Here’s another guest article by TJ McGinley “Free Bird”, who gives us a look at his rebellious side while serving in Vietnam. As an infantry soldier who spent most of his time living in the jungle, periodic stand-downs in a base camp were cherished and offered an outlet for these grunts to rest and blow off steam. Keep in mind that they are still teenagers and do what boys do every chance they can – but sometimes, they get caught.
In August of 2003, my wife and I attended a reunion of the guys I was with in Vietnam. Suzanne was a little stunned at the number of people that confronted me with the statement; “I remember you, I was in jail with you.” To her, it sounded as if I spent most, if not all, of my time in Vietnam in a jail cell.
The way the military handled soldiers in a war zone who did something inappropriate was if the perpetrator had a job in the rear they would threaten them with a trip out to the field, which was normally an effective way of keeping “REMFs” (Rear Echelon Military Forces) in line. This acronym referenced those soldiers who had jobs that kept them in the rear areas with the gear. Combat soldiers often referenced them as Pogues or “Rear Echelon Mother F*ckers.” When it came time to threaten a Boony Rat, a slang word when referencing infantry soldiers, it didn’t apply since they were returning to the bush anyway within a day or so. The brass was tasked them with finding a different solution.
They concluded that justice was appropriate to both groups if there were to take away a stripe from the “perp.” For example, if you were a sergeant the brass would bust you to a corporal, which meant less rank, less money, and less responsibility.
Another roadblock occurred when confronting a perp who was getting out of the Army as soon as he returned to the states. He could care less about rank, and the threat held no merit. Now, what?
Their last tactic to punish a rabble rouser of this caliber was to evaluate his personnel file for any recorded misdeeds. If he were consistently in trouble, no matter how many accolades are noted, they’d pull his medical records and hold on to them, thereby, preventing him from boarding the airplane home. Now the only way out of the country was to face a Court-Marshal for his misdeeds.
In Vietnam, a soldier in the field did not need rank to have the respect of his comrades; instead, his experience was what mattered. Of course, you did what your commanders asked of you, but because of your experience, or time in the field, they would do just that – ask.
You couldn’t do much to find trouble in the field. If you screwed up, your actions could get you killed, and take others with you. In the bush, you are surrounded by well-armed people that do not want to die because of a screw-up. So you kept your act together!. However, NOBODY messed with you and gave you a hard time, not even the officers.
Now and then, for one reason or another, you could get out of the field by getting wounded, killed, R&R and so on. Every so often at the end of an operation, the military would pull the entire unit out of the field and hold what was called a stand-down.
That’s where we went back to the main base camp, put down our firearms, took showers, ate real food, watched movies, and most importantly, tried to get some real sleep on beds with mattresses.
I think I experienced two maybe three of these stand-downs in the 14 months I served in Vietnam.
After spending three months in the jungle, our unit was pulled to the rear, and I experienced my first stand-down.
On the second day, a few of my friends and I decided to visit the nearby town without a pass and see what kind of mischief we could find. Just before leaving the base camp, one of the guys retrieved an army issue 45 cal. Automatic pistol from his rucksack, handing it to me so I’d have a weapon to carry. I stuck it into the waistband of my trousers and covered it with my fatigue jacket before leaving.
When we got into town, a young boy approached us saying, “MP no find, MP no find.” We presumed this was hugely important in successfully completing our mission and followed the boy. He took us to a small house where we sat in the dining area and for the next hour and enjoyed the company of the local ladies.
Not long after we were completely broke, the little boy reappeared in a panic screaming, “MP coming, MP coming.” Must have been his way of telling us that it was time to leave. We jumped up and made a dash to the back door and found an MP there blocking the doorway. It was like a scene from the Keystone Cops; we were falling all over ourselves while changing directions and hurried to the other end of the house.
Once we made it outside to the front yard, we found ourselves surrounded by MPs. They searched us and confiscated the pistol, then charged us with being AWOL from the base, loitering in a well-known house of prostitution, and possession of a firearm.
As my squad and I sat in a cell, waiting for a representative from our unit to claim us, an MP approached the cell and called my name. He handcuffed me and then led me to his superior’s desk. The 45 sat on a white piece of paper looking like an object they just pulled out of an archeological dig. The young, new, totally inexperienced, officer behind the desk asked me if the weapon belonged to me. I told him it was a loan. He said that if I had tried to fire the pistol, it would have blown up in my hand. Being the smartass that I am, I told him to return the weapon, and I’d move to the other side of the room and point it at his head. If he is correct, I will lose my hand, but if he’s wrong, he will lose his head. He didn’t see the humor in it, so in addition to the other charges, a charge of insubordination was added under my name.
After about an hour the guard returned to the cell, handcuffed all of us and ordered us all to move out. A young 1st Lieutenant, we have never seen before, and one of our grunt brothers stood next to the desk. The grunt said to his accompanied officer, “Sir this is your second squad”!
We all grind a bit. The MPs unhandcuffed all of us then we jumped on the back of a truck and returned to our base camp, two MP’s followed us in a jeep with all the paperwork.
When were returned to Camp Eagle we marched to our company commander’s tent and waited at the entrance until he gave us the word to enter. Once inside, the MPs officially handed him our Article 15 paperwork. He skimmed through all the reports, one page at a time, then asked, “Is this all?”
The MPs answered with a snappy retort, “Yes Sir”!
Our commander, Tom Kinane, a tall, well-built man, ripped up the paperwork then said in a calm voice, “You’re all dismissed.”
While gathering our personal gear from the MPs jeep, we glared and grinned at the MPs with delight. They drove somewhat confused, not fully understanding what had just happened.
Let’s Stop in for a Drink
Most all large base camps are comprised of a mixture of military branches–Army Infantry, Navy Seabees, Marines, etc. Whenever coming to the rear area for a stand down, we all carried souvenirs of enemy equipment that we collected during the mission, such as NVA belt buckles, bandoliers, helmets – the type of stuff we could take home after our tour. We stashed all the enemy weapons for ourselves then walked through the camp selling this stuff to those soldiers who had never been in the field or even saw dead enemy bodies. These soldiers who had permanent jobs in the base camps cherished these items and paid top dollar, thereby allowing them to return home with souvenirs and bullshit war stories of their own. Only one out of every eight Vietnam Vets saw actual combat in the field; that’s why a lot of vets won’t talk about their combat experiences–because they don’t have any!
After one of these selling trips, four of us from Tiger Force walked into a Marine bar to get a drink. Everyone there was spit-shined and polished while we wore our camouflage fatigues, grungy jungle boots, bush hats, and berets. We carried pistols and knives both hanging from our belts. I had a Bowie knife on one hip, and a sawed off 4-10 shotgun on the other. The Marines freaked out when we sat at the bar. The bartender rang a bell then informed us that we had to buy the everyone there a drink as a penalty for not taking off our hats and wearing firearms in their establishment.
We politely told the bartender where he could go, then exchanged some angry words with several of the other patrons. Soon everyone in the bar was on their feet but unsure of what to do next since we were the only ones with weapons. That was until the Marine MPs arrived.
They took us to the brig and never informed us of the charges. The MPs released us the following morning and to this day, I still don’t know why we had to spend that night in jail. We did nothing wrong!
My squad was guarding the perimeter of a firebase during the monsoon rain one day when I asked a medic if he had some fun pills for my nagging headache. He gave me a couple of tablets that didn’t agree with my system. When I reported back later, I had a temperature of 103 and diagnosed with malaria. Before I could crack a smile, I was on a chopper heading for the nearest hospital.
Once there, I was placed in a long barrack with an air-conditioner in every window, and a clean bed sheet. I think they were trying to lower my temperature, I nearly froze to death! It was very effective. Even though I loved a clean bed, hot food, round-eyed nurses, and movies every night, freezing all day became rather uncomfortable. When the drugs the doc gave me wore off, and my temperature returned to normal, I was given my walking papers.
On the way back to my unit, I was passing through Bien Hoa Airbase when I decided to go into the Air Force snack bar, where I ran into a high school buddy of mine. His title was Air Policeman, but all he did was sit in a tower on the air base perimeter, get stoned at night, and pull guard duty during the day. The local VC seldom did anything during the day in that part of the country. So I got a haircut, took out my earring, and became an AP. Swimming pool, tennis court, air-conditioned housing, three flavors of ice cream at dinner, movies every night, this was the life.
I never had smoked marijuana before I got to Vietnam, but in that situation, being stoned was a coping mechanism. In his living quarters on the airbase, my friend had a great stereo system with a high-quality set of earphones and all the music of the time.
It is the first time I’ve listened to music while stoned and found the experience to be like no other. My daily routine as an AP extraordinaire soon became a habit. I’d get stoned, put on an album, plug in the earphones, lay down, put a black sock over my eyes, crank up the volume, and come to a perfect understanding of just what the Moody Blues meant by “In Search of a Lost Cord.” Stones, Beatles, Airplane, Cream, Dylan, Doors, you name it; I fully absorbed their music during this time. It was paradise! After more than a month, I had a hunch that my unit missed me. I told my friend that I would return soon and hit the road. Needless to say, immediately upon my arrival at the base camp I was considered AWOL and sent back out to the field.
The Last Straw
During the last months of my tour in Vietnam, I started hearing about an early-out plan. If a soldier had seven months or less remaining in the service when returning to the States from an overseas tour, that soldier could extend his tour a certain amount of months and then be discharged from the Army immediately after.
I found the only place I could handle the Army’s bullsh*t was in the field while serving in Vietnam. It was the only place where the lifers didn’t mess with you. You didn’t have to salute, there were no inspections, and soldiers didn’t have to shine boots, or say “yes sir” to anyone. In other words, it was the one place in the Army where officers, sergeants, and privates alike treated each other with equal respect.
I knew that if I went back to a stateside unit and had to salute officers that didn’t even have a CIB, I’d be spending a lot of time in the brig. A CIB is a Combat Infantry Badge and earned when a soldier has seen combat for more than 30 days. It’s the most coveted award in the Army and earned the hard way, by going to a combat zone and putting your ass on the line. I’d be hard pressed to salute anyone who hadn’t been in combat.
I signed up for the early-out as soon as I heard about it. To qualify, I had to extend my Vietnam tour for two additional months, but my anxiety to get out of the Army far outweighed my anxiety to get out of Vietnam. If I didn’t extend, I’d leave Vietnam as scheduled in April, and spend seven months at some God-forsaken military post as a PFC, then get out of the Army and go home in November, the beginning of winter. With the early-out I’d be home in June, the beginning of summer. It all worked out as planned.
When I left Vietnam, I had no idea what rank I was, as every time I went to the rear, I’d get busted for doing something the military deemed inappropriate. As punishment, they took away whatever rank I had. However, when returning to the field, the platoon leader always put me back in charge of a group of men because of my experience and immediately regained the rank I had lost in the rear the day before.
Finally on June 4, 1969, my time in hell ended. I was in the rear area processing out when a super-striper I had confronted on numerous occasions, told me I was to be court-marshaled for all the petty things and AWOL charges I accumulated during the last fourteen months. I was a good soldier. I followed orders. Never ran from a fight or left a buddy behind. Therefore, I didn’t deserve this punishment with only a few days left in the military.
I proceeded with my out-processing only to find that the Army kept my medical records and wouldn’t add me to the flight manifest to go home. So, I went to the aid station where, to my surprise, the officer in charge was one of my previous commanding officers in the field. I informed him of my predicament, and he immediately signed and released my paperwork. My flight wasn’t scheduled to leave for a couple days, so I visited my AP buddy at the airbase and caught up on much-needed sleep.
Soon I was on the Freedom Bird and bound for the states. I earned a certain respect from those who served with me in the bush. Out there, we were continuously stressed, anxious and fought the enemy almost every day. Those periodic trips to rear areas are scheduled so we could relax and unwind after spending several weeks on a mission. Those things that we considered “luxuries” are things that those who live in the rear usually took for granted. I always wondered how they would react if the shoe were on the other foot. I was never court-marshaled and arrived in the States with a good record and given an Honorable Discharge, which I deserved.
Back in the World
After traveling for umpteen hours, we finally touched down at an Army base in Oakland California. It was early June, the first thing I did was to call home, telling my family that I was back in the states, alive and well, and would be home soon.
One of my Nam buddies, Mike Morris, lived in San Francisco. He’d pick up his Vietnam buddies after they checked out of the post, letting them stay at his house for a couple days and showing them the town before going home.
When I finished with the paperwork that officially declared me Honorably Discharged from the United States Army, I called Mike, and he informed me that he’d be there within fifteen minutes.
I stepped outside of the building and waited just inside the gate for my buddy. Just then, a sharply dressed MP approached me and informed me that if I wore a dress uniform, the top button of my shirt had to be buttoned, and my tie needed straightening per regulations. The MP wore only one ribbon on his chest, The National Defense ribbon, which everyone earns after 90 days in the military. In other words, he obviously hadn’t been anywhere or seen anything, but I had less than five minutes left in the service and knew that now was not the time to start any trouble. I said O.K. and straightened my tie.
Even though I had the paperwork stating I was officially out of the Army, as long as I was inside that post, I was still in their clutches, but once I passed through that gate, “that’s all she wrote”.
Three minutes later Mike pulled up next to the gate. I picked up my small gym bag walked off the premises, gave Mike a brotherly hug, tossed my bag in the back seat and opened the passenger door. Before getting in, I said that I had one more thing to do. I turned and yelled to the MP, “Hey!”, He turned and stared at me. I took off my tie and threw it at him then gave him and the entire military a snappy final one fingered salute. Then I got into Mikes car, and we took off into the free world.
|Author TJ McGinely
is an active member of War-Stories
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