Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Archive for the ‘Veterans’ Category

Documentary Film,Eulogies,Khe Sanh,Listening Posts,Marines,Other Musings,Veterans,Vietnam War

April 21, 2021

No Better Friend

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The phone jangled—1992 or 1993—and when I answered it, a voice out of my past said, “Is this Kenny Rodgers?”

I wondered who it was and then kind of remembered and then he said, “You may not remember me but…”

It all hit, the way he liked to stand, cocky, even though he was just a kid.

He told me about a reunion in Washington, DC, for survivors of Khe Sanh, and that he wanted me to come, and he told me about who he’d contacted, who he’d met up with. I think he’d made it his duty to find all the men who’d served in Third Squad, Second Platoon, Bravo Company, 1/26 during the siege of Khe Sanh.

If he hadn’t called me, our lives—Betty and mine—might have been very different. But we went to the reunion and for 28 years, Michael E. O’Hara has been a big part of my life—our lives.

We were lucky in that.

Michael E. O’Hara at Khe Sanh

He was in our film, BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR, and his powerful, emotional words were, and still are, a testament to the long-lasting effects of combat and to the reverence he, and most of us who served at Khe Sanh, felt for our comrades.

Michael passed on last week after a battle with cancer.

I feel his absence already, a voice over my shoulder encouraging, scolding, scoffing, laughing at me. I find myself thinking, “Okay, O’Hara, what do you think about…,” and then I realize we won’t share any of those moments again. Only in my imagination.

We didn’t always see eye-to-eye. We argued more than we should have, but none of that matters now. And never really did.

An image comes to mind when I think about him. Maybe the first time I really recognized him as one of our Bravo Company Marines. I’d been on R & R in Bangkok, and right after I came back, we moved out of the lines at the combat base and up to 881-S. It was October of 1967.

We had gotten a lot of new guys in the squad while I’d been on R & R. Including him.

We humped it from the base up to the hill. I see Michael now, in my mind’s eye, on that trek. His clean helmet cover, his clean jungle boots, his clean jungle dungarees, his sleeves rolled up, a pack of Marlboros stored in the rolled left sleeve, his young biceps bulging, his M16 held in his right hand, butt against the right thigh, the business end into the sky. He was easy like that, and confident.

For three months we were in the same fire team. Long, wet patrols, humping up and down, once into Laos when we weren’t supposed to be there. Ambushes off the south end of 881-S. Soggy, miserable listening posts. Leaking hooches, everything wet: your socks, your boots, your mummy bag. Leeches, leeches, leeches.

We charged up hills into the enemy’s trench more than once, and we watched men die, watched them get maimed. We carried the dead and wounded off the battlefield.

During the siege, we endured the fury and the fear and while there, O’Hara earned three Purple Hearts.

Michael was an outstanding Marine.

One night in March of 1968, the artillery battery that was right behind our lines in the Gray Sector suffered a direct hit on their ammo dump. All night, ordnance exploded. Some of the rounds threw out smaller bits of explosives that detonated here and there, until after sunup, like they were randomly intent on killing whoever chanced to wander along our trench.

I was on radio watch most of that night in the platoon command post. Off and on, through those dark and dangerous hours, Michael came down that trench line delivering messages to us in the command post.

He was like that. Undaunted. Carrying out orders in the face of extreme danger.

Michael E. O’Hara.

My definition of a hero is someone who does what needs to be done against long odds, even though fear gets on his back like a big cat. Even though he or she doesn’t want to do it.

That was Michael E. O’Hara.

There’s a saying about Marines: No better friend, no worse enemy.

If you crossed Michael, he might chase you down and tackle you in the middle of the street and straighten you out. No worse enemy.

Years later, when the men he served with needed help or when their families needed help, he was there. He’d fund your dreams, he’d bury you. He’d show up to speak your name and remember you.

That, too, was Michael.

No better friend.

We will miss him. I will miss him. Man, will I.

Semper Fidelis, Michael E. O’Hara.

Documentary Film,Other Musings,Post Combat Mental Health,Veterans,Vietnam War

December 11, 2020

The Power of Story

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Most of us have experienced the power of storytelling. We remember, catalogue, and relate our lives through story.

In the making, sharing, and viewing of BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR, we all learned a lot about war, combat, warriors, and post-combat issues. We also learned the healing power of film.

Now, Betty, our team, and I are in the final stages of sharing another story, that of wives of combat veterans. Stories that those of us who have experienced war know, but are little known outside the veteran population.

We want to share these stories and we need your help to get them out to the world. Interviewing for this film has been therapeutic for the women who are featured. Their openness and candor will be helpful to spouses everywhere who feel alone, who think there is no help for them and their families.

The photo below is of the eleven wives of I MARRIED THE WAR.

Today, we have launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and we need your help to finish and share these stories of the wives of combat veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Join this effort by contributing today, or if you cannot donate right now, please share this information about our campaign with your family, friends and colleagues.

You can find out more about the campaign at https://igg.me/at/IMTW.

Together, we can get these stories out to the world!

Thanks.

Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War

March 30, 2020

The Need to See Them Dead

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Fifty-two years ago this morning on the battlefield of Khe Sanh, Vietnam, Bravo Company, 1/26 burst out of the confines of siege and siege mentality and went on the attack.

The details of what is now known as Payback are documented in a number of places. But what’s difficult to document is the fury and desperation that occurred when men from separate sides met face-to-face in a morning’s worth of savagery. For two and one-half months they’d blasted and murdered and maimed us and scared the living hell out of us. And we hungered for revenge.

Khe Sanh, 1968. Photo courtesy of Mac McNeely.

We caught them sleeping and we jumped in their trenches and we caught them in their bunkers and we dropped grenades on top of them and shot them when they crawled out and we dropped satchel charges on them and we shot them while looking in their eyes and we burned them alive with flame throwers and lobbed 60 millimeter mortars on top of them and we killed and killed.

The faces of the dead turned sallow and as I ran through the NVA’s trenches, I talked to myself about how the sallow nature of death made them all look the same, whether our side or theirs. They all looked the same and maybe that was appropriate given that the hands of death had choked all life out of them no matter their rank or race.

Blogger Ken Rodgers before the Siege of Khe Sanh began. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

Most of us were young. Our skipper called us kids. We were kids with lethal weapons and a bitter taste in our mouths and a load of hate in our hearts. Not a hate you reserve for the man you know who stabbed you in the back, but the hate you know against an idea, against an enemy—not individuals—that killed people that you love, and even though . . . even at the time you know . . . even though you’ve been taught thou shall not kill, and love your brother, and turn the other cheek, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you, you’re filled with hate and you are going to kill. You need to kill.

Fifty-two years ago this morning.

Enraged, we coveted revenge. Enraged, we needed to salve our pride. Indifference to them as human beings was the hallmark of the morning of 30Mar1968. We felt nothing towards those people over there except the need to see them dead. Payback.

***

DVDs of BRAVO! are available @https://bravotheproject.com/store/

A digital version of BRAVO! is available in the US on Amazon Prime Video @ https://amzn.to/2Hzf6In.

In the United Kingdom, BRAVO! is available on Amazon Prime Video UK @ https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07BZKJXBM.

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Eulogies,Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War

March 25, 2020

Requiem

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Steve Wiese was an American Hero. I think he would dispute that statement and would have said something like, “The real heroes are the dead, the ones who didn’t come home.”

But he was a hero.

Unlike so many of us who fought with Bravo Company, 1/26 at Khe Sanh, who did 12-month-and-twenty-day tours, Steve extended his time in country and served 18 Months. He joined up with his Bravo Marines when 1/26 was headquartered at Hill 55 southwest of Danang, and could have rotated home in late autumn of 1967, but chose to come back from his leave just in time to endure the Siege of Khe Sanh.

Marines of Bravo Company, 1/26, in Vietnam. Steve Wiese is the third man on the left in the front row. Photo courtesy of Steve Wiese.

In many regards, I think, he was the Marine’s Marine, a leader and a warrior who loved his Bravo Company mates.

A lot of Khe Sanh vets knew Steve better than I did, but what we shared was special: intense and intimate in the ways combat veterans share. We’d been to war and we’d made it home and after decades of keeping our traps shut about our experiences, we opened up and told our stories, separately and together.

And boy, did Steve’s stories impact the message that, after thirty-plus years, went out to America and the world.

Steve Wiese at a reunion of the Khe Sanh Veterans. Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers

The things Steve said in BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR illuminated the service of all Vietnam Veterans. He said it like it needed to be said, blunt and bold and no-holds-barred. He bared his soul and revealed his vulnerabilities while edifying the men with whom he served.

There were a lot of tragedies in Steve’s life. In Vietnam, with Bravo, he was involved in every battle or firefight of any consequence that happened during his tour.

While I managed to not be in a number of the fights that Steve was in, I lived through enough to get an inkling what it was like for him.

On June 7, 1967, in what has lately been termed by historians to be the last clash in the Hill Fights segment of the Battle of Khe Sanh, Bravo went on a two-platoon patrol off the north end of Hill 881-S. Back then, we patrolled in soft covers and no flak jackets, and we generally ran patrols on the same routes every few days.

Photo of Steve Wiese, second from left along with, on the left, Marcia Franklin of Idaho Public Television’s Dialogue, Betty Rodgers, second from the right, and Ken Rodgers. Photo courtesy of Idaho Public Television.

So, when the NVA ambushed Bravo out there that day, the casualties were devastating. I wasn’t out there. Our squad stayed on the lines but I heard it and I saw it, and how it felt to me then, sticks with me now: emptiness, like some part of me hightailed it and can’t come back. So with that in mind I can only imagine how those men who fought that day—like Steve Wiese—felt.

He gained some notoriety that day when, upon coming in the gate after the patrol returned to the combat base, he barked at a colonel, maybe, or a lieutenant colonel, or a major who tried to soothe the returning warriors with platitiudes. (A load of officers came up on the hill at the end of that fight.)

After returning to his squad area, he expected to be standing tall in front of The Man because of what he said, but instead he was approached by a general, whose name I don’t think he ever enlightened me with, who told Steve to not pay attention to anything that officer had said.

On July 21, 1967, First Platoon of Bravo went out on a patrol on Route 9, east of Khe Sanh, which was ambushed. Steve was out there that day, too, and men with whom he served and bonded, died.

And then there was the Siege and all that came with it.

Including the Ghost Patrol. Steve was a squad leader on that debacle and even though he survived, a lot of the men in his squad didn’t. He carried a ton of grief and guilt over that. His narrative about how he managed to escape and evade the NVA to return to the base is one hell of a story.

Steve Wiese during his interview for BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

And then there was the savage Payback Patrol where he was a squad leader in First Platoon and again, lost a lot of good Marines.

After he came home, he put up with all the guff and lack of respect that came with being a Vietnam Vet, and he suffered tragedies that would break folks with less steel in their spine.

He loved his Marines and he cherished and honored them whether dead or alive.

IF you were one of his Marine Brothers, he supported you. He showed up when the manure hit the fan.

One of the strongest moments in BRAVO! Is when Steve says this, “I’ve had people say, ‘Well, that was 30, 40 years ago. Why don’t you get over it?’ You know, I wish I could. I wish I could get over it. But on the other hand, it’s like I don’t ever want to forget these guys. I don’t want to forget what I’ve seen, what I was witness to. And I don’t want to forget them and their memories.” And he never did.

Steve wouldn’t have called himself a hero, but I will.

***

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

March 21, 2020

Elation

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After the Ghost Patrol of 25Feb1968, no larger units sortied outside Khe Sanh combat base for almost a month. We sent out some listening posts but those were small and they went out after dark and came in before sunrise while the mist still hung low to the ground.

But on today’s date fifty-two years ago, as the sun threw up the first hint of daylight, we Marines of Second Platoon, Bravo, 1/26 stood in the trench and smoked our Camels and Winstons and Salems, flinched at the incoming rounds, heard the scrape of scuffed jungle boots in the red mud at the bottom of the trench. Noted some mumbles.

And if fear had sounds, they would have ricocheted in the deep trench, off the walls, against the sandbags. Being Marines, we needed to keep the fright quarantined to a slow boil at the bottom of our guts. We must not entertain the notion of fear because its insidious gnawing weakened us.

And then out the gate we went, crossed over the minefield, got on line and charged across the vale and up the ridge towards the NVA position in the vicinity of where the Ghost Patrol had traveled.

After the Siege. Photo courtesy of Mac McNeely

Our big guns on base boxed us in with ordnance, geysers of red mud, black smoke and the din of combat suddenly crammed in our ears and brains, sucking the breath out of our lungs. And as we headed towards our objective, our allies to the rear, on the base, fired machine-guns over our heads.

As the Marines of my old squad, Third Squad, reached the top of the ridge, explosions erupted among them and then .50 caliber rounds fired by our guys, our allies, our mates, ripped into the men of Third Squad. I saw the rounds hit; flashes and bodies pirouetting, falling.

The explosions I suspect were from NVA mortar rounds and RPG rounds, but the machine-gun fire was what we call friendly fire. Friendly fire.

Up top, while the wounded were medevacked, we got in the NVA trench and headed east. At one point elements of First Squad, who were on point, veered off to the north, away from the trench.

We’d been briefed to stay in the NVA trench because it was believed that the surrounding terrain was infested with booby traps.

When this went down, I had about fifteen days left in the field. I’d survived my twelve month-plus tour by being good at surviving, being lucky, not being heroic, just doing my job and keeping it as low profile as possible.

So I was shocked as I took off, out of the trench, sprinting behind the Marines of First Squad, yelling, “No, no,” and when several turned at my words—and as I think of it now, how they heard me in the furious din that boomed around us—how they weren’t blown up by some of that ordnance and how we all didn’t get blown to smithereens by the mines and booby traps out there where we had wrongly ventured, is a wonder to me to this day.

But, nobody lost legs or died or anything. We just got back in the NVA trench and drove on towards our goal.

Not far from our destination, a gate we could enter through the maze of our own mines and wire and booby traps, the man on point triggered an NVA booby-trapped grenade that went off. He went down, but then got up and a Corpsman went to succor him and after that, we went in, missing some of the men with whom I’d served previously in Third Squad. The squad leader, Corporal Jacobs’ back had been rent by one of those .50 caliber rounds that had been delivered by the friendly fire. He stood there among us like nothing had happened to him.

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

After we all retired to our area, we shouted and jumped up and down and the Marines sent historians to record our thoughts. I remember relief. I remember a sense of satisfaction, and I also remember feeling extremely elated. How I imagined exaltation. I was bad, I was indestructible. I was alive.

And we’d gotten in their trench. Their trench.

We were…were…were unbreakable, we were shatterproof, we were everlasting.

The thing that sticks in my mind after all these years was that high, that feeling that I stood atop a throne at the apex of the world was at that moment so different from the almost two months of despair that permeated everything that I had lived through. Thousands upon thousands of incoming rounds that shook the ground—some that roared like railroad engines and some that hissed like sneaky spirits—and dismembered men I knew and didn’t know, who at that time and in that place were like twin brothers to me.

I realized that for two months I’d lived on huge doses of luck and that sometime, if the siege did not stop, I’d be hit by a whooshing chunk of shrapnel that would sever an arm or a leg, or I’d be sitting in my bunker and a rocket round would crash through the roof and my fellow Marines would be gathering my parts that were pasted on the sandbag walls, or a sniper would put a round through my brain.

So, having been in their trench, and having survived, and for at least a few hours, having been on top, the aggressor, the winner so to speak. Yeah, I was elated. I was bad.

***

DVDs of BRAVO! are available @https://bravotheproject.com/store/

A digital version of BRAVO! is available in the US on Amazon Prime Video @ https://amzn.to/2Hzf6In.

In the United Kingdom, BRAVO! is available on Amazon Prime Video UK @ https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07BZKJXBM.

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,Veterans,Vietnam War

February 25, 2020

Grief

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52 years ago today, one of the most significant events in my memory of Khe Sanh’s siege occurred in what has now become known as the Ghost Patrol. When Marines and Corpsmen from Third Platoon of Bravo Company 1/26 were ambushed by a battalion of NVA, a squad from First Platoon went out to relieve them, and they were ambushed, too. A lot of good Marines, young men with futures that would never be discovered and fulfilled, died that day.

I have written about this a lot over the years I suppose in hopes of finding resolution, and yet I still return to the memories almost daily.

I recall our skipper, Ken Pipes, talking about the event one evening, sadness drooped on his shoulders like a too-heavy mantle. He talked about a patrol on Guadalcanal—the Goettge Patrol, led by Lieutenant Colonel Frank Goettge—that was ambushed by Japanese forces and which lost almost its entire 25-man contingent.

Ken Pipes at Khe Sanh.

Skipper Pipes talked about how bad things happen in war and how the Ghost Patrol was another of the long list of actions where Marines were attacked and nearly obliterated. But his and my recognition of this fact of war had no effect, as far as I could tell, in lessening his profound sense of loss, and responsibility, related to the ambush of 25Feb68.

The Ghost Patrol has been the subject of a number of news articles, battle studies, and for a while was used as a case study in the Scouting and Patrolling class at the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico, Virginia where all new Marine Corps officers and warrant officers are trained. One of the things they taught in that course was how it feels to lose your troops/mates in the chaotic heat of battle, and in retrospect, the ensuing grief.

One of the online dictionaries defines grief as “deep sorrow, especially the sorrow caused by someone’s death.”

Grief comes in a variety of types. According to the website WHAT’S YOUR GRIEF (https://whatsyourgrief.com/ ), grief can be prolonged, anticipatory, masked, disenfranchised, secondary, cumulative, inhibited, ambiguous, complicated, normal, traumatic, abbreviated, exaggerated, absent, prolonged, chronic, and collective, to name a few.

Blogger Ken Rodgers while at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

As far as I can discern from my short appraisal of the types of grief, I suffer—or have suffered, related to the events surrounding the Ghost Patrol: normal, prolonged, complicated, traumatic, chronic and collective grief.

Collective grief, in my case, means that besides my problems with the malady, I am joined by a relatively large number of my fellow Khe Sanh survivors in our grief that is also prolonged and chronic and traumatic.

The French playwright Moliere said, “If you suppress grief too much, it can well redouble.”

For years, for decades, I tried like hell to stuff the grief I felt from my mates having been massacred on today’s date fifty-two years ago. And from my experience, I can say it probably didn’t help to do that. In the Marines back then, and maybe now, too, you were just supposed to tough it out. War’s hell and all that kind of sentiment, or lack of sentiment thereof. But all my grief demanded to be let out.

I think again of Bravo Skipper Pipes and it seems to me that so much of the life he lived in the too-short time I knew him was dedicated to the memories of the men he led who died at Khe Sanh and especially to all those casualties on 25February1968. His grief was palpable. It was long term. It directed him to constantly search for ways to honor those who didn’t come home.

Steve Wiese. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

Over the years, people have asked me why I don’t just get over it.

When we made BRAVO!, Steve Wiese said it best:

“I’ve had people say, ‘Well, that was 30, 40 years ago. Why don’t you get over it?’ You know, I wish I could. I wish I could get over it. But on the other hand, it’s like I don’t ever want to forget these guys. I don’t want to forget what I’ve seen, what I was witness to. And I don’t want to forget them and their memories.”

***

DVDs of BRAVO! are available @https://bravotheproject.com/store/

A digital version of BRAVO! is available in the US on Amazon Prime Video @ https://amzn.to/2Hzf6In.

In the United Kingdom, BRAVO! is available on Amazon Prime Video UK @ https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07BZKJXBM.

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,Veterans,Vietnam War

February 10, 2020

Give Them The Bayonet

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52 years ago today I awoke and realized that the end of my life could come at any moment. Before, even though Khe Sanh had been under siege for 20-plus days, I’d been quite optimistic that all would end soon and well.

Bayonet and Scabbard for an M-16

On February 5th, 1968, NVA troops had attacked the Marines of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines, penetrating the barbwire lines and a vicious up-close battle ensued.

On February 6th and 7th, 1968, NVA troops had assaulted and overrun the Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei and part of their weaponry—tanks! The first time tanks had been used by the North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War. All that long and scary night, I heard tanks. Doubt began to slither into my soul like a cobra in the mist. Did I hear them? Didn’t I? Am I crazy? And following doubt, the cold viper of fear followed.

On February 8th, 1968, NVA troops had attacked and penetrated the defenses of Hill 64, manned by Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. A lot of good men died that day in another up-close-and-personal melee.

Misgivings started kicking the inside of my mind. No relief for Khe Sanh was in sight. Supply aircraft were blown out of the sky. The airstrip was damaged. Men I served with were maimed and dying.

Joining the Marine Corps, for me, was an act of pure impulse, like stepping off the edge of a cliff which is shrouded in a thick fog. I fully believed that I would land on my feet on some unseen safe ledge. My optimism defeated any doubt I might have harbored.

But the Marine Corps has trained millions of warriors and they know that when the bullet meets the breastbone and fear begins to gnaw and nibble, the warrior might begin to entertain doubt.

And I believe that’s one reason for the vicissitudes of Marine Corps training. The physical and mental exercises of Boot Camp. The harassment. Then the hard training in what they now call the School of Infantry.

They want to harden your body, your heart, your mind. They want your backbone ramrod straight when the manure hits the fan. They know doubt and they aim to defeat it.

Blogger, Ken Rodgers

But 52 years ago today doubt crept in.

I doubted I could overcome fear.

I doubted my country could save me.

I doubted my ability to do what must be done to survive. The hard things: Die for your brother, charge under deadly fire up a hill with fixed bayonets like Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate Army warriors after he told them, “Give them the bayonet,” and meet your enemy face-to-face. And kill him.

Stonewall Jackson

As the Siege wore on, doubt seeped into my bones, my skin, my attitude, and at times I felt as if the end of the world would show up any minute: A barrage of 152 Millimeter artillery rounds that would obliterate me, the deadly hiss of an 81 Millimeter mortar round hurtling out of the misty sky to send me home in a body bag, or a sniper round that would slap against the side of my head leaving me with a momentary expression of complete surprise before I slumped into the red mud in the bottom of the trench.

But then, after two months of getting pounded, pounded, pounded, we went into action. Action overcame doubt. I still feared mightily every possible way I might die, and I feared other things like what was out there that I didn’t know—yes, all of that. But I needed to concentrate on the tasks at hand, so doubt, for me, didn’t disappear; but it waned.

More than once we charged up hills with fixed bayonets, into the teeth of death, my doubt forgotten because I had a job to do.

We gave them the bayonet.

***

DVDs of BRAVO! are available @https://bravotheproject.com/store/

A digital version of BRAVO! is available in the US on Amazon Prime Video @ https://amzn.to/2Hzf6In.

In the United Kingdom, BRAVO! is available on Amazon Prime Video UK @ https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07BZKJXBM.

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

Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War

January 21, 2020

The Beginning

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Fifty-two years ago this morning, the Siege of Khe Sanh began with a bang when the NVA hit one of the base’s ammo dumps and the world seemed, for that morning at least, to erupt into a volcano of death and fear.

As I write this, I can close my eyes and the visions of that morning and what followed flood me, a wide river of molten hot lava-thoughts that sizzle the inside of my memory.

The night before the siege began, the tension felt so thick we could have ladled it with a spoon. Puff the Magic Dragon, or Spooky as some folks called the plane, circled the combat base that squatted alone, enveloped in fog. The red tracer arcs from Puff’s guns cut great waving sweeps through the damp mist and the moans and groans of the guns led me to ponder ghosts.

The following morning, the world came apart at the seams and I wondered if I would survive the onslaught. But I did, we did, some of us, anyway.

Images of men lying in the trench with smashed leg-bones still haunt me, and the sergeant in the machine gun bunker with a gouge ripped down the shin of his right leg, and our CS gas, released when the dump blew up, sneaking across the red mud to make our lives more difficult, and in the case of some of our Marines, forcing them to operate in deadly situations.

The men I served with at Khe Sanh were stalwarts. I don’t think there is a better word to describe them. Even though we were just a bunch of kids. Kids.

A lot of us didn’t make it out of that hellhole. I think of men I knew well, in that significantly special way warriors know and love each other, who paid the ultimate price for the right to say they were United States Marines.

Moments dart out of the mist of memory. A big, gap-toothed smile, a Marine helping me negotiate an angry, rain-swollen river, a Marine who just loved to dance.

Blogger Ken Rodgers. While at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of the estate of Dan Horton.

One of them I see sitting in a hooch with a bunch of other Marines, his new utilities a stark contrast to the tattered and faded ones I wore. Mine stained with the red mud of Khe Sanh, his looking snappy.

In 2010, Betty and I went to The Wall to take some photos of names and I ran into a fellow looking for the name of that Marine I now envision in my mind. When he found out I knew the man whose name he sought, he broke down in a highly motional moment that keeps creeping into my consciousness, and every time the moment comes, I am reminded of the tentacles of life severed by death.

Right now, their faces, the dead of Khe Sanh, roll through me like a filmstrip. A wink, a frown, a flippant reaction to the guns of the North Vietnamese, a row of freckles on high cheekbones, that particular look you see in the eyes of a Marine who knows he may soon die. Those Marines are here, with me in the moments of my recall even though they’ve been gone fifty-plus years.

They are part of me. Part of the person I have become.

***

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

November 11, 2019

Vieil Ami

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Guest Blogger and BRAVO! Marine Michael E. O’Hara muses on the passage of time, war, the film and comrades in this blog for Veterans Day, 2019.

Fall 2019

Vieil Ami

When I first arrived in a place that would change my life and the lives of many others forever, it was October 1967. I made many friends, each unique in their own way.

We were Marines, charged with guarding a lonely outpost high in the Annamite Mountains in northwest South Vietnam. It is known as the backbone of Vietnam.

One of my new acquaintances, among many, was a young man from Casa Grande, Arizona. It was a while before we became close. Many nights we would test each other’s knowledge, mostly about history. But time and events would bring us all together. Brothers-in-arms is much more than a simple cliché.

Michael E. O’Hara at Khe Sanh, 1968. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara

Time would pass and eventually we all went our separate ways. Some forgot and most did not. For many years we all would relive, at least in the memories of our minds, the friends and events that had shaped each and every one of us. Everyone processed that experience differently.

It would be 25 years before I would see my good friend from Casa Grande once again. I would also be introduced to his beautiful wife. We would find ourselves gathering with all those friends from long ago in Washington, DC. It was the 4th of July, 1993, and Bravo Company 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment had assembled once again. We would all descend on “The Wall” to touch the names and remember old comrades who never made it home to “The World.”

Although we stayed in touch over the next few years, it wasn’t until 2009 that he attended his next reunion. It was in Denver. I wasn’t planning on going that year until he called. I could tell he had something on his mind. He came to DC when I asked; I would go to Denver.

Denver was great. Lots of friends from Bravo were there. It would be the last time I saw Danny Horton before he passed. When I arrived, my friend from Casa Grande was there waiting for me to arrive. It was very emotional. Ken Rodgers has been a good friend my entire adult life and his beautiful wife Betty was just awe struck at the emotion we both shared that day over ten long years ago. Much has happened in that time. They have since visited our home twice. Betty and Maxine hit it off well and interestingly, Betty still keeps in touch with my daughters via FB. They all got along very well in DC in ‘93 and remain friends to this day.

But I was curious as to what Ken had on his mind when he called me. He never did really say. However, we were all sitting around a table sharing stories and Betty made the statement what a shame it would be if this was all lost, and someone should be writing it all down. I casually asked her what she was waiting on, not fully understanding what the two of them were thinking.

Within weeks after getting home, they had developed a plan. They were going to make a movie about Bravo Co at Khe Sanh in 1968. Most, not all, showed up in San Antonio next summer and Ken and Betty started filming interviews. For those, like Danny Horton, who couldn’t be there due to health concerns, they went on the road. One year later they debuted what would become one of the most profound war documentaries ever produced.

Bravo!
Common Men
Uncommon Valor

It has earned numerous accolades across the spectrum. It has also brought Ken and Betty great validation for their work. One of the great moments in my life was when Ken and Betty asked me to attend their awards ceremony at the Marine Corps Museum in the spring of 2016. They had received a prestigious award for their work by our peers in the USMC. It was a black tie formal event with more Marine Generals than I had ever seen in one place in my life. Ken and Betty were, as we say colloquially, “standing in tall cotton” and I could not have been happier for them. But he wasn’t going to forget his old friend, either.

Left to Right: Filmmakers Betty Rodgers, Ken Rodgers, and BRAVO! Marine Michael E. Ohara at the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s 2016 Awards Ceremony. Photo courtesy of Daniel Folz

He made sure the Lt. Gen. who was the emcee that evening asked for another Marine to stand for special recognition as a 3 Purple Heart survivor of the Siege of Khe Sanh. I have to tell you, it was the proudest day in my Marine life. Even my old friend and CMH recipient Harvey Barnum came over to congratulate me. It was a moment I will cherish forever.

As I stated previously, we all have processed our feelings about those emotionally charged days differently. It would seem “Bravo!” would become my good friend’s catharsis. He and Betty travelled all over the country screening their film at Legion halls, VFW posts, theaters, prisons, universities and more. Sometimes they found sponsorship, other times they just went. As the awards mounted, other folks began to seek them out.

The Commanding Generals of Marine bases found it a useful tool. One such event drew a very large crowd at Marine Corps base Camp Pendleton. Whenever possible, the men from Bravo themselves would show up and participate in after-action discussions. I made 2 such screenings myself in Springfield and Chicago, IL, and went with them to the Marine Basic School in Quantico, VA, where they trained young Marine Officers using Bravo! as a training tool.

They have been pursuing this for ten long years, and are now producing another documentary.

I will always be in touch with my dear friends who now call Boise their home. However, speaking for myself, I believe we are both getting past our need to process our experiences. As another old friend and fellow Vietnam vet likes to say “I’ve put that book back on the shelf.”

I cannot express how good it makes me feel to know that my good friend seems to finally be at peace with the life-changing events that brought us together so many years ago.

Guest blogger Michael E’ O’Hara. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

Their film has also helped bring closure to our fellow Marines from Bravo and many other vets who have experienced the healing power of this magnificent piece of American history during the Vietnam War.

Although there are a few Marines from Bravo still living, Ken and I are the last of the 2nd platoon 3rd squad who have maintained contact throughout the years.

Toujours Fidele, Vieil Ami,
Michael E. O’Hara

Michael E. O’Hara served with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment before and during the Siege of Khe Sanh. Michael, the recipient of three Purple Heart Medals for his wounds while serving at Khe Sanh, is also one of the warriors interviewed for the film BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR.


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Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Other Musings,Veterans,Vietnam War

May 31, 2019

HAMBURGER HILL (MEMORIAL DAY 2019)

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Guest blogger Cobb Hammond’s article on the savage battle fought in May, 1969, originally published in the MEMPHIS COMMERCIAL APPEAL on May 24, 2019.

As Americans this weekend memorialize the casualties of our war dead, a small band of US soldiers of the 101st Airborne division will recall in their collective memories, comrades in-arms of a battle during the Vietnam War. The Battle of Hamburger Hill fought 50-years ago this month, is seared into the memories of its participants; a struggle in the heavily contested A Shau Valley. Fought over a specific mountain, known as Hill 937, denoted for its height in meters (approx. 3 thousand feet), it was also called Dong Ap Bia by the North Vietnamese, which translates into ‘Mountain of the crouching beast’.

Part of a chain of mountain ridges and numerous valleys, it sat one mile from the Laotian border and contained multiple ridges and fingers that came off the summit. The slopes of Dong Ap Bia were covered in extreme overgrowth of sharp elephant grass up to 7 feet, thick bamboo groves and triple-canopy jungle, making daylight appear as dusk. The entire area was a support system for the North Vietnamese infiltrating supplies and men into the South, and the general vicinity contained roads for trucks, major supply depots and the like.  After increased enemy activity had been noted by army recon teams in the valley, Operation Apache Snow commenced on May 10, utilizing a Marine Corps regiment, multiple airborne battalions and allied S. Vietnamese forces as well.  The 3rd battalion, 187th Regiment of the 101st – also known as the “Rakkasans” would be tasked with finding the enemy, on or around 937 and eliminating him. This understrength infantry unit was at 65% strength at the outset of the campaign due to recent engagements contributing to the attrition of the units.   The commanding officer of the battalion was Lt. Colonel Weldon Honeycutt, a no-nonsense career soldier and North Carolinian who had joined the army as a teenager at the end of WWII.

Hamburger Hill
Photo by Shunsake Akatsuka

On the morning of May 10, a one and one-half hour prep of the battlefield commenced, with multiple batteries of artillery opening, followed by dozens of sorties by attack aircraft and helicopters firing their ordinance.  At 7 am transport helicopters inserted the initial element of forces into landing zones in the valley, with one mission: find the enemy and make contact.  The first day drew only light contact for Alpha and Charlie companies. Due to the rugged terrain, extreme heat and thick underbrush progress was slow. Bravo and Delta, which were kept in reserve choppered in on the second day and incorporated into the general scheme of the attack.  The 1st battalion of the 506th regiment was working working its way north toward the area as well, but due to the hazards of the terrain and constant ambushes by the enemy would not arrive until the latter part of the battle, leaving the ‘tactical’ burden to the four rifle-companies of the 3/187. 

As day 2 absorbed into 3, the fighting intensified, clearly indicating to the commander that they were facing more of the enemy to their front than originally thought. In fact, as the battle progressed, the enemy, North Vietnamese, were able to fortify their forces on the hill. Little did US troops know at the time that they were facing the 29th NVA Regiment, which had distinguished itself in other battles previously. On May 14, the fourth day, Col. Honeycutt decided to attack more aggressively and could not wait for reinforcements, so orders were given to B, C and D companies to attack from different vantage points. Unfortunately, the attacks were unable to be well coordinated due to the terrain and because enemy resistance had become extremely heavy.  C Company which was counterattacked several times took the highest casualties on the day, losing its First Sgt, two of three platoon leaders, the company exec. officer and six-squad leaders; all either killed or wounded.  To compound matters, a helicopter gunship flew in and shot-up friendly troops, killing two and wounding at least twelve, mistaking them for the enemy. This was the first of three cases of fratricide during the battle.  As day fell to night after a day of fighting, the American soldiers could see enemy cooking fires above, which was usually unheard of in an engagement like this and could hear enemy troops hollering down at the men of the 3st battalion as well.

The topography of the landscape favored defense, and conversely the enemy did well in fortifying positions. They had built earthen-log bunkers- some 6-8 feet deep, with crisscross firing angles to take advantage of the slopes. The slopes also harbored dozens of spider-holes, allowing for a quick burst of gunfire or grenade throw with the enemy then stealthfully melting back into the earth. The NVA also had dozens of light and heavy machine-gun emplacements strategically placed and manned.

Hamburger Hill
Photo from M. Taringa

May 18th and 19th again witnessed the depleted airborne companies making progress, then gradually having to dig in, move forward or back down the steep slopes as the fighting devolved into a slugfest on the squad level; with each company making its own progress on sheer will.

On the morning of May 20, ten US artillery batteries opened fire on the hill and fired for almost an hour, before dozens of air sorties by tactical aircraft came in with napalm and 250 lb. bombs on the now denuded mountaintop. As fire stopped, up went the riflemen, working their way up the slopes and ravines encountering lighter resistance than previously encountered, and making it to the summit within two hours.

After enemy stragglers were cleaned out, the bloody mess of Hamburger Hill ceased.  623 enemy dead were counted, with a much higher casualty rate no doubt noted, as many were crushed in their earthen graves from bombs or taken by their comrades into Laos.  Of the airborne troopers of the 3/187, 39 were killed and another 292 wounded, more than 70% of the battalion. Total US losses were 71 dead and 372 wounded.  The battle although tragic, did accomplish its strategic task, albeit a costly one.

Guest Blogger Cobb Hammond

On this most reverent of days, remember these men, many which spent their last breath in that hellish place.  And one which was the most seminal event of their lives.

Cobb Hammond of Memphis, TN is a ‘Financial Advisor’ who writes on military history, military affairs and composes poetry. Cobb can be contacted @ chammond40@yahoo.com.

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