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Posts Tagged ‘The Ghost Patrol’

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

February 23, 2017

Reclaiming the Story

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

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

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

Cal Bright

Cal Bright

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

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

John "Doc" Cicala

John “Doc” Cicala

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

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

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

Peter Weiss

Peter Weiss

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

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

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

Steve Wiese

Steve Wiese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

January 17, 2014

Our Brothers’ Keeper

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Early in each year, my mind turns to events that happened forty-six years back at the Khe Sanh Combat Base in Vietnam. During the seventy-seven day siege that began on January 21, 1968, certain events ensued that are permanently emblazoned in my memory.

One of the most memorable—and for me, disastrous—events that occurred out of a litany of disastrous events is what has come to be called the “Ghost Patrol” that happened on February 25th, 1968, when the Third Platoon, Bravo Company, 1/26, went outside the Khe Sanh Combat Base on a patrol that turned into a catastrophe. The patrol, somewhere around fifty-four Marines and Navy Corpsmen, was ambushed by a much larger unit of the North Vietnamese Army, and twenty-seven Marines were KIA and a large number were WIA. For years we thought the count of KIAs was twenty-eight, but one Marine surprised us in 1973 when he showed up among the other 590 POWs freed from incarceration in the North Vietnamese prisoner of war camps.

Another one of the men on that patrol received serious facial wounds but survived, got back into the combat base and was medevaced out, eventually making it back to the States and then medically retired from the Marine Corps. Military doctors created a new face for this Marine, but more was damaged than the his body, and in the mid-1970s, he committed suicide.

In the last few years, one of this Marine’s Khe Sanh brothers, Seabee Mike Preston, set about to get that man’s name etched into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (The Wall) on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Even though this Marine was not technically killed in action in Vietnam, many of the Khe Sanh veterans felt strongly that the man’s death eight years later was a result of his wounds received on 25 February 1968.

Mike Preston, who has a great deal of experience helping veterans, spent forty-five months working with attorneys (including the casualty section at USMC Quantico who encouraged Mike during his efforts), other veterans, medical personnel, doctors and the VA in attempts to see to it that the Marine would be properly honored as he deserved.

On the left, Mike Preston and on the right, Ken Rodgers, Sonora, CA 2013 ©Betty Rodgers 2013

Mike spends a lot of his time working with disabled vets. He’s helped get another Vietnam veteran’s name on The Wall. Mike has taken thirty to forty veterans to visit The Wall to “make their bones,” as he calls it. He counsels vets from our more current conflicts, trying to help them understand what all those feelings are inside them that they cannot comprehend, the unexplainable rage and paranoia and sense of distance from anyone who wants to love them. Mike says, “The healer is being healed by healing another. After all, we are our brothers’ keeper.”

Last November, over tacos in the Sierra foothills town of Jackson, California, Mike, Betty and I talked about Mike’s plight to honor the Vietnam veteran, specifically this Marine who was wounded on 25 February 1968. After his forty-five months of effort and sweat and rage at the system that sometimes makes it so damned hard to honor those who fight for this country, Mike received information about this Marine that negated all reasonable attempts to get his name on The Wall, which would have raised the number of recognized combat deaths from 58,286 to 58,287.

Even though this man had a clean record while in the Marine Corps, even though he’d been a real gunfighter who showed up whenever the manure hit the fan, even though he had gotten his brothers’ backs when they needed him, he will ultimately not be honored on The Wall as a casualty of the Vietnam War.

All along, Mike’s premise was that the war made this man what he had become and ultimately made him a casualty, even though the war had been over for three years by the time of his suicide. After his nearly four-year effort, Mike finally got a look at the man’s records. He found out that this Marine had a history of problems prior to his service in the Corps that would have prevented his attempts to even enlist in the USMC in the first place if the authorities had known about them. He also had a history of mental problems and drug abuse after his discharge, so claiming that the war forced him to terminate his own life became impossible to prove.

Mike says that the memorial fund he helped found in the name of this Marine paid for, and had placed on his grave, a military headstone that was due him from the country he served. Mike wishes to thank Mr. Bill Jayne, a BRAVO! Marine, who before retirement was with the National Cemetery Administration for the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Bill helped facilitate the purchase of the headstone. Semper Fidelis, Bill Jayne.

Mike also thinks the Marine Corps deserves a compliment because in just a matter of weeks they helped this individual perform honorably under what could be, at the very least, termed as trying circumstances. Civilian society, for whatever reason, could not do this.

Mike, Betty and I further mused on the proper way to honor a veteran of war. If he has serious problems as a result of the conflict, does it diminish his service? Does the fact that he was in trouble before he enlisted somehow diminish his service? How do you decide? Where do you draw the line? Mike Preston says that what is important in thinking about these issues is that this man should be remembered for what he did from the time he raised his hand and took his oath at induction until the completion of his military obligation, “nothing more, nothing less.”