Friday, November 10, 2006

Brave Men, Dedicated to My Fellow Veterans

As our troops now start returning home from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they will inevitably by drawn into such groups as Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. I do not want to discourage any to join them so don’t look upon my words as a discouragement. I respect both groups and belong to the VFW and am considering reinitiating my membership in the American Legion soon.

During the times Veterans get together over a drink, it is inevitable that the discussion will turn to Bravery, some bragging about their own or someone they knew who acted brave in their conflict. Many though, remained in so called “rear areas,” or, REMFs, as they become known. Some shy away from the discussion and others feel left out or inadequate, as they weren’t Infantry and did not have to face an armed enemy on a regular basis. If I discourage anything in this essay, I wish to discourage those Support Troops from feeling this way.

The Military is a team and it takes a lot of Team Effort to accomplish a mission. No Infantryman can perform his mission without being fed, clothed or equipped for the task at hand. If wounded, they will not survive without the aides at a Field Hospital or the Supply system making sure medicines and bandages and equipment are in place and well maintained. They won’t even make it off the Battlefield without someone making sure the Truck or Helicopter is in proper working order and capable of carrying the wounded back for medical help.

With that in mind, the following is a short essay I wrote a couple years ago concerning this very subject with some men I served in Viet Nam with. This subject arose and some felt those of us who didn’t face the enemy everyday, as they claimed they did, made us somehow less brave and less a Veteran.

“The subject of bravery was recently brought up. How do we define bravery? I think we each have our own definition, but ultimately, we normally choose those who fought and often died for our cause, Vietnam, in our case. We all were there, we all survived it, and we all were “Cav.” But, not all of us actually fought, in the sense of going out and shooting at the bad guys each day.

I have heard it said that us maintenance types “didn’t even get shot at.” Is that what makes one brave, getting shot at on a regular basis? Is it even so that we who were assigned to maintenance didn’t get shot at? This is by no means a cheap shot at whoever has said the words above, nor is it intended to diminish the efforts and bravery of those of you who actually got to fly the missions and take on “Charlie” every day. Rather, my effort is to explore and try to explain what it meant to me to be in a war, yet not actually shooting at the enemy. If this offends anyone’s sensibilities, then I offer my apologies in advance. It certainly is not my intent.

When I received my orders to go to Vietnam, I had been in the Army just over 4 months and was just finishing the OH-6A course at Fort Eustis, Virginia. In fact, I think I was one of the last classes to graduate from Fort Eustis, as most of them were moved to Fort Rucker, Alabama, or so I had heard. Besides having the obvious fear associated with being told you are going to war, I also felt a certain sense of relief. There was no more wondering and worrying whether or not I would go. I was going! I had no idea where I would end up, what I would be doing, what unit I would be assigned to. I didn’t even know anything at all about what was happening there, other than there was a “police action” going on, read WAR to me. I had qualified with the M-16 during Basic Training at Ft. Jackson, S.C., but after receiving my orders at Ft. Eustis, we had to attend a three day RVN Orientation, where we were qualified with the M-14, for some reason. I never saw another M-14 after that. Our attitudes were somewhat blasé’. Had we actually been in combat, I’m sure none of us would have lasted the three days the training took.

In July of 1969, I arrived in Long Bin, shortly after that, moved to Nha Trang, then on to Camp Enari in Pleiku, where I was assigned to the 7/17th and ultimately to C Troop. Of course, once I arrived at Lane Army Heliport, I was placed in the 412th TC Det., or Maintenance. Somewhere during this time, I was promoted to Pfc. As I understood it; all Scouts went to Maintenance first, then as openings came about, would be transferred to “the line,” to actually crew a LOH. After seeing how some of them returned, and after one of the favorite guys in the Scouts, Scotty, died, the thought of actually crewing had a certain element of fear about it. I mean, who really wishes to go out and face death? Our Moms taught us different than that, and the Army did it’s best to undo that training. But, we still did what was necessary and went where we were assigned.

Not long after being sent to the 412th, I performed some work on a LOH. Only recently through the resources of Heli-Vets did I attain the tail number and the pilots names. But, I had the tail rotor off for a reason that escapes me today. Within the next day or two, that LOH crashed shortly after take off, killing both pilots on board, from what appeared to be a tail rotor failure. The officers looking into the crash told me all this after the fact. Of course, here I was, fresh out of AIT, new to the unit, a 20 year old Pfc. who had just removed and reinstalled the tail rotor. I wasn’t grilled too hard, but I was definitely looked into. There was enough of the tail rotor left to determine that I had reinstalled it properly, so I was cleared of any wrongdoing. At the time I discovered the Tail Number, I also discovered that witnesses saw the helicopter strike a tree on take off, causing the crash. But, for over thirty years now, I have kept the thought in the back of my head that maybe I did do something to contribute to their deaths. I don’t blame myself, but have always wondered if it went down for a reason that I could have contributed to.

None of this makes me brave, mind you, but I supply it for background in an attitude I developed and have maintained for the rest of my life.

In the normal scheme of things, I watched those ahead of me move on to crewing, Jim Sullivan, Ron Strickland, and others. I received normal promotions, being made an acting Sergeant when Jim Provencio DEROSed and I was the ranking E-4 on the OH-6 squad. I don’t remember what happened, but it came to be my turn to crew. CW2 Al Whaley, the Warrant who was over the LOH’s approached me and asked if I were ready to crew. Before I could answer, he told me I could just forget it. I was too valuable to him in maintenance. You see, after the crash I mentioned above, I made myself a promise that there would never be any doubt of another LOH going down because of maintenance. It didn’t matter that maintenance was not the cause of the crash, the thought that it could have been and that it could have been me, affected me in such a way that I was hell-bent no one would ever lose a life or be injured in any of my helicopters due to sloppy work. I immersed myself into repairing and maintaining the LOHs of C Troop and did my best to make sure the guys flew the best and safest helicopters the US Army had to supply. In fact, I learned a lot at the hands of Mr. Whaley and even though he often came across as an SOB, he was a pretty regular guy who also wanted safe and reliable aircraft.

So, I didn’t get my turn to crew. I watched as my best friend, Ron Strickland, went on to crew and even felt a huge loss when his chopper went in. I didn’t even get the chance to see him in the hospital before he was evacuated to Japan. I watched as others went on to the glory of crewing and actually fighting the war. But, I was doing what I enjoyed, fixing the LOHs. Would I have been as good a crew chief as others? I’ll never know.

To say we didn’t even get shot at, though, is somewhat inaccurate. Of course, we didn’t receive fire each day or even very often. At times we did fill in on some flights and after leaving the safety and security of Lane heliport for An Khe, get shot at we did. We still had to pull guard duty; with me being Sergeant of the Guard, since by then I had actually made it to E-5. When we got sappered those times, it was many of us “rear types” on guard. When the guards were doubled on the flight line due to such heavy loses of aircraft and Charlie went after hooches, even though C Troop was spared, he made no distinction between flight crews and rear types. He could have cared less. It was simply Americans he wanted to do away with.

Whether actually looking for and facing Charlie, or remaining back at Base Camp doing some other work, we were a team. It took all of us to get the job done. And, I can’t think of any unit that did it any better than C Troop.

Who were the brave men? It was the nameless eighteen year old who bought it early in his tour. It was the poor guy that drowned when he fell off a deuce and a half cleaning it at An Khe. It was Scotty, who gave his life and did so much teaching others and looking out for all. It was Bruce Carlson for flying each day, no matter what fear he felt, and doing his duty. It was Ron Strickland for getting to crew and surviving a crash that could have killed him, yet he went on to a career in the Army. In my book, it was every last one of us. We went, and we did whatever duty was assigned us. We griped and groaned, and drank too much, maybe even smoked a little dope. But we got the job done. We fought for a thankless people and for a thankless nation. We faced the condemnation of our countrymen when returning. We cringed every time the next episode of Mod Squad showed the weekly villain was just another deranged Vietnam Veteran. But, we endured. We didn’t ask for any Victory Parades nor did we receive any. We didn’t even receive a welcome home from any top official of the nation until 1981 when Ronald Reagan assumed the office of President. We may have cried when ones like Jane Fonda were honored as heroes. We were disturbed when draft dodgers were made the heroes of the era by being granted total amnesty by the President of the United States. We have endured, silently for the most part, for thirty years now. We love our country but wonder if it will ever love us.

You ask who were the brave men of Vietnam? The only answer I can give is all of us. Each in our own way contributed to the war effort and even though the enemy may have been boredom or a corroded bolt at times, we all faced it and conquered it. I offer my salute to all, Officer, Warrant, or Enlisted, who served there and did their duty to the best of their ability. We are a brotherhood unique to our generation, survivors and courageous.”

Battles are not only won in fighting, some have to be won by unarmed people who rebuild schools, care for the wounded citizens of the countries were are in and battles are won by those who stay back and keep the Infantry able to perform their mission.

From the lowliest Private to the Top General, from the most Gung Ho Infantryman to the tired out mechanic and worn out Truck Driver, it takes everyone to get the mission completed. Add to that now that more females are involved and you see that the effort is spread across the spectrum to keep the Infantry moving and accomplish our mission.

Lew Waters
412th TC; C Troop 7/17th Air Cav
Viet Nam 1969 to 1971

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