AMERICAN SOLDIERS IN THE VIETNAM WAR: DAILY LIFE, SPECIAL FORCES, SEX AND DRUGS

AMERICAN GIs IN VIETNAM

The average of American GIs in 1968 was 19. GIs typically served for 329 days. Many were drafted. A surprising number of felons (in some cases judges gave convicted criminals the choice of Vietnam or jail) were allowed to serve while sons of the rich and privileged were able to use various loopholes to avoid combat or the military altogether. In the army, 41 percent of soldiers scored in the lowest of four categories in mental aptitude tests.

The soldiers who fought in Vietnam had been trained to fight a conventional World War II-style war not a guerilla war in the jungle and were justifiably very scared and ill-equipped to handle the kind of fighting they were subjected to in Vietnam. It was common practice for soldiers to be rotated through every six months. Many had little on their minds other staying alive until their rotation was over

Many soldiers were highly motivated at first but lost their enthusiasm as the war wore on. Philip Caputo., a Marine lieutenant in the war, wrote in his book A Rumour of War , "we "carried along our packs and rifles, the implicit convictions that the Viet Cong were going to be quickly beaten and we were doing something altogether noble...We kept the rifles and packs; the convictions were lost."

Some soldiers were nuts when they arrived in Vietnam; others went nuts while they were there. One soldier said, "I enjoyed the shooting and the killing. I was literally turned on, when I saw a geek get shot." Another said, "I loved to just sit in the ditch and watch people die. As bad as that may sound, I just liked to watch no matter what happened, sitting back with my homemade cup of hot chocolate. It was like a big movie."

Organization and Command in Vietnam

The massive base at Long Bihn was perhaps the largest American military base ever constructed on foreign soil. Now a vacant lot, it was a huge amalgamation of tents, buildings and bunkers that covered hundreds of acres. Bien Hoa Air Base handed 1,019,37 takeoffs and landings in 1970, a world record.

Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration, volunteered to serve in Vietnam War when he was 21. On his leaders and the way said: The company commanders and the platoon leaders, they were the ones obviously on the ground with you. But I was not much impressed with our — our battalion leaders, our Xos. I don’t — I didn’t ever get a sense that they came down in, enough into the platoon company level to really do what I thought officers should do. And the lieutenants and the captains carried the bulk, as they do in any war, essentially. But it was the sergeants. It was the senior enlisted that carried the weight. I mean really carried the weight. And it was obvious to everybody. And they — the senior sergeants were the reassuring, calming guys. And in many cases, many cases, these were the guys that didn’t fall apart. And some of the officers did. And some of the officers couldn’t read maps very well. And I just — I never had. [Source: Time, January 16, 2013 =^=]

The trouble with individuals rotating in and out, instead of entire units: The rotation problem was bigger than we could have imagined and didn’t quite even understand it when we were going through it. As I look back on it now, it’s — it was the worst thing that could possibly happen. You had guys rotating in and out daily. You would break the continuity of leadership. You’d break the continuity of confidence, of teamwork. You’d get a guy who was leaving in about a month and — or two months, and he wouldn’t pay attention. He — he would constantly look for ways to not go out in the field because he was down to — actually it got — it started about 90 days, and say, "Well, I’m not — listen, I’ve come this far. I’m not going to risk it. I’m 90 days away from being out of here." So you’d find guys on sick call that wanted to do berm duty, did everything but go out and subject themselves to what could be their last patrol. And that — that broke down everything. So it was a very bad policy. =^=

Food and Everyday Life of a GI in Vietnam

Food at the undefined front was provided by mobile kitchen trailers (MKTs) carried by troops, often with no means of refrigeration. A typical meal consisted of: 1) grilled corned beef, 2) Lyonnaise potatoes, 3) stewed tomatoes, 4) cabbage with green pepper salad and 5) corn bread.

Chuck Hagel said: Well, you know, people who have never been in combat have no way of understanding what it is. They see movies. They see different dynamics. They read. They talk with people who have been through it. And I think there’s always an exaggerated sense of it to a certain extent that, you know, you’re fighting every day, and there’s this life-and-death situation every day. And it isn’t that way. Yes, you — I don’t know how many firefights I was in. I don’t know how much combat — I mean, the actual day-to-day people shooting at you and you shoot at them and the problems, I’ve never tried to calculate it. I had my share. And 1968, as you know, was the worst year we ever had over there, but a lot of it is pretty boring, too. [Source: Time, January 16, 2013 =^=]

"A lot of it is pretty monotonous. A lot of it is going through the same thing day after day. And maybe you go for a week and not have anything. Maybe you go for two weeks and just not have anything. Of course, that’s dangerous, too, because you get sloppy and you — you don’t pay attention. But that’s the only thing I would add about — you asked the question about the combat experience. There’s a lot of downtime in the sense of a lot of boring time. =^=

"Now, we weren’t sitting around, munching pretzels and drinking beer. We were out in the field and sweating and probably wishing sometimes you were in combat and doing the patrol work and the breaking jungle for 16 hours a day with a machete and always thinking that you might be in the gun sights of a sniper up in a tree or always knowing that there was a grenade hanging on that tree or always knowing you could be walking right into an ambush, which we did. And the mental pressure that is on people who are out in those situations, the intensity of that pressure, does make — does make an individual break. It makes him do funny things. It — and I don’t think people quite understand that. It carries forward, too. =^=

"You know, we’ve gone through this 30 years and 20 years and 10 years of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Really is there such a thing? And do guys wake up in the middle of the night? I remember my father, when I was young — he was in World War II overseas for almost three years. I remember him waking up in the middle of the night screaming. No. It does happen. And it happens not just because of necessarily the blood and gore that you see in combat. It’s the — it’s the pressure of the mental process that — that makes you that way. =^=

GIs Arrive in Vietnam and Their Training

Chuck Hagel wrote: Arriving on December 4, 1967: I suppose like anyone, you are scared. It’s hot. It’s unfamiliar. It’s oppressive. There is great angst, uncertainty. As we were walking down the steps, moving — we got in there early in the morning. It was like 6:00 in the morning. Even at 6:00 in the morning, the heat was oppressive. We were walking toward the processing area, and a bunch of the grizzled old veterans that were coming back that were going to get on the bird we were on to go back home were shouting things at us. "Hey, baby. Charlie’s going to love you. They’re going to cut your ears off." And I mean, saying every outrageous thing that you can imagine. Of course we’re all very staid, solid, marching along and not trying to let any of this affect us. Well, of course it did…[Source: Time, January 16, 2013 =^=]

The guy next to you may be the guy that saves your life. It may be because of him you either die or live. If he’s not paying attention, then you’re in trouble. That’s effective, and they work that, but again, in the kind of numbers we’re talking about, you’re going to have guys that are and were not prepared to be in those situations. And a lot of guys cracked up. A lot of guys were — either hurt themselves or someone else or got others killed or got themselves killed because they weren’t ready for it. =^=

Sergeant Arnold Krause told journalist Peter Alan Lloyd: "I was 19 when I was drafted into the Army in September of 1967 and after going through Basic at Ft. Lewis, Wa. and AIT training at Ft. Polk (home of "Tigerland") La., I got my orders to go to Vietnam in March of 1968. Upon arriving in country, and passing through the 90th Replacement Center in Ben Hoi, I was assigned to Charlie Co, 3rd Plt., 2/12th Infantry located in Camp Rainer, Dau Tieng. I arrived in Vietnam as a PFC (Private First Class), was promoted to SP4 (Specialist 4th Class) in July, and made Sergeant in August. The 25th division had a leadership development school at Cu Chi that lasted about 8 to 10 days and was designed to teach NCOs the basics of being a leader. Just before I return home in February, I was promoted to Staff Sgt. arriving home in March of 1969. [Source: Sergeant Arnold Krause, with Peter Alan Lloyd, Eyewitness Accounts The Vietnam War, April 2013 <=>]

August 22nd, upon completing my NCO schooling at Cu Chi, I returned to the field where the unit was still operating south of Hoc Mon. My platoon leader, 1LT R.W. "Bud" McDaniel, who will soon take over as the company commander in September for Charlie Co., tells me I am taking over third squad. There are five men in the squad, a grenadier (M-79) and four riflemen (M-16’s) plus myself. Soon after my promotion our unit moved from Hoc Mon area up to Trang Bang and settled in at FSB (Fire Support Base) Stuart. About a month later we moved North about six clicks and established FSB Pershing. The Battalion remained in this area from October 1968 until about May of 1970 as its TAO, tactical area of operation. <=>

U.S. Special Forces

Special forces involved in the fighting in Vietnam included the Army Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets, and Navy SEALS (Sea-Air-Land). Typically were involved in dangerous, secretive missions such as "takeouts" (kidnaping and assassination) missions. Often they were discouraged from taking prisoners and this often meant killing the people they came in contact even if they were ordinary villagers.

U.S. Special Forces tend to be older than regular troops and have gone through extremely tough and rigorous physical and mental training. They are selected for their ability to think on their feet, make swift and creative decisions and adapt to their surroundings. Many have language skills and knowledge of dozens of weapons. Their missions and training are so difficult they are nine times more likely to die than regular soldiers. The usually operate in companies (200 men) and units of 100 men.

Most Special Forces soldiers are trained in North Carolina at the Special Warfare Center and School Fort Bragg. The two and three year training programs include instruction on jungle and desert warfare, conducting missions from behind enemy lines and escaping from POW camps. There is also language training and instruction on how to kill with a rifle, grenade launcher, knife and bare hands. Basic training for the Special Forces is so tough that many recruits pass out or are reduced to tears.

Navy SEALs (Sea, Air and Land) are among the toughest of Special Forces. They are trained to do difficult combat missions on air, sea and land. During the final phase of their training, known as "hell week," they are given little to eat and can sleep only three hours during the entire week and run through tough mental and physical tests. USAF Special Ops is trained for search-and-rescue , emergency-medicine and ground-based fire control. The CIA’s version of the Special Forces is the super-secret Special Operations Group (SOG).

Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, have traditionally been in charge of training local foreign troops. They usually speak several languages and are trained for extended operations in extremely remote and hostile territory. They often specialize in intelligence and counter-terrorism and operate in 12-member A-Teams. Army Rangers are not special forces but a group of elite fighters. In Vietnam they were involved primarily in front line operations such s patrolling and raiding.

History of Special Forces

D. M. Giangreco wrote in American Heritage magazine, "Few Americans had a firm grasp of what was transpiring during the alarming days of Sputnik , the Berlin Wall, and insurgencies seemingly appearing out of nowhere, but John F. Kennedy did. In 1962 the man who launched the space race told the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy: "In light of this situation, we need to be prepared to fight a different war. This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin, war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins; war by ambush instead of combat, by infiltration instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him. It requires, in those situations where we encounter it, a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore, a new and wholly different kind of military training." [Source: D. M. Giangreco, American Heritage magazine, November/December 2002 ++]

"The Psychological Warfare Center had been renamed the Special Warfare Center in 1956 and had activated a third group on Okinawa in 1957, but Special Forces was hit by the same budget and manpower cuts as the rest of the Army’s nonnuclear elements in the years before Kennedy became President. And as inspiring and farsighted as JFK proved to be, Special Warfare Center Commandant Brig. Gen. William Yarborough later said that it was not easy to "prod the Armed Services into changing their conventional warfare orientation in any significant way." Kennedy found that "service apathy and even opposition" to Special Forces still ran strong and he decided to let senior leaders know about his concern. Said Yarborough: "The President took the unusual step of arranging a private session with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the hope that they would urge support for the ambitious training programs that were laboring to get off the ground at Fort Bragg." ++

With the President’s vehement personal support, men and funds flowed into the organization. By the time of Kennedy’s Military Academy speech, a fourth Special Forces Group had already been added. Three more were formed in 1963, raising the number of operational groups to seven (most, however, never came close to reaching full strength because of the Army-wide shortage of sergeants precipitated by the Vietnam War). The President even supported the adoption of green berets as the official Special Forces headgear, a proposal that the Army’s leadership had strenuously opposed for years. ++

"Special Forces activities expanded in Africa, Asia, and, much closer to home, Latin America, where many countries were battling guerrillas inspired by Fidel Castro’s Cuba and frequently backed by the Soviet Union. Special Forces A-teams worked closely with Latin American armies. Their involvement in Bolivia is well known because of the tracking down and capture of the communist revolutionary Che Guevara, but some 450 missions were carried out by the 8th Special Forces Group in other countries such as Guatemala, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic in the mid-1960s, with Colombia, strategically located near the Panama Canal, receiving the highest number of training teams. ++

History of Special Forces in Laos and Vietnam

D. M. Giangreco wrote in American Heritage magazine, "Direct U.S. involvement in Vietnam began in 1957 with the deployment of the 14th Special Forces Operational Detachment and was rising steadily long before Kennedy entered the White House. U.S. advisers trained the Army of Vietnam in counterinsurgent tactics and worked hard to deny the Viet Cong guerrillas free movement in the countryside by very quickly forging the many outlying tribes, which were not ethnically Vietnamese, into competent anticommunist forces. [Source: D. M. Giangreco, American Heritage magazine, November/December 2002 ++]

"Army Special Forces reached its peak of visibility in the late 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War, and its glamour and novel tactics attracted a degree of press coverage out of all proportion to its numbers. Much of the Army’s leadership, already distrustful of the elite formation’s siphoning off of conventional units’ best personnel, viewed Green Berets as publicity-seeking mavericks often lacking in "good order and discipline." After the last American Special Forces troops had left Vietnam, in 1971, Special Forces’ enemies moved in for the kill, and the worldwide total of seven regimental-sized groups was slashed to just three, based mainly at Fort Bragg, in Panama, and at its original European headquarters in Bad Tolz. ++

One result of the Vietnam War was that the U.S. Army gained a broad understanding that the dirty work of fighting guerrillas must be accompanied by genuine reforms if an insurgency was to be defeated rather than temporarily checked. The Army also learned that if another nation’s people lack the will to persevere, you cannot expect to win a war for them. Consequently, the lessons of Vietnam led to now almost forgotten successes in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Right from the beginning of the decade-long U.S. effort to help El Salvador fight its insurgency, both governments made—and stuck with—a decision not to encourage a "gringoization" of the war. ++

Green Berets

Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, have traditionally been in charge of training local foreign troops. They usually speak several languages and are trained for extended operations in extremely remote and hostile territory. They often specialize in intelligence and counter-terrorism and operate in 12-member A-Teams..

D. M. Giangreco wrote in American Heritage magazine, "All Green Berets are dauntingly adept fighters, but they also know how to build and run field hospitals, train foreign troops and guerrillas, speak foreign languages, and spend long, patient months behind enemy lines. Every Green Beret belongs to either the U.S. Army Special Forces Command, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, or one of 7 three-battalion "groups," each approximately 1,400 soldiers strong. Each of these groups (five of them active and two in the National Guard) is trained to operate in a special region. Until recently Army Special Forces units had five primary missions: unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, counterterrorism, and direct action. Green Berets also are called on to carry out collateral activities beyond the primary missions: combat search and rescue, security assistance, countermine and counterdrug operations, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and serving as liaisons between U.S. and foreign troops during combat operations. [Source: D. M. Giangreco, American Heritage magazine, November/December 2002]

Green Berets in Laos and Vietnam

D. M. Giangreco wrote in American Heritage magazine, "Tribesmen formed close bonds with the Green Berets, who scrupulously respected local customs and established medical clinics and schools in regions ignored by the Saigon government. By the late 1960s some 45,000 tribesmen had been actively involved in the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG), operated by 3,500 Special Forces troops per year in a total of 249 village outposts beyond the easy reach of conventional U.S. and South Vietnamese units. [Source: D. M. Giangreco, American Heritage magazine, November/December 2002 ++]

"Countless skirmishes and dozens of pitched battles were fought during the nine years of the CIDG program. The Green Berets’ activities with such tribal allies as thé Nungs, Montagnards, and Khmers remained the main focus of Special Forces efforts, but the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply network, running from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam, also saw extensive longrange patrolling. Teams of Green Berets and tribal soldiers often spent weeks at a time in the contested jungles and severely disrupted communist operations. ++

"As the war grew to be more and more a "big unit" fight in 1965, with the advance of North Vietnamese formations into the South, the isolated CIDG posts became increasingly vulnerable, particularly to artillery, which the North Vietnamese used against them with devastating effect. Camps Due Co and Cai Cai underwent prolonged sieges, and others like Song Be and Bu Dop fell in vicious fighting. Just before its Ia Drang Valley battles, one of which was depicted in the recent film We Were Soldiers , the 1st Cavalry. Division forced the North Vietnamese to lift their siege of Plei Me, but this was hardly the norm, since large conventional units could seldom be spared to dash from one beleaguered site to another. ++

The inability of conventional U.S. and South Vietnamese forces to come to the aid of the CIDG camps led Special Forces to create its own battalion-sized mobile reaction units, made up of indigenous troops. Called simply "Mike" forces after the letter M for mobile , they were increasingly used in missions in support of conventional operations. As the war developed, some Mike-force actions, such as the 10-day battle for Nui Goto Mountain in 1969, took on increasingly Ranger-like characteristics and demonstrated the need for the specialized units that the Army had abandoned nearly a quarter-century earlier. The next year most of the divisional reconnaissance companies in Vietnam were upgraded to Vietnam Army Ranger status. By 1974 the Army had filled the gap by reactivating two Ranger battalions in the United States. ++

"Meanwhile, Special Forces began the slow process of turning its CIDG camps over to the Vietnamese Army, as part of President Richard Nixon’s "Vietnamization" policy. By now the threat from the Viet Cong’s revolutionary cadres was steadily diminishing, thanks to a highly successful effort to keep the insurgents from rebuilding their ranks after the terrible losses they suffered during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The well-trained CIDG tribesmen were given the option of either reverting to civilian life or becoming members of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, and more than 14,000 stayed on to form light-infantry Ranger battalions. ++

"The Green Berets finally left Vietnam in March 1971. Before their departure, the retired Special Forces captain Shelby Stanton writes, "Special Forces turned over its medical and dental treatment programs to native CIDG political warfare team medics." The Green Berets had not only built hundreds of bridges, schools, and dispensaries, Stanton noted, but also had "used close personal assistance and self-help methods to elevate agriculture, animal husbandry, and community living standards among the peasants." Ultimately, though, much of this work was destroyed or allowed to disintegrate after North Vietnam’s decidedly conventional cross-border blitzkrieg pummeled its way to Saigon in 1975. ++

Attitude of American GIs Toward the Vietnamese

One former GI later old the Los Angeles Times, "To be truthful, I didn’t like the Vietnamese. Sorry. But that’s how felt. In the northern corps where I operated, the Vietnamese didn’t see us as liberators—we were the people bringing down a reign of terror. They’d mess with us like we were the enemy. And I’d think, ‘Excuse me, I’ve just come 10,000 miles to save you from Communism. So what’s with the attitude you’ve got?"

Former war correspondent Robert Kaiser wrote in the Washington Post: "During the war, Americans were everywhere, nearly always in superior positions to the natives. The curfew in Saigon didn't apply to us; customs officials at Ton Son Nhut airport gave us special consideration; merchants in the markets charged us especially high prices, on the (correct) theory that we a had a lot more money than the locals."

Many American GIs felt uncomfortable with the Vietnamese people and some plain didn't like them. Recalling his arrival in Saigon in 1967, ex-GI Tobias Wolff wrote in Time magazine, "I hadn't been 10 minutes off the plane at Bienha before I saw one of our troops abusing the baggage handlers; the bus driver who ferried us to the transit barracks spent most of the trip screaming insults at the people on the road and nearly made good on his threat to run down an old woman who was slow getting out of his way. That was just the beginning. Everywhere I went I saw Americans raining contempt on Vietnamese, handling them roughly, speaking to them like badly behaved children or dogs."

American GIs referred to the enemy as gooks, Charlie, VC. Villagers were called Mamasan, Papasan and babysan. One Asian-American soldier said, "After I had been in Vietnam a while I started to think, 'If the Vietnamese are the enemy, I don't have to treat them like human beings. Vietnam was a very undeveloped country. I started to think that any culture that was undeveloped was not equal to our own culture. As much as I despise the word 'gook,' it seemed very appropriate over there."

Why did the US troops in Vietnam nickname the North Vietnamese "Charlie"? Charlie is from the phonetic alphabet for the letter "C". The C stood for Communist. The names for the first five letters in military lingo are: A= Alpha, B= Bravo, C= Charlie, D= Delta, E = Echo.

War Dogs in the Vietnam War

Jessica Ravitz of CNN reported: "Maybe it was the sound of the wind cutting through the wire. Perhaps he caught a small vibration with his keen eyes. Or it could have been a slight difference in the air's smell. Whatever it was, when Sarge noticed that his Marine Corps handler, Fred Dorr, was creeping down the wrong path in the Vietnam jungle, the German shepherd did something he'd never done out in the field: He looked at Dorr and barked, before taking a seat. "When he sat down, I knew there was a trip wire. I was one step away from it," remembered Dorr, who with his dog in 1969 was "walking point," leading the way for a dozen soldiers. Had the hidden explosive device been tripped, "It would have gotten half of us."[Source: Jessica Ravitz, CNN, February 12, 2010 /=\]

"During the Vietnam War, more than 4,000 dogs served in various positions, said Michael Lemish, a military dog historian and author of "Forever Forward: K-9 Operations in Vietnam." The scout dogs, such as Sarge, walked with their handlers ahead of patrols -- making them the first target for ambushes or hidden explosives. There were also sentry dogs who guarded bases, tracker dogs who followed the trail of enemies and mine and booby trap dogs who sniffed out dangers hidden beneath the ground. /=\

"The Viet Cong placed a bounty on the dogs because they were so effective, Lemish said. All told, he estimated the K-9 teams averted more than 10,000 casualties. But at the end of the war, only about 200 dogs came home. The rest who had survived were either euthanized or turned over to the South Vietnamese -- left behind, a surplus of war. "They were treated as obsolete equipment. And if you were a handler, you couldn't see them that way," said Jack Kowall, 61, who keeps a framed picture of himself and Eric, the black lab and shepherd mix he worked with. /=\

On patrols, Kowall used hand motions to speak to Eric. In turn, the animal spoke back through his movements. His ears would shoot up and turn in the direction of suspicious noise. The hair on his back would stand up if danger was close. If he wanted Kowall to stop moving, he'd look back at him. Off-duty, Eric was playful. He liked to have his neck scratched and would roll around on the ground. The 110-pound dog would cuddle up to Kowall at night when they were out in the field, and he'd eat out of his handler's helmet. Whenever Kowall could, he'd give his closest friend steak. The men who'd walk behind the pair on missions were always different. But a scout handler and his dog were a constant, as the duo bounced between different assignments. After the Vietnam War only 204 of an estimated 4,900 war dogs returned to the United States. The others were euthanized, gvem to the South Vietnamese army or abandoned.

Souvenirs, Skulls and Hootchmaids in Vietnam

American GIs in the Vietnam War smoked marijuana shotgun-style from their M-16s in the middle of battle and purchased "Saigon tea" from bar girls while on R and R. They often called the women who did housekeeping chores at the base "hootch maids." Some started at the war as sweet innocent young things and ended up as hard-looking prostitutes and drug dealers.

Slinkies could be attached to wires and thrown over tree blanches and used as makeshift radios. GIs engraved Zippo lighters with things like: ""Death is my business and business has been good; " "I know I’m going to heaven because I’ve already been to hell: Vietnam; " "I am not scared, just lonesome." See Art

Some soldiers cut off the ears of Viet Cong they killed and kept skulls as souvenirs. Describing human skulls presumably from Viet Cong confiscated from U.S. soldiers who were trying to bring them home from Vietnam in the 1970s, the Washington Post reported: "Certain things are immediately apparent about six human skulls the lined up on the metal cabinet in a back room of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. First, there is the graffiti scrawled across them, abrasive as wartime expressions can be: "Today's pigs are tomorrow's bacon" on one, "Stay high stay alive" on another, trippy thick stripes of bright blue, red and yellow on a third. Two eye sockets are filled with red candle wax, as though the skull had been used to light up a soldier's lonely night decades ago. [Source: Michelle Boorstein, Washington Post, July 3, 2007]

R and R for American GIs in the Vietnam War

Once a month, for four or five days at a time, American GIs would return from their patrols and missions and relax at a place like LZ Gator, a forward firebase, surrounded by bunkers and concertina wire, with " a tar helipad, a mess hall, a medical station, mortar and artillery emplacements, two volleyball courts, numerous barracks and offices and supply depots, machines shops and entertainment clubs." [Source: Tim O'Brien, New York Times magazine, October 2, 1994]

During their "stand-in" the GIs enjoyed hot showers, hot meals, chests of cold beer, Playboy magazines and tape decks blasting Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Janis Joplin, the Animals and other rock groups. "With a little weed and a lot of beer," wrote Tim O'Brien in the New York Times Magazine, "we would spend the days of standdown in flat-out celebration, purely alive, taking pleasure in our own biology, kidneys and livers and lungs and legs, all in their proper alignments. We could breathe here. We could feel our fists uncurl, the pressures approaching normal." [Source: Tim O'Brien, New York Times magazine, October 2, 1994]

"The real war, it seemed, was in another solar system. By day we'd fill sandbags or pull bunker guard. In the evenings, there were outdoor movies and sometimes live floor shows—pretty Korean girls breaking our hearts in their spangled miniskirts and high leather boots—and then afterwards we'd trop back to the Alpha barracks for some letter writing or boozing or just a good night's sleep."

Soldiers with more time at their disposal went to Saigon, Vientiane, Bangkok, transforming them into the sin cities they continue to be today. "Tea girls" were the equivalent of modern bar hostesses. In 1962, when the trade was being conceived, David Halberstam wrote: The French "watch the Americans 'liberate' bars and night clubs. One beautiful girl who used to sing the songs of unrequited love only in Vietnamese and French now sings Lonesome Me . her sad eyes and gentle smile, which used to be for French eyes alone, now linger on American faces as well. Its a fine sculpted Asian face, thin and wistful, and it focuses on a listener just long enough to assure him that her love is both true and eternal (the time required is 6 seconds for a Frenchman and 3 seconds for a G.I.). One young American caught up in her charms and knowing that he was the most important man in the whole world, suddenly beat on the table and said with vehemence and depth of feeling which awed his buddies: "My God, we can't let this go over to the Communists."

An then there was the staged entertainment for U.S. trops. One Vietnam Nam GI nicknamed Lurp told Time: "Yeah, I saw Mr. Bob Hope. They came and got us in the bush. Said we were going to see Mr. Bob Hope. We thought we were the luckiest guys on earth. We got all cleaned up, went to Danang. Surfed for two days. Then they set us out to set up an outer perimeter. I saw Mr. Hope's ass come over in a chopper, and I saw Mr. Hope's ass leave in a chopper. Yeah, I saw Mr. Bob Hope."

China Beach—featured in films and American television shows about the Vietnam War—is near Danang. It is thought to have been the inspiration for the famous surf scene from Apocalypse Now , "It's pretty hairy in there. It's Charlie's point," Robert Duval says as he helicopters into a surfing area controlled by Viet Cong. Isn’t it dangerous? "No, Charlie don't surf."

Drugs and the Vietnam War

Drug use was rampant among GIs in the Vietnam War. Marijuana was a common recreational drug. Good quality stuff included "Thai sticks" and opium-laced hashish. Many American servicemen became addicted to heroin while in Vietnam. It was not unusual for battalion to have a single combat death but 18 from overdoes.

On one way China was helping North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, Chinese Premier Chou En-lai told the president of Egypt in 1965: "Some [American troops] are trying opium, and we are helping them. We are planting the best kinds of opium especially for American soldiers in Vietnam...Do you remember when the West imposed opium on us? They fought war with opium. We are going to fight them with their own weapons."

The recreation habits of American GIs had a profound influence on the cultures not only of Vietnam, but also Thailand and Laos. In many ways the association of these countries with sex, prostitution, drugs and decadence can be tied to the American influence during the Vietnam War.

Michael Herr wrote in "Dispatches", "Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar. [...] I knew one 4th division Lurp who took his pills by the fistful, downs from the left pocket of his tiger suit and ups from the right, one to cut the trail for him and the other to send him down it. He told me that they cooled things out just right for him, that he could see that old jungle at night like he was looking at it through a starlight scope. "They sure give you the range," he said." [Source: Michael Herr, "Dispatches", Knopf, 1977]

Marijuana and Heroin Use During the Vietnam War

Marijuana was grown all over Vietnam, and many soldiers had their first experiences smoking it overseas. It helped them mellow out, it helped them continue fighting. It took their mind off what the war was about and helped if they didn'tt necessarily believe in the cause for which they fought. In The Things They Carried, drug use is treated matter of factly: it is another not-too-wonderful strategy for trying not to see what is going on around the users. Some soldiers have religion, others have girlfriends waiting for them at home, others have dope. [Source: gradesaver.com +++]

Although smoking marijuana -- the drug of choice among soldiers -- was a punishable offense under army rules, many soldiers still indulged. Precise statistics are not available, but army records suggest that marijuana use at the time was much more widespread in Vietnam itself than it was in the United States. After outraged, sympathetic and bemused newspaper reports drew international interest to the issue, the southern Vietnamese government took steps to make marijuana harder to obtain in 1968. The problem was soon overshadowed, though, by the rise of heroin as a popular drug among soldiers. +++

Some leaders chose to ignore the problem. Others encouraged marijuana use, because it kept their men mellow and focused, because it diffused social problems in the group, because it had fewer side affects than alcohol use and abuse, or because they simply could not imagine trying to prohibit it. It is unclear whether a crackdown, ordered from above, on marijuana use helped feed a switch to heroin. What is clear from army documents is that heroin was a larger problem. Heroin is debilitating. And when soldiers returned to America they were sick for months because they no longer had access to the drug. This was often in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder, an illness portrayed in many of O'Brien's stories. +++

In O'Brien's fiction, all drugs are grouped together under the term "dope." As when writing about many of the other aspects of the book -- casual sex, killing, to name a few -- O'Brien the narrator remains non-judgmental. They are things that happen. Some people are drug addicts, others carry their girlfriends' stockings. In the moral balance and the wider craze of the war, these small transgressions hardly seem to matter. +++

Drug use in the book is even used to fuel some of the troops' humor. Ted Lavender is the group's habitual drug user. When he is high, the other men like to ask him how the war is going. Lavender responds: "...real smooth. Today we've got ourselves a real mellow war." This is always good for a laugh. When Lavender is killed, the others try to convince themselves that he is just high, is in a higher place, has taken so much dope that he's up there floating in the clouds somewhere. To help themselves believe this, the soldiers all partake in smoking what's left of Lavender's dope. This anecdote illustrates that drug use, though it may have been insubordination according to strict army definitions, was also simply a form of escapism for the soldiers. +++

Prostitution in the Vietnam War

According to Khuat Thu Hong (1998), archive materials indicate that in 1954 in Hanoi alone, there were around 12,000 professional prostitutes working in 45 brothels and 55 cabaret houses of whom over 6,000 were licensed. After 1954, in northern Vietnam, prostitution was theoretically eliminated. Article 202 of the Criminal Code states that any sheltering, enticement, or inducement of prostitutes is an illegal act, and punishment will vary by degree of violation. Yet, every year, about 300 to 400 persons were discovered working in this trade. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology \*/ ]

Between 1959 and 1962, organized prostitution in the South was almost totally crushed by Madame Nhu, who closed down every brothel and heavily fined the owners. This changed after the Ngo Dinh Diem regime was overthrown in 1963. During the late 1960s, about thirty-two establishments in Saigon were houses of prostitution, ranging from modest apartments to elegant three-story establishments. A good deal of the sex business was in the hands of the Vietnamese underworld, like the "Yellow Pang Society." In the French as well as in the American period, the "Flower Boats" or sampans plied their trade. They were frequently family operations, with the daughter(s) working as prostitute(s) while the brothers pimped on dry land. Some of the larger junks, however, were professionally run, often by the Saigon underworld. Prior to 1975, statistics from the Ministry of Society of the Saigon government reported about 200,000 professional prostitutes. In Saigon alone in 1968, there were about 10,000 professional prostitutes. By 1974, the figure had reached 100,000. \*/

During the Vietnam War, one million soldiers from the United States were stationed throughout Southeast Asia. Most of these host countries signed agreements to provide their services as "Rest and Recreation" centers for United States military and aid personnel. Their presence contributed to the proliferation of commercial sexual intercourse. Although the U.S. Army was not officially involved in providing sex workers to cover itself against congressional reaction at home, it is known that some of the brothels kept by the Vietnamese Government and the ARVIN (Army of Vietnam) were exclusively reserved for GIs. The first military brothel opened in 1966 in Pleiku in the central highlands. \*/

According to Marnais (1967), it was to be the model for other "recreation centers," including several within the Saigon area: The Pleiku brothel has twenty rooms, whitewashed and pleasantly furnished. The girls are all carefully selected on the basis of good looks, personality and knowledge of English. (U.S. Army Intelligence also runs a security check on each girl to make sure she is not a Viet Cong agent out to pick up useful information from her trusting bedmates.) The girls are closely supervised by a matron under contract to the Pleiku Administrative Council. An American GI pays 300 piastres ($2.50) for a ticket, allowing him up to three hours with any given girl. (Twosomes and other exotic sexual ménages are out.) Between 100 and 300 GIs visit the house each day, passing through a sandbagged guard post where they are required to show their ticket and have it stamped by a Vietnamese soldier. Fifteen percent of the girl’s earnings are deducted to pay for expenses at the center, but a hard-working and a popular prostitute can earn between 8000 to 15,000 piastres ($66 to $125) a month, a good salary in today’s Vietnam. The main reason for the U.S. Army to provide those establishments was the alarmingly high venereal disease rate among U.S. enlisted men. However, most of the soldiers preferred to look for prostitutes themselves in bars catering to GIs. \*/

"A prostitute earned as much as $180 per month. The average government civil servant earned roughly $30 a month, and even cabinet ministers and Assembly members had fixed salaries of $120. A special form of prostitution was the "mistress," i.e., a paid steady girlfriend. GIs considered this a "safer" alternative to the brothels and bar girls. There existed rumors about an incurable strain of syphilis, called "Black Clap," and Viet Cong girls who were able to put razor blades into their vaginas to castrate or even kill clients (Gulzow & Mitchell 1980). The latter rumor is without doubt a reflection of the ability of some trained girls to use their vaginas to smoke cigarettes, shoot arrows, or to put razor blades or other sharp materials in them without getting hurt. \*/

While under French rule, marriages of French soldiers and Vietnamese women were prohibited. American soldiers, on the other hand, could marry. A U.S. Army study of sixty-four GIs who had filed applications to marry Vietnamese girls between June 1964 and November 1966 concluded that a high proportion of GIs who married Vietnamese women were divorced, sexually inhibited, fearful of American women, or disenchanted with some aspects of American life (Marnais 1967). \*/

Disease and the Vietnam War

Many soldiers came down with dysentary. Some picked up hepatitis C—a disease that is endemic in Asia—from blood transfusions but never realized they had the disease until much later (the test for the disease was not devised until 1992). Rumors spread among American GIs about the dreaded black syphilis, or Saigon rose, as it is more euphemistically called, a kind of venereal disease that didn’t respond to antibiotics.

Malaria felled more combatants during the Vietnam than bullets, with most of the victims being Vietnamese. In the early years of the war, nearly 10 percent of American soldiers came down with the disease. It reduced the combat strength of some units by half. Over 40,000 cases of malaria were reported among US Army troops alone between 1965 and 1970 with 78 deaths. The U.S. Army established a malaria drug research program when U.S. troops first encountered drug-resistant malaria during the war. Many cases were resistant to chloroquine hence mefloquine, a potent replacement developed at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, was used.

The Vietnamese were suffering even more. Ho Chi Minh asked the Chinese for help. In 1967, Chinese scientists set up Project 523—a secret military project—to help the Vietnamese military defeat malaria by developing artemisinin based anti malarial formulations. See Disease

Getting Out of Vietnam

On finally being released from military duty and getting out of Vietnam, Chuck Hagel said: "The out-processing was terrible. Now, for me, wanting to just get the hell out, at that moment, for me, it was — it was the greatest thing that could happen because the last thing I wanted was to hear a bunch of majors or sergeant majors tell me about anything. But — but when you think of — of 72 hours prior to the time you let somebody out on that street in San Francisco or wherever they’re going to go to with a full wallet, new Class As. "Thank you for your service, young man. Now go have a good life." [Source: Mark Thompson, Time January 16, 2013 =^=]

Considering what they had just been through, with no transition, no kind of bringing it down a little bit, no adjustment, no — I mean, you had your quick little physical. You had your little — you had the chaplain talk to you. You had a couple of psychiatrists talk to you, and that was all about an hour, the whole thing. "And now, you be a good boy, and don’t do anything crazy. Don’t get too drunk on the way home. And don’t spend all your money. Your mom’s waiting for you. Or your wife’s waiting for you. Be careful. We appreciate your service." I mean, that was it. =^=

"That just wasn’t a good way to do it because you had — in those days in ’68, you had so many of these draftees in there who many of them weren’t suited to be there for a lot of reasons. And they needed some counseling out of this. Now, some guys were going to be headed for trouble, no matter what. Some guys went in with trouble and they came out with trouble. And some guys blame it on Vietnam, and maybe Vietnam made it worse for some guys. In some cases, it wouldn’t have mattered if they’d gone to Vietnam or not. These are some pretty troubled guys. And — but — but to almost just cut them loose with 72 hours notice, say, boom, you’re on your own, and not bringing them down a little bit, just a little at a time, a little at a time, was a — was a — is a bad, bad thing to do. =^=

"And I’ve had many veterans — when I was at the Veterans Administration, when I was deputy administrator of the VA in the first Reagan administration, had many of these guys say the same thing to me that I’m saying to you. "If I would have had maybe a week or 10 days just to think through and get myself together a little bit," but what happened was you go hit a bar or you got that full wallet. You meet some girls. You go do something stupid." =^=

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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