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Maine Public is encouraging Vietnam Veterans and anyone affected by the conflict to share their own story on the Vietnam War and correspondence they had during or after the war. Submissions can be written, recorded or videotaped and sent to Maine Public at mystory@mainepublic.org. The stories will be collected and archived here and some may be shared with the greater Maine audience.Watch "Courageous Conversations."Click HERE for support opportunities for veterans in crisis.

Michael Zboray

The one certain thing in the Army is… nothing is ever certain. Particularly, if things seem to be going well, things are going to change. The good captain leaves for home.

Enter the NEW captain!

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Life around here is going to get much more interesting. How much is yet to be determined… soon, very soon.

The new C.O. (captain) is a totally different individual from his predecessor. The old C.O. was not a career man and had a “humanitarian” viewpoint about his command. The new guy is “Regular Army” and isn’t concerned about image or popularity. In his first address to the company he laid out where he was coming from (philosophically) and where he intended to go. This command is merely a “stepping stone” to his future. He has big plans for his career and he will let nothing or no one get in his way. He’s a legend in his own mind!

It’s said that “time heals all wounds”. What he does to me is too deep and personal to heal and forget. The new captain is a mean, self-serving, undisciplined person who is so self-involved that it’s a wonder how he finds time for anything else.

Bitter! Who me? You bet!

Let me elaborate on how my life changed after the new captain took over.

It all starts with an enemy rocket attack one morning around 5 AM. Everyone is just getting up and the rockets began dropping on our camp. B 40 rockets are big, powerfully destructive ordinance. The alert sounds! Everyone grabs their weapon and ammo and heads to their assigned position on the perimeter. I do exactly what I’m supposed to do.

Like most of the other guys, I’m in my “skivvies” when the rockets start coming in. I have no time to put on my boots, so I run down the road in the “Ho Chi Minh” sandals that I have on at the time. These are popular for walking around the camp when you’re off duty. They’re great after a day sweating in your boots. They’re open and comfortable, lightweight and cool. What they are not, is footwear for running – especially for your life!

The roadway is covered with 2 1/2 minus gravel. It’s jagged, uneven and difficult to walk on. My fear propels me down the road anyway and I have no trouble running at top speed to my assigned position. I don’t feel I’m even touching the road because I’m so scared at the time.

When I get to my assigned station, my partner and I (we are assigned in teams of two) begin to fire our weapons toward our “field of fire” outside the perimeter. This is standard procedure in preparation for a possible ground attack which often follows a rocket attack.

We’re scared and continue to fire as many rounds as fast as we can for five solid minutes out the front of our position before the “all clear” signal is given. The signal comes and we cease firing. Our rifle barrels are red-hot and the smoke from our weapons hangs like a translucent blanket in front of our emplacement. In the early morning stickiness, the smoke sits almost motionless and for a few minutes we sit back and silently rejoice in the knowledge that we’ve been through an enemy attack and came out alive and well.

Well, almost well!

My partner looks down and his eyes get as wide as platters as he points to my back and yells, “you’ve been hit”! I look down and notice that my legs and feet are covered with blood, but I don’t feel any pain. Yet! This is precisely the time the adrenaline wears off and I feel an ache from the soles of my feet. I look closer at the bottom of my feet and find them cut to pieces and full of small bits of rock and dirt. I almost pass out because of my loss of blood.

So, come to find out, my sandals broke apart as I ran down the gravel road to my position. We later find the sandals on the road in pieces after the attack is over. I was so “pumped up” with fear and anticipation that I didn’t even notice I’d become barefooted on my frantic run to the perimeter. My buddy helps me to the medical tent after we’re told to “stand down” from the attack. The medic cleans my wounds and bandages my feet. I’m given a pair of crutches and told to stay off my feet for a couple weeks.

I couldn’t believe my ears; off my feet for a couple of weeks, WOW! That means I’m off the “chain gang” (as it was sometimes referred to) for a couple of weeks. I wonder what they’ll do with me now?

I take the medic’s report to the first Sgt. He isn’t very happy at what he reads. Of course, a guy on crutches isn’t much good out on the road. He tells me to report to my platoon sergeant for a “light duty” assignment.

Reporting to my platoon sergeant is an even tougher act. He is really pissed off about losing a man off the work crew, even for only a couple of weeks. I try to explain that it wasn’t as if I planned this little “accident”. Hey, I’m in pain here. He assigns me to duty in the “tool room”. This entails sharpening, repairing and tracking all the tools and keeping everything in order.

It’s a real “gravy job”, and I’m happy to have it, even though it’s only for a short time.

The very next day, during the morning formation, we are informed by the first sergeant that anyone who sustained an injury from the previous day’s attack will be recommended for a “Purple Heart”. I’m amazed as the first Sgt. calls out my name and I’m told to report to the orderly room after formation.

When formation is dismissed and I make my wobbly way (I’m not very good on crutches) to the orderly room and there I am told to sign a form and I’ll be issued my “Purple Heart”. I really never could make the connection with some cuts on my feet, which I did to myself because of my stupidity, and the honor of receiving a Purple Heart “for wounds sustained in an enemy action”. It somehow degrades the medal, in my mind. Some guys give arms, legs and even their very lives…and earn a Purple Heart. I don’t feel right about getting one for “cut feet”. I refuse it.

I don’t know whether the CO of a unit gets a commission on every medal given out in his unit, but I fully believe that my troubles with him begin right here. He’s really pissed when the first sergeant tells him I refused my medal. He comes out from his office and talks to me like a salesman trying to sell a vacuum cleaner. “If you earned it, then dam it, you have to take it”, he exclaims. I stand my ground. “I feel it’s wrong and I won’t accept the medal under these circumstances”, I reply. End of conversation.

If I had any chance of making a good first impression on my new CO, it’s history. I begin my relationship with him on a very low note. I figure my time with him is going to be interesting, to say the least. Little do I know just how interesting it will get over the remainder of my tour.

The tool room job is great. If it rains, I sit inside listening to the radio and staying so very DRY. This may not sound so special to you, but I can tell you, this is a unique experience for a combat engineer in Vietnam, circa 1968 – 69. Nothing we do is ever “called for inclement weather”.

I really hustle in the morning, to get the toolboxes together for the platoon Sgt. after making sure I have everything in top shape. Once the trucks leave the camp, I’m almost alone. The orderly room personnel, the cooks, KP’s and the medic are about the only people left in the company area. The only other people on the base are the grunts not out on patrol and the guys operating the rock crusher. And there’s the mortar company on the top of the hill in their ever vigilant observation of the area directly around our camp.

I have lots of time on my hands after doing the minor repair jobs have to do. I might get a good start on my college education here, except for the fact that I’m not even slightly interested in college at this point in my life. The only thing I can’t do is sleep. That’s all I need, to get caught “sleeping on duty”. The CO would probably have me shot… and then court-martialed.

I practice my karate moves after my feet heal some and my technique improves rapidly (he says with humility). I write a bunch of letters to anyone and everyone back home. The time still drags on forever. After all, imagine an over active 18-year-old stuck in one place with nothing but a radio for a 16 hour work day, day after day. The workday here only ends when the natural light runs out.

Face it, I’m BORED stiff!

Remember, this job is only for a couple of weeks. It’s a mixed blessing. I like having an easy assignment, but being alone so much is the pits. The first Sgt. checks in on me once in a while to see if he can catch me sleeping or doing something else wrong. I think he’s a pretty nice guy though and I believe the CO puts him up to it. He never spends more than a few minutes talking to me before he leaves.

Something else interesting happens while I’m in the tool room job. I move my cot into the tool room tent so I can work out and keep track of the tools easier. I’m the sole occupant of this tent. Then, I start finding some of my candy bars missing soon after I move-in. At first, I figure someone is coming in to steal them while I’m out. I start finding “rat crap” in my footlocker and chewed up packages of crackers and candy. I have a NEW suspect. A RAT!

Let me explain the facts regarding Vietnamese rats. First, they’re big, REALLY big. Some of them are easily the size of small dogs. Secondly, they’ll eat ANYTHING! Lastly, they’re not afraid of anything or anyone.

So there’s this rat, you see, and he and I are on the same diet of candy bars and crackers. The problem is he isn’t paying his share. This leaves me with only one choice… he has to go. I set a trap for him for days waiting for him to turn up in it, dead. He’s far too smart for the ole, “trap baited with candy” trick. I’ll have to think of something else.

While I’m busy devising a new plan, he’s still tormenting me on a daily basis. He gets into whatever I try to hide my “goodies” in. I’m too numb, at my young age, to understand that any animal can “smell” food, even if it’s packed under a ton of clothes and stuff.

Anyway, one night during this time, I’m asleep and wake to some noises coming from the opposite end of the tent. I get up, light my Coleman lantern and walk to the other end of the tent, to where the noises are coming from. I can’t believe what I see. There is my rat nemesis, sitting on a toolbox eating a bag of MY M&Ms. This guy is so big he has biceps. I can’t believe it. No wonder he didn’t fall for the trap I baited with one lousy M&M. He probably figured it wasn’t worth the trouble for such a small meal.

For a moment I don’t know what to do. So I shine my lantern his way. He turns his head and shows his very big teeth to me in a very “unfriendly” manner. Here I am, all this karate training and not knowing a single move to deal with a rat with a sweet tooth. Oh well, I back up very slowly as he goes back to eating my candy.

I go back to my footlocker and pull out a trusty Army Colt 45. Here’s the setting for the next scene. The time is approximately 2 AM. The camp is quiet and dark. I grab a flashlight and walk toward the back of the tent where “he” is. As I shine a light on him he stands up on his hind legs, makes an extremely angry, tooth filled face at me and makes a strange hissing sound.

We’re in eye to eye contact for a second or two.

Then I blow the bastard away with one clean shot.

Yep, I splattered his ratty ass all over the back of the tent and feel pretty good about it, too. Hey, there just aren’t enough M&Ms in Vietnam for the two of us. Something had to give.

Well, it didn’t take long for a bunch of guys to come running into the tent, weapons drawn and ready for action. Uh, oh! How do I explain that I just killed the enemy and he was a RAT? In comes my platoon Sgt. He comes in saying things that are unrepeatable. He wants to know “what in the hell is going on here”? Can’t say he cared much for my explanation.

Then, in comes the first Sgt. He’s calmer than my platoon sergeant, but still perturbed by my latest escapade. Finally, the CO walks in and I see my life pass before my eyes. Let’s just say that he and I are not destined to be “best friends” any time soon.

My platoon sergeant explains the situation to the first Sgt. who discusses it with the CO. There are a lot of frowns and swearing and then I over hear the word “court-martial”. This has started out to be a really bad morning… and it’s going downhill really fast.

Everyone eventually leaves. The last words from the first Sgt. are, “be in the orderly room right after morning formation”. I think for a minute about asking whether I should bring a blindfold, but think better of it and hold my tongue.

It doesn’t take but a few minutes for morning to come, at least it seems like it. My mind wanders as I stand in formation, wondering what’s going to happen next. The guys work me over pretty good about the “big kill” as we eat breakfast. They think I’m in trouble with the CO and tell me to look for some real unpleasant duties in the near future. All this keeps running through my head as I stand “not quite there”, in formation. I don’t remember what is said at this formation and I don’t care… I’m very self-involved at the moment. When formation is dismissed I head over, with great trepidation, to the orderly room to meet my fate. Why does it seem like I’ve been here before? Maybe it’s Déjà vu? Not at all, just a problem child. I don’t have any idea what’s coming, but I remember what one of my friends said during breakfast. “Hey, what they gonna do, send you to Vietnam”? Good point. However, since it’s my butt on the line, I feel vulnerable to other possibilities that may not have been considered earlier.

I walk into the orderly room and report to the first Sgt. He tells me to have a seat and wait. The CO is busy and will want to speak to me soon. As I sit there he asks me more questions about the night before. “Why didn’t you just throw something at the rat. Why did you feel you had to shoot him”?

It’s a long story; about my plight for days and days trying to keep the damn rat out of my candy. As I relate the story to him I can see he isn’t going to be my choice if I need an attorney to represent me in court. He mentions that he thinks the fact that I felt the rat was going to attack me was of some mitigating value. I could only hope the captain feels the same way.

The captain calls me into his office. It’s “show time”!

“Specialist, are you aware that what you did last night was against regulations? He asked me as I walk in. I don’t know what to say so I just shake my head from side to side. He tells me that he should recommend a court-martial for me and “what do you have to say for yourself”. I start to talk and he cuts me off. “You understand how much trouble you caused by your irresponsible action? Do you know how dangerous it is to fire a weapon at something when you don’t know what’s outside the canvas”? He’s on a roll here and I dare not get in his way. I stand at attention in front of his desk and let him say anything he wants. After all, he IS the captain. I soon get the idea on how this meeting is supposed to work. He’ll say things to me and I’ll nod in agreement and say “yes, sir”. Until he comes to the one about “do you think you should be court-martialed for what you did”? I have something important to say about that one.

“Sir, I knew that there was only a dirt wall behind that part of the tent and the rat was about to attack me. I did what I felt was necessary at the moment. Would the Army be well served if I were found unfit for duty? Perhaps, “however, if I had to do it again and had more time to think about it, I probably wouldn’t have acted in that same manner”. I said it with honesty and believed in what I said.

It worked! I’m dismissed from his office with a salute and warned not to get out of line again, or else. I begin to think the captain has a heart.

I soon find out how wrong I am.