Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Posts Tagged ‘Khe Sanh Veterans’

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

September 5, 2018

I’d Rather Take a Beating

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When my father died, one of his friends stood outside the chapel before the funeral service and told me, “I’d rather take a beating than go in there.”

I’ve often thought about that moment and I’ve even used the phrase from time to time, but I particularly felt that emotion twelve days ago as we laid Bravo Company, 1/26’s Skipper, Ken Pipes, in the ground at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers

The Skipper passed on in April, and in May there was a memorial service for him, but it didn’t seem like matters would be settled for family, friends and his Marines until he was finally interred in the place he wished to be laid to rest.

Getting the Skipper buried there turned out to be a four-month chore for his family and friends, and took the efforts of General Neller, the Commandant of the Marines Corps, General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Secretary of Defense, General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, to override the bureaucratic layers that seemingly obstructed the Skipper’s last wishes at every turn. And it took a friend of BRAVO! Marines and the Skipper, Mr. PJ Staab, to help the family negotiate the heartburn of getting the appropriate location within the cemetery so that the Skipper’s wife, Sharon, could be buried next to him when her time arrives.

Left to right, Sharon, Conner, Sandra and Tim Pipes. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

The graveside service for the Skipper itself was well done and the folks who showed up, including a number of Skipper Pipes’ family, friends, former Sheriff’s Department pals, military contacts, Marines and Corpsmen, witnessed a fine ceremony conducted by the family pastor and the United States Marine Corps, lead by Brigadier General Ryan Heritage, commanding general at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. General Heritage presented the ceremonial flag to Mrs. Pipes.

There was a rifle salute, a rendition of taps and a placing of mementos in and around Skippers burial urn, made by his son Tim.

The weather that day began with a light cloud cover but by the time we arrived at the service, it had turned sunny with a slight breeze from the Pacific Ocean to our west.

I served with Lt Colonel Pipes fifty years ago and for a long time I didn’t think of him often unless a flash of unpleasant combat memory invaded my thoughts. Even after our reintroduction in 1993, he wasn’t yet a big part of my life. But after making BRAVO!, that all changed and we became pretty close and talked often about . . . well, a lot of things.

The Skipper’s Urn. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

Betty and I went to visit Sharon and the Skipper a number of times at his home in Fallbrook, usually associated with some event related to the film. He and I would sit out on his back patio and drink coffee, and invariably our talk would turn to the events of early 1968 at Khe Sanh.

We’d recall people and actions, death and horror, and quite often our palaver would veer into the realm of the intellectual. Discussions on the nature of war and combat and the behavior of individuals in the stressed world of a full-blown siege.

Earlier I mentioned my father, and it is interesting to me as I write this blog that he and I never had the kind of discussions about war and men that the Skipper and I had. Father and I didn’t discuss those sort of things because he had no combat experience even though he was an Army top sergeant in World War II, serving in India.

The Smith Brothers, Lt Colonel John and Lt Colonel Michael, add insignias to the Skipper’s urn. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

But the Skipper and I, yeah, we could talk about those things and reminisce and rue the deaths of all those fine men with whom we served.

And in some ways, since my father has been dead for almost thirty years, Lt Colonel Pipes became a kind of father figure to me. Someone who understood what I had become post-combat. Someone who’d felt the rage, the fear, the grinding memories that refuse to relent their hold on how a survivor of long-term combat sees the world he or she lives in.

We would sit and remember the men associated with the names of the dead and the living and our reactions—or mine did, at least—welled up from the soles of my feet, roared up through my legs into my innards and often made themselves manifest by the tears that eked out of my eyes, forcing me to look away and fight to get control of my emotions.

He was brutally honest with me about how he felt about the Siege and the men with whom he served. Sometimes the discussion turned loud and raucous as we recalled one of our comrades who acted out as big as all the hills around Khe Sanh. We talked quietly, we argued, and then agreed, then argued again, then hugged. What we knew, down in the bottom of our guts, no one else knew unless they had undergone the terrible initiation into the club of those who have faced the awful fangs of combat. And we tried to articulate that. He liked to call it, “riding the elephant and looking the tiger in the eye.”

He could rocket from laughter to rage to laughter. He pondered man’s inhumanity to man. He kept close watch for those who would harm his loved ones. Not unlike me.

Ken Pipes understood things about me that my real father never understood, and because the Skipper is now gone, there will be a big void in my life and I’d rather take a beating than think about that.

To know him was a privilege, a gift.

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

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

In the United Kingdom, you can stream at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07BZKJXBM.

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

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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,Eulogies,Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War

April 30, 2018

Requiem for the Skipper

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On Thursday, April 26, 2018, the men of BRAVO! lost their Skipper, Lt. Colonel Kenneth Pipes, USMC Retired.

I had talked to him the day before. We laughed, reminisced, talked about other vets, the kind of conversations we always had.

He didn’t say to me that he thought the end was near, nor did he complain about the many ailments that tormented him. He was stout and incisive and funny.

Kenneth Pipes

If I wasn’t so slow-witted I might have picked up some hints that he sent me, but I didn’t get them right away. They eased their way back into my recall as I sat there the rest of the day and on into Thursday. Our last conversation was a moment where the ties that bound us became much more apparent than I’d ever noticed. How deep and wide and long and thick the bonds were.

As I sat there thinking of him and how intimate our conversation had been, how what we said to each other bore into the inner shields I have managed to keep in tact for over fifty years; it sunk in that he was telling me that he was moving on.

And just as I finally got it, we got news that he had passed on and the rest of us who are left behind to grieve his leaving won’t have that rock-steady, low key, humorous leadership and advice that had become so much a part of our lives.

Ken Pipes at Khe Sanh.

The Skipper was a career Marine. As the saying goes, “A Marine’s Marine,” but he was also a fiercely loyal, compassionate, intuitive man who could dig right into what might be bothering you and help you expose it to the light of reason.

He commanded a company of Marines throughout the Siege of Khe Sanh. Under his command the company gained fame—if somewhat belated—but the casualties that ensued in that horrible and ugly 77-day battle rode him. And the load was heavy.

Besides a career in the Corps, Skipper Pipes was a longtime volunteer with the San Diego Sheriff’s Department and retired recently at the rank of Captain. As a mark of his standing with the SDSO, there were only two volunteer captains—a sign of the Skipper’s abilities as a leader of women and men—when he retired.

Skipper Pipes at the 2010 Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion in San Antonio, Texas. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

In that final phone conversation between us, he spoke about his wife, Sharon and their family. He spoke about his fifty-plus years of marriage and how much Sharon meant to him and how she had helped him carry his burden. It was all there in that last conversation, his final goodbye.

I could write for pages and pages about my relationship with this man, but this is not the time for that. It’s the time for those of us who knew him and loved him to hole up and let the pain rack us until we can move on while never forgetting how fortunate we were to have known and served with Kenneth W. Pipes.

Semper Fi, Skipper.

Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War,Warhawk Air Museum

April 16, 2018

At the Warhawk Air Museum

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On April 7, 2018, BRAVO! was screened to an over-flow crowd at Nampa, Idaho’s Warhawk Air Museum. The day began with a bluster but turned off to be beautiful as people from all over Idaho’s Treasure Valley and beyond came out to see the film and participate in the panel discussion that followed.

Around five hundred folks showed up and were greeted by the friendly museum staff. A bonus to anyone who came to see the film was a chance to tour the Warhawk’s spacious environs and spend time learning about the warplanes on exhibit and the lives of warriors whose memorabilia has been shared with the museum.

Vietnam veterans visit with members of the Eagle chapter of the DAR. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

If you come to Idaho, this is one of the places you might want to visit. The bulk of the exhibits are intensely personal and speak to the visitors about the men and women who have put their lives on the line for something they believe in, their country.

Besides the exhibits, the Warhawk is instrumental in working with schools to ensure that the military history of America gets taught. They are also involved in Honor Flights for World War II vets to visit Washington DC. An additional asset they provide the community is interviewing veterans on video. The finished products are sent to the Library of Congress as well as the interviewees. The Warhawk schedules a wide variety of special events as well as a monthly Kilroy Coffee Klatch on the first Tuesday of every month where guest speakers present programs of interest. The Klatch is free to veterans.

At the screening, the Eagle, Idaho, chapter of the Daughters or the American Revolution provided snacks and water, and the Boise Police Department’s Honor Guard sang the National Anthem à capella.

Boise Police Department Honor Guard singing the National Anthem. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

As always, when large groups of people gather to view BRAVO!, the combined empathy in the facility was palpable. And the emotional power emanating from the crowd poured over into the discussion afterwards. On hand to talk about the Siege of Khe Sanh were BRAVO! Marine Ron Rees who came over with his family from the La Grande, Oregon area, Dennis Ross, also from eastern Oregon who flew B-52s over the battlefield of Khe Sanh, Dave Crosby, a flight engineer on C-130s that came in several times a day to keep us supplied with ammo, chow and mail, and Phil Nuchereno, who served with Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines at Khe Sanh during the Siege. BRAVO! co-producer and co-director Ken Rodgers was also on the panel.

The audience heard some different points of view from what normally arises in these panel discussions following screenings of BRAVO!. Besides hearing about the men trapped in the combat base, we heard from men who flew bombing missions to beat back the NVA and men who made the dangerous journeys into the base to keep the warriors of Khe Sanh stocked with the necessities of surviving a siege and men who were outside the base, on the hills, running patrols to interdict NVA forces moving to overrun the base.

One of the surprises of the day happened right after the screening and before the panel discussion when we asked everyone who had been at Khe Sanh to come forward for a group photo. Five additional men who had served with the Army and the Marines came forward and we got to meet some new friends.

A big thanks to the Warhawk Air Museum’s John and Sue Paul, Colonel Pat Kilroy, Heather Mullins and the crew of efficient, personable volunteers who made this event one of the big milestones in BRAVO!’s history of film screenings. Thanks too, to veteran Frank Turner who came up with the original idea to screen the event to commemorate the Siege of Khe Sanh after fifty years.

Mike Shipman of Blue Planet Photography shot photos for the event. Mike has been a stout supporter of BRAVO! from the beginning. So here’s a shout out to Mike and you can find out more about his work here.

Some of the Khe Sanh veterans who attended the screening at the Warhawk Air Museum. Photo courtesy of Mike Shipman/Blue Planet Photography.

Thanks also to Barbara Grant and the caring members of the DAR for their unsung work providing repast to our audience.

We would also like to thank KTVB Channel 7 for enthusiastically getting the word out, and the Idaho Division of Veterans Services for helping sponsor the event.

Screenings like this are one way we keep the discussion rolling forward about what war and its aftermath is really like and as a way to recognize our military veterans.

Ooorah!

You can find out more about the Warhawk Air Museum and all they do for veterans and the community at large here.

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NEWS!

BRAVO! is now available in digital form on Amazon Prime. Please check it out if you are interested, and please consider sharing this news with your friends and contacts whom you think might be interested in seeing the film. And please ask them to give us a review if they would. It will help get the film out to a broader audience.

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

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ON THE SCREENING FRONT:

At 3:00 PM on May 27, 2018, BRAVO! will be screened in Paris, TN at the Krider Performing Arts Center. You can find out more about this event and the Krider Performance Art Center 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,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War,War Poetry

April 6, 2018

Juxtaposition

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We have posted poems here friends as well Marines who fought at Khe Sanh and elsewhere during the Vietnam War, including poetry from friend and supporter Betty Plevney, Vietnam veteran and Marine Barry Hart and most recently Bravo Company’s Skipper, Ken Pipes. Poems are a good way to capture the imagery and action related to combat.

Recently I wrote a blog about the Payback Patrol of 3/30/1968. One of our friends, Susan Parker, who is an ardent supporter of BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR, read that blog and was moved to compose a poem.

Susan Parker. Photo courtesy of Susan Parker

She captured, in my opinion, both the agony of combat and the disconnect between the world at home and the world of war. Check it out!

Juxtaposition—March 30, 1968

By Susan Parker

Dressed in jungle green,
you ran through the hell fires of war,
blood trickling down your face,
the stench of phosphorus and death
pungent on the tropical air, dragging
dead and dying men through a muddy trench,
grenades and bombs exploding,
sounds of gunshot ringing in your ears.

Fearless in facing the enemy,
you were “cutting the mustard.”

Dressed in virginal white,
I strolled the length of a red-carpeted aisle,
sheer tulle veil covering cheeks ablush with excitement,
high-heeled satin pumps pinching manicured toes,
gardenias glistening with morning dew
softening the early spring air,
organ music of “Here Comes the Bride”
echoing through the church.

Ignorant of your courage and sacrifice,
I was cutting the wedding cake.

Writer and poet Susan Parker was born in a small town in Northern California but never enjoyed the cold, gray and damp weather. One who embraces change, she traveled south throughout the years finally moving to Tucson, Arizona where she found warmth and inspiration for her writing. Susan is the author of Angel on My Doorstep—An Ordinary Woman’s Journey with Those from the Other Side, an autobiography of her lifelong paranormal adventures, with emphasis on those that took place before, during and after her husband’s passing. She has also published a book of poetry, Lady by the Bay, and recorded a CD, She Rode a Wild Horse, which includes her original Western poetry along with poems written by others.

Susan Parker on the left with Vietnam veteran Eric Hollenbeck of Blue Ox Millworks, Eureka, California. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

About her inspiration for her latest poem, “Juxtaposition—March 30, 1968,” Susan says that during one of her conversations with Ken several years ago he mentioned the importance of the date to him. Susan realized that this was the same date that she married her first husband, and how different their lives were on that day. With a twinge of guilt, she thought to herself, Ken lived in a nightmare world while I lived in a fairy tale world, oblivious to the horrors of war.

Reading Ken’s blog post this March 30th, she was moved to tears. Her muse shook her by the shoulders and shouted, “You have to write this, this juxtaposition of your lives on that day!”

And so she did.

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On the screening front: On April 7, at 1:00 PM Bravo will be screened at the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa, Idaho. following the screening, there will be a panel of Khe Sanh survivors who will talk about the experience. You can find out more about the event and the Warhawk Air Museum here.

At 3:00 PM on May 27, 2018, BRAVO! will be screened in Paris, TN at the Krider Performing Arts Center. You can find out more about this event and the Krider Performance Art Center here.

***

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,Veterans,Vietnam War

April 4, 2018

Out of This Place

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50 Years Gone—April 4, 1968

Early that morning, I got the word to go home. Staff Sergeant A stomped down the trench and told me as I sat with Marines of 3rd Squad sharing C-ration coffee and unfiltered Camels and palavering about women and GTOs.

He’d told me twice before that I was going home: once, the day after the Payback Patrol, and then two days later, only to find out he was joking, as he liked to call it. When he said that, “I’m just joking,” he laughed and leaned over and slapped his quadriceps.

I didn’t think it was funny. And on this particular morning, as I looked at him like he was full of crap, he glared at me like all staff non-commissioned officers in the Marine Corps were wont to do. I still didn’t believe him, and I sat there looking into his eyes and I’m sure my feelings swarmed across my face.

Photo of Dong Ha, 1968. Reminiscent of the transient barracks where the blogger spent the night of 4-4-68. Photo from Pinterest.

He said, “Get up and go home, Rodgers. That’s an order.” And he clomped off.

I followed him down to the platoon command post and stuck my head in and Lieutenant D said, “Good luck, Rodgers, you’ve been a pretty good Marine. Occasionally damned good. Sometimes not so good. Gather your gear and get down to the company CP and report to Captain Pipes.” He got off his cot and stuck out his hand. His big mitt enveloped mine as we shook.

I divvied up my M-16 magazines and poncho liners and other gear among any of the men who needed them and figured I’d fight it out later with the supply personnel when I showed up short of gear in Phu Bai.

I walked up and down the trench slapping hands and jive-assing with everybody in 2nd Platoon that I knew, and then marched for the company CP. When I stuck my face into the bunker men crammed the innards: radio operators, the company gunny, the executive officer and Captain Pipes who sat against the sandbagged walls with his arm in a sling and other parts of his head and torso bandaged due to the wounds he received on the Payback Patrol.

The executive officer told me I was a day early, and that I should go back to 2nd Platoon. Captain Pipes asked me what platoon I was in, and when I told him I was in 2nd Platoon and was the platoon sergeant’s radio operator, he asked me if I’d been out there on Payback (we didn’t call it that, then, we called it March 30th). I nodded and he smiled. In an earlier blog where I wrote about Christmas Eve, I said that when Captain Pipes smiled at me back then, it was the only time a Marine Corps captain had ever smiled at me. But it wasn’t because he smiled as I stood there at that moment. And he said, “Let him go.”

The executive officer sent me down to Battalion where I explained my situation to a bunch of corporals who sent me to see sergeants who referred me to staff NCOs who sent me on to see a major who sat alone in a big room in a deep bunker. This is one of the damndest memories I have of this experience. When he asked me if I’d been on the Payback Patrol and I said, “Yes, Sir,” he took my orders and signed them and then he stood, snapped to attention and saluted me. For a moment I felt flummoxed, and then I saluted him back. Then he shook my hand. That was pretty amazing, a major saluting me in reverse order of how it should be.

I headed for the LZ where the helicopters came in to deliver men and gear and pick up men and body bags filled with people killed in action.

On the way down there, I stopped and looked off to the southwest to Hill 471 which was under assault from elements of the Walking Dead, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. As I watched the tiny figures head up that hill, I thought about hand-to-hand combat, bombs and incoming, dead people. And then I went on down to the LZ where I sat for hours as chopper after chopper came in. When I tried to get on each one, the crew chief would shake his head or yell, “That’s a negative, Marine.”

Sometime during my wait, another Marine showed up who’d been through training with me back in The World. He was also going home. He was a lance corporal whose last name was R. He looked battered, skinny, his face gaunt after seventy-some-odd-days of incoming and pitched battles. He needed a new set of dungarees.

We chatted, but not much, mostly just sat there as I pondered all I’d seen. The horrors and the blood and the flesh separated from the tendons and bones of men I’d come to revere. Every time a loud noise sounded, R would flinch and so would I, and I wondered if I looked as bad as he did, and then I understood that I did.

A pile of filled body bags were stacked against a sandbagged revetment. I kept looking at them and wondering if I knew any of the intelligences that had once inhabited the remains.

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

Late in the day, a CH-46 came in and R and I got on along with those body bags. On the flight to Dong Ha, even though I was ordered to do so, I refused to sit down in case we took anti-aircraft fire through the bottom of the bird. I wanted to make the smallest target possible.

At Dong Ha I checked into the transient barracks and spent over an hour in the hot shower trying to get the red mud of Khe Sanh out of the pores of my skin, as if cleansing myself of the dirt of that place would purge me of all that I had seen.

Later, after chow—real chow, hot chow—I stood outside the mess tent with a group of Marines, one of whom I’d known well in boot camp and ITR. For several hours I listened to men talk about Tet and Hue and Con Thien, including that Marine. I could tell by the way he kept staring at me that he wanted to hear my tale. But I didn’t say anything about anything.

No words could dig their way from my thoughts to my mouth.

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On the screening front: On April 7, at 1:00 PM Bravo will be screened at the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa, Idaho. following the screening, there will be a panel of Khe Sanh survivors who will talk about the experience. You can find out more about the event and the Warhawk Air Museum here.

At 3:00 PM on May 27, 2018, BRAVO! will be screened in Paris, TN at the Krider Performing Arts Center. You can find out more about this event and the Krider Performance Art Center here.

***

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,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.

***

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,Veterans,Vietnam War

January 21, 2018

Fifty Years Ago Today–The Big Shebang

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Fifty Years Ago Today—January 21, 1968

I jerked awake as one of the Marines in my fire team yanked at my leg and screamed, “Incoming.”

Explosions roared and the earth shook. Dust filled the air along with the scent of fright.

Outside in the black of early morning, Marines screamed, rockets and artillery rounds boomed, our ammo dump went up like ten thousand 4th of Julys.

Men sprinted hear and there.

Khe Sanh Combat Base

My head spun and a notion of what waited out in the dark infected my mind. Along with a lot of other Marines, I fell down in the bottom of the trench and buried my face in the mud.

Something hit my back and burned through my flak jacket. I yelled, “I’m hit, I’m hit.”

The Marine whose skull I split open the day before crawled over and began to laugh.
I thought, “He’s getting even.”

His hand swept across my back as he leaned next to my right ear and whispered, “Clods, Rodgers. Just clods.”

The CS gas that was stored in the exploding ammo dump began sneaking down the trench lines.

I found my gas mask, pulled it over my head and face, and crawled inside the nearest machine gun bunker. The gunner knelt behind his M-60 as we stared out at the edge of our lines. We all knew what would come, an assault led by sappers breaching our concertina wire and then hard core warriors of the NVA following through the holes blasted in our perimeter.

Everyone looked like weird beetles. It was the gas masks.

The platoon right guide sat against the north wall. A nasty gash on his right shin dripped blood. A corpsman came and patched him up after telling him, “Aw, hell, it’s nothing. You’ll get a Purple Heart.”

I don’t know how long we waited for the attack to come. But as the light of day glowed, it seemed we weren’t to be overrun.

Outside, the ammo dump continued to cook off like the worst artillery attack in the world.

Sometime later, a runner came down from the platoon command post and told me the lieutenant wanted to see me. I followed the messenger out the bunker’s back hatch and down the trench.

The lieutenant told me that the unit to our left could not be contacted and he wanted me to go down and see if I could assay the situation.

I didn’t want to go down that trench to see what was happening, but I did. I passed the men of 1st and 2nd squads then came to a bend in the trench, closer to the ammo dump, which by that time had calmed down.

I wondered if there were NVA soldiers around that crook in the trench and that’s why no one could contact the Marines who manned that area.

Debris at Khe Sanh. Photo Courtesy of David Douglas Duncan.

I crept, my M-16 ready if I needed it.

A Marine lay in the trench. He looked like he was dead. All around him spent ordnance that had come from the ammo dump littered the red mud.

I duck-walked up and leaned close. His eyes opened and he blinked. I knew this man. We had arrived at Bravo Company about the same time. I don’t remember his name.

He had a jagged hole ripped in his right trouser leg and the flesh looked like raw hamburger.

He said, “One of those 155 rounds in the dump went up and came down on my leg.” He laughed.

I said, “Need some morphine?”

He shook his head, “I’ve had plenty.”

Ken Rodger at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of the late Dan Horton.

The next Marine I found had been hit between the legs by Willie Peter (white phosphorus). I don’t remember the conversation between us but remember wondering if he’d lose his family jewels.

On down the trench, I found men in similar situations—wounded. And if not wounded, in a state of shock that reminded me of stories from World War I.

But they weren’t wiped out.

I reported back to the lieutenant and then marched back to my bunker.

It was day one.

***

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,Eulogies,Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War,War Poetry

January 3, 2018

Lt. Colonel Jim Wilkinson

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One of the most pleasing things to come to light on my journey with post-combat Khe Sanh Veterans—and veterans of war in general—has been the discovery, by both them and me, of art as a way to process and understand the horrors or war.

Some of us have written books, some of us have created sculpture, some of us have created paintings, drawings and music. In my case, my wife Betty and I created a film. And a lot of these men, these tough and battered warriors, have created poetry.

In today’s blog, I share a poem written by Bravo Skipper Ken Pipes as a eulogy, a requiem, in honor of Marine Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkinson who commanded the 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment through much of the Siege of Khe Sanh.

Lt. Colonel James Wilkinson.

Lt. Colonel Wilkinson passed away on December 1, 2017. You can read his obituary here.

And below, please find Ken Pipes’ poem honoring James Wilkinson as well as other Marines and Corpsmen who fought at Khe Sanh.
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Gentleman Jim, Our Eagle

An Eagle fell from the sky today and the sun stood still.
The shrill wind howled in the clear blue sky,
as heavy mist fogged the eye. Some wondered why
‘til the message arrived, then many silently cried.
The wires rang with sadness and sorrow
as the much feared word went forth,
“Gentleman Jim,” our Eagle,
was now outward bound from this earth.

We who spent our life there 50 year ago or more,
stood rock steady as we started to recall.
Quigley’s voice resoundingly strong
while he and Doc C locked an eye.
Mac sounded off with a message so loud
that it cleared to the azure sky—
“Black Bud 6 sends his respects, Sir,
and requests your presence soonest;
don’t bother bringing your gear.”

On the eve of our Commander’s passing,
just a few short days ago
in the stillness of the mid-watch,
where some Marines are want go!
‘Twas then our Eagle went swooping
down as the word went quickly about,
“The Eagle was out!” where
nothing escaped his sharp glances or sharper eye.
Neither did deserving Marines escape
a heartfelt thanks as he moved on down the line.

In the later years when asked
by those not privileged to be there—
“What did you learn from your Commander, Lad,
that was held so close and dear?”
The answer to that one was easy,
“That when in the company of your Marines
and killing times are near, nothing is
more important than not outwardly showing fear!“

And so, what we all learned
from this impressive man,
was to righteously understand,
that the fortunes of war may wobble a bit,
but to Marines, the mission is first
and if you fall while in the attack
you will not be left behind.
Your mates will have your back.
Care deeply for your Marines, remembering if you do,
they will fix bayonets, sling their packs and follow you.
How well I remember, as I was dismissed—
thinking, I have just been shown the way.
Things might be looking up
for our blessed Nation and her Warriors on this day.

Gentleman Jim’s Marine heritage was born and bred
deep in the South. His nickname “Gentleman Jim” deceived,
’cause like the Eagle, he moved swiftly about,
going forward of the battle line when the guns were swung around.
Thus, his Eagle eyes and attitude kept many of us alive.

So, as he now speeds outbound
to assume his last command,
where he will link up with David,
that Lion of a Man,
there they will each hold
‘til our last wave touches down.
So hold tight Colonels Dave and Jim;
for Charlie and the Gunny are moving
fast to meet you and they are almost there.
Bravo and the Captain,
with the squads of Jake, Mike and Wiese.
The Doc, Britt, and Rash,
with the rest following in trace.

On the high ground our flag will be planted
as we rest at Fiddlers Green
where we will be awaiting the landing
of the next wave of battle scarred Marines.

Ken Pipes

It is time to shut this down, now.
It all seems like an endless dream.
As we scan the ranks and read the Clay—
it becomes patently clear this day
it won’t be long until we will have more men
there than we have here!
We miss each of our brothers, but know it won’t be long—
‘til we muster to share a few rounds of beer
with “Gentleman Jim” our Eagle!

Ken Pipes, Assisted/Advised by:

Major Larry Luther (881), Sergeant Major Morris (USMC), Sergeant Mike O’Hara (Bravo), Corporal Ken Rodgers (Bravo), and Lieutenant Derek Clark, San Diego Sheriff’s Department (Ret)

***

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,Eulogies,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

October 27, 2017

Donna Elliott

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I bet it seems to our readers that all we ever do is post memorials, requiems, obituaries. I guess it’s inevitable since the Vietnam War is five decades past. The Vietnam Veteran generation is approaching its eighth and ninth decades of life. It only stands to reason that we would be announcing the passing of people important to the story of Khe Sanh and the siege.

Today we wish to remember Donna Elliott, the sister of a soldier who went missing in action on January 21, 1968, while on a mission to relieve the soldiers and Marines who were under attack at Khe Sanh Ville. Donna’s brother, Jerry, was a staff sergeant in the United States Army who was acting as a door gunner on one of the choppers that flew in under fire at Khe Sanh Ville. Donna spent much of her lifetime trying to locate his remains.

Donna was a writer and journalist, and a United States Army veteran, who passed on October 22, 2017 and will be interred tomorrow, October 28, in Mountain Home, Arkansas.

Donna E. Elliott

In April of 2012, we shared a guest blog from Donna about her search for Jerry. In memory of Donna and her brother, we are re-sharing her post:

Guest blogger Donna E. Elliott shares her essay, The Blade and the Cross, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s Essay Contest prize winner, excerpted from her book, Keeping the Promise (Hellgate Press, 2010).

On 21 January 1968, my brother, SSGT Jerry W. Elliott was declared Missing-In-Action in Khe Sanh, Vietnam. When the 55th Joint Task Force (JTF) investigated the loss site in 1999, his buddy, Mike Teutschman and I were present. After interviewing two local residents who had scavenged the Old French Fort, the team presented me with a charred section of rotor blade from Black Cat #027. The blade had survived a B-40 rocket attack, laid undiscovered in the red dirt of Khe Sanh until found by a farmer, and then spent years holding up the corner of a cow pen. Jerry had left his position as doorgunner on a different chopper to assist survivors from this crashed and burning helicopter when he disappeared.

I brought it back to America. May 2000, found us in the Pentagon parking lot with Run For The Wall, waiting to ride in the Rolling Thunder parade and carry the rotor blade in a pine box to the Wall. Many notables mingled with the bikers, but I never knew the name of the man I remember the most. He stared at the blade for a long time before he spoke. He was one of two survivors from a chopper crash. The other crewmember had managed to return to the crash and recover a small piece of stainless steel from the helicopter, which he used to make two crosses. The vet reached into his pants pocket and a small piece of silver flashed in his palm. He explained this cross was never out of his sight; he carried it with him at all times as a reminder of the friends he had lost. Tears welled up in his eyes when he choked out, “I don’t know why I didn’t die that day; they were all such good men.” Around noon, the lead bikes began to roll out. As soon as the wheels stopped turning, strong hands reached out to carry the heavy wooden box to its final destination at Panel 35E in an honor guard procession. One by one, the riders touched Jerry’s name with bowed heads as a silent statement of respect. Overwhelmed, I left the Wall. Like a moth to a flame, I later returned. While bending over the pine box, which now overflowed with miscellaneous mementos, I lost my balance and leaned into the Wall to break my fall.

Donna Elliott at the Wall, 2000

That’s when I saw it. Tucked deep into a corner of the pine box was the small silver cross! For reasons unknown, the Vietnam vet from the parking lot had chosen to leave his talisman at the Wall in remembrance of Jerry. His gift an anonymous, selfless act, reminiscent of actions I’d heard combat vets share about their brother soldiers on the battlefield. I placed the cross on one end of the blade, where it gleamed boldly. I hope my nameless friend from the parking lot walked away from the Wall that day with as much peace in his heart as I felt at that moment.

Donna E. Elliott, a retired military photojournalist, values the peaceful surroundings of the family farm in the Arkansas Ozark foothills. In civilian life, she utilized her writing skills as a newspaper and radio news reporter, and freelanced as a human interest photojournalist. While in service, she earned the U. S. Army Command FORSCOM 4th Estate Award and three Minaret awards for excellence in journalism. Donna is a member of the Military Writers Society of America.

Used with permission of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (www.buildthecenter.org/) and Donna E. Elliott.

You can read Donna’s obituary here.

And you can find out more about her book, KEEPING THE PROMISE, here.

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

October 20, 2017

Fiddler’s Green

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Earlier this year, Betty and I saw a documentary film by the director/producer Terry Sanders, titled FIGHTING FOR LIFE. The film recognizes how doctors and other medical personnel are trained at “the medical school no one’s ever heard of,” the Uniformed Services University. Besides anatomy and physiology and biology and regular medical training, many of the people who attend this university are trained for going onto the battlefield to heal and patch up the warriors of our country.

I always assumed that medical training is medical training, but as the film shows, the way we are taught to treat the women and men who fight our wars is, in many instances, governed by a different set of needs revolving around combat. It’s a pretty obvious conclusion when I think about it right now, but until seeing the film it hadn’t occurred to me what special skills military doctors, dentists, nurses, medics and corpsmen require in their efforts to save and mend lives.

Miramar National Cemetery, San Diego, California. Photo courtesy of Miramar National Cemetery.

I bring this up because last Tuesday, October 17, 2017. Lt. Commander Dr. Edward Feldman was buried at Miramar National Cemetery in San Diego, CA, and his interment got me thinking about the medical folks I served with in Vietnam.

Dr. Feldman was one of the physicians who served with the 9th and 26th Marines during the Siege of Khe Sanh. And like so many of the doctors and corpsmen I served with, his story is remarkable. He arrived at Khe Sanh on January 3, 1968, eighteen days before the beginning of the Siege. Almost immediately, on the opening day of the big battle, January 21, 1968, Dr. Feldman was called upon to perform an amazing feat of surgery. He removed a live mortar round from the abdominal cavity of a Marine. For his action, he was awarded a Silver Star. Below is a quote from his Silver Star Award. I will let you read for yourselves what an astounding act this surgery was.

When the Khe Sanh Combat Base came under heavy mortar and rocket attack on 21 January 1968, a wounded Marine was taken to the Battalion Aid Station where preliminary examinations revealed a metal object protruding from a wound in his abdominal region. Further examination disclosed the possibility of the object being a live enemy mortar round. Quickly assessing the situation, Lieutenant Feldman directed the erection of a sandbag barricade around the patient over which he would attempt to operate and summoned an ordnance expert to identify the object and assist in removing the suspected explosive device from the injured man. Disregarding his own safety, Lieutenant Feldman removed his helmet and armored vest and exposed himself to the danger of a possible explosion as he began to operate. Displaying exceptional professional ability while performing the delicate surgery under flashlights, he succeeded in removing the live round from the Marine and directed an assistant to carry it outside for disposal. By his courage, exceptional professionalism and selfless devotion to duty at great personal risk, Lieutenant Feldman undoubtedly saved the life of a Marine and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.

You can read Edward Feldman’s entire Silver Star citation here.

Dr. Edward Feldman. Photo courtesy of Before They Go.

Dr. Feldman was also, during his tour of duty in Vietnam, awarded a Bronze Star with Combat V for his actions with Charlie Med at the Siege. The United States Army awarded him a Bronze Star for Valor when, just before he was to rotate back to the States, he went into the field to medically assist a company of Army warriors and ended up acting as the commanding officer when the unit’s officers and senior NCOs were either killed or wounded in action.

After his service in the United States Navy, Dr. Feldman went on to establish medical practices in New Jersey and then California.

I found a comprehensive interview on the internet that he gave to the Navy and you can access it here.

You can also read Edward Feldman’s obituary here.

The medical folks at Khe Sanh were necessary to the Marines and by virtue of their bravery, from both doctors and corpsmen, earned the undying devotion and respect of the Marines who inhabited that hellhole.

Medical personnel in action during the Siege of Khe Sanh. Photo by Dave Powell.

I don’t know if it was Dr. Feldman, or one of the other physicians who went out with us on the patrol of March 30, 1968, where the Marines of Bravo Company, 1/26 assaulted an NVA battalion entrenched on a ridgeline south-east of the combat base. I guess it doesn’t matter who it was, but in my mind I imagine it being him.

I don’t know what physicians do out on the battlefield except try to save lives, but I imagine there is a set protocol for particular procedures: triage for a quick assessment of a casualty’s chances of surviving, then application of tourniquets, bandages, administration of drugs like morphine and other forms of emergency treatment.

But the thing is, out there on that day, bullets were flying and incoming artillery and mortar rounds fell all around us, killing or wounding many of us. And the doctor, whoever he was, and his corpsmen, were subject to death and dismemberment by the same hostile fire that beset the rest of us.

We often think of doctors in an office, rushing down the halls of a hospital, or even attending to the wounded in a field hospital, but not treating wounded Marines in the bottom of a bomb crater. If Edward Feldman didn’t draw that duty on that day, if ordered to do so, he would have been out there with his scalpel and the other tools he’d need to save lives. I don’t doubt that.

Waiting for the wounded at Khe Sanh. Photo by Dave Powell.

My experience with doctors at Khe Sanh was almost nonexistent. If I had a problem, it was handled by a corpsman so I don’t know if I ever crossed paths with Dr. Feldman. Nevertheless, I salute him—and all the medical personnel who put their lives in danger to save others—for his courage and his skill in the face of imminent danger.

There’s an old Navy myth about a magical afterlife called Fiddler’s Green where sailors go when they die, where never-ending laughter and a fiddle that plays forever and echoes of dancing feet ring.

My company commander at the Siege of Khe Sanh, Lt. Colonel Ken Pipes, mentioned Fiddler’s Green when he alerted all of us old Jarheads of the passing of Dr. Ed Feldman.

Like so much of what makes up the naval milieu, there is a ditty about Fiddler’s Green that goes like this:

At Fiddler’s Green, where seamen true
When here they’ve done their duty
The bowl of grog shall still renew
And pledge to love and beauty.

Revel in your time at Fiddler’s Green, Ed Feldman.

Semper Fi!

*******

Upcoming creening information:

In conjunction with the Ken Burns documentary, the Nampa Public Library in Nampa, Idaho, will screen BRAVO! on November 1, 2017. Doors open at 6:30 PM and the free program will begin at 7:00 PM, followed by a Q&A. A panel discussion with Vietnam Veterans is scheduled for November 8. The Nampa library’s website is http://nampalibrary.org.

On April 7, 2018, the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa, Idaho, will host a one-day symposium in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the Siege. The event will encompass a forum for educating the public about the Siege of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War, as well as an opportunity for a Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion. Activities will include a screening of BRAVO! and guest speakers remembering the battle. Khe Sanh Vet Mike Archer, author of two heralded non-fiction books on his Khe Sanh experiences, will be one of the featured speakers. You can see more about Mike at http://www.michaelarcher.net.

Mark your calendars now, as this will be a stellar event in a world-class air museum. We are still in the planning stage, so if you would like to participate and were involved with the siege, or just want to help, please contact me at 208-340-8889. An event like this can only happen with a core group of committed volunteers. We can’t do it without you! For more information on the Warhawk Air Museum, check out their website at https://warhawkairmuseum.org.

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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.