Mike Company               

Third Battalion, Fifth Marines

RVN, 1966 -1971
Home Up Going to VN In the Bush Coming Home First Firefight Overrun! Dreams&Visions Sandbagging A Way Out



By Mike McFerrin

All bush Marines could tell you what was required to get out of the bush both temporarily and permanently. These were things that everybody heard and remembered… without looking like they were listening and learning. After 30 years, I may have the following wrong but it was something like this.


With 3 purple hearts that required at least 24 hours hospitalization each, you could get out of the bush, but not Nam.

With 2 48-hour hearts, you could get out of the bush but not Nam.

With 3 48-hour hearts, you could get out of Nam.

In the million dollar wound category:

If you could get any kind of wound that required any series of reconstructive surgery, you would probably get out of Nam but depending on the area wounded and the time you had left in the Corps you might be subject to being sent back.

If you could get a wound that left you partially affected for life in any kind of movement of your body, you could get out of Nam and the Corps and maybe get a pension too.

There may be other categories that I have forgotten since the need to know these is no longer in my life….and I still have a life. But these were not jokes when they seemed to or did represent the only way that one might survive the war. And the art of Self-Inflicted Wounding was taken to a higher level in the Vietnam War than our forefathers had done in previous conflicts. It was an ever present reality that I’m sure most if not all of us in the bush had to deal with at one time or another. Either contemplating it to one degree or another or being aware of somebody who was either contemplating or doing something about it.

For those who were not out there, my statement about everybody being aware of it one way or another may sound like an exaggeration. For those who carried the dead and mangled as well as just the mangled into the choppers to be flown off to wherever it was, the statement does not come close to telling of the fears that forcefully occupied your mind for days and weeks on end and their cumulative effect on your psyche. How does one seriously contemplate doing serious damage to oneself? Well, very seriously, of course, and very cautiously. None of the weapons available to us came with any instructions on use for self mutilation. This was an acquired skill that left very little room to practice in and even less in the final exams.

I’ll start with myself and my own thoughts since I know these better than any. To be honest, I actually considered very seriously causing damage to a leg. The worst part of this is I wasn’t in Vietnam. I was in the stateside Marine Corps at Recon. It had nothing to do with Vietnam. I just didn’t like the Marine Corps and I wanted to get back on the streets from where I had come and I was young enough to think about stepping in front of a car while on liberty. One going just fast enough to hurt one leg. I remember standing on a street corner in San Diego watching cars go by in the downtown area where they weren’t going too fast. I was trying to estimate the speed that would be necessary to damage one leg enough to get out of the Corps. After about a half hour of this, I came to and realized that not only did I not know how much damage was enough but I didn’t have the nerve either. Well, it was a good exercise in the sense that it put an end to all my daydreams about getting out of the Corps and back on the streets. I began to accept that I was going to do my time and started becoming a better Marine.

My first few months in Vietnam were very nasty. Mike Company was in the crap and had been all that summer of 1968. All survivors in the company were to one degree or another suffering from battle fatigue. The daily dead and wounded and associated violence took its toll. But I had not yet even considered a self inflicted wound. It wasn’t until one day when Mike Company got caught in some kind of weird firefight that I began to learn about it. If my memory serves me right, it was in the Arizona Territory on a very hot day. So far that day nothing had happened. But it had been every day before that so we were waiting for whatever to come down, expecting it. We took a break in a treeline and everybody sought shade, dropped their pack, and began drinking water. Just as the first sips of water arrived in the stomach, all hell broke loose. I remember it wasn’t even much of a shock. Just sort of, "Okay, here we go for today’s matinee of death and destruction."

I rolled from my sitting position leaning against my pack which was up against a tree to the prone position facing behind the tree where most of the fire seemed to be coming from. But then it seemed to change directions and come from the flank. In all the shrubs and trees, I couldn’t see anything and was waiting for people at the front of the column to give us a clue as to what was happening. Apparently they were as clueless as we were. It was almost like we were in the middle of a firefight between two other units but none could be seen and there were no identifiable M-16’s firing. Nobody from Mike Company was firing at anything but it was still a hell of a battle. And nobody seemed to be firing at us as a target. Bullets were flying everywhere but were not concentrated on anybody or anything and they were coming from two directions. Each person sort of adjusted themselves behind whatever was available to cover from those two directions and waited it out.

I looked out from behind the tree every couple of seconds just to assure myself that no NVA were attempting to rush the flank. One of these times that I looked out, I saw a Marine’s hand and forearm sticking up in the air from behind a log. My first impression was that it was somebody who had been hit and I looked over at a machine gunner behind the tree next to me and pointed up there. He looked and saw the hand and arm and started yelling asking if somebody was hit. The hand and arm quickly went down and a voice said "No. I’m okay." Then followed with a very soft, "So far, anyway." It was the platoon sergeant. It was then that it dawned on the machine gunner and I that he had been trying to "catch" a round.

This was my first knowledge of self-inflicted wounding in Vietnam and it was something to think about. The man who was attempting it was in a key leadership position in the bush. Vietnam made the squad leaders, platoon sergeants, and platoon commanders the most important people in the prosecution of the war. Whether an operation was successful or not, whether the troops lived or died, whether the enemy was killed or stopped at any point were all under the total control of these three positions. Not only was it primarily a small unit action war but even in large unit actions the terrain managed to turn it back into a series of small unit actions.

Was this platoon sergeant a coward? Well, I had not been there long measured in time, but measured in exposure to combat, I had some considerable time in. This description of somebody in a war is difficult to contemplate once you have been exposed to war. Is this somebody who is afraid? Well, than this covers 99.9999% of all who are there no matter what they may say or do. Just in my own experience to that date, I could truthfully say that I had laid on a battlefield and cried like a baby, froze on a battlefield, sandbagged an ambush that was certain death, and been sick with the stench of death all around me. The other side to that coin was that I had also fought like Chesty Puller, taken extraordinary risks to save other Marines, taken other Marines’ places when they broke down and were unable to perform out of fear, and generally looked like John Wayne. The hero and the coward walk in the same man. And I already knew that I was simply typical. An average Marine in Vietnam. This platoon sergeant was no different. I had seen him perform his job very well. The time, place, circumstances, body chemistry at the moment, and the current condition of the psyche all seemed to be factors in determining a person’s performance at any given moment as well as their ability to cope with all that was happening. He had apparently reached the point of overload. I could not "look down" on him for he was me. He was simply another form of casualty that the Marines more than anybody had in Vietnam. The Army choppered their men out to the field to have battles then choppered them back to the rear to rest up for the next one. The Marines couldn’t afford all of those choppers so they just choppered us out and left us there. These protracted periods in the bush were a real weight on one’s mental stamina.

There does exist a type of person who does not appear to be afraid and performs so in combat. In two years, I personally saw two of them. Even at this point I had already seen one. The unfortunate side effect of this type of person is that it is clear that there is something "wrong" there. An imbalance of a sort. Both that I saw in Vietnam appeared to want to be a "hero" so bad that they were willing to risk their lives for that sole purpose and that desire had even warped their judgment as to what act actually would be heroic. The one that I had already witnessed had taken a very large risk to kill some NVA in a situation where it actually hadn’t made an iota of difference in anything. It saved no Marine’s life. It did not even shorten the battle one second. It was a totally worthless risk but it got him put up for a medal. Once you have witnessed this type of "hero," it is difficult to not keep your eye on them if they are anywhere near you. It is not awe that causes this. It is fear. This person has a set of values that places certain things in an order that is alien to most humans. Being viewed as a hero is more important than their own life or has so bent their view of reality that they can’t make proper judgments. The reality of this for those around them is clear. If they don’t care or can’t take care of their own life, what can you expect them to do with yours? And in both cases of this type of person that I saw in Vietnam, the end was the same. They were both killed in action and both managed to get other Marines killed with them. In neither case were they performing any act that was of any consequence whatsoever to any of their fellow Marines or to the battle at hand. I believe both were buried with several medals. Unfortunately, the Marines they managed to get killed with them didn’t even get this.

So in my first witness of an attempt to wound one’s self, I had enough experience under my belt to know that the word "coward" was something that a fellow bush vet would find hard to apply in this circumstance. It also stimulated thought about this as a way out of the bush for myself if I needed it. I wondered why I had not considered it before so I thought back over the several circumstances that came to mind that I did want to get out of there really bad. Well, it was pretty clear after that reflection to see why I had never thought of it before. Each and every time that I had an overwhelming desire to get out of the bush, I had been in very imminent danger of becoming severely wounded or killed. This was not a time that the thought of wounding and maybe severely wounding one’s self would come to mind. Excuse me, Mr. Charles, but your last few rounds didn’t actually hit me so let me take care of that for you. I just sort of filed the info away in my mind since it didn’t seem to have any pertinent application to me…..yet.

It had also crossed my mind that others might have attempted or even been successful at what I had witnessed. For obvious reasons, it would not be something that got around. Most people would not want anybody to know. I remember having a conversation with a couple of foxhole buddies a night or two after this incident with the platoon sergeant. They had been there at least a couple of months longer than I had and were definitely more knowledgeable about the wounds necessary to get out of the bush.

It seems that shooting one’s self in the right place in the foot could almost guarantee not only getting out of the bush but out of the Corps with a pension too. Limited foot movement and a permanent limp was pretty well assured. Small price to pay for having the rest of your life to live. The only but compelling thing against this was that it would be 100% guaranteed that it would be known that it was self inflicted. The chances of such a wound from such an angle occurring in combat was nonexistent unless you had multiple wounds upon your body that had been delivered at close range by an enemy and if so, why were you alive at all? Even claiming accidental discharge was no good because even that was prosecutable as at least negligence. It was speculated that up to life in prison or even a firing squad was possible punishment for such an act.

It seems that the weapon of choice for delivering a wound to get you out of the bush at least temporarily was the M-26 Grenade, Fragmentation. Apparently through multiple acts of self mutilation, this method had been refined to specific steps designed to incur a 48 hour Purple Heart without causing any permanent or too painful damage to one’s body. This meant that you would actually have to do this twice to get out of the bush and if you could successfully pull it off in the rear area at least once after that, you would be on your way back to the World. This seemed a bit daunting to me. I wasn’t even sure that I could do it to myself once. Three times just seemed impossible.

In this conversation I did hear about many suspected acts of self wounding in Mike Company during the last 3 or 4 months. There were many stories of less successful attempts. It seems that getting the 3 24 hour Purple Hearts used to be a favorite target. It would only get you out of the bush, but of course that is what the majority wanted to do especially when things were bad. And to guarantee that you wouldn’t damage yourself, the C-rat can opener, the John Wayne, was used to inflict the wound. During mortar attacks was the preferred time to apply this wound. One of the problems with this was getting a 24 hour hospitalization out of it. Flying you back to the aid station in An Hoa and getting a few stitches and sending you back out did not constitute hospitalization. Even flying you to 1st Med in Danang for stitches did not qualify you. To actually get a 24 hour hospitalization by using your can opener or even a knife required one hell of a Marine. You had to apply the sharp edge of whatever in prolonged and multiple attacks on yourself that would make most people pass out from the pain. Not exactly something that is within the range of actions for somebody who is trying to avoid such damage to his body in the first place.

It was a couple of months before I witnessed another situation that may have been the single most successful "self-inflicted" wounding that I know about. I say "may" because I cannot be sure that it wasn’t real. Mike Company was on an operation that took us very close to the Laotian border. One day we were on a mountain top building a fire support base and the next morning we were choppered into a valley that was supposed to have an old French highway running through it. The old French maps showed it as following along a river that ran through the valley, crossing back and forth across the river where ever it needed to. This particular portion of this operation started off weird and seemed to stay that way for the time we were in this area.

First, we waited for all chopper loads to arrive by sort of spreading out in this area of tall elephant grass along this river. This area of grass was about 300 meters along the length of the river and either end had dense tree areas that ran as far as one could see in either direction through the valley. This was obviously the only place within miles that choppers could set down along the river. While we were waiting for the last choppers to arrive, the Company CP group was wandering all around the area looking for the old French highway shown on the map. It couldn’t be found. Even after the last choppers arrived, we were on hold while they did some map resection to verify where we had landed. I remember not bothering because one did not need to do any resection in this case. Because we were in a clearing, we could see many peaks in the area and bends in the river from where we were at. One did not have to shoot any azimuths to see our coordinates on the map here. These maps were from surveys done prior to 1954 so although I too expected to see some remnant of the French highway, it was not entirely impossible that the jungle had already reclaimed it.

While this congregation of very important Company CP people were trying to confirm the obvious, the rest of us sort of sat around in the grass eating some C-rats, making coffee, smoking cigarettes, etc. Somebody from one of the platoons was having a problem with his weapon. After working on it for a few minutes, he got clearance to test fire it. He fired a couple of rounds into our side of the valley that ran along the river. For those looking, they knew he had some tracer rounds in his weapon when they saw them go into the grass up the side of the slope. Within a few seconds, you could see a small wisp of smoke curling up out of the grass where the round had hit. This soon became a small cloud of smoke and most people in the company turned to look at it when somebody said, "Hey, it looks like those tracer rounds started a fire." People only turned to look because nobody had ever seen a tracer round start a fire before. Just then a breeze came down through the valley and the little fire became a small wall of flame that shot down the hill almost to the river.

Upon reaching the river, it stopped any movement until it was a conflagration about 12 foot high then turned left and shot for us. The ones closest to it were screaming the loudest as they jumped up and ran away from it and towards the rest of us who were moving a little bit slower as we got up and looked at this wall moving towards us. It was sort of unbelievable. I guess each of us must have thought that it was just a small spurt in the fire that would stop quickly. But it did not stop. My platoon was going to be point anyway that morning and I heard the Captain yelling at my platoon commander to get the column moving NOW. I grabbed the Marine closest to me and told him he was point and to start moving down this overgrown trail we were on. I grabbed his squad leader to get him to get the rest of his squad moving when I saw the point man I had just put there at a stop as he tried to pull a branch overhanging the trail back so he could move past it without having to rub by it. Instead of trying to put an order to our column since there was no time, I told the squad leader to push everybody on the trail and down it as quick as he could. I ran to the point man grabbed him from behind telling him that there was no time for any of this and started pushing him in front of me down the trail. The wall of fire was picking up speed. The Marines were now at almost a full run trying to stay ahead of it and we were blocking the only possible way to stay ahead of it. The point man got the message after I shoved him through the next 10 or 20 meters of bushes until he was at almost a full run. He could hear the panic of the Marines behind him increasing also.

He had a little over a hundred meters to go to get to the start of the trees. The grass itself though ran another 50 meters or so into the trees before it stopped. The trees were all quite green so it was hoped that the grass fire would burn itself out before any trees could catch on fire. The point man was suddenly scared to death as he began to enter the trees. He started screaming as he was running so that I could hear him, "What if there are gooks in here?" And he slowed a bit again, I grabbed his shirt from behind and once again began pushing him in front of me as I yelled in his ear, "Shoot any that you see but do not slow down until I tell you!" He responded and moved forward on his own.

Just as we on the point made it out of the grass area, I stopped, moved to the side of the trail, and began to turn back to watch and be sure that we got all Marines past this point to probable safety. I didn’t even get turned around when I heard a scream and a choke mixed together trying to say something coming from the point. I hadn’t heard a weapon and the first flash I had was that he had hit some kind of non-explosive booby trap. I turned back to the front and ran towards him expecting to have to pull him off the trail so others could get by and I could treat whatever it was. But he was still running forward and I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Then I heard the words, "Gas! Gas!" coming from him as I saw him run right into a big bush on a curve in the trail and get knocked down.

I remember sort of freezing up as I tried to assess this. I mean I had never even heard of this in the bush. Sure everybody had been issued gas masks when they got in country but I didn’t know anybody who had kept them for more than a week or two. None of the people who had been there for months had his gas mask and after seeing the war up close for a while it did not seem to be a war where gas was used much since it was so difficult to be sure that it only got the enemy and not you. Both the NVA and VC did not seem to be all that technically inclined anyway. They did just fine with old grenades and punji sticks. So most people did just what they saw others do after they realized that it was not much of a threat. They threw away the gas mask and used the pouch to carry extra food or something that had more value to a grunt than a gas mask. So I can’t even turn and yell to everybody to get their gas masks on. I don’t have one either and then I realize that I don’t even know what kind of gas it is. I sort of look back behind me and realize that turning the column around is not an option.

In this couple of seconds that I hesitated, the full impact of this situation slammed me very hard. I would have to keep moving through this gas trying to hold my breath for how long? And the enemy was probably in the area with gas masks on waiting to get us all in the kill zone anyway. And we had started the fire that drove ourselves right in here and cut off our escape. I had a flash of this being very bad as I took a deep breath and plunged forward to first get the point man who was still conscious. He was coughing and gagging as I hauled him to his feet. I told him to grab my shirt from behind, hold his breath, and follow me. I plunged forward but had to take a tiny breath and it hit me. But it was actually a relief. I instantly knew that it was tear gas. I was not going to die flopping on the ground with my skin being burned off or my brain being chicken fried. I yelled back that it was tear gas and to keep every body moving. Somehow this did not seem like it was the NVA. Tear gas? This had to be ours. Maybe they captured some of ours and were using it against us. No, I don’t think so because they don’t carry gas masks either. I continued forward until I thought that we might have cleared all Marines from the fire area. I was choking and crying from the gas and my eyes had watered up so that I could barely see.

My platoon commander moved down the trail around everybody to get to me. He said that we had cleared the fire area but we should go a little further just in case any of the trees started on fire. I asked him about all the gas and where it was coming from since we had moved through a couple hundred meters of it. Apparently he was the only one who knew anything about it. He pointed to a branch in front of me and told me to look very close at it. There was a very thin layer of dust on it. With his hand he nudged the branch slightly while I was looking at the dust and I got a face full of tear gas. He told me this was micro-pulverized tear gas crystals. It was probably spread throughout the valley by airplane to reduce its use by the NVA. This fine dust would activate or put off gas with air moving over it. Even the air movement caused by moving the branch was enough. The first question I had was why didn’t anybody tell us before they dropped us down here. His explanation was very simple, scary and probably true. He theorized that the Air Force had actually dispersed the crystals over this valley at the request of MACV several months ago when some recon team had spotted supplies coming in from Laos here. The fact that it had long ago been done and by another service just never made it to the Marine Corps when they planned this operation. And one could only wonder what else may have been dropped out here.

I bent down to scratch my ankle and saw a bulge in my boot near the top. Pulling it open I saw 5 or 6 leeches attached to my ankle. They must have been coming off the bushes and dropping in the top of my boot. I kept my pant legs rolled up to mid calf. This was going to require unlacing and probably removing my boot but the platoon commander said to get moving again so I had to put it off. I stayed on point because I was already there and they still wanted to move speedily to put some distance between the tail end of the column and the grass fire. It appeared to be burning out in the forested area but nobody wanted to take a chance.

I moved quickly but was processing the scene as far ahead as I could see looking for any telltale sign that would indicate an ambush or booby trap. With all the gas I felt relatively safe. After about 20 minutes the gas began to dissipate and in another 5 minutes I was free and clear of the gas. But now I had to maintain my speed to get the rear of the column clear and an ambush was more likely here. The entire company cleared the area without incident.

Without incident??? We had started a fire that attacked us and set over 100 men running for their lives straight into an area that we, the American forces had gassed. Choking, crying, stumbling, and running into bushes and trees, we had barely escaped the fire. If any NVA were watching from the surrounding high ground, we may actually may have scored some confirmed kills if any of them rolling on the ground with laughter had had a heart attack or accidentally rolled off a cliff. The Keystone Marines struck riotous laughter into the hearts of the enemy soldiers as they proceeded down the valley.

At our first stop I quickly pulled my right boot off and to my amazement I had 27 leeches attached to my foot and ankle. Every one had been small enough when it dropped in my boot that it was able to force its way through the threads of my sock to get to me. Now they were all swollen and interwoven in some cases through more than one thread hole. I started removing them with a cigarette at first but there were so many that I pulled out the trusty "bug juice." The blood flowed like from a faucet for about 5 minutes after removing them but I couldn’t wait. I put my sock back on immediately because I had to do my left foot also. 21 leeches there. I got all cleared and rebooted before the column was ready to move out but wound up with blood soaked socks and boots.

We continued moving down the forested trail along the river which of course turned out to be the old French Highway. This was clear once we saw the first of several old bridge remnants where the highway had crossed the river. The jungle became denser the further we went until it had a single canopy. We found an old, but not too old, NVA perimeter off the side of the trail away from the river. After checking it out, it was within a few minutes of being completely dark so we set in using the NVA holes. This was a double edged sword for us. True we didn’t have to dig our holes that night and that was a bit of physical relief. But also true was we knew for a fact that the NVA knew where each of these holes was even in the pitch black under the canopy. For the seasoned bush vets, this was something to worry about.

It got absolutely pitch dark that night. I was in a position just up and off the trail but with enough foliage that even if it had been daylight we would not have a view of the trail itself. Since you cannot see your hand in front of your face in this level of darkness, the turn at watch consists mainly of listening. The jungle at night is not exactly a library in the World. There are sounds but you become accustomed to those that require further attention. We were well aware that the enemy was also hindered by this same darkness.

Some time after midnight, I was just leaning over the foxhole to wake my relief when the doodoo hit the fan. All at once there was screaming, yelling, rifle fire, grenades, and a Claymore blowing on the far side of the perimeter. The darkness was streaked with the flashes and their rebound off the layer of leaves above. I immediately convulsed, jerking back from the foxhole and rolling away from it, yelling at the men in it to get out of the hole. Everything had happened so quickly and fiercely that I assumed we were under a full scale assault which would be aimed at the known positions. Since the best avenue to assault from was the trail down in front of my positions, I was fully expecting all hell to break loose any second and was appropriately sweating with fear. I moved on my belly towards another position yelling at them to abandon the hole, keep spread out and pass it on to the next position. Nothing had started yet on our side so I quickly added to not fire until they had a target. Don’t give away your position men. The other side of the perimeter was still firing and yelling but I could hear many Marine voices trying to figure out what was happening. After about 3 minutes of this everything stopped. We were still tensed to the max on my side.

I could hear Marines talking across the perimeter but couldn’t discern what they were saying. But the tones and levels indicated something wasn’t quite right. I mean I had never heard a conversation carried on like this in a firefight or even in a lull in a firefight before. What was up? Eventually the word was passed that everything was okay, There were no gooks or casualties. False alarm. Say what? Three minutes of all that I heard was not your average "mistake" that had no casualties. I was confused and knew something wasn’t right. I kept all my positions on 100% alert for another hour then lapsed back to 50%. I was really glad we had maintained fire discipline.

The next morning we got the word on what had come down. A certain Marine had "flipped out." He had blown his Claymore, fired his M-16 with one hand, and been throwing grenades that he had pulled the straightened pins out of with his teeth with his other hand. All the while he had been yelling about all the NVA charging his position. Of course he had scared the holy shit out of everybody around him who thought there was something out there. It took a while for even those close to him to realize that there was nothing firing back. And a little bit longer to figure out that there was nobody there. And then a little bit longer to get enough together to physically disarm him so he couldn’t hurt another Marine. I saw him sitting up in the Company CP awaiting a medevac chopper. He looked out of it but this particular Marine always looked sort of like that. He always wore these dark, hippy style glasses which made him look like he was hiding bloodshot eyes.

I had a problem with this though and I can remember thinking about it when I saw him that morning. Later, I would find that other people who had been there for a while also had suspicions about this incident. This particular Marine had been there since early summer of 1968. He had been through some very prolonged tough times with the company. Overall, he was considered very good in the bush. He had been put up for a Silver Star and deserved it from what I had heard. This of course does not mean he doesn’t have a limit as anybody else. The problem with the "limit" part is that the company had been at its slowest combat wise for the last 5 weeks. We had had maybe 4 or 5 contacts resulting in casualties in the last 5 weeks and all of them were hit and run ambushes of short duration. It was the slowest it had ever been since he had been there. For somebody of his proven bush worthiness, this was not a time that combat fatigue would strike.

Now, on the other hand, if you were a good bush Marine and you really wanted to get out of the bush, this was actually an excellent time to pull such an incident by design. No Marines were actually jeopardized by this action and he did not leave his fellow Marines in a lurch by leaving them in bad circumstances. He did scare the crap out of us but that’s all.

At this time in my Vietnam service, I had only witnessed one Marine who had been permanently medevacked out of the bush and Vietnam on a psychological. I was anxious to see the outcome of this one since I had the funny feeling that he was completely faking it. It was more than a couple of months before we went back to the combat base at An Hoa. He had not been sent back out in the meantime. When we got back we found him living in a bunker across from the Mike Company bunker. He was making regular trips to Danang to see the psychiatrist. He avoided talking to any of us as much as possible. He needed to be mentally "wounded" for a while for this to work.

Within a couple of months after that, he was gone. To the World, I assume, and as a real hero. Not only did he have his Silver Star for combat against the enemy but he had the undying envy of all who believed that he had successfully beat the Marine Corps system which was an action on an even higher plane of heroism.

There were two circumstances that usually needed to be in conjunction for the self inflicted wounds to occur. First, was the threat of imminent death or severe injury. One had to believe that either of these could happen. Second, was the opportunity to get a self inflicted wound with the surest minimum of damage to one’s self. There was, I’m sure, an ideal mix of these components but, in reality, there were different degrees of these two conditions that might exist simultaneously that, although not ideal, would cause some to go for it.

On Firebase Maxwell beginning in February, 1969, opportunity abounded while imminent threat was a real stretch. We were getting hit daily with 82mm mortars and also getting hit at night with ground troops. The ground troops that were hitting us were obviously boots. They were not very good compared to what we were used to. But the daily 82’s were certainly making money for the Purple Heart manufacturer. Lots of nicks and scratches from small shrapnel. Sort of the same size as a John Wayne opener would make with one small pull across the back of the hand. This did not get one any closer to getting out of the bush but it certainly gave one some color on their uniform and a tale to tell the grandchildren.

Personally, I was not interested in hurting myself at all. My view was still that the chances of making a complete tour in the bush were slim enough as it was without my trying to intercede with such acts. Up to this time I had not received even one piece of shrapnel from enemy fire. I had so far received only two severe concussion whomps from grenades, one of my own and one of theirs. Neither had done much more than knocked me silly. And I had a piece of very hot shrapnel from one of our own shape charges fall down the front of my shirt making me jump up and down screaming as I tried to get the hot metal out. Screamed so much that the corpsman told me he hoped I never got hit when he was out there without ear plugs.

But I had lots of close ones. My boot heel was nicked by snipers as I attempted to cross a 50 meter area by myself without the availability of any cover fire. I don’t know what the muzzle velocity of an AK is, but I was just a bit slower than that. My E-tool had been nicked by a machine gun when I was trapped on a trail in an ambush. I was playing dead and they were trying to make sure I wasn’t playing. But these were not even as close as some that I saw strike within an inch or less of me that hit the dirt or a tree. Then there were the big ones where huge chunks of shrapnel had embedded themselves in the paddy right next to me. Or the canisters from 155 illum rounds that sound like an asteroid crashing to earth that took out an entire tree right next to me. And the worst one was not even fired by anybody. While on ambush under the canopy in the mountains, it had rained all night. A tree of some 5 or 6 feet in radius and 70 or 80 feet tall had simply fell over and crashed to the earth within 6 inches of me. In fact, it fell in between two of us who were trying to sleep and had rolled just far enough apart for the monster tree to fit in between us. Each of us thought the other was underneath it. But no Purple Heart yet.

Firebase Maxwell was the top of a hill that had been blown to bits with a B-52 strike then leveled with a small dozer. An LZ, an ammo bunker, artillery emplacements and a fire direction control bunker had been made and Mike Company was now guarding this hilltop in positions strung around it on the side of the mountain. Third Platoon was the closest to where the NVA fired mortars from and from where the ground attacks came so we used more ammo than the others. One day I had to take a squad up to the ammo bunker to get ammo for the whole platoon. The bunker was right next to the LZ which had been zeroed in by the NVA mortar crews shortly after the firebase was made.

I took the five men into the ammo bunker with me and pulled 12 cans of ammo out for us to carry two each. As we got the ammo down and distributed, a resupply chopper began trying to come in with a cargo net full of food and plastic water bags. As soon as he descended to about 50 feet the mortars began coming in. The pop of the tube in the distance, the whistle of the incoming round, the short sucking air noise, and the explosion were all audible to us. The chopper pilots were real nervous about this LZ because they knew it was zeroed in. At the first explosion, he lifted back up and away without dropping his load as some 3 or 4 more rounds came in. We stayed in the bunker to wait this out since it was raining shrapnel and we had to cross the LZ to get back to our platoon area. Again the pilot attempted to come down and drop the net and again he backed away as more mortar rounds came in. On the third try, he came all the way down very fast and dropped the net and skedaddled before the next barrage hit. The net had been dropped so violently that some of the plastic water bags had burst.

I was in the doorway of the bunker with all five men behind me. I told every body to get ready as the chopper flew off. I waited for the barrage to impact and then waited another ten seconds or so listening for any pops in the distance. I heard none. I turned my head back and said, "Let’s go!" I lowered my head and upper body as I moved out of the bunker doorway to dash across the LZ. By the time I was into my second step I heard the whistle and got instantly sick with the stark knowledge that I had just messed up very badly. I had only a second or two for this thought to engulf me as I tried to hit the deck. My body never made it to the deck. The 82 round, traveling from my right front towards my left rear, impacted less than 10 feet in front of me. The blast blew me backwards in a complete flip and laid me out inside of the bunker behind me. I was conscious but not quite functioning right especially my hearing. I heard yells and screams around me so I attempted to get myself together to render aid. During the course of trying to get myself together, I was also trying to feel where I had been hit. It was not yet apparent and the yelling and screaming was turning into moaning and groaning so I began to triage. All five men with me were hit. All had been in the bunker still but it had not protected them from this one. Everybody was peppered with shrapnel but only one seemed that it might be serious since he had received all of his in the face and head.

I yelled out of the bunker for the company corpsman since he was the closest to the ammo bunker. He came up and we removed everybody to the company command bunker further from the LZ. There treatment began. Well, I was very busy getting the wounded to treatment but all the while I was sure that I must have taken shrapnel too. I just couldn’t feel it yet so it probably wasn’t very serious but enough to get a Heart. As the corpsman was treating everybody, I stood off to the side and commenced my effort to locate my own wounds. I looked up and down my front to see where any new tears or holes were in my fatigues. When none stood out, I pulled my shirt up for a closer look for the very minute holes that must be there. Couldn’t see them. Before it was all over, I was stripped naked with the corpsman trying to find even a red mark on me which he promised me I would get a Purple Heart for. Nothing was there. To myself and all five that had been with me, this was incredible. I had caught the full force of the impact and was the only one who was completely outside the bunker yet I didn’t get a scratch while all five behind me inside of the bunker got hit. I do remember thinking about how lucky I pretty much knew I had been up to that point but this one made me wonder if this was more than luck. If the Lord wanted it this way, who was I to argue? A couple of the Marines would have to be medevacked to An Hoa to have the shrapnel removed and stitches. The rest were taken care of on the spot and then helped me to get the ammo back to the platoon.

Even though I was unable to get a Purple Heart on Maxwell, many did. Though I have no direct or indirect knowledge of any specifics, I am still sure that some were "rat wounds," C-rat opener cuts. There was too much talk and jokes amongst the troops for some not to have taken advantage of the relatively unique situation. But within days, many would wish that they had used a machete instead of the can opener to inflict the wound and there would be those that would go beyond that in an attempt to escape the bush with their lives.

As the Tet season of 1969 arrived around February 23rd, the enemy numbers and activity jumped up into a different category of war. It became clear that they were turning this into a major effort to "get us." There were two fire support bases, about 2 to 3 miles apart, out on the western edges of this operation, Maxwell and Tomahawk. Mike Company 3/5 had Maxwell and Lima Company 3/5 had Tomahawk. Both companies experienced a dramatic increase as ground attacks came nightly in larger numbers and with great intensity as the NVA demonstrated its sincere desire to wipe us out. We appeared to be good targets in our isolation and small size. In our favor though was the good preparation of defenses on these hills, the rugged terrain around these hills, and the fact, already alluded to, that the quality of the NVA units in the area seemed to be far less than we had been used to facing. They were definitely at least boots and/or their third or fourth string guys. We were more than surviving their assaults, we were kicking their ass every time they tried. It was clear that what they lacked in skill, they could probably make up for in numbers but the terrain around Maxwell made it impossible for them to bring this power to bear on us though.

After about a week of this, our operation changed tempo. Kilo Company 3/5 was brought in to relieve us as security for Maxwell and Mike Company was sent out of Maxwell to go to the ridge across the valley where all the mortar fire had been coming from. We had to go down off the hill, cross the small valley, and go up the other side. For all Mike Company personnel who had been with the company long enough to remember the months on end of ferocious fighting that had been endured, this was a big "UH OH!" Now we would be out moving in unfamiliar territory without prepared defenses in an area where there many NVA trying to get us. We would be presenting the company to them on a silver platter out there. The fear began to build even before we left the perimeter.

We only made it down into the little valley between Maxwell and the other ridge by dark. We had been hit once shortly after leaving the perimeter. An NVA had fired on us with an American M-79. This caused quite a bit of confusion for a while. The distinctive sound of an M-79 firing had not often been heard firing at us. After a short exchange of fire, the fight was over. It was clear that this was some kind of small patrol that the NVA had out around Maxwell just to keep an eye on us. And they did. They now knew we were coming to them.

It was so close to dark when we set in, I didn’t even have time to get an accurate idea of the company perimeter. I only knew where the last position in each platoon on either side of us was located. I was real uncomfortable with this. Things can get real messy in the night when you don’t know where your guys are. The good part of where we set in was that it was sort of in the middle of a real brushy part of the forest and we were not near any trail. We had spent the last couple of hours cutting our way through as opposed to following a trail. This made it almost impossible for the NVA to get anywhere close to us in force without us knowing and seriously hindered any assault. I took the squad leaders with me as I moved along the area that would be our responsibility. Due to the density of the brush, I went thin on the number of men per position because I needed more positions to insure that there were no large gaps in the lines with that much cover in them. As I got towards the end of our area, I had one area that was relatively clear of brush where a steep gully cut into the terrain. I had to indent the lines a bit at this point to cover the gully but could save on number of positions by a couple. This left some extra men for these last positions. I had the squad leaders assign their men to the positions. I went back to the gully position which wound up with 5 men in it and to the ones on either side of it to make sure they all knew where each other was at since this was indented and the brush prevented visual contact between the positions. All things considered, I was sure that we would fare very well that night.

It was some time after midnight when an explosion and some M-16 fire brought everybody to full alert. It was my platoon and I was already sliding on my belly through the forest trying to get to the positions involved. The incident only lasted a few seconds and then all stopped except for the call of "Corpsman up!" I was almost to the gully position when the call came from there. Because the canopy was broken right around the gully I could see the area in the moon and star light. I stood up and moved to the position. There were a couple of guys rolling around moaning and groaning. The senior man in the position turned and looked at me as I came up. Seeing that he saw me, I didn’t bother asking anything since he had been around for a while and knew the questions. But he didn’t say a word. There was sort of a pregnant pause as I waited for him to say something but simultaneously I took in the scene of this position. Whatever had come down, they certainly didn’t feel in any danger now. In fact, outside of the obviously wounded men, it would be difficult to tell that just seconds before this position had been under fire.

Finally, with no information forthcoming from anybody in the position and the oddity of the layout starting to sink in, I asked, "What happened?" The immediate response was, "A gook threw a grenade." I waited a couple of seconds to see if the obvious rest of the information was coming. None was coming. That was the entire response. My sense that something wasn’t right immediately escalated into full blown suspicion when I had to ask how many were there, where did they come from, where did they go, etc. They pointed down into the gully and said he had been down there and threw the grenade up at them. Well, from where they were pointing and where the grenade hole was down in front of them was only about 10 meters. I wondered if the NVA was just real weak or had the explosive rolled back down the hill before detonating. I also wondered how the NVA had made it to where they said he was at since the gully slanted down to the front of the other Marine position that wasn’t visible to these guys.

This was the second time they had used the word grenade since I arrived at their position.. All of these men in this position had been in Vietnam for a while. They were using the word grenade for what the enemy had thrown. This was either a Freudian slip or they had reason to believe it was a "grenade" which usually implied one of ours, an M-26 or M-33, as opposed to one of theirs which was usually called a "Chicom." Chicom was a short form of Chinese Communist which somehow became the term for the homemade grenades they used almost exclusively. The Chicom was usually made with explosives and glass or nails packed into a section of a soda or beer can with a friction fuse stuck in one end. These were dangerous but far less so than ours. There almost always was a weak point in the tin around the explosives which tended to give way in the blast creating a shape charge effect where the majority of the force and shrapnel was directed out this weak point. If the weak point was not facing you, chances were you would not get hit with anything no matter how close you were. They also occasionally carried ours that they had captured and even some old "pineapple" grenades from World War II but rarely. So I asked them how they knew it was a grenade. Did they see it? No, they hadn’t seen it There was a pause as they too realized they had been using the "wrong" term. Then one of them spoke up that they thought it was a grenade because the blast was so big that they all had been wounded from it. I was taken aback since I didn’t know that all five had been hit. I had thought only the two moaners had caught some shrapnel.

Now my suspicion was confirmed for me just by the way they were acting and I was going to make them uncomfortable at least. "How the hell did all five of you in a defensive position get hit from one grenade that landed 10 meters away on the side of a gully?" No answer. I told one of them to start bandaging the moaners and evaluate the wounds and began asking everybody where they were hit. All five had been hit from behind. Heels, calves, back of thighs and buttocks were hit. "And not one of you son-of-a-bitches was looking forward from your position when this gook sneaked up here?" No response. They knew that I knew. The only thing they were wondering was what was I going to do about it. I know they had considered it beforehand and probably expected me to sort of just go along. I was the Platoon Sergeant but, to them, I was one of the troops because I was only 18 years old and they knew that I had no problem telling it "like it is" to the staff and officers or doing whatever I thought was right to save lives even if it meant being "disobedient."

At this moment though, they were unsure of what I was going to do. And so was I. This was the first time that I was actually in this position so I needed some time to consider all. I first went to the other position that the "NVA" would have had to go by to get to where they said he was. The position hadn’t heard or seen anything until the explosion and I was fairly certain that they had not been warned which was sort of dangerous since the grenade could have gotten some of them through the brush. Because it was dark when they set in and the line was indented at their position, the culprits did not fully understand the lay of the terrain or their story wouldn’t have been so weak and they would not have endangered the other position as they did. It was the peril that they subjected the other Marines to that pissed me off. Their poor planning and execution was just an embarrassment.

I knew the reasons they had done it. What we were doing as a company by moving out "into the open" was surely going to put us into something heavy and everybody knew it. The fun and games and easy Hearts days of being on the fire support base were over and we were headed into some real action. I did not "want" to do what we were doing but I was a Marine with fellow Marines to consider. If I could stop the whole company from going out, I would have. But their acts seemed selfish to me. "I’m getting my ass out of here and the hell with the rest of you." It was sort of mitigated by the fact that they chose a time that was better than it could have been. We weren’t actually engaged with the enemy where this caused severe hardship on the rest of us and I felt sure that they had considered that.

I returned to the gully position. The corpsman had been working on them and we had two requiring a medevac to the hospital that would wait until morning and two that needed to go to An Hoa only for a brief stay. Of the two requiring hospitalization, one of them was more severe than I’m sure he had been looking for. His heel tendon was pretty screwed up and, in fact, may have qualified for the million dollar wound category since it could be permanent. He might have to hobble around for the rest of his life but in return, he would have "a rest of his life" and maybe a monthly pension besides. I had the positions rearranged so that the wounded Marines were spread out amongst the others but didn’t say a word to them, leaving them to wonder all night if I was going to hustle up a court martial and a firing squad.

When I returned to the platoon CP, I was questioned by the Platoon Commander but I did not say anything. I did have the distinct impression that he sensed something wasn’t right but decided to leave it to me and not get involved. My decision to let the circumstance ride without saying anything did not leave me comfortable but I was sure that I would have other things to take my mind off of it. I could not in good conscience turn these men in. They were my fellow Marines. By this time in my Vietnam experience, my fellow Marines were the only reason worth doing anything for. The war itself did not have any of the characteristics that gave one the feeling that it was a righteous necessity to save the world, or the USA or even Vietnam itself and the command structure of the Marine Corps had a demonstrated lack of care or concern for its own troops so who could say that these men must risk their lives. Even my own personal ethic of not deserting my fellow Marine was not valid to force compliance. I may not have liked what they did but that was because they made my job harder by reducing the platoon’s capability to defend itself and, in a way, ducked out on their fellow Marine but turning them in was not an option since I did not feel that there was anybody I could turn them in to who truly had any moral authority. The next morning we sent the medevacs off before moving out.

The platoon was certainly buzzing about what had happened but only briefly because we did begin to enter a very bad period by the afternoon. While climbing up the ridge opposite Maxwell looking for the NVA we found them. Third platoon was on point and because we knew they were on the ridge somewhere we had flanks out for just the point platoon. This was no easy task. One squad took a trail up the ridge with the Company CP and Mortars following. One reinforced squad off each side of the trail about 30 meters where there was no trail. I had taken the right flank. The undergrowth was so dense that we had to perform large zigs and zags to get up the hill. I had to keep telling the center to hold so we could get caught back up with them. A little past noon and a little over halfway up the ridge, the Marines on the trail were ambushed. At precisely this time, the right flank and I were in a huge tangle of vines and brush on a very steep section. Not exactly terrain fit for a speedy assault forward. And on top of this, the steep angles and gullies had a weird effect on the sound of the weapons firing. I could have sworn it was a 50 caliber machine gun firing at the Marines and others also thought it was something big. This tended to keep us looking to use some kind of big and hard cover as we tried to move up. By the time we got anywhere close to where we could be effective, it was over. There was one WIA but it was a major problem. It was the dog handler and his scout dog was not friendly or muzzled. No one could get near the wounded handler. It took four Marines to get the dog so that somebody could get the muzzle off the handler’s belt and onto the dog so that the corpsman could render aid.

We moved the entire company up to the plateau just below the highest point of the ridge and called for a medevac. The dog handler began to die and there was furious CPR being administered to try and keep him going. We set up a hasty perimeter to cover the medevac. There was no way to get the man out except by lowering a sling through the trees. This meant the chopper would have to hover for an extended period at a height the left it extremely vulnerable to fire from a wide area. I am sure that the man was dead before he cleared the trees. The chopper began taking fire so it left without taking the dog.

It was late in the afternoon by this time so it was decided to set in where we were at. A squad was sent out to go up to the high point of the ridge some 100 meters more up the trail to check it out while the rest of us dug in. I had just finished setting my platoon in and had returned to where the platoon CP would be when an intense firefight broke out. The squad patrol had made contact and in a big way. The heavy firing continued for some ten minutes as the radio crackled with queries from commanders but no answers came. The rest of that squad’s platoon assembled a team to go out to find out what was happening and they began moving out during the first lull.

It seems that an estimated platoon to company sized enemy force occupied the high point of the ridge in well prepared and camouflaged bunkers. The terrain and undergrowth had been used well to funnel the Marines into an inescapable kill zone in front of one of the bunkers. There were three dead Marines and some wounded as well as one who became psychologically wounded. The radioman had been directly behind the three who were killed and the enemy machine gun had spared no rounds in trying to get him. He had taken cover behind a tree barely wide enough to cover him. The enemy gunner had sliced both of the Marine’s shirt sleeves as well as nearly cutting the tree down. This had been what most of the ten minutes of fire had been about since the others were killed in the initial burst and this is why there were no responses from the squad on the radio. The other Marines had been able to move back and he was sort of left to become the personal target for the all of the NVA up there. The rescue effort from the others in his platoon laid down enough fire to get somebody up to grab his leg and pull him back to safety.

Though he had not actually been hit, the experience had taken him past what he could endure psychologically and he was incapable of functioning any more. This was NOT a faked syndrome. This man had come to Mike Company with me the previous year. Because of this, he was disarmed and put in my position for me to watch over. I felt very dumped on by this. My heart went out to this Marine for his experience was very similar to one of my own and I did know and like him. He was a quivering mess when he was brought to my position. I wanted to do something for him but even with my own similar experience I did not know what to do. He had totally lost his mental strength and was unable to recover it. But I was Platoon Sergeant and had more than enough responsibility to deal with under the circumstances. I was concerned that his requirements would conflict with the platoon’s but this was not the time or place to voice this.

The rescue effort had saved all the survivors of the decimated squad but continued to try and recover the dead. One body was recovered and the effort was temporarily abandoned while the rescue team returned to the perimeter for more ammo and a better plan. Due to darkness, the next effort was postponed to the following morning. But the darkness did not stop the contact. We began to get probed almost all around the lines. Since we were on a thin ridge, two sides dropped steeply down into gullies. Though not impassable, these approaches were not probable. Most probes came around to the backside of our perimeter on the ridge and approached or branched off from there trying to get to the edges along the ravines. This was all defended by third platoon so we were getting hit pretty regular all night. We never knew for sure if it was a probe, a feint, or an all-out assault each time it happened so we were ready for anything. I spent the entire night moving from one position to another. We had all night flares being dropped from Puff and Spooky kept laying down fire all around us. A strobe light in the center of our perimeter was used to keep the fire away from us. It was very busy and noisy. There was a lull after the sun came up but it did not last long.

Shortly after first light, the arty from Maxwell began to zero in the top of the ridge where the NVA perimeter was. A chopper was called to get the wounded and the dog out. And then the probes started again in the daylight. They were able to get very close to our positions because of the dense forest and underbrush.

I was walking down a slight slope to one of the positions when an NVA jumped out from behind a tree not more than 10 meters in front of the position with his AK raised and ready to fire and at me is what it looked like. I was in midstep and just leaned to my left to complete it by going behind the tree directly in back of the fighting hole I was heading to. The AK burst brought a long moan out of the hole in front of me. I stuck my 16 out to the right and sprayed the area in front of the fighting hole while the next position over did the same. I stuck my head out from behind the tree on the left side to see the occupant of the hole holding his head and rocking back and forth in a sitting position. The NVA was nowhere in sight at that instant so I jumped into the hole with the wounded Marine. I kept my eye and 16 on the brush and trees to the front as I quizzed the Marine on where he was hit. He said he had been hit in the head and when he pulled his hand away from the right side of his head, I looked over and could see a small dab of blood on his hand. I was very concerned since it was a head wound and entrance wounds did not always bleed a lot.

We were by ourselves though in the position. His hole mates had apparently gone moving around the perimeter for one reason or another. This was not uncommon in daylight hours when set in but we very seldom got hit in the daytime while set in like this. I called for a man from the next position over to come and stand guard while I checked the wounded Marine and called for a corpsman. When I parted his hair on the side of his head I could see a small hole. Small in radius and small in depth. Not much bigger than a pin prick. I told him that it didn’t look like he had been hit by a bullet and that it wasn’t very bad. He immediately disagreed with my medical evaluation saying that it hurt like hell. He reached around to pull his helmet out of the way from where he was trying to sit. As he picked up the helmet we both saw the right side of it at the same time. There was an AK round stuck in the side of the helmet at perhaps a 30 degree angle. He turned it over and there was the intact point of the round sticking out of the other side of the helmet liner perhaps an eighth of an inch. He could only utter a Gomer Pyle type of "Golly Gee." He requested and got permission to send the helmet home "as is" for a personal souvenir. He first drew a circle around the area and wrote "Mr. Lucky" on the helmet.

I finished checking my positions and went back to the platoon CP. The platoon that had the patrol yesterday was getting ready to go back out to try and recover the other two bodies. First the arty from Maxwell was going to pound the high point of the ridge. The chopper was still on the way. I was talking to the Platoon Commander about me going back around to insure that at least two people were always in every position even in the daylight and that one of them was always on watch just like it was night. I couldn’t have been there for more than 10 minutes when there was an explosion that sounded like it came from the very same position I had just come from. I jumped and darted through the trees staying low with my rifle at the complete ready this time. As I arrived at the position, I could see all was well there. There was the bandaged head looking out over the edge of his hole just waiting for that NVA to pop out again. He told me that the explosion had come from the next position over.

I sort of three legged over as I stayed low on the slanted terrain using my legs and one hand to keep my balance while the other kept the 16 traversing back and forth. As I got through the brush I could see that there was only one Marine in the hole and I knew I had to get this line security back in order before we had gooks in the perimeter. The Marine was writhing in pain as he pointed down the slope to some brush saying that a gook had thrown a Chicom from down there. Since I had heard no 16 fire, I fired three or four short bursts into the area to discourage anybody from popping out. I asked him where he was hit and he pointed to his backside. The buttocks and backs of his thighs were peppered with shrapnel and there were a couple of larger holes about the size of a 50 cent piece.

Well, it had only been 24 hours since I last saw wounds like this so it didn’t take a whole lot of figuring. Less than 15 minutes before, the hole next to him had been fired on by an NVA less than ten meters away. I would not believe for a second that this Marine, alone in the hole next to him, was facing away from those same bushes a few minutes later. I was instantly pissed off and told him that I knew there was no gook out there. He very meekly said, "Well, you don’t really know because you weren’t here." Then without even taking a breath, "They’ll put me on that chopper coming, won’t they?" I snapped very hard at him, "Yeah, I do know what you did. You want on that chopper, you stupid son-of-a-bitch? You want out of here? I’ll make sure you get on that chopper." I called for the corpsman and yelled to the nearest squad leader to pass the word for everybody to return to their positions. As his hole mates and the corpsman arrived, I stomped back to the platoon CP.

Well, this shit had to stop. I mean there wouldn’t be a third platoon within a week at this rate. My anger was more than a little apparent when I got up to the CP. The Platoon Commander questioned me a bit but knew when I told him of the wounds what I was thinking and he felt I was probably right even though I never said it. His response was, "Let’s just get the bastard out of here," indicating that he didn’t want to pursue any discipline or charges. We were in the middle of a war. What kind of effort and energy would have to be expended to deal with this in that manner and how successful would that be? Nobody was going to get any fingerprints off that grenade now.

Even though the Platoon Commander’s response indicated how he wanted to deal with it, the feasibility of getting him out was not that good and I knew it. I went back to the "wounded" man’s position. The corpsman had picked out what shrapnel he could and was cleaning and bandaging the wounds. The two larger holes were causing severe pain and I wasn’t feeling real sorry about that. I let the Marine know that he was getting on the chopper that was coming. He looked relieved. I looked at around at his buddies and could tell that he had warned them of what he was going to do and that’s why they hadn’t been in the position. It was also obvious that he had told them I hadn’t been fooled. I couldn’t stand waiting any longer so I cut loose on him, "Yeah, it’s coming and will hover above the trees and wench you up on a sling while every gook within a mile takes shots at your ass. But you’re getting on it anyway." This was apparently the first that he had thought of that even though yesterday’s afternoon medevac from this same place had encountered that. His look of relief turned sour. I sort of took a perverse joy in that.

The word was passed that the chopper was near. I told him to get his shit together and move over to the center of the ridge where the sling would come down. He was scared to death. The decision was to get the dog up first because of the problems it caused without a handler. The dog went up first and the chopper started taking fire before it got the dog in. I couldn’t help myself. I yelled to the Marine, "You’re next!" He had gone pale. He was stammering about maybe taking the next one. I told him that there was no "next one." But I knew what was going to happen anyway. As soon as the dog got inside, the chopper took off. The fire had increased to a very high volume. Even though the fire was coming up through the trees, there must have been 20 or 30 firing at it.

Well, my little goad about there not being another chopper actually turned out to be true. The Marine spent 3 days in pain up on that ridge with us and in combat day and night, then had to hobble all the way back to Maxwell under fire to get a chopper out that was under fire. To me he had paid for his mistake and provided an excellent example for others who may have been thinking of doing the same. I am sure that there were no more self inflicted wounds on that operation.

The lesson I learned was that this type of effort to get one’s self out of the bush could become contagious under the right circumstances. I noted that for future reference. I had not changed my "understanding" of the reasoning used to validate this act. I simply increased my understanding to include the fact that this act could be an extreme danger to others if not carefully thought out and, if allowed to run rampant during difficult times, could completely breakdown the commitment of unit members to each other and the necessary cohesion to give one the maximum possibility of survival that one gets when the unit is functioning as such.

These thoughts were a long way from the thoughts I had when I was considering jumping into traffic in San Diego just to get out of the Marine Corps. But the distance I had traveled since then was great. I had gone from understanding and empathizing with the mentality of needing to get out of the bush to just accepting it and not "turning anybody in" or bringing charges against them to believing that it had to be curtailed in combat or imminent combat conditions to save the unit itself. The experience gave me the insight to see the situations coming well in advance which allowed me to create deterrents to such actions before they ever got that far again.

I wanted to go home alive and well as much as anybody else and the "every man for himself" attitude surfacing and even growing in the unit, after I witnessed it, was the complete breakdown and destruction of the single greatest asset that we had to achieving that successful rotation back to the World for the maximum amount of us….the coordinated effort and loyalty of fellow Marines.

After all of the John Wayne sounding bullshit above, let me reiterate that I was not and am not a "Lifer" in the Corps nor was I ever a flag waving Red Neck. It was the experience itself that taught me what I know. I do not look down on those who may have provided their own ticket out of the bush and/or Nam. I still can remember wishing I had the guts to do myself because I wanted out of the situation I was in so bad. Stark, gut wrenching, asshole flexing fear is no stranger to me. Given the right circumstances, I know that I might also go that route. I at least know that I cannot say that I would never.

Several years ago while doing some research on a battle that I had participated in, I had the opportunity to talk to somebody who had wrote his own ticket both out of the bush and out of Nam. To me this was always a definitive part of the Vietnam War. It was a measurement of the failures not of those who did such but of those who ran the war. The cumulative effect of leaving Marines out in the bush for months on end, staff and officers exposure time being less than 50% of the troops, the complete lack of a goal to win, etc., etc. I was curious and sort of still had a bit of the view that these people actually had more guts than I. I attempted to get this person to relate to me how he had dealt with all the fear and uncertainty of the act and worked himself up to it. First, I had to remind this person that I was fully aware of what had actually happened since he attempted to provide a different story when I asked him about it. It only took him a few seconds to remember that I did know. I was assuring him that many people wanted to do this, me included but didn’t have the guts to and I was only interested in how he had been able to overcome all that many could not. It was as positive as I could make it.

As soon as he remembered that I knew, he went quiet for a few seconds as I was explaining what I was interested in. But he wasn’t hearing a word that I was saying. There was sort of a long moan and yell mixed together as he shouted that he knew that "we all" thought he was a coward. The sounds from him deteriorated into almost a sob as he continued, "You don’t understand. I wanted to live."

At the first sounds from him I had stopped talking and as all the pent up pain and torture that he had put himself through for some 20 odd years spilled out in those sounds and words, I felt like the biggest jerk in the world. I made a feeble effort to tell him some of the things I have written about here but he only heard what he had been telling himself over the years. He refused to discuss anything about it with me and hung up.

Should the person referred to here read this, you have my sincerest apology. I had not even considered what may have been in your mind all of this time. I was a bumbling, insensitive fool for not doing so. And please believe all that has been written here because you have unnecessarily punished yourself. Believe that all that were in the same places and circumstances as you absolutely do understand the act and I know of nobody who has been in such situations who would call you a "coward." For all of us who have laid there shaking and quivering, crying, pissing or shitting our pants, calling for our mothers, etc., I urge you to rid yourself of this false view and unwarranted self torture. Talk to other bush Marines. You deserve better than you have allowed yourself.

The severity of our Vietnam service has given many months, years and even decades of such self examination experiences to most of us. Little by little each has found a way to resolve his issues. This forum is certainly a cross section of the learning and healing process that has brought at least veterans of one unit this far in Life. We owe it to ourselves and the world to impart as much of the truths about the experience as possible as all of the bush veterans of all wars always have. The Final Truth being that in war there are no winners. And one day the cumulative effect of all our voices from all sides in all wars may make a reality of the 60s poster that said, "Wouldn’t It Be Nice If They Gave A War And Nobody Came?"