If it’s Veterans Day, “Don’t Thank me for my service”
Basic Training Graduation Photo: Ft. Bliss Texas Drill Sgt’s Annus (on left) Drill Sgt Semko (on right) You never forget the names of your Basic Training NCO’s.
I joined the Army in 1969. The Army has a battery of tests to figure out how to best use a new recruit. One of the questions was “Which would you rather do? Go to the Opera? OR Go camp out in Yellowstone National Park?
Of course, I answered the Campout!! “Yep.., He’s infantry material.“ I finished at the top of my class in Basic Training. And the Top 2 % Army Wide in Infantry training. I took Basic at Ft. Bliss –went to Infantry School at Ft. Lewis and Scout Dog Handler training at Ft. Benning. I landed in the 101st Airborne Division (I Corps) Vietnam 70-71. Vietnam was a defining experience for those of us who went, I”m glad I did. Combat Infantry. At the Tip of the Spear. It does not get any better.
My unit was the 42nd Infantry Platoon Scout Dog / 101St Airborne Division)
I was an Infantry Scout Dog Handler.
Scout Dog Teams walked “Point‘ on Infantry jungle patrols. The “mission” of the Scout Dog team is to provide “Early Silent Warning” of booby traps, ambush, cache’s of weapons, and evidence of enemy activity. The “Point” Man and his Scout Dog, (worked off leash) followed closely by the “slack” man. The “slack” position is filled by an experienced soldier to “backup” the “Point” team. NO CHERRIES! –My unit only had 3 CAR-15‘s (CAR-15 with shorter/telescoping stock ). CAR-15’s were issued to the 3 senior field opns soldiers in my unit. I didn’t get a CAR-15 until sometime in early spring of 71. — Photo above with M-16. I carried 23 magazines…. 2 (7) magazine OD green cotton cloth bandoliers across my chest. 2 Magazines on the weapon itself. (Taped in Reverse for rapid reload) 4 in a Pistol belt pouch on my right side — and 3 in an outer pouch of my Rucksack.– Carrying grenades was optional. My first few months in the field I carried 4 — I loosened the pin — which was hard as hell to first-time pull –– but I taped the spoon down so I had to remove the tape first. You only get one chance with a grenade. Improper pin removal, stance or throwing method could be fatal.— The Jungle is thick and lots of stuff grabs onto you. I didn’t want to chance any detonation with the M-26. I eventually dropped to carrying 2 grenades. I always started a mission with 18 quarts of water. That’s 2 lbs per quart =36 lbs of water alone Dogs dehydrate way faster than a Man. A Dog Handler couldn’t be sure his mission would be near the bountiful jungle streams. I always max- loaded water as if we would not be near a natural water source. In our AO (area of operation) there were many streams that fed the rivers., The Song Bo River out near the Ashau Valley was magnificent.
My Scout Dog “Argo” his head over my leg as we lift off. Argo, loved watching the jungle below when we were flying on a mission, often at tree-top level. Sometimes his saliva would blow back onto the Door Gunner! ! They would always laugh! This was sometime in late 1970. My platoon Sgt. took me and Argo up to the LZ in a jeep. No one in my unit had their picture taken departing on a mission in over a year– according to unit lore.The last team to do so got hit on the mission. So there was this mystical belief about it. No one wanted to be photographed flying out-bound on a mission. After a few months I said, “fuck-that”, I’m not superstitious. If I get hit, having my photo taken won’t be the reason. We “Argo” and I walked “Point” in the Jungle. I live today because of that small ( 58 lb. Shepard) Best pure “Combat Dog” ever. ( Ok– I confess to hypocrisy. I always wore my lucky headband in the bush. Either around my neck or on my head under my “boonie” hat.–
My decorations: Among the most coveted awards in the US Army
No Ceremony. No handshake. The Presidential Combat Medal. The Bronze Star.
Most GI’s in Vietnam got a 5-7 day leave for “Rest and Recreation”. Your choices were Thailand for debauchery, Hong Kong, Australia and Honolulu. OR worst case. China Beach, an “In-Country” R&R.
I discovered photography in Vietnam and badly wanted a 35mm camera. I could buy the 35 mm camera– but then I couldn’t afford an out of country R&R. So I bought the camera and went to China Beach near DaNang. We surfed all day then got wasted every night listening to a Vietnamese Rock Band play American songs. They were awful musicians. We didn’t care!
Back in the World! After processing all night long at Ft. Lewis, Washington- we were released in brand new uniforms and officially out of the Army. The date was 2 July 1971. As we were getting on the Bus, I shouted, “Wait, we need a picture!” — The bus driver took my camera and then others and shot the group photo above. — Then he drove us to SeaTac International Airport– and off to civilian life we went! ( 11 days later I would be in summer school at the University of Texas at Austin )
Ft. Campbell Gander Memorial Service: Some 14 years later in 1985, I was working on a political story on Capitol Hill. The news desk editor called and told me that members of my former division had been in an airplane crash in Gander, Newfoundland. He asked if I wanted to go to Ft. Campbell for the Memorial service. (As if there was any question?? Of course!) He said, “yes we figured you would want to go”. The soldiers, most of them from the 101st Airborne Division’s 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, crashed shortly after taking off from a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. All 248 soldiers and the plane’s eight crew members were killed.
The Memorial Service was on Dec. 15/16 1985. It was bitter cold that day. In the 20’s with 9-10 mph winds. (I looked it up!) The division was formed on the parade field for hours. And we in the press stayed in the stands for hours. Above: A 105mm howitzer was fired every 5 minutes, marking the loss of one soldier
Steeped in history, it is an honor to have been a “Screaming Eagle” of the 101st Airborne Division.
Above: Professionally I returned to Vietnam in 1995. We shot a documentary at the 20-year point of the war’s end. It was an amazing trip. We traveled the entire country. Photo. Above: –POW/MIA recovery dig near Haiphong in the north
Above: Mike Whatley left, Vietnamese government official and interpreter in Center with Retired North Vietnamese Infantry Colonel Nguen Quoc Khan. He was a big deal. How I got to talk with him still boggles my mind. We stayed in his hotel in Hue. Retired at the time of photo–He was dressed in uniform for a military parade that morning, that was held in honor of General Võ Nguyên Giáp.
I shot this photo of General Vo Nguyen Giap in Hue, on March 24, 1995. It was pouring rain and he was under a reviewing stand roof. I was in the rain and I could not believe my good fortune. Security allowed me within about 20 feet of the General. Many historians regard Giap as one of the greatest military strategists of the 20th century. I knew that as I pressed the shutter. I had read Bernard Fall’s “Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu” in college. And this elderly soldier, in full uniform on the platform that rainy day was the Commander that defeated the French in 1954. He was a hugely important military figure in the lives of all of us who went to Vietnam. (I shot the photo in a downpour with my small point n shoot film camera and then I prayed the image would come out. — Image above is cropped.)
Above: The statue of now Senator John S. McCain, where he was captured as his parachute dropped him in Trúc Bạch Lake in Hanoi. It was a pretty heavy moment to stand before this statue. I think of it often now as he lays dying of brain cancer in Arizona.
Above: The young men in this photo were in their 20’s in 1995. Even then their posture, expressions and confidence showed. I wish I could interview them now.
ABOVE: 1986 Photo of Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp and Infantry Colonel Nguyen Quoc Khan. The day we left Hue in 1995, Colonel Khan gave me the photo above with an inscription on the back.
The series “20 Years since the Fall” won 2 Regional Emmy’s.
ln 1995 Jan Scruggs (President of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund) hosted a luncheon in Rosslyn, Va.– It was held in the Key Bridge Marriott on the top floor. The view is fantastic, overlooking the Potomac toward the “Wall”. Those of us fortunate enough to attend were given this commemorative knife. In many ways to me– it represents the final act of the Vietnam War.