By Tim Lickness
I arrived in Vietnam in February 1968. American's counteroffensive to the
Tet offensive was fully engaged. I was assigned to the mostly volunteer
Division's Screaming Eagles as an infantry platoon leader. Reading about
you find little about the war other than the communist offensive. Yet
chronicled, the fighting in 1968 was substantial. I turned 21 a month after
and found myself leading a platoon of mostly younger men through the jungle
miles from my home. This how it looked to us.
We thought constantly about "the world," calculated daily our
"Deros" (date eligible
to return overseas) and dreamed of the girls back home. There were two
and dry. During the rainy seasons we were always wet; during the dry season
always thirsty. The insects were incredible. Bombarding flies, swarming
leeches everywhere, and two-foot-long centipedes. The jungle was beautiful,
times you couldn't see 10 feet in any direction. We encountered what we
called "wait-a-minute" vines, which would grab you and could
suspend you in the air.
We became accomplished cooks, combining C-rations and LRRP-rations
patrol) with sauces sent from home. We sealed envelopes, whose glue had
from dampness, with peach jam. We warmed our meals with fuel made by
combining peanut butter with insect repellent. Our faces were an unpleasant
whisker stubble, insect repellent, sweat and grime. We buoyed our morale by
our favorite meal or our favorite car back home, and always talking about
our favorite girl. We lived for letters and "care packages" from
Fire fights were intense, horrific and terrifying-explosions so close you
your wind or water. The sights and smells would make you retch. Within
hours a dead
body would be crawling with maggots, and a day later it would be black,
unrecognizable. Your body rebelled under the weight of a 40-pound rucksack,
of water, ammunition, a weapon, helmet and other equipment necessary to
Comfort, privacy and security were nonexistent. A sound night's sleep was
memory, a dry pair of socks a luxury. We matured quickly even as our youth
allowed us to
Images became seared into the mind for life as the names of fallen comrades
be engraved forever on a wall in our nation's capital. The sight of a tank
machine-gunned to death as he surveyed the area, partially exposing his body
the protection of his turret. The image of a tall Louisianan dying in your
arms, his stomach
blown away. The look of horror on the face of an enemy soldier as he is
at a bend in the trail, realizing he did not have his weapon ready. Seeing
a terrified soldier propped up on his remaining arm, having lost the other
and both legs. Time
and relationships would help, but still the inexplicable fall into the
of numbing images occurs with warning. You understood the speechlessness;
the emotional paralysis was incomprehensible.
We chased the North Vietnamese army from the outskirts of Hue, through the
of northern South Vietnam, through the A Shau Valley and into Laos. We
the border waiting for the order to continue fighting. The order never
came. We knew
we were winning our battles against those with names like Daun, Thanh, Giap
and Bui Tin.
We did not know we were losing the war to those with names like Jane, Tom,
Ramsey. Our leaders in the field fought side by side with us.
We talked tough. Conversations were laced with terms like "widow
maker," "strike force"
and "reconnaissance in force." "Yea, though I walk through
the Valley of the Shadow
of Death..." the little ditty would begin. But God knew the truth, because it was
to him we talked praying with each breath. We had not heard of male bonding
because of espirit de corps. We trusted each other with our lives. We
needed to be
alert, so we did not take drugs, saving our intemperance for beer in the
It has been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. We discovered
there were no
racists there either.
We were surprised by our bravery and equally surprised by how scared we
were. We were
profoundly changed. Some of us were changed by torn bodies, crushed psyches
spirits. Some of us were changed by what we learned. We learned about
courage, determination, camaraderie, selflessness and an appreciation for
Returning home brought another, disappointing lesson. We were, it seemed,
In college a fellow student told me she did not date Vietnam War veterans.
not expect a hero's welcome, as I was not a hero. I did expect an
the willingness to endure the ordeal of combat. Rightly or wrongly I
believe we were in
a mortal fight against the world-wide threat of communism. The
"domino" theory made
sense to me, and if I hadn't been willing to fight, millions of people
under the domain of what Ronald Reagan would later call the "evil
empire." I left Vietnam
28 years ago and still doubt that most Americans understand what we went
I pray that my children will never have to take up arms to protect the
they and I cherish. But if they do, I hope they will be welcomed home with
Tim Lickness, an attorney, lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area,
wife and three children.
Click Here or on the picture above to see a picture of Tim in Vietnam.
Tim can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org using this automatic email form.