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Entering War, Coming Home
By Joe Petzel
Most Army soldiers came to and from Vietnam aboard a 707 commercial airliner. Two years ago, I was seated next to a retired flight attendant. Somehow we started a conversation about Vietnam. She told me she was a stewardess who flew the flights bringing soldiers to and from Vietnam. I told her how, as we flew to and from the war, the stewardesses looked like angels, especially on the way home after my tour. She told me about the heartbreak she felt flying, "…. so many boys to Vietnam…. how young they were…. how depressing the flights to Vietnam were. It was a different experience flying them home." I thanked her for doing this act of mercy. How many young men looked at her on their trip to Vietnam and wondered about their girlfriends, wondered if they would make it back for the return flight home. I wondered if she might have been on one of my flights to and from. Our conversation seemed good for both of us, somehow a bit of healing from that tragic time.
My flight to Vietnam originated at Travis Air Force Base, north of San Francisco. New soldiers traveled alone and were assigned to a unit on arrival "in country." I didn't know anyone on the flight. The flight was mostly quiet, very somber for a group of 19 to 21 year olds. Fear and apprehension were thick in the plane. Most of us had no idea what awaited us or what our assignments would be. I had been trained as a morse code operator but morse code was not used in Vietnam, so my assignment was completely unknown. The flight seemed to crawl through the air, as if the depressed, fearful, dense interior was a drag on our jet airliner.
We landed at Tan Son Nhat Air Force Base, South Vietnam. As we disembarked from the plane, the stewardess wished us good luck at the door. My first awareness as I stepped out the door was the overpowering heat and humidity. Our plane was next to a thick, barbed wire fence. Behind that fence a dense, beautiful, foreboding jungle stretched as far as I could see. I had grown up in Chicago and thought I was accustomed to humidity. I didn't know about tropical humidity. No one mentioned it in boot camp training. No one mentioned the terrain which was unlike anything any of us lived in yet alone fought in. It felt like I had to force my way into that heavy, wet, dense air; that it was pushing me back into the plane.
As I reached the bottom of the movable stairway and beyond, away from the burning jet fuel smell, the thick, sweet, rotting smell of the jungle seemed to coat the inside of my nose. It was frightening to smell. It had the secrets of life, death and decay in its hidden, thick, brown, green web. It looked alien on the other side of the well secured fence. The rotted, sweet smell reaching me, letting my nose, mouth and lungs know any fence couldn't protect me from the future year I had to serve in country,
As I was sensing this new, unknown foreign information, I began to hear the jeers and verbal assaults from some of the soldiers lined up. They were going to enter the plane for their flight home. Their tours of duty, one year for most of us, were up and they were going back to "the world." Vietnam wasn't the world and we were totally unprepared for it with our safe American memories.
The soldiers waiting to board looked many years older than we did. Their uniforms were faded. You couldn't miss the joy that surrounded them. There were many mustaches, their hair a bit longer than ours. They were loose. We were tight. Most just looked at us or looked away but some seemed to delight in yelling, "You're gonna die."
"You just stepped into a world of shit."
"Charlie gonna blow you away," and other cruel taunts.
There was a deep presence about them. They knew something we didn't. Their year "in country" had taught them something that only war could. I couldn't imagine speaking to any of them. They were in a different world. I felt young, weak, caught in a web of feelings I can't even describe. They all seemed to float in the heat, humidity and smell. We were crawling on our feet through the oppressive onslaught. In one year, if lucky, I would be in their shoes. I couldn't imagine being there in a year that was eternity to a 20 year old.
I did survive that year physically unwounded, when it was my turn to go back to "the world." My wounding was below the physical and would weave through my future like a knot that seemed to untie and tie, untie and tie. To this day, I rarely have a day with no memories from that year. Some are pleasant, some bring grief, anger, and thank God, no more rage. The worst feelings come and really can't be described. They aren't the normal anger, sadness, fear, etc. They are dense states in which a complicated, sense of foreboding, aloneness and despair take hold.
Upon arrival to my unit, the 3rd of the 5th Armored Cavalry, 9th Infantry Division, I was assigned the job of messenger. The previous messenger had been killed, driving over a mine in the road. Later I was reassigned as rear gummer on an armored personnel carrier, a 50 caliber machine gun attached to my hands.
This story is about the beginning and the end. The middle of my tour is for other stories; tragic, sweet, maddening, insane, fun, boring, intense, untellable. I could go on with descriptions for pages. But one area I have to bring up because it's the most important reality of that war: I can never forget the cruelties to the Vietnamese people, their land, the jungles, forests, rivers and other living creatures of that beautiful country. And of course the death and injuries to my friends, as well as all soldiers.
My tour was near its end. I spent my tour in "the field," far from the large American bases that had bars, movie theaters and bowling alleys. We didn't have it as bad as the grunts did. They spent their time on their feet, walking through danger. I had the luxury of riding through danger on a metal tracked vehicle with three 50 caliber machine guns perched atop this loud, earth churning machine that could spray death.
I was very short. Actually I'm 6 foot 5, very tall. Short was a term that meant you had very few days left on your time "in country." Most soldiers' tours were for 1 year, unless you were zapped or seriously wounded. I had a week left. Barry said to me, "You're so short you're a midget." There were numerous phrases that got repeated millions of times by American soldiers in Vietnam. That was one of them. He said this with envy and joy. He was truly happy I was going back to the world and at the same time, I believe, this reminded him of the 4 months he had remaining. He said this to me with a stoned twinkle in his eyes. Whenever possible, Barry, Rusty, Davis and other close friends shared joints. We, along with the many other soldiers who smoked pot, were known as "Heads." The lifers, regular Army, left us alone. We were breaking Army rules smoking pot, but what were they going to do? There were so many of us and we all carried automatic weapons. Most of us Heads, knew the truth of our situation, that we were pawns in another's cruel, insane endeavor. I believe marijuana was a true medicine for most of us, a pleasant interruption, between friends, in that stressful, deadly time.
One week to go. One week and with a bit of luck I would be on the freedom bird, flying home to cheeseburgers, girls, long hair, freedom. I carried, in my wallet, a tattered, torn piece of paper that had 365 boxes on it. Every once in a while I would check off the number of days that had passed since the last time I did this, 358 checkmarks in an assortment of pencil checks, blue and red ink checks. There were dirt stains from all over Northern South Vietnam on it. This had been my touchstone. There were times I got to check off three weeks worth of boxes. What a thrill that was, to see the big block of time served and the lessening of time left.
My platoon, "the Bird Dogs", had set camp in a relatively safe area. There was a chow hall, outhouses, we called them shitters, and believe it or not, hot showers. In other words, heaven. Seven days to go and I got to eat hot chow every meal, sleep on a cot and luxuriate under a hot shower. I was short, safe, stoned and secure.
Exactly what I didn't want to hear I heard. We were being ordered to "Mount up", which was another way of ordering me to climb up onto our armored personnel carrier, position myself behind my 50 caliber machine gun, make sure everything was secured around me as when we moved, anything not secured might rattle off and be lost. We were the modern equivalent of the cavalry, instead of horses we rode on armored vehicles. "Mount up", "Move out" and other remnants of horse cavalry language would be shouted over the radio.
I was so short and we were being ordered up to the DMZ, a ride of about 20 miles. The DMZ was a most dangerous place. The North Vietnamese Army "owned" that area. We were to assist an infantry unit having a hard time. I was having a very hard time. I was going home in 7 days and the DMZ was so far from my home. Sergeant Kinsky, my track commander and the leader of my platoon, the Bird Dogs, was in front of me, behind his 50 caliber machine gun with the rounded metal shield that protected him. He, his gun and shield could rotate giving him a wide killing range. Me and my fellow gunner at the rear of the vehicle each had a 2 foot by 2 foot, scrawny shield that only offered you protection if you stood down into the track, below the top surface, a dangerous place to stand because if an armored piercing rocket propelled grenade penetrated the vehicle, your midsection and legs were gone.
If things got bad up at the DMZ, I might miss the day I was scheduled to leave my unit to travel south to muster out of Vietnam. Things might get delayed in more ways than one. I expected to hear the rumble of the engine starting and the smell of the diesel fuel smoke coming out the small stack behind me. Quiet. Sergeant Kinsky took off his helmet which was tied into the radio and the driver up front of him. He yelled back to us rear gunners, "Somethings fucked up." The vehicle wouldn't start. This was definitely not fucked up in my world. After checking a few things out, he jumped off of our vehicle and climbed on another, on its way to the DMZ He was a lifer and like many lifers wanted the rewards of battle; rank, medals and the prestige that being in combat brought to a soldier who made a career out of the Army. All that was my past, I hoped. I saw no prestige in the shit storm we were in.
Our track had an electrical problem. I and the 2 remaining members of our track stayed in the perimeter that had been our temporary base of operations, our temporary home. Not a totally safe place, but compared to the DMZ, A SAFE PLACE. Unless they put me on another track, I would spend my remaining days in relative safety. Our perimeter had not been tested by Charlie in the few days I had been there.
I'll never know if it was luck or one of the other guys shorted some electrical part out. By that time, in the war, there was a clear division between the lifers and the draftees. There were fraggings, a few refusals to enter into danger and open hostility, at times, between the two groups. My good friend Rusty, angered at a risky order by Sergeant Kinsky, challenged him to a fist fight. Kinsky, looked around, seeing there were no officers nearby, engaged Rusty. It ended up a draw. Most of us distrusted Kinsky. He had made bad decisions.
The next day I was given my orders. I was to fly on a chopper from our perimeter to Da Nang Marine Corps Base on that very day. From there take a plane to Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base to muster out of Vietnam. This was the single most enjoyable bit of reading I have ever done.
A friend named Baker drove me, in a jeep, to the chopper pad. We had become very close in the three months he had been in country. He wished me well and started to cry as we said goodbye. I'm sure his tears were sadness at my departure and grief over his remaining nine months in the field. I was overjoyed at leaving but tried not to show him that. There was always a cruelty in knowing someone who was close to being injured and choppered away not seeing them again or someone dying or going home. You had to stay, you had to endure and always your date of freedom seemed so far away. I learned a few months later that Baker became addicted to heroin soon after I left. A week after I left, the heroin epidemic began. It was unavailable while I was there. The Pentagon, in a report, two years later, estimated there were over 200,000 soldiers in Vietnam, addicted to heroin.
I spent the last 4 days of my Vietnam tour "mustering out", which included handing in my M16, being checked for venereal diseases, getting drunk in the enlisted men's club, buying gifts for my family; some saw prostitutes. I swam and generally basked in the good fortune of being able to leave. I have never experienced such a liberating sense. I was going home and would be discharged from the Army! No more being told what to do by so many men whom I didn't trust to know how to lead. Freedom!
While in the office of the 9th Infantry Division, I learned that Sergeant Kinsky had been wounded, a bullet to his belly, a very serious wound. The DMZ was dangerous. What kind of a war is it when your platoon sergeant is wounded and you cheer inside? I am not proud of that. I held a grudge against him that would last for many years. It's interesting that as I learned to forgive myself regarding the shame I carried from that war, my grudge toward him has disappeared. If I ran into him I would be happy to see him, knowing he made it out with his life.
The night before my flight home I went to the Enlisted Men's Club for a celebration with another soldier who was also leaving. The whiskey and ginger ale tasted so good. We got pretty toasted, putting quite a few quarters in the jukebox. At one point, the song, "We Gotta Get Out of this Place" by the Animals blasted through the club. It seemed like every voice in that alcohol soaked room was singing along with the lines, "We gotta get out of this place if it's the last thing we ever do." Those of us going home had huge smiles as we sang. I later learned that it was the most requested song on the Army's radio station in Vietnam.
The next morning was now my turn to stand and watch the new guys disembark from the plane. They did look young and scared. None of them looked at us. There was a million miles of distance between us. Some of the men yelled the same things that were yelled on my arrival. I was disgusted by their cruelty. I felt sorry for those poor souls coming off the plane. Morale among the soldiers in Vietnam was sunk, not sinking. Heroin would become as common to them as marijuana use during my tour. I knew they were all entering an insane dream, a dream I was beginning to wake from. A dream in which each of them would receive the news, the insane news that anything they experienced in Vietnam was for nothing. This was such a soul crushing truth to grapple with. But there was one area that was not for nothing. They would, if they were lucky, have friendships. Friendships that were deeper, more meaningful and important than any they had before. Friends that were like lovers without the sex. Connections that danced on the thin stage of severe injury, death, instant loss. Nineteen year olds whose friends made the only sense in their world. Friends that brought peace, love and meaning to our mangled lives.
As the last one stepped down from the ramp I couldn't hold back my smile. I couldn't believe this was happening. I felt a lightness going up the stairs into the plane. I was disembarking from the heavy, rot stench air. I had become used to it though.
The stewardess who greeted us looked like a brunette angel. Her voice was the softest thing I'd heard in quite a while. We took our seats and quickly got ready for takeoff. The pilots didn't like to take too long sitting on a runway in the middle of a war. The plane began to move down the runway, faster and faster. My heart raced. As the wheels left the runway a mighty cheer, actually more like a roar, erupted from the men in the plane. We were truly going home and leaving the insanity behind.
A few guys lit joints, no one protested or pulled rank. I felt so good I didn't want to get high. I think the experience I had as we left the ground came close to a good death experience. Ram Dass says, dying is like getting out of tight fitting shoes to total freedom and safety. Those were the tightest fitting shoes one could imagine.
I will never forget that roar as the wheels left the ground. I will never forget the safety and freedom I felt. I sometimes cry as I tell this story. The flight back to the world was waking from a dream. It seemed impossible. I was going home.
Joe Petzel is a Vietnam Veteran, who served as Regional Coordinator for Northern IL and Iowa VVAW, after returning from the war.