Virtual reality!

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

Webmaster's Introduction
Webmaster's Comments: At his 1933 Inaugural Address FDR said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, nameless, unreasoning, unjustified, terror which paralyses...." He was describing a phobia, and intense irrational fear of something that can paralyze a person. Studies suggest that about 1 in 100 people suffer from one phobia or another, and the field in Vietnam was not a good place for them.

Who in combat has never felt - no, never tasted - fear? Fear is more than just the feeling of being stressed out that hits most people. It is far more intense - you might have trouble breathing or feel a sense of impending doom. When that happens, most of us just take a deep breath or two to get our body back under control, and then drive on.

For some, though, it's not that simple. The fear that FDR described ("nameless, unreasoning, unjustified, terror") is called a phobia, an extreme fear that cannot be reasonably explained.

Many people experience specific phobias, intense, irrational fears of certain things or situations. Dogs, spiders, heights, tunnels, water, flying, and injuries involving blood are a few of the more common phobias. Phobias go well beyond simple fear, and many people with phobias realize their fears are irrational. Despite that they find that facing the feared object, or even thinking about facing it, can bring on a panic attack or severe anxiety.

For millions of people, fear of snakes is a phobia!

In fact, fear of snakes or "ophidiophobia" consistently ranks high (#3) on the top ten lists of fears. A recent Swedish study has even suggested that fear of snakes is an instinct that helped early mammals survive and breed in an environment dominated by deadly reptiles.

Another theory suggests that we instinctively fear snakes because a serpent was the agent of Mankind's fall in the Garden of Eden when it tempted Adam and Eve. Snakes aren't just slimy; they feed our anxiety about losing control. And because we understand little about snakes, we hate them and fear them.

A recent study of fear found that the amygdala, a mass of grey matter at the base of the brain, can register fear even if it's cut off from the cerebral cortex where we become consciously aware of fear. Sounds or other signals can go straight to the amygdala, which then triggers the adrenal gland to produce epinephrine (adrenaline) which increases the heart rate and prepares the muscles for fight or flight. This means that we can feel fear and be afraid without even knowing why.

Still, you have to ask whether a fear of snakes isn't justified and healthy in a country like Vietnam which has over 30 species of poisonous snakes including vipers, pit vipers, kraits, coral snakes, sea snakes and four types of cobra. But even many of the 110 species of non-venomous snakes in Vietnam were dangerous, especially for a wired Infantryman in the field. As an old German proverb says, "Fear makes the (snake) bigger than he is."

I was the company commander of Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 50th Infantry in early 1970. Our APCs had been operating for several weeks in the foothills of the mountains in Binh Thuan and Lam Dong Provinces in the southern part of II Corps, which covered Vietnam's Central Highlands. During this time, we had found over 100 tons of rice in caches, which our intelligence suggested put a crimp in the enemy's ability to mount major Tet attacks in 1970 as had been done each of the two prior years. Having destroyed the enemy's food supply, it was time to change horses from tracks to choppers, and move into the mountains to destroy him!

When we had the APCs to provide a reaction force to cover our ambush patrols, we usually placed three or four separate ambushes each night. In the mountains, we didn't have that luxury, so we usually placed out just one or two larger ambush patrols and a few listening posts (LPs) closer in to the NDP (night defensive position).

Our second day in the mountains we had found a "super highway" wide enough for two trucks abreast in places, and hidden from aerial observation under triple canopy jungle. The road surface was hard-packed earth capable of high speed travel, which showed signs of recent use. It looked to be a major spur road off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and seemed a suitable candidate for that night's ambush position.

Setting up the company NDP on high ground about a click (1,000 meters) away, a map recon located a good position for the ambush just up a ridge spur from the road. The position was heavily overgrown but offered covert observation up and down that section of the road. It was close to a flat area up the ridge a ways that provided a depth of rear security for the patrol and could be used as a Rally Point in case the patrol had to withdraw.

The LT and sergeants of the selected platoon received the warning order and decided to use two squads for the patrol, with the rest of the platoon available at the company NDP to assist the reaction force if required. The squads were selected and briefed, and started getting ready to covertly move into the ambush position just after dark. Their mission was simply to observe the trail and call for fire if they saw any worthwhile targets.

As I watched them get ready, I was struck by their general sense of quiet competence… this was neither the first nor the last patrol for most of them, and they knew how to get ready without a fuss.

The ambush was to be the very first for one FNG (new replacement), whom we'll call "George": in fact, it was to be George's first Vietnam night patrol, because the battalion no longer sent replacements to the 173rd Airborne Brigade's jungle school at Qui Nhon. George's squad leader and fire team leader were helping him tape down his gear and get squared away, and I could sense his excitement.

The patrol moved into position without a problem, and settled in for a long night in the noisy jungle. Being close to the trail, absolute noise and light discipline had to be rigidly enforced. So the "hard part" began, hunkered down in heavy undergrowth on full alert and taking note of whatever moved on the trail below. It was hot, humid and sweaty, with the prospect of cooling breezes stifled by the heavy jungle growth. As the night dragged on, it became even more uncomfortable as muscles tightened and cramped and circulation was constricted. But they couldn't get up and stretch, or even yawn.

The tension of waiting and the oppressive atmosphere must have weighed fiercely on George's mind, because they said afterwards that he was clearly hyped. But he seemed to settle down, and like a few others, started finding it harder and harder to keep his eyes open and his head up. The heavy-lidded eyes would start to burn a bit, and then droop a bit, and then before you knew it they'd snap open as you jerked awake. A shake of the head to clear it for a minute, and the cycle would start again.

Then in the wee hours, at around 0200 or 0300, disaster struck! If it weren't for an experienced Medic with the patrol, it could have been much worse!

It apparently started when George was jerking fully awake. He must have startled a nearby snake because he screamed and then told the man next to him that he been bitten on the arm by a snake. He then started slipping into shock. The Medic was quickly called to George's position and tried to get some details about the snake, but George slipped away quickly and stopped breathing so the Medic started mouth-to-mouth.

The patrol got on the radio to me at the NDP CP, and the SITREP (situation report) sounded serious. We often came across snakes and had even seen a poisonous pit viper earlier in the day, and we believed that the only good snake was a dead one. I asked for details of the snake, but while they could see that George had two cuts on his arm about an inch and a half apart where he was apparently scraped by fangs, no one had seen a snake or had any idea what type of snake it might have been.

When George's breathing was restored, we still halfway hoped that a night time medivac from the jungle wouldn't be required. Not only was it inherently difficult and dangerous but it would compromise our patrol even more than they already were. Fortunately, it appeared that the road wasn't being heavily used at the time, but the patrol stayed on 100% alert and we were ready to respond to them if needed. The situation didn't look good as we kept battalion up to date on the event.

Then the radio reported that George had not only stopped breathing again, but his heart had stopped as well, and the Medic had started CPR. The rapid acceleration of his symptoms suggested that George may have encountered a two-step krait or even a coral snake of some sort, although they tend to leave numb marks rather than fangs. We just didn't know and it was crucial to tell the rear what anti-venom was required to save George's life. I again asked the patrol leader to look for the snake… as if anyone out there needed to be told that!

Finally some good news came, George was once again in the land of the living, although he was wasn't doing well! They asked about the medivac, which we'd been told was being rigged with a jungle penetrator and would soon be on the way. In the meantime, we were planning for the extraction and the relocation of the patrol afterwards. Instructions were passed back to the patrol, and the extraction party started pulling back up the ridge to the flat area, having to carry George who was too weak to walk by himself. The security element adjusted their defensive positions ready to buy time for the extraction.

Dustoff was enroute.

Then George died again as the Medic feverishly worked on him to restore the spark of life. He would do whatever it took to save George's life and keep him going until Dustoff arrived.

Dustoff came on station but was unable to see the strobe light through the thick canopy, so they were guided into position to lower the jungle penetrator by radio from the ground. It was a touchy operation, leaving the people in the helicopter and the people on the ground exposed. Finally the radio reported that the penetrator was on the ground, its legs were spread and a living, breathing George was strapped on.

Poor George was liable to get a bit bashed and bruised being lifted through the trees, but at least it gave him a good chance to make it out to medical care and the precious anti-venom! So the winch whined, the cable became taut, and up he went. Like most casualties whom we evacuated, we would never see George again.

But George's story didn't end with his rescue. Just as the semiconscious George neared the chopper, the cable on the rescue hoist snapped. It was only the quick thinking and quick hands of the Crew Chief in grabbing George's LBE (load bearing equipment harness) and heaving him into the chopper that saved George's life a third time. Then the EMT (Emergency Medical technician) certified flight medic had to administer CPR yet again, because the shock of the cable snapping and starting to fall had plunged George back into life-threatening shock.

But George made it back alive to the Phan Thiet Aid Station, where he was examined, treated and later released and transferred to a rear area job somewhere far from the bush. It seems when they examined him, they couldn't find a snake bite, only a pair of parallel scratches on his arm probably caused by a scraping tree branch. Somewhere during his medical treatment George was assessed as psychologically unfit for field duty; which makes sense because the jungle was no place for anyone with a phobia about snakes. By the time Charlie Company was next in LZ Betty weeks later, George was long gone.

In the First Century BC, Publilius Syrus wrote, "What we fear comes to pass more speedily than what we hope." Two thousand years later, George proved him right, while disproving the urban myth that being an Infantryman is a job that anybody can do.

Copyright 2002 Ray Sarlin.

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Reprinted from the 1st Bn (Mech) 50th Infantry website
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