A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

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 Cavalry.

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 experienced.

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 November '67.

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 the enemy.

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 lot.

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 assault.

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 one.

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 return.

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 4 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 time.

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 the shell.

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 that rifle.

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 Vietnam.

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 seen.

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 happen.

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 development.

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 Vietnam.

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 of years.

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 severe punishments.

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 crime.

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.


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