Court-martial or Reassignment ?

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With my daughter, Kelly in Sedona, Arizona. October 6, 2016.

My daughter recently posted this comment below on her Facebook page with a photograph of us taken in Sedona, Arizona by Aaron, my Son-in-Law:

Thank You for your service just doesn’t seem enough. Can’t imagine what you went through in the war but grateful you made it home. Maybe someday you will write a book about it. Many veterans never share their full story, and I can understand how painful it would be to relive it. However, the younger generation aka your granddaughters would greatly benefit from reading about that time in your life. Many veterans pass never sharing their amazing stories. I hope someday you share yours ❤️ Love you Dad

This story is for my daughter, Kelly, and my grandchildren Courtney, Brittney, and Sydney. I will share more Vietnam stories in future posts on this blog and publish them later in a book as part of my general autobiography, primarily for my daughter and grandchildren.

While serving my U.S. Army tour of duty in Vietnam, I published an ‘underground’ newspaper in addition to my regular medical responsibilities, for several issues while I held the rank equivalent of E-4. The staff box listed me as Editor-in-Chief along with other staff members and a disclaimer that stated it was an authorized publication and that the views and opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army. The content included interviews of military personnel, Commander’s Corner, Short Timers, Tips for R&R, illustrations, and satire. I later learned of my promotion to the rank of E-5 equivalent to a Sergeant.

After I believe three issues, the Commanding Officer (CO) a Colonel, called me into his office and immediately shouted.

“The satire you wrote will end in a court-martial with hard labor at Fort Leavenworth, or be sent to a location in-country where life expectancy is 12 days or less.”

I published and distributed the newspaper with the U.S. Army distribution system throughout the military in South Vietnam. It wasn’t exactly an underground publication as I felt strong enough to list my name on it as Editor-In-Chief. I had seen more than my share of exposure to the impact of war. I decided to share my humanitarian views about the killing, dying, and suffering. It was the “underground” poignant satire content that the Army challenged, and then they forbid me to publish any further issues. I complied with the order.

When I realized that after my 12-month tour I would still have to complete my military obligation in the states, I extended my Vietnam tour of duty an additional 6-months to bring it to 18-months rather than the normal 12-months so that I would not have to serve states side duty. I knew that this tempted fate by the time I was a short-timer nearing the end of my tour in Vietnam. Nevertheless, I could not imagine adjusting to the routine U.S. Army duties after my Vietnam service.

I was confined to my quarters while awaiting what the CO decided. I wondered what fate was in store for me. Each day the CO sent one of the company clerks to tell me that the court-martial or reassignment to hazardous duty was imminent.

One day the company clerk notified me that I was to go to the Non-Commissioned Officer’s Club (NCO Club) and wait for someone to interview me. Grateful to leave my quarters, I walked into the sparsely filled NCO Club and ordered a soda and sat down at a small table facing the front door, which was common for me in Vietnam. I also wanted to see who the person was when they walked in through the front door.

A few minutes later, a tall, distinguished man casually walked in, looked at me, glanced at my drink and ordered the same from the person behind the counter. The man wore similar Vietnam jungle fatigues but without any recognizable insignia. Anticipating a variety of scenarios, I quietly waited for him to speak.

In a soft-spoken manner, he mumbled his name which I never quite heard and then sitting back in the chair; he began asking me questions.

He narrowed his eyes and looked at me. “Do you understand how serious your situation is and the consequences?”

I answered, “Yes, it has repeatedly been made abundantly clear by my CO.”

“I wonder,” he said. “Why you published the newspaper with the controversial content?”

“I began printing human interest stories, however, as the war escalated and I observed more, I felt it was important to share that perspective.”

“Why did you list your name?”

“I felt it was meaningful to stand by what I wrote,” I answered.

After many related questions, he mentioned significant things he knew about my background that surprised me including my lettering in high school Varsity Track and Cross Country, photography acumen, editor of both my high school and college newspapers. During this time although it felt somewhat non-threating, I kept contemplating what it all meant and where this man fit into my destiny.

During this time although the meeting felt somewhat non-threating, I kept contemplating what it all meant and where this man fit into my destiny.  I wondered what relevance my background held.

At one point, he leaned closer and asked, “Are you familiar with the publication, Stars and Stripes?”

“I understand that the Stars and Stripes is an American military newspaper that reports and reports on matters concerning the members of the United States Armed Forces and that It operated from inside the Department of Defense. I think that the Stars and Stripes correspondents had been in the field since World War II.”

He acknowledged my comments and added that it is editorially separate from it, and its First Amendment protection is safeguarded by the United States Congress, to whom an independent ombudsman, who serves the readers’ interests, regularly reports.

No one said anything for a moment. Then with practiced expertise, the man segued into quietly asking, “How would you approach being a military Stars and Stripes correspondent?”

“It has some intriguing aspects,” I acknowledged thinking about my Journalism and photography background.

He mentioned that with the combination of both writing and photography skills, it was a good blend and that I could depict what was powerful to show which I seemed determined to do. I was grasping what I thought he was suggesting. We both sat in silence. Neither of us had taken a sip of the sodas.

“If I were not allowed to share the truth of what I experienced, then as enticing as the Stars and Stripes correspondent position sounded I would not accept it.”

“Even if the new position resolved the current serious circumstances?”

“Yes!”

He nodded silently. “This is what I thought you would say.”

He then slowly rose to his feet, and I stood up beside him. He placed both hands on mine and thanked me for responding to his questions. Pausing near the door, he turned toward me.

“Do you regret publishing the newspaper with the satire, especially with the severe consequences?”

I stood there facing him and again thoughtfully reviewed the probability of a court-marshal or reassignment with even shorter life expectancy than usual in Vietnam.

“No,” I said decisively. “I do not regret what I wrote even with the severe consequences.”

He leaned forward, shaking my hand firmly and placing his other hand on my shoulder before walking out the door without looking back.

“That is what I expected from you.”

I stood a while trying to make sense out of the meeting and curious who he was and what was his purpose. Was he civilian or from the United States Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID)? Were these questions part of a serious covert investigation? Did my responses cement my fate?

After drinking the soda in nearly one large gulp, I crumpled the can in my hand and tossed it in the trash can and returned to my quarters. Years later I recognized that the person I met reminded me of Walter Cronkite, an American broadcast journalist, who on the urging of his executive producer Ernest Leiser, Cronkite and Leiser journeyed to Vietnam to cover the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. I still wonder about that.

Time seemed to drag out slowly while confined to quarters, and I had no greater answers and many more questions about the meeting. I continued waiting for the order to appear before a court-marshal or be reassigned.

One day I was told by the company clerk to get dressed in my Class “A” blue coat and slacks uniform. Changing into my  Class “A” uniform was one of the few times I was not wearing jungle fatigues in Vietnam. My fate was approaching and since I had to dress up I believed it was the court-marshal after all. An officer and non-commissioned officer met me at my quarters and accompanied me to the building with the largest room.

I observed what appeared to be nearly the entire company of officers and enlisted men.  My complete focus was on thinking about how I would handle the court-marshal. The entire proceedings appeared more formal than I had previously witnessed during my time in the U.S. Army, stateside and Vietnam. But then again, I had never observed a court-marshal.

As I stood facing the podium from the side of the room, I wasn’t listening to anything that the presiding officers were stating as I continued to be preoccupied with my sense of survival and how long the sentence would be. I was considering how my life would change, and yet I reaffirmed to myself that I still stood by publishing the newspaper with the powerful satire.

Gradually, I became aware of someone tugging at my arm. By a nod, I was urged to walk forward in what seemed like countless steps toward the podium where the company’s officers stood rigidly staring ahead.

I was told to turn around and face the company of soldiers, and I complied. The CO and other officers made statements that I was not focused on as I stared into the company of men. On this a day of reckoning, although many were my friends, not a one offered a visual hint of what was to come if they knew.

All I recall of what happened next is that an officer came up to me, said a few words and pinned something on my chest, perhaps saluted and the meeting concluded. After everyone had left, I stood alone in the large room silently wondering just exactly what had happened since I did not hear what was said and did not receive anything in writing.

When I returned to my quarters, I sat on the bed and tried to recall anything of significance that occurred. I could not, it was all a blur. I wondered if I should remain in my current uniform for transportation or put on my Vietnam jungle fatigues. The company clerk came in a few minutes later and handed me an official document, smiled and left.

Still sitting on the bed I unfolded the paper. It said that I was awarded the Bronze Star Medal by the authority of the President of the United Stated on October 29, 1970. He did not give me any document read in the ceremony indicating why I received the medal.

I slowly, almost in a trance, took off my shirt and looked at what the officer pinned on it. It was a Bronze Star Medal.  Clearly, this ceremony was to recognize the medal and yet, I did not know if I was still going to be court-marshaled or reassigned.

The next day after the medal presentation I was verbally told by the company clerk that I was to return to duty.  A few days later I saw the Colonel in front of the evacuation hospital.

The CO shook his head several times. “You must have someone very important watching over you.” I never heard the court-marshal or reassignment mentioned again.

To my surprise, an early discharge came for me after serving 14-months rather than the extended 18-months in Vietnam, and I gratefully I  did not have to serve stateside duty. I left Vietnam in December 1970 with an honorable discharge. Within a week I reenrolled in the same college where I received my draft notice.

I never did find out what the reason was for the Bronze Star Medal or who recommended me. It seems that whatever document they read at the ceremony was lost upon my return to the states after my discharge. I think the awarding of the Bronze Star Medal may have been because of a special combat medic mission I volunteered for in the jungle. But then, that is another story I’ll share in the near future.

Author’s Note: The above is the best of my recollection after many years’ time span. If there are any errors, it is with my recall.

 

Bronze Star

Awarded Bronze Star in Vietnam October 29, 1970

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