By June 6, 1941, the day I was born, my dad already had two children. Having a wife, three children, and a heart condition, he was deemed ineligible for the military. Though we never talked much about it, part of me knew that if he had been able, he would have done what his brother did–joined the Navy and served in the Pacific.
A quiet man, my father was an avid sportsman and gunsmith. In my teens he would take me early in the morning to go hunting, and he taught me survival techniques, skills that would later prove valuable. In the 1960’s he began to teach the National Guard how to handle and fire their weapons, and we knew this was his way of serving. Frequently I would accompany him to the firing range, and he would always say, “If you’re not in the circle of the target, you’ve missed it completely.”
In 1966 I had been married for five years and received a draft deferment for a job making missile parts at a machine shop in Portland, Maine. When I quit this job out of frustration, two days later I received my draft notice.
After intense training, in March I was scheduled to leave for Vietnam from Oakland, California. On the night before flying out, I put on my civilian clothes and managed to walk off the base camp. I did not believe in the war, and I decided I was not going to go. I met with an old friend and we spent the night drinking. By three o’clock in the morning I felt compelled to call my dad and tell him my decision. He said to me, “You need to go because if you don’t, you’ll end up running and end up in jail.” He said over and over again,
“Son, you’ll be OK.”
The next day I was on my way to Vietnam. I was sent to the base camp at Dau Tieng. One month later the camp was heavily mortared, and running from one foxhole to another, a mortar round exploded ten feet away. Shrapnel from the round hit me in the arm. I crawled to the foxhole, bleeding profusely, and wondered if this is how my life would end. I heard my dad’s voice saying “Son, you’ll be OK.”
In the hospital the reporters asked me if I wanted this in the newspapers back home. “No,” I said, “I don’t want my parents to know.”
Some time later, in a flooded bunker, a lightning bolt struck thirty feet away and knocked three of us unconscious, setting off a series of explosions of twenty-five claymore mines placed in front of the bunkers. My head was reeling for days after the incident.
A few weeks later, on a chilly night as I pulled my poncho liner over me, a scorpion stung me numerous times. On the way to the medics I felt the poison streaming through my body, and I thought this was not how I expected to die. After three days of suffering from the effects of the poison, and remembering my father’s words, I knew I was going to live.
On a long patrol in the jungle of the Iron Triangle, someone ahead of me let go of a large red ant’s nest hanging from a branch, and it burst on my chest. Immediately I was covered with millions of biting, stinging, ants, which I could only remove by tearing off my fatigues and scraping the insects off my skin by hand, thousands at a time. Jumping from one place to another they followed me like a red carpet. No one but my friend Rod stayed to help, and eventually we found the platoon that had left us behind.
Six months into my tour, after spending many days in the jungle, my platoon was marching toward a base camp in the shadow of Black Virgin Mountain in Tay Ninh Province, and we hitched a ride on a tank that was headed our way. We felt relieved that we didn’t have to walk anymore. Just then the tank ran over a land mine. The blast was directly beneath me, under the track of the tank, and the explosion blew my helmet clear off my head and landed in the middle of the road. For days I could hear almost nothing. We continued on, leaving the tank behind, crossing a leech-infested river to reach our destination, Camp Caroline.
At the camp, on May 13, 1967, a bright clear night, my friend Charlie and I were sitting on the roof of our bunker, when we heard the sound of mortars leaving the tubes. We had eighteen seconds to get inside, and we scrambled. But we realized we left our rifles on top. Out we raced, grabbed our rifles and then the first round caught us. Both of us were hit with shrapnel. That night the camp was attacked with four hundred rounds of mortars within a half hour. Charlie and I were the lucky ones. They airlifted us to the hospital in Cu Chi. In the hospital a reporter wanted to know if this could be published in the Portland paper. Again, I said, “No, I don’t want to worry my family.”
My father and I never talked about the war afterwards, as he never talked about it with his brother. In 1985 my father passed away. Shortly afterward I started losing my eyesight. Now, years later, I am totally blind. I just want you to know, Dad, that I am OK.