War news every night reminds of the time so long ago when Huntley and Brinkley and Cronkite and Smith pronounced hard names and tallied the dead. I went to war in 1971, not nineteen yet, a virgin from a tiny town. Like those today, I joined the Army on purpose but I served with some who had been drafted. Thank goodness that scenario is not part of this current war.
It took the Army less than a year to get me into fighting shape. I enlisted in the Signal Corps so I wasn’t going to be daily engaged in Life or Death struggles, but I did go to Viet Nam, was paid hazardous duty pay. I was a child in a war zone. The basic training provided didn’t prepare a me for living among the people of another country and getting shot at by strangers. The adventure aspect of the experience wears off quickly and the reasons for being in the fight for your Life don’t seem so convincing all of a sudden. Why didn’t we remember that getting us involved in someone else’s civil war kills American children pointlessly?
I was lucky. I was a radiotelephone operator in Saigon so my best chance at getting killed would have involved a terrorist attack on the country’s communication network. The chance of this happening was deemed so remote that we went about our duties unarmed. The Army thought that addled Signal Corpsman running amok in Saigon with loaded weapons was a bad idea, I guess. They were probably right. Every month or so, our company was called on to supply troops for guard duty on Tan Son Nhut Air Base and the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters off-post in Saigon. This was the only time we got to carry our M-16s and have ammunition at the same time.
I got the B.O.Q. for my spot. The guard duty shifts consisted of two hours on and four hours off from 6:00pm until 8:00am with a curfew from midnight to 6:00am. I pulled 6-8, 12-2, 6-8 three times during my tour and had a memorable experience every time.
The B.O.Q was an old colonial hotel on a side street. The guard post was a little concrete kiosk out by the street. Our job was to keep an eye on the parking lot full of officers’ jeeps. This was my first actual experience as a potential armed combatant and though no expectation of trouble existed, I had to at least be prepared. On the 6-8 shift, the street bustled with civilians, the majority of them seemingly giving me no notice as I sat there all warrior-like in my steel helmet and flak jacket. In reality, anyone of them could have been a sapper. That is the hardest part of fighting an enemy who doesn’t wear a uniform. Right off, I noticed a moving van sort of truck parked a little way down the street up against the building. The permanent duty sergeant allowed it was probably nothing but told me to report back if it was still there in another hour. It was. A minor alarm was raised. Nervous majors and colonels peeped out their windows as bomb people came and cordoned off the area. Everyone else was moved away, but I was left to crouch down in my little kiosk. Could it withstand a blast? I guess we’d see what we would see. It was nothing, no bombs, but it was the most excitement the B.O.Q. had seen in a while. I got an “atta boy” and Life went on. The truck was gone when I came back at midnight.
The next time I had this duty, I was approached by a young boy and girl who asked if I wanted to buy some heroin (a.k.a. skag). At that time, I was in the market. A lot of the guys in my company smoked skag. Some got badly hooked. I was able to quit before my habit got out of control but, just then, I was under the influence and gave the kids one thousand piasters. This only amounted to about ten dollars. I had only started doing drugs after I got into the Army and was not all that street-wise so I didn’t know that trusting people to come back once they had my money was incredibly naive. I’m not sure if I would have done up a cigarette right there but one of the things about smoking skag is that you could do it right in front of somebody and they wouldn’t know unless you threw up on them. It didn’t matter since the kids never came back. The casual use of high powered, heavy duty heroin while I was in Saigon is one of the clearest memories I have.
After midnight, no one without official government business was allowed on the streets, so the three tiny children walking down the street were in violation of the curfew. The oldest was possibly seven and pretty good at English. They didn’t have anywhere to go and needed food. The sergeant was okay with me feeding the kids my c-rations and letting them sleep in a jeep parked next to my kiosk. We agreed they were probably G.I. babies as they had certain obvious non-oriental features. We talked about the shame of bringing these children into the world under such circumstances. It is my shame that I don’t know for sure if I am a father of a war baby. I was a virgin when I got to Viet Nam. I was a child.
Except for the truck incident, I never had contact with the residents of the B.O.Q. other than the sergeant. So on this night when I was breaking all the rules, a very young officer came out to look around. We chatted about the gunfire we heard down the street and I calmed him down as the sergeant had calmed me before. It was just some Cowboys, a loosely knit semi-official home guard that patroled downtown after curfew. He was about to leave when one of the kids rustled around in the jeep. The young officer could not believe I had allowed civilians to get into U.S. government property without proper clearance. In spite of the curfew, he insisted that the children be turned out into the street at once. I complied and the young officer strutted off. Once he was good and gone, I got the kids back and put them up in my kiosk. My replacement didn’t have a problem with the kids being there. They barely took up any room at all. They were gone when I came back at 6:00.
I was just a kid not long from high school and dealing with issues that weren’t covered in training. The Army doesn’t tell its people that, when in another country’s war, the gooks had quiet lives before the trouble started. We didn’t start the war in Viet Nam the way we did in Iraq, so the guilt was a little less. We started this trouble in the Middle East and put more kids in harm’s way. Back in my time, posters were big. One said, “War is not good for children and other living things.” I wish children didn’t have to know so much about war.