The Day I Earned one of These

 

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DUKE BARRETT·THURSDAY, OCTOBER 4, 2018
Imagine if you will, sitting in a field of wheat at dusk, on a farm, on a late summer afternoon somewhere in the Midwest of the United States. What’s that sound? Well, more than likely you hear nothing but the sound of thousands or possibly millions of insects, you know, crickets, cicadas or katydids engaged in a chorus of communication by chirping, singing or whatever an entomologist calls that sound. Obviously, I am not an entomologist but I certainly do recall those soothing vibrations traveling through the air to my audiology canal throughout my many years of life, but nowadays I hear them constantly no matter where I may be, in a field, at home, at the mall, driving, in bed or anytime I’m awake and have for years.

wheat fld

See, although this constant sound has as of yet been diagnosed I believe I have an acute case of tinnitus, possibly, well, more than likely the result of loud guns and rock ‘n’ roll. Oh yeah, another possibility; explosives; especially ones near the head. In this case, I’m talking about a specific percussive moment in the form of an explosion of hot shrapnel to my skull.
I am reminded of a point on spiritually made by legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese, as I paraphrase a statement of his here “at times people have a spiritual need to share a common experience.” Now, admittedly, Mr. Scorsese was speaking of the “common” experience but my need to share is a moment of a real-life experience, an uncommon one if you will, that occurred on the morning of October 4, 1966, at exactly 2:10 a.m. approximately 20 klicks northwest of Bong Son in the Binh Dinh Province of South Vietnam, ironically an area of the Central Highlands where I had undergone my Baptism under fire in an air-assault into Happy Valley of the previous year when I was a rifleman with A Co. 1/8

On the morning of 3 October, 1966, our platoon, D Co. reconnaissance 1/8 Cavalry-airborne, of the army’s 1st Air Cavalry Division, had just completed an early morning reconnaissance patrol in the hotly contested Binh Dinh Province before being airlifted by choppers to firebase Hereford where we were to await orders for our next assignment. As a platoon of dirty, wet and tired grunts, we’d hoped for some “get-over” duty, you know, like perimeter duty at Hereford.hereford choppers.jpg

Well, what do you know? Shortly after touching down that’s precisely where we went, to the perimeter. It just so happened to be a hot and sunny day and we were all waterlogged from our many days of hot, wet jungle life and took advantage of an opportunity to unpack our equipment which included the likes of ponchos, poncho liners, web belts and the like. The downtime in the sun also would allow for the drying of boots and socks, hell, even our weapons and ammo. Our feet, the ones that go into our wet socks and boots also enjoyed a dry moment in the sun. Life at that current moment seemed pretty damn good but nonetheless, I was suspect. My suspicions were affirmed in no time as the next 16 hours or so turned out to be quite eventful.
Now we weren’t at all careless in our temporary moment of relative comfort which admittedly provided a false sense of security and were well aware of the hostile environment that surrounded us. Taking necessary precautions we set up defensive positions and established lines of fire in our new digs. Like I said, life was good, that is until sniper fire from a distant tree line changed things. At first, it was a mere annoyance as these kill-joys attempted to ruin our moment of leisure but then things got serious when they began laying down heavy sniper fire on our positions. I mean come on, it was broad daylight and who would want to ruin our moment of comfort?

Recon valentine.JPG
Now, us grunts ain’t necessarily referred to as the best and the brightest but we pretty much figured out in a heart-beat that either Charlie, the NVA or a combination thereof had taken issue of our intrusion into the neighborhood. Can’t say as I blame them but all we wanted to do was dry out, maybe eat a hot meal at the firebase mess and get a little rest. The current residents of the neighborhood obviously thought differently and threw a monkey wrench into our plans.
Any soldier out in the bush will tell you that your weapon never leaves your side and by golly that rule was put to the test that day The company was in the midst of rotating many of its veteran personnel stateside and as a result we’d just taken on a lot of newcomers, a.k.a. “cherries.” In other words, we had replacements, some of who were a bit unnerved by the situation. As a senior scout and fire team leader, I was one of the more seasoned troops in the platoon at the time. Not to stress the point or anything but I was eleven months into my one year tour. As a senior scout, I remember yelling out to a few of the confused to grab their weapons and take cover. In doing so those that hadn’t did and sought whatever ever cover.

As part of my seasoning I had previously taken note of a long ditch to my immediate rear and as the enemy rounds started zeroing in on us I sprinted with my trusty M-16 in hand for that ditch. Barefooted with pant legs rolled up, I jumped into the ditch. It turned out that I had taken cover in a ditch/trench that was a depository of human-waste, you know, a latrine for a very nearby village. Up to my ankles in trouble, I do remember being thankful that I had chosen to jump rather than dive.
Now I was angry. It was already hot and humid and I mean hot. Feeling miserable, smelly and ornery, I took aim at the tree line, fired off at least a magazine of rounds in the direction of the trees as did the other platoon members and honestly have no idea of what, if any, damage we may have brought upon the snipers and remember jokingly commenting to my squad that as a result of my excellent marksmanship the sniper fire ceased, which it did. More than likely the shooters just di-di maud out of there. I’m pretty sure some of the new guys believed me but I was kidding. I do a lot of that, you know, B.S. “Cherries,” by the way, are impressionable. Following that brief moment of levity, I climbed out of the ditch, buried my feet and ankles in the sand and then scrubbed the hell out of them with my canteen water. The rest of the day of October 3 and the early morning hours of the 4th proved to be no less eventful.

cav troops 4

Like any other day, we never knew what the future held so it was only apropos that we continued our gypsy lifestyle. Being relieved of perimeter duty that very afternoon we resumed our nomadic modus vivendi and reconned an area in the hills just north of Hereford. The fact that it was now late afternoon dictated that we’d be airlifted rather than hump to our new destination. Somewhere in here lies an idiom, you know “all things being relative” or whatever. See, the destination may be questionable but getting there by chopper plainly beat walking.

Things could have been worse for sure but because it was already late in the day we lucked out with chopper insertions into the hills. This quick mode of transportation allowed us time to set up our ambush before dark. Our platoon leader, Lt. Salazar, thought it best that we get to a mapped trail on even higher ground and following a quick chow break our three squads embarked on a vigorous climb up the nearby hillside to the well-used, low vegetated trail overlooking the northern edges of the Binh Dinh province.

up hill
Lt. Salazar and battalion made the call to set up our position and in doing so we positioned the platoon, setting up from right to left on a rather straight part of said trail. Again, taking necessary precautions we set out claymore anti-personnel mines, cleared fields of fire and settled into two-man positions for the evening with my team was on the far right facing the trail. 3rd squad covered the middle, facing the same direction and my best buddy, Sergeant Bishop, had 1st squad on the far left facing the trail as well. Lt. Salazar set up the Command Post with his radioman, medic and Sergeants MacDonald and Musial in the center rear where they monitored the squads. So as to not spread out to thin we were in close proximity to each other. An interesting sidebar to this story is that politically, all these years later, I’m on the left and Bishop, well, he’s on the right. And you know what, we still love each other. Aa a matter of fact, I was his best man and we converse many times a year.
Any of you grunts reading this are keenly aware of the standard operating sleep procedures, (SOP) of two on and two off. Well, pretty self-explanatory, right? Two man positions alternating two hours of guard followed by two hours of sleep and believe me it only takes a matter of seconds once you close your eyes after a day of humping to slip into a state of unconsciousness. Strenuous exercise damn well guarantees it. One rule of thumb, however, is that if you are currently staffed with newbies, a.k.a.” cherries,” you do wake-up occasionally to make sure your partner is awake.
So we started our routine guard duty shifts shortly after dark. I remember it being a rather pleasant evening, a bit cooler that night, no rain and a dry earth to lay our weary bodies on for some intense slumber. My position buddy that night was a young trooper, a new guy named Steven King. Steve was good, apt and a quick learner and I certainly felt at ease with his abilities as a guard partner. We were high on a hill and as previously stated the ground was rock-like, provided little vegetation and the fact that we’d arrived shortly before dusk made us reluctant to dig for sound reasons. Fashioning available cover we made the best of the situation and got our rest on.

claymore
Now I don’t remember exactly what time it got dark all these years later but I would venture to say that as we were on a mountain top we had many more minutes of daylight than those evening spent under the gloomy triple canopy of a dense jungle where it could get pitch black quite early. I’d venture to say we went dark at about 6:00 pm; grunt field life, early to bed, early to rise. I remember clear as a bell that King woke me at 2:00 am sharp to start my watch and he immediately fell asleep leaving me to dream and wonder about life back in the world while being ever vigilant.
I just happened to look at my watch at exactly 2:10 a.m. when I heard voices, loud voices, speaking Vietnamese. As stated in a previous writing, to me that sound is reminiscent of a rubber ball bouncing on a tin roof. You know, like boing, boing, boing. See, at that point in my young life, I had excellent hearing, right? I mean if I had not, I would have been classified 4-F and would’ve missed all of the action. Anyhow, I immediately and quietly awoke King motioning for him to be quiet and listen. I then crawled to the positions of my team on my right and left, warning them as well. The guys on the left passed it on as I crawled back to my position being certain that the entire platoon was now well aware of the seriousness of the situation.
When executing an ambush you prefer the approaching body of the target, be they mounted or walking, to be well into the kill zone before striking so as not to let any or many get away. In this case, they happened to be walking and their apparent lack of noise discipline not only warned me of the impending arrival but also to assess the size of the group. I made a guesstimate of no more than a squad, eight to ten guys, maybe a dozen, enabling me to make the call as when to strike.

At this point of my tour, this wasn’t my first action but remember again asking God for forgiveness for what we were about to do. You know, the kill or be killed thing is for real but one can’t help but feel something unnatural about the whole thing. I mean, come on, talk about conflict. My Catholicism taught me killing to be a Mortal Sin and my Government/Military trained me to do exactly that, to kill, and I did. It is one of the most intense moments of life one can experience, being on the cusp of taking one’s life coupled with the guilt that such an experience may bring. Adding to the conflict is that it can be a rush. Kind of fucked up, know what I mean? These poor bastards headed our way had no earthly idea that their time on this planet had reached its expiration date.

In what seemed to be an eternity I lay there in wait, in the prone, my M-16 locked and loaded, cradled to my midsection, claymore handle in hand as adrenaline pumped through my being like electricity through a wet and frayed power line. I suppressed my nerves so as not to betray our stealth in the interim before unleashing our deadly assault on the unsuspecting.
When I deemed it proper to strike, I compressed the handle in my hand, immediately rolled to my side with my weapon, rolled back to the prone, aimed my rifle and opened up. I remember a string of explosions that lit the night sky accompanied the deafening sound of small arms fire, and then bam! I felt the sting of white-hot metal to the left side of my head. The force of the projectile threw me yards, in which direction I do not know but remember feeling as though a power-hitter had taken a spiked ball bat to the side of my head.
I immediately felt warm blood running down my face and called out “I’ve been hit.” In the bat of an eye, no pun intended, I felt the grasp of someone’s hands around my ankles dragging me back to the command post. The hands belonged to our platoon leader, Lt. Salazar. The platoon medic immediately dressed my wound, a piece of shrapnel that had lodged in my upper left cheek and jaw bone, missing my left temple by no more than an inch.

oct 4 starfire
In my life before conscription, I was a musician, a drummer in a rock band in the Chicagoland area and admittedly vain, a trait shared by many of my paratrooper friends. Feeling the sting of the shrapnel to my head and warm blood running down my face gave me pause for concern. “Hey man, how do I look? I play in a band so how’s my face, I mean do I look alright?” I was assured that I looked fine, still ugly but no apparent damage to my face. Combat humor; so reassuring.

In our brief firefight two guys from my fire-team, King and Wilks were wounded as well. A wound to the hand and one to the arm respectively but it had not been determined the cause of their wounds, bullets or shrapnel. I suspect shrapnel since explosions were plentiful that early a.m. As the fireworks ceased the platoon withdrew from the ambush site to an even higher ground to regroup, observe and tend to the wounded. It soon became apparent that we had been successful in inflicting serious damage on the unsuspecting as nothing but total silence emitted from the previously contested ground. At this time the Lieutenant felt the area secure enough to call for a medevac evacuation of the WIA’s.
Infantrymen of the Vietnam War, a.k.a. grunts, ground-pounders, dogfaces and some with even sexier monikers such as rangers and recondos etc. etc. all share one common veneration; the utmost respect for helicopter pilots and their crews be they transport slicks, resupply, gunships or medevac’s a.k.a. “dust-offs” I remember vividly watching our air ambulance/medevac approach the LZ shining a bright light momentarily to illuminate a potentially perilous touch-down on the hilltop, not knowing if the light would draw gunfire or not. These pilots and crew are an unbelievable group of selfless individuals not unlike combat medics.medevac chopp

On the ground for but a brief moment, the medevac loaded and lifted the wounded off the LZ into the night sky and relative safety provided by the skin of the flying machine, bound for a combat field hospital. Looking out at the countryside, hilltops and distant lights of Bong Son I was overcome with the emotion of the moment. Although the ambush and ensuing firefight was short-lived, it was intense. We took the lives of other combatants, who like us, were fighting for their lives. At the same time, however, King, Wilks and I were on our way to the safety of the rear as our brothers were left to deal with the aftermath. I believe guilt to be a common traveler of combatants and it too hitched a ride that evening with us grunts.
Upon arrival at the hospital, we were treated and tagged as walking-wounded. Good fortune had accompanied the three us that day as not one of us had been seriously wounded. No mangled limbs nor internal wounds or anything of that nature but my good friend King would not be so lucky in the near future having been one of seven KIA’s from our recon platoon on Valentine’s Day of 67.King and Duke 85th (2)

Awaiting transfer to the 85th Evacuation Hospital the three of us grabbed some hot chow and explored the immediate area of the compound. Standing near a tent full of seriously wounded patients, it started to rain like hell accompanied by wind gusts of equal proportion causing it to rain sideways. The mini hurricane was battering a seriously wounded enemy combatant whose bed was in an extreme corner of the tent when a well-meaning humanitarian, actually a US Army doctor, called out for one of the three of us to address the issue by pulling down a large tent flap so as to shield that patient from the elements. We declined with a rude vocalized comeback and walked away. Not a particularly proud moment of mine but considering all that had taken place, an understandable one. I’d like to believe that if I were confronted with the same set of circumstances today I’d behave differently.
In the early afternoon of October 4, the three of us were airlifted to the 85th Evac in Qui Nhon by a medevac ship from the 1st Cav’s 15th medical battalion, the same outfit that transported us off the hilltop only hours before. Upon arrival to the 85th, I was looked at by a surgeon, treated, X-rayed, given clean hospital garb, assigned to a ward and given a bed. Wow, life was good again. Suffering a head wound I was billeted with likewise troops, many far more seriously wounded than me and some, like me, not so bad. I like to say that that by nature, given a large Irish skull, one that’s hard as a rock, that shrapnel didn’t stand a chance. Had it hit me in a more vulnerable place like say, my temple, which it almost did, things would have been quite a bit more serious. I am thankful, that’s for sure.
As a result of my wound, I suffer from sensory neuritis which causes numbing, stinging, pain and sensitivity in an area near and around the wound. The surgeon asked me if I desired to have the shrapnel removed which in turn could cut my jaw muscles and nerves resulting in the likely possibility of an abnormality in my appearance. The alternative, leave it be, live with the pain and as an added bonus, the remote possibility one day a piece of shrapnel could slip into my bloodstream and kill me by stroke or heart attack. Again, being vain, I chose the latter but I do live with constant pain which only hurts when I think about it, like right now. Hey, and I’m still alive. Mind over matter, know what I mean?hosp

I found life at the 85th Evac to be sweet in my two-week stay. I mean, hey, it beats the bush by miles. Look, we had armed forces television in the wards and I remember being blown away by watching my first ever episode of “Batman” as I’d never seen anything like it at the time. We actually had three hot meals a day, slept in covered shelters and a dry bed.

To remind me of my good fortune I have seared into my memory the events of one day as I wandered the compound and found myself at the helipad where the wounded were brought in. A medevac had just landed, medical personnel ran with a gurney from the facility to the chopper to aid a seriously wounded 1st Cav sergeant who was obviously in shock. He was asking about his wounds and the condition of his legs. Both legs were blown off, one at the knee and the other was torn off even higher. The poor guy was also wounded in the face and upper body and was in a state of delirium as the medics who met the chopper consoled him as best they could and assured him everything was fine. I never did find out the fate of the sergeant, whether he lived or died but realized the insignificance of my wound and have been forever grateful. I did and do hope he survived and went home to live a good life.
During my hospital stay I was awarded a Purple Heart at bedside by an officer, just like in the movies and my doctor, who accompanied the presenter, said “son, your warfighting days are over. You’ll be going home real soon,” or something to that effect. Hey, alright, things were looking up. I mean my Deros date, that’s the date when you complete your one year tour, was only weeks away. I’d be getting discharged from the hospital any day now and on my way back to base camp and then on my way home or as we referred to it in Nam, “back the world.” Man o man: don’t get no better than that.
Well, you know, disappointment is a factor in life and dealing with it builds character or at least that’s what they say. Imagine my disappointment when I found out following my discharge from the hospital upon my return to base camp that I was actually not be going home but instead rejoining my unit up even farther north of Bong Son. I wrote a piece dealing with this exact episode: check it out @ https://www.facebook.com/notes/duke-barrett/leaving-on-a-jet-plane/10208155400388548/ .
As much as I may have wanted to see my friends again this bit of news came as a letdown, to put it mildly. I let it be known to the XO that the doctor at the hospital said my fighting days were over and I would be going home since I was within days of my tour completion. Battalion would have none of that so once again I saddled-up, got my M-16 from the armory, boarded a chopper and was off to another in country adventure but only for a short time.Duke Louis T Bird (147x424)
In early November of that year, my tour had come to a well-deserved end and I rotated back to the states for reassignment to the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, N.C. following some annual leave and a 30 day Delay En Route. I served another six months of time at Bragg, all the time preparing for another tour in Nam, making a dozen or more jumps and living outdoors in the elements for many a day and night. As enjoyable as army life was I decided to let it go and returned home to resume the decadent lifestyle of a rock ‘n’ roll musician.
Returning to my hometown is when I first discovered I may have an audio issue as a result of loud guns, explosions, and my wound. Wow, what’s that? The ear directly above my wound had taken on a flutter of sorts when exposed to loud sounds and noise. Annoying as hell is the best way to describe it. Up to that time, I never realized that I had any audio issues because I still could hear pretty well but through the years the fluttering and ringing have only become more severe. Could it be a coincidence?
More than likely not and I’ve finally scheduled a hearing examination next month and we’ll see what the experts say. As far as my sensory neuritis goes, well I have been and am still dealing with the repercussions of that wound but considering what is and could’ve been I’m in a good place; a really good place.

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