CHAP3 Entering the Darkness

    During the Christmas Holiday of 1966 we were camped out north of Di An. I now believe that we were being used as a security force to protect Saigon and the surrounding military bases while other units in the First Infantry Division were gearing up for a large push into the Iron Triangle. Our three hundred pound plus head cook for the battalion whom everyone called “Tiny” prepared one of the best Christmas meals I had ever had and I had some great cooks in my family. He brought it to our location and personally oversaw the serving of each man, himself. He went way beyond what anyone expected for our Christmas meal, I am sure. We were out in the boonies and were expecting to get little more than dehydrated soup and C-rations. “Tiny”, in his own way, became a warm spot during this time. I will never forget him.
    After the New Year, my “on the job” training began in earnest as the entire battalion began making sweeps, on foot, while accompanied by a rather large contingent of South Vietnamese Government troops (ARVINS). These sweeps took us through small villages, muddy rice patties, thick bamboo walls of jungle and across large streams of muddy water. Charlie Bell and I played “follow the leader”. Time wise, this consumed the month of December and also the first part of January and it really did not seem all that bad. Actually, I was beginning to think that being in a combat unit was going to be a lot better than I had imagined. Everywhere we went seemed relatively peaceful. There were civilians all around us and at times they would intermingle amongst our marching lines as we moved through the villages and roadways. Some would sell us bottled cokes at fifty cents a bottle and I am sure they also sold “pot” to those who wanted it, although I had no idea what marijuana was at this time. Not only did I not know what marijuana was but I had never smoked a cigarette or drank a single bottle of beer in my entire life. It wasn’t that I had moral issues with these habits. I just thought that they were extremely destructive to the only human body which I would ever have. I strongly felt that I needed my body to function and look good to get me the things which I desired in life. I had seen too many beer guzzlers not much older than myself sporting beer bellies. How disgusting! At least I had a six pack instead of a beer gut although that really didn’t make me feel much better about myself because the devil’s narcissistic spirits had been at work in my naive soul slicing away like a double edged sword for a long time. On the one hand they had spent years painting a fanciful picture of how wonderful it would be to be accepted by the beautiful people of the world as seen through the lusts of my eyes, and on the other hand continually pointing out how physically lacking I was. This evil principality continues to project that very same pervasive mirage today which still entices the lustful eyes of the world's youth. Its victims can see but never touch. I was too skinny. I had pimples. My teeth were embarrassingly crooked and I had a nose which I thought was shaped wrong. These flaws had been demoniacally hammered home to me since puberty.  
    However, living with this mental malady of narcissism paled in comparison to the mind bending situation which had now been thrust upon me by the President of the United States, himself. I could most likely have lived a long time as a narcissist, maybe even long enough for the Holy Spirit to deliver me from its tentacles, but this new problem was a death sentence. Lyndon Johnson was one of the greatest Washington deal makers to ever come down the pike but it would take more than the ability to put deals together to successfully deal with this present situation and if it wasn't done right, many young Americans like me would be required to put their lives and future destinies on the line. Here is what I mean when I say, "done right". Its the ability of a leader to acquire the godly understanding of "why, how and when" to send a nation's young people to war. I firmly believe that Lyndon wanted to do the right thing in this situation he was handed. I also believe he failed to add the one advisor to his team who could have guided him through the maze and that was the third person of the God Head known to us humans as the Holy Spirit of God.

    Here is a flash. Poles don't work for deciding when to go to war. Sure, in the beginning years of the war, most of the older generation, whom I knew, thought they understood at least the "why" behind this fight and a lot of smart people in the country also thought they understood the "why" of it too. However, my generation, the ones who were going to be forced to face the horrors of a wrong decision were largely baffled. To make matters worse, if we dared to bring up this question, to parents, clergy, community leaders, national leaders and now, finally, these officers and Sergeants with life and death powers over us, we were universally stonewalled. Yes, no doubt, this was the "elephant in the room" not only for the president, but also for every one of us draftees who were on the march that day whether we consciously realized it or not. Its still the elephant in that room today. Quite frankly other presidents since Johnson still have not possessed the understanding to deal with the question of "why, how and when" to fight. Chaos reigns when these questions are not addressed with the wisdom which can only come through the Holy Spirit. Anyone reading this who is also governing a nation needs to let what I am saying here sink in. Without that guidance of God's Holy Spirit, a leader is left with nothing better than the choices which seem right in their own eyes and that always leads to chaos eventually. Now that chaos during America's Vietnam experience was permeating down to the tip of the spear which was where me and my draftee buddies had landed in the confusion. With every step we took through those muddy rice fields north of DI An we were coming a little closer to a spot which would require each one of us to face that sacrificial alter, an alter which could and was requiring the sacrifice of young lives regularly. With this said, let's go back to the story.  

    On January 8th, 1967, Operation Cedar Falls was launched but my unit was held back more or less as a blocking force positioned between Saigon and the Iron Triangle where the main part of the operation would take place. I had no idea that the Army had launched such a large operation until years later. At the time, I didn’t know the name of this operation. We also had gotten a new battalion commander but I didn't know his name either. He didn’t bother to introduce himself to the men he was getting ready to send into harm’s way. Of course, this is just a minor example of the break down in command communications with the troops. I could continue going through this list until the “cows come home”. However, let it be enough for me to say that right out of the gate the vital “will to fight” had already been blunted by the inability of our leader in the oval office to properly address the elephant in the room; the "why, how and when" of sending the nation to war, which I have already mentioned. However, it wouldn't be a balanced conversation if I only commented on the elephant and not the red flag which was inciting that elephant. The red flag was communism. Now, a communist has much in common with a spouse abuser. He can be very charming when you first meet him and even more charming, caring and giving while you are dating but he will always turn into a total nightmare once a nation weds itself to him. Demon demented minds like Ho Chi Minh worked tirelessly then and they are working tirelessly now to gain total control by repeating over and over a pack of lies until they are accepted as truth. One can always tell when a communist is lying. Their mouth is open. Here is another dirty little secret about the communist ideology. Once established, a communist government always gives total power to less than 70 people (That number is probably more like 10). These 10 people can do anything they want to the rest of the citizens of that affected nation and those 10 people can control a nation as small as Cuba or as large as China. As a matter of fact this is happening at this very moment in China today. It’s a very beautiful thing for the 10 people who rule, but its total enslavement for everyone else. Now stop and think a minute about this evil, which I have just described in a "nut shell", because my statements are backed up by historically proven facts. I might add that these are also facts which would get writers saying what I am saying summarily executed if this was a communist controlled country. Its a shame that more of my fellow Americans do not share my feelings about this dangerous ideology. Why would anyone who knows the historically documented atrocities associated with all communist controlled countries ever want to give total control of their lives to so few people whom one can never hope to remove from power, ever? I believe one reason for this growing national mood of acceptance of this evil ideology is political ignorance but I also believe that willful ignorance is being encouraged by an "age ole" and very insidious lie spun from the very "pits of hell". This lie says, "All humans are intrinsically good if given the same opportunities as everyone else. The truth is just the opposite. All humans are born with an intrinsically evil nature in need of a savior. Jeremiah 17:9 says, "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" Communism is effectively a cancer on society. It was true in Vietnam and just as true today. Therefore, the threat of a communist take over of any nation is definitely a red flag which can enrage the elephant in the governing office of any free nation, and it should. That's why the elephant in the room, the "why, how and when" of war needs to be approached through an understanding which can only come from the Holy Spirit.   

    Personally, in my case, at this point in time, if I had been better informed politically, it would have made no difference. The spirit of fear which controlled me, demoniacs, my warped sense of reality and my low self-esteem pretty much assured that I was a walking dead man. The mortal dangers which I was about to encounter would soon validate this gloomy statement but they would also validate something else which carries much more weight. Those inescapable dangers would also become the agent which eventually led to a breakthrough in my hardened heart and would help give me the will power to allow the Holy Spirit to nurse my sick soul back to health. At the same time they would be the proof needed to dispel all my doubts about the Holy Spirit of God being the most awesome and powerful being which any human can and will encounter during their lifetime. He is that third person of the God Head who points the way to victory in our lives no matter how perverse and twisted the circumstances. 

    At this juncture, however, I was just making myself follow the lead of those around me and trying not to standout in the crowd. I never ask questions and I certainly never prayed. As long as I was able to mark time, why should I rock the boat by asking questions? Furthermore, why should I care how things were run since I was powerless to change anything? No doubt this apathetic feeling was reinforced by the Army’s way of doing things. Not one single officer had said a word to me since I had arrived in country. However, that was okay too. It may sound strange to the reader now, but at the time, this withdrawn attitude was okay by me because I initially believed that our officers were much savvier than they actually were and definitely intellectually superior to me. Simply put, I trusted them. Besides, they were not treating me any differently than they did the other grunts in the unit. “Most of them had college educations and more military experience than me, or so I thought. I was a college drop-out “for goodness sake”. “So, being ignored by them was okay”, said the voice inside my head. That voice also told me that every one of the sergeants in my platoon, if not in the entire First Infantry Division, were "Neanderthals" or they would have become officers instead of sergeants. The thought of being told what to do in a combat zone by these "Neanderthals" was troubling but what could I do about it? If I bucked them, they could get me in a lot of trouble so I had to keep playing the passive aggressive game with these characters just like I had done with my father for so many years. Of course none of these assessments were true but this was what I had come to believe through some very real and very deadly coaching from my demon mentors. To further aggravate things my escape plan from my prison of low self-esteem was all wrapped up in putting this bad dream behind me and obtaining a college degree. I mistakenly saw that as a coveted end in itself, instead of a means to an end.

    Yes, in the beginning of my combat tour, I had turned every officer I saw into a “false god” and that is a very important mindset for me to take time to talk about here. A “false god” mindset is a different mindset than one which promotes the proper respect for leadership. One of King David’s top leaders, Joab, had a “false god” mindset. He tried to make David his “god”. When the man David could not live up to that lofty ideal that Joab had pictured, it sparked deep resentment in Joab which greatly hindered his God ordained service to his nation through proper respect for the King of Israel. The “false god” mindset is motivated by fear instead of the motivation that comes through loving trust in our Father God. It winds up promoting resentment, envy and a spirit of retaliation. In the end it cost Joab everything. Satan will always try to condition anyone he can to follow a “false god image” in their mind. Sometimes that “false god” becomes they, themselves. However, no matter who becomes the "false god" in our mind, this malady can cause us to initially honor our "false god" with hero worship until we get to know them better. Then, we may continue to fain respect to their face and do all kinds of crazy things behind their back. Conflict always follows an attitude like this which causes a person to lose more and more of their self-respect, just like Joab. Many times in life this happens one step at a time until an individual’s ability to turn to God for help is completely lost. For now, during this very real life and death situation, our new battalion commander, Earl Denton was a "false god” to me as were all officers but I had no idea that I was making him a “false god” because I had turned my back on my Father God. Our heavenly Father, is the only real God and the only one capable of giving us the everlasting perfection in a relationship that every soul seeks. That relationship then becomes the gold standard and prerequisite for forming all other proper relationships in life.

    Now that the reader has tolerated me preaching a little bit, let me continue. Quite frankly, it seemed like Charlie Bell and I lived in our own little world during this time. We were never ask to carry ammo for the machine gunner attached to our squad, who required two ammo bearers besides himself to operate as a normal machine gun crew. There was a man assigned to carry a grenade launcher and a radio operator (RTO). There was also a designated man to walk point but Charlie Bell and I were not asked to do anything extra at all. Thinking back fifty years later, this period in my tour of duty seemed more like friends going on a sight-seeing excursion with a bunch of strangers following along with us. I remember experimenting with making him and me a cup of hot chocolate from C-rations when we camped for the night. I would add packages of powdered creamer to the powdered coco which seemed to give it a richer flavor and then heat it up in my tin canteen over a little ball of C-4 explosive. You see, C-4 explosive was like a lump of white play dough. It could be rolled into the size of a golf ball and lite with a match and it would never explode. It would just burn very evenly and could boil a canteen cup full of water in just a matter of a couple minutes.
    For me, the cold was the worst part of this period. I was shivering all night, lying on the ground, under my cold plastic poncho, while Charlie Bell slept like a baby under his nice warm poncho liner. It was the dry season, so we never got wet but the nights were still very uncomfortable for me. Daytime temperatures reached at least the high nineties. At night they would drop into the mid-seventies or lower. That made the nights feel really cold. The coveted camouflaged nylon poncho liners were sufficient covering to keep a person warm at night. However, supplies were running low on these by the time I arrived. So, new people got no poncho liners. The extremely hot temperatures during the day thinned the blood aggravating the effect of the temperature dropping when the sun went down. I would shiver almost all night long. However, it was really nothing to complain about compared to what other Americans had been forced to endure in other wars. I even hesitate to mention it except it does give the reader some sense of how smooth things were going if this was the worst thing that I can remember having to deal with at this time. Here is one final note on this subject and then I will move on. I remember finally solving the problem of being cold every night, myself, by covering up with newspapers. “For the life of me”, I cannot remember where these newspapers came from but they worked.

    Earl did not require us to dig fox holes while he was commander which helped even more, to promote the illusion, of just being on a big camping trip. Also, I don’t remember taking a turn on any squad sized ambush patrols but once during this time period. That’s not to say that this in any way resembled a stateside training exercise. We were reminded several times that we were in a war zone. One time the Viet Cong booby trapped around our entire night defensive position which badly wounded some people in front as they began moving out the next day. There was another incident where a sniper killed one of our guys in the lead platoon. It was a sobering experience, as my squad crouched to the side of a small trail and I watched to see my first dead American body be carried past us and loaded onto a waiting helicopter.

    Another time in December, while on a break at Di An my B Company was trucked to a pier on the Saigon River and loaded onto Navy PT boats which took us down river into the Rang Sat Swamp which was over four hundred square miles of mangrove trees and marshes located between Saigon and the South China Sea. We set up a night time river ambush on enemy boat traffic coming down the river. In the middle of the night we made contact with the enemy but the contact was on the far side away from the section of river that my squad was covering. Although I could hear and see outgoing and incoming tracer rounds flying all around us as they passed through the thick mangrove trees, no target presented itself for my squad to engage. This action only lasted about ten minutes and then all was eerily quiet for the rest of the night. Again, this close encounter with the enemy without experiencing any casualties to the men in my platoon gave me a feeling that everything was going to be okay for me in the coming year.

    Nothing could have been further from the truth, and that feeling did start to change somewhat the next morning as we assembled and were waiting to board the Navy boats to take us home. Some of the members of my unit who had initiated the engagement the night before started talking. They said that they had shot up several enemy sampans coming down the river and had been successful in sinking them. As I was listening to these guys talk about the details of this fresh kill, a very strange and a very disturbing feeling came over me, which I had never felt before in my entire life. Although I did not realize it until years later, this feeling was coming from that part of my soul which was still sensitive to the influence of the Holy Spirit. It was a strange feeling that I really didn’t think I could experience and it was actually the Holy Spirit’s grief that I was feeling over the physical deaths of those poor enemy souls who went to hell. Strange as this may sound, that I should be sensing grief over the death of enemy soldiers, let me further add to the strangeness of this statement by saying this. These emotions of grief were not being stimulated by my own carnal thoughts. I say again, that they were emotions brought on by the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit’s grief which I was sensing. I had also grieved over the death of the American soldier, who days earlier was killed by a sniper, but that grief, though sorrowfully felt, was not disturbingly unusual. It was a natural grief which would have originated from my soul regardless of whether I had received the anointing of the Holy Spirit or not. The other feeling, however, was coming from God’s viewpoint. You see, God takes no pleasure in sending any human soul to hell and The Holy Spirit of God grieves over every single soul that goes to hell no matter who they are or how evil they have been in life. Here is one last comment on this eruption of my feelings which I still so vividly remember some fifty years later. At the same time that I was feeling grief for these poor souls in that part of my mind which could still reflect the thoughts of the Holy Spirit, the "blood thirsty" demonic personality in me was feeling a little disappointed that I had not seen a target to shoot at myself on that night.

    Interestingly enough, God grieves over the death of a non-believer but no where in the bible does it say God grieves over the death of a believer. To the contrary, Psalms 116:15 says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints”. I believe Spurgeon does a good job explaining God’s viewpoint about this matter in more detail in one of his many sermons. Here is what he said. “We count that we are the poorer because of the eternal enriching of those beloved ones who have gone over to the majority, and entered into their rest. Be it known that while we are sorrowing, Christ is rejoicing. His prayer is, "Father, I will that they also whom thou hast given me be with me where I am," and in the advent of every one of his own people to the skies he sees an answer to that prayer, and is, therefore, glad. He beholds in every perfected one another portion of the reward for the travail of his soul, and he is satisfied in it”. I was a Holy Spirit anointed believer who was sensing the Holy Spirit’s grief for hell bound souls but I had experienced my own carnal grief for the dead American and our carnal feelings can and do override the Holy Spirit. At this point, my entire life was all about letting my own carnality rule over anything the Holy Spirit may have wanted to express. Only the extremes of war would allow me to allow the Holy Spirit to shine through. Since my carnal feelings had drowned out all Godly emotions for my dead comrade there is no way to say whether the Holy Spirit was grieving or rejoicing over his death. Now, let me make a final statement about this subject before I move on. Feelings which are stimulated by the Holy Spirit are pure but the carnal feelings of grief I had for the American soldier were not pure because they were intertwined with strong feelings of retribution.
    Here is another closely related and very profound truth for the taking. God’s Holy Spirit places His calling on every human being who has ever lived. He beckons everyone on the face of the earth to come to a belief in Christ, as Lord of all, and although that choice to believe may only happen at a very deep subconscious level, nevertheless, if heeded from deep within that subterranean cavern of the mind which is buried at the center of a stone hardened heart, then that will be enough to assure eternal life in Christ. Even a self-avowed Atheist receives this call from God, so there is no excuse for ignoring it and the reader can be assured that at some point in their life each one of these poor souls who had been killed by my platoon members had received that calling. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life”. The Bible goes on to say in 2 Peter 3:9 that God is not slack concerning this promise as some would consider slackness, but is very patient toward us because it is not His will that anyone should perish but that all should repent (of their unbelief) and believe in Christ.

    Fast forwarding now to those first few days in January, my unit continually went out on short battalion sweeps afoot covering an area just north of Di An. I don’t remember firing a single shot which did nothing other than settle my nineteen year old mind into a false sense of security. I see now why the Army drafted teenagers. They really do live in the moment. On the 8th of January my Unit was taking a day off just before moving out on foot the next day to the north again. The largest operation of the war to date, Operation Cedar Falls, was beginning but I didn’t know that then. On this off day, however, some of the guys in my squad went to the enlisted man’s club on base. Some went to the PX, some just spent time writing letters and playing cards around our company’s sleeping area, which consisted of just several rows of rectangular shaped World War II era Army tents. Oh, and yes, I am sure some found a place to get drugs or a prostitute, or both.

    I cannot remember exactly how I ran across the motor pool Sergeant on this day but it was to become a very important encounter in terms of my future well-being. Anyway, I wound up driving the motor pool Sergeant and about five or six other guys around the outside perimeter of the entire compound. After about the third time circling around Di An, it got pretty boring for even a wall flower like me. So, as I slowed down at the main gate to either turn in and go home or go around a fourth time, someone yelled, “Hey, let’s go to town”. Now, everybody was drinking beer except me and definitely feeling the buzz which did nothing but make this idea sound even better. I liked the idea too. The very likable and well inebriated motor pool Sergeant, who was not much older than me, and who had grown up as an Army brat quickly put his blessing on the idea and away we went. I had grown up in a high school full of Army brats and instantly felt comfortable being around this guy. Most Army brats that I had known seemed to be more mature for their age than the rest of us at Kecoughtan High School and this young motor pool Sergeant seemed to have that same air about him. I found out later that he was the son of an Army Colonel. Anyway, what I am trying to say is that I was feeling more comfortable with this little outing than I had felt since I had stepped off the airplane that brought me here.

    During the day Army Vehicles of all sorts were coming and going on the road to town as well as hundreds of civilian vehicles of all types so in our minds there was no security risk whatsoever as long as we were back by dark. Furthermore, the town was only a couple miles down this main road that we were about to turn onto. Just as I was shifting into high gear, one of the guys sitting in the back yelled at me. “Hey, those girls back there are hollowing at us”. When I looked in the side mirror I could see three Vietnamese teenagers who were waiting at the bus stop which I just drove past and they were waving their arms for us to come back. They were also saying something too, but I couldn’t understand them. Nevertheless, I stopped the truck and started backing up, angling into this off road bus stop area which was used by compound workers waiting to catch a bus to and from our military compound. I could now understand one of them saying, in plain enough English, so we all could hear it. “Hey G.I. don’t go down that road. Bookoo V.C.”. In English, The Vietnamese slang word “Bookoo” means a large number and V.C. was slang for Viet Cong. She was telling us that there were a large number of enemy soldiers down the road somewhere. With a very anxious expression on her face, she repeated herself several times. I then looked at the motor pool sergeant sitting to my right and he looked back at me. Nothing further needed to be said. Not a single guy on that truck now wanted to continue on with our little road trip so we rode around the compound one more time before heading back to our tents to get ready to go get in the chow line for evening mess. My entire unit moved out the next day, walking north. My new found buddy, the motor pool Sgt. Went back to his duties managing the unit motor pool, but not before he had offered me a job driving a truck in his motor pool when an opening came up. Of course I said yes but that opening would be a long time coming.

    The next day, dark of the moon, January 9th, 1967, was the deadliest day of the entire Vietnam War for the 1/18th Infantry Battalion but no one bothered to tell us grunts much of anything about it on an official level as we marched north on this new operation. Seven people were killed in our headquarters mechanized recon patrol on that day as they rode past a school house and at least as many others were seriously wounded from a combination of fragmentation wounds and rifle fire. Statistically speaking, on average, six American soldiers would be wounded in Vietnam for every one soldier who died in any typical engagement which simply means the rumors were right when they said that the recon patrol was wiped out. It would be over fifty years later, before I would be able to confirm this event from the blood trail, the KIA (killed in action) reports. These reports also helped validate something else. They validated the truthfulness of the warning we received by those bus stop girls because the rumor mill said our recon patrol was wiped out the next morning after our aborted late afternoon joy ride the day before. This joy ride would no doubt have taken us down that very same road where the recon patrol was ambushed the following morning. Although they were not ambushed until the next morning, there would most certainly have been an elevated concentration of enemy soldiers in that area in late afternoon on the day before, at the very same time that we would have been riding past the school house. How can I be so sure of this? You see, logistically speaking, it would have required more time than usual to plan, organize and then stage this assault because it was in a very populated area. The greater question is, “Why would intelligence people not see the value in having adequate eyes and hears on the ground in a town like this, which was located only a couple miles away from one of the largest military bases in South Vietnam?” Adequate intelligence would surely have picked up on this before the plan could be executed. Civilians would always find out ahead of time on something like this which simply means that adequate intelligence assets could have found out too. The bus stop girls are proof of what I am saying here. The bottom line take away on this event is that it was a well-planned attack on several levels and those levels of planning needed to be closely studied in order to understand our failures while developing counter measures to prevent further such tragedies. You see, this type of failure is usually a major warning sign which indicates that a much larger systemic problem exists. It should have been viewed as a “tip of the iceberg” wakeup call but I am sure it wasn’t. Of course the personal lesson here for me also raises the following question. How many times in our lives does the Holy Spirit put people in our path to warn us of danger? 

    As this disconcerting news came to us, we were combing through seemingly peaceful settlements amid vast rice fields of peaceful workers and water buffaloes south of the “Iron Triangle” where the main operation was taking place. I do not remember a single shot being fired in my direction after walking for miles and for several days but the recently studied KIA reports tell a different story. They say that my battalion of about 300 men were suffering casualties from hit and run attacks almost every other day or so. 

    I remember my battalion approaching a small river flowing through a vast area of rice fields. Through the vegetation that lined the banks of this river we could see what appeared to be the outlaying huts of a small village. My unit settled into a night defensive position with my three man position being only about 10 meters or so from the edge of the river bank. As the sun set it became very dark. I mean to say that it was really dark. I don’t remember being able to see anyone in the other positions to my right or to my left. I could wave my hand in front of my face without seeing it move unless I waved it between my face and the river where a few lights from the village on the other side of the river made it stand out.

    Charlie Bell and the other guy with me went to sleep and I was just sitting on the ground starring aimlessly down the twenty five foot embankment and across seventy feet or so of flowing waist deep water as the water’s surface reflected a few flickering lights from the village. Dense foliage covered most of both banks of the river so I only had a small sliver of cleared area to peer through and catch a very restricted view of a few huts near the opposite river bank. This was probably a river crossing area for workers in the village to cross so they could reach the vast rice fields behind us, the very same rice fields which we had crossed earlier to get to our current position for the night. On arrival, we had not been given orders to dig “prone positions” as we had in other areas along the way. A “prone position” was just a hollowed out shallow grave looking affair long enough and wide enough for a person to lay in. I suppose it made it harder for the enemy to hit his mark but not that much harder. However on this night we had not been told to dig prone positions so we didn’t. A good soldier learns early on to do only what he is told to do and not much else. As I have said before, at this point I was letting Uncle Sam do most of the thinking for me and I simply concentrated on counting the days until I could finish my tour. Little did I know that there would come a time when all hope of returning home alive would die, and I would stop counting.

    Now, as I sit there peering toward the river, I slowly raised my gaze from the tree line toward the beautiful night sky. As I did this, something very unexpected happened. The magnificent view of the heavens above seemed to reach in and draw out something deep inside my soul which then began to smother out the nonsensical contentious thoughts that I was harboring toward my leaders and at the same time I felt the other confused emotions which I felt for the non-communicative group of men in my squad start to melt away too. The deep dread of what the next year held in store for me also vanished and just for a moment in time the peace of God rolled over my troubled mind like a tsunami. As I was caught in its wake, I found myself looking up to behold one of the most dazzling star studded night skies that I had ever seen. The pleasant and calming sensation this sight brought to my battered mind was just a temporary rest in the eye of the storm but nevertheless the sight of that starry sky against the blackness of space had a profound effect. This was the same night sky that I had seen from the backyard of my Grandfather’s Rockbridge County farm and it was the same night sky which I had beheld from the middle of that Virginia Tech drill field. Now, it aroused that same haunting dream which had been floating around in the back of my head since arriving at this gateway to hell. It was the dream of someday returning to that farm and also returning to that drill field and again looking up at this same field of stars from amongst the hills of the Shenandoah Valley and from amongst those massive stone buildings on one of the most beautiful campuses in America.

    Unknown to me in this peaceful moment, however, there was another dreamer afoot, who was dreaming another dream and had been for quite a while. He was and is the "ole" dreamer who dreams only of stealing, killing and destroying. Now, in the next few minutes it would be Satan’s dreams and not mine which would be fulfilled. Death and hell were on their way and there was no human on earth to stop them. In less than an hour I would literally have my young life blown apart. Charlie Bell would be dead and the other man with us would be dead too. My tour of duty as well as my life were now coming to a very short and tragic end. Many times this is the way that death came in Vietnam. It came so unexpectedly and so very quickly. Now it was my turn to join the forever young and without the opportunity to savor the fulfillment of at least one of my dreams. I could now say good bye to everything. There would be no more dreams period. The devils who oppressed the dark side of my soul would soon have to find a new home. I was well on my way to my long sleep to await the resurrection and judgment seat of Christ. Even so, my soul was secure because I had been born a new creature to forever be a son of God by the resurrected power of Jesus Christ. My legacy in Christ on this side of the grave would be stolen away by sin and the devil, but my eternal legacy in Christ would remain secure. For now, however, I was about to lose this earthly battle, while in this earthly body, except for the advent of three things. Those three things are grace, mercy and a “small still voice”. They followed me then, and they follow me now, as well as all the days of my life.

    “Stop looking at the stars and move your bed”, the “small still voice” said, as my soul was suddenly aroused out of the comfortable dream land state it had settled into for the night. “Move your bedding behind that clump of bushes at the edge of the river bank”, it went on to say. “Okay”, I thought to myself, as I immediately obeyed and then groped in the dark to find Charlie Bell. Of course, it would be years before I realized that this voice was not just me, talking to myself. It was and is the Holy Spirit. Charlie Bell was laying on his back when I reached down and put my hand on his shoulder. He had been around long enough to be used to being awakened in this manner by me and other squad members when it was his turn to pull guard so he came to life immediately, but he made very little movement as he waited to hear what I was going to say. “I feel a little uneasy for some reason, Charlie. Let’s move our position over toward those bushes”, I whispered. He turned on his red lens flash light and shined it on me. Then he pointed its red glow in the direction that I was also pointing at. The clump of bushes was brilliantly outlined by the night sky scape. Charlie then shook his head in agreement. Without saying a word, the other half-awakened guy followed suite and the three of us moved about ten yards with all our gear and sat on the ground where we were now completely invisible from anyone’s view from across the river.

    After settling in for the rest of the night, I took my turn getting some sleep. That’s when it happened. Since I was asleep, I really did not hear the enemy mortars being fired from across the river. They made a distinctive thumping sound as they were fired from their tubes in the village and though I was awakened by the blast, when the shells hit their mark, I or the other men around me really did not know what was going on until the next morning. It is important to note that a combat soldier was assigned a position to hold down pretty much at all costs and he was not free to leave that position unless given orders to do so. We weren’t free to investigate every explosion that took place in the middle of night. We simply had to stay put and defend the position that we were assigned. Interestingly enough, had we been given orders to dig in when we first arrived on that river bank, we would not have moved even the ten yards or so behind better concealment. 

    Just after dawn broke the next morning, my squad leader and platoon leader came over to our position and stood beside me and Charlie Bell. We all just stood there for a few seconds and stared down at what looked like two little blackened depressions in the ground. They were the imprints of mortar shells where they had struck the hard ground and they were in the exact spot where we would have been sleeping before the Holy Spirit had told me to move. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind who saw those blackened impressions that all three of us would have been blown apart had we not moved our beds as the Holy Spirit had instructed me to do.  

    We were working with a large ARVIN (South Vietnamese Army) force which went into the villages, themselves, and did the actual interrogations of the villagers. My unit’s only job was simply to tag along, set up a perimeter around the targeted villages and seal them off. Compared to what the 1/18th would be doing in the coming months this was mere “child’s play” which meant we should never have sustained the number of casualties that were sustained during this operation in January. I have just recently reviewed the shocking number of people killed on the KIA report for the month of January. It was almost as many as for the entire rest of the year put together.

    After examining what happened and telling my sergeant how we moved our location, neither he nor the platoon leader, nor any of the rest of us, for that matter, ever mentioned it again. We grunts were then left to draw our own conclusions and that always spells trouble in any organization. As I look back now, I realize that “Sweeping things under the rug” and moving on to commit the same mistakes again and again was pretty much the modus operandi of the entire United States Army in Vietnam. In the vernacular, I believe it is called “running things by the seat of your pants”. Years later, that is no earth shaking news. Now, here is the bottom line to the point I am making. Not one experienced person, sergeant or officer, in the entire company had mentioned to the rest of us that mingling with the civilians could have disastrous effects. For all we knew, those mortar shells were most likely directed onto us at random. I never dreamed that our position could have been marked by an enemy agent who may have entered our lines earlier pretending to be just someone trying to sell us a bottle of coke. Yet, this was a well-known intelligence tactic which was used by Viet Cong operating in this populated area of Bien Hoa Province during daylight hours. They didn’t come at us in the daytime in this area with AK 47’s. They came at us with cold cokes, pot and prostitutes. Now, the leadership of the United States Army had been operating in this area long enough to have figured this out. Why did leadership not make sure this fact was drilled home to us turnips as soon as we were booted off the Trans World Airline turnip wagon that flew us here? Were they really that stupid? I don’t think so. I think “disengaged” is a better word for it. Young men like me were not raised in the ways of war. Quite frankly, when we stepped off the plane, we were as dumb as a box of rocks when it came to being able to think accurately about tactical aspects of any war, much less this war. If only there could have been at least one “crusty ole” veteran within our ranks who could have been assigned to float around the unit, critiquing and mentoring the new troops on basic combat awareness. But there wasn’t, and if there had been, would this have won the war? No! But at least it could have saved American lives. At least, on one level, it would have been a step in the right direction. The average “line soldier” like me was treated like a mushroom and kept in the dark, and he got that message loud and clear. In a few months, I would pass that silent message on to other green troops as I became that “crusty ole” veteran, who, instead of mentoring, would do just the opposite. I would not show or tell a new guy a single thing that may have saved his life. Someone once said the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree and in the military that is doubly true. A bad culture breeds bad children. Having said this, I also want to say that the Army was not the greatest problem in my life. I still held that title, myself.

    The morning was now passing quickly but we were still holding our positions on the river bank where we were mortared. Everyone was getting a little restless because on previous days by this time we would have been well on the march again. But not today and we would soon find out why in a most horrible way. I remember that I was sitting down and leaning back against some small saplings, using my ruck sack as a cushion where I could still see across the river. I was expecting the word to come down for our unit to saddle up at any moment so my M-14 was in my grasp laying across my lap. Now, more ARVIN soldiers appeared on my side of the river and walked past my squad members and me. They stopped at the river bank and peered across, looking into the village. Then it happened. A high ranking ARVIN officer caught my eye. He was walking from the village toward the edge of the river bank on the far side from us. He had a drawn hand gun of some type in one hand and was marching two Vietnamese, dressed in black pajamas with their hands tied behind their backs in front of him. When he got to the river bank, he waved his hand gun at the two men as they kneeled down with their backs toward him. It was over in less than five seconds. His handgun cracked sharply two times, as he put a bullet into the back of each man’s head. It was obvious that he had wanted to do this in plain sight of our lines so we could see him do it. In other words he was showing off in a most twisted manner. Of course I had never expected to see something like this in my wildest dreams as I am sure was the case for the rest of my platoon members. We were too stunned for anyone to say a word. At this point let me interject the following statement. Going into my Vietnam experience, I felt that I was better prepared mentally than most to take enemy lives who I wholeheartedly believed had chosen to become avowed communists and thus eternal enemies of a free United States as established under her Declaration of Independence and her Constitution. Not only was I prepared to take enemy lives but I was looking forward to personally killing as many enemy soldiers as I possibly could, any way I could, but in combat, not like this. This was so insane on so many levels, even to my nineteen year old mind., that I couldn’t image that it would be considered by any freedom loving soldier, much less a high ranking leader of the ARVINS.

   A dirty wave of disgust, immediately followed by an angry antagonistic feeling flooded my brain and it was directed single-mindedly toward the ARVIN (South Vietnamese Army) officer, who had committed what I considered to be the most disgusting and vile act that I had ever witnessed in my entire life. I had never once seen any of my childhood movie heroes shoot anyone down in cold blood. The movie industry would have to wait a few years before degenerating to that point. Now within seconds after this horrible act took place the ARVIN officer waded the river and came up on my side of the river bank, still clutching his handgun in his hand. I instinctively braced to defend myself, keeping my eyes fastened intently on his eyes while clutching my own weapon in the ready position with the safety off as he kept coming closer and closer. Is this man crazy? Is he going to shoot me too or maybe one of the guys around me? These were all involuntary thoughts that whisked through my mind as I watched his eyes, which were eyes that I have never forgotten over fifty years later. They seemed to have a red glow to them, accentuated even more by an indescribable wild look on his face as he now walked past us and kept going, fading away like a bad nightmare from our physical presence but never to be erased from the traumatized centers of our young minds. A few minutes later my entire unit saddled up and moved on leaving the village behind forever.

    The next few days are imprinted into my mind as a collage of disjointed events so here are a few snippets describing these events as well as a little window into my mindset as I settled into my new life as a combat soldier in 1967 Vietnam. Charlie Bell left to take a job driving a supply truck. A dark skinned new guy from a big city in Ohio named Walker and several others showed up as replacements for the old guys who were leaving. We got a new squad leader named Sgt. Rook. During the nights we could see and hear gunships streaming red tracers toward the earth to the north of our location several miles away. Other platoons in my B Company would have their members return from ambush patrols with mind rending stories of firefights that they had during the night. You see, during daylight hours we came in contact with hundreds of civilians all around, but after dark there was a curfew on all civilians in the area. Anyone seen outside their villages and on the roads after dark, especially if they were seen by our ambush patrols would be shot on sight. My squad went out on night ambush patrols several times and set up outside various small villages in the area but we encountered nothing. On the other hand, other squads in our company would go out and do the same things my squad did and would get into shootouts with the VC almost every time.

    This new guy, Walker, immediately took the place of the thump gunner (grenade launcher) in my squad who was helicoptered out to catch a plane home for the States. I could have had that job but there was just something about having only a one shot weapon which gave me pause. Never mind that it shot an exploding grenade which could blow a guy’s head off or even kill several guys at once, if they were close enough together. But what if they weren’t close together? I could just imagine myself getting drilled by that dead guy’s buddies, while I was reloading, and I would have to reload after every shot. No sir, that wasn’t for me. Walker was welcome to his M-79 grenade launcher and I would keep my trusty M-14. I was a dead eye shot with this weapon and I had proved that fact in basic training. I strongly felt that this was the right weapon for me. In my naïve mind, I was also confident that there wasn’t any armed target which could come within a hundred yards of my line of sight who would stand a chance. It never failed to fire even after being submerged in swamp mud and water. The heavier bullet was also better able to penetrate thick jungle foliage to take down an enemy soldier before he could penetrate me and it also shot the same size ammunition as an M-60 machine gun, which was another plus. I loved my M-14 and I believed it was the perfect weapon for the jungles of Vietnam and still do.

    Our new squad leader, sergeant Rook, was what some of us liked to call in a most demeaning way, “A lifer”. This simply meant he was making the Army his career. However, that term was used in a very demeaning way by draftees like me, who usually had low self-esteem. It was a way to try and elevate ourselves, at least in our own minds, above that bottom rung, where we felt hopelessly stuck. Of course this was a falsehood, to believe that one can elevate himself by demeaning another, but its still a lie that many people buy into today. In my case, I was born of the Spirit of God and was anointed by the Holy Spirit, so in absolute terms, I will never be on the bottom rung no matter what the circumstances appear to be here on this earth. However, back then emotions and lying devils were ruling my life and I just did not like sergeant Rook’s sharp tone. I had put up with that tone of voice from my father for years. Enough was enough. Don’t bark orders at me! If he had just asked, I would have tried to jump over the moon for him but he didn’t have enough sense to ask. Wounded souls usually respond better to a band aid like “asking” but don’t try to scrape away the self-loathing infection underneath with a sharp command or they will react in a number of crazy ways. Too make things worse, Sgt. Rook always communicated every command with anger in his voice so there was really no good time to approach him even if I had wanted to approach him for one reason or another. Finally, just to add icing to the cake, he was always issuing seemly petty orders like, “Don’t drink water from streams without putting a quinine tablet in it. Go get in the chow line as soon as possible and get back to your position. Stop knocking coconuts off the trees, Wade. They could be booby trapped”. “For goodness sakes”, it was hot and water was in short supply and now I couldn’t believe that this guy was riding everyone about knocking down coconuts and drinking the refreshing coconut juice to quench our thirst. Yeah, Sergeant Rook really knew how to get under my skin but believe it or not Sgt. Rook’s persecuting ways did have one good side effect. For the first time since I had become a part of this motley crew, I felt like I had at least one thing in common with every other member of my squad. None of us, to a man, could stomach sergeant Rook.

     Like I said, this guy never let up. Sgt. Rook was all business and he continually rode the entire squad which was made up now of mostly new guys. Some were newer than me, like “pretty boy” Walker, a guy I soon learned, was so fastidious about keeping clean that he would be primping in the middle of a muddy rice field as we were on the march. As I faced this new flux of change in the squad, I did what I had always done and what I would continue to do until I was forty six years old. Like all those who are demonically oppressed, I withdrew as much as I could, given the circumstances. I tried to stay as far away from Sergeant Rook as possible. If he was in the front of a lineup somewhere, I would try to be the last man in the back of that line and vice versa. I had no idea what a negative impact this type of withdrawing behavior had. For example, since the radio man (RTO) was always beside the squad leader who was Sergeant Rook, and I was removing myself as far away as I could get, that meant many times I was unable to hear any radio communications. Those radio communications were really the best source of firsthand information coming from the rest of the unit. Since I ignored these, one of the things that I was not made aware of was how many dangerous situations that the unit kept getting into almost every day. People were getting wounded and killed on a regular basis but as remarkable as it may sound, I didn’t have a clue. We were losing them to all sorts of enemy activity such as booby traps, snipers and ambush patrol shootouts which had been poorly positioned to begin with. As I have said before, during the month of January we would lose almost as many men as we would for the entire rest of the year. Yet, to my demonically veiled mind, I thought things were rather peaceful and I even believed that things would get better if Sgt. Rook would go away.

    At least he didn’t ignore me like his predecessors had done. Actually, the real truth was this. Had he been miraculously transformed into the most competent leader who ever walked the face of the earth, it would not have been enough to put my mind at ease because my insecure nature required a lot more than the normal amount of feather stroking to go along with any demands made of me by my superiors. My attitude back then was simply unworkable and it was always going to cause problems in my life. Having said that, let me now say that sergeant Rook’s attitude was not the best attitude for a leader to have either. A good leader should be quick to correct those under them and just as quick to let them know when they do something right. They should also make themselves approachable to their underlyings, at appropriate times. That interpersonal skill was not only missing from Sergeant Rook’s communications tool belt, but it was also something that the First Infantry Division did not stock in its warehouse of leadership skills in the first place.

    “Killed in Action” records for the month of January confirms my personal memories that we were operating in the Province of Bien Hoa and toward the edge of Binh Duong Province just S.E. of Cu Chi. We were S.W. of The Iron Triangle” and in an area which had massive underground tunnel networks. I had no idea of where our exact location was on any given day. Even company commanders where only given maps to cover their localized areas of operation. It wasn’t unusual for even them not to know where other companies in their own battalion were located if they were carrying out a different phase of the same operation. I suppose for security reasons, official notifications were doled out on a “need to know” basis. For example, several companies of the same battalion may have been conducting a sweep through an area while another company in that same battalion would be providing road security somewhere else. During Operation Cedar Falls my battalion was within walking distance of our base camp at Di An. We had started out on foot. Quite frankly, at the time, I really didn’t care where I was, or whether I had to walk all day or not. Actually our jungle boots were quite comfortable and it wasn’t as if I was going to be able to change my itinerary, if I didn’t like the excursion. It would be years later, before I would learn that our unit was not listed anywhere as being in on any of the main thrusts of this big operation and yet I wouldn't be surprised to find that my unit faced more daily combat activity then the rest of the operation combined. You see, the enemy was busy running and hiding from them but it was business as usual with us.