He came home, but so many others didn't. Over 58,000 men didn't return, and this short account is an effort to honor their sacrifice. If you have never been able to see the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in person, thanks to the internet you can see the virtual wall. It is a very sobering project. You can click here to view it.
Screaming missiles with white hot trails flew through the sky. One landed in the helicopter with us before exploding. No time to think or understand. No yell of “Incoming” - just the impact itself.
The concussive blast knocked out my hearing, mercifully perhaps, because my friends and brothers in arms were screaming in pain all around me. The bird to my left took a rocket hit and crashed and exploded in the earth below us. The air smelled of fire, seared flesh, and fear.
It was a horrible nightmare come to life in the steamy, pre-dawn, April morning as we arrived that day at Dinh Tuong Province otherwise known as “Fish Hook.” My heart pounded hard in my chest, in tune with the whirring chopper blades. The adrenaline surged from knowing that we were now landing in enemy territory. What had started as a routine mission, was quickly becoming anything but that.
The reality, though, of the Vietnam War, was that danger lurked everywhere, and we were trained to be ready to face it no matter what. The enemy could be directly in front of us, or they had just left after hiding the mines that blew up our friends.
No one could be trusted, not even the women or children. Too many times, other soldiers had made that mistake believing an innocent just needed help only to be blown up with them. It was an extreme sort of torture for the soul to view everyone with suspicion.
1st and 2nd platoon of Charlie Company came in with about 60 men that morning. Ambushed as we were landing, some birds were being brought down from the sky having taken on heavy machine gun fire, and being hit by rockets. Those birds not hit by artillery fire dropped soldiers and got out as fast as possible.
Our routine mission had just landed me regretfully in charge. My Commanding Officer was wounded and needed pickup by the MedEvac personnel, otherwise known as the Dustoff, and the 1st platoon leader, Vic Mika, from Fords, New Jersey, only a couple weeks shy of his 24th birthday was now dead beside me. Time slowed for just an instant, and I had a chance to think about how I had gotten to this place.
Having joined the Army after failing out of my college classes at the ripe old age of 18, I headed off to Fort Bragg, North Carolina for basic training. Soon I advanced to Fort Dix in New Jersey where I specialized in advanced Infantry training.
I relished the physical labor and the discovery of what I could push my body to do. I had finally found a place to excel. Officer Candidate School was the next logical move, and so off to Ft. Benning, Georgia I went. After graduating as a 2nd Lieutenant, I headed to Ranger School. Rangers were the elite, and I knew I had what it took. Just reading the Ranger Creed inspired me.
“Recognizing that I volunteered as a Ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession, I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high esprit de corps of my Ranger regiment.
Acknowledging the fact that a Ranger is a more elite soldier, who arrives at the cutting edge of battle by land, sea, or air, I accept the fact that as a Ranger, my country expects me to move further, faster, and fight harder than any other soldier.
Never shall I fail my comrades. I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong, and morally straight, and I will shoulder more than my share of the task, whatever it may be, one hundred percent and then some.
Gallantly will I show the world that I am a specially selected and well trained soldier. My courtesy to superior officers, neatness of dress, and care of equipment shall set the example for others to follow.
Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. I shall defeat them on the field of battle for I am better trained and will fight with all my might. Surrender is not a Ranger word. I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.
Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor.
RANGERS LEAD THE WAY!”
(source www.goarmy.com - read more about the elite force Rangers here also)
After completing my training, I headed home to visit my family. When my parents came to pick me up at the airport, though, I could tell they had been crying. They said we had to wait for my best friend, Artie. But that couldn’t be right I told them since Artie had joined the Marines before I did and he had already beaten me over to the war zone. Unfortunately, Artie was coming home - in a box. Much to my great sorrow his flag-draped coffin arrived that night, and the next day I saw my best friend buried. That was September of 1966.
Shortly after this I was ordered to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky to train the new recruits. It would not be long after until it was my turn to be called up for my tour of duty on the front lines. I left for Vietnam in February of 1968. I was a 1st Lieutenant with the Army Ranger force, and I was just 20 years old. I left full well knowing that I might not return.
My focus came back to the chaos unfolding around me. The rest of that day was a blur of gunfights, and battling for protection on the ground from a daunting enemy. We had many wounded, myself included. I was knocked down but not out, yet. There was still life left in me and a battle to be fought - and won. The men that were left alive dug in and returned fire for the most of the day.
We had no idea how many NVA enemies we were up against, and we had no reinforcements for most of the day. Mercifully the 3rd platoon was airlifted in with artillery bombardment, and 30 more men for reinforcements, by late afternoon. Later we learned that radar detected the mass retreat of at least 5,000 enemy troops. 60 men had held off 5,000 - what are the odds?
The war raged on, and there were many more stories and firefights the rest of that year. I finished up my tour and was sent back home to New York shortly after being honorably discharged. I was awarded three purple hearts and a Bronze Star medal for valor. In trying to get these men in my charge to safety that day, I had to stop and retrieve a wounded soldier and pull him along with me while still under fire.
As we celebrate this Memorial Day, I remember the men that didn’t come home. They gave their lives in service to our country, and while the rest of us returned, we are forever-changed men. Physical and emotional wounds that will live on for the rest of our lives remain with us. We will never forget the smells, sights, and sounds from those terrible days in the bush, nor will we ever forget the loss of life of our friends and brothers.
Coming home from Vietnam was gut-wrenching since it was not a war with a definitive win, and since our nation was at such odds over being involved in the conflict, there was no celebration to be made.
War is an ugly business. Many devoted men have sacrificed their lives in war. Maybe even in wars that you don’t agree with having been waged. Regardless of which side of the controversy you claimed for Vietnam, the men who gave all they had should be remembered and celebrated. They died in noble and brave service for our great nation. This Memorial Day perhaps you don’t personally know the name of anyone who has died in war - if not remember the name of my best friend, Artie Comstock Jr., and my buddy Vic Mika with me today.
(if you also have a story to share, it would be an honor for me to read it in the comments below.)
This is a short story written this weekend, compiled from notes my mom had, the rare stories my dad has shared, and research accomplished online.