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Burgers and Southern Belles

Burgers and Southern Belles

September 15, 1968 / Cam Ranh Bay RVN

Stepping off the C-130 that carried us from Chu Lai, we were herded onto a waiting deuce-and-a-half and made our way through the compound. Cam Rahn was another large military installation filled with “rear area” activity. It was a bustling city filled with officers and EM in clean, starched fatigues and polished boots…and the always present Vietnamese locals. Those of us who were here to make our way back home stood out like folks from across the tracks; our fatigues and boots bore the wear and tear of red dirt and lack of spit and polish from places other than the rear. It was like the war was somewhere else or maybe hadn’t existed at all.
The deuce-and-a-half delivered us to the holdover quarters where we would wait until our flight left. We were met by a spit and polish staff sergeant whose last assignment must have been one that had him greet new recruits into army life. He barked out orders like an eager DI and directed us toward the building that would house us until it was time to leave. No one paid attention to him, and he seemed to pay no notice to us. He was content to pretend he was important. Once inside, he informed us that our flight was due to leave around eight p.m. that night, and that he’d return in a half hour to put us on a police detail. Police detail!?
Our jaws dropped as we watched this REMF NCO swagger out the door. We stared in disbelief at one another. You gotta be kidding me! Did we hear that right…police the goddam area? Bullshit…there was no way in hell we were we going to clean this guys area of paper and cigarette butts. We didn’t expect, or want, preferential treatment. Maybe a little respect for having spent time outside the wire-we just wanted to leave Vietnam-and the sooner the better. And no police detail.
We took a quick vote and six of us decided to take off to go find something to eat. It was after 10:00 in the morning and most of us hadn’t eaten since the night before. So, with orders in hand we walked out the door and headed in the direction of the PX.
We found a Burger Bar. I mean an actual Burger Bar! All that was missing were sweet teenaged girls behind the counter flashing their sweet teenaged smiles. What we got instead were the grumpy, unsmiling privates in green fatigues. But, we did get a good hamburger…with fries and a Coke, or maybe it was a Pepsi. No matter, it had been a long time since our last journey to a burger joint. For all we knew, the meal was the worst ever.
After wandering around for a couple of hours and assuming that the “detail” was done, we made our way back to the holdover hooch. It seems that after we left a few others decided to escape the detail also, and those that remained confirmed that the NCO did return and have them police the area. Our stomachs satisfied, we stretched out on the cots and waited for our ride to the airstrip later that evening. We might have caught some Z’s. Don’t recall. When the long-awaited ride did come, it was another NCO, just as spit and shine, but much more cheerful, who gathered us up, loaded us up, and wished us well. Nice.
We were giddy with restrained excitement and disbelief as the deuce rumbled through the compound and made its way to the airstrip. We were that much closer to going home…but we weren’t out of Vietnam yet.
The deuce stopped and we were guided into a small Quonset hut where others were waiting for their trip home. What came next was our “debriefing.” An officer entered, smiled, and welcomed us. He then began to tell us that once we get home we would find things “different.” Different!? God, I hope so. Although, with the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations just a few months earlier, the joke was we’d be allowed to take our weapons with us so that we could fight our way home if necessary. However, those killings did leave so many of us with doubts of what “home” really was. Violent and deliberate death is an everyday event in a war zone. You accept that. You live with that reality moment to moment and you find a way to deal with it. Home was supposed to be the refuge away from that reality. Home was the safe zone. Home was the “world” where our lives would resume; pick up where we left off.
The debriefing lasted around thirty minutes of which maybe five were heard. Our thoughts and attention were not on the officer lecturing us. Blah-blah-blah…good luck men. Dismissed. That was it. Thirty minutes and we were ready to live our normal lives again. It was that easy. So they thought. And, so we thought as we marched to the hut that served as terminal, show your orders, receive a flight voucher and head out to the flight line and the waiting Freedom Bird.

We made our way up the portable passenger stairs and boarded the plane that had come to take us home. It was a civilian plane, Central Airlines I think. The image of that plane sitting on the runway is stuck in my memory like an old rumpled photograph I carry around in my wallet and I just can’t find the heart to toss it.
It was around nine p.m. The stewardesses were all young, beautiful southern belles with soft, lacey “y’all” accents. They looked so good to us and smelled just as nice. Other than the nurses and the occasional visits from the Red Cross “donut dollies,” these lovely and graceful ladies were the first non-military American women we had seen in a very long time.
You would think that being in the presence of those lovely ladies would have turned us into drooling, silly seventh grade boys. But that was not the case. We shared a common, ever present thought that stayed with us our entire tour: would we live to see this day? We were more concerned about getting off the ground and into the air.
We knew we weren’t safe yet. There were many incidences of mortar or rocket rounds killing troops who were homeward bound. To have survived your tour only to be killed on the way out was the final insane absurdity delivered by the beast. Working hurriedly, but gently, they got us seated; they didn’t want to hang around any longer than we did. We were just as anxious as they to leave that goddamned place with all its death and misery.
With everyone belted in, the plane taxied into position. Given final clearance for take off, the plane lurched forward pushing us back into our seats. I had a window seat and watched as the runway lights raced past, faster and faster. The plane rotated upwards and we left the ground…Vietnam was now rapidly slipping away under us.
I’ve heard stories of flights that erupted into roaring cheers when the plane left the ground, but not this one…not this time. It was stone quiet as we climbed higher and higher into the black night.
Through the window I saw explosive flashes and lines of tracers arcing through the void. Down there the war still raged. Down there someone was still dying. And we were on our way home. The plane banked and we headed out to sea. We had survived our tours and were headed back to the world. I leaned back into my seat and let silent tears fall as Vietnam disappeared.

Doc Rich R

The Watch

The Watch

 I saw them come in numbers,

More than anyone

Should ever have to see.

Fresh from the battlefields

Of slaughter;

Their bodies torn, shattered,

Ripped apart and mangled,

Eyes, wild with fear

Or empty dead stares,

Told their story of raw horror.

Frantic strangled cries gurgle

From their blood filled throats;

Calling for wives or mothers…

Or God.

But they have come to face the beast

With its fetid smell of death

On its angry dragons’ breath.

There comes no mercy…

No peace…

Nor holy, saintly knighted savior

With sword of life in hand

Riding nigh.


…And only this…

To stand a silent vigil

And to watch them slowly die.

Leaving Da Nang

Leaving Da Nang 



It was one of those moments when sound collapses into an eerie silence and time somehow ceases to move and deposits you into an altered, yet clear reality. I had been plucked from the moment and set down in the space between time. But I was not alone. I turned my head and our eyes met as if guided by some mysterious contrivance of fate. In a bustling, chaotic crowd of many, only he stood out; a slight smile on his lips.

I had recently returned to Chu Lai from an assignment at the NSAH (Naval Support Activity Hospital) in Da Nang. Our unit was working an AO in the area and the battalion commander wanted a casualty reporter nearby. It was a quiet three weeks and an opportunity for me to use it as an in-country R & R; one that I badly needed. It may have been why I was sent to Da Nang. Activity was constant down south, and I clearly was showing the signs of sensory overload.

I was back in familiar territory and working the ER, GR, and wards when I received a call from Percy that Captain Rice (not his real name) wanted me to accompany him to visit wounded at the hospital in Da Nang. He arrived mid-day in his jeep, and we made the 60 mile trip north. Captain Rice drove and I held his Thompson in my lap. My M-16 was in storage in the 2nd Surg. armory.

The trip was uneventful as we raced passed villages and sandbagged outposts. Farmers bent over in their fields and young children standing on the roadside with outstretched hand, babies on their hips, greeted us along the way. A column of thick black smoke rose in the distance on my left as we neared Da Nang. I kept my eyes fixed in that direction until I was satisfied there was nothing of consequence in progress. Captain Rice sped on, his eyes fixed on the road.

Once we arrived, Captain Rice told me to meet him at the hospital in two hours. I made my way to the hospital barracks to find Walt and others I had met while in Da Nang.  I found Walt and we sat and BS’d until the two hours had passed. I said my goodbyes and made my way back to the hospital only to find that Captain Rice planned on visiting for another two hours and was not ready to go. It was nearly 1400 hours (2:00 p.m.). Curfew was four hours away at 1800.

Walt was surprised to see me stroll back into the barracks. When I told him that we weren’t going to leave for another two hours or so, he suggested I should tell the captain that I refuse to leave, spend the night, and leave in the morning. It sounded like a good plan to me; I did not want to be on the road so close to curfew. Two lightly armed American soldiers would present an easy target.

The time passed and I walked back to the hospital only to find that Captain Rice was not where we had planned to meet. Nervously glancing at my watch, I sat and waited for him to show. It was after 4:30 when he strolled into the reception area, Thompson in hand, and signaled for me to follow him. He jumped into the drivers seat, handed his weapon to me, started the jeep, and we began our return journey south to Chu Lai.

The Thompson rested, barrel out, across my lap; my left hand resting on the trigger guard as we made our way out of Da Nang. The village on the outskirts of town was busy with U.S and ARVN military traffic and locals on foot making their way in from the fields. Curfew was a little over an hour away and they did not want to get caught in the open. After 1800 hours, anyone beyond the last guard post would be considered an enemy combatant in a free fire zone and subject to be killed.

We crawled to a stop as we approached a narrow one lane bridge filled with lumbering vehicles, horns honking, and nervous villagers rushing back from the fields, dōn gánh (bamboo carrying bar with woven baskets hanging on each end) filled with produce, swaying on their shoulders. The sooner they were in from the fields the better off they were. It was not uncommon for a late straggler to be gunned down before 1800 hours.

I watched these villagers closely as they raced across the bridge, snarling angrily  and shouting at the passing vehicles forcing them to walk an even narrower path against the steel girders of the bridge; their loads bumped and spilling on the road. I was growing nervous as it became obvious we would not beat the curfew before reaching Chu Lai. I asked Captain Rice if he thought it best to return and stay at the hospital for the night. He shook his head and frustrated, laid on the horn. I continued my watch.

It was in that moment, stopped at the foot of the bridge amidst all the noise and erratic commotion, when the forward flow of time ceased. I was on high alert and being drawn to something. I scanned the blurred faces of the villagers as they raced past me, my eyes searching for what beckoned me. Nothing. I looked past the parade of humanity and into a crowd standing at the entrance of a market and saw only him standing there; his arms folded across his chest.

            He was wearing a black shirt, purple shorts and Ho Chi Minh sandals; dark black hair sat atop his weathered face; old for a young man. Our eyes locked. Safety off, my finger moved imperceptibly towards the trigger. He slowly moved his left arm away from his body to reveal a pistol in his right hand, tucked under his armpit. With a feint, non-threatening smile on his lips, he nodded lightly. Eyes still locked, I returned his nod. The jeep lurched forward suddenly and caused me to lose eye contact. Time had restarted and we were moving. I quickly turned to look back toward the market. He was gone.

Something unexplainable happened at the foot of that bridge that day. I did not feel threatened or frightened. We both had somehow found ourselves in the same space and time apart from the chaos that whirled around us and acknowledged that it was not the place or time for death.

Captain Rice sped across the bridge; a basket hit our windshield and a shrill litany of Vietnamese curses followed us as we passed the last guard post and headed for the open road and Chu Lai.  



Nothing was said as we sped down the road at full speed in a race to get somewhere-anywhere-before curfew and darkness set in. Nothing was visible. Animals, people, birds…nothing. It was as if 1800 hours had become such a way of life that all living things made themselves scarce and dared not be seen in the open. I thought about what Walt had said and wished I had stayed behind. I was not comfortable, and I could see by the tension on his face, neither was Captain Rice.

            Coming out of a turn we heard a pop and the jeep began to shimmy and swerve. We had blown a rear tire and we had no spare. Never slowing, Captain Rice said “Fuck it” and we continued to race down the road. Even if we did have a spare, stopping to change a tire in the middle of nowhere after curfew was not a good idea.

            Conversation now began to flow between the captain and me. He kept repeating “Fuck!” over and over, “We need to find a place to stop…soon. Keep an eye out for a friendly place. Fuck!” 


“No shit, sir.”


As dusk cleared daylight for dark we spotted a Marine outpost and pulled up to the gate. The sentries exited their sandbagged guardhouse and approached us. They were surprised to see two G.I’s cruising the road after curfew. Captain Rice explained our situation and pointed to the now shredded remains of a tire and battered rim. Letting us in and directing us to the command post I could see the laughter in their looks…“Army…figures”

            Captain Rice stopped the vehicle and entered the command bunker. I waited in the jeep feeling a hell of a lot better about my circumstances, no matter what the sentries thought. Captain Rice exited the bunker minutes later with a Marine captain who was taking us to a location where we could grab some C’s and sleep for the night.

Leaving the jeep behind for their mechanics to repair, we followed our Marine savior to our sanctuary for the night. As we walked away, I heard the two sentries talking in low voices and giggling. They might have been laughing about something else, but I was sure we had to be object of their delight.

            After chatting a while with a couple of Marine grunts, I settled down on a borrowed sleeping bag and drifted off to sleep. Morning came; our jeep was delivered with a replaced rim and tire, and we set off to finish our journey. Captain Rice let me off at 2nd Surg. and went on his way. Two weeks later a couple of friends, battalion medics, stopped by to visit. In our conversations I told them of the journey from Da Nang. They laughed and let me know that Captain Rice had been reprimanded by the battalion CO for placing me in danger. Hell, the government did that.


Rich Raitano


God Laughs In Colors
By Tom Skiens
Nov. 12, 2009

I was a tree vet again this year at the local Veterans Day ceremony. Just like the Nam vets in D.C. who hang out in the tree line on the ridge above the bowl that hosts The Wall. I used to occupy a spot in the trees on the southwest corner of the pond. A brown water sailor vet buddy joined me sometimes and things were good. I walked from my house and timed it so I arrived at my spot when the crowd was still moving around. Civilians don’t have their heads on a swivel scanning the tree line both high and low. They are content to look straight ahead or at their shoes or at the person beside them. I would move into position and no one noticed.

Later a civilian wannabe asked if we minded if he joined us. We minded, but let him join anyway. The civilian asked stupid questions and made way too much noise as if to yell, “I am in the trees with the vets, I must be cool.” He moved around too much which gave away our location. He wanted attention and we were in the trees to avoid same. The next year the ceremony organizers plugged in a loud speaker so the tree vets could hear. I stopped attending the Veterans Day ceremony.

I visit the Veterans memorial at the parks and recreation’s Seventh Street Complex in John Day Oregon often. I do it in the dark of night or before daylight in the early morning hours. Several years ago I volunteered to spend many days and hours on my knees laying pavers or screeding sand or chasing a compactor in the construction of this memorial. I learned to mix mortar while helping to build a granite podium that would support the marble engraved centerpiece to the monument.

And now things have come full circle. The memorial was falling apart, in September of 2009 the flag pole broke off. In October of 2009 I saw activity at the memorial and again volunteered. Just like I volunteered for the draft, the infantry, Vietnam, and as a Forward Observer, to go on patrols and ambushes, and to walk through the mine field more than once. I volunteered because someone had to. I volunteered because
God laughs in colors.
It is April 19, 1968. I am the fourth person back in the left column. The other column is less than 10 yards to my right. We should not be this bunched up. God knows we have hit enough booby traps to learn. I see and hear an explosion to my right front less than 15 yards away. I drop to the ground but before my stomach touches I am on my way back up.
I know what this is. It is the same thing as January 13, 1968. A Bouncing Betty leaves us with two dead and eight wounded. Zimmerman and I are the next two unwounded in the column and we must walk the line. Today is not much different.
I move to the right column, drop my rucksack and get the PRC 25 radio from my radio telephone operator. 0900, “grid square BS 533853 Company C request dust off for two KHA, two WHA result bouncing Betty.” I move into the zone making sure the path is clear for the medics. A fucking new guy walking point in the left column has hot steel in his stomach.
The F.N.G. came in on the resupply chopper the night before and has been with the company less than 14 hours. The company put him in first Platoon and first Platoon put him on the point in the left column. First day in the bush and the F.N.G. gets hot steel in his stomach which may result in him going home. The guy at my feet is dead. The next guy is dead. The next guy, Platoon leader, LT. his right foot is blown off and his right hand does not look good, he will probably lose it. He is moaning from shock and pain. His weapon has been thrown to the right, it is destroyed, useless.
I yell at the F.N.G. to stop running around because he may set off another mine. Sgt. Don Fox, who will assume command of 1st platoon because the LT. is down, and Zimmerman talk the F.N.G. to safety. In three days Zimmerman and I will be on our bellies crawling over to Sgt.Fox who will have a bullet in his gut that penetrated through his weapon before entering his body. Higher/higher said it was Automatic weapons fire, but, I was standing four feet away and only remember 1 round. Three days after the Sgt. Fox dust off, Zimmerman, who has gone from PFC to platoon leader in the course of seven days, will be involved in another Bouncing Betty and I will on the radio calling in another dust off for him and three others. Charlie Company’s first platoon, first squad is getting beat up for the second time in our first four months in country.
A medic asks me to help put one of the dead guys on a poncho so we can drag him to the approaching chopper.
I rifle through the guys rucksack to get a poncho while the medic rolls him onto his back. I find pieces of bone and blood on the inside of the grunts rucksack. For the first time I look at the dead guys face. It is my friend John-John.
I am stunned, shocked. This is the day, the hour, the minute and the grid coordinates where the American dream dies for me. Dark clouds invade my mind; a deep numbing pain penetrates my soul. The medic wants me to lift the right side of the body. John-John is pulverized flesh from head to toe, like the Gook on the receiving end of a B-52 package. Concussion and shrapnel have transformed his body into the consistency of firm Jelly. I can’t find anything solid enough to lift.
A year passes, then two, finally I see the middle finger of his right hand, I test it to see if it will stay attached to his body when I lift him. I grab a hand full of bloody pants leg with my right hand and lift the lower part of his body off the ground. I pray that pieces of his body do not come off in my hands as I lift my dark, broken friend high enough to set him on the poncho.
April 19, 1968, 0900 hours, grid BS533853, I died, the dream ends, no preparation, I be zombie. I died because it was the easiest and fastest way to deal with my problem. I could not move forward while packing the weight of the dead and I could not leave them behind. I must sacrifice a part of my soul so my body can move on. I don’t have time to mourn, only to tuck the memory of the mangled bodies into the corners of my mind and keep on humping.
The corners of my mind will meld over time
The visions of the dead come more often.
I’ve recorded their names and absolved them of chains
While I’m busy constructing my own coffin.
God laughs at my notions in green, red and blue. He decided I wouldn’t die. I assure you I went out of my way to prove God wrong. On July 3, 1968 I returned from my Singapore R & R with a 4X4 Orange tarp I planned to use as ground cover in the bush. I sometimes carried this Orange tarp on the outside of my Rucksack. I would have a radio antenna sticking above my head and I would walk point. Laughter is full of colors.

God laughs in colors
I see in black and white.
My fears dark and hidden;
The laughter filled with light

Forty-one years after Gods watercolor wash I have conducted 50 critical incident debriefings, organized 4 interventions, talked three suicides down, provided substance abuse information to hundreds, published the contents of 11,000 pages of documents for my Old Guard battalion, taught my grand children to laugh in colors, built the 7th street memorial a second time and found a fresh site to be a tree vet. I did these things and never accepted a dime, not even for gas. Money would detract from the real reason for doing these things. Money screws things up.

I attended this year’s ceremony and no one saw me. I watched the honor guard fumble with their weapons and get off two of the planned three shots. They never saw me. My hide is secure.

Life is good.

Absence of Grace and Mercy

in the
absence of
grace and mercy

rich raitano

I chose the title for this book not for any personal lack of spiritual or religious belief, nor to infer a meaningless or non-existent creator.
I do not intend to refute the faith of any or all who have served in combat, nor that of those who may read this accounting. I speak for no one but myself in this writing.
My experiences in combat, and the carnage it leaves in its wake, has left me with deeply rooted and horrific impressions that give me cause to doubt the presence of anything holy in a war zone other than those beliefs each of us may carry  or develop within that hellacious landscape. There seems to be no reason for God, or any gods to be there, let alone choose to take sides.
The regular combat soldier is nothing more than a reluctant captive serving in a harsh and brutal environment where chance and fate collide endlessly, and staying alive is a day to day, if not moment to moment challenge.
It is my belief, in combat, who lives or dies is not a predestined matter guided by a holy hand, but rather it is determined by the consequences of bitter misfortune and random circumstance. To imagine that a loving “God” would place or remove anyone from the path of death because He had determined “it was, or was not the time” does not make sense in the everyday world let alone on the battlefield.
The brutal violence and slaughter let loose in the arena of warfare cannot be the work of anyone or anything holy. Surely a loving and gracious Deity weeps while Satan feasts in the absence of grace and mercy.


March, 2003

My wife and I sat in stunned silence, unable to take our eyes off the television set. A firefight was about to unfold in the early Iraqi morning. I found my eyes searching for movement in the flat two-dimensional distance while men and machine moved into combat positions. My breath quickened and my heart began to pound in my ears as the camera panned up and down the line of troops preparing to engage the Iraqi military.
My wife, her fists clenched tightly in her lap, sat with one leg tucked under her and the other on the floor pushing her into the back of the sofa. Her eyes widened in disbelief as I explained to her what was about to happen.
My muscles tightened, my mouth went dry and my head began to ache as the long sleeping beast, aroused by the adrenalin racing through my veins, fidgeted restlessly within me.
This had never happened before to a television audience…combat, live as it happened.
My war…Vietnam…sent filmed images to the U.S. within hours of an event for broadcast to television audiences as no other conflict before. The tragedy of combat filled the nightly six o’clock news; bitterly dividing the country; sending civilians and veterans alike in the hundreds of thousands to the streets in protest.
And now this, a life and death battle about to unfold in real time, scraped harshly against the senses and reached for old memories and fears to shake them loose.
When the fighting began, my wife curled her whole body onto the sofa and gasped as the rounds began to explode against the distant buildings and emplacements. I watched as she bit her lip and squirmed, her eyes transfixed, wide and horrified. “Oh, my God…my God!” she whimpered softly…”My God”
I turned my eyes back to the melee knowing full well that soon there would be death from this moment forward. Not to diminish the death that was already falling upon this tiny country by the technological superiority of our nations warring capabilities, nor the crude and sadistic death brought to it by the hands of its truly evil leaders…but these soldiers…these young men and women will soon be dying.
Thirty-five years earlier in 1968 I was part of a war that changed me in ways that can never be known by those who have never seen, heard or smelled its horrors.
There is a brotherhood with combatants…a fraternity of wounded spirits and sorrows for things done and friends lost…an intimacy borne of unspoken, half-forgotten and hidden memories. Color of skin or political ideology does not matter. Those who never lived this experience will never know. Never.
Now these young soldiers, miles from home, will join the ranks in the baptism of madness. And this night I watched as my wife grasped just a small piece of the hellish torment.
For thirty-five years I had kept the experience of Vietnam close. I made every attempt to put it behind me and make a “normal” life for me to live. The person I was before entering the service was nothing more than a ghost I pursued. I did not comprehend that my life as it once was had been changed. Who I once was and who I had become could not occupy the same space in time. The conflict lasted nearly forty years.
It was an intensely personal experience for returning VN veterans. We did not return home to parades and cheering crowds the way our fathers had at the end of WWII. We came home one by one, alone with our thoughts and unsure of our place in civilian life.
No one acknowledged us as we made our way home through the country’s airports in our class A uniforms. They did not have time to stop as they hurriedly made their way to their own destinations. Or perhaps they did not know how to approach us; what to say to us as we made our way to our destinations. Or maybe they just didn’t see us.
Perhaps we were nothing more than ghosts unaware of our own death; disembodied spirits trying to make our way home from Vietnam’s killing fields.

By the time I returned home in September, 1968, America was deeply divided by the war, and neither its citizens, nor we returning veterans could comprehend the depth of the restless tempest each of us carried. It was an unspoken message; a deep understanding for us that it was best to keep it hidden away.
Rarely would I risk sharing my experience. Mostly, no one seemed interested in hearing. No one asked, but, when someone did, the retelling left me fidgety, uncomfortable and nearly spastic with deep internal turmoil; stumbling awkwardly over my words as I attempted to answer the questions: Were you afraid? Did you kill anyone? Did you have any friends that died? What can you say to someone who has not lived that reality? How do you answer those questions when that reality is still an oozing wound slowly eating away at you?
They are curiously mystified by the closeness to the combat experience standing next to you offers them. Like the slow gawking procession past an auto accident, they dare to look into the mayhem that trembles before them. How can you put into words the horror and death experiences of war? What could be said that would give them the bleeding raw sense of fear, terror and inconsolable grief that consumes you each day?
Others, as most vets will attest, questioned my service with queries as to why I didn’t choose to go to Canada…or jail. Some simply resorted to the label of “baby killer;” words that struck the heart and spirit like no bullet ever could.
It was not theirs to judge. They were not there and did not have the slightest clue of what living in a war zone was like. They had no idea what the unimaginable dark corners of hell feel like. They did not have to come to terms with their own death or face the specter as it carried away a friend or comrade.
Over the years there have been many times when Vietnam has come to haunt. It often felt like a dream I had sometime in the past; so strong was the desire to forget and the ability to stuff the memory deep. And if it hadn’t been for photographs in a photo album, I might have come to believe that it really had all been a dream. But down deep I knew. I felt its presence in me. I still do.
This accounting has become the path connecting my past with the present…and headed to the future. I am walking towards the gateway to understanding, acceptance, and healing, and I am discovering that others, vets and clinicians, are walking with me; each of us lighting the way for one another.
It is also my wish that those of you who have not lived this experience, a window will open and the view of our world will lead you to an understanding of who we are and why we act the way we do at times. In so many ways you are the lucky ones. No matter the reason, you have not served in combat; your lives were not touched by the beast, but your relationship with the veteran has put you closer than you may be aware.

I do not feel that this telling bears any more value than any other. There have been many retellings by many others over the years, each with its own unique and enlightening perspective. In so many ways it becomes our opportunity to face our past and let loose our demons, if only for a short while.

December 5, 1967

We watched in apprehensive silence as the glittering lights of Waikiki faded slowly into the inky black South Pacific night. It was December 5th, 1967, and our time in the paradise of the Hawaiian Islands had come to its end. Months of training had shaped us, the 11th Light Infantry Brigade, into the Jungle Warriors called to action by General Westmoreland who believed we were ready to battle the communist enemy on the other side of the globe.
Huddled aft on the U.S.S. Gordon, we strained to catch the last fading glimpses of the world we were leaving: warm sandy beaches, tanned and bikinied beauties, and most of all… our youth.
The shoreline shimmered softly like a strand of diamonds resting on the obsidian night as we sailed away to war. It flickered as if to say aloha…and then was gone.
The mood on ship was pensive and solemn as we stared into an empty and dark night. Whispered conversations drifted into the December trade winds as the old gray merchant ship cut its way through the water.
We knew that within the coming year many of us would be killed. The truth of hostile conflict was an unknown; not even sixteen months of training could have prepared us for what lie ahead.
Who amongst us would not return?
The answer was out there…somewhere beyond the horizon… waiting for us.

Casualty Reporter

Casualty Reporter

There’s not much good to be said about keeping track of the dead and wounded. I don’t mean the tedious, disconnected tallying of casualties from a list collected by some unknown gatherer of such things so they can be sorted, categorized and written into a daily report. I’m talking about the collector…the gatherer…the individual who has to personally track the dead and wounded for the one who tallies, who then sorts and categorizes quickly and efficiently so that letters can be sent to loved ones half a world away. Casualty Reporter: The one who gathers names, assess and evaluates the wounded and the cause of death of his fellow soldiers. The one present when the terror filled, shot up, traumatic amputated, sucking chest wounded, vomited breakfast on the litter, strangled screaming, crying for their mothers and wives, gore comes into the ER. The one present to watch as the life goes from their eyes and the last breath gurgles from their lungs. The ER is filled with the pungent stench of torn muscle and flesh, jagged bone, vomit, urine and feces, and entrails that permeate the room like a fouled butcher shop. It sticks to the hairs in your nose and on your clothes. Showers will never wash it away. You suck it up. Shut down. Take a deep fucking breath, ignore the screams in your own head and begin your collecting: Names, service number, wounds (GSW T&T R arm, traumatic amputation L leg AK and R leg BK), details of contact with enemy. One at a time. Two…three…five, sometimes more, sometimes less, they come. It’s always the same: Today… yesterday…tomorrow. Their faces come into focus. You know them! You trained together in ….Hawaii….. This one DOW as the doc’s work on him. That one torn like a rag doll, eyes wild with fear, left to die alone on a liter. More wait patiently at GR wrapped in OD plastic; stored in cold drawers like vegetables in a crisper. More to evaluate and identify. More names and faces. Stop! god-dammit…Stop! Where are you, God? Where the fuck are you!? When will you have had enough? When will you say no more!? Stop this fucking screaming in my head! No more, please. Please, God…no more. God is silent. Heaven is far from near. Suck it up, turn it off the best you can and head back to the hootch. Find something to talk and laugh about with your fellow CR’s. Ain’t no thing. Find a joint, light it up. Draw the cannabis in deep. Kick it with a swig or two of Jack Daniels. And wait. Wait for tomorrow.

Rich Raitano