I was always able to focus on any given
item, task, or situation. The war carried this ability to a surprisingly
high level. The classic example was the night on Nong Son when I was cut
off, and there was nothing around me but the N.V.A.. I didn’t panic or
make any foolish mistakes. I didn’t give away my position by reacting too
soon, trying to move when they were close enough to spot me. Instead, I
focused on my only defense, waiting for one of them to come to me.
As the battle started the first explosion
threw me away from the trench line at the edge of the landing zone and
into the brush and wire at the side of the road. I was hit in the right
arm with shrapnel, and my legs, hands and face were cut as I fell into the
wire. My rifle was broken when I hit the hard surface of the road.
There is a period of time after the
explosion that is a complete blank. I remember nothing about it. During
that period I somehow made my way northeast of the landing zone and
southeast of the Marine 4.2” mortal position. That put me directly in the
path of the attacking North Vietnamese. I have no idea how I got there.
Even in the dark I had my bearings. Southeast was down hill, the direction
from where the Vietnamese were coming. Northwest was up hill from where
the Marines were firing. I was pinned in a crossfire between the two.
I only moved when the Vietnamese were
pinned down. When they advanced, I stopped. They were all around me. Even
though I couldn’t understand what they were saying, I knew what they were
doing because of the movement. It became obvious that I wasn’t going to
make it. The Marine positions were too far away and the Vietnamese were
moving too fast and too often.
I remember turning to face the Vietnamese,
and settling into a position in the brush. My hand stuck to the handle of
my knife as if it was covered with syrup or wet paint.
As firing from the Marine positions died
down the entire east side of the hill erupted. Explosions all around me
shook the ground. I knew that this was our artillery from the Marine base
at An Hoe. The only way they would fire on our position was if we were
overrun. At that moment I was sure that I’d never live through the night.
I could fight the Vietnamese, even with
just a knife. But there was no defense against the firepower of the Marine
Corps artillery batteries. I pressed myself as tightly to the ground as I
could and waited to die.
The artillery bombardment stopped as
quickly as it started. When it did I turned east, toward the road.
Suddenly, there were sounds of men running up the road, not NVA, but
Marines. I jumped to my feet, and headed toward them.
They met me at the bend that led to the
landing zone. I told them I needed a rifle, and somebody handed me one. As
we came to the top of the hill I turned off toward the landing zone and my
old position there.
The southwest side of the landing zone was
very steep. As I looked in that direction I saw the silhouette of a man,
and knew instantly it was not a Marine or one of my guys. I remember
seeing him lerch backwards as I fired, and he dropped off the back side of
I turned left and headed east toward our
searchlight position. When I got there I found the light that Arnold
Palmer and Joe McCurry manned had been completely destroyed. I went to the
northeast side of the landing zone and saw that their bunker was
collapsed. Joe and Arnold were inside. They were both dead. I don’t know
if they were fighting from the bunker or just taken by surprise when the
We spent the next few hours caring for the
dead and wounded and picking off Vietnamese who were still on the hill.
There were pockets of them in the trenches and in the adjoining jungle.
Many of them were sappers (Viet Cong that threw satchel charges into
bunkers and other fortified positions). Any that we saw we shot
immediately. None of us were going to try to capture a sapper. They could
still be carrying explosives, and we weren’t in a position or the mood to
deal with prisoners.
Many of our wounded were in very bad
shape. One of the guys that I helped carry to the landing zone, Bob
Bowermaster, was shot through the chest. This type of wound is called a
sucking chest wound, and could have caused him to drown in his own blood
if he hadn’t received care while the fighting was still going on. Below is
his account of what happened as he told it to me.
Bob and his fire team (four-man infantry
unit) volunteered to man the LP (listening post) on the southeast side of
the hill. He had enough experience to know that this was a much better
fighting position than the bunkers inside the perimeter.
He and his guys picked up activity in the
brush around them long before the fighting started. They could hear
movement; and at one point could see small lights, like fireflies. It was
probably the Vietnamese smoking drugs before the attack. Sappers did this
to dull their senses because no sober man in his right mind would charge
fortified positions the way that they did.
He reported the movement twice before the
battle started, and was ignored both times. Powell and I normally
monitored the infantry radio frequency, but our radio and searchlight were
out of action that night. It was the only time in the three months that we
were on the hill that we didn’t have both lights working. The guys who
heard the call explained the noise by saying it was rats moving in and out
of the garbage dump.
When fighting broke out Bob spotted a big
man, probably not Vietnamese, shouting orders to the NVA who were
attacking the fortified positions. He and the fire-team concentrated their
fire on him, and it took several rounds to bring him down.
They then shifted fire onto targets of
opportunity as they appeared. After a while fire from isolated groups,
like Bob’s, and single Marines, along with artillery and air support
turned the advantage in the Marines favor. As the Vietnamese withdrew they
passed directly in front of Bob and his fire-team. He and his guys opened
fire; and for a short time it was like target practice.
As soon as the Vietnamese located the
source of the fire, they attacked the four-man unit. The Marine next to
Bob was immediately hit in the wrist, and Bob called for a medic. As he
did he was shot in the chest.
The bullet passed deeply into his lung. As
he inhaled blood was drawn in. The only way to stop this deadly flow was
to plug the hole, which he did with his finger.
Suddenly he felt himself being dragged
down the hill by his heals, and it made no sense. His guys wouldn’t handle
him this way. Then two shot rang out, and his heal dropped to the ground.
As he looked up he saw the familiar face
of another Marine, Thom Searfoss, standing beside him. In the darkness
Thom couldn’t see the wound or tell much about Bob’s condition.
He bent down to take a closer look, and
asked Bob how he was. Bob grabbed him by the collar, pointed to his chest,
and gasped a single word, “help.” That’s all he could manage to say. Even
with his finger plugging the hole, his lung was filling with blood.
Somehow Thom knew what to do. He blew hard
into Bob’s mouth, forcing some of the blood out of the hole in his chest.
Another Marine, Gerald Bird, helped Thom slide a poncho under Bob, and
they carried him along as they fought their way to the top of the hill.
Throughout the climb they took small arms
and rocket fire. One of the rockets hit close enough to knock all of them
to the ground. Bob felt like the rocket hit directly under him because the
concussion lifted him into the air. He asked Seafoss to see if he still
had a butt, and Thom reassured him that his ass was still attached.
Bob was one of the first to be evacuated.
Thom Seafoss, Gerald Bird, and rest of the guys who attended to Bob
undoubtedly saved his life. Thom administered mouth-to-mouth at least
three times as they fought their way up the hill.
That’s Bob’s story. Incidents like this
happened all night long. The Marines that I fought alongside that night
were among the toughest young men that ever lived. My heart goes out to
every one of them.
Both sides, American and Vietnamese, took
heavy losses that night. We slaughtered one another. The sticky material
on my knife was blood. I was covered with it. There was so much on my
shirt and pants that they were stiff. The blood wasn’t mine. I hope I
never remember where it came from.
I found my best buddy, Waylen at sunrise.
He was lying on his back at the edge of the landing zone where the Marines
had laid him. His dog tags (metal identification tags that all soldiers
wear) were missing.
A Marine assigned to identify casualties
asked, “do you know who he is?”
I heard him, but just stood there. My best
friend, drinking buddy, surfing pal, the man who made me look so deeply
and honestly at myself was gone. Joe McCury was gone. Arnold Palmer was
gone. All of the Marines that were with me on Nong Son that night were
either killed or wounded.
I felt empty inside. The dragon was with
me because I wanted him there. I remembered the Vietnamese soldier that I
shot on the landing zone, and found comfort in the fact that I killed him.
Waylen was gone, and now the dragon was by best buddy. I was a killer
because that was what I wanted to be. It made things right. It made them
After that night there were periods when I
couldn’t sleep. The dragon wouldn’t let me. I’d think about how to
position our M-60 machine gun so that we’d have the best possible field of
fire. That would insure more kills. I’d check my ammunition clips over and
over again, making sure that they were loaded correctly. I checked maps
time and time again to pin down key locations and likely target positions.
I ran artillery fire missions in my head over and over again. I became a
All of this happened to me when I was
twenty-one years old. It changed my life forever, and showed me a part of
myself that I couldn’t believe existed, MY DRAGON. When the fighting
started none of my actions were planned. Everything was instinct. I truly
became an animal.
Once the change occurred I was never the
same person again. The dragon became too much a part of me. The only rule
was there were no rules. I remember rationalizing it with the fact that I
didn’t create the war. In fact, I never wanted to be a part of it. Those
who didn’t have to see the blood or feel war first hand threw me into it.
The laid back kid from Illinois couldn’t deal with war, but the dragon
So, the dragon allowed me to survive. But,
that’s all it was, just survival. Dragons don’t love, they don’t care,
they don’t even feel.
Happiness was never possible when I was
with the dragon. Something inside told me I had to separate myself from
him. Call it a voice from my sole, my conscience, or God’s influence on
me. By whatever name it was unbelievably strong, and drove me to gain
control of my life. But, wanting to become a decent human being wasn’t
enough. It took a war to make me an animal. It took a lot more than just
desire to make me human again.
It was years before I found a way to
begin. At first I just got drunk and caused trouble. I tried my best to
stay away from friends and family when I was drinking. It was my way of
hiding a side of myself that I didn’t want them to see. Often it didn’t
work. Even when I was sober I hurt those close to me. When I was drunk, I
was a complete ass hole.
After a while I realized that in order to
control myself I had to control the situation. If I hung out in dives I’d
get into trouble. If I had a couple of beers at a neighborhood tavern with
friends, I’d usually be OK.
There were many times when I wouldn’t
allow myself to be myself. Often, I simply didn’t think I could control a
given situation, and would pull away from people, keeping them at arm’s
length. As I got older I found more and more ways to stay in control. I
got out of union business, politics, and coaching, all of which produced
volatile situations. I said, “kiss my ass” as a way to end an argument
rather than escalate a confrontation.
As time went on I was able to go for
months without having problems, but the problems didn’t go away. Suddenly
the past would come crashing down on me.
Call these times panic attacks, flash
backs, delayed stress, or whatever, they were very tough to deal with.
Even though I knew at the time they occurred I was in no danger, I was
trapped by their effect. During one of these events I walked out of the
house in the middle of the night in a pair of sweat pants in a rainstorm
because it was the most effective way to break the effects of the event.
The cold and wet helped bring me back to reality.
The key to coping was learning to relax.
It sounds so simple, but was incredibly difficult. It couldn’t be done by
taking deep breaths, using today’s fashionable drugs, or any other method
that simply treated the symptom. The most effective way for me to cope was
finding out what triggers the event, and dealing with it.
The tough part was, and still is, that
there are many triggers, any one of which can cause an event. It was very
important to keep day-to-day things in order. All of the little things
must be under control. The checkbook had to balance. The vehicles needed
to run right. It was important to take an hour for my daily work out. It
was essential to get away from the office for some fishing, or a cruise
with Pati, or an afternoon with my family. If I didn’t things would back
up to a point where they became overwhelming, and the demons would return.
I’m not talking about little red guys with
horns and pointed tails that poked me in the ass with pitchforks. These
demons were a part of me just like the dragon, born of the fear that I
first saw the night we were overrun. They came with the realization that
the life that I held so dearly could quickly and violently end.
But, I’ve learned to deal with the demons
much more effectively than the dragon. One answer came in a phrase that I
heard many years ago, “A coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man only
one”. It worked even though I’ve never totally agreed with the terms
coward or brave man, and I considered myself neither. However, the idea
fits. Why should I face death over and over when it will only happen once.
The demons still come, even when things
are under control, and I’m ready for them. Our oldest son, Greg, asked me
to go with him to see “We Were Solders”, a very graphic film about the
war. I agreed to go even though it was about a unit that had been
partially overrun. I was very surprised to find that the graphic footage
really didn’t bother me. But the sound of the helicopters hit me like a
ton of bricks. There is nothing in the world that sounds like helicopters.
Hearing their blades brought back the site of each guy that I helped load
into a Medivac.
By necessity I’ve become very deliberate
in my daily routine. I take life one day at a time because that’s the only
way that I can deal with it. Often, one day is too much; so, I stay
strictly in the moment.
The dragon feeds on fear, desperation, and
hatred. I felt all of these in that shit hole where I was sent so many
years ago. These feelings were not directed at those who I fought because
they were sent by others the same as I was. They were directed at the
miserable bastards who sent me to do their killing for them because all of
the death and destruction was for nothing.
When I got back home I wanted to visit the
families of the guys in my unit who were killed, but I knew that I
couldn’t look them in the eye, and explain what happened without the
despair showing. I knew they would question why they had suffered such a
tremendous loss, and I would have no answer for them. We weren’t defending
America because America hadn’t been attacked. We weren’t protecting our
families or ourselves because we were in no danger.
We got into the war because this country’s
leaders made a mistake, and that proves that they were human. We stayed in
the war because our leaders didn’t have the courage to admit the mistake,
and that’s what caused thousands to suffer and die needlessly.
That’s the root of my contempt for
authority. It’s why I spend so much time finding ways to hold back what I
feel deep inside. I fight to keep these feelings hidden, and work at
avoiding situations that will bring them out. I wish with all of my heart
that I was a better man, one who could forgive and forget. But, in over
thirty years I haven’t grown enough to find the peace that would come from
letting it go, and putting it behind me.
The thing that I seek most of all is
peace. I want to sit on the back of my boat and watch the sun set. I want
to hear my grandchildren laugh. I want to see my kids happy and secure. I
want to walk along the bay in the moon light with my wife, and think of
nothing but the lights on the water and the stars overhead.
If the people around me were asked to
describe me, they would paint a far different picture than the man I’ve
described in this book. What they see is the part of me that I allow to be
exposed. It’s the image that allows me to function in a world where I
don’t fit. I guess that this approach makes me a phony, even a hypocrite.
But, it’s been necessary in order to function in a world that would not
accept the real me.
When I moved from Illinois after the war,
I realized that my life had to change. The drinking, fighting, and “go to
hell” attitude that had hurt the ones closest to me had to be tucked away.
I couldn’t leave it behind any more than any other part of me. So, I had
to hide it.
This has caused considerable internal
conflict, the kind that, over the years, has taken its toll. There are
times when even a routine day leaves me exhausted. There have been
countless times that I’ve walked away from situations when walking away
was not what I wanted to do. But, the real me, the one I chose to hide
would have over reacted, and caused much greater problems, the kind of
problems that it took the police to straighten out in Illinois.
If I could only find the middle ground,
somewhere between the dragon and the guy that has to walk away. I’m closer
to it than I’ve ever been before. I hope with all of my heart that it’s a
sign that I’m finally letting go of the past. I want so badly to let my
guard down, and allow myself to be myself.
As I look back on the past it alarms me to
realize that the times that I was the most natural and effective were the
times that the worst in me was showing. I served a term as a union officer
in a pipe fitters local, and took to the job like a duck to water. I
remember an incident in a hall way with another officer as we stood nose
to nose screaming at one another, each ready to kick the others ass. I was
completely at home with the situation.
During the same period I was the union
representative on a construction site manned with several hundred
craftsman. The company that we worked for had been in the business for a
long time, and was as hard nosed as any of the building trades unions that
it constantly fought. I adjusted to the environment immediately, and
became a complete asshole.
That is not a part of my life that I’m
proud of. It’s not the kind of person that I want to be. But, like the
demons and dragon, it’s part of me. So, we’re back to the choices thing,
the part where each of us must decides which part of their make up will
It’s easy to be an asshole. All you have
to do is drop the rains, and let the dragon run free. I have enough
animosity inside to shit on everyone that I know a hundred times over. But
then, I would see again the look in my mother’s eyes when I told her that
“I don’t know what love is anymore”. And, I never want to hurt anyone that
way again. She had done nothing all of my life but love me. And, with one
thoughtless remark I broke her heart.
Here’s where the conflict gets tough. When
I walk away the dragon scratches and claws trying to get out. If I don’t
let him out he continues to scratch and claw at me. If I turn him loose
he’ll always over react. So, the middle ground is essential.
I’ve found a piece of that middle ground
by telling the world to kiss my ass. But, I have to be careful. When I say
it I can’t be vindictive or malicious. As I say it I have to let go. When
I do the dragon goes to sleep. It sounds so simple, but is one of the
toughest things I’ve ever tried to master.
These things help:
I try to “CRY A LITTLE AND
LAUGH A LOT”. I deal with the demons and dragon when I must, get it
over with, and find every possible joy that I can after the episode is
I try to ”TAKE ONE THING AT
A TIME AND DO IT RIGHT. I won’t allow myself to be overloaded. I won’t
make myself responsible for things that are beyond my control. And I put
family and myself first.
I try to “NEVER TAKE
THOSE CLOSE TO ME FOR GRANTED”. My family, particularly my wife Pati,
is the glue that holds my life together. Without it life would have no
meaning or purpose.
I try to “TAKE PLEASURE IN
THE LITTLE THINGS”. I make the most of the little accomplishments that
come along each and every day. Life’s struggles will be with me always. I
don’t dwell on their difficulties.
I try to “PUT MY TRUST IN
GOD”. I could never understand how God and war could exist, both in
the same world until I realized that war was man’s doing. God cleans up
the mess. In the face of it all I must have faith. That’s my true test of
courage. I pray that I’m up to it.
If you’ve never seen war, I hope that
reading this has made you understand it a little better. If you have seen
it first hand, I hope that reading this has helped you in the same way
that writing it has helped me. For all of the vets who have done their
time in hell, may you find your own peace.
I LOVE YOU GUYS.
Your buddy, Doug
Continued next week