I spent my 21st year in the infantry in Vietnam. Near the end of my tour I turned 22. The squad gave me a birthday party, with a C-ration pound cake with a candle stuck in it. They were kind enough to let me have the canned peaches that came with the pound cake. Peaches were the most coveted item in the C-rations, which had so much inedible stuff that the few good things were highly prized. Most of my comrades were younger — 19, 20, even a few 18-year olds. War is a young man’s game. Young men have it hardwired in their brains that they are immortal. At least many of us did.
This leads to risk-taking behavior, which along with male bonding is what makes small unit combat possible. Think about it. You ask fighting men to do things which are absolutely insane from the point of view of staying alive. And we do them because the most important thing is keep our bond intact with our comrades, to never let them down. And our brains are conditioned to take risks.
This must have evolved over two millennia of evolution. Plus our bodies become wiry and muscular, full of stamina and energy, and we can stand incredible stress. But, of course, we pay for it later. We borrow our endurance in war from our future. Our health is mortgaged to combat stress. As a result, many combat veterans get sick soon after they return from the combat zone.
I was the platoon RTO, the man who carried the PRC-25 radio, a heavy 25-pound steel encased affair. As RTO, I was part of the platoon CP group. So I got to know the platoon leader, Lt. C, who was barely 22. He was an ROTC grad, if I remember correctly. He was the only man in the platoon who carried the standard Army issue bayonet, which he spent every night sharpening on a whetstone. He would adopt his best steely-eyed look and declare that he wanted to use that bayonet for its intended purpose on some hapless North Vietnamese. Luckily, for the enemy, for him and for us he never got the chance. The rest of us thought he was too gung-ho for his own good, let alone the welfare of everybody else. The company commander obviously felt the same way because Lt. C didn’t last long in the company. He was quickly exchanged for another lieutenant, an older more experienced man who was much steadier. This was important because a platoon leader in an Army infantry platoon makes a huge difference whether you live or die.
The oldest man in the platoon was Platoon Sgt. A. He was a copper-skinned “jibaro” from Puerto Rico, as the mountain people of that island are called. “Jibaros” are descended from the original Taino Indians and have a reputation as rough and ready types. Sgt. A was certainly that. He was also a veteran completely schooled in the art of war. He was a 17-year-old infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge. A few years later, he was in Korea during the Chinese onslaught in November and December of 1950. Now he was fighting his third war, humping the 75-pound rucksack and enduring every hardship at 41-years old. He knew every trick in the book, and he certainly saved me more than once when my sheer dumb took a leave of absence.
Sgt. A. was illiterate, could barely speak English and his Puerto Rican Spanish was hard for me to understand. He was one of the many types of Latinos who defend the United States. I respected Sgt. A like no other. I used to write his letters home in Spanish. But that didn’t matter. If it hadn’t been for him, I never would have seen my 22nd birthday. I still remember him and say a quick prayer of thanksgiving for the care that he took with me and all the other young men in the platoon.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.