Let me preface this post by saying that over 2.5 million U.S. men and women served in Vietnam during the period of 1959 – 1975. However, only 10% of the total were in the Infantry and ‘humped the boonies’ in search of the elusive enemy, the remaining 90% were support and administrative staff. I’m not saying that only the Infantry soldiers were at risk here, but unless the support bases were mortared, rocketed or attacked, it was usually the ‘grunts’ or ‘booney rats’ who were caught in enemy ambushes and booby traps, or stumbled into well-camouflaged enemy bunker complexes only to be pinned down for hours in the middle of the jungle.
Imagine, if you will, that most Cherries in Vietnam had graduated from high school within the past year; some never finished high school and were quickly drafted into the military. Now these eighteen year olds are thrust into a hostile environment where they had to do things never imagined in wildest of dreams or even thought to be humanly possible in accomplishing. Nineteen year old Corporals and Sergeants were in charge of squads and twenty-one year old Lieutenants and Captains ran the platoons and companies. Turnover was rampant and a soldier with experience in the jungle was highly respected and was in most cases a lower ranked enlisted man and not an officer.
I had a difficult time over the years in trying to explain to my family and friends what it was like to be a grunt in Vietnam. It was only when the movie ‘Platoon’ came out that I was able to ‘show’ them. I could relate to the role played by Charlie Sheen in the movie. That first hump in the bush (patrol in the jungle) when he passes out from exhaustion because of carrying more than what was needed on his back. The average weight of a grunt’s rucksack and supplies was about sixty-five pounds. Now if you also had to carry either an M-60 machine gun or PRC-25 radio on top of that, then you had to add twenty-six more pounds to your load. Humping all that weight was difficult in itself, let alone, looking everywhere like a chameleon; eyes darting about looking every which way to make sure you spot a booby trap or an enemy soldier before either of them find you first. Finally, the stress of getting ambushed at any moment also took its toll on these young teenage soldiers. The adrenaline was pumped up and standing by, but when nothing happened during a patrol (which happened often), the bleeding off of this extra energy took time and made you more anxious than you already were. I can also remember the scene of Charlie Sheen’s first night in the bush when the enemy soldiers were walking straight toward him in the pitch-black darkness. You are on watch and the only one awake, every sound is amplified ten fold and your mind and the shadows are playing tricks on you. To understand this feeling, imagine yourself waking up in your bed during the middle of the night and you are thinking that a burglar might be standing near your bed. You break out in a cold sweat, your heart beats so loud, it can be heard in the house next door. You are paralyzed, frozen to the spot and too afraid to move your head or sit up to have a look around. This is real fear! Now multiply that feeling by twenty-four hours a day and three-hundred-sixty-five days. You have just experienced how a Cherry felt on his first day in the jungle.