My tour in Vietnam started just before Christmas 1969. I was a major in the Adjutant General’s Corps and was sent to Vietnam from Stuttgart, Germany, where I had served at Patch Barracks in the European Command Headquarters.
My family was allowed to stay in government quarters there. I thought that I was going to become part of the Adjutant General’s Division of the 4th Infantry Division so I was being flown to Cam Ranh Bay for further movement to the 4th ID.
Wearing my jungle fatigues, I arrived at Cam Ranh Bay shortly after midnight aboard a World Airways commercial jet. Despite the fact that the Viet Cong had attacked this area the night before, our parked plane was illuminated by huge spotlights. Fully expecting to run to the waiting buses, I was surprised that we walked. However, I did take some comfort from the fact that the military buses that took us to the in-processing center had heavy, metal-screened windows. This reassured me that we were in a war zone.
I learned that my orders had been changed at the in-processing center. I was being assigned to the headquarters of the U.S. Army in Vietnam instead of the 4th ID. I was to continue in-processing and in the morning fly to Long Binh.
We were then shown a film featuring Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of the U.S. forces in Vietnam. He explained to us why we were in this strange land. Since we’d been traveling for about 15 hours, I’m not sure if any of his message got through to any of us. However, our long, surreal day and night was still not over.
After the film we were taken to a large room containing a long multi-spigot trough. A young U.S. Army soldier instructed us to brush our teeth for five minutes with the fluoride toothpaste and brush he had provided. He explained that the Army wanted us to keep our teeth free of decay, as there were few dentists in Vietnam. Those wearing the Army’s dress green uniform were told to remove the jacket so they wouldn’t get stained.
I laughed to myself as I imagined the Roman legions getting the same instructions to brush their teeth and being asked to remove their breastplates as they entered a country. “Centurion Flavius, take off that breastplate since you might stain it with this fluoride treatment!”
We were finally allowed to go to sleep after receiving more equipment.
In the morning, the serious part started.
I was flown to Long Binh, the headquarters of the U.S. Army Vietnam, to begin my tour at the casualty and medevac branch.
On my second day, I saw Bob Hope and his Christmas show. Under a boiling Vietnam sun, he and his entertainers put on a great show.
As I viewed the very appreciative service men and women, I had the uneasy feeling that many of them would become the subjects of reports that I would write during my one-year tour.
From December 1969 to December 1970, I was responsible for reporting the names of all dead and wounded Army personnel to the Pentagon. I only left the base to visit mortuaries and hospitals; and after being in-country for four months I took my Rest and Relaxation (R and R) leave with my wife in Bangkok. She had flown in from Germany, where she lived with our three children while I was serving my tour.
As a U.S. Army major, I had 10 soldiers assigned to my branch who actually typed the messages for transmission to the Pentagon. The codes we used for the various reports were:
FRIAR: Lightly wounded, no hospitalization
LOYAL: Seriously wounded or ill
PUNCH: Missing in action. We kept a soldier in Punch status if there was the slightest chance he was alive. For example, one report read, “Last seen with full field pack on being pulled down a fast-moving stream and he was not a strong swimmer.” The hope was that some part of his uniform or equipment would get caught up by the branch of a tree hanging over the water.
PUNCH (PID): Missing in action (Pending ID). This meant that we had a body that we were sending to a mortuary for positive ID. Since there had been erroneous notifications early in the war, the Army wanted to be double sure we reported the correct person to their families.
ETHER: Killed in combat or non-hostile death. We defined a hostile death in the Army if it was a direct result of combat action or combat-related missions (friendly or enemy fire), such as firing at known or suspected enemy positions.
After we sent notifications, the Pentagon would assign a notification officer and then a separate survivor’s assistance officer for the next of kin. We ensured that the appropriate sympathy letters were sent to the families. We also answered many questions about cause of death on behalf on the families, members of Congress, and even the president of the United States.
We were also given a short time to respond, despite being in a war zone. For example, I believe that we had less than 12 hours to answer a congressional inquiry.
All of the Army names (dead or missing) sent to the Pentagon in 1970 are now on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. They are on panel 15W-line 12 to panel 6W-line 100.
Bodies were sent to mortuary at Tan Son Nhut. They had an expert at identifying bodies. His last name was Neep and I remember that he did not have any hair on his body. He is one reason why we do not have an Unknown Soldier from the Vietnam War because he was so proficient at identifying remains. He also maintained a map of Vietnam with pins in it representing the places where remains might have been buried as reported by soldiers in the area. The idea was that after the war was over, we would be allowed to investigate these sites to recover any remains.
Another duty assigned to me was the reporting of the status of soldiers who had been wounded and hospitalized and those who had not contacted their families in a long time. This latter category was classified as “Health and Welfare” reports. We usually reported back that the soldier was “present for duty, capable of writing, and urged to write.”
We also provided reports on the wounded, usually every three days. However, I remember a particular case in which I sent daily reports and personal messages to the wife of a soldier whose arms and legs had been blown off. He had walked on to a landmine that blew up and had been blown on to another mine. These reports went on for 30 days and, coupled with the daily routine of my job, caused me to lose a lot of sleep and weight.
However, I drew comfort knowing I had been given a truly special mission, and that the military really cared about the soldiers and their families.
Unfortunately, a reporter in a Honolulu newspaper wrote that the Army did not care about this wounded soldier. As evidence of this he noted that the Army did not even give him his own TV. The facts were otherwise. His unit did want to give him a TV but he did not want it because he said that he needed to learn how to live with the loss of his limbs. He asked to be wheeled into the common area each day to watch TV there between treatments.
Why do I volunteer at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and stir up these memories? I view volunteering as a continuation of the tour I had in Vietnam. In 1994, in response to a request in the Washington Post, I started to volunteer at the Wall.
At first I worked with a group known as the Friends of the Vietnam Memorial, which had been formed to honor the memory of those who had died as a result of their time in Vietnam, but were ineligible to have their names on the Wall. I was a sponsor for family members who came to the Wall to honor their loved ones. They were sincerely grateful that someone still cared for loved ones they believed had died as a result of service to our country but had been forgotten.
I then worked with Jan Scruggs, president and founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and the volunteer coordinator, Holly Rotondi. I still take part in the In Memory Program and other events such as the Father’s Day Rose Remembrance, in which we place hundreds of roses at the Wall. My daughter, a former U.S. Air Force officer, also took part in one of these ceremonies recently. Each Father’s Day, we place notes from loved ones on long-stemmed red roses for the dead and on yellow ones for the missing. After affixing the tributes, we read one or two of these in a circle. This is always an emotional time, which brings tears to those of us who read these remembrances. We then find the panel on the Wall where the soldier’s name is etched. We touch the rose to the name and read aloud the note. The rose is then carefully placed at the base of the panel. It is one small way to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their loved ones and their country. We should never forget them or their sacrifices.
Although we are no longer in Vietnam, our military continues to be called upon to defend ourselves and protect our interests.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was working as an Army civilian in the Pentagon when the terrorists drove a plane loaded with innocent people and several thousand pounds of jet fuel about 160 yards from where I was. Two of my co-workers were killed and an Army officer I worked with was burned over 50 percent of his body and survived.
This taught me that we live in a dangerous world and have to learn to live together in peace.
On July 18, 2003, while a student in the Teach Vietnam Program sponsored by Scruggs, I heard the Vietnamese ambassador to the United States, Nguyen Tam Chien, state that his country wanted better relations with the U.S. As a sign of good faith, they were cooperating with the U.S. in recovering remains and accounting for those missing from the Vietnam War.
Scruggs reminded us that Vietnam is a country and not a war. He was very active in helping to educate Vietnamese about unexploded ordnance and to help remove them from Vietnam.
It has been over 40 years since I proudly served there, but I have never forgotten what happened.