Jim Webb, a decorated Marine Corps Vietnam veteran and the former senator from Virginia, writes about a man named Hodges in his novel, Fields of Fire. “What does a man do when his war over?” asks Hodges, a character inspired by one of the grunts in the 5th Marines that Webb commanded near the DMZ in 1969. Hodges answers his own question, “What does a man do when his war is over? He just keeps fighting it.”
How right that is. I keep fighting my war over and over again. I hope that I don’t bore anyone with my retelling, but, you know, for about 20-years now I have never had anyone tell me that they don’t want to hear about my experiences. In fact, many people are now hungry to hear Vietnam veterans tell their stories. I wish that they had had this attitude when we came home from the war. It would have made such a huge difference for our mental and emotional health. Many times in the 1960s, ‘70s, even into the ‘80s, people told me to just shut up and not talk anymore about Vietnam. Many misunderstood what I was doing. To them I was glorifying war. But all I wanted was to unburden my soul and pay tribute to comrades. It took Jan Scruggs and his leadership in building the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington in 1982 to begin changing attitudes. Veterans finally took a few steps out of the shadows of shame and guilt to where so many of our countrymen had consigned us.
As many old soldiers do, I commemorate anniversaries with tales of war. The month of May 1968 saw a resurgent North Vietnamese Army (NVA) take up the cudgel again after the bloodbath of Big Tet in January and February.
On May 25, 1968, the 1st Bn, 8th Infantry was locked in battle with the North Vietnamese 325C Division. This was often the case in the Central Highlands, especially very near to the tri-border area where Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam come together. U.S. battalions would fight against regiments and entire divisions. As told by Eric B. Villard in his book, “Combat Operations: Staying the Course”, the NVA 95C and 101D regiments attacked Hill 824, where U.S. Firebase 29 was located. A and C Companies were nearly overrun by the NVA. My unit, Bravo Company, 1/8th Infantry, was located on a nearby firebase. But we didn’t escape unscathed. We were heavily bombarded by 60mm mortars, 82mm mortars, 75mm recoilless rifles, 107mm and 122mm Katyusha rockets, and the clincher, Russian supplied 152mm artillery, shooting out of Laos where the NVA had the big guns dug in on reverse slopes 10 kilometers away. Not to mention the small arms fire, the snipers that forced us to scuttle around in trenches like crabs on the sea floor. This went on for two or three weeks prior to the ground assaults on May 25. We were surrounded on our hilltop by the NVA. To venture outside the wire was to risk deadly ambushes. My friend in the Recon Platoon, a guy named Ryan, was killed in an ambush. We brought his body back up, wrapped in a poncho. Other men in Recon said that he had charged into the teeth of enemy fire when they were ambushed. But still the higher ups wanted patrols out.
We ran out of food and water, and the 81 mortar platoon firing illumination rounds ran out of ammo. Huey helicopters bravely came in with more ammunition.Then the water ran out. The base camp sent out water in steel canisters that held the artillery gunpowder. How terrible that water tasted, full of the grit of the gunpowder. The crewmen on the resupply choppers skimmed the ground and kicked out the canisters on the LZ along with cases of C rations. No way were they going to land the helicopters. I spent two weeks on that place running out of my bunker to deliver messages from the platoon leader to the squads in the trench that connected the circle of bunkers we had dug around the hilltop. How well I remember the scream of the huge 152mm Russian artillery rounds descending on me. When I close my eyes now I can still see the penetrating flash of the explosions and feel the concussion. Unlike the war for Hodges, my war is not over. When I talk about it, it’s not just the recounting of memories. I am still fighting it.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.