This is a Veteran’s Day presentation I gave at my daughter’s school on November 10, 2010. I may have run slightly over my 10-minute window, because I wasn’t watching my watch. The kids (7th-9th graders) were attentive the entire time (thank you Lord!). Here’s (approximately) what I said:
I was standing at attention in my underwear at midnight with my head shaved. I tried to stay calm as a pack of wild-eyed Drill Instructors circled behind us like snarling wolves, then stopped inches from our ears to yap and bark out orders. I stared straight ahead at the words: ‘Commitment,’ ‘Honor,’ and ‘Courage’ painted in huge letters and wondered if I could ever meet that challenge.
That was my introduction to Marine Corps Basic Training; it was June 22, 1968, I was 23 years old, and I was in deep doo-doo.
Eight months later, I stepped off the plane in Vietnam and it was so hot, I felt like a limp washrag. I was still in deep doo-doo.
I spent the next three months at Red Beach, practicing my trade as an artilleryman and then three months at An Hoa combat base. I had just been promoted to Corporal and I was heading back to Red Beach.
All my gear was packed in the back of a jeep and I waited. My driver was late. It was ten past ten a.m. when we reached the convoy meet-up point, only…guess what?…the convoy was gone. A Marine standing gate duty said, “If you hurry, you can catch up with them.” My driver, Private Boyle glanced over at me. If we missed this convoy, it could be a week before we’d catch another. And we’d be in trouble.
We headed out and cruised at 45 mph on that pot-holed red dirt road. I was thinking, “Vietnam is really such a pretty place…too bad it’s full of bad guys.”
By 10:25 a.m., we still hadn’t caught up with our convoy.
Then we spotted a HUGE puddle of water in the roadway ahead. It was about the size of this stage (where I’m standing).
Boyle downshifted and said, “I don’t want to get the jeep muddy, ‘cause I’ll have to clean it.” He engaged the 4-wheel drive as we entered the puddle.
Crack! Crack! Crack! AK-47 automatic rifle fire came from my right. I tensed my body and silently prayed, “God, don’t let them hit the driver.” I saw Boyle, white as a ghost, leaning over his steering wheel. I leaned forward too, and shouted, “GO! GO!” The jeep lurched forward and muddy water sprayed everywhere.
Crack! Crack! Crack! Now I couldn’t see the road ahead because our windshield was splattered with mud. Boyle started the windshield wipers; the wipers swung back and forth, back and forth, then they stopped in the middle of the windshield.
Crack! Crack! Crack! Boyle hollered, “Shoot!” And I hollered back, “I’m trying to.”
Crack! Crack! Crack! I finally got the clip in, chambered a cartridge and slipped it off safety. I swung my body and rifle out to the right and looked. We bounced again and I felt my helmet leave my head. As I watched it roll on the road behind us, I thought, “There go my letters from home.” I often stored letters for safekeeping between the steel pot and the Kevlar liner.
It was quiet again. I swung back in my seat and said, “I lost my helmet.”
Boyle asked, “You want to go back for it?”
I said, “NO!” and Boyle looked relieved. We picked up speed and were fishtailing now, but Boyle steered us back into the center of the road. I glanced at the speedometer; we were bumping along at thirty miles an hour.
Seconds later, we rounded a bend and saw a lone Marine with his rifle at the ready motioning for us to stop. I thought, “Oh good, there’s help for us out here.”
Boyle jammed on the brakes and we skidded to a stop beside the Marine. His fingers were white where he gripped his rifle. His eyes never left the road behind us as he asked, “What happened back there?”
Boyle answered, “We were ambushed! Where’s your base?”
“Two clicks away,” he replied, gesturing with his head over his right shoulder, “I’m manning a ‘listening post’ with a buddy. He’s gone to report the shooting and to see if we have to stay out here.”
“Did you see a convoy pass by here?” Boyle asked.
“Yeah, they just passed,” he replied.
“We can’t stay,” Boyle said, “we’re trying to catch up with them.”
I felt sorry for that lone Marine as I spotted his ‘outpost’; it was not much protection, just a small camouflage tent. As we sped away I silently prayed again, “God protect him.”
“What happened?” he asked, and we recounted our ambush story.
A twenty-something sergeant alongside him suggested, “Hey Gunny, let’s go back there and waste ‘em!”
Gunny paused, then replied, “No, we can’t take that chance.”
With that, I started breathing again.
Someone else said, “Hey, you guys have a flat tire.”
Sure enough, our right rear tire had a neat round hole in the sidewall. Boyle checked the spare that hung off the back and reported that it had holes too.
“You guys see this?” Another Marine was pointing at our hood.
He was pointing at a 6-inch crease in the hood on my side; it ended with a neat round hole punched through the metal. It was this far in front of where I was sitting. (I demonstrate with my hands about 20 inches.) My knees got rubbery and Boyle’s face turned white again.
Gunny said, “You can’t change your tire here we’ll take care of it when we get to Liberty Bridge.”
We bumped along on that flat tire for another twenty minutes before the convoy stopped again. Then I carefully checked all my belongings; no bullets had penetrated the passenger compartment.
Boyle checked with the other jeep drivers and learned that no one had a jack that would fit a jeep. Five other Marines and I positioned ourselves on the right side. I faced the hood. On the count of three we lifted, and held that jeep up until the flat tire was replaced with the spare tire from another jeep.
After we arrived at Red Beach I retold the story to our First Sergeant. He asked, “Why didn’t you shoot back?”
I said, “I had trouble loading my rifle, and by then the shooting stopped and I couldn’t see anyone to shoot at. Oh…and I lost my helmet on the road back there.”
I’m thinking, “That’s pretty cool.”
He scribbled on a form and tossed it at me saying, “Go to Supply and get a replacement.”
In the ensuing weeks I learned to zigzag every five steps wherever I walked after a bullet went BZZZT! past my head like a mosquito on steroids. I learned to dive on the ground when rockets or mortars landed nearby.
I once saw a poisonous snake while on guard and hollered, “Snake!”
The guy with me was sitting on a case of grenades, he jumped off and forward and ran down the berm toward the wire. The grenades spilled out and he did a funny little dance trying to avoid them hitting him.
He asked, “Where?”
I looked and the snake was gone. There were several holes nearby where it could have entered.
“I don’t know. It disappeared,” I answered.
He thought I was joking, because sometimes I do pull pranks on people. But I wasn’t. Not that time.
On my way home in early 1970, I boarded a ship and when I saluted our flag, I was both intensely proud of my voluntary service and happy that I’d survived.
Three weeks later, I arrived at the San Diego airport. I saw one of those kiosk places where they sell stuff, and–since I hadn’t eaten a chocolate bar in over a year–I decided to buy some.
I planned to offer the gal a two-dollar tip (I was feeling generous) so I pulled a ten dollar bill from my wallet.
I went up to her and said, “I’d like two packs of Raleigh filters and two Almond Joy candy bars, please.”
She laid my cigarettes, candy bars and change on the counter. As I was picking it up, she shouted something about “killing women and babies.”
I quickly scanned my surroundings thinking, “Jeez! This is a terrible time to be without my rifle!” But everything appeared to be normal. There were no psycho killers on the loose here. I looked back at her and she never took her eyes off me. She was still screaming. I thought, “Oh, no…she’s mistaking me for someone else!” I scooped up my belongings and scooted out of there.
I was still a bit unnerved by my encounter with that “crazy” lady, so I stopped at an airport lounge and ordered a drink. As I ate my candy bars, some guys in the lounge were jeering, but I ignored them.
Several minutes passed then another Marine sat down beside me. I could tell by the single National Defense ribbon on his chest that he hadn’t been overseas.
He asked, “Can I buy you a drink?”
One drink is usually my limit, so I said, “No thanks.”
He asked, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
I was thinking, “Oh, no…he’s going to ask me how many guys I killed,” but I was polite and said, “It’s still a free country. Go ahead. Shoot.”
He’s sincere – I knew what he meant was, “What are my chances?” And I’m thinking, “Oh God, what do I tell him?”
I asked, “What’s your M.O.S (military occupational specialty)?”
“Motor T (truckdriver/mechanic),” he replied.
I was thinking, “That’s good. At least he’s not a grunt.”
“Well,” I said, “if you keep your head down when the bullets start flying, you’ll do okay.”
He thanked me and then he hopped off his stool.
I noticed he hadn’t even touched the Coke he ordered, so I swung around in my stool and saw him thirty feet away in a huddle talking with two other new Marines. Next thing, they’re off down the concourse with a spring in their step and smiles on their faces.
As I returned to my drink, I prayed, “Oh God, please let me be right.”
The ten years following my involvement in Vietnam were not pretty ones, I made a mess of my life and had flashbacks and nightmares. I made bad decisions and I was in trouble, with nowhere to look but up. Finally, in a quiet place at work and in desperation I called out, “Oh God, please help me!”
At that instant, I was comforted with an inner peace that I cannot describe. I knew in my heart that everything would turn out all right. It was months later that I realized that God had taken away my post-traumatic stress. A year after that, God brought me to my wife and in the years that followed, He gave us six wonderful children, including Miss Virginia. God gave me back my life.
I thank and praise God because I owe everything to Him.
Commitment, Honor, and Courage. You don’t have to become a United States Marine to embrace those values. If you haven’t held those values in the past, you can start today. You can make a difference here at school, in your neighborhood, in your own homes.
And remember, in your darkest moment, when you are desperate, when there is no solution in sight, you can call out to Him, and God will help you.
Thank you very much for your kind attention
If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about the Vietnam War – subscribe to this blog and get each new post delivered to your email or feed reader. Click on the title at the top of this page to be redirected to my main page – a directory on the right side lists similar articles and points of interest.