The Day I Left Vietnam

 

☛ 1600 Hours 20 August 1969 ☚

 

Kathy and I were married on August 20, 1966. 


August 20, 1969 was our third wedding anniversary, and on that day I said goodbye to Kathy and our two infant daughters.  Then I boarded a plane that took me from McCord AFB in Washington to Vietnam to serve a year's duty as a US Army junior officer.

 

Barely a week earlier I had found a rental house in nearby Lakewood where my little family could stay while I was gone.  And in the moments before I left them I made a solemn promise to Kathy that in exactly one year, on our fourth anniversary, I would walk in the door of that house in the late afternoon, kiss all three of them and then take them all to dinner. 

 

In the moment I made that promise my intuition about the next twelve months was dark and full of dread.  But in that same moment, and for all the months to come, my vision of the day of my return was always clear and bright and full of laughter. I just had to hold it together for twelve months to make it happen.

 

☛ 22 August 1969 ☚

 

When I arrived in Vietnam I was assigned to a battalion headquartered in Quang Tri Combat Base, about twelve miles south of the DMZ.  Throughout the next year our base was attacked more than a dozen times by the North Vietnamese Army.  I'm happy to state that every one of the 255 soldiers I commanded returned home at the end of their tours of duty.

 

During that year our battalion went through a series of sergeants major, the highest ranking non-commissioned officer in the unit.  The last one while I was there was a terrible specimen—he was a drunk and a coward and a bully.  He took a particular dislike to one of the best troops in our company, a specialist named David.

 

☛ July 1970 ☚

 

Toward the end of my year we heard rumors that a large cache of rifles had been stolen from a supply unit far to the south of us.  In response the Army issued a Vietnam-wide order that all rifles were to be locked up in secure storage containers every night from sundown to sunup.  Clearly no consideration had been given to the fact that we in the far north, and those in other remote places, were under frequent attack at night.  Having to find keys to unlock containers in the dark while under fire was clearly an unnecessary and unwelcome hazard.

 

During roll call the morning after the lock-up-the-weapons order was issued, the sergeant major took malicious delight in reading it to the troops.  His snarl was particularly despicable since whenever the base was under attack his assigned post was deep in a fortified bunker where his life was never threatened.  The troops whose posts were on the line, under fire, had serious issues with the new constraints and with his glee in swearing to uphold them.  David was among the many soldiers who raised objections loudly and demonstrated their deep contempt for the order.

 

The sergeant major was visibly shaken by the volume and intensity of the near-mutiny and for a moment he panicked in front of the troops.  To mask his embarrassment he pointed to David and in a shaky voice ordered him to "blouse" his boots—fold his pant legs, tuck them in each boot and lace up.  Most soldiers that morning had loose pant legs, but David was the only one he targeted.

 

David started to argue with the sergeant major but then simply walked away in disgust.  The sergeant major turned to four sergeants nearby and said, "You are my witnesses.  He's disobeying my direct order!"  He subsequently pressed charges: disobeying a direct order in a combat zone, a serious offense.

 

☛ 1900 Hours 3 August 1970 ☚

 

A defense counsel—the military equivalent of a public defender—was assigned to David's case.  David didn't like or trust him, and with good reason. I had seen the DC's incompetence first hand in two courts martial where I was a witness. He was a bad military lawyer.

 

And so David came to me, even though I wasn't his platoon leader, and asked if I would defend him in his court martial.  I made clear to him that I was no lawyer and that, given that there were four witnesses, a guilty verdict was a certainty.  He asked me again and I demurred because the trial date was uncertain and I was leaving soon.

 

He asked me a third time, saying that he knew what he was in for and that he trusted I would work hard to defend his interests.  I told him not to expect much and that I was willing to defend him only if the trial could be held before 19 August, my DEROS (Date Eligible for Return from Overseas, the title of the order sending me home that superseded all other orders).

 

When the trial counsel (the prosecutor, and a friend of the defense counsel whom I disliked) found out I was defending David, he appealed to the military judge to schedule the trial for after my departure, claiming he needed more time to build his case.  In the negotiation to set a trial date, the best I could do was to persuade the judge that we needed to hold the trial on 19 August, the day I was scheduled to leave.

 

☛ 1300 Hours 19 August 1970 ☚

 

The trial was held in Da Nang.  David and I rode down together in my Jeep that morning.  I was finding it difficult to concentrate, looking at my calendar watch every five minutes trying to figure out what it was going to take for me to make my date with Kathy and the girls the following evening.  I had waited a year for this day.

 

We arrived at the court an hour before the scheduled start of the trial. Three of David's buddies from the company had taken time to come down to be with him during his ordeal, so I let them give him moral support while I took a walk around the compound. While I was imagining how things might go, I made note that there were two NCO clubs (bars) within walking distance of the court. I stowed that fact as I formulated David's defense against the sergeant major.

 

As expected, the verdict phase of the trial was brief.  At one point in the sergeant major's testimony I objected to something he said that I knew to be untrue. When the judge asked for the reason I was objecting, all I could say was, "Well, Your Honor, what he said isn't true, and that's just not right."  The judge found my naiveté amusing.  Unless I was prepared to back up my accusation with proof, I'd best just have a seat.

 

The testimony of the four witnesses (Did the incident take place in a combat zone? Yes.  Did you hear the order? Yes.  Did he obey the order? No.) and the judge's deliberation and documentation of the verdict took a total of thirty minutes.  David was found guilty.

 

Then came the sentencing phase of the trial, where the standards of testimony are looser and where extenuating and mitigating matters can be introduced into the record.  I had a choice: make this quick and be out of there, or do right by David.

 

I called each of the four witnesses back in and had each describe in detail what life was like up north, and I had each one testify to David's excellent character and competence. 

 

Then I called for the sergeant major to testify.  The judge had to send MPs out to find him; I suggested they check the NCO clubs. Turns out the sergeant major had assumed, when he heard the guilty verdict a couple of hours previously, that he was done for the day. He had begun celebrating his victory by drinking… heavily.  When I got him on the stand he proved to be a very able witness for his own prosecution, mumbling and slurring and cussing and generally putting his gross incompetence on full display.  I was told later that word of his performance made it back to battalion before he did.  He was relieved of duty as soon as he walked in the door.

 

This sentencing part of the trial was finally over.  The result: the judge sentenced David to six months hard labor (suspended), and his pay was docked one dollar without loss of rank.  In other words, the judge was saying the sergeant major's charge was clearly a nuisance, and while the judge was constrained by military law to find the defendant guilty, he wasn't going to compound the insult by issuing any more than the absolute minimum sentence.

 

☛ 1630 Hours 19 August 1970 ☚

 

As David was shaking my hand and thanking me profusely, I looked at my watch and broke out in a sweat.  I had to catch a plane quick.  I looked up and the judge was gesturing in my direction and saying, "Lieutenant, will you please step into my office." 

 

Uh oh.

 

As he sat down at his desk he looked at me and said, "It's clear to me that you know almost nothing about military law." He was sure right about that. I couldn't help but smile.

 

"But you managed to make this trial one of the most interesting I've presided over in my seven years as a military judge.  What you did in there, bringing back those sergeants and having them paint a picture for me of the daily risks of life up north—you made clear that what that young man was dealing with was extraordinary.  And the fact that such a soldier could maintain his integrity and high commitment to duty even while being harassed by someone responsible for his safety, well that's something I had no visibility to… until today.  So, thank you.  I will always remember this day.  And I suggest you think about a career in the law.”  I wasn’t expecting that.  At all.

 

I thanked him, saluted, and was out of there.  My tour of duty was now officially over!  I had David drive me to the airport and I was on my way home.

 

☛ 1800 Hours 19 August 1970 ☚

 

The flight from Da Nang to Cam Ranh Bay was uneventful, and when I arrived in the terminal I went to the manifest desk to arrange for my next flight.  At the desk sat a seasoned old Air Force master sergeant. He took a copy of my DEROS order and without looking at it put it on the bottom of a pile of R&R orders.

 

He pointed to a plane on the tarmac and told me that it was the last flight to Honolulu that evening and it was full.  He said I should go find a place to spend the night and he'd get me on a flight sometime the next day.

 

The next day?  That would be August 20, my anniversary.  A plane leaving then, even if it flew directly to McCord, wouldn't get me home in time for the dinner I had promised Kathy.  I was sunk.  I found a seat in the waiting area and began to wallow in my misery.  I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry….

 

As the plane's engines were warming up a general, along with his entourage of four colonels carrying his golf clubs and luggage, approached the manifest desk.  I couldn't hear what was said, but the master sergeant clearly had difficulty containing his disgust.  As I watched, he made a call and then went outside and wheeled steps up to the plane.  Five soldiers came out and down, and the five senior officers climbed up and into the plane.

 

The master sergeant came back to his desk mumbling obscenities and kicked a waste basket.

 

After he sat down I approached and said, "Explain something to me, Sergeant.  How is it that that general can bump those troops off the plane just so that he can go play golf in Hawaii for the weekend, while I have DEROS orders but I have to sit here overnight and wait for another flight?"

 

He sat bolt upright. "What did you just say?!!"

 

"I have DEROS orders."

 

"Where?"

 

"At the bottom of that pile."

 

He shuffled through the pile, came up with my orders, and holding them out in front of him stared at them for a moment.  His expression of deep displeasure melted into a huge and somewhat malicious grin.  "I've been waiting 23 years for this!  Grab your bags, Sir, and come with me."

 

He made a call and we went out to the tarmac and pushed the stairs back to the door of the plane.  He told me to wait below while he climbed up and through the door.

 

Minutes later the general came out of the plane, clearly upset, and climbed down.  As he passed me he sneered at me and said, "You son of a bitch!" 

 

The master sergeant then motioned for me to come on up.  As I passed him he said, "Nobody messes with my manifest." 

 

I was seated in the general's seat surrounded by his staff, who had brought a whole flight bag full of liquor for the weekend.  They were going to be spending the better part of a day in paradise without the boss.  I was their hero and we had a most delightful flight to Hawaii. 

 

Or at least it would have been most delightful for me except that I kept looking at my calendar watch as it slowly clicked over to August 20 during the flight.  What's worse, when we arrived in Honolulu the clocks in the terminal made it obvious that our plane had passed through seven time zones.  It was now late afternoon on my anniversary, and I still had to somehow find a connecting flight to McCord.  I was still sunk.

 

☛ 1930 Hours 20 August 1970 ☚

 

We finally took off from Honolulu that evening.  It would be another 6½ hours and three more time zones before we touched down at McCord.  As the plane descended over the Washington coast my watch read 0500 hours, 21 August.  Twelve hours late… and counting.

 

Before we deplaned a crew member read an order to us: we were to pick up our bags and proceed to the terminal where we would be debriefed for about two hours.  Then we'd be free to make arrangements for further transportation.

 

I was in no mood for a debrief.  What were they going to say to me and what was I going to say to them that would be of any use to anyone?

 

I grabbed my bags, walked through a gate and around the outside of the building to the entrance, hailed a cab out front, and gave the address to the driver: two miles to our little house in Lakewood.

 

All the way home in the cab I was practicing my I'm-sorry's.  I know.  I promised.  I should have left earlier.  I shouldn't have taken on the court martial.  I should have contacted you somehow to let you know I'd be late.  You've probably been worrying about me all night.  I'm sorry.  I'm sorry.  I'm sorry.

 

When I got to the house, it was just past dawn.  I went around to the bedroom window in the back of the house, rapped on the glass and stepped back.  In a moment the curtains parted, and there was Kathy, still half asleep until she saw me.  Then her eyes went wide and she let out a gasp.  "You're EARLY! We weren't expecting you until tonight!"

 

I was confused.  I looked at my calendar watch.  The time was right.  But the date….

 

Then it hit me—we had flown west to east, and we had crossed the International Date Line.  It was…

 

☛ 0630 Hours 20 August 1970 ☚

 

I was early.