My Turn for the week of Nov. 9, 2016
The Hilton Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, was the site of the 50th anniversary of Bravo Company’s arrival in Vietnam. The first elements of the 9th Infantry Division landed at Vung Tau harbor on Dec. 22, 1966. Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry, was one of those elements. From 1966 through 1969, the company operated in one of the most unforgiving environments in the world — The Mekong Delta of Vietnam.
The Mekong was a rich agricultural area mainly because of annual monsoon rains and heavy tidal changes. These brought regular influxes of rich mud ideal for growing rice and other crops. It was everywhere, this mud: up your nose, in your ear, private areas, public areas and equipment.
This was a place where fighting the enemy was almost as hard as finding an enemy to fight; the enemy, however could find us and the mud made all that even more sticky combat. One of the men from Bravo Company wrote a book about the whole dirty mess called, “Mekong Mud Dogs.” The man’s name is Ed Eaton and his work is available on Amazon.Com.
But now, instead of eating cold turkey loaf out of a can in the rain, we had pushed a bunch of tables together in the bar at the Hilton where we could swap lies in a climate controlled place while ordering from the hotel restaurant. The stories weren’t really tales of war, but more of incidents in between.
After 50 years, it wasn’t real surprising that two men reliving the same incident remembered it in quite different ways. In some cases, one guy would be talking about a canal we had to wade, while the other guy couldn’t remember it at all. At one point Ray Gonzales asked me how many guys I had patched up, and I couldn’t even make a guess. In fact, I realized there was an entire period spent in the bush that I couldn’t really remember.
On the last day, we had a dinner and a couple of active-duty officers came front and center in full dress army uniforms. Both of these officers were from Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and were on a very special mission. Capt. Rick Bradley stood on the right and Lt. Col. Adam Lewis on the left with his daughter, the delightful and charming Sidney, in the middle.
Bradley read from a presidential document to begin the ceremony. Bravo Company was praised for its service to country and an apology was issued for the reception we received when coming home. None of us were anxious to appear in public with our uniforms on, despite the many decorations we sported.
Col. Lewis then told us a part of his life at Fort Jackson. He said that he couldn’t even think of going to town in uniform. Not because he would be derided but he didn’t have time for all the folks that wanted to take him to lunch or buy him a drink.
He than began calling the names of those old soldiers present. Each man presented himself before the Colonel with a salute and received a pin that Sidney had transferred to the Colonel’s waiting hand. The medal was presented with full military ceremony and each man receiving it did so in full recognition of the honor.
For me, and many others, this was a kind of fulfillment 50 years in the making. We had come home and been processed out of the army with no hurrah or ceremony. Some of us stayed drunk for a month or so, but for the most part we went to work and lived the American life.
What was missing was a little pat on the back. We had just spent a year in heavy combat in horrendous conditions. Instead of thank you, we received revulsion. I was home 15 years without telling anyone of my service. Than some guy was shocked that I would even admit to being a Vietnam Veteran.
This pissed me off and I became an in-your-face combat veteran.
This little ceremony without any fanfare was enough. I removed the combat medic badges from my hat and decided that I would spend what time I had left in peace. And, of course, honoring all those others who had made their final voyage to the sound of TAPS.