Maturity takes time:
For me, it began twelve time zones away, in the triple-canopied jungles of Vietnam. Southeast Asia is a lovely, lush green wonderland, but I wasn’t really attuned to its natural splendor at the time. It was 1968, the peak of the war. There were 540,000 Americans in South Vietnam, and more than a million enemy soldiers, each young man bent on killing those of the other side. For the Americans, it came down to politics. But as the nineteenth-century Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”
I was the radio-telephone operator on a long-range reconnaissance, or Lurp, team and had already participated in some of the biggest campaigns and battles of the war. But after several months with many close calls and twice as many “friendly fire” incidents, I learned that surviving in combat depended not just on skill and discipline but also on sheer dumb luck.
At 19, I became team leader of a five-man patrol. We had already lost our best lieutenant, Joe Dilger. He took a round through the chest while leading one of the most daring long-range operations of the war: an air assault to seize the 5,000-foot peak of Dong Re Lao Mountain in A Shau Valley, dubbed “Signal Hill” by headquarters. Several other men from my platoon were also killed. And then I lost my assistant team leader, hoochmate, and friend, Bob Whitten, along with several more men.
At some point, thoughts of mortality were bound to set in. Somehow, I had to make sense of it. But how? I also lost my company commander, Cpt. Michael Gooding, who always led from the front, and I lost the wisdom of my former team leader and mentor, Sgt. Doug Parkinson—but not to AK bullets or mortar rounds. Both had served their yearlong tour and were safe Stateside. I continued patrolling, feeling very alone. Satellite communications were a thing of the future, and the Internet was beyond even imagining. Soldiers didn’t make telephone calls home, and letters took a month to receive and another month to return.
I felt exposed and vulnerable. Our new lieutenant’s sole mission was to make sure everyone knew he was a college grad, and our new company commander never left the safety of his bunker at Camp Evans, ten miles south.
After we completed a patrol on which we discovered a fortified enemy bunker, my new lieutenant, the college boy, ridiculed me at our debriefing for radioing in that the bunker was covered with “rippled metal.” What kind of dumb-ass didn’t know that the correct term was “corrugated”? At that moment, sitting there surrounded by my teammates, a light went on in my head, and I made my first promise to myself: I will get an education—not so I can be in charge of other people, but so I can make sure that certain other people are never in charge of me.
My second promise to myself came after months of eating nothing but powdered food and then living in the field on one dehydrated Lurp ration a day and one canteen cup of powdered chocolate mixed with muddy stream water, ten packs of artificial “cream,” and three packs of sugar. I needed energy and loved chocolate, but I craved something fresh, so I promised myself, If I make it home, I will never be without ice cream.
Later, a Cobra gunship mistook us for the enemy and fired four 2.75" rockets at us, and another gunship followed, strafing us, all while two tigers stalked us for five nights, eventually coming within three feet of me to lick the remnants of my discarded Lurp ration. While shooting at the beast, I made my last promise: If I ever get out of here, I’ll never live like this again.
Perhaps it was the series of blinding flashes and thunderous explosions from the rocket near misses; the hundreds of red tracers sailing overhead during the strafing; the bone-rattling whumps as two F-4 Phantoms plunged again and again through dark clouds to drop 500-pound bombs near our position; the flashlights of enemy troops snaking toward us at night; the muzzle flashes when I shot at the tiger; the feelings of helplessness, sleep deprivation, and the weight of life-and-death decisions; or the just the cold, dark, wet jungle. I’ll never know, but in those moments, I needed someone to take care of me, and I had to believe in those promises.
I made it home.
I completed college, then went on to get a PhD.
I always have ice cream in my fridge.
I never slept outdoors again, and I haven’t cooked since Wednesday, September 4, 1968, the last day of my last patrol.
If I break these promises, I betray that scared, exhausted 19-year-old kid who got me where I am.
I’m grateful I have an understanding wife.