March 2, 2001
We were Soldiers Once Article

The book, We Were Soldiers Once and Young was what I call a good read. I liked it as I lived through it, not only the war itself but the memory of it. The 1st CAV was the first conventional unit to make it to Vietnam as a Division. The war was somewhat new to the country; at least no one had grasped what it all meant yet. And, to the military, there was something of the romance--the going off to war. Nobody called it that but when you're a soldier and you train, war is what it is all about. No book can tell that, it is just the way it is.

I remember Fort Benning during that time. A good buddy and myself were young Lieutenants and went to Fort Benning for some "weekend warrior" training during the time the CAV was preparing to go to Vietnam. The young troops of the CAV were strutting around as if going to Vietnam was some sort of reward: most didn't have a clue where it was or what it was about. It was Friday night football, hanging out with their friends or parking at Lookout Point with their girl. They were soldiers and young.

Fast forward to over twenty years and I'm at Fort Huachuca in my last years in the military. I'm living the bachelor life and have chosen to rent a little house out in a little community called Huachuca City. There are about eight of these little tiny bunkhouses situated in a circle. They all look alike and are built of brick, refurbished and cozy. In earlier years, they were part of a 100,000 acre ranch. It was still open range, and with regularity, I would come out and cows would be in the front yard meandering through. My neighbors moved in and out also with regularity as the little houses came furnished and could be rented by the month.

I usually read the Vietnam books mainly because--I don't know why--unlike most Vietnam Vets on active military duty, I talked about it, wrestled with it, thought about Vietnam and in my own way, was proud. Also, I loved other Vietnam Vets; we shared an experience not only of war but also of rejection, disdain, and of mystery.

For most active duty soldiers like myself, Vietnam was something we passed through, a crisis, we stayed on active duty and moved on, relatively speaking. But, I had already discovered through my involvement that this was not the case with most Vets who had had Vietnam as their only experience. It had been the single most traumatic event of their lives. For many, they had entered the military, gone to Vietnam, had lived with buddies who shared the experience, and in a sense, they felt the closeness of family and then it ended. The government that sent them to Vietnam returned them home with no preparation, no re-entry plan. One day they are in the jungles of Vietnam, attempting to stay alive and the next day, they are on the streets of Detroit or any US city or community. It was a travesty of gigantic proportions. They returned home, changed forever. No one wanted to talk about it and they buried their experience in their collective psyche as the rest of the country wanted to do. They tried to move on. Most could not and suddenly they were at war again, mostly with themselves. The fancy name is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

One day I come to my little pad and as I'm pulling into the yard, I see a new neighbor, a grizzly sort of guy, standing on the porch of the house next door, drinking a beer with music playing in the background. I immediately recognize,a Vietnam Vet. I walk over and say, "Welcome to the neighborhood," he kind of grunts, not overly friendly. I say something like,

"You a Vietnam Vet?"

"Yes."

"What was your Unit"?

"1st CAV."

I give him the test. "Where?"

"Ia Drang (he pronounces it correctly, eye drang which the book is about as the first major clash between U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers. )

We stare at each other for a moment and when I start to leave, he says, "What you reading?"

"We were Soldiers Once and Young." I had just bought the book.

No more comment.

At that time, I didn't even know what the book was about. Over the next couple of months, my neighbor got drunk with regularity, hollered, cursed folks out, shot off his various weapons, and never slept. The sheriff showed up a time or two. He and I talked several times, never about Vietnam. I finished the book and gave it to him. He disappeared. After I was back in CA and retired, a letter chased me down. It was from my former neighbor's sister. He had committed suicide and in his personal belongings, they had found the book and inside were lots of notes scribbled and also my name. The family just wanted to know if I had any information about him, knew some tidbit that might unlock the mystery of who he had become.

No, not really. It was Vietnam. We were soldiers once and young.
JHL


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