Vietnam veteran recalls war 50 years ago

Today is Vietnam Veterans Day and the Year of 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of my deployment in the war zone. I was a 21-year-old second lieutenant placed in charge of a platoon of some 25 men, many of them still in their teenage years and drafted like I had been.
I got promoted while in the field and I remember using a black pen to darken the so-called yellow “butter bars” of the 2nd Lt. and make them a shade of subdued OD silver, the color for a 1st Lt.

I didn’t know it then but there was an urban legend that posed the question: “What was the life-span of a 2nd Lt. landing in a hot LZ (helicopter landing zone)?”

The answer: 16 minutes.

The first person killed when I was “in-country” was 1st Lt. Victor Lee Ellinger who was shot by a sniper while leading the Third Platoon. Two members of our Second Platoon died when they placed a claymore mine along a path and forgot where they tied the wire walking into it and blowing themselves up.
No one was killed under my command, but five grunts were wounded when mortar fire exploded on us one day. I view that as the worst day of my life during that Crazy Asian War.

We would be dropped by helicopter in an LZ and “hump the boonies” for 14 days in a row. In addition to experiencing firefights, we also marched through swampy areas getting leaches that stuck to our bodies needing to be burned off. I never parachuted into the triple canopy jungles of Vietnam although I went to “jump school” earning my paratrooper wings at Ft. Benning, GA. I also learned how to repel, sleep in the rain and to avoid scorpions while training at jungle school in Panama.

I never shaved or used deodorant while in the field. Many of us stopped wearing underwear because the cloth took so long to dry when it had rained. We didn’t want to get crotch rot while on a search and destroy mission.

The coronavirus reminds me a little of what was like 50 years ago. We never knew who might be the next one shot or wounded from a hidden landmine or booby traps. Like today, our government really didn’t know what the hell it was doing. And we also had to abide by social distancing while moving.

I remember when a lieutenant colonel who I loathed chastised me for failing to ensure my men kept a proper distance while moving from one place to another. The Third Platoon leader was shot and I was ordered to go to his assistance. I force-marched my troops mercilessly in hopes of getting to Vic. But we were too late. He died and two of my men had to be medevac’d out of the jungle because of heat exhaustion.
But what did Lt. Col Sallucci do?  He was the only soldier I knew whose own men tried to “frag” him by tossing a hand grenade at his sleeping quarters.) The SOB had flown in a helicopter above our marching lanes and chewed me out later for having let my men walk too close to one another. A hand grenade could take out more than one person, he said. Talk about the need for social distancing!


Yes, times can be tough when you don’t know what tomorrow might bring in a possible world of pestilence, war, famine, and death.
But us combat veterans can take solace that whatever life throws at us back here in the civilian world we can always say “At least no one is shooting at me!

10 comments on “Vietnam veteran recalls war 50 years ago

  1. Thank you. I followed a link from LaDonna’s blog to you and have been reading and feeling aches in my heart opening up like cracks in the river when the ice is breaking up. My father never spoke of WW2 where he spent time in Burma with the RAF. His war scarred him – He was a poet boy who went off to war and came home an angry man.

    My mother’s family left Pondicherry when India regained its independence from the British, Portuguese and French. Most of them had never been in France so they went to Vietnam. Their trauma was severe – eventually, most of them ended up in France. They were relieved when the Americans arrived as it meant their ‘war’ was over. The decision to leave was out of their hands.

    I find your writing both illuminating and heart-wrenching. I also admire your courage, grace and prsence.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • contoveros says:

      Thank you for your warm words and your sharing of how trauma has affected so many people by wars.

      I am reminded of a post I did after the quote was suggested to me by a psychologist who helped me with PTSD and qualification through the VA system for assistance. He helped a lot of veterans and kept the quote framed near his desk. It was from a sailor who served in World War II.

      I “tweaked” it and used it in a blog post with a photo of a young soldier who might have been a poster boy for a “doughboy” from World War I. I was reminded of it when I read your comment about your dad.

      You can see it here:

      Nice making your acquaintance.

      Michael J Contos


  2. Michael – one of the first poems I posted when starting my blog was “Survivors Guilt” … I missed the draft, by being in the lottery, and it took years until I started meeting veterans and realizing the sacrifices they made. Just recently we were at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, and I always find it somber and moving. More than any other. I watched “ Band of Brothers” over the last few days, and found myself weeping as they left Bastogne and Foy. I have read Tim O’Briens book, The Things They Carried, Claude Anshan Thomas’ book “At Hell’s Gate”, and many others. As civilians we may never know the feeling of being shot at in war, or being under an artillery barrage. I hope your memories of the men you served with are that of brothers. That is the thing most important to carry. Welcome home! Thank you for serving, and I’ll say again – you are Bodhisattva … 🙏

    Liked by 1 person

    • contoveros says:

      Survivor’s guilt. I know it well. I had blocked out the name of the Third Platoon leader in my company who was shot and killed by a sniper until I visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. Then I saw his name like a beacon sign and I cried and cried and cried. I eventually went to the cemetery in Staunton, VA, laid a wreath on his grave and cursed out god asking why didn’t he take me instead of Victor Lee Ellinger, the lieutenant killed.

      I have been to Omega Institute where I met quite often with Claude AnShin Thomas. He served as a helicopter crew chief and 50-caliber machine gunner. He studied with Thich Nhat Hahn and became an ordained Zen Minister who travels the world helping veterans with PTSD.

      Each of us have stories to tell about the war and its effect on us. It helps others know we’re all in this planet together. “Interbeing” I believe is the term used to describe our inter-connectedness.

      Thank you my brother!

      Liked by 2 people

      • I like the term ”interbeing”. We are of the planet, we are not on this planet. Our consciousness is one (as Jung noted). Thank you for sharing your story as I know the healing has been difficult. As brothers our prayers for healing our world multiply their force – Namaste 🙏

        Liked by 1 person

  3. contoveros says:

    The following comments were exchanged on Facebook:

    Patricia Muronoff Kalafut
    I hope you’re doing well Michael. Hang in there.

    Michael J Contos
    Thanks. I’m still walking 2 miles a day and finished binge-watching the Harry Potter series. I hope all is well up in Bucks County . . .

    Patricia Muronoff Kalafut
    I’m hanging in there. I walk through my neighborhood each day. I miss seeing my family but I did go to my daughter’s and watched my grandsons play basketball in the driveway maintaining social distancing☹️ I’m doing lots of reading. I always find something to keep me busy.

    Michael J Contos
    I got some 10 books lined up and I hope I can stretch them out until the libraries re-open.

    Patricia Muronoff Kalafut
    Most libraries have e-books that you can borrow on line and read on your device or computer. Stay healthy!

    Michael J Contos
    I just walked past my library in Conshohocken and saw two boxes with free books being offered. I picked up a few but didn’t touch those authored by Bill O’Reilly!


    Candy Humphreys
    Horrific!!! But U made it thru Mike

    Michael J Contos
    Yeah. Got PTSD the old-fashioned way: I earned it!”

    Candy Humphreys
    God brought u back. Amen

    Michael J Contos
    Yeah, he was always looking out for me and my men!

    Candy Humphreys
    No, U earned your rewards . . . will collect them when U get to Heaven. God Bless you!

    Michael J Contos
    I am humbled and speechless . . .


    Cyndi Smith
    Thank you not only for your service but for sharing part of your story with us.
    We are all on the front lines now and even though there are no bullets there is still death. Be safe my friend and be well. ❤️

    Michael J Contos
    Yes we are all on the front lines now and we can not let any fallen soldiers behind. We’re in this together and we will eventually conquer this latest enemy!

    Cyndi Smith
    Yes We Will!


    Regina Precise
    Thank you Michael for putting yourself in front of the USA for me 🤗❤️

    Michael J Contos
    Ah shucks ma’am. Just doing my job!

    Regina Precise
    It was more than that. It changed lives. I hope to see you when all this vius is over. Prayers for you . . . stay healthy!


  4. This was hard to read. One, I can’t believe I’ve known you this long and never once thanked you for all that you’ve done for this country. I know Vietnam was horrible on so many levels, but you protected, defended and went to war on behalf of all Americans. And then, we didn’t do a good job of taking care of our own. I’m always stunned by how much I love my country, no matter how many times it disappoints me. Over and over again. Thank you for your service. The cliche of all cliche’s when it comes to military, but from the bottom of my heart. Thank you.

    I’m sorry for the loss of your fellow soliders — I don’t know what grunts are, but I assume they might be something like rookies? I hope their physical and mental wounds have healed. My good Lord, what you all went through.

    I didn’t make the connection until you wrote it, that the government back then didn’t know what they were doing — just like now. Wow. And people died. And they are dying now. When will we learn? People keep comparing Trump to Hitler. Actually, comparing these fools to those fools back then might actually be more appropriate. Thank you for the lesson.

    And you’re right: for all the complaining we all seem to be doing right now — no one is shooting at us. I think we need to keep things in perspective.

    Thank you for this my friend. My gratitude on this remembrance, is ten-fold.

    Liked by 1 person

    • contoveros says:

      My dear Carmen,

      A grunt is a foot soldier or infantryman.

      Major H.G. Duncan of the United States Marine Corps once defined a grunt as,a term of affection used to denote that filthy, sweaty, dirt-encrusted, footsore, camouflage-painted, tired, sleepy, beautiful little son of a b*tch who has kept the wolf away from the door for over two hundred years.”

      I always took it as a compliment to be called a grunt. So did the men I served with way back when.

      Yes, we should never had fought against the Vietnamese. But the US got bamboozled into supporting the French who had occupied the country before our entry into what became our nation’s longest running war before the current Afghanistan War. Our soldiers promised Ho Chi Minh, the former prime minister of Vietnam and anti-colonial activist, our help and support for his aid against the Japanese during World War II but the politicians reneged on that promise just as we did with the Native Americans.

      I’m glad to have served even though it was for the wrong reasons just like the Iraq War soldier fought to overcome those weapons of mass destruction. Today we can deal with craziness in our world and always say “At least no one is shooting at me!”

      Liked by 2 people

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