Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

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

January 29, 2018

January 29–50 Years Gone

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Fifty Years Ago—29 January 1968

Right before the siege began, a bunch of new Marines arrived to beef up Bravo Company to nearly its full complement of warriors. One of those Marines was a staff sergeant whose real name I never knew. Upon his arrival, he spent a large portion of his supervisory time hard-assing all of us who had been with the company a while.

What rankled a lot was the fact that most of his Marine Corps service was as a reservist, so when he came down the trench line kvetching at us for not filling sandbags fast enough or for too much jiving around, we waited until he moved on before muttering about “Mr. Macho Gung-ho Green Machine Maggot,” or badmouthing him for being a “weekend warrior.”

The man talked trash and bragged that he could kick our asses and do serious damage to the NVA, too.

But it wasn’t long after January 21, eight days or so, when one of my buddies, Corporal A, came marching down the trench with news of Mr. Macho Gung-ho Green Machine Maggot. Corporal A had arrived at Bravo Company three or four days before me and we’d palled around some even though he was in Weapons Platoon (his killing specialty was rockets).

A stark image of the damage war can do. Photo courtesy of Mac McNeely.

Corporal A was a pretty quiet guy who wasn’t given to overemphasis, so it was a great surprise when he came dancing down the line, a big smile on his face.

He yelled at me, “Rodgers, he’s gone.”

“Who’s gone?”

“Staff Sergeant Macho Gung-ho.”

I said, “Already? Did he get hit?”

“Naw, man, he lost it.”

“Lost it?” Right then I felt a little surge rocket up through my legs.

“Yeah. He went total dinky-dow.”

Right then, a notion leapt into my mind that here we were, the men of Bravo, privates and privates first class, lance corporals and corporals—what we often called the “Snuffy Smiths” of the Corps—and none of us had gone total dinky-dow. (Dinky-dow is the American bastardization of the Vietnamese dien cai dao which roughly translates as “crazy.”)

In my mind, I could see Staff Sergeant Macho Gung-ho Green Machine, his face the color of blood as he hard-assed us for some stupid stateside Jarhead idea that he thought accounted for something in the trenches, and how we’d bitten our bottom lips so as not to tell him exactly what we thought.

I mused out loud, “Dinky-dow, hunh?”

Corporal A surprised me when he jumped up and down and yelled, “Hell, yeah, just like this,” before dropping down on his hands and knees, digging in the bottom of the trench like a dog attacking a gopher hole, then howling and barking like said canine.

“Aw, hell, I don’t believe that,” I scoffed.

He jumped up and said, “No, Rodgers, I saw it, after that last little barrage of 122-millimeter rockets came in and hit behind the open space up by 2nd Platoon’s command post. He was ordering me and the rest of my rocket team to make sure our gear was squared away when those rounds came in and scared the hell out of all of us. Then he started running back and forth in the trench with a face that looked like it had been stretched in seven different directions. Then he dropped down and started digging like a dog and barking.”

At the time, I didn’t feel sorry for Staff Sergeant Macho Gung-ho Green Machine. I felt . . . I felt vindicated, proud. I might have stuck my chest out. We didn’t like that Marine and he hadn’t been too smart about how he treated all us old salts, so his breakdown made me proud. I think it made Corporal A and the men in my fireteam and any other “Snuffy” who had experienced the distinct displeasure of one of his butt-chewings proud. We held up. We could stand up to the fury. We were the real Mr. Macho Gung-ho Marines.

I don’t know what happened to Staff Sergeant Gung-ho Green Machine, but I do know I never saw him again.

Of course, later, as the Siege drug on, I had my moments where I came close to losing it, although I never lost it as bad as that staff sergeant.

That Marine didn’t last long before the mental aspects of incoming got to him. Over the succeeding years, many of the rest of us ended up exhibiting our own symptoms of what has been called over the decades, “Soldier’s Heart, Shell Shock, Battle Fatigue and PTSD” as the effects of warfare picked and whittled at our attempts to be the young men we had been before it all began.

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

At Khe Sanh We were macho and we were tough. Emotionally fragile yet for the most part also supple, we survived the direct onslaught of mental effects that combat bestows upon those who survive. Yet the siege made us brittle, too, and deep down some of us shattered, went “Dinky-dow” on some level. Some of us sooner than later. And like Staff Sergeant Macho Gung-ho, some not just on the inside where most of us stuff our feelings about the war, but on the outside: prison, jail, alcoholism, suicide, insanity.

One of the things I pride myself most on in surviving the Siege of Khe Sanh is how I, for the most part, held myself together in the face of maiming, death and the constant pressure of fear. But as I said, I had my moments of being “dinky dow,” too, and sometimes (for decades) I wondered if the Siege of Khe Sanh would ever let me be.

Now, fifty years later, I don’t feel compelled to judge the staff sergeant so severely. War and fear take a heavy toll on all of us, leaders and “Snuffies” alike.

***

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