I was going to East LA College carrying the 12 unit minimum required to keep from getting drafted into the army. I wasn’t anywhere near as interested in school as I was in being with my girlfriend, Marissa. I didn’t think I had to worry about getting drafted until I was maybe 23 years old and hell, I was still only 19 so I dropped the class I was failing and went below the safe 12 unit requirement.
It was 1965 and LBJ had just begun “The Big Buildup” sending another 50,000 troops to Vietnam. There were already more than 200,000 troops there already. I wasn’t paying any attention to the news. I was more interested in the weekends and getting together with Marrisa.
I got a letter from the draft board telling me to report for my pre-induction physical exam but I thought that was just a formality and wasn’t really going to effect me.
For some reason I wanted to pass the physical exam and I actually felt sorry for the guys who were told they didn’t pass. What’s wrong with them? I wondered.
On Dec 23rd, 1965 I got my draft notice to report for induction into the the United States armed forces. The letter said I had to report for induction in 10 days on Jan 4th, 1966 or go to prison for five years and pay a $10,000.00 fine. Which at the time was big bucks.
I remember one of my older brothers asking me if I knew what side we were fighting for, north or south? I had no idea and I was surprised that I was right when I guessed South. Hell, I didn’t even know there was a north and south Vietnam.
How bad could the army be? I wondered. Five and a half months later I found myself in the middle of The Central Highlands of Vietnam as a medic with the 1st Cavalry Division.
One day while we were on patrol we were ambushed and got into a bloody firefight with the Vietcong. Several of our guys were hit and had to be medi-vaced (choppered out) to a field hospital back at base camp in An Khe. There were also four dead Vietcong laying on the ground who I had to look at them twice to make sure they were dead.
We captured three wounded Vietcong and had them hog-tied on the ground as prisoners next to their dead comrades. I went up to look at them and I was surprised at how young and how afraid they seemed to be. We looked though their pockets and found their personal belongings including sweets and pictures of their families.
Suddenly I realized that these guys were probably also drafted into their army and probably didn’t want to be there anymore than I wanted to be there. They might have actually even been glad to have had the opportunity to go to school and probably never would have dropped below the required 12 units – especially if that kept them from having to fight in the war and be laying on the ground here now.
I knelt down and tried to talk to one of the Vietcong prisoners and was surprised that he wasn’t angry or tried to spit at me. He looked skinny, weak and very frightened. I offered him some water from my own canteen and held it up to his mouth and saw him take several swallows and he thanked me in Vietnamese. I said you’re welcome in Vietnamese and asked the other two Vietcong if they wanted water. They also took drinks from my canteen. I could see they were scared to death and grateful for being given a drink of water.
As I walked away from the prisoners, one of the guys in my unit came up to me and inches from my face angrily yelled: “What the hell are you doing giving them damned Cong water?!”
I hadn’t even thought it wasn’t okay.
I looked at the guy and said: “They’re suffering enough, aren’t they?” as I felt myself also getting angry.
“They’re the enemy, man! It’s our job to kill them, not to keep them alive, you dumbass!” the guy screamed in my face.
“What do you think? These guys are gonna to go home and be with their families anytime soon?” I said as I walked away before we got into a fight.
Later that day the lieutenant called me over and told me the guys were mad at me for showing kindness to the enemy.
I was made to walk point (to be the front guy on patrol) for the next several days until we got back to base camp. Most of the guys just ignored me and didn’t talk to me.
We’d all been in country long enough to be promoted but there wasn’t enough allocations for promotion available so the lieutenant drew names out of a helmet. Everybody was disappointed when my name was one of the three names chosen for promotion from PFC to Spec 4.
The following week I was transferred to another unit. The guys in the new unit said they heard I was a “Vietcong lover.”
I thought about that experience for the rest of my time in Vietnam and often wondered if I would have done the same thing again if I knew the consequences.
It’s been a long time since then and I’m glad I did what I did. They were human beings and I know – had the tables been turned and I was hog-tied on the ground next to my dead comrades – I would have wanted to be shown that someone still thought of me as a human being.
I can’t help but wonder what the other guys in my unit think about the situation today and what they might feel when they see Vietnamese living in America today as American citizens – and maybe even as their neighbors – and wonder – if they were ever Vietcong.
I wonder what they would say to me if they saw me today. Would they still shun me?
I also wonder what the Vietcong might say to me if I met them again today.
Phil eating C rations in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, 1966.