Alchemical Warfare II: Trust!

Copyright 2002: Ray Sarlin. All rights reserved. (copy permission at bottom)

Webmaster's Introduction
Like everyone else, I had heard courtesy of our "unbiased free press" that drug usage got worse after I left Nam in May 1970 - much worse. As a part-time Army Drug Counselor later on as well as a Race Relations Counselor thanks to my upbringing on the Navajo Reservation, I was privy to a lot of studies on drug abuse in the Army, both the ones that claimed that everybody did it (some "academics" claimed that 1.6 million (60%) of the 2.6 million in Vietnam used illicit drugs) and the ones that identified drug addiction as limited to between 1.4% and 4.6% of those who served.

I see two main problems with the many media reports and so-called academic studies. The first is the "cult" of relativity that sprang up in the media where everyone's opinion is equal - even if that means equally worthless. For example, how do you define "addiction"? Is it physical dependence, psychological dependence, or both? The second problem is one of "bias". People who are "pro" drug use can take any fact and twist it to advantage, and so can those who are "con". Both extremes ignore any inconvenient fact that doesn't suit their bias.

Not wanting to play either game, I'll just relate the drug abuse stories that occurred on my shift in combat in Vietnam. There really weren't that many and they affected only a few soldiers, but the same troubled individuals kept coming to my attention time after time. When I sat down my intent was to calmly and dispassionately discuss two or three drug-related incidents that I was personally involved in, but even now, over thirty years later, I simply still can't find the dispassion needed to do so, so I'll merely relate the stories chronologically and let you draw whatever conclusions you want to. That's what people tend to do with drug issues these days anyway.

I commanded Charlie Company from January to May 1970. The first night I was in the field, two of our three ambushes initiated contacts, and emotions were running pretty high. The NVA survivors of the first ambush fled through the trees and bushes straight into the second ambush less than a klick (kilometer) away. The problem was that they weren't on the trail being ambushed anymore, but came out of the brush onto the flank of our second ambush patrol. Flank attacks have been a winning tactic in many a historic naval engagement because the defenders can't bring all their firepower to bear; the enemy might not have planned it that way, but it was effective!

One young soldier, whose uniform was adorned with the peace symbol and pothead memorabilia, instinctively grabbed the M60 machine gun and ran to the threatened flank firing as he went. This not only broke off the enemy charge, inadvertent though it may have been, but killed several NVA as well. While I was debriefing him to write him up for a Bronze Star with "V" for valor, he said, "Don't mean nothing, Captain. I'll probably throw the fuckin' thing away." I recommended him anyway; actions speak louder than words. And you can't tell a book by its cover.

* * *

A couple of nights later, after more contacts each night and a fleeting contact earlier in the day, one of the three ambush patrols was out about 1,200 meters from the company position. It had about ten men, because we'd beefed up the ambush patrols after our early successes had made people realize that they weren't yet trained for six-man patrols. We'd beefed up the training, too, with each platoon responsible for getting their troops ready for eight-man ambushes. And in the meantime, we had started finding rice, lots of rice. The rice was stashed in every conceivable place, burrowed out under anthills and rocks, in tree roots or small caves - just about everywhere - in caches from 500 pounds up to a ton or two. By the end of the period from 18-29 January, we would find over 140 tons of rice in A.O. Bandit and tie up helicopter assets throughout the region to backlog it. But that's another story.

That evening started peacefully and routine reports from the ambush patrols were duly passed to Battalion. The night was still and quiet, with good visibility. Terrain was fairly flat with relatively open vegetation, as we were on the verge of the foothills leading up into the rugged mountains. That's why we kept finding the rice, we were in the main transshipment area between the coastal plains where the rice grew and was collected as taxes by the enemy, and the mountains where the hungry mouths were to be fed. It had been a bountiful tax year.

"BOOM," a hand grenade explosion rent the night, quickly followed by a massive volume of M16 and M60 fire.

"Charlie 6, Hawk --, we made contact! Send the reaction force!"

"Hawk --, Six Romeo. Request SITREP, over."

"Six Romeo, there's VC all over! Come get us!"

In the meantime, the heavy volume of fire continued, but it all sounded like U.S. weapons. The level was pretty constant - different from most small firefights where there tends to be less of a constant pattern. Something didn't feel right about this contact.

"Hawk --, this is Charlie 6. Do you have any casualties? Over."

[PAUSE] "Uhhh, negative casualties, 6. But we're running low on ammo. We need the tracks now!"

"Hawk --, 6. How many enemy do you see? Over."

"Shit, they're all around! Uhhh, they've pulled back to the other side of a dike."

"Hawk --, this is Charlie 6. Cease fire! Cease fire!"

[STATIC] "6...." [STATIC] "... awk ..." [STATIC] '...adio prob...." [STATIC]

"Hawk --, this is Charlie 6. Cease fire! Cease fire!"

During the "radio problems" the firing continued unabated, until finally communications were restored. The first message was, "Come get us out now! We're out of ammo!"

The patrol claimed to have been hit by a squad-sized force of NVA who initiated the contact with a U.S. grenade and were forced to withdraw a bit due to the heavy volume of fire from the patrol. There were no friendly casualties and no enemy bodies, but there may have been one who was seen being dragged away. Regardless, they were really out of ammo and demanded that the tracks in the reaction force pick them up.

I wasn't the only one who was suspicious of their story. Their platoon sergeant and platoon leader were with me, as were the other senior NCOs and lieutenants, all of whom were monitoring the situation closely and ready to move out. Some of them were rolling their eyes and shaking their heads, and there was angry muttering from many troops.

I had the reaction force readied and the mortar platoon plotted a corridor of fires to protect the patrol as it returned, in the event that there really were some enemy about. After more "to'ing and fro'ing", I gave the patrol a direct order, "Hawk --, this is Charlie 6. Return to base."

As you might expect, there was a stunned silence for a second or two, and then the patrol leader took the mic from his RTO to try to explain to me their predicament - that they had just had a heavy contact, were out of ammunition, and with an unknown sized enemy force somewhere around. I repeated the order to return on foot and advised of the arrangements that I had made, and after a bit more chit chat finally they started back in.

Before they arrived, their platoon leader and platoon sergeant had laid out another basic load of ammo in a squad formation, and upon their return the men fell in ranks at attention. The LT gave the order to rearm and go out again. All around the laager, people were watching the drama unfold. The long and short of the next ten minutes or so was that the squad leader refused to go out again despite being given every chance including a private chat with no punches pulled, and so he was disarmed and placed in custody until we could get him out in the morning. With new leadership, the squad went out on a night short patrol and returned safely.

While there were no more "contacts" that night, the sergeant and certain squad members had to be carefully guarded to protect them from others in the company who were very angry. As more than one said to me, "Now you won't trust any of us, Sir." It was also quietly brought to my attention by a number of people that that track was known as the "pothead track", because sometime in the past the systemic drug abusers (and other so-called troublemakers) had all been gathered in one squad.

Patrol plans for the next day were revised and at first light the track was pulled slightly out of the perimeter and parked up while the platoon leader and platoon sergeant organized a detailed search for contraband. While there was a little speed and a few small individual stashes of weed found, the two main stashes were a large plastic bag of herb which replaced the technical manuals in the APC's manual pouch and a special case of C-rations with the bottom of each can removed and the contents replaced with weed.

Short of fingerprints and/or DNA testing (which had yet to be invented), there was no legal way to attribute the drugs to any one individual, and the squad leader, who in effect "owned" the track, was already on far more serious charges. I chose to split the squad up, and assigned several to my command track and others to each of the platoons. Of the two on my track, one was later busted for possession in the field (he was snitched on by a number of different individuals on one night when he relapsed) and the other turned out to be an excellent soldier and interesting person to talk about social trends and life in general with when time permitted.

What seemed significant at the time swiftly faded as life went on, although there was some interest in the General Court Martial that found the former sergeant guilty of endangering the safety of his command and battlefield refusal, and awarded him hard time. I felt for him personally, because he had apparently done a good job in the past but burned out and got trapped by drugs during his 6 month extension (I'd also heard that it was his second extension, but that may have been a rumor).

* * *

A few weeks later, I was doing the rounds of fighting positions at night. I came up on one M60 machine gun position which was manned by one of the men who had been on the pothead track. We chatted briefly, and then he asked:

"Why do you pick on us potheads, Sir? It's no worse than booze."

"Well, beer isn't allowed in the field, either."

After pausing to contemplate that answer for long seconds, he continued, "Y'know, Sir, the last CO trusted us. He put us all on the same track and had us go point for the company all the time."

* * *

Only one of the other men from the pothead track came to my attention in my remaining five months, but he helped me realize what the recruiting slogan "An Army of One" really meant. He showed up again and again, despite lasting less than a month in the field all up, and he caused headaches even after he was transferred out awaiting court-martial.

From just one look at him decked out for all-out war, you'd know where the author of "First Blood" found his inspiration for John Rambo. A tougher-looking soldier never frightened off disciplined NVA soldiers or VC cadre, from his scruffy hair and Pancho Villa mustache down to the Bowie knife tucked into his jungle boots. He looked bad, man! Bad! But you can't tell a book by its cover.

As the right-hand man of the disgraced former squad leader, he'd been on the radio that night and only narrowly missed joining his leader at LBJ. Within a few nights of the phony contact, he had a panic attack on ambush and fired off a round that alerted the enemy and got another soldier in his new platoon killed.

Now shifted as a slick sleeve to yet another platoon, he was on a company CA (helicopter combat assault) into the mountains to relieve C Troop of the 2/1 Cavalry which was in a pitched battle with Chuck. It took hours for the choppers to finally get the full company into the LZ, and while we waited in the blocking position the gunfire reverberating up the canyon from C Troop's battle sounded like Armageddon. As we started to move, C Troop had gotten on top of the NVA so we were diverted to climb to the crest of a mountain before sundown and operate in an adjacent AO. The catch was that we had to scale a steep 1,500-foot rocky ridge before nightfall. Shades of Ranger School, where we learned how to put one foot in front of another until impossible tasks were miraculously completed. Unfortunately, Charlie Company had only a handful of Rangers. They were dispersed throughout the column of exhausted troops climbing single-file by grabbing onto trees or rocks to keep from sliding back downhill. It was painfully hard going up the scrabble slopes with no end in sight as night closed in. We had no choice but to drive on to the top; there really were no other options.

The going was too hard for our "Rambo". About a third of the way up, he flatly refused to go further, mistakenly believing that (1) he was in a democracy and (2) other troops would support his rebellion. In addition to the drug-induced panic attack noted earlier, long-term effects of habitual use of some drugs can also lead to paranoid delusions and extreme mood swings. When his squad leader, platoon sergeant and platoon leader were unable to induce him to get up from the rock he was sitting on and rejoin the struggling column, I once again had to act.

I explained the gravity of the situation and gave him every chance to repent and continue along, all in front of witnesses recording every syllable. He continued to refuse, so I directed his platoon to remove everything of military value from him including his fierce knife and his P-38 can opener, and leave him behind. They did, and after a total stoppage of less than five minutes we moved out again, leaving him on his rock. Predictably, he was upwardly mobile before the company's rear security element had passed and completed the climb with the rest of us.

I wish that his story ended there, but it didn't. Word got out to the field that, while awaiting court-martial, he was wearing a CIB (combat infantryman's badge) that he wasn't entitled to because he hadn't been in the field for 30 days, and that he had been appointed the Major's temporary driver. We then nearly had a mutiny for real! For some reason, the rear didn't seem to appreciate the gravity of the situation or the message being transmitted to Infantrymen in the field, but a quick trip to the rear soon rectified both situations.

* * *

When I started writing this "war story", I thought that it would be only a couple of paragraphs. Drug abuse was not a major problem in the field; certainly it didn't happen much. But the severity of those few incidents was enormous: not only was one good man killed as a result of someone else's drug-induced panic attack, but drug abuse had the potential to completely undermine unit morale and fighting capacity and, indirectly, lessen everyone's prospects of survival.

* * *

As a postscript, after our Freedom Bird flight from Cam Ranh Bay touched down at McChord Air Force Base in May 1970, the rear echelon Specialist 4th Class in front of me in the customs line must have thought he was the unluckiest soldier around. But that was probably better for his self-esteem that realizing that he was the dumbest! After all, just how many soap dishes packed with weed would sneak through the dufflebag check - even without sniffer dogs?

Perhaps some books you can tell by the cover!

* * *

Copyright 2002 Ray Sarlin,

Permission is hereby granted to copy this story to print or
on web pages at no charge provided the line below is included:
Reprinted from the 1st Bn (Mech) 50th Infantry website
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