peered at me and said, “Lord, don’t you know it’s a terrible, terrible thing.”

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

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

He shook his head again, “Terrible…life is terrible.” Then he let the slightest grin come across one-half of his mouth as he whispered, “But better him than me.”

We both laughed, surreptitiously, of course. There was a lot of gloom from the other Marines standing there, pondering life and its aftermath.

He said it a little louder, “Better him than me.”

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If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

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

February 23, 2017

Reclaiming the Story

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I recently received two articles from friend and BRAVO! supporter Norma Jaeger about the power of story to help heal mental health issues. As I read the articles I was particularly struck by two notions.

One: The notion that we need to reclaim our stories—and by that I mean that the memories we have, whether they are related to combat or not, are somewhere in our minds—and by reclaiming them, rethinking them, telling them for the first time or relating them again, we allow ourselves to investigate how those stories are relevant to who we have become.

Two: Mention the unmentionable; dig down and remember those instances that are so horrible and so frightening that we want to hide them from ourselves. Quite often our failure to think about, relive, and analyze the unmentionable moments of our lives can lead to mental and/or physical issues that may be harmful.

Cal Bright

Cal Bright

The interesting thing is that when we try to hide the unmentionables from ourselves, they really don’t hide down there, dormant, obedient, submissive. They try their damnedest to worm their way out of the vault in which we attempt to lock them. They want out, they need to get out. Out, so we can examine them and discover what they really mean vis à vis the person we are now as well as the person we wish to become.

For Khe Sanh veterans it is the season of remembering. The particular time of year rolls around every January and sticks in our minds through the end of spring. For the various men who served during the siege there are ample examples of unmentionables that for years have been crammed and stuffed into the dark and inaccessible places of our memories.

John "Doc" Cicala

John “Doc” Cicala

Three days from now, on February 25, most Khe Sanh vets will recall—and in some cases mentally relive—a platoon-sized patrol outside the east end of the combat base. That event has come to be called “The Ghost Patrol.” The Marines of 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1/26 and later 1st Platoon of the same outfit ran into a slaughter house of an ambush sprung by the North Vietnamese. The battle decimated the Marines and left them mired in the chaos of combat. They received little help from the combat base. They saved each other the best they could. Some were forced to save themselves, and in a number of cases, could not comprehend how they even managed to survive.

Now, forty-nine years later, that patrol…that ambush…has gained a sort of fame, so to speak, where the lessons learned by the warriors on both sides are now being taught to the incoming generation of new combatants.

According to Reverend Ray Stubbe’s publication titled PEBBLES IN MY BOOTS, VOLUME 4, the North Vietnamese Army uses the events of February 25th in their training on how to set up ambushes. And as Betty and I found out last spring while at Quantico to receive an award for BRAVO! from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, The Ghost Patrol is also the subject of a field problem during a class on Scouting and Patrolling in The Basic School which all officers in the Marine Corps attend before they are assigned to their initial deployments.

Peter Weiss

Peter Weiss

For those of us who endured or witnessed that sorry, sorry event, the magnitude of what happened in The Ghost Patrol is imprinted on our souls. But other people not involved in the death and mayhem, most of them not even alive in 1968, also saw—or see—value in remembering, in a kind of way, the events of that day.

And aside from instructional purposes, is there any other value in recalling what happened on February 25, 1968?

In BRAVO! three Marines, Cal Bright, Steve Wiese and Peter Weiss and one Navy Corpsman, John Cicala, talk about the events of that day. The pain and horror, the knife-edged realization that the memories remain as virulent now as they ever were, are etched all over their remembrance of The Ghost Patrol. Maybe the recollections are a little softened by time, but they are still capable of delivering an overdose of pain.

Steve Wiese

Steve Wiese

They reclaimed their stories. In the moments when I interviewed them, they told—they witnessed again—the horrors of that day. I can only imagine the courage it took for them to discuss events that even though decades old, could disrupt the calm demeanor these men normally carry. The moments they described—mentioning the unmentionable, the painful unmentionable, to one degree or another—bore on their faces like a map of the blasted land around Khe Sanh in 1968.

I am not a psychologist and don’t pretend to know much about how moral injury, PTSD and TBI affect us, but I believe that those four men, by revealing to us their memories about The Ghost Patrol, found some relief from the nagging images and the unpleasant reactions they suffer as a result of that infamous battle.

Marines on The Ghost Patrol.  Cal Bright on the left. Photo courtesy of Robert Ellison/Blackstar

Marines on The Ghost Patrol. Cal Bright on the left. Photo courtesy of Robert Ellison/Blackstar

And I think there is something in their examples for each of us to think about. Most combat veterans have experiences like The Ghost Patrol in one form or another, and a lot of the memories of those moments stay chilled in the recesses of their minds. And not just combat vets, but every one of us has things dwelling in our memories that we would rather not think about; things that fester there like splinters jammed deep beneath the skin. Like all things that fester, they can become toxic and dangerous, and as such we need to acknowledge them through talking to a friend, a counselor, writing them down, painting or drawing them in a picture, or reliving them in a documentary film so we can begin to put them in their proper place inside the framework of our lives.

Again, we should reclaim those memories instead of letting them simmer in the back of the mind. Let them become a vital and much less toxic part of who we have become. Retelling our tales, whether to a friend, in a poem, or to a mental health professional, allows us the opportunity to change the foreign into the recognizable. It makes that which remains unspoken into the verbalized and may very well allow us access to a new sense of awareness about our story and its relationship to our wellbeing. And that can’t do anything but help.

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If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Khe Sanh Veteran's Reunion,Marines,Other Musings,Veterans,Vietnam War

February 6, 2017

…A War That Forever Changed Them

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Five years ago, in February 2012, BRAVO!’s principal videographer, Mark Spear, wrote the following guest blog about his experiences interviewing ten of the men in the film.

Mark passed away on March 22, 2014 at the age of forty-five. I remember Betty and I were sitting in a café having breakfast with BRAVO! Skipper Ken Pipes and his wife Sharon. When my cell phone rang—I don’t know why I answered it. I normally don’t answer the phone when the calls are from numbers I don’t recognize—and his step-dad, Dan Votroubek, gave me the devastating news.

It was like we’d lost a member of our family and in untold ways Mark had become a member of the BRAVO! tribe. Mark left a son to follow in his steps.

Mark was an artistic and sensitive man. I think you will see this as you read this blog which he wrote those five years back. Please join us in remembering him.

It’s been over a year now since I was given the task of filming interviews of some of the siege of Khe Sanh survivors at an annual reunion in San Antonio, Texas for a documentary titled Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, Ken and Betty Rodgers’ first film. Ken, a Marine with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines (B 1/26) who was there for the siege, felt it was time to tell this story…so did Betty. I felt I was up for it and thankfully they trusted me. After all, I’ve been on some pretty important shoots through my career, some seemingly less important, but all I have tried to give my best work to.

Mark Spear at the Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion in San Antonio. Texas, 2010. © Betty Rodgers 2010

Mark Spear at the Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion in San Antonio. Texas, 2010.
© Betty Rodgers 2010

If you had met Ken on the street you would probably assume a first impression of an easy-going normal guy which he is, although he joked with me that he isn’t! I admittedly was very humbled by his experience and a bit intimidated by his intelligence. He is not the normal stereotyped Vietnam veteran…now. Ken’s poems and writing enlighten me as well as his ability to tell the story of the siege so matter of factly. Ken also acted like a bridge between me and his fellow Marines we were to interview, more so than I think he knew.

Betty and her knowledge of photography and art was a welcome relief to the pressure I put on myself. She did so much coordinating and calmly complimented me at every turn, giving me strength she did not know I thought I did not have. This made production so smooth and enjoyable.

I knew this was going to be big, the greatest challenge I had ever worked on. Deep down, I admit now, I was terrified! Ken and Betty, using their seed money and a small grant from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, were relying on ME to help give this story a face. Me!…me…(gulp).

Working on a war documentary was something I had dreamed of doing forever it seemed, and now it was really happening. I remember going home after I interviewed Ken and crying in sadness, fear, honor and respect…and for the gravity of the situation. It turns out this particular shoot was something I didn’t prepare for emotionally. I didn’t think I needed to. After all, the siege was history by the time I was born in 1968. I’ve seen plenty of war movies and documentaries, but this was different. Ken was there, and every time I talked with him my mind started to drift in thoughts of what it must have been like.

I kept my focus more on the lighting, sound, location, the way one might manipulate an interviewee to get the best “stuff.” The technical preparations paled in comparison to hearing these men, these Marines of Bravo Company, now in their 60’s and 70’s, tell a story about how they survived, as very young men, a war that forever changed them.

I remember sitting behind the camera listening to every one of their words, fighting off the tears my imagination was creating from the pictures they painted. Think of these men as 15 different camera angles on a shoot, all different perspectives and styles. Here are these hardened veterans remembering, reliving, telling their recollection of the Ghost Patrol and Payback, stifling their tears, choking up, needing to take a break from being in that place again.

I realized it was almost therapy for these guys, some of whom had not spoken extensively about these events for 40 years…and now were laying what they could out there. I had to stay on task…not get too caught up in the story…don’t forget my job, I thought…don’t say anything stupid…don’t cry, don’t cry I told myself. I saved that for my first night in my San Antonio hotel room after we filmed the first round of interviews.

Mark Spear shooting an interview in San Antonio, 2010. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

Mark Spear shooting an interview in San Antonio, 2010. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

It’s as amazing to me now as it was when the stories and production all started unfolding. I look back at this experience as one I will never, ever forget. These Marines who welcomed me into a sacred reunion…their reunion…where I looked into their eyes and saw more than historic facts…I saw men who had the courage to not give up then…and to not give up now, and still fight this battle every day.

To the friends I made there, to the Marines of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines (B 1/26), my hat is off to you. This is in the top 3 productions I have had the honor of being a part of in my career…funny thing is, I don’t know what numbers 2 or 3 are! Thank you.

If you are interested in reading the original blog, you can find it here.
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If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

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

January 18, 2017

N-Day

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Winter has been ferocious in Idaho this year with lots of ice and snow, below-zero temperatures, then rain and flooding. One local weatherman predicted death and destruction, causing locals to clean out the shelves of grocery stores and hardware outlets in anticipation of days of dark and death and privation.

And even though the local weatherman’s predictions turned out to be overblown, the season’s hostile weather seems to act as a perfect metaphor for what did come to pass at Khe Sanh Combat Base on January 21, 1968.

During these cold days of winter in the 21st Century, the minds and memories of survivors of the early days of the Siege of Khe Sanh turn to the horrible events of the first day of the Siege.

It wasn’t cold and ice, but it was death and destruction, mist and fog, and the raining down of mortars, rockets and artillery from the North Vietnamese Army which had begun to surround us in the days leading up to 21Jan68. The NVA attack was then followed by our ammo dump erupting for hours.

Recently, I received a book in the mail from Reverend Ray Stubbe titled, PEBBLES IN MY BOOTS, VOLUME 4, which is a compilation of writings that Ray has written mostly concerning Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment (my old outfit and the subject of the film BRAVO!) at Khe Sanh.

Marines from Second Platoon, Bravo Company, Gray Sector, Khe Sanh Combat Base not long before the Siege. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O'Hara

Marines from Second Platoon, Bravo Company, Gray Sector, Khe Sanh Combat Base not long before the Siege. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara

Ray was the battalion chaplain before and during the Siege and is the foremost historian and memory keeper of all the men who served there. His informative books include VALLEY OF DECISION (with John Prados) and BATTALION OF KINGS.

One of the more interesting things about Ray’s most recent book is that he included information that has been translated from North Vietnamese records about the Siege. I learned some of the North Vietnamese combat lexicon referring to Khe Sanh including the term they used to denote 21Jan. They called it N-Day.

N-Day was one of those days when you woke up and found yourself trapped in a world that, even though you had pondered the possibilities,, was a thousand times worse than what you might have imagined.

What made the day even more chaotic for me was my earlier dogged refusal to believe it was approaching even though we were constantly warned about the impending arrival of an Armageddon of sorts.

As I look back on it now, I suspect my reluctance to believe in the oncoming holocaust was because I’d been hearing about imminent threats for months, none of which had come to pass, and I also suspect it was a naïve optimism that I would somehow waltz through a generally combat-free thirteen month tour and onto the flight that would haul me back across the pond to the good old USA.

Nevertheless, the manure hit the fan early the morning of 21Jan and it drove me out of my bunker and into the trench. It was like I would imagine the end of the world, the worst thing you could dream up. Loud, crashing, frightening, we were all facedown in the trench for a short while before our officers and NCOs kicked us in the butts and made us come to grips with the sorry stink and roar of battle.

I remember getting hit, believing I was paralyzed until one of my mates knocked red clay clods off of my back, laughing at me because I thought I’d never walk again.

And then the base ammo dump, not more than fifty meters away, went up in fireworks that added to the eerie reality of the Dante-esque morning. It was Hell in the real, not something from a movie or a poem, but the genuine Hades that all of us Marines had secretly hoped for when we sat in the classes at Boot Camp and heard the stirring stories of Marine heroes Presly O’Bannon during the First Barbary War, Smedley Butler during the Boxer Rebellion, Dan Daly at Belleau Wood in 1918 and John Basilone on Guadalcanal.

But be careful what you wish for because stories of heroism and grit in the face of death are a bit different than being gripped in the maw of chaos.

When the ammo dump went up, it was electric, voluminous, colorful, and loud, like the Devil’s own fireworks. Old Nick’s claws gnashed the sky and his big-gun drums thundered so that the hard red ground thrummed like a bevy of kettle drums. The CS gas grenades and ammunition stored in the dump also caught fire and spread across the trenches before settling in. We had to put on gas masks and looked like bugs, and when people spoke, it sounded like one was listening to those people talking from the insides of #10 fruit cans.

We watched the wire perimeter with the sure knowledge that Charley would be coming through the barrier any minute, sappers first, then a banzai assault of men intent on impaling us on the shafts of their bayonets.

A close up look at Khe Sanh after the Siege began. Photo Courtesy of David Douglas Duncan and Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas Austin

A close up look at Khe Sanh after the Siege began. Photo Courtesy of David Douglas Duncan and Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas Austin

My memories of it fit and start, and I suspect they reflect what it was like to me—alive in a world impossible to imagine and almost impossible to accept, except men were dying from the NVA incoming and men were lying in the trench with shattered bones where our own rounds that had cooked off in the ammo dump had rocketed straight up and then plummeted on top of them.

And it was N-Day and it was pure hell and after it calmed down later in the day, I remember thinking, “Okay, now I’ve experienced that, I suspect (or maybe I should say hope) that we won’t have any more of it.”

But once again, my naiveté was proven to be a shoddy and dangerous outlook, because what began on N-Day went on for another seventy-six days.

The anniversary of N-Day (and my wife and co-producer/director, Betty wonders if N-Day might refer to naiveté, too), which approaches, looms huge in the minds of those who survived it.

And thanks to Ray Stubbe, I can read extensively about what happened to Bravo Company from the perspectives of us and the NVA.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Khe Sanh Veteran's Reunion,Marines,Other Musings,Veterans,Vietnam War

October 28, 2016

Ironies and Coincidences

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Thirteen days ago Betty and I left San Antonio, Texas, after the completion of the 2016 Khe Sanh Veterans reunion.
We were glad to see all our Khe Sanh Veteran friends, and to meet some folks we hadn’t met before.

We were also saddened because a lot of the men in BRAVO!, a number of whom we interviewed in San Antonio at the same location in 2010, were not able to be with us for a number of reasons. We did get to see and visit with John “Doc” Cicala, Frank McCauley and Tom Quigley who are in the film. As always, it was great to talk about the present and to remember the past. It is especially nice to sit and talk to men who are the only ones who understand what one went through at Khe Sanh.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Angel Fire, New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Ken Rodger

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Angel Fire, New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Ken Rodger

Besides Doc Cicala and Frank McCauley and Tom Quigley, we also got to spend time with Marines and Corpsmen of Bravo 1/26, Bruce “T-Bone” Jones, Mike McIntyre, and Jim “Doc” Beal. What a heartening time we had with these fine men.

After all these years we tell our tales, our eyes big, sometimes with the faint acceleration of the heartbeat. Sometimes we slap a table top and laugh, some somber and dark moment remembered because of the black humor we employed to mitigate the constant fear that ground inside our guts.

Marines and Corpsmen of Bravo, 1/26. Left to Right: Ken Rodgers. John Cicala, Bruce Jones, Jim Beal, Mike McIntyre. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

Marines and Corpsmen of Bravo, 1/26. Left to Right: Ken Rodgers. John Cicala, Bruce Jones, Jim Beal, Mike McIntyre. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

While in San Antonio visiting with our friends and comrades, we spent some time working on our new project, a documentary film about the wives of combat veterans. The working title for this new effort is I MARRIED THE WAR.

We met with a woman whose husband, whom we also spent time with, served during the Middle East war. In addition, we met a couple who have been married since he came home after the war in Vietnam. In addition, we also visited with a woman from the east coast whom we will interview about her experiences as the spouse of a Khe Sanh vet.

On our journey down to San Antonio from our home in Idaho, we managed to stop and spend a few moments of reflection at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Angel Fire, New Mexico. The memorial is a somberly beautiful structure that seemed to fit in an almost ungainly way against the flaming autumn colors of the surrounding Sangre de Christo Mountains. It wasn’t a complementary fit between the memorial and the red, golds and russets of the aspen and cottonwoods and maples and oaks. It was something more with a hint of irony. The memorializing of something horrible in contrast with something beautiful. The man-created versus the natural, and the stark dissimilarity between the two, was quite marked and emotionally attractive.

BRAVO! co-producer Betty Rodgers, left, and BRAVO! Marine Frank McCauley. Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers

BRAVO! co-producer Betty Rodgers, left, and BRAVO! Marine Frank McCauley. Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers

Betty and I also had the opportunity to spend some time with our longtime friends from Central Texas, Mary and Roger Engle.

We got to visit with Gregg Jones, author of LAST STAND AT KHE SANH. Gregg was in town speaking to a group associated with B-24 crews from World War II about his upcoming book concerning the B-24 Liberators of World War II.

The 2016 Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion was a fine experience, and on the road home, as always, we made time to stop and spend some moments taking in the locales we passed through. Particularly meaningful was the opportunity to journey off the more beaten paths of freeways and national highways and go to Pleasant Hill, New Mexico, in search of the grave site of Ken Pipes’ great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Pipes, who is buried in the Pleasant Hill Cemetery. Ken Pipes was the Skipper of Bravo Company, 1/26, and is dearly revered by the surviving men who served under him.

Ken Rodgers at the grave site of A J Pipes in Pleasant Hill, New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

Ken Rodgers at the grave site of A J Pipes in Pleasant Hill, New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

Pleasant Hill isn’t a town, it’s a community of farmers and cattle ranchers near the border with Texas. The locals congregate around a fire house, a church and the cemetery which are all separated by a quarter or half section of farm or grazing ground. The land is flat, part of the high plains where the wind loves to blow and you can see for miles.

We did find the Skipper’s great-grandfather’s grave, and it has been well maintained.

One of the many other ironies and coincidences I thought about on the trip was how, in the 1980s, I used to hunt pheasant at Pleasant Hill, New Mexico. At the time I had no idea the Skipper had relations buried in the cemetery there. I didn’t know anything about the Skipper other than he had led us through the Siege of Khe Sanh and he let me leave Khe Sanh a day earlier than my orders allowed. I can see him now in my mind as I recall him then, sitting in the Bravo Company command post, his arm in a sling and other parts of his body bandaged in clean white material already smudged with the blood red mud of Khe Sanh.

Adding to the eerie air of coincidence is the notion that my great–grandfather was also named Andrew Jackson, last name Rodgers, who also hailed from the same region as the Skipper’s Andrew Jackson.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial in San Antonio, Texas. Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial in San Antonio, Texas. Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers.

And then it was home for a time to get caught up before we move on with BRAVO! And I MARRIED THE WAR.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Khe Sanh Veteran's Reunion,Marines,Other Musings,Veterans,Vietnam War

October 5, 2016

Full Circle

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Next week Betty and I will be journeying to Texas, to the Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion which will be held at San Antonio’s El Rancho Tropicana Hotel.

Just a little over six years ago, we set out from Montreal, Canada, where we were attending the Montreal Jazz Festival with our friends and relatives, Chuck and Donna Dennis, to head out to San Antonio for the 2010 reunion, and to film nine of the interviewees in the film, BRAVO!.

Back then, when we began the journey to tell the story of Bravo Company, 1/26 at the Siege of Khe Sanh, we had little to no knowledge of how to make a film. But, we knew we needed interviews, so undaunted, we marched on and showed up in San Antonio, made arrangements for a space to conduct interviews, picked up our videographer at the airport and proceeded to film the men.

John “Doc” Cicala, Frank McCauley, Mike McCauley, Michael E O’Hara, Ken Pipes, Ron Rees, the late Lloyd Scudder, Peter Weiss and Steve Wiese sat down and talked to me and the crew about their remembrances of the siege and what it meant to them then, in 1968, and what it meant to them in July 2010.

The late Mark Spear at the Khe Sanh Veterans reunion in San Antonio, Texas, July 2010

The late Mark Spear at the Khe Sanh Veterans reunion in San Antonio, Texas, July 2010

I often think of the intestinal fortitude these men demonstrated as they sat down and let their emotions bleed out for all the world to see. I recall sitting there across from them, hearing their stories, marveling at the way they just let it all spill out, and if it wasn’t all, it was certainly enough to wow the folks who would eventually work on and sit down to watch their powerful testimonies about fear, death, loss and ultimately, their victories over the obstacles that their experiences at Khe Sanh threw in front of them. The men were inspiring.

Now, six years later, we are going back to San Antonio and for me, it feels like we are coming full circle. Two of the men in the film, Dan Horton and the aforementioned Lloyd Scudder, are no longer with us as is also the case with videographer Mark Spear, and it makes me very happy that we got the interviews done—in the case of Dan and Lloyd—before these Marines left us.

I am also very grateful that we got to know Mark Spear before he made a way too early journey from those he loved and those of us who appreciated his sensitive, funny, artistic nature.

Some of the men in the film will not be there in San Antonio to sit around and talk about the war and our memories of it and how the film affected our views of that experience. And I wonder, in the case of those who have not said so, if BRAVO! in any way changed their lives, helped or hindered them in their ongoing drive to live on in spite of the mental and physical affects of the combat we faced during the Vietnam War.

The Late Lloyd Scudder at his Bravo! interview.

The Late Lloyd Scudder at his Bravo! interview.

Personally, what can I say about what BRAVO! has done for me? Well, for starters, I can say that I am now hooked on making films.

And I am now immersed in the world of combat veterans and all the accoutrements both good and bad that come with having let oneself become so immersed. Organizations, acquaintances, events, travel—yes, it’s greatly changed the world I personally inhabit.

And I think, in some ways, it’s helped me come to grips with my own horrors, the ones that lurk just behind me as I try to keep the memories of January, February, March and early April 1968 caged in some form of mental box.

It taught me that the men I knew in the trenches at Khe Sanh survived (as did I) second-by-second high grade fear, wounds, loss, and in most cases came out the other end able to deal with all the bad stuff. It taught me that the soul, however one wishes to describe or define it, can be ripped, stripped, battered and stabbed, but in the end, it can still emerge in triumph.

The keenest knowledge I’ve gained is the realization that instead of being alone, I know that there are a multitude of warriors who have experienced what I did—the constant fear that rides you like you were an underfed jackass, the need to be brave even though it may lead to your death, the loss of your friends’ lives. I have siblings, so to speak, who have trod or are now treading the treacherous ground with me.

The late Dan Horton at his Bravo interview at Ann Arbor, MI

The late Dan Horton at his Bravo interview at Ann Arbor, MI

For years, intellectually, I understood that I endured what millions have endured in war, but emotionally, I felt all alone, out there on a limb so to speak where no one could reach me.

Making BRAVO! taught me that there are others, right now, out there with me.

So I’m looking forward to getting to San Antonio and seeing who I know so we can sit around and talk about it all. Maybe we will laugh and maybe we won’t, but it will not matter, because I will not be alone.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

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

September 22, 2016

On Memories of 9/11

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Sunday before last, 9/11/2016, Betty and I attended a 9/11 ceremony at the Idaho Veterans Garden in Caldwell, Idaho.

The Garden is a space carved out for veterans to go and find some solace, an opportunity for introspection, the possibility of meeting other veterans and the chance to talk about shared kinds of experience. The Garden is seen, by its creators, as a place where a veteran can possibly get some non-clinical assistance while dealing with mental health issues related to PTSD, TBI, and other combat related symptoms.

Last week I wrote a piece about the 22 pushups for 22 days challenge to highlight veterans’ suicide and mental health concerns, and while at the Garden I asked for and received permission to create a video of me, Ken Rodgers, dropping to the deck and hitting 22 for the cause.

The entrance to the Idaho Veterans Garden in Caldwell, Idaho. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

The entrance to the Idaho Veterans Garden in Caldwell, Idaho. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

Events often seem to mesh in serendipitous ways and suddenly the memories of 9/11 and that date’s effects on me, my pushup experience, and some of the Garden’s aims all fit together.

I pondered that meshing as a woman wearing the black and white colors of a motorcycle group dedicated to honoring POW-MIAs gave me an encouraging shout. Then Betty and I wandered past late summer red and orange and yellow flowers and fecund tomato vines drooping with ripe fruit and found a seat beneath the awning were I began to ponder my memories of 9/11.

The devastation of 9/11 was a jolt to my person and roiled up a host of emotions: rage, paranoia, isolation, grief and a six-month onset of mild depression.

This garden moment was not the first time I’d pondered my reactions to the attacks of 9/11, but I recognized a connection between mental health issues created, and if not created, at least heightened by the combination of my service with the USMC during the Siege of Khe Sanh and the events of 9/11.

During the 1990s I pretty much got a handle on my war-related mental health issues listed above, but the sight of those big planes plowing into those buildings brought it all flooding back.

One of the attendees at the 9/11 ceremony at the Idaho Veterans Garden. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

One of the attendees at the 9/11 ceremony at the Idaho Veterans Garden. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

I know the intimate reactions one gets when attacked. And I can look at them in an intellectual way, like a scientist might, but I also understand them on a visceral level, where the basic instincts that govern our reactions to stimuli tell us we might die.

Following 9/11, fear (Of what? Death, dismemberment, incineration?) turned on the switch of my sensual response system and what followed was a spate of rage, a sense that around every corner someone waited to blow me up. I thought about buying some weapons and I wanted to move out to the sticks and get away from everybody I didn’t know. I’d find myself tearing up at the oddest moments, and for six months I steeped myself in a tea of depression that made the world look as if I was viewing it as a smoky, war-torn terrain through a set of cracked lenses.

And what took me thirty years to get under control was returned, riding my back like some sharp-toothed demon intent on sucking the life out of me. And the problem is, in some ways, those reactions to being attacked–the rage and the paranoia and the sense of isolation—have stayed strong. I wonder if that’s because since 9/11 we seem to be in a state of perpetual war and my amygdala senses that, and tells me I need to be on guard.

When I arrive at a waiting area before a plane flight, I assess the passengers reading computer screens or talking on their smart phones, and for each one of them I think about how I might take them out should the need arise if they have mal intent. I often do the same in restaurants and stores and while walking down a crowded street. This is known as hyper-vigilance.

And often the smallest events set me off. In 2004, I threatened to choke one of my employers. I clutched his Adam’s apple in my right hand. Lucky for me I didn’t follow through and he didn’t call the police. Fortunately, to this day, we are good friends.

In 2008, I verbally and almost physically attacked an acquaintance of mine in a restaurant after he said something innocuous, but which sprung such a surprise on me that I went on the attack with no forethought. This was forty years after the siege.

That’s when I decided I needed to find out what I could do to avoid these outbursts of rage. I went to the VA and spent time with a psychologist and though I still have strong eruptions of my symptoms, I haven’t attacked anyone since.

I say all this about my own experiences because this is what it is like for a lot of veterans when they come back from combat. The baboon is on their back and even though they throw it off, it tends to come back and haunt them at the most unexpected moments. It’s long-term.

Some people say, “Well, you just need to get over it.”

But it’s not that easy. It’s not something about which our rational conscious has a whole lot to say. It happens down in the animal part where survival instincts rule.

And the thing is, these symptoms of veterans’ mental health needs cost all of us…combatants and non-combatants alike. All kinds of relationships—work, family and otherwise—are affected and the cost is dear in economic and social terms. It’s pervasive and it eats at the foundations of our culture.

Beneath the awing before the start of the 9/11 ceremony at the Idaho Veterans Garden. Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers.

Beneath the awing before the start of the 9/11 ceremony at the Idaho Veterans Garden. Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers.

As these grim thoughts wormed around inside my head, a semi truck with a trailer full of grain sped by on the roadbed that watches over the Garden. The driver gave us two toots of his air horn and it brought me back to the moment. I was thankful for that as I stood among the folks around me and gazed at the flags flapping in the breeze.

There are a lot of resources available at the VA, and many communities also offer other sources that can help a veteran in crisis because of mental health needs. It’s worth checking out.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

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

July 27, 2016

On Savagery

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“War produces many euphemisms, downplaying or giving verbal respectability to savagery and slaughter.”
― Patrick Cockburn

On a recent airplane flight that Betty and I made to screen BRAVO!, I busied myself by reading an article by George Packer in THE NEW YORKER that introduced an interesting notion about violence and warriors. The article got my attention and has me still thinking.

I interpreted that notion as follows: The world offers a variety of narratives in which one can choose to participate. Some narratives are peaceful, some career minded, some offer adventure. Sometimes the adventurous narratives proffer us the opportunity to experience our own inner savagery.

As I pondered the latter idea, I thought that it was ugly. But then I thought about it some more and decided that yes, the idea that we can take the opportunity to experience our own inner savagery is ugly, but maybe not that uncommon.

Photo of author, historian and Marine William Manchester. Photo from Veterans Today.

Photo of author, historian and Marine William Manchester. Photo from Veterans Today.

I recall reading William Manchester’s book titled GOODBYE DARKNESS about his service in the Marine Corps during World War II. What stuck with me more than any other ideas and incidents he wrote about were his comments about the battles with the Japanese. Marines quite often did not take prisoners. Neither did the Japanese. In many ways, the battles in the Pacific theater were no-quarter-given affairs. Manchester intimated that even when an enemy soldier tried to surrender, you killed him.

I know there were a lot of reasons why prisoners were not taken, but as I think about it, there is an element of savagery here that would shock the folks at home who have no knowledge of war.

Various definitions of savagery speak of barbarity and violence and brutality. And of course war is all of those things, and savagery may be necessary for the warrior when locked in battle.

I was involved in a nasty battle in Vietnam in which we assaulted a trench line held by a battalion of North Vietnamese soldiers. We got them on the run and moved through their fortifications, killing every enemy soldier we came upon.

At one point in the fight, as another Marine and I advanced through the maze of trenches, I noticed a group of Marines in a deep bomb crater nearby. Among them was what looked like a North Vietnamese soldier who must have surrendered. As I watched, in just the minute it takes for you to start to breathe, a barrage of enemy mortar rounds landed in and around the bomb crater, decimating the Marines and Navy Corpsmen inside the crater. As the smoke and dust cleared, I saw a Marine take a .45 caliber pistol and shoot that NVA prisoner in the head.

For years I doubted I had really seen this event take place. Not that I couldn’t believe it happened, but on that day, so much chaos and mayhem ruled the moment that I’ve wondered if the event was a figment of my imagination or a memory based on something someone else had told me.

Several years ago, I finally did some checking around and I am now convinced that what I saw did actually happen.

I am not saying that when the Marine popped a pistol round into the prisoner’s head that it was wrong, or right for that matter. I think each of us has to decide these things for ourselves. And I would like to throw into the thinking mix the notion that the question of whether it was right or wrong wasn’t even relevant to the moment. I don’t believe any of us were pondering the finer points of morality while this battle raged.

Would I have done the same thing? Even though I was a witness, I can’t really say since I wasn’t in that exact situation and that very particular place.

I wonder what was going through that Marine’s mind as he pulled the trigger and killed his prisoner. I know he was racked with fear—we all were—and he may have been cognizant that what happened when the barrage of mortar rounds landed was a catastrophe for everyone in the bomb crater and that the NVA prisoner looking at him was an enemy combatant who, if given the opportunity, would most likely do anything he could to help kill Marines.

Houses burned by American soldiers during the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968 in My Lai, South Vietnam.  (Photo by Ronald S. Haeberle)

Houses burned by American soldiers during the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968 in My Lai, South Vietnam. (Photo by Ronald S. Haeberle)

What I witnessed at that moment was a lot of things, including savagery.

Earlier in my tour of duty, some Marines arrived in Bravo Company from another regiment. They had been in-country for a while and were seasoned warriors. I got to know a few of them and more than once I asked how and why they ended up getting transferred to Bravo Company.

The Marines would blow me off or they’d look at each other and shrug, but finally, two of them told me they’d been involved in an operation in the mountains south of Khe Sanh. The operation, among other things, involved sweeping through a lot of rough country and a few of the local villes.

According to what these Marines told me, every time they went through one of the villes on search and destroy missions, one or more Marines would get shot, always after the Marines had left the ville. Evidently it happened so many times that one day, after several Marines were shot and killed after the company left a particular ville, the company got on line and swept back through the ville and killed everything: men, women, children, dogs, pigs.

I served with these men, some of them for quite a long time, and they were good men, so it makes me wonder if captured in a particular time and place, most of us aren’t susceptible to such momentary fits of aggression, rage or savagery.

As I compose this, I think of the incident at My Lai in 1968 where American troops slaughtered hundreds of Vietnamese people in a horror where savagery evidently got the best of a good number of the United States Army participants. I can’t imagine that all those men who were involved in that massacre are monsters now if they are still alive. They may have been monsters in that short time but then came home to not be like that at all, and when I think that, I wonder if most of us don’t have that person living inside us, that monster.

Is this kind of savagery a result of fear or is it a result of what we become in order to survive when faced with the possibility of imminent death; or is it that there is some kind of communal blood lust that happens in combat; or is it even more complicated than that? Is revenge considered savagery? A lot of questions, I think, and not a lot of answers.

Another photo of the action at My Lai on March 16, 1968. (Photo by Ronald Haeberle)

Another photo of the action at My Lai on March 16, 1968. (Photo by Ronald Haeberle)

Many people who read this will, without a moment’s hesitation, say, “No, people who act this way are monsters without exception.” But some of us who have been in combat won’t be so sure. We’ll think about what we saw and what it felt like to be confronted by another human intent on killing you and the person next to you, and who has the means to do so.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this coming fall, winter, spring or next summer, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

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

June 29, 2016

In the Blink of an Eye

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In Khe Sanh Marine Mike Archer’s latest book, THE LONG GOODBYE, he describes a scene from his memory of incoming artillery rounds:

“Then it struck. It was not quite a direct hit because the roof did not collapse, but it could have not been closer. There was absolutely no sound. We were inside the explosion. A vacuum instantly sucked dust, loose paper and other light objects out the bunker’s hatchway. A painful pressure pushed on my eardrums. Then, as swiftly as it happened, it was over…”

One thing that interests me about Mike Archer’s passage from this exemplary book is how it intimates the moments where close calls remind us how mortal we all are.

Call it luck or divine intervention or karma, but those moments where you don’t die because you happened to be in the right place at the right time leave a lasting impression on you.

On March 30, 1968, Bravo Company, 1/26, went out the wire at Khe Sanh on an assault that has come to be known as the Payback Patrol. I was radioman for Second Platoon’s platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Gustavo Alvarado. As the company charged through a valley and up a ridge into a trenchline full of North Vietnamese troopers, SSgt Alvarado and I brought up the rear of the line of march.

As the Marines of Bravo dove bayonet-first into the NVA positions, SSgt Alvarado and I worked our way towards the apex of the ridge. Somewhere near the top, amid a small stand of shell-splintered trees, a mortar round landed between the staff sergeant and me. We couldn’t have been more than four or five feet apart when the round hit and exploded.

The first thing I knew was that I was alive, or at least I thought I was. I was sitting on my butt in the red mud. I had the strangest sensation that I was the center of a ripple of energy, or sound, that was emanating from me as if I was a stone tossed into a pond. I had the same sensation on the left side of my head, where shrapnel had entered the side of my face near my temple. That metal’s still lodged there like a memory that won’t go away, as if I needed to be reminded in one more way of my time at Khe Sanh.

SSgt Alvarado was hit in the leg by the mortar’s tail fin assembly and he was on the ground, too. But after a cursory inspection of each other, we moved into the melee over the top of the ridge and lived to tell about that ecstatically stimulating and horrible day where death flew perilously close like a flock of angry hawks.

I often return to that scene and think about how lucky we were that we didn’t die, or lose a limb or an eye, or have hot shrapnel penetrate a temple and hack out half of our intellects.

Another incident that often comes to mind happened several weeks before the Payback Patrol. Again, close calls were the name of the game during the Siege of Khe Sanh and any survivor can deliver a litany of the times they managed to beat death or maiming because they happened to be in the right place.

Cover of Mike Archer's book, THE LONG GOODBYE.

Cover of Mike Archer’s book, THE LONG GOODBYE.

The other member of Second Platoon’s radio team was a man named Curtis Horn. I think Horn hailed from West Virginia. We spent a lot of time trading off on radio watch along with the platoon’s right guide. I don’t recall many specifics about Horn other than he was a damned good Marine and he didn’t talk much.

On this particular day we’d just spent quite a bit of time upgrading the platoon command post so that it could take (we hoped) a direct hit from a 152 mm shell, even one with a delayed fuse. Horn and I made the mistake of thinking that since we’d done the lion’s share of the work on the new bunker we would be allowed to bunk there. But we were sorely disabused of that notion and ordered by the platoon commander and SSgt Alvarado to bunk next door in the platoon ammo bunker.

The ammo bunker was a paltry excuse for a well-built facility. It had one layer of sandbags on top of a framework of pallets. The bunker was stuffed with machine gun ammo, rifle ammo, smoke grenades, willy peter grenades, hand grenades, mortar rounds, rocket rounds, claymore mines, pop up flares. Lots of things that burned, killed, smoked and exploded.

I didn’t like having to spend my rack time in that death trap, but it was late and we were tired and there were two cots inside, one on the floor and the other suspended off the walls above the one below.

As night settled in and the regular blanket of mist and fog descended on the combat base, Horn and I hit the rack. Always alert to the possibility of incoming, I lay in the cot and listened to NVA rounds hitting at the other end of the base.

I listened and listened until sleep wormed its way into my body, and I had just dropped off, I think, when I was jolted out of the bottom bunk with Horn soon crashing down on me from above. I didn’t have to think about it because escape is one of the original and fundamental human responses to imminent danger.

We scrabbled out of that death trap and into the command post. One of the higher ups, maybe the right guide, or maybe SSgt Alvarado, or maybe even the platoon commander, ordered us out of the bunker but I was scared and I was hearing none of it and I don’t think I threatened to shoot any of them but Horn and I spent the rest of that night inside the command post.

The next morning I crawled around the back of the command post and up to the top of the ammo bunker and saw where a round had hit near the southwest corner. There was an impact crater less than two inches from the roof. It looked like it must have been an 82 mm mortar round that, had it hit, would have probably spread little chunks of Horn’s and my bone and meat and gristle and red blood all over Second Platoon’s area of operation.

Blog author Ken Rodgers.

Blog author Ken Rodgers.

But it didn’t. It just scared the hell out of me and left an indelible set of images etched into my memory. And it also left me with an enduring wonder at how often we avoid death due to nothing more than blind luck.

One of the Marines, Ron Rees, in our film, BRAVO!, talks about how he lives his life a second at a time because that’s all it takes for you to be gone, snuffed, history, dead. Folks who have survived combat often tell me they exist from one second to the next. Living like that makes it hard to plan ahead, hard to think about how one might choose to live in years ahead because one second from now, you may not be alive; in the blink of an eye.

You can find out more about Michael Archer and his books about Khe Sanh and other subjects at http://www.michaelarcher.net/.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this coming summer, fall, winter or next spring please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.