Tuesday, February 2, 2010

There but for the grace of God...

I recently became aware that my old Military Police Company from Vietnam is having a reunion next September in Branson, Mo. I have kept in touch with only one of my buddies from that time and we've decided to go. We are the only two members from our particular platoon which was located away from the main unit. We think that's strange.

Anyway, just the other day, the organizer of the reunion sent out an email notifying us all of a new contact from the unit. His name is Tom Trice and when I saw the email, I was stunned. His is a name that I'll never forget because he is a central figure in one of those, There, but for the grace of God, go I...and, why not me?

It was cold in the barracks that night and I remember pulling my GI blanket around me and trying to forget about it. Normally, Cam Rahn Bay was a hot sand box, but this was the monsoon season and we'd already endured one typhoon. I had just fallen asleep when the lights came on and one of the company sergeants began pulling guys out of their bunks.

"Git up, git up, pack your shit, you, you and you! Put everythin' in ya'lls sack and git the hell outside!" In that kind of environment it takes only seconds to come wide awake. I had flashes of boot camp when they would actually tip over the two story bunks with guys in them. Falling from the top bunk onto concrete could be an eye opening (or closing) experience.

Outside, about 15 of us stood shivering next to our bags waiting for the next thing to happen. After what seemed like an eternity, we were ordered to our jeeps and began to convoy across the huge base. We drove in the darkness until we arrived at an air strip on the Air Force side of the complex. Lined up on the strip we began to drive up onto the loading decks of 4 C-130 transport planes. You see them taking off and landing in Haiti..

After securing the vehicles to the floor of the plane, we were finally able to start asking some questions. "What the hell is going on, Sarge? Where the hell are we going?!" The answer was always the same: "Shut up, troop. I'll tell you when I'm ready!" Um, ok. We looked at each other, wondering what in the hell was going on? This was not normal procedure for us. We were tasked with gate security on the Army base and patrols in the villages nearby. Nice, comfy duty. There was a lake (Tiger Lake) that we could go to and lay in the sun. We could snorkel off the shore in a beautiful lagoon where it was another world. Until you surfaced and looked up at the beach and all the barbed wire and gun emplacements. All in all, it was great duty and we thanked God every day for it.

The planes lumbered down the runway and we took off. It was a very strange feeling to be sitting in your jeep and flying. Those transports are very loud so there wasn't much conversation in the hour and a half we were in the air. By the time we had landed, none of our questions had been answered. Just like mushrooms; fed shit and kept in the dark.

When the planes finally stopped, the loading door came down and we backed our jeeps off the plane. Right into 40 degree weather, rain pouring down,thunder and lightning lighting up the sky. The worst weather imaginable! We then formed another convoy and headed out. Mind you, some of our vehicles were topless and we were cold and wet, angry and miserable. From heaven into the depths of hell...

We had landed near a city named Quang Tri, which was just miles from the North Vietnamese border and the DMZ. We finally stopped at dark barracks, unloaded our stuff and entered. There were no bunks, no lights and no other furniture. I was quick and spotted a Yucatan hammock handing from two of the rafters. I had my hand on it just as another guy ran up. With a wicked grin, I put my bag on it and claimed it for my own. Everyone else was going to have to sleep on the floor.

It was three days before any bunks arrived and everyone was sore as hell except me. I slept well, never fell out into the water covering a lot of the floo from leaks in the roof. Monsoon season up here in the north was much worse than it was further south. Cold rain, my hated enemy. We had never gotten along.

We were finally told that we were supporting an operation by the South Vietnamese Army into Laos. Operation Lam Son 719. Some of us would be going on to Khe Sahn, made famous during Tet, 1968, when the Marines were almost completely wiped out by North Vietnamese regiments. In the meantime, we were tasked to patrol the cities of Quang Tri and it's sister, Dong Ha. Much the same duty as we had had in Cam Rahn Bay but without any of the comforts.

One evening at roll call, a guy came up to me and asked if I wanted to switch assignments with him. He had someone to see in Dong Ha but was assigned to Quang Tri. I said sure because it made no difference to me. His name was Tom Trice. We cleared it with the supervisor and lined up for instructions. Just as we did, a guy from HQ came up to our duty sergeant and passed him a message. Sarge then called Tom Trice and Doug Crooks out and said that there was a traffic accident out near Camp Evans, about 25 miles away and at the very edge of our area of operations. They took off and we continued with roll call.

I was a Spec 4, actually a corporal without the supervisory responsibility, and so was Crooks. Trice was a PFC, therefore a rank under us; Crooks and I were jeep commanders and the PFC's drove with us riding shotgun. We were working 12 on and 12 off, the night shift. It was just beginning to grow darker when we hit the road and our assignments.

About 2 hours later, we began to hear loud screaming and static on the radio. It was constant. Non-stop. It was unintelligible, just a mass of noise coming out of the speakers. It was extremely unnerving. Our first thought was that Charlie (the enemy) had gotten hold of one of our radios and was trying to jam the channel. HQ couldn't get a word in edgewise and freaked, all the patrols headed for the base.

When we arrived, the screaming continued but every once in a while a word was understandable. It was "Help!!" Now we knew it was one of our guys who was in trouble but we didn't know who, what, where or when. We finally re-assembled into roll call formation and with everyone looking around, realized that Tom Trice and Doug Crooks were not there. All the while, the screaming continued.

All of a sudden the words became intelligible. It was Trice calling for help and for someone to open the gates to the combat base. His voice was so high pitched he sounded like a woman, and the anguish and fear were so evident that we cringed as a group. A unit was sent out to open the gate as we all waited, wondering what in the hell had happened. Soon, the two jeeps flashed by, lights and sirens on. We all looked at each other and wanted to hop into our vehicles and follow but our duty sergeant said no way. God, it was such a helpless feeling, knowing that something terrible was going on but being unable to do anything about it.

Finally, the word came back. Trice and Crooks had arrived at the site of the alleged accident but found nothing. They used a land line at Camp Evans and reported that they were returning to base. Minutes later, driving in the dark, they were ambushed. Mines (they call them IED's now), machine gun fire and rockets strafed them from the darkness. A large piece of shrapnel took Crooks in the throat, nearly decapitating him. Trice was hit several times but managed to keep driving. According to the report, Trice hung on to Crooks all the way back, knowing that he was dead. At one point, they were stopped by a South Vietnames security team and forced to halt. Reportedly, Trice aimed his M-16 at them, telling them he would kill all of them if they didn't get out of the way. They did.

The point of the story is this: If the situation had been normal, I would have been riding where Crooks was and would have been killed instantly, losing my head in the process. Needless to say, I was stunned and grieved by what had happened and immediately began to think about what the alternative might have been. Why? I asked myself. Why had I been spared? What great cosmic wheel in the sky determined that Crooks would die and I wouldn't?

For decades I kept these thoughts and feelings locked away yet unable to hide them entirely. Every once in a while they would surface and I would thank the powers-that-be for sparing my life. Mostly it came out in my dreams and eventually I had to start taking anti-depressants to deal with it. PTSD they called it. It wasn't the only traumatic thing I had experienced as a soldier and a cop, not by far, but it was the most poignant.

When I saw Tom's name on that email a few days ago, it all came rushing back, like I was reliving the experience. I couldn't write to him fast enough. At first he didn't recognize my name but when I asked if he was the same Tom Trice that had switched with me that night, he said shivers ran up and down his spine. He, too, of course, had been haunted by the events that night. We discovered that we both lived in Michigan only about 4 hours apart. We have made plans to get together next summer and I already know that it's going to be a harrowing experience for both of us. For almost 40 years we have kept this to ourselves, talking to no one about what had happened.

I wish I could say that it's been cathartic but it hasn't. It has only served to bring out in stark relief just how capricious life can be. For the last week or so, I have been under the weather. I first attributed it to my 60th birthday but when I coupled it with memories refreshed, I understood more clearly. I'm handling it just fine, I think and writing this has been cathartic. I think. We shall see when Tom and I hug and say "Welcome back" to each other...