Who I am is truly irrelevant to the issues of heart forthcoming. Although arrested many times before war, and several times after, a few head on collisions, four alcoholic step-fathers and a reputation beyond the “bad boy” mindset, the story of that unforgettable evening in the rice paddies of Vietnam branded me broken, in many aspects, in most respects. Then the past had no consequence, nor promise, and the future was quite literally turned-off.
September 9, 1969, on my father’s birthday, I stepped into a world of challenging dark and harrowing proportion. As quickly as someone may flick a light switch on any wall of the world and changed the environment of a room or auditorium I went into another world; a world with much influence, yet burdensome. The luggage of life at the moment of impact was non-existent; it was only that millisecond of time, or eternity (I’m not qualified to say), which mattered. Before we’re through within these pages I want you to ponder what you might have done.
Far beyond a “reality” type event, that imbedded moment was quite transitional and traumatic in a good sense, if such a thing is possible. The point being, it never goes away or is far below the surface of the nowness of everyday living. The non-sufferers of post-traumatic stress have the mind-set of “shake it off” or “just get over it.” I have a new’s flash for all those unbelieving crack pots; wait until it happens to you! Of course, hopefully nothing will happen to anyone in such a regard, however, the world does turn for everyone and stuff does go down. Nuff said!
Understand. The events throughout this writ happened over forty years ago and I can account for every detail just as if I recently watch a motion picture about it, graphic, detailed, and emotional. Sure you can stack crap on top of all the old baggage so-to-speak, but if not very careful that will only make the baggage on the bottom heavier. Under the right circumstances any given event or occurrence could serve to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Suddenly a trigger is pulled emotionally.
Although PTS is infamous throughout the globe and many suffer with it and have no idea of the “alien” lying within them as a direct result of a traumatic experience, it is still often misdiagnosed, mistreated, and misunderstood. The educated minds and scientific studies all somewhat take us to the same ends without explanation. They go from post to traumatic to stress and then ultimately to you have a disorder. Oh really! Duh!
Coming into this world seems to be quite a neutral event. Of course, today is far different that yesteryear. With the advance of genetics now so on many families plan their children with the DNA factor times ten. Back then it was somewhat of a crapshoot. Raised in a broken family (really broken) in the deep South I was confused, patriotic, and felt the entire globe was at Moore’s Place, a hot night spot in the edge of Tennessee; literally a Walking Tall neighborhood. I was even arrested by Buford Pusser of the Walking Tall movie fame when I was seventeen for public drunkenness. It seemed head-on collisions and brokenness would become my epitaph. Then, I had an innocent heart in spite of my circumstances or environment, always missing my true father who died with cancer when I was nineteen months old. I could have never realized the road ahead. The insanity of post-traumatic stress lay yet in the future; a journey of nightmarish proportion, second only to death itself, which I seemed to think about more than I should have.
All of this being said, let me simply take you to the exact, seemingly minuscule occurrence where it all began, or so it seems. In the bowels of war it was just another day.
The Pain Clinic – WELCOME
Serving with the 196th Infantry in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam I was doing my John Wayne time, you know, the serving my country thing that seems to be every American male/female innate “must.” In country a little over six months I was just being looked at as a short-timer, over the half way mark of the twelve month gig of the draft. We had been in the jungle for three weeks on a series of maneuvers clearing villages and sweeping paddy dikes like we were brooms armed to the teeth. It was a costly three weeks. During this period one particular operation stands out.
Sweeping an area daily from atop a mountain someplace in the Highlands my platoon was ordered on patrol early the next A.M.; we always left just prior to the earliest glimmer of daylight. We had to sweep down the mountain in order to get to the paddies and villages surrounding our area of operation. We knew “Charlie” awaited us somewhere, in some little nook or cranny, a tree-line, maybe a village. We didn’t know where exactly, but we knew. We spent the evening preparing for patrol and pondering what might be awaiting us, the usual warrior mind-set prior to potential engagement with the enemy.
I dozed off that night prepared to get up and leave on patrol. One of my best friends, Cherokee, a full blooded native American, awakened me just as light begin to creep over the neighboring mountain peaks. “Get up Hughes,” he said, “the first platoon just ran into an ambush down in the valley.” I was startled by his words realizing the orders of the earlier evening. “What?” I said, “I thought we were supposed to go on patrol this morning.” “We were,” he proclaimed, “but the CO changed the orders and sent the first platoon.” Among many other such things these words would haunt me in the years to come.
At the base of the mountain was a village. From the village, like five football fields, were a series of rice paddies that zigzagged into a tree line at the base of the neighboring mountain. That tree line held the mystery to all of our unanswered questions, Where was Charlie?
As I rousted from my slumber by Cherokee’s alarming awakening words about the last minute change of orders, I could hear explosions and rifle fire. I scurried to the peak of the mountain which allowed me to witness the slaughter of my brothers on the opposite side of the mountain crest in the open paddies in the valley below. It hurt! A lot!
As I watched the enemy rockets slither from within the tree line and explode among a group of American soldiers with only the ground to hug for protection, all I could think about was, that should be me down there. We tried to return fire from our position but we were out of range and even our grenade launcher rounds were falling short. Then we were told to cease our fire because we got a radio transmission that Bravo Company was attempting to maneuver in at the rear of the enemy’s location. Our next immediate move was to call for air support; Bravo Company never showed up. It seemed like an eternity before the Phantoms arrived; after the Phantoms came the gunships.
At least a dozen GI’s lay still in the open rice paddies, motionless. We knew most of them were dead, maybe all of them, which later proved to be the case. The Phantoms came screaming into the valley from the East like an incoming rocket; this time the enemy would be on the receiving end. As we looked down on the very top of the air craft as they flew into the valley their first pass was napalm. As the canisters of flaming liquid left the belly of the Phantom they immediately went into a football pattern, much like a field goal kicker in the National Football League, end over end. The jungle at the edge of the paddies lite up like an inferno sucking all of the oxygen from the immediate area and frying anyone in the area. Their second pass was heavy explosives. Moments after the Phantoms came the Cobra gunships, the enemy’s long blue sleek nightmare.
In the chaos of all that was going on the chopper pilots thought the bodies they witnessed lying in the rice paddie were enemy soldiers. The Cobra’s electronic chain saw, firing six thousand rounds a minute with a twenty millimeter shell, plowed through our brothers like a can-opener… our brothers! It was over before we could wave off the gunship from our radio. The day was spent. We were spent. We were ordered to go down and retrieve the bodies the first thing the following morning. My platoon was ordered to pull security for the third platoon while they went into the rice fields and retrieved our brothers. It seems the enemy, using every opportunity to demoralize their enemies, came out in the night and mutilate the corpses of the American soldiers. We witnessed things I will not repeat here.
Without a play-by-play of every operation, several of which I was directly focused on my enemy soldiers because of my position, I’ll move on to the infernal moment of September 9.
After three weeks in the jungle we were supposed to go to LZ Baldy, our firebase, for a few days of bunker duty, which to us was a breeze compared to the jungle. We were tired, weary and drained. A grayish bronze covered our bodies from the sun and dirt from within the filth of the jungle. As the choppers set down at Baldy we felt a bit of relief, but ultimately that too was shot-to-hell. Our sergeant called us all together after we cleared the choppers and alerted us to another last minute change of orders. It was soon to be over for Alpha Company. No rest, no break, no mother, no apple pie, just a crap sandwich dipped in death and inhumanity.
Echo Company, our battalion’s reconnaissance company had been just outside of a little Vietnamese village known only as Tam Ky. A company of around one hundred men had been cut in half in less than a week’s time and had never made enemy contact. A black lieutenant I knew had lost a leg during the ordeal. No enemy contact, just booby-traps and land mines. It seemed they couldn’t move over several yards from one explosion until the next. They had lost so many men they had become susceptible to being overrun by the enemy. They had to be relieved and we were the black ace in the dead man’s hand. We were ordered to resupply immediately and requisition flak jackets from supply. We had never had such orders before. We were an infantry unit. Flak jackets were heavy and the jungle was a hostile environment even under the best of circumstances.
Only a fleet thought away from the present throughout my life is the look on the faces of Alpha Company as we resupplied and prepared for the airlift to Tam Ky later that day. Due to a criminal record I had an early deferment from the war until it was checked out by the Army. The Chief-of-Police in my hometown lied to the draft board in order to get me out of town, therefore, I was twenty-one while in Vietnam. Possibly due to being somewhat older than the average age of nineteen I was sought out as an older brother type. I recall on soldier coming over to me during the resupply and specifically requesting that I notify his family in the event he was killed. I tried to reassure him he would be alright, but we all knew death awaited many of us at Tam Ky.
As we boarded the choppers later that day the wise cracks and jesting had vanished. It was probably the most somber moment I recall of the war. The looks of fear etched within the young old men as they boarded th choppers is to this day unforgettable. We all knew many of us would likely die on this operation and absolutely had no way of knowing who would be taken. How could I know that I would face eternity on the first day of the operation? I had never known fear like that which overshadowed me on that day. I recall, as a rocket whispered through the air just above my head during the operation, “When the guys see me this evening they will realize that I’m much older.” It was that kind of a day.
We finally arrived at Tam Ky in the evening of September 8. The rain was merciless and appeared to us as if some bizarre weather god was setting us up for a bad day. Our machine gunner, Tennessee, was especially perplexed. As we attempted to stretch our ponchos for some protection from the monsoon rain Tennessee continually talked about “bad vibes.” I simply told him that we would drown if we didn’t get our ponchos up, thus not having to worry about tomorrow. The restless and intimidating night seemed to pass far more quickly than anyone desired and September 9, as providence would have it, arrived right on time. If that day could have somehow been excluded from the calendar that year where might I be this day, or who? No matter! Today I am what I am; prayerfully the person I’ve become will always strive for a legacy of worth and good for others, especially by fellow Warriors. They are genuinely loved from my heart and soul. We’ll always be bound by the conflict we’ve encountered as a band-of-brothers (all women included:). I too regret that I have but only one life to give for my country.
This is the first part of a book I though about writing. I may just turn it into a perpetual blog matter. Anyway, this is the opening volley so-to-speak. Please comment if you are helped or inspired by this. I so desire to help our great nation, and the world, to gain a far more comprehensive understanding or how graphic and scarring post-traumatic stress disorder. My war was in 1969 and every day I’m in Southeast Asia. We have to “get this” as a people or suffer far more than we can imagine. I have a wonderful screenplay about PTSD and believe it will, sooner-or-later, become a great film. It’s my destiny. Come back, email me, comment, just get onboard with me and support in whatever manner you may. God bless America, and YOU:)
W. Paul Hughes