I knew something was wrong when I saw the radio operator’s face. He handed me the mike attached to the bulky radio strapped on his back. The private, new in-country, made no eye contact, and was hesitant in his actions.
I identified myself by a “call sign” and heard someone say in a code that the leader of the third platoon had just been wounded, and that I was ordered to move my first platoon to give him assistance.
First Lieutenant Victor Lee Ellinger had been shot by a Viet Cong sniper. He was the best of the three platoon leaders in our Company C of some battalion of the 25th Division. (I can’t remember the name of the battalion, which operated near Cu Chi. I block it. I hate the commander, even today. He’s the only person I know whose own men tried to “frag” him with a hand grenade, but he escaped injury.)
Vic was a college-educated, good-looking “good old boy” with a thick head of blond hair and a Southern draw that got you to like him on first meeting. Had a large, bushy golden moustache, and a “swagger” about him that spelled out a “natural-born leader.” Just like his namesake from his home-state, Virginia, Robert E. Lee. Vic hailed from Staunton, Va.
He was always on the ball and commanded respect form all his men, and wasn’t afraid to “raise hell” like a drill sergeant when a slacker needed a little extra encouragement to do his duty, even if it only meant to “police” the area so the enemy could not find evidence of our movements, or worse yet, set a booby trap to a discarded C-ration can or an empty cardboard box that once held four loose cigarettes.
So, when I heard Vic was “down,” I pushed myself harder than I ever did — force-marching my platoon to close the distance to get to him. Not sure how far we marched in the hot jungle creating our own path, with me walking point part of the way in my haste to help.
We got to his position. And, we were too late. Vic had died. Two of my men were medevaced out due to heat exhaustion they suffered during the march.
Never did find out the details of his death. We remained in the “bush” several days until returning to the “rear” base camp, where we attended a brief ceremony for Vic. My company commander said very little to the remaining two junior officers, even though we — I — had lost one of the closest friend we’d ever have in Vietnam. I never had the time to process Vic’s death. I wanted to stop the war then and there. Wanted an answer to the question “why” he had to die? What were the circumstances? Why was the platoon leader shot and no one else? Was a sniper with the Viet Cong that good to take out the guy in charge with such skill?
I wanted to mourn him. To grief him. To set my Self right by him. But I never did. Was ordered back to the “field” the next day.
Failing to grief him still haunts me. I have a sense of failure. And when I sink into deep depression, I wish it was me that got killed back then, rather than have to deal with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).
You see, at times, I see Vic as the “lucky one,” Me and the other platoon leader were relieved of our commands after “friendly fire” episodes. Two Second Platoon “grunts” who had set out a claymore mine for an ambush, forgot where they put the trip wire, and . . . walked into the wire, dying almost immediately. Their platoon leader was relieved. I got relieved when I had ordered mortar fire “stepped down” to get rounds to fall closer to the enemy, and the rounds fell on my own men injuring half a squad. I carry that guilt with me today. Good days and bad days. Meditation and bringing dark war wounds out to the light helps to ease the pain.
So does Omega Institute and programs like Claude Anshin Thomas’ “Cost of War.”