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May 1, 2015

After the Siege

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The Siege of Khe Sanh ended for me the moment I got on a CH-46 and flew to Dong Ha. As far as I can recall, that happened around April 4, 1968. As the big bird swooped off, I looked back at Khe Sanh and began to let the notion that I had survived soak into my soul. I was gone.

I hopped flights from Dong Ha to Phu Bai to Danang to Okinawa to El Toro and finally to Arizona on April 11. No more killing. No more hiding in a hole. No more whiz bang smash crash kaboom from incoming; except in my dreams.

As I traveled from the war to home and then from bar to bar to bar in the United States, I fought like hell any attempts to wonder about what was going on at Khe Sanh. I read the papers every morning and read the daily death tolls but I had already managed to jam a metaphorical arm’s length between the Khe Sanh Combat Base and me.

The last few days in Khe Sanh I’d promised Alvarado that I’d contact his uncle as soon as I returned and I promised Jake the Snake I’d send him a fifth of Chivas Regal and I suspect I promised a lot of other things to the men I fought with. But as soon as my legs steadied on the tarmac at El Toro, I let all the promises drain out of me along with a ton of the tension that tied my neck in knots.

I immersed myself in the glory of home, my buddies, the alcohol, and the women, not that I could get close to them or anyone, family or otherwise. But I tried to forget it all and I for sure didn’t wonder what was happening at Khe Sanh.
For me it was kaput, finis, dead, over.

American warrior on Hill 471.

American warrior on Hill 471.

But it wasn’t. Men were still being killed and maimed at my old homestead. Besides the warriors still trapped inside the combat base and surrounding hills, elements of the 1st and 3rd Marine Regiments and the United States Army’s 1st Air Cav, in what was named Operation Pegasus, were driving up Route 9 in an attempt to relieve Khe Sanh.

On April 6 while I was in Phu Bai turning in my gear at the battalion rear, Marines and Corpsmen from Bravo 1/26 and Delta 1/26 went out on a patrol and picked up the remaining bodies of the Bravo Company men who were killed on February 25.
On April 6 through April 8, Marines from 2/26 were moving off of Hill 558 to drive the enemy from the field and were engaged in three days of vicious combat.

On April 13, two days after I got home, Felix Poilane, the French national whose family owned one of the coffee plantations at Khe Sanh, was killed in a plane crash while coming back to Khe Sanh. That day, I was already running around with my old college roommate drinking cases of Coors.

On April 14, Operation Pegasus was complete and Operation Scotland II began, and the main breakout by the Marines of Khe Sanh started.

In Operation Scotland II, elements of the 26th and 9th Marines began to drive into the surrounding country and maul the North Vietnamese Army. 1/9 hit Hill 689. Marines from 3/26 assaulted Hill 881-N, which had always been a symbol of the North Vietnamese Army’s ability to battle toe-to-toe with us.

While all this fighting was going on, I was boozing it up on Cinco de Mayo in Nogales, Mexico, and traveling to Phoenix to hang out in honkytonks. Then I was with 5th Battalion Recon at Camp Horno, and all the time, for me, Khe Sanh was over.
Later, while I was rappelling on San Clemente Island and running along the beach at Camp Pendleton, the Marines were still fighting and dying at Khe Sanh.

On June 18, Operation Charlie began with the abandonment of the Khe Sanh Combat Base a primary goal. To get this job done, more Marines died. Khe Sanh was destroyed by our own forces.

On October 9, 1968, a ceremony was held at Khe Sanh—or more specific, the base’s remains—to memorialize the men who died defending the place. By the time of the Khe Sanh ceremony in October, I had been transferred to San Diego to begin a year of . . . even though I was still a Marine . . . living somewhat like a civilian.

After the Siege ended, over 600 Marines, Army, Navy and Air Force personnel perished in Operations Pegasus, Scotland II and Charlie. That number is much larger than the number of men who died during the Siege itself.

To be honest, in the back of my mind, while I lived my stateside life, I knew men were dying over there. But I was trying to stuff all those thoughts and the memories they led to. But some encounters made it impossible to hide from the recollections of my time at Khe Sanh.

Casualties on Hill 689.

Casualties on Hill 689.

For instance, one of the men I served with as a radio operator at Khe Sanh was stationed with me at San Diego. We had shared a bunker for over a month during the Siege. In San Diego we never spoke of our time in Vietnam. I suspect he was doing the same thing I was, trying to bury the recent past. But every time I looked in his face, his weary eyes talked to me about the days and nights spent cooped up like rats, the times we went outside the wire and assaulted NVA trenchlines.

I was also stationed with a Marine who was an engineer with the unit that blew up the Combat Base during Operation Charlie. One night he described to me the action, explosion by explosion. It all made me sick with disgust.

All those men who had died before, during, and after the Siege . . . thinking of them made me think, what a waste. Those brave and frightened men who died during the relief and the breakout, men of the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 9th, 11th, 12th, 13th and 26th Marines, 3rd Recon, and associated support units, pilots and flight crews. Seabees and Corpsmen and pilots and air crews from the Navy, pilots and air crews with the Air Force, pilots, air crews, special forces and ground-pounders with the United States Army. People like the photographer Robert Ellison, killed while serving as a civilian photojournalist. All the ARVNS and the local Bru montagnards who fought with us and died. Yes, it all made me sick with disgust.

I think a lot of fellow Vietnam veterans still battle memories of their time in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. For their sake, I hope the sacrifices made on both sides accomplished something beyond the death and despair.

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