The sirens normally preceded the sounds of exploding mortars by only a few seconds and this time was no different, but it was ample time to grab my combat gear and head for my assigned bunker. Within minutes after arriving at my duty station, a truck rolled up and my squad was ordered to load into the back. We joined a convoy of other trucks loaded with troops that parked along side the division heliport.
Because the helicopters used in Vietnam were the pieces of equipment that "Charlie" feared most, he nearly always targeted the heliport during his mortar attacks and this one was no different. However, it did seem a little unusual to be sitting in the back of a truck parked next to the primary target of an enemy mortar assault. As the exploding rounds continued, the men became restless and started leaving the trucks for a safer location.
In the midst of the confusion, the booming voice of our captain pierced the night, ordering us back to the trucks, where we sat, hunkered up as much as possible, until the end of the attack. All during this time, our captain was standing inside a bunker, watching out the door to see that we stayed on the trucks.
As is the case, most of the time in the army, no one knew why we were in the trucks, just that we were ordered to do something and we did it. We were often told, "Ours was not to reason why, ours was but to do or die," and though as usual we did not like it, we were willing to do our duty and follow orders to the point of death, if necessary. However, it hung in my craw like the stench of the latrine detail that our captain would stay in the relative safety of a bunker while his men huddled unprotected in the backs of trucks.
I decided a few days later, to write a letter to the editor in my hometown newspaper, documenting what had happened and questioning my commander's actions during the mortar attack. I really did not expect anything other than the opportunity to vent my anger, but the reaction of people back in the States was anything but minor.
During the period of time between writing my letter to the editor and becoming aware of the results, my life was an endless cycle of extra duty provided by the CO. His harassment was noticed by the colonel and sergeant-major. Both questioned me about it, but made no effort to intercede on my behalf. However, their attitudes changed the day the captain ordered me to get my hair cut while I was on an errand for the colonel.
Rather than go immediately to the barber shop, I finished the errand and went to the sergeant-major for permission to leave my duty station to get my hair cut. I left the barber shop and was on my way back to the colonel's office when the captain intercepted me. He told me to bring my supervisor and report to his office. I relayed to the colonel what the captain ordered me to do and he told the sergeant-major to go with me to see the captain.
I was standing at attention in front of the CO's desk when he began by saying, "Sergeant-major, I told this man to get his hair cut." But before he could finish, the sergeant-major interrupted and asked that I be excused. The captain curtly ordered me to leave the room and I quickly moved outside but stood close to the door straining to hear their conversation. I could not understand what was said, but it was loud and I barely had time to move when the sergeant-major charged out the door.
"Let's go," he snapped, without looking in my direction and I could tell from his body posture and stomping gait, that he was more than a little mad. "That shave tail has a lot to learn about this man's army," he muttered, on the way back to his office. "He may be an officer and the company commander, but he's not going to yank my men around without reason." I felt as if I had won a major victory. Maybe now, things would get back to the way they were and I could finish my tour and go home.
A few days later, I was watering the colonel's flowers when a soldier walked up, asked my name and said the commanding general wanted to see me. "Sure," I replied, "I'll be right there." Confident that one of my buddies was trying to pull something, I continued my chores, smugly congratulating myself for not being foolish enough to believe the guy. After a short time, he reappeared. "The general wants to see you now, move it," he barked. I had no idea why the division's highest ranking officer wanted to see me, but I knew it was not a social visit.
I was really nervous when I entered the headquarters building and a lieutenant told me, "Go on in, the general's expecting you."
I knocked quietly on the door, hoping he would not hear and I could leave, but I was not so fortunate. "Come in," he growled and when I opened the door he was standing right in front of it, with his hands on his hips. I felt like a school boy on his first trip to the principal's office.
"What are you trying to do, win the Pulitzer prize," he sneered, as he walked toward his desk that was covered with stacks of letters. "All of these are from folks back home who want to know what is going on," he said, as he pointed to a stack of papers on his desk.
Motioning to another pile he voiced, "This stack is from senators and congressmen demanding an explanation." The top item in this stack was a blue folder with the words "Congressional Inquiry" written across it.
It was immediately obvious that my hometown newspaper had printed my letter complaining about the captainís actions during the mortar attack. What I did not know is that several newspapers across the US had printed it and the public outcry was being heard in Washington.
"Now, I realize you probably wrote your letter in the heat of anger and exaggerated the facts, so I want to give you the opportunity to recant your story," the general said, as he pushed a paper in front of me to read. "If you'll sign this paper that states you were mistaken in your account of the events occurring that night, we can all forget this whole sticky affair." "Otherwise," he continued, "you are going to cause me a lot of paperwork and jeopardize the career of a fine young officer." "I know you don't want to do that," he petitioned as he held a pen in my direction.
I made no move to accept the pen, but swallowed hard and said, "I'm sorry, Sir, I can't sign that statement." "What I wrote is the truth," I nervously stuttered, realizing that I was probably making the biggest mistake of my military life. At the same time I was determined to stand on my convictions.
He did not respond but glared at me for a long moment, staring deep into my eyes. I held his eye contact, though my insides were shaking. I feared his reaction, and yet, I sensed he knew I was telling the truth, but felt duty bound to protect his fellow officer. Finally, without emotion, he told me I was dismissed, so I saluted and left his office.
I was outside the headquarters building before I allowed myself to exhale in sheer relief, but the emotional pressure left me drained and I needed a drink, so I headed to the "malt shop."
Bolstered by the alcohol, I told the other men about my visit with the general and how I had finally gotten even with the captain for all the misery he dealt me. By the time the club closed I was, at least in my own pickled mind, a real local hero. He's learned not to mess with me I thought, as I staggered through the darkness to my hooch.
Following my visit to the general's office, the CO ignored my existence and with him off my back I had a lot of free time again, so I devoted it to drinking. It numbed my senses and made time go by faster, I reasoned to myself, but in reality I was caught in the trap of alcoholism that would take control of my life for several years. My buddies began to caution me that I was drinking too much, but my downward spiral continued at ever increasing speed.
Then something happened that revived the captainís interest in me. I failed to report for guard duty. I attempted to report but passed out in the doorway to my hooch. My roommates took me to the field hospital but the medics, thinking I was drunk, instructed them to take me to my bunk and let me sleep. The alcohol was certainly a contributing factor, but I was not drunk that day. My problem was uncontrolled blood sugar levels.
Sometime that night, I was awakened from my stupor by someone shining a light in my eyes and telling me to get out of bed. Groggily, I tried to stand but was unable to do so without the aid of my tormentor, who grabbed me by the arm and drug me outside.
In the moonlight I could see the silhouette of a giant of a man and knew it could only be one person, the captain. He drug, shoved, pushed and prodded me down the company street, dressed only in my skivvies, toward the orderly room. There, he guided me into his office, shut the door and I heard the action of a lock snapping into place. Too sick and wrung out to care what was happening, I sank to the floor and drifted off to sleep.
The next morning I opened my eyes to unfamiliar surroundings and it took a few moments to remember where I was. My bladder felt as if it would burst and I had a condition common to young men who need to pee in the morning. I slowly pulled myself off the floor, hoping to find a urinal quickly, when I noticed the captain sitting behind his desk watching me. "Good morning, Sleeping Beauty," he chortled, and I quickly snapped to attention.
Standing at attention, dressed only in my dog tags and undershorts, the need to relieve my bladder was very obvious and I could tell he was enjoying every moment of my indignity.
"I've decided to do you a favor," he said. "It's clear that you're an alcoholic, so I'm going to keep you locked up and under guard until you dry out." With that statement he called for two armed guards and instructed them that I was to stay in his office at all times, unless I was in the latrine or mess hall. Also, they were to accompany me at all times and he told them to shoot me if I tried to escape.
By the time he finished instructing them, I was in such pain from holding my bladder that I was rocking back and forth from one foot to the other and I wished they would go ahead and shoot me to end my misery.
Finally, the captain realized I had reached the limit and instructed them to take me to the latrine. It was quite an embarrassing time, parading down the company street in my undershorts, with part of me at attention, being followed by two armed guards.
I was smart enough to realize that if I would sign the document, recanting my letter to the newspaper, my confinement would end, but I was too hard headed to give in to that request. Legally, I could not be confined without a trial, but by telling me he was trying to help get me off the booze, the captain had covered himself just in case anyone asked about my unofficial imprisonment.
Finally, after two weeks of living in his office, I guess the captain grew tired of seeing me constantly, and probably realized I was too pig headed to sign a recant, so he released me from my makeshift prison.
Not willing to let it go, I immediately wrote a letter to my congressman explaining what had happened. I never received a reply to my letter, but neither did the captain bother me again.
A Year To Kill © 1989
Other Content © 1999
by James F. McColloch