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Curtis R Rich
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Curtis R. Rich
This book is dedicated to my wife, Debbie, without whom I cannot write. It is also dedicated to the young men who, during America’s wars, went into harms way in lands far, far from home to accomplish impossible quests, and to the women who put the young men back together again when they could and cried over them when they couldn’t.
“Want to know the difference between a fairy tale and a war story? A fairy tale starts off ‘once upon a time….’ A war story starts off ‘Now this ain’t no shit…’”
So there will be no doubt, we will begin this story… Once upon a time, there was a mythical place called Vietnam. It was a place of implacable dragons, tarnished knights in green armor, impossible quests, evil kings and cruel princes and damn few damsels in distress. It was a mythical place that never existed except on the 6 O’Clock News and in other fairy tales. This is one.
27 June 1970
A clearing near point Dog, Kingdom of Cambodia
The Cobras worked the area over as well as they could. Finally a flight of F-5s arrived, but they were carrying 750 lb. bombs. The minimum safe distance for troops in the open for 750 lb. bombs is 350 meters. The pilots would not drop the bombs closer than that to the friendlies. As a result the bombs went behind the enemy, causing them to bunch up on the far side of the clearing, but not causing them to stop shooting or to leave the area.
Anderson had the Cobras make another pass, and the rescue Huey swooped in. The team ran to the ropes, jumped up and hung on.
But Jackson didn’t quite make it. He was hit in the leg just before he got there and fell. That meant the helicopter would have to go down. It was taking intense fire now. The door gunner was firing madly. The Cobras were making more passes, but the fire didn’t stop.
The pilot turned to Anderson and said, “I’m going down.”
He brought the aircraft down vertically. Mortar rounds were hitting. The Plexiglas nose took hits. The left door gunner slumped in his harness. NVA had encircled the clearing and were running toward the helicopter. Anderson jumped to the ground firing his CAR-15. With eight rapid shots he stopped the charge completely, felling eight men. He ran to Jackson, picked him up, and carried him back to the helicopter. He threw him in and turned around. Another charge had started.
A mortar round hit near the front of the helicopter and the pilot slumped in his seat. The aircraft slammed down hard before the co-pilot could react. He looked over. His pilot’s head was blown apart. He felt wetness on the lower parts of his body he attributed to the pilot’s blood or maybe he had pissed his pants. He was consumed in panic. The pilot’s blood and brains were all over him. He pulled the helicopter up and didn’t level out until he got to 1,000 feet.
“Go back!” he began to hear in his headphones.
It was Burke, lying in the back of the helicopter, bleeding from an abdominal wound but demanding he go back. He looked back at the carnage. Both gunners were hit. Everyone in the helicopter was wounded. He was wounded. The wetness, he could see, was blood spurting from his groin. He didn’t even think about going back for Jim Anderson.
He looked down. There were khaki clad figures all over the clearing.
He pushed the transmit button. “Cobras, if you have any ordinance left, expend it on the clearing.”
“Covey Three, when they’re done, let the fighters have it, too.”
“I’m taking the wounded to 93rd Evac.”
In order to have a story about brave knights and fair maidens, one must have a warrior king. In the little kingdom called Advisory Team 70, the good king was a U. S. Army Colonel named Frank Davis. He had carefully recruited a band of brave knights and inherited a magician in Sergeant Major’s stripes. But he needed a knight-errant to send on an impossible quest.
12 November 1969
Lai Khe, Republic of South Vietnam
Senior Advisor’s Quarters, Advisory Team 70
Frank Davis, Colonel, United States Army, 42, West Point ’49, walked through the door held open by Donald Finch, Colonel, United States Army, 53. Walking behind Davis was a lieutenant colonel, Thomas Randolph, 32, a major, Terry Bryant, 30, and a captain, Arnold Burke, 40. Colonel Finch held the door open and shooed the junior officers in. It didn’t quite match protocol, but Finch didn’t want the air conditioning in his trailer to get out. Inside he motioned to seats and to the bar and said, “Bar’s open.”
Burke went to the bar and said, “What will you gentlemen be having?” Burke was over age for a captain in this war, where the average captain was in his twenties. It was generally assumed by people who met him that he had been a mustang promoted from a sergeantcy. This was not the case, however. He had been in the Michigan National Guard when his wife of fourteen years had divorced him, and he had asked for active duty in Vietnam. That had been in 1967. He had been there ever since, meeting Colonel Davis while Davis was still a lieutenant colonel commanding a battalion in the 101st Airborne. He had managed to follow Colonel Davis to every assignment since, being part of Davis’s unofficial entourage. Technically each man in the entourage held a staff position in Davis’s units. Burke wore a Combat Infantryman’s badge on his left chest and a 101st patch on the right shoulder. He had been passed over for major once because of his age and because National Guard officers usually were passed over when on active duty. Only a spectacular combat record could prevent it happening a second time, which would end his military career. The U. S. Army had an “up or out” policy, and major was the usual stumbling block for marginal officers.
Finch said, “Bourbon, water, ice.” Finch was 5’8”, 200 lbs., ruddy-faced, balding.
“Yes, sir.” Burke reached into the small refrigerator and pulled out an ice tray and began to break it up into cubes.
“The usual,” said Davis. Davis was tall and lean, 6’2”, 180 lb. He wore a Fifth Special Forces patch on his right shoulder, and his left shoulder had a ranger tab over the MACV emblem. His chest had a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, a Springfield rifle on a rectangular board with a wreath around it. This one had a star in the wreath, indicating infantry combat service in Korea and Vietnam. In fact, he had three years of combat service in Korea and five and a half years in Vietnam, all by choice. Above it was a pair of master airborne wings with a star indicating a combat jump. The usual was Tanqueray gin, tonic, ice, and lime. It was understood that if the bar in question did not have Tanqueray, whatever gin was there was a distant second place. In Vietnam, limes were not usually available. Artificial limejuice from a bottle was a distant second but better than no lime at all. This bar had no fresh limes and no artificial limejuice. Burke made a mental note to correct that when he moved Colonel Davis in. Burke had a source for fresh limes. He had gotten his position with Colonel Davis because of his prowess in combat, but he liked pleasing the Colonel and went out of his way to do things like this. He took one out of his pocket, cut it with a Randall No. 1 fighting knife, and squeezed the contents of the entire lime into Colonel Davis’s glass. The 7” long blade of the Randall was immensely overqualified for the job of slicing limes. But then Burke was immensely overqualified to be a bartender, and his qualifications were in other areas.
“Yes, sir, and you, Colonel Randolph?” said Burke, looking at Randolph.
“Jack Daniels and water, ice.” Randolph, Finch’s Assistant Senior Advisor, was very tall, 6’6”, lanky, under 200 lb. despite the height, gaunt faced, with piercing blue eyes, blonde crew-cut hair. He, too, sported a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, ranger tab, and airborne wings. The patch on his right shoulder was from the First Cavalry division.
“Yes, sir,” he said. Looking at Bryant, he said, “The usual, sir?”
“That’ll be fine,” said Bryant. Bryant was medium height, round faced, youthful, with bright red hair and brown eyes. He, too, had discovered a mentor in Colonel Davis and had been in Vietnam for five years, the last three with Davis. He, too, sported a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Ranger tab and airborne wings. His combat time with Colonel Davis and his excellent abilities and hard work, had gotten him promoted to major at minimum time in grade as a captain. He looked the part of a young, energetic, ambitious major.
As Burke got the drinks, they all took seats. The trailer was Colonel Finch’s quarters at Lai Khe, a sprawling base used by the U. S. First Infantry Division, several aviation units, a mobile army surgical hospital, and the Vietnamese 5th Infantry Division. Colonel Finch had just completed his six-month tour as Senior Advisor to the 5th Infantry division, and Colonel Davis was his replacement. They had attended a change of command ceremony where Colonel Finch was given his Air Medal with seven oak leaf clusters. Other awards and decorations were awarded troops under his command. Colonel Finch had earned more decorations during his six-month tour, but they would be given out at a ceremony at his next duty station. A senior advisor of a Vietnamese Infantry Division would spend 6-8 hours a day in a helicopter much of his tour. Most of this was considered Command and Control time. This counted 2 hours for each actual hour of flight time toward the requirement of 100 hours/100 missions for an Air Medal. Combat assault time and missions counted 4 for 1, so a veteran of 25 combat assaults, meaning heliborne assaults, would earn an Air Medal, provided he kept records of each flight and turned it in when he had earned an Air Medal, and provided he survived all 25. Colonels didn’t have to keep their own records. They had enlisted men to do that, among other things.
“So, Don, where are you going now?”
“The Pentagon,” said Finch. “Came from there. Went there after my first Vietnam tour.” Finch wore an 82nd Airborne patch on his right shoulder, indicating service with the 82nd as his last combat assignment. He would now be able to supplant it with the MACV, Military Assistance Command Vietnam, patch, should he desire to. The 82nd was normally considered a plum assignment for an Infantry officer on the way up, so he was likely to leave it on his dress uniforms, the only uniforms he was likely to be wearing for some time at the Pentagon.
“Did you have a brigade with the 82nd?”
“No, staff time, G3. Where were you before coming here?”
Captain Burke chuckled softly. He knew Colonel Davis had been in Vietnam for five and a half years. He had arrived as a major in Special Forces and held several Special Forces jobs, always requesting another tour in Vietnam at the completion of one. Except for leaves he hadn’t been to the United States since late 1964. Davis had basically gotten promoted out of all of the Special Forces jobs, so he had command of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade before taking this assignment. Prior to that as a lieutenant colonel he had commanded a battalion in the 101st Airborne. Prior to that he had commanded Project Delta, and before that he had spent two years with the Studies and Observations Group, a unit few people knew existed and even fewer knew wasn’t really there for studies but for special operations, mostly reconnaissance into Cambodia and Laos. It operated under 5th Special Forces cover.
Burke handed out the drinks in order of rank, took a Jack Daniels neat for himself and sat in a corner. He knew Finch didn’t want him there and he wanted to stay out of the way as much as possible. He sipped the Jack Daniels once and held the drink quietly after that.
Davis said, “I had the 199th Light Infantry Brigade.”
Finch nodded. “Well, have you been well and thoroughly briefed by all my department heads, excuse me, your department heads?”
“Yes, well and thoroughly. I’ve been dog and pony showed to death. According to each of them the Fifth Division has been gloriously defeating the wily NVA on all fronts.”
“And well they have,” said Finch. “Any information I can add?”
“Well, I guess it’s time to talk about the problems. How about your senior advisors?”
“Well, they’re all doing fine jobs. Colonel Warner is about to deros about a week after I do. He’s Ninth Regimental SA. Colonel O’Dell just got his feet on the ground. The rest are well established, get along well with their counterparts, don’t cause any trouble.” By deros he meant Colonel Warner was going to leave a week after he left. Colonel Warner was Senior Advisor to the Ninth Regiment. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam was arranged in regiments, not brigades as was the U.S. Army.
“How about recon?”
“Fifth Division Recon Company.”
“Well, they come under intelligence. Major Jarrett is the G2 advisor. He’s doing a fine job. Why do you ask?”
“I have plans for the recon company.”
“Well, you’ll probably want to replace the advisor there.”
“Oh? How come?”
Colonel Finch looked at Lieutenant Colonel Randolph, who spoke. “Captain Anderson is SA there. He hasn’t been too impressive.”
“Well,” said Finch, “For one thing, my predecessor told me he sent him there as punishment after relieving him from an ASA job in Seventh Regiment.”
“What for?” asked Davis.
“He didn’t say.”
Davis almost said, “You didn’t ask?” but held his tongue. Finch did things quite a bit differently from the way he did them, but then Finch was a Pentagon staff wienie. “How’s his performance been there?”
“Pretty unremarkable. Division’s been using them as palace guards, so there hasn’t been much for him to do.”
Randolph spoke. “I caught him in his hooch one day at eleven hundred. He was asleep. I woke him and asked him why, and he said he’d been up all night on an ambush. I didn’t believe it and raked him over the coals. That’s been my only contact with him.”
“Did you check?”
“To see if his unit had been on ambushes?”
“No, sir. Captains don’t go on ambushes. Even if the unit did ambushes, he would have slept at the CP.”
“I see.” Davis looked at Bryant for a second, then turned to Finch. “So tell me about your counterpart.”
After an hour the new men left the trailer. As they walked away, out of earshot, Davis turned to Bryant. “Find out about Captain Anderson.”
“Yes, sir,” said Bryant.
“Think we can get our poker game going tonight?”
“Got it set up. Jim Reynolds is G1 advisor, and he said he can bring in three or four good suckers, er poker players.” G1 was supply. It seemed appropriate for him to supply the suckers, er people who thought they could play poker.
“If you don’t mind, sir, I’ll go talk to Bob Jarrett and see what the problem is. Maybe we can get one of the company commanders from the 199th at the end of his tour.”
“Go to it, Terry.”
Bryant walked to the S2 advisor’s building, like the others a Quonset hut. He went inside. A SP 4, or specialist 4th grade, “Spec-4,” one grade above Private First Class, one grade below Sergeant, equivalent to Corporal, was typing behind the desk. He stood up and said “Attention,” when Bryant walked in.
“As you were,” said Bryant. The room had a couple of chairs and two desks in it, with a PFC or private first class typing in the second desk. There was a map on the wall of the divisional Area of Operations, and there were chairs in front of it for briefings. There was a door to another room, with Major Jarrett’s name on it.
“I’d like to see Major Jarrett,” said Bryant to the young Spec-4.
“Yes, sir. Just a moment, sir.”
He turned and knocked on the door and then went in. Bryant could hear him say, “Major Bryant is here to see you, sir.”
Bryant heard, “Okay. Give me a second. I’ll come out and meet him.”
The Spec-4 closed the door and told Bryant, “He’ll be right out, sir. Would you care to have a seat? Would you care for some coffee, sir?”
“No, thanks.” He walked over to the map and studied it. Within 60 seconds the door opened again and two lieutenants came out, nodded good afternoon, sir, and went out the front door. Then Major Jarrett came out.
“Come on in, Terry.”
He followed Jarrett into his office. Jarrett offered him a seat, and he took it.
“Want some coffee?”
“No, thanks. Colonel Finch offered us drinks after the ceremony. Then Colonel Davis sent me over here.”
“Starting early, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. Colonel Davis asked about the Recon Company Senior Advisor and got a bad review.”
“I’m not surprised. Why did he ask about a lowly captain?”
“He has plans for Recon. He needs a good man there.”
“I think he’s got one.”
“But Colonel Finch doesn’t?”
“Well, if you’ll promise not to reveal your source…”
“Done,” said Bryant.
“Colonel Finch couldn’t find his ass with both hands.”
Bryant raised one eyebrow. “I see. That jives with my view. How’s Anderson been working out?”
“Fine. Recon’s been quietly killing NVA, usually at night, usually with low casualties. They’ve been doing ambushes in known approach trails and bagging a few every week.”
“Why doesn’t Finch like Anderson?”
“I guess you’d have to ask him.”
“I think Colonel Davis would like to meet Captain Anderson, say tomorrow morning 0900.”
“He’s not back yet.”
“From his extension leave.”
“Finch doesn’t like him but approved his extension?”
“Only if he stayed in this unit.”
“Anderson trying to get out?”
“Been asking for a US unit every six months since he got here.”
“When did he get here?”
“Long before I did. I think he’s been here since he was a second lieutenant.”
“When he gets in, let me know. Colonel Davis will want to see him.”
“You got it.”
“Oh, one more thing. If he’s on a one month leave, who’s covering for him?”
“Just his RTO. Spec-4 Wayne.”
“Isn’t he authorized an E-7?”
“Yes, an experienced recon platoon sergeant. But what he has is Spec-4 Wayne. That’s all Colonel Finch would give him.”
“I see. I gather you don’t think much of Spec-4 Wayne?”
“Can’t say that I do. He’s fat, lazy, and counting the days till he deroses.”
“Well, there’s a lot of that going on. Does he get the job done?”
“Not very well. I send Lieutenant Prichart over whenever they’re tasked for anything important. He can call in fire. He’s out now on an operation. Wayne isn’t very good at it. Too scared.”
“I see,” said Bryant.
And such a story needs a fair maiden. Make no mistake, this was the fairest maiden of them all, so fair she never looked into the mirror on the wall and asked.
12 November 1969
Travis AFB, California
First Lieutenant Sue Ellen Hagerty, U.S. Army Nurse Corps, 22, had been standing in one line or another for some time. Now she was in a line to board a World Airways Boeing 707 Military Airlift Command (MAC) charter bound for Than Son Nhut Air Force Base, Republic of Vietnam. The men were dressed in jungle fatigues, but she and the other nurses were dressed in dress uniforms including high heels and the required girdles. She had secretly ditched the girdle. At 5’6” tall and weighing 115 lb., she didn’t need a girdle, and, having never worn one, was miserable in it. Sue Ellen had a natural beauty that couldn’t be hidden by the frumpy looking Army nurse’s uniform and having her long, red hair tied up in a bun in order to comply with Army regulations and keep it off her shoulders. The fact that she was wearing no makeup didn’t hide it. In fact, it was of a quality that caused men to walk into walls staring at her. Both her face and her figure were spectacular. Fortunately, she was unaware of it. Beautiful women, truly beautiful women, fall into two categories, those that know how beautiful they are and capitalize on it, and those who don’t see it because when they look in the mirror they see the flaws, or imagined flaws. She didn’t notice her eyes were fiery green, and her skin was like a porcelain doll, very white against her bright red hair. Her high cheekbones, small nose, full lips and wide chin added up to a face appropriate for playing either an angel or Tinker Bell from Peter Pan. Her innocent, natural smile made almost everyone like her.
A major in class A dress uniform, meaning the green coat and tie, was looking for someone. He found him near the back of the line. He stopped and talked to a very young looking captain in the line. There was something funny about his jungle fatigue uniform. The rest of the men all had on brand new freshly starched jungle fatigues. His looked worn and a deeper green. They were not starched. In her opinion, he was not good looking. His face looked too young, and the chin wasn’t angular enough. His nose had been broken and needed plastic surgery, and, while the surgeon was working, he could reduce its size and remove the scar over his right eye. He would never be a male model in Gentlemen’s Quarterly. But then he was probably too thin to fit the suits models modeled. He had a runner’s build. His eyes were dark brown, like his hair. But the eyes were so dark light seemed to be captured by them and not escape, like a black hole in space. He had a piercing stare with a squint that made her think he was looking right through her. She didn’t like it. She saw him look around when the major said something. Then he nodded and turned to the man next to him, pointed to a B-4 bag on the floor, and said something. Then he started walking up the line, picking out sergeants with a lot of stripes. Sue Ellen was finally getting the hang of military rank. She just knew that a sergeant with three chevrons down and two or three up was a senior NCO. He was selecting senior NCOs.
Then he walked past her and stopped at Captain Nancy Walker. “Hi,” he said. Are you the senior nurse?”
“Yes,” said Nancy, a woman approaching thirty, with a face beginning to turn hard, with sunken cheeks and dark, brooding eyes, as if what her eyes has seen was dark and unforgettable.
“Looks like I’m in charge of this flight. If I’m the senior officer aboard it must be a flight of virgins. How about gathering all your nurses. We’ll put them in the good seats at the front of the plane.” Sue Ellen thought that Nancy had to be older than him, and thus probably senior in time in grade. She wondered why she wasn’t in charge of the flight until she realized that the Army didn’t consider nurses to be real officers. They got to eat and drink at the officers’ club, but they couldn’t command troops, male troops.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Trust me,” he said in a soft voice. “It’s a long flight. There’s nobody onboard over the rank of Captain, and only two of them, you and me. I’ll gather the male lieutenants and senior NCOs, too. Troops don’t want to sit next to officers and NCOs on a long flight. They may want to sit next to nurses, but you don’t want to sit next to them. They’re going to war and figure they’re going to die, so their behavior will not be exemplary. They figure they have nothing to lose.” Then he added with a wistful voice, “and some of them are right.”
Sue Ellen noticed he pulled a sergeant out who had a star between his chevrons. “Sergeant Major,” he said. “You’re in charge of the NCOs. There are 225 men under the rank of E-6. Divide the men into units equal to the number of E-6s and above and put one in charge of each. We’ll sit the Officers in front, what few there are, followed by you NCOs, followed by the troops. Any problems?”
“Good. If, after the usual briefings about misbehavior on the aircraft, one of these young troops misbehaves, I would prefer it didn’t get to me. If it does, I’ll have no choice but to fill out paperwork and start his tour in Vietnam with bad time because I am a heartless prick. That is unnecessary unless he has done bodily harm to another troop or damaged the aircraft or molested a stewardess. Speaking of stewardesses, anything worse than lightly brushing past them in the aisle, say a hand lingering on breast, butt, thigh, or crotch qualifies for, at the very least, your very worst ass chewing, and I’m sure you’re so much better at ass chewing than I am that I’ll want to hear it just to learn new words and phrases. Understood, Sergeant Major?”
Sergeant Majors generally don’t have to take too many orders from young captains. They work for Lieutenant Colonels and above, but being enlisted men, by regulation they have to take lawful orders from the youngest second lieutenants. However, a good sergeant major can usually make a junior officer know what he thinks without violating any regulations, and if he doesn’t like the order or the person giving it, he can usually find a way to avoid executing it. In this case it was obvious he liked what he saw and was hearing and had no trouble carrying out the order. Perhaps it was the fact that he knew, by looking at the captain’s uniform, he was talking to a combat veteran, not some youngster who had spent his military career in training. “Yes, sir. I’ll take car of it. You can just sleep.”
“God knows I need it. Thanks, Sergeant Major.”
The captain turned and went back to the back of the line. He was about 6’ tall, very thin, with a gaunt face and a natural grin. She noticed a lot of stuff on his uniform. On his left chest over his U.S. Army tag was a rifle with a wreath around it and a parachute with a wreath. His nametag over the right pocket read, “Anderson.” On his right chest was some other kind of wreathed emblem, and on the pocket was a black panther head in full growl on a yellow shield patch. On the left pocket was another patch, a crest with the number 32 in it. On the pocket flap were three black pips. There was a patch on his right shoulder with a sword in it. When he turned she saw the same patch on his left shoulder with a curved tab with the word RANGER above it. He smiled and nodded as he walked by. She thought he was impossibly cocky and sure of himself and disliked him on sight.
The sergeants quickly took charge and rearranged the men, and the nurses under Captain Walker, went to the back of the line with a smattering of lieutenants.
“Doesn’t anyone over the rank of captain go to war anymore?” asked one of the male lieutenants.
“They’re all dead or in desk jobs, and we’re replacing the dead ones,” said Anderson.
“Aw gee, you really know how to make us feel good, sir.”
“Anything I can do to help morale. I was a lieutenant once… but then… I got over it.”
Eventually the plane was called to board, and the troops filed in, the first man filling the last seat in the back, so that those in the back of the line would be in the front of the aircraft. The sergeants sat in front of the enlisted men, and the lieutenants in front of them, then the nurses. When the nurses, filled in, that left an aisle seat. Anderson sat down in the only seat, next to Sue Ellen.
“Damn,” she said to herself. She looked over at Rhonda Martin and grimaced. Rhonda giggled and whispered in her ear, “Change seats with you. Want a window view?”
She didn’t want to cause a fuss, though, so she said, “no, thanks.”
Captain Anderson had a small bag he stored under the seat in front of him. He put his cap in the seatback in front of him and turned to Sue Ellen. “Hi, I’m Jim.”
“Sue Ellen Hagerty,” she said, then cursed herself silently. Her last name was on her nametag. His last name was on his chest. That’s why he had just given his first name. Rhonda caught on.
“It’s going to be a long flight,” he said. “Might as well make yourself comfortable.”
Rhonda leaned over and said, “You look like you’ve made this trip before.”
“Yes,” he said. “I have.”
He didn’t elaborate. This surprised Sue Ellen. Out of his under-the-seat bag he pulled a paperback novel, Catch 22, but he didn’t read it. He stood up and looked toward the back of the aircraft. The sergeant with all of the stripes and the star in the middle was talking to the other sergeants with lots of stripes. He turned around and walked up to Captain Anderson.
“They’re all in their seats, sir. A couple of them are drunk, but we’ll keep an eye on ‘em.”
“Good. Can’t say as I blame them. They have time to sober up. Carry on, Sergeant Major.”
“Oh, yeah,” thought Sue Ellen. “Sergeant Major. That’s the one I thought was confusing at first. Majors are officers. Sergeants are non-commissioned officers or non-coms. Sergeant Major confused me. Then one of the girls reminded me that was the highest ranking sergeant.”
During one of her briefings during training Sue Ellen had called a Lieutenant Colonel “Lieutenant,” when asking a question, earning herself a dirty look. Military ranks weren’t her best suit. Sue Ellen had graduated from nursing school in Florida and had joined the Army after a recruiter came to their school and appealed to their patriotism. Her father expressly forbid her from joining the Army when she mentioned it, so she called the recruiter and joined the next morning. She and her father didn’t get along. The middle child born to the Hagerty family, she had railed under her father’s increasing discipline. A banker, he had sent his daughters to college to be debutantes, but she rebelled and took nursing. Most of the girls at the school were there to catch eligible men. The men were there to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. She avoided any entanglements with any of them and graduated several months prior to her twenty-second birthday. She spent almost a year at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas, and then was sent to Vietnam for a year’s tour that coincided with the end of her two-year active duty obligation. So when she completed her tour, she would go home to civilian life unless she asked for voluntary indefinite status and continued in the Army. She was unlikely to do this if Fort Sam Houston was an example of life as an Army nurse.
Anderson sat back down and began to read on his novel until the stewardesses began to give the safety briefing. Sue Ellen, who had only flown a few times in her life, paid rapt attention to the safety briefing. She noted Captain Anderson didn’t. He glanced up occasionally but kept reading.
Eventually the aircraft moved into line to take off and took off in a rush of noise and vibration. As it climbed to altitude the stewardesses began serving drinks, soft drinks since this was a military charter, of course. Anderson reached under the seat and pulled out his bag. He walked back to where the Sergeant Major was sitting and handed him and the other senior sergeants something from the bag. Then he did the same to the nurses, finally coming back to their row and handing first Rhonda, then Sue Ellan a small, airline bottle of Vodka.
“Wait a minute, you are old enough to drink, aren’t you?” he said seriously.
“Of course I am!” she said, her eyes fiery, and her nostrils flaring.
“Sorry. You don’t look over 21 to me.”
“I thought the age to drink in the army was 18.”
“Aha,” he said. “So you are under 21.” He grabbed at the vodka bottle.
She jerked it out of his reach. “I’m over 21. Besides. I think I’ll need a drink before this flight is over.”
“I’m sure you will, just don’t get falling down drunk. It’ll make a poor impression on the troops in the back.”
A lieutenant walked up to Anderson and bent over to talk to him quietly.. “Hey, Cap’n, you give out drinks to all the nurses but not the lieutenants?”
“Well, lieutenant, you know how it is. Lieutenants, being the youngsters they are, can’t be trusted with liquor. Personally I’m of the opinion that they shouldn’t be allowed in the officer’s club till they make captain. The only reason lieutenants are admitted at all is they get promoted so often they have to buy an occasional round when they’re promoted, and that keeps the club solvent, that and the fact that there are so many of them their dues add up.”
The lieutenant laughed. Jim looked in his bag. “The truth is, I had intended to offer liquor to the lieutenants, but I underestimated either the number of senior sergeants or of nurses and didn’t bring enough for both. And believe me, lieutenant, after you’ve been in combat a few times, you’d rather have a few senior sergeants as friends than lieutenants, and if you fight like most lieutenants, you’ll be needing a nurse, and then you’d really rather have nurses as friends than lieutenants.”
The lieutenant laughed and went back to his row and told the other lieutenants. Some of them didn’t think it was so funny, but then obviously Captain Anderson wasn’t worried about hurting their feelings.
Sue Ellen said, “Have you been in combat?”
He looked at her for a full ten seconds before saying, “Yes.” He smiled. He didn’t elaborate.
“And have you been… hurt so you contacted nurses?”
“Yes. I spent time in a hospital for hookworms once, dengue fever once, and I had my bell rung once when I was on an armored vehicle that was blown up.” The fact that he wasn’t mentioning times he was in the hospital because he had been shot or hit by shell fragments was not, of course, apparent to Sue Ellen.
“What do you do?”
“I’m an advisor.”
“Does that mean you tell other people how to fight but don’t do it yourself?”
He laughed. “No, it means I live with Vietnamese troops. Advisors call in fire support, artillery, aircraft, helicopters. Being an advisor without fighting is like trying to run between raindrops. You’re going to get wet.”
“That’s awful!” She let it slip out before she could stop herself.
“Could be worse.”
He laughed. “I don’t know, but it could always be worse.”
“Well, how did you get a job like that?”
“You volunteered? Why?”
“Not initially. When I came to Vietnam I wanted an American unit. A guy behind a desk told me he was doing me a favor, that the life expectancy of a second lieutenant in an airborne unit was about three weeks, and he was sending me to an advisor’s job because I was the youngest looking second lieutenant he’d ever seen.”
“What’s the life expectancy there?” she asked with her eyes getting larger and larger.
“A lot longer. Three months,” he said with a smile.
“How old were you then?”
“How long have you been doing it?”
“Two years! You spent two years in Vietnam and you’re going back?”
“Well, I never really left. I just went home for my extension leave.”
“Whenever you extend your tour six months they give you a month’s leave. I’ve been extending since the fall of ‘68, so I’ve had three extension leaves.”
“Where do you go, home?”
“Well, I did this time.”
“Home to see the wife?”
“Well in a way, home to get a divorce.”
“A divorce, that’s awful.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“She didn’t want to be married to a war criminal any more.”
“What makes you a war criminal?”
“I fight on the side of the United States.”
“I don’t understand. Wasn’t she American?”
“Oh, yeah, a cheerleader at Baylor University. But then I went off to war, and she stayed at home and started listening to her friends, and they introduced her to their friends, war protesters. They convinced her we’re the bad guys, and she sued for divorce and all my assets. So I took my extension leave to go home to fight it in court, not the divorce, the division of assets. The judge, to my chagrin, agreed that I was a rotten monster for having deserted her by going off to war. Fortunately, since there were no children and few assets in my name, he just gave all of them to her and told me to go back to the war, so I did.”
“She was fairly happy, especially when her friends disrupted the proceedings by pulling out signs calling me a Nazi baby killer. Hell, I haven’t killed one Nazi baby.”
It took her a few seconds to realize he had thrown a joke into his tale, a sick one. Then she couldn’t help laughing. Rhonda, on the other hand, had no trouble at all appreciating his dry humor.
Finally she asked, “What did she get?”
“Didn’t have much. She has a nice ‘67 Camaro Z28 that she hates, but my father gave it to me when I graduated from college, our television, the usual stuff a lieutenant owns. I came here as a second lieutenant. Oh, and she got the bank account, no great loss. I’d been sending most of the paycheck home anyway, and, as you know, lieutenants don’t make very much. Captains with two years active duty don’t make much more. Is this your first trip to lovely, tropical, exotic Vietnam?” he asked, apparently deciding he had talked enough about that subject.
“Yes,” she said. “Isn’t it obvious?”
“Actually yes. I’m wearing old fatigues so as not to look like an FNG.”
“Sorry. The last two initials stand for New Guy. The first is not one I’ll repeat in polite mixed company, especially company so lovely and feminine. I think you’ll find that you will hear a lot of language your mother doesn’t approve of. It becomes a habit, and then you ask mom to please pass the bleeping potatoes.”
Again Sue Ellen and Rhonda laughed.
When she caught her breath she asked, “I think I’ve figured it out. Do you have any advice for us FNGs?”
“Well, since you asked, starting with this flight, remember it’s a long flight. You’ll be tempted to take off those awful Army issue shoes, but then your feet will swell, and you won’t be able to get them back on. Just unlace them and gut it out. It’ll be the last time you’ll wear them till you deros. You’ll work in fatigues or scrubs. We guys get boots. We can take them off and get them back on, just leave the laces looser. And, if I’m not getting too personal, dump the regulation girdle as soon as possible. If you encounter someone in authority who cares, put it back on. But you won’t, not outside of Saigon for sure, probably not there.”
“I already did that,” she whispered.
“Good for you. Course, you need a girdle like a cat needs a bowling ball.”
“Was that meant to be a compliment?”
“Thank you. Any more advice, other than undressing? Men seem to give me that advice often.”
“And good advice it is. Do you take them up on it?”
“Generally. Good answer. No matter where you’re stationed, whether it’s 93rd Evac with its air conditioning and civilized flush toilets or one of the evacs or aid stations out in the boonies, don’t ever forget it’s a war zone. And don’t count on the male medical personnel to take care of you. They’re just men. They’re not soldiers. If I were you the first wounded guy who showed up with a weapon, I’d combat loss it, learn to operate, and keep it handy.”
“But you know how to use weapons. We don’t,” said Rhonda.
“Well, I do know how to shoot a rifle and a pistol. Daddy taught me,” said Sue Ellen. She didn’t say, “before he turned into a gold-plated prick.” But then he was an up and coming bank officer. Taking clients hunting and golfing was part of his job, and back then he liked it. Something happened when she turned fourteen or so, and he stopped taking her anywhere or doing anything with her, and everything she did was wrong or sinful or evil. She didn’t feel evil, and she knew she wasn’t doing the things she was being accused of. The change, she decided, was in her father. She didn’t like it, and she could do nothing about it.
“Good for Daddy.”
She didn’t say, “but you don’t know him now.” Instead she said, “What’s combat loss?”
“When someone’s medevaced, the unit should, if they’re smart, keep his weapon and write it off as a combat loss. Then they’ll have extras, especially pistols. Everybody wants a pistol. If it goes to the rear, and no one’s watching, you should steal it and keep it for your own protection. If you do, odds are no one will notice. Before you do that, observe what happens to weapons brought in on medevacs, how closely they’re guarded, that sort of thing. I’ll bet that they’re stacked in a corner, and when things are quiet, someone accounts for them then. I was in a hospital after Tet last year and talked to several nurses, some were armed. Some weren’t. Those who weren’t were by then. They learned male medical personnel knew no more about defending themselves than they did. Some got lessons from MPs, some from friendly patients like me. This started when a nurse captain asked me if I knew a lot about an M-16. I allowed that as an infantry officer I might be slightly familiar with our basic battle rifle. As I was ambulatory she asked me if I’d like to meet a lot of young, single nurses. I think I might have said that ordinarily I would be too shy, but if she absolutely insisted, I would do it to please her. She ushered me to a room with tables with M-16s on it and a gaggle of nurses, one per rifle. They wanted to know how to load, unload, field strip, and clean them. I obliged. Unfortunately, as I was married, nothing came of it, other than they all knew how to handle rifles. Later I did the same for pistols for nurses and doctors who had managed to get .45s or .38s and intended to wear them under their smocks.”
“Are things that bad?” asked Rhonda. “I don’t know anything about guns and couldn’t possibly use one.”
“They aren’t that bad, but they can be. Tet was a surprise to the people in Saigon and Hue. Things went to hell pretty quickly. Sappers can get into some awfully secure locations. A .45 under your field jacket can be awfully comforting when you’re working late at night and hear strange noises.”
“I see,” said Rhonda. “You’re scaring the hell out of me.”
“Any more advice?” asked Sue Ellen. “Preferably something that doesn’t scare us to death or involve removing clothing?”
“You understand I’ve only seen nurses from the patient’s side.”
“Well, then, from the patients’ side.”
“Don’t take this one the wrong way. But I saw a lot of coldness in nurses. I understand it. They’re working with mostly young men, all of whom haven’t usually seen a round-eyed woman or one at all, in months. They’re scared. They’re a million miles from home. If a woman is nice to them, they’re liable to overreact. But I’d say take that chance. Nurses I’ve encountered were extremely… businesslike. I guess they’re so tired of being hit on that they’re trying to nip it in the bud. But I don’t think an occasional smile or a word of encouragement will hurt.”
“I’ll keep it in mind. Of course, I’m supposed to be an operating room nurse, so I don’t know how many conscious patients I’ll see.”
“Oh, that’s a mistake.”
“Why?” she said indignantly.
“Someone with your face should be in contact with patients who are conscious.”
Rhonda said, “I think that was a compliment, too, Sue Ellen.”
“Thank you. But I’m good in an operating room.”
“That’s important. But if you make contact with conscious patients, remember what I said.”
“I don’t know why it would make any difference.”
“They’re a million miles from home. They’re wounded. They may have lost an arm or a leg or an eye. They may be dying. People do die in Vietnam. Seeing a beautiful woman will instill as much will to live as any drug or surgery you can find.”
“But any nurse can do that.”
He smiled, seeing that she didn’t get it. “Perhaps. But I think you can do it better.”
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