Contest entry-nonfiction category
To be stationed in the Republic of South Vietnam in the spring of 1969 was not exactly where every young soldier dreamed of being. The TET offensives of 1968 and 1969 saw some of the bloodiest fighting ever encountered by the American fighting man, and years of toil and fear and effort did not seem to be bringing the conflict to an end any time soon.
I was Platoon Leader of a Reconnaissance Platoon and stationed in a place named Tay Ninh Province. This was an active area northwest of Saigon near the Cambodian border dubbed "The Parrot’s Beak." It was also in the Iron Triangle, the Hobo Jungles, The Black Virgin Mountain and Michelin Rubber Plantation. Most of our missions were far from habitable areas to search for signs of enemy activity.
Within our area of operations (AO) there were numerous small villages, all of them poor beyond belief. The villagers practically lived in the Stone Age and had little or no contact with civilization. They were hunter-gatherers and raised small fields of rice, and subsisted from day to day on very little food. The occasional monkey or bird was a treat for them. Americans are so accustomed to dropping by the supermarket and picking up everything their hearts desire they cannot possibly conceive of the humble lifestyle these poor villagers led.
We often made sweeps into these areas to ask the villagers if they had been harassed by the enemy or had spotted enemy forces near their village. Subsequently many of my men became good friends with the inhabitants and would often share their rations or buy something in the base camp Post Exchange (PX) to give them. Metal cooking pans, knives, cigarette lighters, candy, and other such items were highly prized by the villagers and they looked forward to our occasional visits.
Their greatest fear was harassment from the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and from the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG) backed by our intelligence people. They were often caught in the middle, so to speak. If they were too friendly with us, the NVA would punish them, and the CIDG thought of them as savages, not worth the time of day. Their young men were often conscripted as porters for the NVA and guides for the Viet Cong. The village elders told us they did not want to fight the Americans, but often had no choice. It was either carry their supplies and ammunition or have their families harmed.
Many times my platoon took extra combat rations from the supply depot and gave them to the villagers. One case of C-Rats would feed an entire village family for a month. We figured that there was so much waste going on that no one would miss a few cases here and there. The line rats (regular infantry) would often throw away full boxes because they did not feel like carrying them in the bush.
There was one Major who did miss them though. He was an S-2 officer (Intelligence Officer) who worked close with the CIDG in the area. He was also heartless, mean and not what you’d call a mister nice guy.
One day he caught my Medic giving several cases of C-Rats to one of the villagers and brought charges against him. He was going to Courts Martial him and have the village elders brought in for questioning and as material witnesses.
One thing you never did was force villagers come to military headquarters for questioning. The minute the NVA found out they had cooperated with the enemy, whether they did or not, their village would be destroyed and most likely all the inhabitants killed as a warning.
Our Medic was a young sergeant and had spent years in school learning his trade. He was a conscientious objector (objected to killing for any reason), but volunteered to serve as a Medic so long as he did not have to carry a weapon. We called him Bones, after the Star Trek character he loved so well. His one wish was to become a doctor some day. (He did not make it home from Nam.)
I had a short but futile talk with the Major, and nothing I could say would coerce him into dropping the charges against my Medic or prevent him from bringing the village elders in for questioning.
I went to my Battalion Commander who advised me that the Major was well within his rights to take the actions he saw fit and there was nothing he could do about it.
I knew that what the Major was about do was wrong and it could have disastrous consequences. My Medic was merely doing what we all had been doing for months, helping to feed hungry people, and it seemed that the Major did not care if the enemy took vengeance on the poor villagers.
One thing you learn never to do in the Army is jump the Chain of Command. If your immediate superior cannot solve your problem and recommends that you drop it, you never go over your superior’s head.
Which is exactly what I did. I went to the Division Commander.
I explained the entire situation to the DC, then advised him that I would take full responsibility for the stolen rations and I would accept whatever punishment he deemed I had coming.
He asked me if I would do the same thing over again and I do not think he was surprised at my answer.
I told him yes, I would. Most definitely!
I told him that in my view the American soldier was not only there to fight a war to prevent the hostile take over of a sovereign country and stop the spread of communism, we were also directly responsible for the welfare of the people we were sent to protect.
If we failed to help the villagers when we had the means to do so, it would be a failure of the United States Army to protect and defend innocent lives. I told him that I could not possibly stand by and watch hungry people, especially children, starve. It was un-American and if it meant a Courts Martial for me, so be it…
"If you had said you would not repeat the alleged crime and would not provide any more food to the villagers, I would have put you up for Courts Martial myself," the Division Commander said. "We are here to win the hearts and minds of the people. Although the Major is well within his rights, I personally guarantee he will drop all charges and will no longer have any contact with those villagers."
Although my men made a fuss of my standing up to the Major and I had gone out on a limb to save the villagers, I wasn’t exactly a well liked person back in Base Camp.
My Battalion Commander was in a fury because of my going over his head and I quietly stayed out of Base Camp for a long time after that.
The Major suddenly disappeared. I guess he was reassigned to other duties or possibly transferred to a new unit. After the Division Commander got hold of him his career was probably on thin ice anyway. A letter of reprimand from a Division Commander in your personnel files is a guaranteed way to prevent your being selected for promotion.
As for me, I could care less. I already had more than one letter in my file as it was, but I knew they were all for very good causes. I also knew that after the war I would go back from being Platoon Leader to Platoon Sergeant so I had little to worry about.
Did I have enemies in the Army? Most certainly! Lots of them! At least that meant that I have stood up for something or someone, sometime in my life. I was taught early in my career that the first thing a leader does is take care of their personnel. My long service was guided by this principle and I am proud of it.
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