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I am leaving . . .

I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains

Sông Cửa Lớn (Cửa Lớn River), An Xuyên Province, Republic of Vietnam, November 30, 1970

But first . . . it is June 1968.

I am a brand new shiny penny, a junior officer aboard an old World War II destroyer, USS FLETCHER (DD 445), home ported at the U.S. Naval Station in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

“Fighting Fletcher” deploys to WESTPAC (Western Pacific) to conduct combat operations in Vietnam.

At first, Fletcher operates in the South China Sea providing naval gunfire support for friendly forces ashore in South Vietnam.

Fletcher later moves north to the Gulf of Tonkin to provide force protection for the carrier strike group of USS HANCOCK (CVA-19) off the coast of North Vietnam.

Eventually, Fletcher returns to “the world” (the United States of America) where it is decommissioned in San Diego. I volunteer for the U.S. Naval Advisory Group Vietnam.

It is now November 1969. I begin my second year in Vietnam at Duyen Doan hai moui lam (Coastal Group 25) of the Vietnamese Navy, based at Hon Khoi, a small hamlet north of the city of Nha Trang in Khánh Hòa Province, on the central coast of Vietnam. I serve at CG 25 from November 30, 1969 to August 14, 1970.

Every night is filled with the sounds of artillery and machine gun fire. Parachute flares light up the night. A group of Vietnamese regional force soldiers walks down the peninsula road, carrying their wounded on stretchers lifted up on their shoulders.

I get on the radio and call “Blue Star Ops” for the “dustoff” (helicopter medical evacuation). Within a few minutes, a “Huey” HU-1B helicopter from the U.S. Army 48th Assault Helicopter Company arrives overhead.

The chopper pilot calls me to verify that his helicopter will not receive ground fire from the area around the “dustoff” site (the helicopter LZ – landing zone – within our Coastal Group 25 base perimeter).

In a cloud of dust, the “Huey” settles down on the helo pad.

Soon, the chopper is loaded with wounded Vietnamese soldiers, and rises up through a whirlwind of dust, heading east to the U.S. Army field hospital at Ninh Hòa.

A litter of bandages, combat boots, and military clothing lies scattered on the helo pad as the dust drifts downwind, lost in the night.

Our Coastal Group 25 Yabuta junks are small gray wooden boats with eyes painted on the bows so they can find their way in dangerous water.

The roof of the deck shelter of each Yabuta is painted with a large yellow square with a big red X to identify it to friendly aircraft.

Our Yabuta junks are powered by Gray Marine 6-71 diesel engines, exactly the same Gray Marine diesel engines that powered American LCVP amphibious landing craft during the Second World War.

These tough little engines carried U.S. soldiers to the beaches of Anzio and Normandy in Europe, and U.S. marines to their landing beaches on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the Pacific.

The main armament of our little wooden boats is one single .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a shielded stanchion bolted to the forward deck.

The Vietnamese Navy crew is lightly armed with ordinary small arms, M16 rifles, M79 grenade launchers, and M1911 Colt pistols.

At Coastal Group 25, my Yabuta junk is fired upon by artillery. My jeep is hit by rifle fire.

One night I sit with a Viet Cong prisoner awaiting transport to district headquarters the next day. We eat ice cream and popcorn, and drink Coke while watching a John Wayne movie in our hooch (living quarters).

All of this is just part of an ordinary day.

The senior American officer, a U.S. Navy lieutenant, has a Vietnamese girlfriend in the hamlet outside the base gate.

He and a different Vietnamese family in the hamlet outside the base gate decide that I too should have a Vietnamese girlfriend. Immediately, I say absolutely not. I know it is time to leave.

One day, he accidentally shoots a light switch off the wall of our hooch with his .45 while I am standing next to it.

Another day, a Vietnamese Navy Lieutenant nearly shoots his private parts off while jumping onto his motorcycle.

None of this should be part of an ordinary day.

I am living with a dangerous bunch of desperadoes at Coastal Group 25, a little bit of MASH here, a little bit of McHale’s Navy there, with the unrelenting war brutally killing and wounding people all around.

It’s time for a change. I want to be around more competent people.

In late July 1970, with eight months down and four months to go before my service in Vietnam will end in November, I arrange for a chopper flight down to Saigon, and get myself transferred out of Coastal Group 25 into a “heavy unit anywhere in the Delta.”

At the headquarters of the U.S. Naval Forces Vietnam in Saigon, in a large, safe, comfortable air conditioned office with 150 or more cubicles, I sign the transfer papers.

As I walk across the room, eyes follow me. Heads shake slowly in disbelief. Smiling quietly, I gently close the door behind me.

Well, all right then, I will be serving as an advisor in the Vietnamese Navy river forces.

My new unit is Giang Doan Ngan Chan bon moui mot (River Interdiction Division 41). RID 41 is “somewhere in the Delta” on its way to ATSB (Advanced Tactical Support Base) Vĩnh Gia, a “Fort Apache” base on the Vietnam-Cambodia border.

My guys and I fight our way through many adventures at Vinh Gia, before we are sent to the Song Cua Long (Cua Long River) at the very southern tip of Vietnam.

We perform exceptionally well, really, in spite of the foggy confusion and usual screw ups of war in Southeast Asia.

Somehow, we live through it all – we survive. That was then. Today, nobody wants to know anything about any of it.

Eventually, the big day in late November 1970 arrives. I receive orders to leave Vietnam.

On the 30th day of November 1970, I say “goodbye” (actually a contraction of the words, “God be with you”) to my River Interdiction Division 41 guys at the base we call Solid Anchor.

The weather is cool, the sky is overcast. I wish “all the best” to my men, and pick up my weapon. One of the guys carries my duffle bag. We walk together to the base helicopter pad.

A bag of mail is loaded onto the “Huey” HU-1B helicopter. We shake hands all around and wish each other well. I climb aboard and buckle up.

The chopper engine coughs and chokes into life, and whines as it gains power. The chopper blades turn, accelerate, begin to whirr, whup, whup, whup.

The chopper lifts off the helo pad, which is covered with PSP (Pierced Steel Planking). It circles the helo pad once, gaining altitude. I wave to my men who are waving back to me. Three dark green rubber body bags lay beside the helicopter pad.

The chopper leans into its northwest heading and flies straight toward Tân Sơn Nhut airbase near Saigon.

Flying over the burnt brown mud of An Xuyên Province, the words and music of Paul Simon and Art Garfunckle’s song, The Boxer, flood my thoughts.

“In the clearing stands a boxer / And a fighter by his trade. / And he carries the reminders / Of every glove that laid him down / And cut him till he cried out / In his anger and his shame / ‘I am leaving, I am leaving’ / But the fighter still remains.”

The hammering, pounding music bangs like a door slamming, over and over again. I am alone within my thoughts. Oh, how I want to leave the fighter behind.

Our enemy is sly, cunning, vicious, treacherous. Every living thing is a tool and a weapon. Our enemy is well indoctrinated, fanatic, determined, relentless.

There will be no happy ending to this war. And yet, someday our enemy will become just folks again. Perhaps, we too will become just folks again.

Lord, I am sorry for every person I have hurt, every one. I respect and forgive every person who has tried to hurt me and my friends, every one.

I do not understand Your purpose, Lord. You are so generous with me. For Your own reasons, You are keeping me around to fulfill some further useful purpose on this earth.

What would you have me do? Who would you have me be? I have promises to keep.

Back in the world, there will be no more fighting, and I will fight no more, forever. I will do everything in my power to control my emotions, and never fight again.

If it would please You, Lord, help me to keep my word. Help me to fulfill Your purpose.

For a couple of days in Saigon, I go through the usual stand down procedures and equipment turn in. Then the big day comes.

With many other soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, I board a chartered jet airliner, to begin the return flight back to the United States of America.

As the big plane lifts off the runway, everybody on board cheers. The flight is long, and thoughtful. We land in Hawaii. The next day, passengers take other flights, each to their own individual destinations.

Eventually, I arrive at San Francisco International Airport. At Treasure Island Naval Station, I complete the paperwork, and am detached from active duty in the U.S. Navy. I join the U.S. Naval Reserve.

The very nice lady who processes my paperwork invites me to her home this evening for dinner. She interviews thousands of returning sailors. Peut-être qu’elle aime les animaux exotiques. Perhaps she likes exotic animals.

She serves liver and onions. I hate liver, but I am sincerely grateful for her kindness.

With grace and cheerful conversation, I answer all her questions. She wants to know all about Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.

She asks me what I intend to do with my life, now that I am back in the USA. I speak of returning home, enrolling in graduate school, becoming ordinary and normal again.

I stay the night. She and her husband go to work the next day. She drives me to the airport, and wishes me well. I thank her for her gracious hospitality, and wish her well.

From San Francisco, I board a flight to Lindbergh Field in San Diego. I am looking forward to seeing Maryann, my girlfriend. She’s a kindergarten teacher in Encinitas, a few miles north of San Diego.

Maryann does not meet me at the airport. She is with her new boyfriend, and refuses to see me. Instead, I am met by her friends, Karen and Alegria. They are lovely young women.

They drive me to their apartment, and tell me that Maryann wants me to go away. I am not meant to make a family with Maryann.

I stay the night, and depart the next day. Karen writes to me often for a month. I do not reply. This is my homecoming. Presque bien. Almost good . . . room for improvement.

I want to fade away, disappear, live in a small town in Montana or Wyoming.

It would be wonderful to become just folks again, love a talented, very smart young woman who actually cares about me, have a beautiful family, and live the rest of my life in peace and quiet.

Can it really be that way?

For the next 50 years, on every Veterans Day, and times in between, I stop what I’m doing to remember my guys, and whisper a quiet prayer about my time in Vietnam.

I think about my friends, and the Vietnamese sailors, and marines, and special forces soldiers I used to know. Their faces pass softly in front of me. I was exactly where I belonged.

I am humbled and grateful to have once been in their company. It is a blessing to keep them near, even if only in memory.

Thank You, Lord. You have always been generous with me. Because of You, I have never been unloved. I am profoundly grateful for Your presence in my life.

Through no merit of my own, I have fallen into the hands of God.

Please, Lord, never let me fall out of them. In Jesus’ name, amen.