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By Richard Boes
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I just had to get out of the house. My father was a drunk. Sure, he went to work each day, came home to cocktails and passed out in his easy chair in front of the TV every night. He never said much, yelled some, but mostly just repeated what my mother had to say. It was almost as if he wasn't there. My mother was a nag: overbearing, dominating and asking too many questions. I was the oldest of five children; my mother confided in me once that she would have left my father years ago if it weren't for the kids.
My father never fought in World War II like my friends' dads did. A childhood disease left him with a punctured eardrum and he was classified 4-F. He even wore a goofy bathing cap when we went swimming to keep water from getting in his ear. I just wanted out and knew the military would provide meals, housing and a paycheck. I had to be someone different than my dad. I wanted to be a man. I wanted to be a hero.
I tried joining the Marines, but they said I'd have to wait three months, so I went across the street and enlisted in the Army. Eighteen and two days out of high school I left home. Nine months later I was leaving for Vietnam. My mom didn't want me to go. My dad didn't seem to care one way or another. When I said goodbye, I shook his hand and never even kissed my mother. As I looked back from the street and waved, she was standing in the doorway, crying.
I was trained as an MP and had been assigned to the First Cavalry. We were on a small base camp on the outskirts of a Vietnamese village. Our POW compound was surrounded by twenty-foot high barbed wire. The prisoners, who never had names, were kept beneath open tents, with bare cots to sleep on. There was a pallet of board under each cot to keep it from sinking into the mud. We as guards had bunkers and empty oil drums, three-fourths of which were sunken into the ground. Fearing rockets and mortars, I spent many nights peering out of that oil drum with my shotgun held on a sleeping prisoner.
Our POW compound was transitory. Prisoners never stayed very long. They were brought in from the field, interrogated for three or four days, and sent to who knows where. We never had more than three or four at a time. I believe most prisoners never made it out of the field; they just kept a few alive to see what, if any, information they could get. Some were turned over to the South Vietnamese Army, and I know of at least one who was butchered and strung up for days in the village marketplace as an example to the villagers. These smells and images are still with me.
Prisoners were never dressed in more than a pair of filthy boxer shorts, their legs and feet covered with heat sores and blisters, abscessed and oozing. I remember thinking they might not feel too bad about being caught, relieved they didn't have to hump the bush anymore and grateful to get something more than rice to eat. But I only remember one receiving medical attention.
This prisoner, who had a bullet in his leg, was interrogated for three days before being taken to the hospital. I provided an escort. As medevac choppers went, patients were selected in accordance with the severity of their wounds. One GI with his arm in a cast was bumped from the flight because of my prisoner. He got real pissed. "I gotta wait because of a fucking gook bastard? I'll kill the motherfucker!"
I tried to calm him. "He's had a bullet in his leg for three days."
"Sorry," I said.
That chopper flight was the worst of my flight experiences, and we weren't even shot at. One of the passengers was an American soldier who had fallen some fifty feet off a radio tower. He was screaming in pain and cursing at the top of his lungs. His feet were like full-blown blue balloons. That half-hour ride seemed an eternity. I don't remember my prisoner ever making a sound, showing any emotion or any sign of being in pain. Truth is, I saw more GIs killed by accidents, mistakes and "friendly fire" than I did by the enemy. I did get the prisoner to the hospital in one piece despite numerous requests to fuck him up or boot him out the chopper door.
One of my duties was to monitor interrogations, to make sure the Geneva Convention for the treatment of prisoners was upheld — the reality of which was a joke. A South Vietnamese interpreter sat facing the prisoner, right in his face. An American intelligence officer sat behind a small table making notes and looking at maps. He spoke through the interpreter whose translation always seemed much longer and more violent. I stood a few feet off to the side. Prisoners were screamed at, smacked in the face, punched, kicked, spit on, had their hair pulled, their sores and heat blisters pinched and their bare feet stomped. One prisoner was made to sit with his legs spread and was repeatedly smacked back and forth on his inner thighs with a ping-pong paddle, making his heat sores bleed. I warned the interpreter once, and then took the paddle from his hand in mid-swing. He protested, cursing me in Vietnamese. The intelligence officer stressed the need to obtain information in order to save American lives. He told me that if I had a problem, he'd talk to the colonel and have me relieved of duty. I was confused, torn. I gave the interpreter back his paddle.
One big problem was that you didn't know your enemy. The Vietnamese would come from the village, work the base camp during the day, and return come nightfall. One night the barber was shot coming through the perimeter wire. There was no one you could trust. Most of us didn't want to be there. We counted off the days, but the longer I was there the more I became the very thing I hated. This war was about getting me out alive, and nothing else mattered.
There was one prisoner who was treated special. He wore handcuffs behind his back. Only while he ate would we cuff him up front, then back again once he finished. He was the enemy's version of Special Forces, a sapper who could low crawl through barbed wire and trip flares like butter melts on a hot biscuit. He could wreak hours of havoc on a base camp with satchel charges and throat-slitting, then disappear back into the night. The story was he had surrendered and was working for us as a scout, a point man leading our troops through the jungle. After some time, Intelligence realized he had been leaving clues and passing information back to the enemy. He was a double agent.
One day this prisoner walked slowly across the POW compound, appearing exhausted: head down, feet dragging. Suddenly, he burst forth like a runner from a starting block, jumped atop a bunker, and did a complete flip over the barbed wire, landing on his feet — all with his hands cuffed behind his back. In broad daylight he didn't have a prayer of getting away. Two GIs standing thirty feet outside the compound heard my cry for help. They knocked the prisoner to the ground and stomped him into the mud.
At that moment I had my awakening. Seeing this man's determination, fortitude and tenacity, I realized I was the enemy here. We didn't belong here. After this incident they put shackles on the man's ankles and had a shotgun pointing at him 24/7.
I grew up in a small town, believed in God and the goodness of people, respected adults and thought they knew best. I was proud to be an American, had volunteered for Vietnam and wanted to do right by my country. My dreams and naiveté were shattered in Vietnam. The older enlisted men — career soldiers, lifers — were, for the most part, lowlifes. Their drunken, amoral behavior made my dad look saintly. My father was never promiscuous and never mistreated my mother. What I saw in Vietnam was rape and murder.
Today, I still live in a bunker. I am certified service-connected 100% permanent and totally disabled: what's called post traumatic stress disorder, but I prefer the World War II term "shell shock." I am not free, nor am I the price of freedom. The Vietnam War was meaningless. I see POW/MIA flags flying everywhere. They are not about prisoners missing in Southeast Asia, but those like me, among us, still missing and prisoners of the Vietnam War.
Richard Boes is a Vietnam vet and member of VVAW from New York.