I was the son of a career officer and combat veteran of WWII. We traveled a lot so ‘home’ was sort of a four-letter word. But I liked army posts and decided I would follow in my father’s footsteps. I made it through four years at the Citadel and commissioned an Armor officer. Then came branch training at Ft Knox and an assignment which followed as a platoon leader in an air cavalry troop, commanding jeeps, a ¾ ton truck, and a group of guys who were mostly waiting to ETS after a tour in Vietnam. Not sure how I was supposed to contribute as a leader, but thanks to a fantastic platoon sergeant who knew how to hold my hand without grabbing it…. I learned a lot about people. I learned nothing about tanks or ACAVs though. Then I put in papers for airborne, ranger and jungle training. I got the latter and then orders for Vietnam.
Fate sent me to the 11th Armored Cavalry regiment and the Green Machine thought I was fully qualified to be a platoon leader in Delta company. All 48A3 tanks. I hadn’t even touched a tank for almost 6 months and then it was the next gen M60. The army failed miserably in preparing me to do what was expected, but again fate gave me an outstanding platoon sergeant who had been in the Korean war. What he couldn’t teach me, I taught myself. One man died on my watch before I knew the difference between a stupid order and a necessary one. I tried to do better after that and think I was a success. I survived hitting 7 mines, numerous RPGs hits and three commanders, one who’s incompetence was entirely due to the army officer assignment system which had failed him and then his unit.
My troops figured me for a lucky charm since I was the only platoon leader who wasn’t killed or wounded while I was in the company. I lost two guys while in that job then went back to be the XO. While I was in that job, my loader was killed by friendly fire from 1st Cav guys during a really bad two days north of Tay Ninh. That almost broke me because I couldn’t be there for him. Then two platoon leaders died the day after, about 30 seconds apart. One had been my best friend for 8 months. The other had been in country less than 2 weeks. I flew out to take over one of their platoons until a new guy replaced me. I made it back with a two week drop on my DEROS.
After any war, in any era, regardless of which side they were on, combat veterans of those conflicts would like to forget and move on. For over 50 years, I was fortunate to be able to compartmentalize bad memories. When those memories did get let out, they were on a leash when talking to other veterans, then pushed back into hiding. It is a coping strategy others’ have used to avoid adverse legacies of wartime experiences so typified by failed marriages, nightmares, or inexplicable rage.
Some cannot let go of their nightmares and post-traumatic stress is real. One Delta company commander has withdrawn in isolated bitterness and will not speak of it even with friends. Another suffered debilitating depression resulting in suicide. Troopers were wounded or exposed to Agent Orange and know they will die early because of complications. Some feel ‘survivor’s guilt’. Fortunately, most veterans have worked successfully to overcome adversity.
After returning from Vietnam, I was disillusioned and had problems adjusting to a peace-time army. I had decided to resign my commission, but the army subsequently entrusted me with stewardship of two tank companies which was transformational for me. Ultimately, I made the army a career and was promoted into positions of increasing responsibility which gradually took me further away from daily contact with field soldiers. Given a choice, I would have rather spent the entire 22 years as a lieutenant or captain working with the kind of men I had served with in Vietnam, a lifetime before.