That queasy, uneasy feeling

Three troopers from D-4-2, 7th Cavalry, taking a break while on day sweep, near Vinh Long in the Mekong Delta, probably late 1970.

Over the years I’ve been asked: What did it feel like, being in Vietnam?

In some ways, it felt like it does now.

During my year in the Mekong Delta, I’d wake up to bright sunshine and a warm, moldy breeze. I’d be feeling chipper. Who knows, maybe I’d been dreaming of home.

And then I’d realize where I was. First came the creeping feeling of dread. Then the flop-sweat. There was no sense in lying there rat-caging. I’d roll out of the bunk, slip into my uniform, lace my combat boots, walk over to the mess hall for coffee.

I was reminded of all that the other day, while reading a tweet, the writer saying she’d felt cheerful upon awakening, only to be overcome by pandemic dread.

Yes, this is what it was like in Vietnam. For 365 days. 

I was an infantry soldier, but surely this feeling of dread must have infected most of the support guys (and a few gals) even if they never left the base.

This feeling of dread was accompanied by a sense that we’d descended into the surreal. Were we really surrounded by barbed wire, hung with beer cans as an early warning device, because people were trying to sneak in and blow us up? Did we really send men up into towers at night, armed with machine guns? Did we really load onto helicopters, to be hoisted into the sky and dropped into a jungle where people we didn’t know were doing their best to kill us?

Was any of that real?

Which is a question many of us ask today. Are we, residents of the mightiest nation on earth, really confined to our homes, social bonds broken, while an invisible enemy cuts us down, seemingly at random?

During the Vietnam war, both Americans and Vietnamese lived with an unnerving reality. We all knew people who’d been vibrantly alive one day, and a corpse the next. The Angel of Death seemingly chose his victims at random, which made it more psychologically devastating.

I was no war hero. I served reluctantly, a foot-dragging, resentful draftee,  forced to play the role of rifleman, for which I was ill-suited.

But serve I did. I remember patrolling on day sweeps, and wondering: Is this the day we stumble into an NVA battalion, and get wiped out, or worse, captured? 

I remember night ambushes, taking my turn walking point, down an utterly dark dirt path, imagining that my next step would break a trip wire, the last sensation I’d ever feel. Then, as now, there was nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other.

Nobody could escape this risk entirely. Even the guys who lived in bunkers and never patrolled had to live with the reality that their base might be overrun. Or that a mortar round might drop out of the sky while they were waiting in line outside the messhall. 

Yes, every human being is at risk of dying every day of their lives, but in Vietnam, as now, that reality was a lot harder to deny.

Although the Vietnam War was a surreal nightmare, for us and even more so for the Vietnamese, it eventually did end. Vietnam went through a horrible period of retribution, but is now a prosperous nation, offering the good life to many. The United States, I’m afraid, learned the wrong lessons from Vietnam, but that’s just my opinion.

I was a better person having come through the Vietnam War. It introduced me to a foreign culture, which I came to admire. It woke me from a feckless childhood, motivated me to get an education, and I hope, caused me to develop a bit more empathy.

It also gave me years of nightmares.

But most of us made it home somehow, got on with our lives, changed, saddened, maybe even wiser.

I don’t know what will happen when covid gets to me. But I do know, from my experience in Vietnam, that Americans are fundamentally a courageous people, even when faced with an absurd adversity.

No matter our individual fate, America will make it through this. But yes, to answer the question: this is what it felt like in Vietnam.

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