Monday, May 27, 2013

Dedicated to Dale on Memorial Day, KIA in Vietnam

Today is Memorial Day. The past few weeks I've gone through many boxes with a lifetime's worth of memories, stored and moldering away in our damp cellar, which was 30% soil. After finally finishing it off and cleaning the air, I went through and organized everything, including a bunch of memorabilia.

I gathered a pile about 2" high of my 1969 Vietnam experiences, and remembered my good friend Dale, who died there. Unfortunately, I lost and forgot his last name. I hope to dig it up someday. This is the story leading up to our friendship and how it ended.

After graduating from RPI in June 1967, I was ripe for the draft. I did not believe in the Vietnam War. I was part of the mass of protesters that went to Washington and circled and held hands around the Pentagon that fall, and tried to levitate it! Not that I thought it could be done, but I was a small part of an anti-war movement I believed in. All wars are terrible, but I saw good reasons for our involvement in World Wars 1 and 2. I could not fathom the rationale for the Vietnam War.

I applied to a 2-year community college in the fall of 1967, to evade the draft, but the admissions office saw right through me, and denied me acceptance. I then drifted with my friend Norman "Spider" Hirsch to New York City, Florida, and then San Francisco. They called Norm "Spider" because of his long and gangly limbs! I like to say we arrived in Haight-Ashbury after the Summer of Love, at a time I call the Fall of Discontent. Most of the hippie movement had moved on, out, or had self destructed in SF by then. California dreaming and good vibrations were over. The rainy damp weather in November did not add to enjoyment, we decided to get out after two months.

Norm, myself and two new friends moved to Ruby, a ghost town in Arizona we stumbled across. It seemed the residents had suddenly moved out, leaving a lot of furniture and household belongings behind, when the mines closed. The dry heat had preserved everything. After living in one of the small homes for a month or two, we were told to leave the area by a state ranger. We were experimenting with a very boring macrobiotic diet at the time, at Norm's urging. I was almost glad to go back somewhere with a more available varied diet, such as an occasional hamburger!

At the time, the Selective Service was drafting 20,000 to 30,000 people a month for the Vietnam War. They had sent several notices over the winter to my home in Niantic, Connecticut. I was calling my parents once a month or so. They were becoming distressed at my drifting lifestyle, and worrying about the draft notices, which were becoming more frequent, I think the Selective Service even started calling the house. I decided to head home, and deal with the situation. I first tried to become undraftable. There were several paths here… but none panned out, and I was classified 1-A, available for military service.

I had four choices: go to Canada and beyond the reach of the draft, go to jail in protest, get drafted and be at the mercy of the government, or enlist and try to obtain the service and specialty I wanted. I did not like cold weather, heard objectors sent to jail were mistreated, and was also aware of the pain I had already created for my parents, who wanted a more conventional life for me.

I learned the Marines had a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) in cinematography. They would send you to UCLA Film school for 2 years, you then had to serve for 2 years as a combat photographer. That sounded ideal for me, I was already using my 8mm film camera to shoot, was editing, and very interested in the field. I also figured in 2 years the Vietnam War might be over. And, if not, I would not mind filming it. So, I went to my local Marine recruiting office, was guaranteed the Film Cinematography MOS, and enlisted. I was due to report for duty in about 30 days.

However, I soon found out that everyone in the Marines, no matter what they were promised, was being sent to Vietnam as an infantryman! I was distressed, and looked for a way out. I had a lot of respect for the Marines, but they were some of the most aggressive units in this senseless war. The Army did not have a comparable film position. As a former Boy Scout, I was always interested in building small bridges, shelters, log furniture, etc.. so I requested openings in their Corps of Engineers. They had none. However, they did need officers in the Medical Service Corps. I asked if they could take me before I had to report to the Marines, and if I could have the Medical MOS. I was told yes to both questions.

At the time, I had started to study and had an affinity for Buddhist ideas and philosophy. The concept of karma became important to me, where if I meant no harm or created no harm to another, none would come to me. I was unhappy to go to Vietnam, but my feeling was to trust in karma, and that I would survive if I did not intend to do harm to anyone while there. I really had no other reasonable choices.

Within a couple of weeks, I shipped out for the Army to Fort Dix, NJ, for 8 weeks of basic training. There was no immediate subsequent training specific to the Medical Corps. Their training sequence was from Basic Training, to Advanced Infantry Training (AIT), to Officer Candidate School, and then to Fort Hood, TX, where one would finally receive medical training. So, after basic training, I went to AIT for 8 weeks, and then to OCS. OCS was to last 6 months, when one would graduate as a Second Lieutenant.

OCS, in Fort Benning, Georgia, is where I met Dale. Dale was also told and was hoping to enter the Medical Service Corps. We both realized we were ducks out of water and total misfits there. Most of the cadets wanted to be in the Infantry, were totally "gung ho," and 90% of the training was infantry related. We were two peas in the same pod, out of 100. After a couple of months, we were told the entire graduating class was going to be sent to Vietnam as Second Lieutenants in the Infantry. Dale and I had shared a lot of companionship, humor and the irony of our situation until that point, we were usually together and in a happy mood, looking forward to a better future. However, that policy changed our lives and turned them upside down. Everyone those days went to Vietnam, we expected that, but we did not want to play a leadership killing role in this war.

We both decided to withdraw as soon as possible from OCS, and let fate take us where it wanted. A week after we withdrew, a few days before Christmas, we were shipped to Vietnam as infantrymen.

You needed a sense of humor to stay sane in Vietnam
Dale and I were now separated, but kept in occasional contact by letter. While you had everyone's back, you did not get too close to anyone personally. After spending over 6 months training me for the infantry, the Army placed me in an artillery battery in Vietnam, as there was a shortage of artillery men. Of course, I had never even gotten within a half mile of a howitzer! That was the efficiency of the military service at that time.

After 6 months of infantry training, the Army put me in an artillery battery
After 9 months in Vietnam I was starting to go deaf from loading the howitzers, I had taken the bottom position so as to minimize my participation in the war, but at a cost. While everyone else could plug at least one ear during firing, I had to hold the next round with both hands, without any hearing protection. I was offered a promotion to sargeant, and be in charge of our 105 mm howitzer battery, but refused it so not to rise in responsibility in this war. Then a radio carrier in the field got shot and killed. I figured if I was in a war I might as well see and experience it first hand, and volunteered for his field position my last 3 months in the country.

Out in the field with the 25 pound radio. Our feet were wet 90% of the time in the rainy season.
How we slept in the field, my "bunk" and radio on the right. We were lucky when we had hay.
As a radio carrier, the chance of having to fire my weapon aggressively was a lot lower than a regular infantryman, but I was ready to protect myself if threatened. My main mission was to maintain constant, reliable communications, not to shoot. I again trusted in karma, that if I hurt no-one, no one would hurt me. I still don't know if karma exists or not, but it gave me a belief that I needed and kept me going. I was home, unhurt, a week before Christmas 1969.

My friend Dale, after entering Vietnam at the same time, ended up volunteering as an Army dog handler. I heard he was killed sweeping for mines, after about 6 months in the country.

Dale and I were friends for only two months, but the memories of his friendship, our shared companionship and burdens, and his irreverent jovial humor which kept up my spirits, have recently returned. We both knew the war was senseless, I came back, he did not. I can do something he can't do, write about it. While the above is mostly autobiographical, it is dedicated to his memory on this Memorial Day, as Dale can't write his own story. It sounds a bit self-serving, but Dale would have wanted me to write it.

Wet, hot, tired and sweaty

The best part of Vietnam were the children, almost always happy, always taking care of each other.


-McD- said...

You can search The Wall by first name and a date range. There are 8 pages of people named Dale who died in 1968-69.


Frank Fulchiero said...

Thanks Mike, have to do a bit more digging in my boxes first, but will try that. Lots of names!

Mark Mathew Braunstein said...

This is a memorable memoir and tribute, and I thank you for posting it. This also provides insight into who you are today, and the random nature of how you arrived at your present avocation. While I admire your expertise with computers and video, I recommend you take more seriously your writing.

Frank Fulchiero said...

Mark, thanks for the kind words. Yes, I sometimes wonder how random events have shaped me and my life, but you can probably say that about yourself also! Some say there are no accidents or coincidences but I have not made up my mind yet. Maybe never will. I only write half-way decently (maybe!) when I am inspired to do so, which is not very often. So I better stick to computers and video!