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Doug Young served with Tall Comanche from April through August, 1969. He wrote this remembrance immediately after the February 2000 reunion in Atlanta.
Vietnam vets are a peculiar bunch – we often bemoan how we were once separated from society, but then we avoid getting together with fellow veterans. Or, at least, that was the best way to describe me. Content to get on with my life, and fearing to meet those who could not let go of the war, I had not contacted any of my fellow vets. Besides - I'm married to Cindy - a Vietnam vet. Life was - and is - very good.
But now, I am well into my 50s. A little over a year ago, I wandered onto www.redcatcher.org, the unofficial Web home for veterans of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. (I was assigned to that unit at Ft. Benning when it was organized, then went to Vietnam with it in 1966.) Just because it was there, I signed the site's guest book - then forgot about it. About two months later, I received an email that started out "Dear Lt. Young." I knew I was in trouble for I had not been addressed as "Lieutenant" for 33 years. An on-line friendship soon blossomed with two men - one who served with me as a rifleman, the other as my radio operator until he was promoted to sergeant. We had served with Company B, 3rd Battalion 7th Infantry. I learned from these two fine men what I had long suspected - that the Vietnam veteran is basically a normal guy. My contacts grew, and I got to know others that served with the 199th - - but I also began to get in contact with men I'd served with during my second tour in Vietnam in 1969-70. These guys were members of "Tall Comanche," - the radio call sign of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile.). One of the first to find me was Jim "Tree" Machin, who served in the company during the same period.
And Tree had taken on a mission - he wanted those vets who had served together to see each other again - to renew friendships, make new ones, and catch up on those not seen for thirty years. Tree organized a reunion, and about 50 men (some with their wives or girlfriends) showed up.
What follows are some thoughts about that reunion in Atlanta, Georgia, during the weekend of February 18th thru 20th. As the reunion progressed, I kept a hurried diary on my laptop. I have not edited the thoughts as I did not want to lose the immediacy of what I wrote.
Its after midnight, and I’m lying in bed in my room at the Atlanta Airport Marriott after the first afternoon of the reunion. Cindy is sound asleep beside me. I’ve not been full of angst about this reunion, but the thought has occurred to me that some might still be hung up about the war, and still others might find difficulties with my having been their commander. None – absolutely none – of this has come to pass. Instead, I've found what I really wanted – a gathering of gray-haired, paunchy, middle-aged men remembering times past and enjoying the laughter of the present. I have been overwhelmed by the camaraderie. I can only remember the phrase “Welcome Home” used twice today – printed in the agenda and spoken by one of the organizers as he greeted some newcomers. In neither case was there the kind of militant self-centeredness that marks the usual use of the phrase.
It was great to see how the guys took to Cindy once they found out she was a nurse over there. She was immediately accepted as a vet, with every bit the right to be there as they. I am very proud of her.
So – I’ve met the Kenny Gardiner. He was my driver and a clerk when I was the Battalion S1, but he was also a grunt with Comanche, though I did not know him then. While I was S1, he extended his tour to fly loaches with the 3rd Brigade Scouts. Predictably, he was badly wounded. (Cindy's note: An injury of the L orbit and maxilla and mandible, quite certainly was at 24th Evacuation Hospital. He said he was treated like royalty because several of the nurses knew him on Ward 5, from his having driven Doug down to see me!) Not much after Cindy and I were married in 1971, we got a call from Kenny. He was in a VA hospital in New England where he was recovering from serious burns. Today, he is retired and the burns are visible, but barely. It was great to see Kenny - he was with me the night I met Cindy at the 24th Evac Hospital. Cindy even sent him a copy of our wedding photo.
But the reunion helped me to remember much I had forgotten. Some of the guys helped me remember the name of one of our platoon leaders who had been shot up badly one night. I wanted to remember the guy because he was such a quiet leader. He delighted in receiving and sharing the "care packages" he got from his wife. They usually contained a can or two of a cocktail, like Jim Beam and Coke, or a margarita. He would invite someone to share them with him, while he talked of home. My remembrance of him was that he was a damned good officer and his men respected him a lot. Anybody know where he is now?
LT Kahl (maybe Kohl) was not here, but others told me he was the platoon leader who was shot up when a mortar round landed in his fox hole. School teacher in Minnesota. We had been mortared pretty heavy that night, with the 3/6 Platoon Sergeant and medic both killed. We had to blow an LZ with C4 to bring the Medevac in. The LZ was so small, the tips of the blades were hitting the trees. Ballsy guys, the Medevac crews. (Checking records at home, the date of that action was 20 June, 1969.)
One of my fears before the reunion was that someone might harbor grudges against a me as their commander. I remember one email exchange in the year prior to the reunion. A trooper was recollecting the night he and his squad were yelling over to the company CP complaining that the artillery was getting too close. It made me nervous to tell him I was the guy who had called it in close - - and it was right where I wanted it to be. So, I went to Atlanta wondering -
Had one guy who came into company under my successor – said I was deified. I attributed that comment to the beer! But, there were two or three guys who told me they thought I was a good commander, though they also said most guys barely knew who their CO was – their focus was at platoon and squad level. Doc Hooks said he thought I was gung-ho, but not stupid. When he found out I had told a Battalion CO that I would not take the company on a night march, he said he thought better of me. Said there were rumors of that march, and wanted to know if it was true. It was true – and it was also true I told CO I wouldn’t do it.
Tree and I remembered a hot PZ - the only one either of us had ever experienced. A third of the company was already at the new LZ, and the birds were just lifting off with the second lift (the one I was on) when we came under fire. Tree said that he had wondered for years who the smart SOB was who called the other birds back. I was happy to tell Tree it was me. I promised Tree I would look at some records I had at home and give him the date of that action. (Tree - it was 8 June, 1969.)
Anybody who has ever served in combat in any war knows how medics are revered. This reunion was no different. What great guys! What stories of courage. I remember when I was with Comanche that they preferred to be called "Band Aid" in a fight. The medics figured the NVA knew what "Medic" meant too, so if you got wounded, you'd better call "Band Aid" rather than "Medic." Some comments from the reunion.
Lots of Purple Hearts. Mike Hayes said at formal dinner as we toasted the KIA, that in one year, Comanche took 26 KIA and 400 Purple Hearts. Damn!! Considering we only had about 90 to 120 in the weeds at any one time, that's a lot of Purple Hearts.
Joe Roudebush was in the company less than one day when he was hit by a mortar blast. Took a bad hit in his neck and was evac'ed out. Cindy talked to him, and because of the nature of Joe's wound, they figured that most likely he went to the 24th Evac Hospital. Since Cindy's ward was a neurosurgery ward, most likely, because it was a neck wound, Joe would have been on Cindy’s ward. During group picture, Joe's wife looked back and realized who Cindy was and took Cindy’s hand and said “Thanks for taking care of my husband.” Phew!! Heavy duty!! How about this thought: I was Joe's commander when he got shot up, and the commander's eventual wife patched him up.
Larry Galloway – hit in same fire fight as 1SG Allen. Larry was known as "Grandpa." (Note: He was 26 years old at the time.) Doc Hooks said he evac'ed Grandpa twice. At reunion, Hooks wanted to see the fruits of his work and made Larry take of his shirt to see the scars!!
At dinner Saturday night, Tree wanted to recognize the medics and had each stand to applause. He included Cindy in that. Wow!!! Maybe Cindy found out how much medics were revered by the grunts.
On Saturday afternoon, an amazing thing happened. The hotel staff trundled in a VCR and a television set and some videos were played. The videos were copies of some 8mm footage that was shot by C 2/5 Cav troopers while out in "the weeds." Remarkable! I had no idea someone was doing that at the time. (I wonder what my reaction would have been if I had found out.)
There were three separate videos taken by two different troopers. They had carried 8mm movie cameras with them. Much of it was up north, and many of the guys recognized LZ Hardcore. (Before my time.) When dumped to tape, put music with it like “Watchtower” (Hendrix), some Zeppelin, etc. Wow!! Some of LZ Ike. (Note: The first combat assault we did after I joined the company was into the open field that was to become LZ Ike, the eventual site of some very bloody battles.) Some out in the weeds while humping. Some of RTO. Some of log bird. Some of Cobra strikes (even some snake and nape from an F 100) Gave Cindy an idea of how I actually lived because this was no movie – it was the real thing. Also brought out irony of watching videos of guys playing and “rasslin’” in the middle of a combat zone. I want those videos!
But – a thought about the videos. Somehow, we adapted. Remarkable creature, the human.
During the year between the first contacts with the guys I knew from the 199th and the reunion, I found I was not alone in being unable to remember names, dates, and events. It has nothing to do with the mind repressing horrible events - its just simply that these events happened 30 years ago. While out in the field, one didn't operate according to the calendar, so it is hard to relate to dates. There were no days off, you saw a newspaper weeks after the publication date, you couldn't listen to Armed Forces Radio, and letters from home were weeks old. Some more comments from my notes.
Can’t quite figure out when I came in command. My predecessor CPT Boatner was hit and evac'ed on Easter Sunday (Note: April 6th, 1969), and 1SG Solloway was hurt in a helicopter crash about two weeks later. But, Solloway doesn’t remember me, and I don’t remember him, so it must have been 1SG Allen when I took over. Would like to establish the date.
Tree’s personal calendar was something to behold – when people came in country, dates of actions, KIAs listed. He wants everyone to contribute to it – I sure will, but I want a hard copy too.
And, predictably, there were some great war stories. There may be just a little bit of "the older we are, the better we were" syndrome, but some of the better stories smacked of reality.
Great war stories – Funniest was while on Ike, Arizona 6 (Note: the Battalion Commander, a Lieutenant Colonel) wanted all the claymores on the perimeter popped. Well, that means hours of work the next day to set new ones, run wires, and repair concertina. That night, nobody popped a claymore, which pissed off Arizona 6. So, Tree and some others went around the next morning and gathered up all the claymores they could find, except those in the wire, and strung them around the perimeter outside the wire – and connected by det cord. That night when 6 wanted the claymores popped, Tree says “Fire in the hole” and detonated the det cord, setting off the claymores around the circle with one horrific explosion. When 6 came out of the TOC yelling “What the ?+@#$ was that?”, Tree says “Claymores, Sir.”
Talking with Doc (Richard) Bovie from The Bronx. Got a Silver Star for dragging wounded guys out of fight, (Note: December 1968) yet would rather tell the story of seeing a domestic pig hit during a fire fight, and being an animal lover, wanted to shoot the poor pig and put it out of its misery. So here he is in the middle of a fire fight running around trying to shoot this poor pig – and could have been shot himself by exposing himself to enemy fire.
Another war story – While on an LZ, Tree sent an FNG to get a “case of night vision.” Kid actually came back with two Starlite scopes, which worried Tree a little bit because they were very expensive. Kid said that on the way out of the supply area, some guy who called himself Arizona 6 stopped him and wanted to know who had authorized him to get the Starlites. Figuring he had been caught, Tree went to see the Bn CO - - only to find out he had been had – the Old Man knew nothing of talking to the FNG. No harm done – probably LTC Woods.
But of course, there were reflective moments.
Like the way the KIAs were remembered at the dinner. A toast – not a salute.
1SG Allen’s first name is William A. I must look him up – must be in 70s by now. Last time I saw him was at the 45th Surg in Tay Ninh, raising hell with the docs and nurses. He damned near had his shoulder shot off. (Note: I was privileged to have Top Allen as my First Sergeant. What a hell of a man - a true warrior. But, I did not know his first name - to me he had been "Top", though I knew some of his fellow senior NCOs called him "Red." I missed seeing him,
Was fun to watch old speech patterns re-emerge. Everyone – without exception – even if they had not served under him – called retired 1SG Solloway “Top” or “First Sergeant.” (As for me, I could use no other term to address a 1SG – I have too much respect for the rank and the men that held it – damn – I wish Top Allen was here.) All the medics were “Doc.” By Saturday afternoon, if someone wanted my attention, it was “Hey, Captain.” Comfortable, with no hint of class – just what we were used to saying 30 years ago. At breakfast, I was sitting by myself when Doc Bovie came into the restaurant. I waved him over, and said "Good morning, Doc" as he sat down. He responded with "Good morning, Sir." We both burst into laughter.
Cindy found out that most of the wounded didn’t know where they were treated. They didn’t know 24th from any other hospital. Of course, most of them were too full of morphine to know or care.
How many men in the world do you suppose could claim having had the privilege of being the commander of C 2/5 Cav? Twenty? Twenty five? Whatever the number, the fraternity is extremely small. I doubt most of my fellow veterans know I asked to be a part of the 1st Cavalry Division. It was my second tour, and I could pretty much get assigned to whatever unit I wanted - and I wanted "The Cav." I felt then, and feel now, that it was the best damn outfit in Vietnam. I wore the big yellow patch with pride.
Cindy had a friend at the 24th Evac before she met me. He was the Liaison NCO from the 1st Cav. One piece of advice he gave her was to "find a Cav man." She did.
Met and talked to two other COs – Phil Boatner, whom I replaced when he was badly hit and was evac'ed, and Bob Brace, who was a LT with Delta Company when I had Comanche, and took the company in Jan 1970 while still a 1LT. Recently retired a COL.
Troopers of Tall Comanche came back to "The World" and restarted lives the war had interrupted. Just as Tree wanted to give something back, so did others. One in particular was heard.
Russ Griffith, then an E6 with C 2/5, now the CEO of Datatel, paid for the dinner Saturday evening. He also announced his company funds the Angel Fire scholarships (and yes, named for the Vietnam Veterans National Memorial at AF) and wanted the names of eligible vets or their children for scholarships. (Note: Cindy and I own a place in Angel Fire, New Mexico, and we visit the Memorial regularly. The Memorial is in the process of building a web site now, but you can contact the staff at email@example.com. As Russ said in his talk, it is one the most serene, beautiful places you will ever see. It was built by Dr. Victor Westphall, who lost his son, David, in Vietnam.)
What one outstanding thing did I bring away from the reunion? It was a great affirmation of life. Here was a group of people, many badly wounded, who had plenty to complain about. Their youth had been stolen, many with mangled bodies. But they didn't complain - and they don't today. Life is precious to them. If the Vietnam veteran is often portrayed as a victim, these men refuse to fit the mold. They were not victims - they have triumphed over adversity. It is not trite to say they were molded in the crucible of combat - and they are far the stronger for it. Great acts of courage were committed by these men as an ordinary part of their duty, yet today they would rather laugh over a beer than commiserate about the cruelties of life.
Astounded at the number of people who have visible wounds, yet nobody seems to make a big deal of it. Oft repeated theme was that we all came home and just got over it and got on with our lives. In fact, most have a very positive outlook on life. Green tracer theory? Many recipients of Silver Stars – nobody thinks they did any sort of big deal.
This last note concerns something that is not an actual part of the reunion. Immediately after Atlanta, Cindy and I went to Angel Fire, New Mexico – the place Russ Griffith of Datatel visited and from whence came the name for the Angel Fire Scholarships. The Memorial is as beautiful and touching as ever, but it is no longer run by the Disabled Veterans of America as Russ reported at the closing dinner. It now exists as a self-sustaining entity - and is in rough financial times. Angel Fire is in the remote mountains of northern New Mexico. Unless you go there on a ski trip, you don't go there by accident. After the DAV pulled out two years, Ms. Dava Shumsky Ansell took over as the Executive Director. She is a Vietnam widow who raised the son her husband never saw.
Dr. Victor Westphall built the memorial in the beautiful Moreno Valley because it was his son's favorite spot. Work began in 1968, not long after Lieutenant Westphall was killed along with 12 other Marines. Today, the back wall of the chapel still holds the picture of LT Westphall displayed in the center of the pictures of twelve other KIAs. These pictures are changed regularly as a salute to all who died in Vietnam. Dr. Westphall is frail today, but sitting in his wheelchair, you are reminded his mind is as sharp as ever, and you are aware of how much the Vietnam veteran means to him.
If you have the chance, you must visit. If you visit, you must help them financially. There are those of us not as blessed as Cindy and I who still need to heal.
Company C, 2nd Battalion 5th Cavalry
1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile
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Updated December 25, 2000