I arrived in Vietnam in the fall of 1971, fresh from a year and a half tour in Germany in the First Infantry Division. After a brief orientation, I was given my orders, handed my gear, loaded onto a helicopter, and flown out to the mountains west of DaNang, a reluctant warrior whose mission was to command 35 young men who were equally as reluctant.
As the chopper landed on the mountainside, I noticed several soldiers running toward us. “They’re happy to see me,” I thought. It didn’t take me long to realize that they were rushing to unload the rations and mail from the Huey.
I slid out rather ingloriously, stepped onto the skid, and, holding onto my helmet and struggling to get my rucksack properly adjusted, asked the first GI that I encountered to take me to Sergeant Garlic, the platoon sergeant.
Sergeant Mike Garlic, a 3-tour combat veteran, was to become my right hand, an experienced and tested NCO upon whom I learned to lean.
He extended his hand. “Welcome, Lieutenant. We’ve been expecting you.”
“Sergeant Garlic,” I started, “I’ve spent the last year and a half commanding mortar and recon platoons in Germany. I’m going to rely on you, especially in my first week or so in the bush. I trust your judgment and your abilities. I’ll make the decisions, but I will look to you for input.”
“Roger that, LT.”
It was in that moment that I realized that I had been given a new moniker. Men didn’t salute or call you sir in the jungle, because Charlie liked to target officers. L.T. was fine with me.
After the Huey had been unloaded and our position secured again, I began to meet the men of my platoon. They were a diverse bunch who had little in common except for a shared mission and a shared hardship, and the fact that virtually every one of them had been drafted, as had I. This assemblage of soldiers was a cross-section of America – every corner of the country, every ethnicity, every political persuasion. There were southerners such as Jimmy from Alabama and our machine gunner, Mike, from Louisiana. There were northerners like Bob, from Pennsylvania, and another grunt that we all knew simply as Linebarger. There were even two E5s from California who had been in graduate school.
Our mission was to disrupt the supply caravans that traveled the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam into the south. We patrolled each day, setting up ambushes in areas of suspected activity. Before dark we circled into our night defensive perimeter and braced for attack.
When we moved each day we had to cut a trail through the jungle undergrowth. Yet, as difficult as were our circumstances, these young men went about their duties without grumbling or complaining. We knew how much we needed to hang together for survival.
For the next several months the first platoon of Alpha Company, First of the Forty-sixth Infantry, slogged through the jungles, slept in two-man defensive positions, engaged the enemy, and battled the elements – monsoon rains, snakes and leeches. As we patrolled together, fought side by side, and for three days each month partied together in the rear, we grew to be a unit, and I grew to admire and respect every young man in my command. I felt honored to lead them.
One episode in particular reminds me of the indomitable spirit of the American fighting man. Early one October morning, we were all startled by the thud of an anti-personnel mine, then realized with horror that it was Bob Maggs, our radio operator, who had caught the trip wire. Bob died before we could get him evacuated by helicopter. This nineteen-year-old soldier left behind a wife he had hardly gotten to know before he shipped out to the other side of the world.
After we regrouped, I began asking for volunteers to carry the platoon radio, one of the toughest and most dangerous assignments. I was amazed by the number of volunteers.
“I’ll hump (carry) the radio, L.T.”
If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times.
These were brave young men with whom I was privileged to serve. They were heroes. Represented by men like Bob Maggs and 58,000 other names on a granite wall in Washington, along with thousands more who came home to a less-than-grateful nation, they were and are America’s finest. I salute you – and every veteran of every era. Welcome home.