Read an Excerpt
What Am I Going to Be
When I Grow Up?
I saw the North Vietnamese lieutenant standing in the wood line to my right. The man in front of me saw him that same moment and instinctively fired, hitting the lieutenant in the abdomen. The lieutenant had a grimace on his face and was bending slightly forward when I finished the job by putting an M-16 round through his left cheek and blowing his brains out the back of his head. Still operating on instinct and training, I switched to full automatic and sprayed left and right into the wood line, killing another North Vietnamese soldier. In five seconds in the summer of 1966, I
had my first confirmed kills in Vietnam. Fortunately, the two North
Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers were the only two enemy there, and the contact ended.
Along with a Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) company of mostly
Jarai montagnards, we were finding our way out of the operational area to
Cung Son, a Special Forces camp in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, when the contact occurred. I was one of two Americans with the montagnard company, both of us Special Forces men, sometimes known as Green Berets.
Ed Sprague was the other American, and we've been lifelong friends since
Walking as third man in the point squad of the company, I was following a compass azimuth to the northeast, checking my map against the terrain to the front, when the NVA lieutenant appeared. Although busy with the map and compass, I let them both fall as I fired. The compass was tied to my patrol harness and the map wasn't going anywhere. But there's more to the story.
Ten days before, Ed Sprague and I accompanied the CIDG company from Trai
Mai Linh, our base camp in the Central Highlands, to Cung Son, another
Special Forces camp about fifty miles south. The U.S. 1st Cavalry Division had found an NVA regiment to the south of Cung Son and wanted help from the Vietnamese army to hold blocking positions around the NVA. The
Vietnamese army had declined to assist, and the tasking was given to
Special Forces. Three montagnard CIDG companies were flown out of three different camps to help with the cordon operation. Supposedly, as we and other units of the 1st Cavalry held the NVA in the encirclement, the NVA
would be hunted and killed within the cordon.
It proved to be a boring ten days, with the montagnards anxious to operate against the NVA but limited to local security around the blocking position that we occupied. Occasionally, we'd spot an NVA or two and fire on them,
but that was all. The 1st Cavalry brought B-52 strikes onto the supposedly trapped NVA, but as was often the case throughout the war, the NVA seemed to have vanished. Nobody thought about turning the tables: the montagnards ought to have been the hunters looking for the NVA, and the 1st Cavalry
Division should have occupied the blocking positions. But that was the
Vietnam War in 1966.
When we were inserted, we spent the rest of the day and night with a rifle platoon from the 1st Cavalry. It was interesting to contrast our two totally different ways of operating. They carried extra water in five-gallon cans; we found water throughout the land and purified it with iodine tablets before drinking it. The U.S. troops carried heavier loads than we did, but seldom traveled as far as we normally went. They were much more dependent on helicopter resupply, getting at least one resupply each day; we usually went three days before needing a resupply. Not that the U.S. troops were better or worse than we were; they were just different in how they approached the job.
While we sat in our blocking position, the Cav maneuvered within the cordon. They found base camps, caches, and very few enemy. Periodically,
air strikes would bomb targets, but there just weren't very many enemy around, although the signs and indicators were abundant.
Perhaps the officers of the 1st Cavalry Division were frustrated at their lack of success. Maybe there were other reasons. But as anxious as the Cav was to fly us from Mai Linh to Cung Son and then by helicopter out to the cordon position, they just couldn't seem to find the helicopters to fly us back to Cung Son when the operation ended. So we walked out, without benefit of maps for most of the area. It didn't matter; we had radios, a fully armed and aggressive montagnard
CIDG company, and the NVA just weren't as good as we were.
So what was a young American man from the south side of Chicago doing in a place like this? I was where I ought to have been. By virtue of custom,
history, and birth, I was needed in Vietnam in 1966, and that's where I
I was born in the back-of-the-yards neighborhood of Chicago, in the area south of the Union Stock Yards on Chicago's south side. In the summer, a welcome cooling wind from the north would bring the smell of the yards,
but that was a given. In books that I've read since, the neighborhood has been described as tough and poor, but I don't remember it that way. The neighborhood that I remember was full of ethnic Irish, German, Polish, and a few other groups. Sure, you had to have a few fights as a young boy and teenager, but I didn't know that that was terribly abnormal.