Don’t know why I never read this Vietnam war novel until now. It came out in 1977 and is awfully good. M-113 personnel carriers used as assault vehicles, just what I would have blundered into had I dropped my OCS application when they closed Armor OCS and the Infantry at Benning was all that was left.
A dozen or so did drop and all but one (who was sent to Germany) of us drafted Armored Cavalry Scouts got sent to Nam with the 5th Mech or the 11th ACR. And probably wound up being drivers or TC’s like veteran author Larry Heinemann’s Flip Dosier, who became lean and mean like the story itself.
But despite a few incongruities (Armor guys didn’t qualify for CIBs, Larry) and way too much weed (satisfying the protesters who were sure we all did it all the time like they did) the plain-spoken story rings true. Read it, if you haven’t already.
Here’s a mystery that could use solving.
My OCS friend Russ Wheat was wounded in both legs in Viet Nam and sent to Japan for treatment. Where OCS classmate Rick Wilson, who was posted with an Armor unit in South Korea, ran into him on a leave:
“We met in a bar in Japan where he was holding court with about 20 mesmerized by his continual line of jokes. It was a great time with him. As an aside he had to sit on a pile of pillows due to the wounds he had which he referred to as his magic carpet.”
Russ should have ridden his magic carpet home. Most wounded sent to Japan were. Two from my advisory team went home that way. Indeed, Rick was surprised when Russ got sent back to Vietnam to complete his tour as a platoon leader in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. “I was surprised he returned to VN. I too thought he had his ticket home.”
When I asked Russ why he was sent back he raised his eyebrows and shoulder in a half shrug as if to say “Why, indeed?”
Could the major general who felt insulted by Russ at the briefing have been so vindictive as to send him back for more infantry despite his leg wounds?
My friend Russ Wheat always said he was the handsomest man in the army. This goes a long way to proving it, mighty cleft chin and all.
My old friend, Russell Huntley Wheat, was 81 and living with diabetes when he passed away shortly before Xmas. Can’t be more precise as his Methodist pastor found his body on a wellness visit the week of the 15th. Apparently there was a memorial service on the 20th but there’s no evidence of it on the Web.
Russ, who lived in Canyon Lake just down the road from the mini-rancho, was the funnyman in Infantry OCS, always telling a joke before class with the permission of the tactical officers who enjoyed them as much as the rest of us. We who strained to hear him in a class of a hundred candidates. Never dirty, just funny.
He was perversely proud of his Purple Heart, for which he had a license plate on his truck, from leg wounds suffered in his days with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in Viet Nam. He always sent a Hanukkah card and until recently a funky gift (army teeshirt, etc.) for Mr. Boy whom he had met when Mr. B was still eating in a high chair.
No more separating the Wheat from the chaff was my joke which I promised to tell at the end of our lives. And so it is.
I discovered something while cleaning out a cabinet this morning: A 2005 email from the late Ron Cima about our OCS reunion in San Antonio that year. He attended briefly enroute to somewhere else.
“I was very moved by my short time in San Antonio and very much appreciated having the time to talk with you and Tom [Ringwald, I think it was],” he wrote. “I regret I could not have stayed longer and spent more time with everyone else.”
He also mentioned a tip I gave him in line with his then MIA-hunting job at the Pentagon, on a mass burial of dead VC near my basecamp in 1969 on the southeast side of LZ Baldy, which was southwest of Da Nang. I had a faded old photo of the dead in a pile but not the exact location.
“Your information about a mass burial is something I could potentially share with the Vietnamese,” Ron added. “Although they may not know what to do with it, our relationship with them is reciprocal and we try to give them what we can when we can. If and when you can come up with a more specific location, I’ll look for an opportunity to pass them the information.”
I wrote a short story about the encounter and the mass grave, collected in my book “Leaving The Alamo, Texas Stories After Vietnam,” but never had anything specific to share with Ron so our correspondence ended.
Pulled into Lowe’s the other morning to buy an extra ceiling fan to replace one that’s caving after about sixteen years of faithful service. Started down the parking aisle when I spotted two signs at two spots at the front.
“Veterans Parking Only,” they read, “Thank you for your service.” A waving American flag topped the signs.
Probably meant for new veterans of the Middle East, I thought, not old farts from Viet Nam like me. Still, I’m a genuine veteran, so I parked in one of the two empty spots. All set to whip out my VA card should it become necessary. It didn’t.
JD Allen, over at Mouth of the Brazos, joined the Marines because he wanted a sword. The officers carry them in dress uniform. He wound up enlisted, instead. And by the time his enlistment was up, the sword didn’t seem so important after all.
Me, I wanted to avoid the draft. When I couldn’t I enlisted for Army OCS under a college op program they had then. By the time I got my lieutenant’s bars it was obvious I was going to Viet Nam. In which case all I wanted was a CIB (Combat Infantryman’s Badge: an ancient Long Rifle surrounded by a wreath).
I got it alright. But by the time I did it didn’t seem so important after all.