It was the last week of August. The rain soaked the ground and turned the red dirt into blood-colored gelatinous mud. It was hot and the humidity so thick that even sitting the men were drenched in sweat. White spots appeared on their green uniforms, the salty sweat crusting on the cloth. The men came in from the patrols stunned by the brutal sun, steel helmets in their hands, wiping off the sweat with the olive-drab towels they wore around their necks.
I had just arrived at the 4th Infantry Division base camp in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.
The place was called Camp Enari, named after Silver Star recipient Lt. Mark N. Enari, a platoon leader with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division. He was one of the first men of the division killed in Vietnam, trying to save five of his men who were pinned down by enemy fire.
I often think of that young first lieutenant. What powerful altruism led Lt. Enari to charge a North Vietnamese machine gun and to fall riddled with bullets? When I think of him I ask myself: Why did I volunteer to go to Vietnam? It wasn't patriotism, the flag, Mom and apple pie. In Vietnam, the fighting soldiers didn't fight to save the Vietnamese from communism. It wasn't hatred of the enemy that motivated us. It was altruism. Altruism is carried in human genes. Those genes have dictated the actions of soldiers since time immemorial. Soldiers fight for love. Altruism is love. Love of comrades.
We respected the memory of Lt. Mark Enari and we knew it was Camp Enari, but in GI fashion we called the base camp Dragon Mountain, or just "The Mountain," after the big hill nearby.
Now it is again the last week of August. Fifty-years have flown by, faster than memories borne on the wings of thought. I ask that you indulge me those memories as I reminisce.
Like most combat veterans, I think about my war every day. I wake up in the morning and there they are, those remembrances, in living color, fresh as the day they were minted. They are not so bad anymore. Fifty-years have worn down the razor-sharp edges they once had. But it goes with the job. Once an infantryman, always an infantryman. You will think about your war every day for the rest of your life.
1967. Fifty-years ago, I left The Mountain, after the obligatory one-week in-country orientation, the Army's way of acclimating new soldiers to Vietnam. We had done the safe patrols around the base camp, walking through Montagnard villages full of starving dogs and malnourished kids. I was on a Huey helicopter, called a "slick," bound for the line company that would be my home for the next twelve months, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry.
The chopper took us into the Ia Drang valley, the site of the decimation of the 7th Cavalry, a famous regiment. It is Custer's old regiment that he led to destruction at the Little Big Horn. In Vietnam, they once again faced a numerically superior enemy and suffered heavy casualties. Unlike the fate of the unlucky regiment under the arrogant Custer, American artillery and air power saved the 7th in the Ia Drang in 1965. That, and sheer courage. But they lost over 250 men.
In 1967, Bravo, 1/ 8th Infantry was in the Ia Drang, the Valley of the Screaming Souls, as the Vietnamese call it in deference to the ghosts that haunt the jungle. We had learned from the experience of the unfortunate 7th Cavalry. We did not fall into ambushes. But it was still a dangerous place. A week after I joined the company we ran into an attempted North Vietnamese ambush. It was my baptism of fire. The AK-47 bullets flew, thudding into tree trunks, ripping the foliage overhead, tearing up gouts of dirt in the ground. I was frozen with fear, lying flat on the ground. Manuel, my squad leader, a young Chicano from Beeville, Texas, flopped down beside me. He took my M-16 and fired off a magazine at the orange muzzle flashes in front of us. Then he gave me the weapon, told me to change magazines and watched as I blazed away. His coolness gave me courage. I was quickly over my paralysis and able to do my duty. The battle was soon over, put to an end by the appearance of two AIE Skyraiders, Korean War vintage propeller air planes who blasted the enemy positions with rockets. We got up and took the high ground the enemy was contesting.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.