Remembering Vietnam: Dear Ashleigh

Thank you for asking me about Vietnam for your college paper. Interestingly, I was your age during my tour of duty.

In the final months of 1969, during the presidency of Richard Nixon, I was drafted into the U.S. Army. Rather than wait for my induction date several months later, I enlisted sooner. Once in the Army, during training, I volunteered for Vietnam, serving in Nam with the 101st Airborne Division, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Battalion, Company D, 506th Infantry. We were an air assault unit, which meant that we were flown into hostile territory by helicopter, dropped off, and left to fight our way out. In the event there was no battle to be fought, we maneuvered in a "search and destroy" fashion, searching for the enemy while employing reconnaissance patrols and ambush tactics. We lived in triple canopy jungle most of my tour of duty. A soldier named Phil O'Donnell, from Wheeling, West Virginia, who served with me in Vietnam, married my sister. They had three children, one of whom had a beautiful daughter named Ashleigh. Know her?

As an airborne infantry soldier my duty was to seek the enemy, engage him in combat, and render him useless to the enemy cause from that point forward. Vietnam was divided between the North and the South. America was an ally to South Vietnam. North Vietnam was our communist enemy. South Vietnamese sympathizers-fighters with the North were called Viet Cong. America, allied with South Vietnam, was fighting North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. Why fight at all? North Vietnam was communist; South Vietnam was democratic, free. Allegedly, America was fighting to prevent the spread of communism. Our country was severely divided over the issue. Should we be over there fighting, and dying, or not? The issue was explosive.

Your grandfather, Phil, and I were awarded the Bronze Star, the U.S. Air Medal, the Combat Infantryman's Badge, the Vietnam Service Medal and other decorations for serving in Nam. Our unit was awarded the Gallantry Cross.

Upon entering the country, I was asked two questions by the soldiers who welcomed me: First, "Where are you from in the world?" In other words, where are you from back home? Nam was like another world, like Hell. Everyone wanted to learn what was going on back home. There were no Ipads, laptops, or cell phones. Second, "Are you a head or a juicer?" Everyone had to cope with the horrors of the war somehow. Would it be with drugs, as a dope head, or as a boozer? There was no third category offered. For me, however, my answer to the second question was most important: "Christian." I would deal with the trials of war by relying upon my faith in Christ.

My radio bearer and I once captured 19 apparently unarmed Vietnamese after foolishly giving chase to an AK-47-carrying Viet Cong. We rushed headlong into the unsuspecting group. Were they harmless South Vietnamese, or dangerous Viet Cong? Who knew? If we released them they might mortar (shell) us that night and kill some of us---that is, if they were Viet Cong. If we killed them, they might have been innocent citizens with no intent to harm us. What decision would you make? Dark was falling. Immediate return to camp was imperative. As sergeant, I had to make a decision. The call? I chose to let them go, return to camp, tell our Lieutenant, and recommend moving our NDP (night defensive perimeter) far away. This move would hopefully allow lives on both sides to be spared.

One night your grandfather, was pulling guard as we encamped in the jungle. Weary, he fell asleep. A Viet Cong soldier crept upon him as he slept, pulled a knife to cut his throat---and likely some of ours, too, as we slept---but was thwarted when one of our soldiers from Chicago awakened in the night, arose to smoke a joint of marijuana, saw the Viet Cong assailant kneeling over your progenitor, and began to shout, curse, grab and fire his rifle. Several of us jolted awake, rendered hot pursuit of the enemy, but never found him. You can be thankful for our pot-smoker buddy from the Windy City, or you wouldn't be here today I'm afraid.

Your grandfather and I returned home from the war in 1971. Four years later South Vietnam fell to North Vietnam. Tragically, 55,000 American lives and countless South Vietnamese lives were lost in the war---for nothing. North Vietnamese lives were lost, too. The North may say it was worth it.

War is hell. Wouldn't be nice if, instead of fighting and killing, we could get the whole world to hug and kiss and make-up?

Bless you, Ashleigh. I'm glad your grandfather made it home. You've always been an amazing blessing to our family, and I love you. Uncle Randall

END. J. Randall O'Brien