A recent radio report from western Iraq included interviews with soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry. When I heard it, my mind drifted back to another time and place, another time of blood, death and fire and another place far from home and deep in the bowels of hell. That hell wasn’t desert, however. It was jungle; thick and impenetrable and mountainous and the Currahees of the 506th were among the toughest and the bravest and the bloodiest of American soldiers deployed to Vietnam.
When the pages of the emotional diary that recounts my days in Vietnam start to flip, I never know where it will stop. But when I heard the words of this new breed of combat soldier detailing the butcher’s bill they are paying for their deployment, the album in mind stopped on a page that found me in the hospital, the 34th Evacuation Hospital in Vung Tau as I recall. I had been shot twice in the right knee, one bullet breaking my leg and the second bullet arriving two hours and two inches away from the first, shattering my kneecap and exposing the joint to a raging infection. Still, I was one of the lucky ones in my rifle company. An enemy battalion had ambushed us and five hours later, my company ceased to exist. Virtually, ever soldier was killed or wounded in the battle. Gen. Barry McCaffrey (US Army, ret.) was a company commander tasked with reinforcing us that day. But helicopter rockets fired in support of our company started the grassy meadow on fire, precluding any support from anywhere. Then-Capt. McCaffrey would later say that listening to our battle on his radio would make that the worst day of his military career.
In the bed next to me was a village police chief from a town in the Mekong Delta. He had been shot four times in the torso and once in the leg during a gun battle with the communists in his village. Five bullets tore up his body but they did nothing to destroy his spirit or deny him a sense of humor. Indeed, his spirit did a lot to keep me from falling into a black hole of despair as I contemplated the possibility of a future without my right leg. We communicated in a jigsaw of his scant English and fluent French juxtaposed against my even scanter Vietnamese and high school French. I had long ago given up hope that the war that was destroying the lives of so many Americans (on both sides of the ocean) would end well. But as I listened to this wonderful guy talk about his country, his war, and our friendship, I was beginning to have second thoughts about my pessimism.
That’s why I was stunned three days into our budding friendship when “The Chief” dropped this bombshell on me. “Time come for GIs go home,” he said. I thought he must have been joking. Here was a guy who had sacrificed so much to rid his country of “it’s enemies;” a guy we Americans were all so invested in helping. He couldn’t possibly believe we should leave with the outcome of the war still in doubt? When I questioned him about his contention, he was adamant that the continued presence of Americans was the trigger for the continuing violence. When I reminded him that if the GIs left, his side would lose the war. Probably, he admitted, but the fighting and the killing and suffering would stop.
I think about that exchange a lot these days when I hear people talking about how “an arbitrary deadline” for American withdrawal from Iraq would embolden the enemy.
I thought about it when I heard those brave soldiers from the 506th talking about “finishing the job” in Iraq.
I think about it as I think about how much blood will be shed while we searched for a common definition of “finishing the job.” I think about it when I remember that Americans died in Vietnam, officially, for 14 years. We were told that our mission was to prepare the Vietnamese army to defend democracy. And I remember that after almost a decade and a half after the lost of more than 58,000 American lives after the wounding of more than 300,000 GIs and after the death of more than a million Vietnamese, the army we trained, equipped and supported crumbled and disintegrated in a matter of weeks when the enemy attacked.
Today, after all the lies and deceit, all the killing and suffering, all the death and destruction, Vietnam seems to be doing quite well with Vietnamese in control of their own country. None of that cheapens the courage, the commitment and the dedication of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam. But it does make you wonder about the quality of those who led us into war and into an open-ended commitment that bled us of money, materiel and men.
The NCO interviewed on the radio scoffed at the notion that it was time for Americans to come home, saying “it is easy for people sitting in air-conditioned offices; people who have never been on the ground here; to make those decisions.” That comment is pretty ironic when you realize that many of those who have had their boots on the ground in combat are saying “bring them home,” while the guys in the air-conditioned offices making the decisions think they were born to command but were loathe to serve.
STEPHEN T. BANKO served in the 1st Cavalry Division and was wounded in combat four times. His decorations for heroism include two Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, the Air Medal and four Purple Hearts. He has long been active in veteran’s affairs.. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org