We, the foot soldier, on both sides of a conflict, have more in common with each other than we do with the respective assholes that set us to kill each other as if we were nothing more than wooden pieces on some cosmic chessboard. Had I met Miss Tu or her husband, Quy, on the field of battle, I would have taken their lives with no more thought than swatting a mosquito and they would have gladly returned the favor… well, he would have, anyway. Now, we are family. Sadly, Quy passed away before I could meet him but his memory lives on in the vivid memory of my wife, his daughter, Miss Lan.
Time has a way of correcting our more hubristic, human foibles. Yet, the history of Man is the history of War. We go marching out, under splendid banners of many colors, to the brump brump da drummp of the drums and the brassy bah da da dah blare of the horns to find fame and glory in some fleeting, short lived nebulous victory. Perhaps a scribe, or a fool, much wiser than I, can show me one time in the history of Man that the populace rose up and demanded that a tyrant, or monarch or Pope or President raise an army from their children and take them to war…
(Author’s bitter note: I have 17 colorful pieces of cloth and metal on my old uniform. That, and a bad heart, diabetes, arthritis, terminal flatulence and a myriad of other ailments. Not the legacy of enemy weapons. No, no. The legacy of my own governments indiscriminate use of a toxic herbicide!!! Such is the glory of war. But the funny/ironic/tragic part is, I’d do it again in a heartbeat!!!)
I am Salvatore John Di Sciascio. If you are thinking “Oh, Italian.” let me remind you that it is ONLY in the Unites States of America that I am called “Italian”. No VC ever yelled, “Go Home, Italian boy!” and even in Italy, I am an American! I was born in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. I grew up in a white-bread, middle-class town in Bergen County, NJ called Dumont. If you’re a working stiff and raising kids, Dumont ain’t a bad choice… except for that whole “New Jersey” thing. I finished High School in 1962, with most of the traditional rites of passage to manhood checked off the list… yeah, even the BIG one.
Academics were never my forte and college wasn’t for me. I had the attention span of a gnat and a taste for beer and needy women with low self esteem. My life was circling that Great Cosmic Porcelain Toilet Bowl when, in 1966 I decided that I needed a change, both of direction, purpose and diapers, and I joined the US Army in August of that year. “Viet Nam” was getting hotter and it was pretty much assumed that we, new soldiers, would all get our turn in the barrel.
At Ft Dix, they tried to teach us about jungle warfare… in 18 inches of snow. After I was released from the hospital having been treated for Pneumonia, I was “recycled” to a different Basic Combat Training company as I had lost too much time lounging around the Ft Dix Walson Army Hospital for over a week. Still, I fired my M-14 on the ranges, impressively, scoring 60/62 on Qualification Day. It was good enough to come in second in the training Brigade. I have been shooting since I was 8 years old at Palisades Amusement Park where a cousin of my mother’s ran a .22 shooting gallery concession. That and the fact that I had stopped shaking from alcohol withdrawal.
“Cyclone Charlie”, “C” Company, 3rd Basic Combat Training Brigade was staffed with a few recent Viet Nam returnees and Korean Vets. I can still remember their names , Truman, Saur, Armstrong, Kane, Cole, and faces and voices as they screamed in my ear. One in particular, a PSG Saur, ran my ass ragged but in the end he turned out to be my best friend. Truman was a Korean War vet with frostbitten feet but a kindly and, almost, fatherly manner. He was a teacher. Sergeant “Killer” Kane was a raw boned, whipcord tough, 19 year old paratrooper and combat vet, having served with the famous/infamous 173rd Airborne Brigade. He had difficulty maintaining the aloof “DI” facade. Armstrong was an “Acting Jack” draftee putting in time to his discharge. They tried to teach us enough to stay alive in the meat grinder that was Viet Nam. In my case they had some small success; for others in my “Roster”, not so much.
On February 10, 1967, I boarded a Braniff 707 at Oakland Army Terminal in California for the long flight to Viet Nam, along with about 180 other “Noobs” and a smattering of vets going back. Conversation en route was centered on ones MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) and the longevity of each. Many had heard tales from friends or relatives who had been there. The ones with the clerical or non-infantry specialties seemed to gloat over the “grunts” until it was pointed out that we were all, first and foremost “grunts” and would you rather be on the line with a finance clerk or an Airborne Ranger, next to you??? The vets seemed to take particular delight in relating horror stories of booby trapped bunks and poisonous insects in boots or snakes in the showers or grenades in the mess halls. They were not happy stories.
We landed at Bien Hoa Airbase near Saigon, Viet Nam, on February 10, 1967, 43 years to the day before my stroke and 12 days before my 22nd birthday. There was a mortar attack in progress and I recall the frantic 19 year old Sergeant from the Replacement Depot screaming for us to move our @#&^%$ asses off the @#&^%$ plane. As soon as we hit the door of the plane a blast of hot, humid and “fragrant” air hit us and we were immediately coated with a red dust… and sweat.
The fragrance, I would later learn, came from a daily ritual that every Viet Nam Vet remembers, “Shit Burning Detail”… The wooden latrines were built with doors under the seats and half of a 55 gallon drum was placed in each station. Once a day, some poor schlub was detailed to pull them out, mix the contents with diesel fuel and light it. Then he had to stir it so it burned sufficiently to satisfy the Officer of the Day or the First Sergeant. The smoke could be seen… and smelled, for miles. If you got the detail you made sure that the showers had water or you would smell of burning diesel and shit for days or until your bunk mates dispatched you…
I never got that particularly odoriferous detail and I pulled KP exactly once… I was one of the best “Shithouse Lawyers” I ever met, three times choosing Courts Martial over an Article 15 and never losing a day’s pay or a stripe but that’s another story. I will not go into detail but 6 months later, I had gone from Private E-2 to Sergeant E-5. NCO! Non-Commissioned Officer. Heady stuff, indeed. I extended my tour in Viet Nam, the first time, to go farther into the Delta and saw service with the Mobile Riverene Force which was a combined Army, 2nd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division, and Navy Patrol Boat River or PBR’s and other ancillary Naval support units. Then one day, my buddy, Sgt Ken Mullinax, said “Hey, Sal, let’s go join the LRRPs.” “Wow, join the LRRPs. Cool… What’s a LRRP???” The rest, as they say, is history.
I worked myself up to Staff Sergeant, Team Leader and I had the honor of working with some of the finest, bravest, toughest soldiers in the world. And that includes my Vietnamese Special Operators, Scouts, interpreters, body guards and friends. We were blessed with Officers that were competent and watched our backs both in the field and in base camp. Still, I would often look around at my fellows and wonder, “What in Hell am I doing HERE???” I would look at the stripes on my collar and hope that no one caught on…
A LRRP had a significant price on his head of over $2,500 in 1968 dollars for the VC or NVA who could garner one. They had special LRRP Killer Teams to hunt us even as we hunted them. I felt… unwelcome.
But this story is not about us. I only mention this so the reader can appreciate how much decades old attitudes and prejudices and the relationship between Tu and me miraculously was changed by time and a most unlikely series of circumstances.
This is a work of semi-fiction or, perhaps, more accurately, speculative history. It was pieced together from conversations that I have had with former People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam (PLAF) fighters, that we erroneously called Viet Cong, and former officers and soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army, my former Vietnamese Special Operators and my own experiences. Some real incidents have been combined for clarity and brevity but I hope the intensity and feelings come through. Not everything is absolute truth and much of what is written here is second and third hand and at that, filtered through the prism of the memory of someone who spends a finite portion his day looking for his keys. But it is sincere. “Honesty” has been described as the absolute absence of the intent to deceive. This story is as honest as I can make it.
“Tu’s Story” is not about politics or morality or right versus wrong, because in the end or in a firefight, there are no politics, there is no morality and there is, most certainly, no right or wrong. There is just people trying to survive in any way possible; some succeeding and others failing. Rather, it is the story of one woman and her family and her life living in a virtual and actual crucible of war literally surrounded by the flames and fury of the mindless beast. It is a story about how War tried its best to twist the soul and break the spirit of a good woman. It is the story of the ultimate victory of love over human stupidity. This account can not begin to explain or describe the deprivations, pain and loses suffered by “ordinary people”. I know Tu. She is my mother-in-law, and therein lies the tale…