Back in 1969 my reconnaissance platoon was tasked to check out a small village located deep in the thick jungles near the Vietnam and Cambodian border.
Our Intel officer advised us that a significant amount of enemy traffic was going into and out of a local village and our mission was to find out if the villagers were Viet Cong or NVA sympathizers, and the size and location of the enemy forces.
I asked the Intel officer if any other friendly units had been in or around the area or if there had been any previous friendly contact with the locals. He noted that since the village was so far off the beaten path, to his knowledge, no friendly forces had ever been in the area, not even Special Forces units.
I sought and obtained permission from battalion headquarters to take an extra medic, a reliable interpreter -- since my Vietnamese was limited-- and some extra combat rations and several large sacks of rice for the villagers.
Since the terrain was very thick jungle with the nearest open area seven kilometers away, instead of parachuting in we were inserted via helicopter by rappelling down ropes. Consequently, I knew that if we got into serious trouble we'd have one heck of a run to the closest (LZ) or landing zone. Our LZ was designated as our rendezvous point.
Upon arriving at the village we were met by scores of seemingly hostile faces. After talking to one of the headmen, my interpreter said the villagers had seen very few white men - or round-eyes as they called us - and the last one had been a French soldier at least fifteen years earlier.
The headman told us there were no Viet Cong in the area but a very large number of North Vietnamese soldiers were camped along a stream about twelve kilometers north and they often came into the village.
He also said that he did not want us in his village because he feared that we would kill his people, rape his young children, and steal what few possessions and livestock the poor villagers had left. Also, that the soldiers from the north had forced some of their young men and girls to join them and had already taken most of the food they had managed to store.
"All soldiers are evil," I remember the old man saying. "Especially the round-eyes who kill and destroy without cause. Leave this place at once before we call the northern soldiers to force you away!"
I had already accomplished this mission with the knowledge that a North Vietnamese unit of at least battalion strength was operating in the area and that the villagers were notably hostile, but what the old man said about all soldiers being evil hurt my pride because I was acutely aware of the hundreds of other poor villagers my platoon had helped to feed and heal.
It was readily apparent that many of the village children were sick, several had festering sores, and very few of the villagers had eaten a nutritious meal in a very long time. We eventually managed to talk the headman into letting our medics treat the children, and I had a squad distribute the extra C-rations and cook a batch of rice and rations mixed. My heavy weapon squads maintained security just outside the village.
It was another in a long succession of eye openers for all of us. We were all from the land of plenty, a magical kingdom called America where everyone ate regularly and lived without the fear of being killed for no reason other than that we were in someone’s way; where doctors took care of our children, firemen watched our homes, and McDonald’s and Burger King was on every corner. Our freedom and our needs were guaranteed and backed up by a government of our choosing.
These villagers had very little food, were ill and without medical care, were forced to fight for a cause they knew nothing about, and brutally tortured and murdered for simply talking with the enemy.
For hours we had a wonderful time proving to the villagers that not all soldiers were evil. A few hours before dark, a skinny young man ran into the village and told the headman that many of the northern soldiers were heading towards the village.
The smiling and thankful headman told us we must go quickly. Then suddenly, he ordered several men - other village leaders - to be tied up, then had himself tied up. To our surprise, a number of strong men begin to beat them severely with bamboo poles.
When I tried to stop them, the headman said that the north soldiers already knew that we were in the village. The only way to prove that they had not cooperated with us was for the leaders to be tied up and beaten. Otherwise, the north soldiers would accuse them of working with us and it would be very bad, perhaps deadly, for the entire village. He also said we were welcome to return at any time, that the villagers really liked my friendly round-eye soldiers.
Half way to the landing zone (LZ) we were ambushed by a large element of the North Vietnamese Regular Army (NVA). They knew we were in the village and waited for us to leave. We had not called in our helicopters to pick us up or gun ships for support, because we did not want the enemy – who was monitoring our radios - knowing we in route to our pick-up point.
For those who do not know military infantry tactics, in the event of an ambush you immediately charge at the enemy which is trying to kill you and once pass the ambushers - if you’re lucky - you scatter and head for a predesignated rendezvous point.
Since we had rappelled into the jungles our closest rendezvous point was our landing zone which was in that clearing about seven kilometers from the village.
I did not make it back to the landing zone.
I later learned that an entire North Vietnamese Army brigade was using the area as a training and resupply point. An NVA brigade consisted of around 1,200 soldiers, compared to my 42-man platoon.
I was completely surrounded that night with no way to safely sneak through the lines of enemy soldiers looking for the survivors of their deadly ambush.
All night long I lay in a muddy leech infested marsh with only my eyes and nose above the putrid water, blood seeping from a shrapnel wound in my upper thigh, with enemy soldiers searching back and forth, some still looking while others sat around a small fire eating fish and rice and delicious American Combat Rations.
At one point (yes - just like in the movies) one urinated not less than ten feet from where I lay freezing and bleeding. (It does get cold in the jungle at night in the highlands.)
While I lay there that seemingly endless, terrifying night, expecting to be found and bayoneted at any moment, my cloudy mind returned to America; back to the reservation when I was a kid, thinking of the soft melody of rain on our old tin roof, of bubbling sassafras tea, hot biscuits, thick brown gravy, and my grandmothers piercing blue eyes.
My mind even wandered back to how my Native American ancestors must have felt as they watched the white soldiers from their hidden and uncomfortable hiding places.
I also thought of my baby son lying safely in bed at home, warm, well fed, loved and above all - safe. I thought of the poor children of the village, hungry, sick, wondering if the round-eyed soldiers they had met that day were real or imaginary people.
For three days I evaded the enemy, sleeping in the jungles during the day, traveling at night. During the day I slept safely halfway up the side of whatever hill I could find. I had learned from experience that soldiers (all soldiers) either travel at the bottom of a hill or aim for the top but for some unknown reason never climb along the side. I finally managed to get to a position where I could signal a reconnaissance helicopter.
Upon arrival back in our battalion area at base camp, I was relieved to discover that only two of my platoon had died, several had been wounded. A reconnaissance in force was sent in to recover our dead, but as they flew over the small village they saw no sign at that time of any of the villagers.
We never returned to that small village because it was outside our normal area of operations, but I will never forget the happy smiling face of the old village chief as he cheerfully took his beating or of a little buck toothed waif I called Goofy because he looked so much like the Disney character.
I learned that innocent civilians --caught in the middle--often suffer more than the soldiers do. I also know that he and his villagers will never forget that - there are soldiers who care!
To this day I thank God for all that I have and all that I have managed to escape from.
But most of all, I learned to appreciate the ‘little’ things that my wonderful country provides, chief among them…FREEDOM!
Yes, for those who fought for it, freedom has a flavor the protected will never know!