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!”