Blogs by Chuck Keller
A War Story
10/26/2006 9:11:39 AM
My memories of the 1968 TET offensive and the relevance of that event to today's situation.
I have only told a few people this story. Partly, I guess, because I was so scared and that is not an image I enjoy portraying or maybe by seeing that fear in myself I feel more vulnerable. I'm not sure. It happened during the last couple of nights in January and the first couple of nights in February of 1968.
We didn't know it at the time but it was the beginning of the TET offensive in Vietnam. Probably the turning point of the "public opinion" reversal in the United States.
I worked in the receiving unit of the NSA hospital in Danang from June, 1967 to June, 1968. The best way to describe the setting is to say it was like the stuff we all saw in the movie "MASH". We were a bigger and more permanent version of that.
I was a US Navy hospital corpsman, the US Navy and US Marine version of a medic in the US Army. I was one of the guys who ran out to the choppers and took the wounded into our quonset hut facility and tried to save their lives with ER type first aid and triage. In other words we stopped the bleeding, started IV's, stabilized them enough to give them a chance to live, and prepared them for surgery. We also carried the dead off those choppers. A few times I went out on medivac flights during my time off. Crazy, but I was young and stupid. A few other times as part of my job I accompanied Vietnamese patients into Danang in an ambulance at night. Those were the only times I carried a weapon while I was in Vietnam. I never had to use one.
I received a Navy Unit Commendation medal and a Letter of Commendation for those few nights in 1968. We put over 2,100 wounded through my unit in 48 hours. I didn't sleep or stop during that stretch of time. We only had a few times that the flow of dead and wounded stopped enough for a break to watch the Hueys firing rockets at our perimeter or to listen to all the constant gunfire of the Marines and CB's who were brought in to keep us from being overrun or to hunker down in a small room discussing what to do if the enemy accomplished their goal and came through to kill us all. We had no weapons. If they had gotten past our defenders we would all have been killed. It was the most scared I've ever been in my life, before or since.
Through it all we did our jobs. According to the letter of commendation I received, we saved a lot of lives. I know we did. And I know the marines we treated still think of that time as I do nearly 40 years later.
The hueys circled above us like wagons in the old west. As they came into position in the flight pattern where their weapons were facing our rear perimeter, they would fire 2 to 4 rockets and a burst of gunfire from the miniguns. The circle remained unbroken each night. As each ran out of rockets or ammunition another would replace it in the circle.
Across the road from us to the front was MAG 16, a marine helicopter base. A constant flow kept the circle filled from that facility. It was constant, awesome, unbelievable firepower. They killed hundreds each night. The Viet Cong and NVA troops who were involved in the TET offensive were relentless. It was hard for me to believe their ability to keep coming in wave after wave knowing there was not much hope of breaking through our lines. We had so much firepower and they were crossing the river where they were exposed by the endless light from flares, climbing the bank behind us through incredible amounts of small arms and rocket fire, and crossing the cleared opening between our perimeter and a small village behind us while exposed at all times to the rain of death from such a military power.
We survived because of our strength and superiority in firepower and because an attacking force must always take extreme losses when attacking the dug-in perimeter of an established facility.
Like Khe Sanh to our north which survived a seige of legendary proportions during that year only to be abandoned shortly thereafter for political reasons, we lived because of air power and superior firepower. All those marines who were killed at Khe Sanh suffered unspeakable fear and pain and were traumatized for the rest of their lives. I know what they felt.
War doesn't change. It was a horrible thing in the fourteenth century when the Scots bravely fought their oppressors. It was a horrible thing when the world fought a German monster with a silly moustache. It was a horrible thing in Korea, Vietnam and Somalia. War changes those who are involved.
Those of us who have known that fear hate war. We know that any option short of war is preferable. Those of us who have seen the blood and death know what it does to the victims. Those of us who know what brains and guts and arms and legs look like when they are no longer part of a living human being know what it does to the victor and the vanquished. We know what it does to the souls of the survivors on both sides.
That's why I write these blogs. I can't stand the people in power right now. These Neo Cons who hid from their duty to protect and defend our country yet are "fearless" when they are surrounded by secret service protection as they send our sons and daughters to see what I have seen.
The American people are beginning to see the truth I share here. Poll number are plummeting for those monsters.
This morning we launched the most massive air assault in Iraq since 2003. It's been over 1000 days since "Georgie" declared victory there. He's a liar and a completely incompetent leader. He has the arrogance of Longshanks against the heroic Scots and those in his administration are a bunch of "yes men and women" who have sold their souls to be close to the power. The insurgents in Iraq will probably keep coming like those who died behind that hospital in 1968. Our military machine is powerful beyond most people's comprehension. It is an effecient killing machine. But if those fighting us in Iraq keep on coming in the face of all this death and destruction, even our forces can't kill them all.
I don't know a good way to end this mess in Iraq. We shouldn't be there but we can't leave. But we must leave at some point. No matter what we hear from the right wing radio about how these brave warriors are different because they volunteered. I know it's all a big lie. I volunteered. I know what they are feeling and thinking. But I know something else. I know what many of them will feel in 40 years.
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More Blogs by Chuck Keller
A War Story - Thursday, October 26, 2006
To Those Who Serve - Thursday, October 26, 2006