The spring 1971 air-mobile assault along the Laotian border was the last major offensive of the Vietnam War for US and South Vietnamese troops. Thanks to a sloppy mistake on my part, I wound up face to face— far too up close and personal—with this shooting war.
Ft. Bragg teemed with so many Vietnam war returnees that the nearby town, Fayetteville, was known as Fayette-Nam. Some of these soldiers brought home lawlessness, drug addiction and even murder. My personal remedy for this madness was to get out of there as often as possible.
A handful of distinct reasons made our ad-hoc Hog Farm bar in Chu Lai unique. No one ever drank alone or paid for a drink. No one was ever turned away, any time of day or night. And most important, there were no war stories allowed.
Fifty years ago today, on May 4, 1970, the heartlessness of the Vietnam War came home to America: four dead, eight wounded on the Ohio campus of Kent State University, and more domestic violence would follow. The war against the war raged in a divided nation.
As a boy growing up in Brooklyn, holidays like Easter were paens of cultural traditions: momentous gatherings of an extended Italian American family, from grandparents and uncles and aunts, to cousins and siblings, joyously sharing great feasts which are the memories that color the present. Not so much Easter in Vietnam.
Worry, doubt, confusion, isolation. Fear of an invisible foe. The sad reality of these Covid-19 times? No. A night of guard duty during the Vietnam War. A moonless midnight on a rock-strewn Chu Lai beach. Except for the rhythmic lapping of ocean waves, there was silence.
Returning from Vietnam in 1971, the best thing that ever happened to me was the fulfillment of my relationship with Natalie—which has endured to this day. Second best? Surely the onset of my friendship with Chuck, which unfortunately ended a few weeks ago with his passing.
The onion-skin transcript of my Army court martial is barely twelve pages long. Granted, in the annals of military justice my alleged infraction was not on par with, say, the Caine Mutiny. But neither was the charge — disobeying a lawful order — a trivial matter.
If not the last of my concerns, the specter of the Vietnam War was hardly top of mind on the morning I was inducted into the US Army in August, 1969. Rather, it was the sheer novelty of my hapless adventure that had my full attention.
1969 was quite the remarkable year. If you are into 50-year-old hallmarks, your memory may conjure some historic worldwide events like the first manned moon landing, the three-day Woodstock “Peace and Music” festival, and when the Beatles came together for the final time on Abbey Road.