Transcript of Lewis Downey> Interview
Salt Lake City, Utah
Give us your full name.
Lewis Downey. Middle initial, M as in Marshal.
And what would you consider your hometown?
All over the goddamn West. Carlsbad, New Mexico is good.
Were you drafted?
No, I was a conscript.
Tell us about conscript.
I was a conscript. That means they send you a notice that you're in the army now and you either go to the army or you go to Canada or you go to Sweden or you go to prison.
So were you drafted or did you enlist once you got notice?
Oh, they drafted me, I didn't enlist, no.
And you were how old?
That was 1970 so I would've been 23 years old.
And what had you been doing prior to this?
I was a geologist; I was a geology student. The draft board actually let me finish a bachelor's degree. They were very good to me.
Can you describe a little bit more about what conscript is?
A conscript is a draftee, someone who is delivered a notice and this notice says you're in the army now son and you have no choice in the matter. Your ass is theirs.
Had you been through the lottery and can you tell us about that?
The lottery was probably a reasonably fair way to choose young men based upon the randomness of Mr. Nixon's hand going into a rotating barrel of birthdays. My birthday came up number five.
What does that mean?
That means that as the army marched down the list of birthdays from which to select guys, I was number five on that list. So all the birthdays before we would go in before I go and then because my birthday came out fifth, when they ran out of those guy's birthdays, I'm next.
If you lucked out you made it to 125 or 150, you probably wouldn't be drafted, is that correct?
That's the impression I had at the time, sure.
Where were you when you got your lottery?
Sitting in a dorm room in Las Cruces, New Mexico at New Mexico State University. And I laughed out loud when I heard that.
Was it on the radio or TV?
TV. We were watching Nixon on the TV.
In '68 did they have that same conscript system?
I was the first lottery, I think. That was what was so fascinating about it is we were the first guys for whom the lottery was the mechanism of choosing us.
Tell us about what you saw on TV. Describe that.
All I remember is seeing Mr. Nixon's hand, someone rotating this barrel, maybe him, I don't know. A lid opens, he puts his hand in. Here's the birth date. This birth date is at the top of the list of guys who will be selected for inducting into the army. Next, rotate the barrel, here's the next birth date. Number two. This is the next birth date. Well, I was the fifth draw. My birth date was the fifth draw out of that barrel.
I laughed out loud. Because by the end I knew guys who had been there, I knew one guy who had been there - and this is an important part of my story - and I knew it was bullshit, and I also knew that I wasn't gonna go to prison for it, I wasn't gonna go to Sweden or Canada for it. And I was not a conscientious objector. These were the paths available to a conscript. I was gonna go and take my chances.
You're number five. What does your family and friends say to you?
Nothing. I don't remember hearing a single word from anyone.
You got me. My family wasn't very verbal. And my dad was a veteran of the Pacific from the 1940s. You just go do this, this is your duty.
What year was that you got your number?
Had to be 1970. Well, maybe not because 1970 is when I had to appear for induction, but I know I went through the rest of my undergraduate time so that lottery, it was probably sometime in the late '60s; I can't tell you when.
And so you have that thing hanging over your head for how many years?
And you finally go? Tell us about going in, how you got your MOS and what happened to you.
Well, I'm a radio geek and I always was a radio geek. And after going in, but the story starts before that. The story starts with a really good friend I met, a good friend I made in this undergraduate school, in geology school, he just got out of the Special Forces and one time I asked him, "What do you think about this war over there in Vietnam?" And he says, "Well, Lewie, Charlie's not a nice guy, but it's his country." And he follows that comment with two stories.
"Our group was on one side of a river and the enemy, the VC or the NVA, whoever they were, we're on the other side of this river. We both knew that we were there. We saw no reason to kick up a fuss over it until a boatload of beer came down that river. That's worth fighting over." The camp got overrun, he ends up in the hands of the VC as a prisoner. Well surprise, the guy who is in charge of this prison camp is a Vietnamese guy that he'd helped train in the States. They were buddies. The Vietnamese guy get the American guy go. This informed me more than I realized at the time, of what bullshit this was and it wasn't worth dying for, it wasn't worth killing for, and I just had a gut level feeling that I would make it through okay, and I did. But that wasn't written in stone, that was blind, dumb luck.
You had another story you'd heard?
Later on, at advanced training at Fort Sill, we had basic training at Fort Lewis and the one guy I remember at Fort Lewis in particular was the chief drill sergeant, Dimitrov. He was an American citizen, but he spoke with a heavy accent, he'd come from Russia. And one thing he told us that I recall, it was good, down-to-earth info. He says, "When Charlie comes through the wire, don't stop to put on your pants. He doesn't care if you're dressed when he shoots you."
And I liked that. And somewhere along the lines someone told me that, "Hey, it gets cold over there, don't let them take your long johns away." I asked my mom to dye my long johns green and she did and sent them back to me. And I took those with me. That was Fort Lewis, Washington. In the fall into the early winter it's wet in Tacoma, Washington. It rains just about all the time. The sun doesn't come out very often, nothing dries out. And we're out there crawling through the mud, walking through the mud. You'd think they gave us wool to wear? Cotton clothing, all day, every day, out there in the rain and the mud. That was such fun.
So what is your military specialty?
Well that was, of course, with Advanced Individual Training, AIT in our acro world, they decided that I was worthy of working in fire direction control, artillery fire direction. I don't remember the code for it, and I don't remember the official name for it, but it's artillery fire direction, the guys who sit behind somebody else with a gun, the guys in the bunkers with the maps and the computers and the radios and the slide rules, telling the guns what direction to point their barrels, how high to aim the barrels and how much powder to use. White bag, green bag. I'd been a radio geek and by that time, we had a little bit of free time at Fort Sill and they had a fancy ham radio station, amateur radio station except they used it just outside the ham bands to run phone patches for every guy in the military. And so I walked up to their door and I said, "Hey, I got all this free time, instead of going to town and getting drunk, I'd just as soon operate your radio and run some of your phone patches." They said, "Here's a key, boy, go for it." And from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, we didn't have much contact in the Southeast Asia, but there was another sort of potentially unfortunate circumstance at Fort Sill. It seems like a whole company of us, after AIT, somehow got volunteered for a voluntary training program.
And all of these guys looked at each other, "Did you sign up?" "No, did you?" "What are we doing here?" Well the plum that was dangled in front of us was that we could come out of this voluntary program as an Spec 5, an E-5 instead of coming out as an E-3, which at best you would get out of AIT as an E-3. Well two guys enlisted. Fine, this is great. This is a real nice opportunity. But I'd not enlisted, I knew I was in this for the short-term. And here's one more damn training session and I'd had my fill of training. And one day this very pleasant E-7 sergeant says, "Well, if you sign these papers, we'll get you approval for a security clearance and then we can continue with your training." And without any coordination amongst us, several of us thought, "Hmm, no signature? No training? They let us go and we can continue with our lives?"
And this nice E-7 didn't understand that at all, he did not know that we'd been dragooned into this thing. And they were unhappy with us. And their happened to be seven of us and I don't know if you were the Chicago Seven? Well, we got lined up and they were quite verbally unhappy with us and cussed us out and called us the Chicago Seven. And one by one, we appeared before this board of officers. Each one of us, one at a time at the end of this long table, here's a whole table full of officers and down there is this red-headed captain who's looking really unhappy. This program is his pet. And these officers, "You didn't volunteer for this?" "No, sir." "Really? Okay, that will be all. Thank you. Next." Well, that was the end of that training program as far as my participation, plus some others. But then I got sent to Fort Huachuca, Arizona which is the radio voodoo communications end of the army. And that was actually kind of fun, desert was my home stomping ground. And the training, it was ground sensors. Planting electronics to detect motion of men and machinery and stuff like that.
By the way, that was very important for the Ho Chi Minh Trail and things like that?
Well, theoretically, but I've heard more stories about that. Yeah, the idea is to drop these electronics, put these electronics on perimeters to detect people coming through the wire or plant them out in the woods and detect whatever you can hear or feel with seismic sensors. And these things had microphones and I ran into some of my artillery buddies later who apparently did some damage because some Vietnamese guys found one of these things and said the wrong thing and they could direct find this guy and they dropped some high explosives on these guys. At any rate, at Fort Huachuca we did have contact with Southeast Asia, at the mortar station, once again, these guys said, "Hey, knock yourself out, run our phone patches."
And it was shortwave radio, single side band shortwave radio. And the contact over that period of distance, it came and go. It was not really reliable, it wouldn't last for very long. So in between running phone patches I would talk with these operators over there in Vietnam. I said, "Most likely I'm headed that way and if you guys need another radio operator." They gave me a phone number at Long Binh, they gave me a phone number at Cam Ranh Bay. They said, "Good luck, Bud." Well, I was on the way, shortly after that, having graduated from ground sensor training. And they had a code name for ground sensor training and they called it "the duffel bag program." And they said, "When you get to Vietnam tell them you're in the duffel bag program and they'll put you to work doing ground sensors."
Well, that didn't look like such a bad idea to me and we got off the airplane at Tan Son Nhut in the South and got on the bus into Long Binh and by that time they'd learned to put guys behind a really tall fence with concertina wire on top, just to keep them inside for about a week. Otherwise guys were known to just take off and go hitchhiking and find themselves a job or get themselves killed.
The detail's unavoidable. Behind a fence and we get our duffel bags out, they line us up and they call our names and I say, "Hey, we're supposed to tell you we're in the duffel bag program." And the response is, "Huh?" Okay, time for plan B. We spent a couple of days behind this big tall fence and finally there's this one E-6, E-7 guy up there who's part of the processing of new guys. And I say, "Hey, I've got this skill and I've got this phone number, why don't you let me use your telephone, please." He says, "Yeah, you know a guy's got to take care of himself. Go through that door over there and there's a phone on the counter. Tell them I told you you could use that phone." And I called that number and in less than two hours I had orders to report to some major. And in downtown MACV, big Saigon East, Pentagon East. "PFC Downey reporting, sir." They made me dress up in my khakis and everything. This guy gave a grin like a cat that had just eaten a mouse. He said, "Boy, do we have a good place for you." And I'm sure I thought well, I've rolled the dice. "I'm sure you do, sir. Will there be anything else?"
And another couple days I was on a truck for Phu Loi base camp. They needed a radio operator because they had a direct it by rocket. I replaced a dead guy. And by the time I got there, the broken wood had been swept away and the wall had been rebuilt. Only later did I learn this guy's name and details of what happened to him. And, after that, all the rockets I was aware of went over my head. And I worked there for eight months and then they closed down the camp and they said, "You're outta here, son."
You're running a radio then?
So you're in a very interesting position. Information runs past you.
Yes, but it's personal phone calls and a mistake that the VC made led to my good fortune there in that it was not a tactical communication site, it was personal phone calls. "Hi, Mom, how ya doing, over." Well, it's a push-to-talk radio so one end talks while the other listens. Our only job is to get that radio on frequency, establish the contact, pass the phone numbers of these guy's home towns to a radio operator stateside and listen for that word, "Over." We hear "over" we throw the switch one way, we hear "over" we throw the switch the other way. I don't remember the content of any of that, any of those calls. I do remember two callers. A post commander had put his name on the list. Lieutenant Colonel John Openowski. And he didn't make it to the top because there are other people lined up. And I received a call from the post headquarters' clerk one day, "Get him on the list, make this call happen."
I made this call happen. And after Phu Loi closed down and they pulled us back to Long Binh, I was in one of the last trucks to go through the gate of that town. It was a town. It was basically a small town, a base camp surrounding an air strip. Lots of helicopters, lots of aircraft coming and going, and I was just their personal communications, I just enabled personal communications with a fancy ham set sitting in this hut under a big antenna. And we were back at Long Binh and I ran into Colonel Openowski going down the sidewalk one day, "Hi, Colonel Openowski." He says, "What are you doing, Downey?" And I didn't say I'm walking around here because nobody has told me to do anything else. Instead I said, "Nothing, sir. Why don't you send me home?" And I guess he did because I was on an airplane very soon after that.
What are they talking about in your eight months there? It's an evolutionary time in Vietnam.
Yeah, but we don't know that. We're just tiny cogs in a great big green machine. We just see helicopter flying around, the Navy Seawolves unit lived next door to us. They flew Huey's with M-50s. Those things barely got in the air. I remember watching those guys trying to take off. They'd struggle into the air. And apparently they did a lot of damage with those 50s, I'm sure glad I didn't have to be with them. We all shared the unspoken realization that we were very happy to be right where we were because almost anywhere else was potentially very bad. The first night or so when I arrived there, the camp security system thought they had someone coming through the wire. Someone handed me a tin hat, and a flack-jacket, an M-16, and said, "Go sit in that hole in the ground until we come get you." That's precisely what I did. And that was the last time - well, I had an M-16 in my hand one time after that. When it became apparent, and one time I asked the NCO in charge, "Where's our weapons if someone comes through the wire?" They're in an old locker on the other side of the camp, on the other side of the airstrip. Yeah, right. We scrounged up some M-16s, a few magazines of ammo, cleaned them all up and put them in our footlocker and they stayed there. But yeah, on the other side of campaign secure bunker, right. If we need them, they're over there, and we're here.
Are you getting news from home?
I called home quite often.
What are they telling you?
Beats me. Sister got a pulled tooth. My mom was in the hospital - I only learned this later - my mom went in for her hysterectomy and one of my calls to her was when she was in the hospital. And I was totally disconnected from the fact that that was important to her.
So what are you telling them about your service?
That I drink a lot of whiskey. That I met some friendly young Vietnamese women who were telephoning the manual switchboard operators. That the chow was okay but it's not great, but there's a lot of it. Absolute mundanity.
And that's the heart of the military.
How did you deal with the boredom?
I adopted a puppy dog. Mary Jane was her name for the obvious reason. Her previous owner had been the post commander's driver, he got busted for drugs so this little dog was an orphan so I adopted her. And we would jog around the base camp, we would just hang out, I got canned stew at the PX to feed her. I brought leftovers from the mess hall to feed her. A good dog is a really good thing. She was a lovely pooch and I actually sent her home. She spent the rest of her natural born days with my parents.
Can you say that's how you dealt with your boredom?
I mostly dealt with my boredom with alcohol. The PX was a hundred feet away and it whiskey was really good and really cheap. One year, we took a picture of us all out in front of the MARS station sign. You've got a photograph of that, Sally, that I turned into a Christmas card for some of our favorite stateside operators. I really appreciated the stateside operators, they didn't waste our time. There was a guy in Carson City, Nevada. Alpha-7, Zulu Tango. And then it was George, that was George. And then Jack was in San Diego, Ace-6, VVM - alpha 6, victor, victor, mike. These guys would show up on frequency and we would go to work. We would hand them the list of callers and they were really efficient. I tried to get some of those guys at some of those military bases stateside that would run phone patches for us. Those guys were clueless and hopeless. It was infuriating. Because my job was to see that as many guys as possible got their phone calls through. They got three minutes: "Hi, Mom, how you doing, over? I got three minutes."
Were they in your physical proximity when you were doing them?
Yes, and no. We actually had a radio room that looked like a bank lobby window with cutout in some Plexiglas or something on the surface and the place where they signed in and they had couched to sit on and wait. And there was an actual phone booth, they actually had privacy. There was a phone booth just right there, just outside of that lobby window. And that's what we did. And sometimes they were situated at company situations around the camp. This was a big camp, Phu Loi base camp. It had always been a base camp, the French had used it, the Japanese had used it. All we did was make the runway longer and put new asphalt on it. It's still a military base, it's still a Vietnamese military base, you can see it on Google Earth. There's no habitation there that's not military.
Would you watch a guy make a phone call? The hardest of guys would come out with tears.
I remember one guy, we had an artillery outfit, they carried around (Toad? 26:44) 155 - 155 millimeter guns. And they set up across the street, about a block away. And we lived in different parts of the camp and one night I was just across the street from them when they started firing. By God, that was loud. At any rate, one of their cooks was a guy named Pie, PFC Pie, he was their cook. And I ran his phone call. He came out of that phone booth beaming. He says, "I just got to talk with my mother." And that meant a lot to guys who may as well been on the dark side of the fucking moon. Should I re-say that? That meant a lot to guys who may as well been on the dark side of the moon because we inhabited a place outside of the world and going anywhere else was going back to the world. And we were the contact, we were a contact with the world that was more immediate than letters. No such thing as email in those days, of course.
How many calls could guys make and how did that work?
In any single stretch of radio conditions that were usable, we might have had a maximum of two hours. And if you count the time it took to get phone numbers, there was maybe ten or fifteen minutes of prep from handing phone numbers stateside and then this was a collect call from the radio station stateside. Usually you'll have an amateur radio operator somewhere in Western United States and we worked with this guy in Carson City, Nevada and this guy in San Diego. And most radio stations seemed to have been, most MARS stations seemed to have been adopted by a particular stateside operators. And this established an efficient mode of getting these calls through because these guys knew us, we knew them. They would hop to it. So if you divide 50 minutes getting into the time when those callers were on the line because it was a collect call from the stateside radio station to wherever this guy wanted to call. So the stateside radio operators worked with the stateside telephone operators to get these guys ready to stack up a line of people that were ready to talk. So there was a lot of coordination and stacking to do. My guess is no more than 20 calls in any two-hour period, probably less.
And usually during R&R is when they could do it?
Well, yeah, when they weren't doing whatever their job was, yeah. R&R was more officially of course when you took off somewhere to totally disconnect from your daily military grind: Thailand or Hawaii or Australia or Vung Tau or wherever you went.
Did you do that?
No. I saw no reason to do that.
Were you aware of the pirate radio guy was on the air for three weeks and then he got kicked off?
I only learned about that recently. One instance of that, there was probably more than that, but there was some guys up north who somehow scrounged up an aircraft communications transmitter. Somebody tuned it - in quotes - somewhere near 100 megahertz, and they started playing their bootleg tapes and their vinyl into it. And eventually the commander of the post busted them. But this commander had to be let because too many people came down on him for removing their valuable entertainment. And they had to let this pirate go back on the air. And that was the only instance of a pirate station over there that I'd ever heard of, but I learned of this only recently.
Things got rougher and tougher and every other word was an F-bomb.
You bet. The call letters of the radio station was life or suck. That was their on-air moniker. It was like whatever X-96 is, whatever the local radio station for that name is, well their format was like or suck. And I think they shortened it, it was LS Radio, I think. It was LS Radio and use your imagination.
Talk about the media and what guys were listening to by then? How did guys have access to information via radio?
I liked to listen to the Australians who had a station at Vung Tau, an AM station. And they played, let's see, that's the first place I ever word "Hit the Road, Jack," Ray Charles. And they played an Australian country tune that still rolls around in my head.
What's that tune?
It's called "The Sheerer," it's about a guy who's a sheep sheerer and I can't remember the words.
I think I remember that.
Where did you hear it?
I think I heard it about that time, you'd hear it occasionally. Kind of a novelty song.
Yeah, it will be weird for here, yeah. But it was a few years ago, somebody who had been a combat grunt tracked me down because he wanted me to fix his old reel to reel machine because he had some seven-inch tapes that he brought back and he wanted to hear them. And I didn't succeed in fixing his machine and I tracked him down later and his first words to me, he says, "You found me. Wow, I'm glad you're not a cop." (laughs) He said, "Yeah, we'd listen to Ha Noi on our field radios." And he said, "Better drug music." Ha Noi was playing better drug music than we were and that's easy to believe.
What were those drug songs?
You got me.
What do you think they were?
I have no idea. I even ran into someone who did the history of the era and I asked him about the drug music and he said, "Man, that's too deep, I couldn't go there." It was so daunting to go there, an academic now to go there was just beyond his energy level.
I imagine somewhere in the CIA they have full recordings of that drug music.
You're going to do drugs you're going to do drugs and so whatever's being broadcast is drug music, right? You could do drugs to fiddle and banjo.
What did the Communists view what drug music is?
All Ha Noi had to do was to have someone stateside - all the vinyl was available, they could get any they want and it wasn't difficult to figure out what 18 year olds wanted to hear. I'm sure they had no problem with that.
And the pirate radio guys, it was Steppenwolf and the Doors and the Rolling Stones and I guess all of that's considered -
Oh, yeah, that was all appropriate, you bet.
Did you do any USO shows?
We had one come around to Phu Loi and by then - I had mentioned our acquaintanceship with the young Vietnamese ladies - these kids were so sweet with us. They were maybe 20-something, probably younger. And this was a critical part of getting our phone calls through. These gals operated the manual switchboard at Phu Loi. I mean at this base camp there was no such thing as a dial telephone. Yeah, our telephones had dials but they didn't do anything. You picked it up and you gave the number or the unit designation of who you wanted to call and this Vietnamese gal in this other building on the post did the patch court. It was a manual switchboard. Picture Lily Tomlin, this was a manual switchboard. And these gals adopted us, they watched for our light on that switchboard. They got a lot of those phone calls through because they were on top of it. And they felt sorry for us because of the food we were eating, one time they made us lunch and brought spring rolls and nuoc man. Have you ever had nuoc man? It's a delight. It's a memorable experience to try to eat nuoc man. Fermented fish sauce. You get it in the Vietnamese restaurants now, it's that sort of pinkish soup with the carrots, slices of onion floating around in it. Well that's a pale echo of real nuoc man. Okay, fermented fish sauce describes it. And the spring rolls were lovely and they were like the deep fried spring rolls and these gals brought this food to us and they brought us lunch. And my buddy would not try the nuoc man and they were so pissed off at him. I tried it because I had to.
You mentioned the USO?
Anyway, I was taking a picture of this one young gal who I should not have talked her into this USO show. Picture black ladies with tits just about falling over. Anyway. Excuse me. Picture busty performers with their bosoms just about falling out of their clothing. There you go. There's something you can edit in. And I went to talk with (bill cop? 37:29) down at Utah Valley for an interview and I had that picture and I'll find those pictures. Anyway, behind this picture of this sweet, young Vietnamese gal is these gals on stage. But, I also went to a USO show in Long Binh because the big guys were there: Bob Hope, Jim Nabors, there was some gals there. And the funniest thing about that show came out of the audience. Some guys way the hell over here in the audience made up a big mock postcard. Bob Hope could not ignore that these guys held up this huge five-by-ten postcard. "Dear Mr. Nixon, having a wonderful time, wish you were here." It was the best thing about that USO show.
So what are you hearing from home, are you hearing about the protests?
No. My folks lived in small towns in the west so they didn't know about them. I didn't know about the protests. I knew nothing until I began to become more aware after coming back.
So you really were removed from the world?
Yeah. But I also hung with the wrong crowd to listen to drug music and rock n' roll. Alcohol was so in with me, I didn't bother with marijuana, I didn't bother with heroin. It looked like too much loss of control.
So you knew some guys that were doing it though?
There were guys around me that did it. I may not have known them personally. I don't know personally whether or not they did, but we would find the little plastic vials scattered all around the place right out in front of the radio station. Locally available cheap heroin. The dealership creating a market so to speak.
Can you describe what your world felt like?
The only thing I knew about the Vietnamese culture was what I experienced from these young gals who had adopted us, these telephone operators. They were sweet, they were thoughtful. They were pretty. They were attractive. They were friendly. And they really didn't ask anything of us.
Do you remember any of the slang unique to Vietnam?
DROS. One of the guys in one of the Hue stations, made up this really clever poem totally out of acronyms and I will never be able to remember it, it was so clever. But DROS was the acronym for when the army was gonna let you go. We had of course the names for all of the helicopters, the Cobra was official, but the Loach and the Huey. The Loach would prowl the perimeter several times a day. The Huey's were the workhorses. But another really nice experience I had with the Vietnamese culture was when I took my dog to Saigon. To get permission to send her home I had to get a certificate from the Vietnamese Department of Animal Husbandry that she existed, that she was free of parasites or whatever. I mean they didn't examine her, this was a formality. This was just a nominal control that the Vietnamese had, and it was fine with me. So I grabbed a ride on a Huey with my dog in my lap and she did not like that one bit. Very distasteful experience for her riding in that helicopter. And I got a ride into downtown Saigon to the approximate neighborhood of the Vietnamese Department of Animal Husbandry and I'm walking around with this little black dog on my shoulders. And these kids greet me and they guide me to the door of this place, these little Vietnamese kids, they know why I'm there. I don't speak any Vietnamese, they don't speak in English, they know why I'm there. They just point to the step and they say, "Sit." And the door opens after lunch, the formality is done and then I'm gone back. And these little kids just, for some reason I wasn't an ugly American to them, I was just a guy with a dog and they related to that and it was beautiful.
It sounds like you were kind of lonely in Vietnam. Were you lonely?
Well, yeah. And that's why these young ladies were such a gift. Now if I'd been in a combat outfit, that probably would've been a very different matter. Those guys get close. That wasn't my experience and I'm grateful for that part of it but I did not have to watch anybody die, I did not have to kill anybody. I'm really grateful for that. Yeah, these young ladies were that touch of humanity that kept that side of our psyches functioning.
When you came home, had the world changed much?
I went back into academia, I worked in Alaska for six months. That was a good time to decompress, I was a field geologist, I stomped around in the rain forests of Alaska for six months in the panhandle of Alaska. That was a good time to do that. So, no, I didn't detect any change because when I went in I was a small town kid, I didn't know anything about riots or protests. And when I got back, I went back out into the woods and went to work. And from the woods to work I came down here to Utah to go to graduate school. I do recall, with one of the guys that I was, assistant prof or maybe he was an advanced graduate student, I think he was a graduate student also. I just happened to mention that I'd recently come back from Vietnam and he looked at me like I'd just raped his wife. And I thought, well, that must have been the wrong thing to say. I won't do that again. And I didn't for a long time. And that was the clue that there was something really deep and really disturbing going on here. 'Cause all I knew up to that point was that I'd just been a small cog in a big green machine and they'd let me out and I'd come out physically and emotionally pretty much without a scratch.
So you had 40 years to create opinions about the war. Were they based on your experiences with returning veteran friends?
Partly. At Fort Sill when I was an AIT, I met one other guy who shared some really instrumental information with me. He had just returned and he was an E-5, a sergeant. And his name was Bob, he was a Hispanic guy from San Antonio, Texas. Bob and I related to each other. We would go outside of the base. Fort Sill has some little mountains nearby where they have herds of buffalo. And we would go out and broil our stakes or buffalo chip fires. A dry buffalo chip is a smokeless fire, it is a good way to grill your steak. We would take our steaks and beer out there and grill our steaks and just visit. And Bob, it seemed, had gained a reputation for staying alive and he was - wherever he was, he was on some base - and this officer, he had orders to report to this officer.
And any time that happens, you know, raised your blood pressure. And Sergeant Bob Lopez, or whatever his last name was. It was definitely Bob, I don't remember his last name. "Bob, I want you to be my driver." "Well, sir, if I have any choice in the matter I'd rather not be your driver." This officer opens his desk drawer, pulls out a .45 caliber sidearm, closes the drawer. "Bob, I want you to be my driver." "Since you put it that way, sir, I'm happy to be your driver."
Bob became this officer's driver. Well, this officer had some good judgment. They were driving, he and some senior officer down the road one day and Bob saw something in the road he didn't like, opened Jeep, stepped on the breaks. Bob's boss is in the back with this senior officer right here passenger seat. This guy crashes into the dashboard of the window. This guys turns to Bob, "There'd better be a good reason for that." Bob looks at the road, gets his M-16 and lets off a burst. Kaboom! Mine goes off. Nothing was said. That officer showed some really good judgment having Bob as his driver.
You were involved with a lot of vets. Why do you have a passion to connect with these people?
All veterans are isolated. And the more damaged, the more isolated. And that is so sad. Because our generation was basically the sacrificial goat for rich liars in high places. That era, the history of that era is so. That's just the case. And to realize that there were guys around me, and the guys that I run into now who were not fortunate, who were extremely unfortunate, who had to watch people die, who had to kill, who had to do and witness things that are guaranteed to screw you up. And those guys self isolate. And my experience does not make me a part of their experience base. I do not have that. And I'm glad I do not have that. But if I can help that guy talk about something - you know, one of the guys who was in here, and apparently a reliable informant for this production - he dated my sister. He and I partied with the same bunch of friends. And one evening at a party, out of the blue, why he told me this at that time I will never know. He said, "I was just standing there, and the phone cord between me and the RTO got shot away." And he may or may not have told me something else, I don't remember that night. And I said, "Hey, man, have you ever written any of this stuff down?" He looked at me like I'd just punched him in the nose. And about a year later he hands me a book that thick, eight and a half by eleven, closed space, double-sided, his memoir.
He was an amazing interview.
And it's not often that you can, I know that I don't go up to a guy and say, "Hey, spill your guts." "Who the hell are you, Mac, why should I tell you anything?" But, through life, we meet these fellows. And sometimes the circumstance is okay. They are okay with the circumstance to say something. A friend of mine I haven't seen in maybe 15 years now, he grew up as a vaquero in northern Sonora. A rough and rowdy guy, his heroes were the bandits that were being strung up by the federalists in northern Mexico and also a wonderful musician and a generous human being. Somehow he found his way north of the border and he's a rowdy guy, got some trouble. And as part of his condition of apparently, getting out of the federal prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas was to go into the military. He went into the military and he ended up walking point somewhere in Cambodia. And I learned this because one night - this was out at the Elko Cowboy Poetry gathering - this guy is a real sure enough cow puncher, he's a vaquero. He stumbles into the hotel lobby well lubricated, very drunk and some member of our party talks him into the shallow end of the swimming pool with a cup of coffee. So I'm just sitting on the concrete while he's standing in the water with his arms on the lip of the pool drinking his coffee, sobering up.
He looks around and he says, "This reminds me of Cambodia." I say, "Oh, why?" And I didn't sleep that night. He was walking point for a group. The group got surrounded and captured and unfortunately, the leader of this group, NVA, VC, I don't know - was a sadist. And he played this tape for me watching two guys being tortured to death. And he played this tape for me and how he fooled this guy and killed him, and he and his sergeant shot their way out of that thing. I don't know that they didn't have to leave some of their buddies behind. There are guys who went through that and there are guys who still think they were doing their duty. There are guys who will never be able to understand that they were serving rich liars in high places and what we did have nothing to do with serving our country. And if I can be a set of ears for those guys, whenever I run into them, that's how I try to repay my karmic death. I didn't have to do that shit, they did.
Can you talk about why you started diminishing your role, do you have guilt at all?
No. Because I was just lucky. It was partly luck, it was partly what kind of resources you went into the military with. I mean the dirt farmer from the south, the black kid from the inner city, they're fucked. They were gonna get in a bad situation; unless they were way lucky, they were screwed. And how on earth do these surviving veterans handle that conflict, handle that knowledge, that their health, and even if they came back physically alive, they came back way damaged and for what? How do they live with that conflict? I can't answer that.
I was at this Bob Hope show in Louisiana, and I remember all the psych patients that let them all attend, but they were lost.
A friend of mine here in town is an artist, he was there. He said, "The truck in front of me blew up, the truck behind me blew up," these were fuel trucks. He came through and he's done some therapy over at the VA Hospital and he says, "There's guys there who still think they are in Vietnam."
Forty years back. Does it seem like a dream?
Yeah. Was I really there? Was I really part of someone's army occupying someone else's country? And I think how would I feel if someone else's army was outside my door? Wow.
When you talk with your Vietnam veteran against the war group, what do you always try to make very clear to the students listening?
Most important thing is to share the personal narrative and that's the beauty of what you guys are doing here. And to be there for questions. I think they had me along because it provides some variety. That's what Rick told me anyway, is that they like to have me along because I'm not one of them. I'm not a combat guy. It's a good thing, I would've been a liability in a combat unit.
You know that about yourself? Tell me about that.
I would've been a liability in a combat unit. In basic training, they actually had us throw one live hand grenade. I must have been the hundredth guy just standing there, boom, boom, boom. It comes your turn. You have a headache. All you want to do is get that fucking thing out of your hand, over that wall, and get out of there. I barely got it over the wall. I wasn't a bad shot with a rifle and I think I could've killed. I'm afraid I could've killed. But I would've been a liability because I was too old. I was too old to be molded into that. A lot of these guys were 18, 19. The guy who I replaced died from a direct hit by rocket and I recently had a reunion with the one fellow that I remain in touch with, over the grave of the guy who died with that guy's family. This was in July up in southeast Washington. And only then did I learn that the day before the rocket impact that killed the guy, a rocket had landed just outside the other wall of this MARS station. MARS - Military Affiliate Radio System, in our acro world. And wow. This rocket struck and these guys just - oh, a rocket, life goes on. And of course that's my realization today, I would've been the very same in those days. But a few months after I arrived there, I thought, hmm, rockets, impacts, shrapnel, that's a thin wood wall between me and the outside world. Direct hit? Well, there's some things you can prevent, there's some things you can't. By that time there were some abandoned areas with plenty of spare sandbags and I borrowed a truck and I stuck sandbags around that place because a little bit of shrapnel through that thin wood in the wrong place could really mess up your day. And one of the pictures that's available to you if you want is a picture of this guy holding the remnants of that VC rocket, 122 millimeter Chinese rocket. And the next day that rocket's brother got him 12 hours later.
You were one of the 90 percent - only 10 percent served in combat who were in that war. Can you somehow mention that?
And once again, as a tiny cog in the green machine at that time, I'm sure that the only people I saw outside of the helicopter pilots, the Navy Seawolves who lived next door, and the Cobra pilots, and the occasional artillery outfit came through - all of the rest of us were worker bees. We were just supporting the hive and these are just about the only people we knew. The only people we rubbed elbows with. And there's an acronym for our genre of critter in the military. And I can say it or not. Rick Miller always hated me when I use it. REMF - do you want a translation? We were very fondly known as the Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers. And I'm very happy to have been one.
When did she die?
I must have been - my dad passed away in '97 and she died I think sometime before that, maybe 1995, sometime in the mid-90s. So she arrived in 1972. I don't know if a dog can live that long, maybe she died in the late '80s.
So you brought back a refugee?
Yeah. Yeah. And of course her upbringing had all been around adult males. The only women they saw were the gals who visited us and they saw no children at all. As far as Mary Jane was concerned, kids were from Mars. And the neighbor kids, she would never warm up to the neighbor kids. But she learned pretty quickly to appreciate women because my mom fed her. So that was okay.
Those children who saw you knew exactly what you were doing because other guys had done the same thing.
Well, as Phu Loi base camp was closing around, I didn't realize the impact until I walked around the perimeter of the road one day and there was almost nobody there by that time. And I walked past all of these company areas with all the dogs that got left behind. Oh. Somebody had to shoot them, there's no doubt.
These were pet dogs?
Tell us about that again.
I didn't remember it until about the mid '80s. It actually came out in kind of a ragged sort of prose. Main Street Phu Loi base camp, a loop road circumnavigating the air strip for landing, take-off craft of occupiers, winged horses of life and death. Where does it go from there? Any rate, you'd walk by these places and these dogs with their ears, and they are hoping that you are the guy who fed them and you're not and you have to keep walking past. They were left there. They were the orphans who were left and nobody came back.
Who knows. Two or three for every company in the area. And I don't even know, because the dog that was the one that gave birth to Mary Jane, my dog, had to have been there. And I think this is my embarrassment from that era is I don't have no idea what happened to her.
Some people would think who cares about the dog?
Yeah, but I was lucky. They let me send Mary Jane home.
It's really cool because people think that saying something like "thank you for your service" means something. They of course have no idea what else to say. But the lie that that perpetuates is that we served something worthwhile and that was not the case. The only thing we served was rich liars in high places. And allowing veterans to speak their own narrative, I know that those words will not get on this program and that's fine. It shouldn't. The narratives will say this. It does not have to be said directly. My generation wants to be remembered in hopes that it will prevent some future generation from doing the same goddamn thing. And that's where my generation has failed the guys who were sent off to Iraq. I know it's different, this is not a conscript army, these are guys who joined up. But most of them joined in ignorance and are paying for it. War is an admission of failure and any time we allow this to happen, we fail, and I have failed the current generation. I don't know how I would've done it any differently. Yeah, I marched. Talk about the '70s being an era of protest, my protest was a couple years ago. And of course it was a drop in the bucket. But I don't know how many guys would agree with me, I suspect there are plenty that would not.
This is your story and we respect your story and your experience.
Well, the only place the war is over is over there in Vietnam.
Underwriting for this program is proudly provided by:
KUED and the Utah Department of Veteran Affairs invite you and your family to honor Utah's Vietnam War Veterans.
Armed Forces Day
Saturday May 18, 2013
Utah State Capitol
2:00 to 4:00 p.m.