It goes without saying that war is a stressful activity. As new
recruits we were taken from the security of our homes and families and thrust into an
authoritarian society. Having grown up with the freedom to make choices, we now had
to follow orders without question, or else. We had been taught "Thou Shall Not
Kill!", and now we were being ordered to shoot, kill, and maim others while they
tried to do the same to us.
Each man handled the stress in his own way. Some found ways to cope and stayed
cool in most any situation. A few sought refuge in drugs or alcohol. Some
found a way to leave the field altogether.
Some, like myself, just got lucky. I started out as ammo bearer in my squad.
On a few occasions I had to double as flank man, out to one side of the platoon by
myself. I didnt like that job at all. Several times I took my turn as
point man - but at that time we were working out of Keane, which was pretty much pacified
following a ground attack that had left the enemy decimated. Shortly after we
reached fire support base Patton, I was promoted to squad RTO when another man rotated
out. Soon, because of normal rotations and casualties I moved up to platoon RTO, and
then company RTO. Though I still went out on patrol every day like everyone else,
with each promotion there were more and more men between me and the front and back of the
line. Of course anyone could be shot anywhere, anytime, but I may have felt less in
danger than some of the others.
Some guys dealt with the stress by taking matters into their own hands. Keene had lots of rats. At night they would
overrun the place looking for scraps of food. We woke one morning to see a rat run
right over the face of a sleeping G.I. Ugh! We all knew they could carry
rabies. One man put two and two together, and used a razor blade to take tiny slices
of skin from his fingers, and then went to the medic to say rats had bitten him during the
night. He was loaded onto the next truck for Cu Chi. We saw him again about
three weeks later. He told us hed never try that trick again. He had
suffered for two weeks of daily rabies shots, given right in the stomach muscles. He
described how, after about a week, it hurt so much he could hardly sit up.
The pressure moved up several notches when we moved to patrol base Dragon in the Ho Bo
Woods. We knew we were in enemy territory and it was like a constant weight over our
heads. Each new day brought long patrols and casualties, and the nights brought
ambush patrols and fear. It began to take a toll. Before Dragon our company
strength was about 120 men, and within three weeks it was down to 80. My platoon,
once thirty men or more, had shrunk to just seventeen. We were still sent out to do
platoon-sized patrols. At one point we were supposed to break up into four groups
and go off in four different directions, like a cloverleaf. That would have meant
four men to a group, and two of the groups would have had no radio. We werent
about to split up into such small groups and go off into the brush all alone.
At Dragon, re-enlistment became the most common escape. The moment you signed up
for four more years you no longer had to leave the wire. You boarded the next
chopper and returned to the states to be schooled in your selected military specialty.
As causalities mounted, more and more men signed away their lives. In just
three weeks at Dragon, seven men from our company "re-upped".
Another escape was to just not go out on patrol. It was common knowledge that if
there was a heavy rain some units didnt leave the wire to do their ambush patrol,
rationalizing that it was impossible to see or hear anything in the storm. Once
night fell, the men gathered their weapons and disappeared into the dark of the fire base.
Their officers assumed the men had gone to the berm and out through the wire.
Instead they circled the tiny base and took refuge in an empty bunker. Hour
by hour, as the company command post called to see if everything was OK, the man on the
squad radio would press the button to signal "all clear". Before dawn the
men returned to their bunkers as if returning from patrol.
For one platoon this trick worked for weeks, until the base was mortared. Men who
were supposed to be out on ambush patrol protecting the base from such an attack were hit
while sleeping in the bunker. Though some of the officers surely knew this was going
on, the young sergeant in charge of the patrol, a draftee himself, was brought before a
court martial and convicted for the death of his men.
Drugs were another escape from the stress, and perhaps also the boredom of base life.
Marijuana was the most common. It was easy to get. You could either
pick your own right in the fields growing wild, or buy several pounds in a big plastic
sack from one of the children for a buck. Most of the men didnt use it
regularly, just a few. There were only five men in our platoon who were regular
users. Because they were "veterans" the new replacements who joined us
felt under pressure to try it too. When I returned to Cu Chi as a company clerk
and handled court martial paperwork, most of the courts martial were for marijuana
possession and use.
For our battalion drinking was not so much an option in the early months of my tour.
We were not allowed beer or liquor except on standdown, then tubs of beer were set
out for us. Officers and senior non-coms had access to it. Our company
sergeant major had a regular drinking problem, and was probably an alcoholic. We saw
him occasionally imbibe, and caught liquor on his breath from time to time. It
didnt become a problem until one day when he went into the village to party.
He got into a squabble over his taxi fare, took out his machete, and in a rage tore into
the little Honda motorcycle cab. When he was finished there was nothing left but a
pile of parts. The tiny Vietnamese woman who had chauffeured him stood a respectful
distance to one side and watched. Of course, the woman was compensated for the
damage, and he was rotated to another unit, but never disciplined so far as I know.
Stress: Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright © 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
March 02, 1995