Still trying to ‘wrap my head around’ Vietnam

Published 2:15 pm Saturday, July 30, 2022

Graduating from Southeast Missouri State University in August 1968 – immediately drafted in the US Army, enlisted (extra year – 3) to choose an MOS that hopefully would keep me out of Vietnam which was raging … nope.

Basic training Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri October 1968, then – AIT (Class Leader), Permanent Party until July 1969 and orders for Vietnam.  Home on leave to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, then jet out of St. Louis to Bien Hoa, Vietnam, and for me, my death … don’t know how tell you what that mind process from fraternity boy to dying was like….

Crossing the International Date Line, was not sure of day or time – but in the wee morning hours took an old blue Air Force bus to Long Binh Replacement Center for further assignment – received instructions what to do in case of attack (!!) there was wire mesh over the windows to prevent RPG’s (rocket propelled grenades) from entering the bus. 

Arriving at Long Binh, I’ll never forget seeing a large sign over a huge water tower saying “Potable Water.”  Had no idea what that meant. 

At the POC Replacement Center, each day we stood in formation to discover where we would be that horrific year.  After several days, my assignment – the 18th Engineer Brigade Headquarter Co at Dong Ba Thin, Cam Ranh Bay!  Hell Yes!  This was one of the safest places in Vietnam and hurriedly got off a letter to my hero mom, Gert.

Next day, took a C-130 to Dong Ba Thin, found temporary POC sleeping quarters – June, July August was the rainy season in Vietnam and it was raining.  Word of mouth, a USA group was performing that night on a small stage area and I went – it was raining, so I wore a poncho and took a seat on some small bleachers just in front of the covered stage – miserable, lonely, home sick, hood up.

The swell group featured a very attractive black singer, who after several awesome songs, grabbed an umbrella, mike, and ventured out to us drowned rats in the bleachers.  For some reason, she zeroed in on me, and while singing, came up to me, pulled my poncho hood down, and kissed me smack on the lips!!!  I will never forget that wonderful moment.

In the process of checking in the next day, discovered a guy I sort of knew from Southeast Missouri who invited me to stay in their much nicer tent – swell.  Early that morning, the largest rocket, mortar, sapper attack ever to hit that area blew me literally out of my bunk!  The concussions were so close they bounced me into the air. At one point when they subsided, we ran out of the large tent and dove into the first foxhole we came to – five guys who I barely knew, M-60 in the center of the pit, they had M-16’s, I manned the ’60 – letter from Gert which made the news at home … I thought you said you were safe?

Everything around us was exploding, on fire, incoming and outgoing fire continuing. Across the South China Sea Bay to the large Cam Ranh Air Base – all on fire with constant explosions! Finally, the attack stopped, but explosions and fires continued until finally through the smoke, the sun rose across the ironically beautiful South China Sea – my first baptism of fire and already combat veteran, I thanked God for saving my life, gave my life to Him, and accepted my death.

The next day I was transferred to Long Binh, 14 miles from Saigon, for the rest of that horrific year where we were hit with rockets and mortars once a week, pulled guard duty every five days in our perimeter bunker – many deadly experiences, and having my own jeep to pick up my major every week in Saigon, or Bien Hoa, so many deadly incidents.

Then, Christmas 1969, and Bob Hope came to Long Binh for his Christmas Show.  I will love this man forever.  Scared, certain I would never again see home, here he was with his awesome show, bringing HOME and laughter to us – it was literally an out-of-body experience for me … I can’t wrap my head around this and neither can you.

In Saigon many times, along with removing my rank to have a cold beer in the National Press Headquarters to avoid the whores on Tudo Street, I also frequented the USO in Saigon…just to have a hamburger, in peace, was to experience, home.  The next day after one of these healing moments, the VC blew it up!

Yes, I write about some of my many Vietnam experiences lately to relieve the PTSD that I’ve repressed/suppressed all these years – please forgive me. Please pray for me.

 

Steve Stricker received his Ph.D. in Counseling from Ole Miss, lives in Oxford, and can be reached at sstricke@olemiss.edu.