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 didn’t 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 he’d 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 weren’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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.


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Stress:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Last modified: March 02, 1995