After serving in the Vietnam War I turned my back on anything having to do with the military, and so I was totally surprised years later when requesting my medals, I got one that I still don’t believe I earned.
How anti-war was I? Well, I joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, providing funds for a yearly membership. I wrote against the war in my college newspaper where I scribed as a reporter and then editor who eventually endorsed George Mc Govern for president of the United States against Richard Nixon and whatever secret plan he said he had to end the war. (My mom voted for Nixon four years earlier to keep me out of the draft and out of harm’s way. The president didn’t end the war, however, he escalated it!)
I stayed away from the Veterans’ of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion because the members reminded me of old men who fought in “good’ wars, particularly those veterans of World War II. They drank and reminisced about the glory of war, something that I found out ended with the first casualty on the battlefield. I saw no glory in fighting and only “got up for battle” when attacked and forced to come to the aid of a fellow soldier as adrenaline kicked in and I’d do anything to protect my men.
Looking back (and this gets a little painful; I don’t recommend too many combat veterans do this outside of “group”), I realized that I fought in four major engagements when members of my platoon were injured. No one was ever killed. We never captured any enemy alive, although we obtained their munitions, food and supplies. I loathed the battalion commander who pushed for a higher “body count” and he remains one of only two persons I find difficult to forgive for his life’s actions.
So when I opened the box with the medals sent to me by the army, it was surprising to see two that I was not aware of. I was proud of the combat infantry badge, the “CIB” that denotes that the wearer faced combat. I also liked the “wings” I earned for undergoing paratrooper training and jumping out of airplanes without breaking any legs.
But one of the “new” medals was given for flight into enemy territory. I earned a medal for the many times I climbed on the helicopter and took off flying into a landing zone not knowing who are what would greet us. You’ve seen those pictures from the war. Every time they’re shown on television, I remember the young man who felt no fear jumping off a chopper and making his way to a secure area before determining whether it was clear for others to move on. (You couldn’t pay me enough money to do it again.)
The real surprise was the other medal. For years I never knew what certain abbreviations on my discharge papers (DD-214) had stood for. I thought it was one of several medals everyone got for stepping foot into Vietnam, something like an individual service medal unique to the zone of Operation like the European Theatre or the Pacific Theater of World War II.
The letters were “BSA.” It could have been for getting one of the highest grades on the rifle range while in basic training. I shot with precision, earning a sharpshooter or expert badge, which were two or three rankings higher than a “marksman.” (I got the highest score in Physical Training (PT) during one extensive training session, missing a “perfect” rating by only 8 out of 500 points because I ran a mile in 6 minutes and 18 seconds, and not a flat 6 minutes.
Could “BSA” be the “best student award?”
No, it was the Bronze Star Award.
I don’t know why I got it. But it has my name engraved on the back of a metal star apparently made of bronze hung below a colorful red and blue ribbon. I don’t think I deserved it. My greatest accomplishment was to keep me and everyone who ever served with me alive.
Come to think of it, I’d gladly accept that kind of award anytime — to stay alive and flourish . . . in peacetime . . . or in war.