August 2000/September 2000
Rendezvous with War
The Warrior's Story: Love the Soldier, Hate the War
In April, Vietnam Veterans of America and the College of William &
Mary co-sponsored a 25th anniversary symposium on the end of the Vietnam
War. Rendezvous with War was held April 6-8 and was held on the
William & Mary campus. This panel, "The Warrior's Story: Love the
Soldier, Hate the War,'' was moderated by James Griffin, Vietnam
veteran and professor of modern languages at the college.
James Griffin: I feel honored to have been invited to serve as
moderator. Your presence honors the distinguished panelists whose
constancy of purpose, not only in Vietnam but since, honors all of us and
the memory of so many who served who cannot be with us today.
I'd like to introduce our panelists. Tom Corey is national vice
president of Vietnam Veterans of America. He has been an advocate for
veterans for many, many years. In Vietnam, he served with the First Air
Frederick Downs is a very accomplished writer. He served with
the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam.
Patrick Duncan has done much to tell the story of Vietnam. His
films include 84 Charlie Mopic, which has been characterized by
many veterans as the most realistic view of combat.
I'm delighted to have on the panel Marsha Four. Marsha serves on
the national Board of Directors of Vietnam Veterans of America. She also
chairs the national Women Veterans Committee.
And, finally, comrade-in-arms Russ Thurman--fellow Marine. Russ
has returned to Vietnam on many occasions. He often serves as a technical
adviser in the filming of movies regarding Vietnam. He was the co-writer
of the Medal of Honor series which some of you may have seen.
I invite our panelists to describe some of their experiences in combat
and also to describe what it was to discover that young people were indeed
mortal. If the panelists so chose, I would be interested to hear their
comments regarding the enemy.
Two other topics I think will be of interest. So much has been said
about the brotherhood, the sisterhood, of comrades in arms: Is it myth or
is it reality? Finally, the experience of coming home, of reintegrating
into a society that was uncomfortable with the war that we have
I was in the Marine Corps. I served for two years, enlisted. I was
company clerk for H&S Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines. Before
joining, I had served two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. My belief in
the value of the service was--and is--very strong. I have no regrets
regarding my service, only pride. The Marine Corps tour of duty--as
Marines are prone to remind others--was usually 13 months, rather than 12.
When I arrived in Vietnam, I was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 26th
Marines. At that time, 1/26th was in Khe Sanh in the northwest quadrant of
South Vietnam, the foremost major combat base in that area. I arrived in
In January, the North Vietnamese presence in that area became
increasingly evident and on the 20th and 21st of January, the combat base
came under attack. It was under attack for a long period of time--some 77
days of daily artillery, mortar, and rocket fire, as were the surrounding
hills also defended by Marines. By then, our sister battalions, 226th and
326th, had arrived, as had that splendid outfit, the "Walking Dead''
of the 1st Battalion.
Life on the combat base at that time was sometimes tedious but never
boring. On the worst days we received over a thousand rounds of artillery
and mortar and rockets. Our casualties mounted. Our morale soared. We hung
tough and we did often get tears in our eyes. We were supported by the
most massive air strikes in history.
I read somewhere that more bombs were dropped in our immediate area and
our theater of operations than in all of the Second World War. I find that
hard to believe, but I can assure you the bombing was 24 hours a day,
sometimes as close to our trenches as you are to me.
When you are confronted by an enemy that is so numerous and no less
tenacious than we, you certainly gain a tremendous respect for them. These
were North Vietnamese regular troops, well-equipped, well-trained,
battle-hardened, accustomed to living in the field month after month after
month, and able to sustain tremendous casualties. Their commitment was
just as strong as ours.
I'd like to tell you a quick story. This is what I remember; this is
what I saw.
The Vietnamese forces had moved increasingly close to our trenches,
particularly on the south and east end of the base, within a stone's
throw, slipping in at night, then they'd pull back quick, frequently as
the sun came up and the fog lifted. But at the end of the base, not too
far from my bunker, there was an NVA machine gun.
We all knew him--or should I say, we all feared him. I'm talking about
a 50-caliber machine gun, which is an awesome thing. Well dug in, day
after day, week after week, he shot at our helicopters bringing in wounded
from the hills, taking dead and wounded from the base to other places down
south. He used green tracers, even during the day.
We tried to get him. We unloaded everything we had on that one NVA
machine gun: mortars, 81s, 60s, our rifles, M-16s, machine guns. We
couldn't get him. We were weary by then, but we were battle-hardened.
After enduring this 50-caliber fire day after day, the powers-that-be
called in a flight of Phantoms. We knew that they would do the job that we
had not been able to do. Three times they circled high over the valley.
They peeled off one by one, and they came in and dropped their ordinance:
bombs, rockets, and napalm.
On the final run, they came in straight position. We were all out of
our trenches, out of our bunkers, watching. We knew the outcome. But when
the third Phantom pulled up, went into his climb and made that beautiful
roll that we love so well, one green tracer came out. Every Marine in the
trenches and on the bunker tops got up and cheered. That tells something
about the tenacity of the North Vietnamese and the respect of Marines for
Tom Corey: I was drafted December 1966 out of Detroit, Michigan. I was
21 years old. I went through basic, advanced infantry training, and on to
Vietnam. I was assigned to the 1st Cav, 1st of the 12th, Charlie Company.
When I got to my unit, the first thing that I was told by one of the
guys in my squad was, "If you do drugs, we will kill you.'' I said,
"No problem with that.'' At that time, May of '67, there weren't a
lot of the problems with drugs, especially in the field.
It made me comfortable knowing that I could shoot someone else in my
company if they were doing drugs because I wanted to survive. I wanted to
go home. I didn't have time for drugs or anything that was going to alter
the situation in Nam.
I went into this not even knowing where Vietnam was. Most of the guys
who went had no idea where it was. It wasn't something we learned in
school--or if we did, I was sleeping during that part. It was just
something that I had to do because all my friends went. My uncles and
grandfathers served. It was the noble thing to do. I went. I learned a
On the first day we were in a firefight. We had just taken our
backpacks off, got off the helicopter, and they said, "Saddle up, we
are going out on a mission.'' The guys briefed me a little bit about what
they expected from me and just said to follow them. I did and I got
initiated the first day in the field. It was a firefight from an air
We did a lot of these with the 1st Air Cav. We had some really good
guys and good commanders in my unit. We had one we didn't agree with, and
we let him know about it. We had a little protest in the field when he
asked us to do some things.
We supported our lieutenant, Lieutenant Radcliff. He was a good guy. He
knew what he was doing. He kept us safe and alive. He wouldn't do anything
that he wouldn't ask his troops to do.
I can speak for the Cav that we mostly had good guys, and we hooked up
with other parts of the Cav. We were probably the busiest outfit. I know
we went to the aid of the 4th Infantry, the 173rd, and the 1st Marines.
Seemed like we went everywhere.
My Vietnam tour was as an infantry man. I treated the Vietnamese with
respect when it was appropriate, unless we went into a village where we
got a lot of resistance and we knew they were VC.
The enemy was unknown to us most of the time unless they were in
uniform. But the Vietcong walked around during the day--you didn't see
them. The people working the fields were the older men or the women and
children. Guys of service age--anywhere from 15 to 50--you didn't see
during the day. If you did, there was something wrong with them. We didn't
know the enemy. The enemy was smart.
One of the problems that we realized in this war--or I realized right
away--was that we were on their territory. They knew their land well. We
didn't know it. We saw it a little better with the wisdom of our
government. They defoliated with Agent Orange to let us see a little bit
more, and they took some of the cover away from the enemy, but Agent
Orange is another story.
I fought with a lot of good men. Color didn't matter in the field.
Black, white, whatever you were, we were all brothers. We were in there to
survive, do our job, and go home to our families. I was proud of that.
I was proud of all the guys I served with, the guys who died, the guys
who died in my arms--good friends. I remember those guys and what they
did. They did their jobs, they did what they were asked to do, and some of
them didn't make it home.
The enemy had made a commitment, a life commitment, to serve their
country. They were willing to put their lives on the line. They knew when
they left the north and went south that they probably wouldn't go home
unless they got wounded and were able to go back.
I saw a lot of things that woke me up, but I still probably would have
signed up for another tour. I would have gone back if I wasn't wounded. I
felt that we could have won the war. I lost a lot of good friends, but we
had what we needed to win that war.
On January 31, 1968, we were doing an air assault in Quang Tri
Province. I was the squad leader.
This was the second day of the Tet Offensive. To us it was just another
day doing what we do. We got the call to saddle up. We came to a village
right outside of Dong Ha. I got my men behind me and we got off. We
were seeing how much fire we got behind the dike, trying to get organized,
waiting. We took some, had some air strikes come in for support. After
that was done, they strafed the village. I took a peek over the dike to
evaluate where I was going to send my squad, and I caught a round in the
neck that hit my spinal cord.
That was the end of that part of the war for me. Then I came home, and
I've been fighting another war since then. We'll continue to fight those
battles until people understand what happened and respect Vietnam veterans
for what they did. They need to be respected because they did what their
country asked them to do.
They only could do so much: their hands were tied in so many ways. But
we had good people doing their jobs. We lost a lot of good people.
I've had the opportunity to return to Vietnam many times to continue
the war for the families whose sons, fathers, and brothers have not
returned. We have that responsibility to bring those remains home or find
out what happened to them. We will continue doing that.
Fred Downs: I enlisted in February of '66. I'd been kicked out of
college when I was a senior and had worked different labor jobs. The war
was going on, so I wanted to get to the war before it was over. I went to
OCS, and I went to Vietnam as a 2nd lieutenant in the infantry.
When I was over there, I didn't have a lot of deep thoughts about the
war except the fact that we were fighting the Communists. All my life
growing up, it had been all around us in America: we were fighting the
Communists. We were going to protect America.
Once I got into Vietnam, I recognized pretty quick that the only thing
you are concerned about is the small group of people around you, surviving
day to day, and doing the best job you can.
I was always gung ho. I got wounded five times. I got shot twice and
hit by shrapnel three times before I got--well, the fifth one was the bad
During that time, I was in a lot of operations. If we went over there
with this idea about the enemy from our training, we quickly were
disabused of that because they were well-equipped and well-trained. We
fought the Vietcong when we were in the flat areas, and we fought the NVA
when we were in the mountains.
It was survival day to day. We had a lot of good guys, a lot of good
men, as Tom said. Black, white, brown, Puerto Rican, it made no
difference, we were all a band of brothers. We stuck together and took
care of each other. In the jungle, you were tight, you were a group, and
that is how you survived day to day. You do the best job, defend each
other, and take care of each other. I think all soldiers from all wars
feel the same way, and they continue to take care of each other when they
I remember the first soldier I killed. I was anxious to see what he
looked like so I ran over to him after I killed him. He had his green
uniform on and his weapon and radio. I was amazed at how young he was. I
couldn't get over that.
I was 23 years old and I was the second oldest man in the company; the
oldest was the company commander at 26. I was the first platoon leader at
23. The other lieutenants were younger. So, I find it strange that I
thought how young that soldier was, but we were all young.
I became more aggressive as the war went on. We had a policy in our
battalion (the 1st of 14th, 3rd Brigade, 4th Division, U.S. Army) that
after being wounded twice, you had to get out of the field. But I was
filled with a great obligation towards the men, and there weren't enough
officers to replace us.
We were always under-strength. I never had 43 men like you are supposed
to. I usually operated with between 20 and 25, sometimes we'd get 27. But
we still had to do the mission of a whole platoon and a whole company.
We would see the weirdest tactics in the world. We could never figure
out what in the hell they were thinking back there. They dropped pamphlets
to let the enemy know we were coming in, and then we got the hell shot out
of us when we arrived. I figured I could do a good job at the Pentagon
myself, if that's all the thinking they are doing. We had lots of tactics,
and they changed all the time.
We'd be told: Go in and we kill everybody we see. When we land, the
first thing we see were women and children. Well, obviously, we can't kill
them. We see old men; we can't kill them. So, those orders had to change.
You'd change them yourself.
A lot of times the 2nd lieutenants operated by ourselves. You'd use
common sense. A lot of times the orders didn't make sense. You did what
was best for your men. You didn't do illegal things, but, sometimes, when
you had people there who weren't supposed to be there, and you were told
by the intelligence people that there would be no one there, and if they
were, we could kill them.
You just didn't kill women and children. But you had to make those
decisions all the time. You had to control your men all the time. We were
under lots of stress, lots of sleep deprivation. As more and more of your
men got killed and more got wounded, replacements came in.
I was there in '67 and '68 and replacements came in one at a time--no
cohesion. You had to quickly mold them into the unit, put them on point so
they could survive.
We wanted to survive. We wanted to take care, but they had to learn
fast. We didn't have time for anything else. We needed every warm body we
could get. So the brotherhood of arms certainly is a reality. We took care
of each other.
When I came home, I went back to college. The students couldn't reach
out and touch General Westmoreland or the President, but I was right there
in the classroom with them. So they took out a lot of that animosity on
us. Those were vicious times. They try to romanticize it these days, but
any wartime is a very vicious time.
Mom and Dad, my children, and my wife at that time all welcomed me
back. We'd been through a lot of changes in how we thought about things.
In my present government job, I can be sitting in a meeting, and they
will be arguing about something that doesn't amount to a hill of beans.
I'll surprise them and say, "Well, you think this is important, but I
think it's a bunch of bullshit. It's not as important, it didn't make as
much impact on me as getting my arm blown off, so let's put this in
perspective.'' They're all shocked. But, you've got a sense of humor.
People say, "Well, you went and lost your arm. Don't you hate the
Army?'' No, I love the Army. I love the guys I was with and the women that
we ran across as nurses and the support we had for each other. I'm still
gung ho. I still like the military.
Is our need to tell the story any different or greater than that of
veterans of other wars? No. All veterans need to discuss what they went
through because that is one of the key things that was wrong when we came
back from Vietnam. When you go into combat, you are taught to kill. That
is against your brain. It's not the way we were brought up. You justify it
to yourself because my country told me to do it. It's okay because I'm
doing what I am told to do and I am doing the best job I can. When I get
back in the world I will be absolved of my sins.
When we came back from Vietnam, we were blamed. The old baby-killer
stuff--and those kinds of stories were certainly true--so we were not able
to absolve ourselves of our guilt. But we needed to talk about it, and
lots of guys kept it inside.
It is the same for any soldier who comes back from any war. You have a
need. Many soldiers don't talk about it because of the things they saw.
You don't want to tell other people about it, and you need to keep it
inside yourself. But in other ways you need to get it out. My dad came
back from World War II on a boat. He had time to come down from the war. I
was put on an airplane and 24 hours later I'm home.
But my experience was different than many other soldiers. I don't
remember what I came back in.
I was out for days.
Aristotle said, "We act, we suffer, we grow.'' The majority of men
I know--and women--grew from the experience and have gone on to become
very productive in the lives of their children and their families and
contribute to our society. I think you could say that for every soldier,
almost for every generation, and certainly for every war. I am always
proud to be a part of such a group.
Pat Duncan: I was the oldest of 12, but I was not allowed to go to
college. I wanted to go to college and be on my own, and there was no way
my family could afford it, so I went into the Army for the GI bill. This
happened, that happened. I wound up in the stockade, and I thought Vietnam
would be a better place. Believe it or not, in some ways it was. At least
I got there fast.
I went over there, and I picked the right time, too: it was Tet '68. I
was there 4½ hours and the replacement barracks got hit by rockets. I
thought, "Well, damn, they didn't do this in the stockade.''
I was with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. I had been with them in the
States. I formed with them in the 82nd and the 101st and I'd had lots of
training. I was an 11 Foxtrot. That is one step above or below 11 Bravo, I
never figured it out. It's recon, they said. But they just needed
infantrymen. They gave us our weapons and sent us out to this damn hill
that I spent some 20 days on.
I lost count because I couldn't tell day from night. We were just
exhausted. We took the hill, finally, and then we walked away from it. It
changed my world view. Because of my MOS, they sent me to headquarters and
I did odd jobs there, recon and stuff like that.
Then they sent me to jungle school to teach some incoming troops. That
was a really cool job because it was the first time in Vietnam I felt like
I was doing something. I was telling guys how to stay alive. I was passing
on what I had learned in the field.
It was the first time in my life I really felt valuable. Then I went to
a school that became part of Vietnamization, and we taught all of the
Vietnamese, which I thought was even better: We are teaching them to fight
their own war. It didn't quite work out that way, but I felt it at the
I have two souvenirs. I have a Chicom grenade. I was going from point A
to point B and I stopped at a Ruff Puff site--the regional force--and we
got assaulted. Here I was, sitting there eating dog stool. Well, we gave
them a guard dog the week before, it was our own fault. It was pretty
good--better than sea rice.
I was sitting there and we got overrun, just like that. I was there
trying desperately to defend myself and a grenade landed in the fox hole.
It hit me in the chest and landed at my feet. I tried to get out of the
hole, but the machine gun fire drove me back in. The grenade didn't go
off. I kept it, took it apart, and deactivated it because I wanted to keep
A girl that I lied to to get a goody box (I told her I was Catholic)
sent me a rosary, and I put the rosary in the hollowed-out Chicom grenade.
It stuck to the pits that they used. Being a writer, that became a
metaphor for me. I have this hollowed-out grenade that didn't kill me and
I have this rosary of a religion I didn't believe in, stuck there. I don't
know what the metaphor meant.
I was hitching a ride on a helicopter and they asked me to be the door
gunner for the trip. We were skimming it, putting leaves in the skids, and
a guy stepped out of a tree line and shot at us. One guy with a little
rifle shot at us and he hit us. The pilot turned around and said,
"You get that mother fucker.'' Excuse my language, but it's a quote.
We turned around, and I just emptied on him, and I hit him. I knocked the
legs right out from under him. He got up on his elbows and shot at us
again and hit us again. We turned around again, and I hit him again. I
rolled him, and he leaned against the tree and shot at us again. He missed
this time, but he kept shooting at us. I went back, and I took him out.
Then we landed because I wanted the rifle. I have the rifle to this day.
It was a profound experience for me because I just killed a man who I
thought was a better man than me--if not a better man, at least a better
soldier. What he had just cost the U.S. military was astounding for the
cost of four bullets and his rifle. I never quite got over that, so I kept
I brought it home, not as any great souvenir to put on a plaque or
anything. It's in my closet and every once in a while I get it out and I
look at it.
For me, Vietnam was an experience that made me grow up. I went over
there a guy who had come out of the stockade. I had a lot of personal
problems, as we called them back then. At least that's what my company
commander always told me: "You have a lot of personal problems.'' I
had a temper. I became a leader quite quickly.
Out in the field a temper was a handicap, so I got rid of my temper. I
didn't have any self-worth, but teaching and everything gave me that. I
came back a totally different person. If anybody can change 180 degrees, I
think I did that within the space of 15-16 months. I extended while I was
over there because I knew if I went back to the States with any civilian
time I would be back in the stockade.
Vietnam made me grow up and changed the whole value system I had. I had
not one political bone in my body. Now I get mad at every goddamn
politician I see. Anyway, I just grew up. I became a different person.
I think that is true for all of us in various increments--not from the
stockade to here, but it changed us in a lot of ways we didn't figure out
till many, many years later. It's really strange that, to this day, every
once in a while I will get a little ah-ha.
I still write about it. I think that was my therapy. I came back and we
didn't talk about it--not in college, for sure. Even in the factory I
worked in, nobody wanted to know. I got kicked out of the VFW because my
hair was too long. I joined when I came back. They gave me a membership
for free. I didn't get my hair cut for a while, and when I came in one
day, they said, "You can't come in here anymore.'' So, we couldn't
talk to anybody, and I guess I bottled it up until I started writing. I
didn't write until I was 30.
I made Mopic when I was almost 40, but the writing was therapy.
I tell everybody, just write. It is amazing. If you don't talk about it,
write about it--it does the same thing. Even if you never publish it, just
put it in a journal.
Marsha Four: Now it's time to talk about the women. I am a nurse. Today
I work on a different plain in Philadelphia. I am a director on the
National Board of Vietnam Veterans of America. I am very proud that they
chose me to come here to represent them. Also, I guess, I am representing
the women of Vietnam.
Unfortunately, if you saw me in Vietnam you were in bad shape. Women,
of course, have served this country in many capacities. However, until
President Truman's time, we were not an active, everyday, permanent part
of the military. Until after Vietnam, we could not be greater than 2
percent of the military. That has changed. Women now are able to fill
almost any capacity within the military, with some few exceptions in some
of the individual services. We've done our job, and we've done it proudly.
I was only one of thousands of women who signed on the line, raised
their hands, and served. In Vietnam there were somewhere between 7,500 and
10,000 women who served, and they did not all serve in the capacity of
nurses. There were roughly 800 women in the Women's Army Corps in Vietnam.
They are certainly the forgotten of the forgotten. They served in some
major support roles, such as military intelligence.
I entered the military on the student nurse program because during
Vietnam there was a big push to fill the role in the medical arena.
Because the tour was only 12 months long, recruitment was very heavy in
every school of nursing in the country. We were told to pick three places,
you'll get one of your choices, and then you'll never leave this country
unless you request it. I thought, Denver, San Francisco, Hawaii. I've got
it made, and they are going to pay me while I'm in school.
A significant number of women who joined the service weren't really
driven by a patriotic spirit.
We were poor struggling students, and we saw a way to make some money
while we were at school. And we were going to have a great time when we
got out, because we didn't have to look for a job. I went to basic
training at Ft. Sam Houston, and they tried to teach us nurses how to wear
a uniform and who to salute.
I didn't understand what my future role would be in the military until
I got to Ft. Sam Houston when they showed us how to set up field hospitals
and how to treat wounds. Also, they gave us the Geneva Convention card.
I was a woman. I was a nurse. My mission, which was very different from
most of the men, was not to survive every day by making sure I stayed
alive and killed the enemy. My mission was to save the lives of the GIs in
After boot camp, it wasn't long until I got my orders for Vietnam. Upon
arriving, I realized I wasn't in Kansas anymore. I was not politically
astute. I had no clue what was going on in the world around me. All I
needed to do was get good grades because the nuns demanded it. Having a
date Friday night was on the top of my list.
After I joined, while I was in school, the world came crashing in when
a very good friend was awakened at 2:00 in the morning to be informed that
her brother had been killed.
When I arrived in Vietnam, I was assigned to the 18th Surgical
Hospital. This was in 1969 and I was sent to the 18th Surg, which was a
MASH unit (a transportable version of the MASH unit of Korea).
I was taken aback when I first came in country. I was flown to Danang
on a large plane and then turned loose and basically told, "Put your
thumb out, honey, and hitchhike your way up country with the next
helicopter pilot going north.'' This was somewhat intimidating. I had
never been across the Mississippi River. And I didn't know if I had
everything a woman needed in Vietnam to survive for a year because our
needs were a little different than those of the men.
I did make it to my duty assignment. I was one woman on a very large
base in a country on the other side of the world which was, for me, on the
moon. Although I was trained with an M-16 before I left this country, I
wasn't given one. So I bought one, which is what nurses did. We bought our
weapons because we didn't get them.
I was at the 18th Surgical Hospital throughout my entire year in
Vietnam. However, we had to move north to Quang Tri because the Marines
had vacated the hospital there, and we needed to fill that gap. It was the
northernmost hospital in South Vietnam, and the protocol was that no GI
would be more than 20 minutes flying time from a hospital.
We moved in the middle of my tour. Interestingly enough, the emergency
room set-ups of today were fashioned from the information and experience
that came from Vietnam. We arrived in Vietnam with little or no experience
because we came straight out of nurses training. I had never even worked
in an emergency room. I had never seen a victim of an automobile accident.
I think you can have some understanding of the dilemma we faced when we
had to help save the lives of Gis who came off the field.
We were very inexperienced, but we had to be quick studies because if
we were not, somebody suffered or somebody died. We learned a great, great
deal from the corpsmen. I have the greatest respect for those who served
in that capacity in Vietnam because in many ways they were the teachers of
the nurses who became some of the greatest nurses that this country has
We were capable of doing anything and saving anybody. We were the best.
We knew how to do it, and we knew how to do it quick and fast without
thinking twice. In a lot of ways that is what protected us: we didn't have
to think twice. If we let anything else get involved in what we were doing
to take care of a patient, we couldn't be expedient, and that cost time
and that cost lives. So we moved forward as quickly as we could and we put
up those walls. We didn't feel, we didn't see, and we didn't know. It also
helped us survive. We didn't have to feel that pain.
Our mission was to save and to treat. We treated some of the GIs, and
then we had to tell them it wasn't bad enough and you've got to go back.
They thought they weren't going to have to go back, and it was, in some of
their eyes, terror, to tell them they had to go back. Our world was driven
by what was happening in the field. We never could anticipate what would
I worked in an intensive-care recovery room--one nurse and two corpsmen
for an 18-20-bed intensive care unit. We worked about 12 days and got two
days off. On our own time we worked the emergency room because there was
also only one nurse and two Corpsmen there, and when you have 40 or 60
patients coming in, you need more help.
So we served in many capacities, but there was no place to go while you
were off duty anyway. After you are there a while, you become such
an adrenaline junkie. You hear the helicopters coming from miles out. You
are there before they land.
There was a time when we couldn't even bring our dead to the emergency
room and clean them, because the enemy was booby-trapping their bodies.
The doctors had to go out to the helipads to pronounce the dead because of
the possible injury to support staff.
Our primary mission was to treat GIs. We serviced the ARVNs and the
civilian population. We even had a small pediatric hospital. Also the POWs
came to us if they were injured. We had four operating room suites, but we
never filled the last suite with anyone but a GI. If we had an injured
Vietnamese come in, and there was only one suite open, they had to wait,
no matter what, because our mission was primarily for the GI.
We tried our hardest and we did our best. I think the hardest job
wasn't treatment and care and moving the soldier on. The hardest part was
just sitting and being with someone who was walking down the last road of
his life. That was probably the hardest job to do while we were there and
in some ways it was the most significant.
There was some guilt involved with not being able to save
everyone--were we really good enough and did we do our best? We started
questioning ourselves and a lot of those questions carry on and on and on.
But we also questioned whether we really did them a favor--some of
them--by helping them come home, because not all of them wanted to.
I remember leaving Vietnam and saying to the nurse who drove me to the
airport, "This will always be just yesterday, just over my
shoulder,'' and it is. It defines who I am, and I really am different
because of it. This very important, traumatic experience happened at a
time in our lives when we were in a very vulnerable period of psychosocial
I didn't have to hide when I came home. Nobody knew I was in Vietnam
unless I told them. Within the first three or four days, I was sitting at
my mother's kitchen table when one of her friends said, "Oh, tell me
what it was like.''
Oh, wow. This was the first time I get to talk about this, and I
started, but the conversation drifted away very quickly. They can't know.
They really didn't want to know. So I decided it was done and it was over
and I put it away--I thought--forever.
I did look at some other service organizations when I first came back.
But women couldn't be members of those service organizations. We could
join the auxiliary, but we couldn't be full members. It wasn't until 18
years later that I stumbled upon VVA. They were welcoming women veterans
with open arms. I also wondered if anyone who went through this experience
could leave without some PTSD. It certainly surfaced for me when I stayed
up 24 hours a day watching Desert Storm on television.
Is there a brotherhood and sisterhood? Yes, there absolutely is. We
helped each other live, we helped each other survive. When we look in each
other's eyes, we know we share. No one else will know.
Russ Thurman: August 3, 1964, I was in San Diego and some drill
instructor was threatening to rearrange my facial features. All I could
think of was that all my life I had wanted to be a Marine and at that
moment, I was seriously reconsidering my judgment.
I grew up in a family that today is called dysfunctional. A broken
family is what we called it in those days. My father was a coal miner who
also lived in a bottle of whiskey. We traveled around Utah and Montana
living in a bus. My mom remarried and we moved to New Mexico. I joined the
Marines, and they said that reveille was at 0530. The first thing that
flashed through my mind was that I got to sleep in.
I don't know where my desire to be a Marine came from. I have no
history of anybody in my family ever in the Marines. I wanted to be a good
Marine and I was harder than woodpecker lips.
I was assigned to Cherry Point, North Carolina, and when the Marines
landed on March 5, 1965, in Danang, I asked the one officer who had served
extensively in World War II and Korea if I could volunteer to go to
Vietnam. He was a salty Marine.
He said, "don't worry about it, son.'' I was a PFC at the time.
"There will be another war for all of us.'' And he was very right.
I ran as fast as I could to the squadron office and there was already a
line two times around the building of guys wanting to go to Vietnam. I
hope that if our country was really, really threatened that there would be
those who would want to do the same.
I went through extensive training. Before we went to Vietnam we trained
in a refresher course in infantry in Camp Pendelton, California, by NCOs
who had come out of Vietnam. I didn't think I was going to survive the
training. It was so hard and so brutal that I was just glad to get to
It was 30 days aboard the USS Bear, an old World War II carrier.
It had no air conditioning, no ventilation, 55-gallon drums at the bottom
full of vomit. There were no chairs in the mess hall. You stood up to eat.
It rolled all the time so the guy next to you would often throw up on his
tray and it would wash over to yours. Took us 30 days to get to Vietnam. I
think the idea was that the Marines would assault at all costs just to get
off the damn ship.
I arrived in Vietnam in '66. Lou Walt, a big, barrel-chested World War
II hero, told us what our mission was: get your rifle and go kill someone.
So I did. I got to the lines, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, about 1600 in
the afternoon. I met a corporal, Frank Kaplan, who took me under his wing,
and by 9:00 that night he saved my life.
That night I also stood in line on a 50-caliber machine gun with all of
the grenades and Claymore mines in front of me. Let me tell you what my
thoughts were that night. I have never been so terrified in all my
life--not because of what could happen to me, but I didn't want to let the
guys down in my unit.
There, in essence, is my Vietnam. I wish I could tell you I fought for
the red, white, and blue. It flows through my veins like you would not
believe. I love this country, but I fought for the guy next to me.
There were moments where you just wanted to get out of there. We flew
into a North Vietnamese training camp one time, south of Danang up in the
mountains, and every damn day we got ambushed.
Well, they rock n' rolled on us. It got a little old. There were
moments that I didn't want to stay where I was at, but I didn't move. I
didn't dare because the guy next to me--smelly, stinking Marine that he
was--was expecting the guy to the left of him not to run. That is what we
fought for; that is where the brotherhood comes from.
I had an unusual job in Vietnam. I was a combat correspondent in the
Marines. I'm not really sure entirely what I did. We'd see how many
operations we could get involved in. I literally would fly back to the
medical evacuation point. That was how you got to the battle real fast:
you found out where the medical evacuation points were, and you got to the
helicopters because they were bringing the wounded from the battlefields
so you could fly right into a firefight. That is what we did for a couple
I left Vietnam in December of '67 because I got tired of walking the
same trails, watching Marines get killed on the same corner, and not
accomplishing anything. We actually protested the war in 1966 in Vietnam.
A bunch of us crawled up on top of our tin-roofed hootch, naked, and
protested the Christmas truce.
Do you think the other side just didn't do anything? We had rules of
engagement that said you could not engage the enemy unless they engaged
you in an overt act of combat, which means they shot at you. You could
look outside your foxhole and 50 meters outside your line there was an
officer pacing off the distance between foxholes, and that was not
considered an overt act of aggression. So we protested the war and the
gunny threatened to have us all thrown in the brig. So after a period of
time we came down and put our clothes on.
If you are going to fight a war and you are going to send American men
and women to combat, you get the job done and bring them back. Don't send
them if you are not willing to do that.
Marines kept their extra good uniforms and all that good stuff in a sea
bag in Okinawa. They ran you through this long building, and they examined
your sea bag and let you keep some things from Vietnam and then you passed
through. I had put on my very best uniform, but after two years in
Vietnam, I didn't realize what good clothes looked like. They let me keep
my belt buckle only because it was metal. Then they run you through the
showers, and they spray you down for lice and all the other things that
crawl around on you.
I weighed 138 pounds. That is fighting weight, for me--138 pounds, no
fat. March, walk all day, do what you got to do. The Rambos don't last, by
the way. I never met a Rambo. Never. If they were in Vietnam, they didn't
last very long because they are a big target, easy to hit.
I got back from Vietnam. We had been given extensive lectures in
Okinawa. You will not get involved in punching out protesters. You will
not bite the face of anybody who jumps in front of you and protests the
war. If they call you a baby killer, you ignore them under threat of many
I flew back and they had the most unusual overt ways of showing their
dislike for you. We traveled in uniform in those days on civilian
aircraft. I was in the airport in Los Angeles waiting for my flight. It
took me two hours to get to the ticket counter and the line was maybe ten
people long, because all the college kids were doing something that
weekend and they kept cutting in front of me. There was a guy standing in
front of me, not looking very clean and not smelling very well, staring at
me. He wouldn't let me go around. Every time I tried to go around he would
step in front of me. I just knew that if I reached out and ripped this
guy's throat out, they would probably charge me with some type of capital
Those are the types of things we faced. My parents didn't care about it
and nobody else wanted to know about it, because they had read all the
baby-killer stories and they sure didn't want to know about that.
I went to a little junior college. I wandered around campus messing
with the professors. They even asked me to come into a class and talk
about my experiences. As I sat there looking around at what would soon be
my classmates, I realized that I was never going to go to college.
So in January of 1968 I stepped across the base boundary lines at Camp
Henderson, in Washington, D.C., and I knew I was going to be in the
Marines until I retired. I had found a home. Staying in the Marines was my
way of having to deal with, it because the guys in the service were
honored for what they were doing. You were recognized for the sacrifices
that you did.
I spent 21 years in the Marines punishing a lot of Marines. If they
ever stepped foot on the battlefield, they would know what to do.
Service to those guys was important, service to the brotherhood. I met
Patrick Duncan shortly after I left the Marines. He was one of the
weirdest-looking guys, with long, long hair, and he was making a Vietnam
movie. I didn't know who he was. The producers of the show were trying, I
think, to pit us against each other. I looked into Patrick's eyes and in
30 seconds we were brothers. He was a real article.
We made a whole bunch of "Vietnam War Stories'' for HBO and 84
Charlie Mopic, which I think is my best work as a technical adviser.
Looking back--Patrick and I have never talked about this--I had a
breakdown making 84 Charlie Mopic because I had been, all those
years, teaching young Marines how to live, how to survive, how to fight,
how to fix bayonets, how to reach up and look into eyeballs and then rip
them out. Then in 84 Charlie Mopic I was teaching young men how to
die. It was not a good thing for either Patrick or myself. I guess in some
ways it was therapy, but it sure stirred up a lot of snakes.
For some reason God has kept me around long enough to do something, I'm
not sure exactly what. The first six months in Vietnam I should have been
killed many, many times. The number of Marines who were killed around me
is remarkable. I should have been hit many, many times.
So it goes back to service. The last stanza of the Marines hymn goes,
"If the Army and the Navy ever look on heaven's scenes, they will
find the streets are guarded by the United States Marines.''
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.