A Different Kind of Job
Profilers: Teemon Amiri, Braden Currier, John-Taylor Morin
Over there you did a job and I guess if there was anything that was very difficult it was getting past your fear—fear of being hurt; fear of finding yourself in a situation that was way beyond what you imagined it was going to be. People get hurt in combat and in a jungle it is very difficult to know when someone is even two hundred yards away sometimes. I think most people would agree that the most difficult thing to overcome in combat is fear. And the more difficult part is coming home because you come home as a warrior; things change.
We used to have an expression that when you are in a combat zone, pick up the weapon. So there was no time, we didn’t stand over there in Vietnam and have conversations about whether we should be there or shouldn’t be there. We were in fact quite surprised at how extensive the anti-Vietnam movement became when we were there. But we didn’t talk about any of that. All we talked about was doing our job. And we had different things that we needed to take care of and you learn to do those jobs. I mean one, you were trained extensively, we were. We were all pretty confident soldiers and what we saw in combat we had been prepared for – there was not any, you know, real big surprise.
The surprise was to see how easy it was for someone to be hurt or how easy it was for you to hurt somebody else. But it was very black and white, in fact I was supposed to go. I was married and had a child who was already; I left my wife 8 months pregnant when I went to Vietnam. So the first time I saw my son was when he was almost eleven months old and I was to meet her in Hawaii. The R&R was delayed because of the Tet Offensive, which was the North’s major push. It slowed and delayed everything down and we were all involved in that Tet Offensive in one way or another. I left, met my wife after the Tet Offensive and was with her for the first time in almost a year, the first time I had seen my son so by the end of the R&R, which was 5 nights I think 6 nights, I couldn’t wait to leave and get back to Vietnam because I knew how to do that.
The reason it was so difficult is because triple canopy jungles are pretty unique things. You can’t see in the daylight. It is hot, steamy, there are swamps. If there is any water, there are leeches….you just can’t see and it muffles sound. If you were in a bamboo jungle that was even worse because you are on your belly crawling under bamboo and you know getting from here to that wall might take an hour….and you are going by ant hills and ants are falling on you and all over you. It is easy to get distracted and forget what your supposed to do just because you want to get out of there or whatever mess you are in. And sometimes they would be smart enough to know where we were and set up an ambush. Our job was to do exactly the same thing.
On The Job
Our job as a Special Forces….I probably need to explain a little bit. I wasn’t in a conventional unit. We were trained to work in a small team of twelve men – two officers and the rest were noncommissioned officers, sergeants. We all had two specialties. Mine was medicine and weapons. Someone else’s could have been weapons and communication. On every team you had two weapons people, two medical people, two communication, two intelligence, and two engineers and an officer, team leader and XO. Our job was to work not with Americans, ah we were out in the middle of no where on the Cambodian – Vietnamese boarder about 75 clicks away from Saigon in what they refer to as three corp in an area called the fish hook.
Our job was to run continuous operations in an area of operations, called an a/o and our job was to kill anything that moved and to keep it pacified, that area. We didn’t have villages, well there was one village not too far from our A camp but it was just jungle. We went out and Charlie or the Vietcong would try to move supplies down the Saigon River and we were supposed to stop them. Then probably for a four month period, what they called the 173rd NVA Division moved around us. We had four A teams within 25 kilometers of one another and we would constantly communicate and run operations with one another and Montagnards who we trained or Cambodians. We had battalion strength. Our A team had a battalion strength unit and we would just run operations regularly. There were always at least two operations running at any given time. I would go out in the field for 7 to 10 days or two weeks and then we would come back in. Two of us….I might go in one direction and another two Americans would take a company out in another direction. And then we would come back and the others would leave so we kept a roster that kept things going.
With combat there is always that opportunity. The very 1st time I was in combat was my 1st operation because there were only 2 Americans on every operation. When I went out I was green, I had no experience. So I went out with my team Sergeant, a guy named Imos who was from Hawaii, who had been to Vietnam, in fact, I was on the team, I had the least experience of anybody. On my team, everybody had been to Vietnam at least once, and some twice already. I was lucky in that regard because I had professionals to work with who understand combat and those kind of things. And the 1st operation I was on we had come on a bamboo forest and Charlie opened up on us as we came out. I started to stand up and our interpreter came and knocked me down, and I heard stuff hitting trees and I go “somebody is shooting at us I guess.”
Fear and Emotions in the Jungle
It’s hard to know immediately until you’ve been there and been through it several times, and there’s no question at all of course. And that happened all the time; I was lucky, I mean the only thing that ever happened to me was a little bit of [sic]? The most frightened I ever was, was once we went to an area that was very hot, we always made contact when we were in this area. And we got into a rubber tree plantation first, then a triple canopy jungle. So there are 2 Americans, just me and one of the other team members and then we had 2 companies one Montagnard and one Cambodian. And every time we changed direction, Charlie would fire round. And this went on from 8 in the morning to 10 at night when we finally bedded down. And by the time you got down you were scared because you just knew you were going to get hit.
We never got hit, which was interesting, it never happened, but when we got back, we were on our way back from that operation, and we were hearing all kind of chatter on the radio. And my buddy and I were saying to ourselves, “hell this thing may be over. That’s what’s going on, must be over.” Well we came up, we had an airstrip next to our A-cam. They had helicopters on the deal, they moved us right into the choppers and we moved off into a direction about 10 kilometers away from where we were and another A-team had been hit really hard in their unit out in their field so we and what we refer to as a “mic force” came to support these guys in the evening, and that was as scared as I think ever was; that time when we just kept, nothing happened.
Once combat begins, you have a job to do, you’re laying out fields of fire, you’re on the radio, you’re trying to bring in air support, you’re trying to bring in artillery, you just have things to do, you’re not worried, you’re just taking care of people getting hurt, you’re trying to get them off and med them back as soon as you can, and you know you’re just going through the numbers. Anytime you’ve been in a difficult situation, you finish with it and go “man that was something,” but you don’t think about it when you’re doing it. The only time as I say that, well you’re scared at times, but that was the most scary time. That and as I say, we were on an A team and the 160 or 173rd or 165th NVA division came coming in and every time they kept coming close to our A camp, were a tally of strength but were little compared to these guys and they’re lobbying in borderlines, which wasn’t a big deal, but it happened every night for the better part of 2-3 weeks. And when that was done, you figure they’re coming tonight they’re coming tonight, and nothing would happen and then we’d fire. Just that kind of a thing.
Encounter With the Enemy
The worst thing as a combat soldier? I don’t talk about it a lot, but I was reading this book Matterhorn which I mentioned, and it reminded me of a lot of things. And I think what happens in combat as I said, you learn to do a job, and you become somebody; you don’t become different, but you become less sensitive of things, and that’s why its hard when you come home because the wife doesn’t understand that, kids don’t understand that, and most people in America don’t understand that. But when you’re there you become somewhat hardened to things that you see, and I still remember we had come to Saigon, to Benoit, which was where our B team was, and we were coming back to the A team and the Montagnards and Cambodians would try to get on a chopper to get back to the A team. And they were crazy you know, we would get on the chopper because we were Americans, we were Americans to be taken back to the A-team, but it was anyone’s guess who got on, and it as Americans we kind of “get the fuck out of the way.”
I can still remember, they used to carry their babies in slings, and there was this one woman who came in the chopper and as she came in, hit the door, the head of the baby hit the edge of the door. Big gash on babies head, right down the middle. Baby didn’t cry. It was dead. She’s just sitting there because she’s got a seat, and she’s not paying attention to the baby because she wants out of there, as badly as anyone else I guess, and we’re trying to get her off the chopper and I still remember, “GET THE FUCK OUTTA HERE YOU JUST KILLED YOUR BABY; WHATS WRONG WITH YOU!”, that kind of thing. I remember later, I’d been there 13 months and we were on our way, we were in the delta, and we were on our way to a village and we were going to get a beer, and as we were driving, a Vietnamese deuce and a half, that’s the big truck they have, hits a one of the little motor scooter deals, they were everywhere, they carried everything, hit one, and it flipped, and the guy hit this ran right over this thing, didn’t squash it just caught the tip of his head. I was the only medic in the jeep, and the guys say Cyphers, see what’s going on. I get out and look at him, and he’s fucked and I get back in the jeep and that was all there was to it because you learn to deal with it. Everything is triage. Everything is black and white. You don’t think a lot about those things until later.
I don’t want to say I didn’t know [about protests at home]. I mean nobody could have gone through the 1960s without knowing things were going on. As early as 1964, 65, people were beginning to demonstrate. I was one of these kids that started school 3 times, but could never stay in. I went to Mexico for a year. I came back, and I knew I was going to get drafted. I didn’t know what was going on but I knew these idiots that were demonstrating didn’t know anything about what was going on, you know they seemed, they would tell everyone what was wrong what was right, but they didn’t know anything. I read on a couple histories of the Vietnamese, or the French in Vietnam, you know, I tried to understand better what the communist feel was in Vietnam, with Ho Chi Minh. It’s different; you guys didn’t grow up in a cold war. We did. It was China. It was Russia, more than once, they said they were going to destroy us. And its much like Muslims say to us, only there are real armies, real tanks, the State Department developed this theory called the domino theory, which you probably heard about and read about. The idea was, if Vietnam went, so also would Cambodia, also by the way how it worked out that way, Laos, Cambodia, the killing fields, all sorts of things. And Kennedy decided at one point we need to draw a line in the sand so-to-speak, and to side with south Vietnam there was not oil, there was not that sort of thing, it was just us vs. the communists. And remember they had pigs and Cubans and that sort of stuff, I bet if Kennedy was still alive today he’d be a Republican; I doubt seriously he’d be a Democrat.
On Being Drafted
Ultimately, I knew I was going to get drafted. And I said to myself, “you know I’m going go, because yeah its a war, but its the only one we have and maybe I’ll figure out something about myself. I wanted to find out to myself if I was going do what I was supposed to do in combat. And I was American, and I think all of us at that time still had a strong sense of patriotism and our country was at war and you went into the military, in fact I can’t remember when the draft ended. But if you were 18 you had to go give your card and if you weren’t in school, you’d probably get drafted. Anyway I had planned on being an officer in OCS, but when I got in the Special Forces guy came by and he looked really cool and it seemed like a really neat deal at the time, I took a test, passed the test, then I took a language test and then you’d go into training. And I knew about the protest, but they weren’t significant. Once you’re in the military, you, particularly for me, because Special Forces training was very rigorous, it’s constant. Betty and I were married, I saw Betty for 30 days in 18 months, because we were in the field and training the entire the time. For medicine, you spent 10 months in the classroom from morning to 4 o clock in the afternoon and many evenings you’d be walking down the hall and a doc would say, “What’s the differential diagnosis for tuberculosis?”, whatever it happened to be and then you spent 6 months with physicians walking through hospitals with them, a perceptorship program. Then as soon as you’re finished that you’re learning about weapons, and you’d have to take weapons apart, put them back together, learn tactical moves with weapons.
Our job was to train these indigenous people. I never had a chance to look up and say what’s going on. You’d hear stuff on the news and go… it was just crazy out there. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized things had changed a lot. You’d be walking through an airport in uniform and people would be yelling at you. It was pretty funny. Mostly we just didn’t understand it.
I remember coming home with a guy, Steve Holmstead. We’d been through training together, we’d been in Vietnam, we weren’t on the same A-team but we came back together. He was 20. I’m 21. I can drink beer, so immediately we go to a bar and as we come in people are yelling at us “You fascist pigs!” We’re looking at each other and smiling and going, “What’s the fuck wrong with these guys? They must be crazy!” We go to the bar of course and there was, I still remember, there was a woman bar tender, we order beer and she asks for ID’s and Steve’s only 20 but we’d been drinking beers in Vietnam. I start getting upset and Steve says, “Ray, it’s OK. We’re back home.” That kind of thing you had to remind yourself. This lady’s going, “I can’t serve him and I don’t like serving you guys anyway!” (laughs). And this was in an airport on our way back home!
Here’s how removed we were: Johnson was president. Frequently people misunderstand him and believed that Johnson is the guy that got us out of Vietnam. He was the one that built it up and got it to as many people as there were. It was Nixon who got us out of Vietnam. Johnson made an announcement from the Whitehouse that he wasn’t going to run for reelection and we got to see that on TV (laughs) on an A team out in the middle of nowhere and we’re looking at it. Now let me ask you, what do you think our response was? (Interviewer: “Excited.”) No. What we said was “Fuck me, fuck you. We got to stay here and you’re leaving? You’re no longer the Commander in Chief? You just decide, ‘I don’t like it it’s too hard so I’m outta here.’” We can’t leave. That was our response.
We thought about winning the war. And frankly we would have won the war if the press hadn’t decided to fight it. I mean that was really what happened. If you look at the Tet Offensive they threw everything and every general, North Vietnamese general who was any part of that, said that not only had they thrown everything but if America had become more aggressive at that point we would have killed the Communist deal. But we didn’t because Walter Cronkite was putting up numbers of everyone who was killed or wounded. It wasn’t that we didn’t know things were going on it was just that when you’re in a combat zone you pick up a fucking weapon. You’re a soldier. Be a soldier. Do your job. You’re job isn’t to think about whether you’re going home or not. We were just upset that our President, Commander in Chief, had decided that it was too tough for him so he wasn’t going to run for reelection.
On Comparisons to Support for Troops in Iraq
For the most part, apart from Universities, Unions and Democrats, the largest percentage of the American public is very supportive of what these guys [in Afghanistan] do. Even those people that don’t quite understand why we’re there or why we spend as much money or why we’ve done the things that we’ve done it seems to me support the troops. It almost as though this time they said we’re not going to let happen what happened in Vietnam to the soldiers who came home who were ignored and treated as if they were war criminals or something like that.
My son, who is a Marine, went to Chicago to Morton’s and three people offered to buy him his dinner. One did. Drinks. One person put him up in first class, traded seats with him when he was flying home. I think there are a lot of people out there. I have 4 uncles who were in the Second World War from my mom’s side and three of them still survive, and my older brother and I went back after my mom died just to make the connection. One has since died since 4 years ago; one was 89, 86, and 84. Two were prisoners of war and two had been wounded. We talked actos about their experience as well as ours. At one point my Uncle Ray says to me, “We really screwed up. We should have been more vocal about you guys in Vietnam.” He thought what had happened is that we all came home, we were all screwed up, we went to work and our kids were finally able to go and somebody’s saying they should go back to war or something. So I think there is that sentiment from people that are older than I and had experience in Korea as well as WWII. I think from those of us that served in Vietnam, there is a tendency for most people to think that they are homeless. I’m not saying there aren’t people who don’t have PTSD but I think everyone who has ever been in combat has had that. We just didn’t call it PTSD after WWII or Korean War. It just happens because you’re in this vacuum of a thing that is very demanding, difficult, and scary.
The one thing in common with my brother who also served is we were afraid. You’re scared every time you put on your equipment and you’re scared to go back out in the field. I remember the last 10 days I was there ready to go home and I was really ready. I must have cleaned my weapon 4 times a day. It was crazy. It was like you could do in your sleep but that was part of the deal.