By Lou Rothenstein
Gen Milley’s statement brought back a lot of memories from early days in Vietnam. I also had a few of them pop up recently on a trip to Vietnam and a few places where I served. It also bugged me as I see many lessons learned not being read by enough people in high places.
I recall a statement from my last CO/Senior Advisor in Vietnam. “They should have shot the first man to bring an air conditioner into country.”
It had to do with an order coming down from on high that a certain category of personnel must have air-conditioned quarters. We had to use most of our electrical power for communications equipment that was essential to our mission. We had less than 100 men on an Advisory Team that covered perhaps the largest single a/o in territory in country. There were two SF B-Camps, about 14 A Camps, three Province Advisory Teams, and about 37 district and MATs. We had 7/1 Air Cav, the ARVN 41st Ranger Bn and an ARVN towed 155mm Arty Bn. Everyone was spread thin. Everyone became expert at calling for air support, primarily at night. Being at a primarily static camp, we made improvements in our living conditions. We traded captured enemy equipment for a well and water tank with erdolator (p) that gave us clear and drinkable water. We scrounged cement for sidewalks and an AK-47 got us a small cement mixer. We had a rather small PX with essentials only. Smokes, Jim Beam and a fewer, less essential items like razor blades and soda pop. Beer was traded with other elements or off the docks in Saigon on a monthly run or bribing a Caribou crew to deliver it. A Mamasan seamstress kept us supplied with VC flag replicas for further trading. We had it pretty good. Lack of clean ice might have been our biggest problem. Cold beer was sometimes had at the expense of some CO2 Fire Extinguishers……We worked out a trade with the Navy for refills….We survived discomfort through the gray military market as it was faster and sometimes more efficient than normal supply. We had our own supply system that skipped a couple of levels or worked locally and informally.
The problem was that some of us were gone more than half of each week somewhere in the AO. Down the street, a SF B Camp that worked on rebuilding and improving its compound after TET-68 major attacks – concrete mortar pits, actual buildings, etc., got movement orders to an area closer to the border. A great prize for a province advisory team. The B-Team lived in tents and had to improve a new camp just for survival. Eventually enough supplies arrived to build fairly good defenses and better living conditions. Few people realize that there were A Camps and Advisors in the Plain of Reeds that were pretty hard to get to when water levels were up. Some even had to travel within the camps in boats.
Probably the folks that did more with less were the MAT’s. Four or five on a Mobile Advisory Team were not very mobile as they advised the Popular Forces in their home villages and hamlets. Support was good between our SF Camps, MACV Teams and the U.S. Navy PBR and Swift Boat elements operating in our a/o. The USAF supported our SF Camps with a dedicated squadron of Caribous. Not a bad setup but it took quite a few people just to keep things running. I could not imagine what it would have been like to have to support things like Burger King that far from the flagpole….
On a previous advisory tour, we MI guys were assigned to an MI unit, attached to MACV. Our support was crappy from our unit. I was amazed at the lower ranks in the field we had to train while my headquarters area was filled with senior NCO’s at their club in Gia Dinh. All in fresh jungle boots and fatigues, while some of us in the field were wearing worn-out OG-107 or ARVN uniforms. It took a side trip to MACV J2 to fix some of the disparities. Going down through channels, things disappeared. The fix was to turn over the mission to MACV. It worked for us later in the war…
I had a couple of uncles and a brother-in-law who worked the WWII Battlefields. They all talked of the R&R camps where they got new clothes, hot showers, hot food, caught up on mail. How important it was to do it as a unit. Looking back on our R&R system in Vietnam, I could see the good it did for morale, but not being with one’s team left something out of the mix. After a big operation, our senior advisor sent us on in-country R&R as a team of at least four-five personnel to take care of one another. When I was in the 6th Convalescent Center, there were a couple of soldiers there that had 11 months in country with a Cav unit without any R&R. I had a good friend I served with in Berlin. He was assigned to MACV-SOG and had little support from his base area. They were in the field on recon a lot on classified missions, separate from other elements. To get support, they rounded up the nastiest, oldest clothing and equipment they could find and went to SF Hq. Once the CSM saw them, things happened. They were sent to supply for issuance of all new equipment, haircuts of course. and some rest. I try to contrast this with those who were close to the flagpole who were never short of jungle boots and fatigues they really didn’t need.
When I read of the Burger Kings and other “must have” niceties in base camps currently, I wonder if this is really a morale booster or buster. For those troops that go on missions away from the flagpole, it must be harder than it was for us to leave camps and compounds that didn’t have a lot to begin with. I wonder what percentage of troop strength is involved in this type of operation. Talking with a few soldiers with multiple deployments in our recent conflicts, it was nice to have things at a well-equipped base but they lamented having to pull guard and security duties while there. I do not get a good, clear picture around this. Where is the Rest part of R&R?
I recall our providing Navy PBR crews our cots for some daytime sleep after they were patrolling our Rivers all night long and too far away from their base LSTs. I also recall the making needed supply runs for us to teams and camps when helicopters were in short supply. The systems weren’t perfect but they worked. Things like mantles for gas stoves and refrigerators and certain radio batteries were like gold. Some of those on 30 day reup leaves would be detailed to bring some in their duffle bags on the return flight. Better than priority 999 they gave to Unattended Ground Sensors. Another project we picked up with Navy help.
I haven’t talked much about Grunts with U.S. Infantry units. In addition to working with ARVN, I worked a bit with the Mobile Riverine Force. A Brigade of the U.S. Ninth Infantry Division and a U.S. Navy Flotilla, CTF 117 did some major riverine operations along the major waterways of the Delta. They were pretty well supplied as they had a big base camp at Dong Tam and decent but cramped quarters afloat. There were a lot of immersion foot problems. Others who were friends or some clients in counseling over the years would state that they were in good units but their uniforms and gear were often in threads, not replaced on schedule as they spent too much time in the field, or the supplies simply weren’t there when they returned. I think there is something wrong with this picture of combat elements not getting what they needed on a priority over those living at the flagpole. It seems the picture I have of today’s Army is not too different from what I experienced. Too much tail.
Why not go back to something that worked in two World Wars and Korea? Of course the individual replacement system helped reduce unit integrity. One might recall the shiploads of troops returning from WWII when troops had some winddown time together before discharge. From Vietnam, many boarded the aircraft and were discharged the next day at Oakland trading jungle fatigues for civvies, then home. With shorter tours, it is possible. Perhaps the Navy Seabees had the best rotation/R&R system going in Vietnam. From a team training in CONUS, 8 months in country, four months at home base in the U.S., 8 months in country. Replacement teams brought with them the essentials they needed for much individual support, picking up tools from the departing team. Talking over the years with a few old hands at SF ops in Vietnam, a few would argue that the older TDY rotations of 6-8 months worked pretty well for them. One could also argue that even one year was not enough to do the mission as well as one would want it to be. Our combat Arms officers would rotate out of a combat role after six months. That worked well for us in Advisory units that received them as it reduced orientation and the learning curve. Too bad some senior NCO’s were also not a part of that rotation. We did receive a few after stints in the hospital and they worked out well.
I ate a lot of local food in Vietnam. On operations with an ARVN combat unit, I supplied Tabasco Sauce, I ate from the unit Wok at lunch break supplemented by that French contribution to their colonies, bread and of course local fruit. I never got sick until I returned to a U.S. camp and ate our chow. Things like ice cream took about 4.5 minutes to cleanse my digestive system.
Base camps are great things but I have the picture that their primary purpose is more to hold up the flagpole than with supporting combat troops. I am not sure if the Army/services have looked at what R&R should be, what the optimum time in a combat zone should be, or who should get R&R? I think base camp duty should be the longest, ground combat the shortest. Take a look at traumatic exposure, wound rates, PTS, and it comes pretty clear. All combat duty is not the same and exposure times should be more a determinate as to tour length. Not determined by costs of involving more units in rotation that could be offset by providing fewer creature comforts. It would reduce future Soldier problems greatly.
And now another area that bugs me about my Army.
I last talked to an Army Ranger senior NCO about two years ago. He had eight deployments and was on leave for his ninth. He loved the Rangers but it was hurting his family life. He questioned his deployments overseas to a non-combat area that could have been handled by a regular unit. It kept him from finishing college and possibly a promotion. I also talked with a MSG instructor at an Army school about the same time. He had one deployment, finished a college degree program and was on the promotion list. Both were infantry. I am not sure this is smart or fair for my Army in the long run.
I think that a conversation I had over several days in a PTS healing retreat is one that bothers me the most. It was with an Infantry PSG. He lost two platoon leaders and several Soldiers in Iraq. His unit stayed a bit longer than expected in country. When the unit came back to the states, he was stripped out along with several other senior NCOs and officers and sent to Ft Polk to train reserve component units. While he was gone, one of his Soldiers committed suicide. He felt deep guilt for not being with him in those critical readjustment months after combat deployment.
I recall the British Army some years back was having a time of it in Northern Ireland as a peacekeeping force. Infantry units were pretty much ragged after continual rotations at a time when the armed forces were being reduced. They decided to retrain other units as light infantry/security to even things up a bit. The U.S. Army would never attempt this I know but there are a lot of tail troops sitting in positions that could be replaced by civilians – or better – combat wounded veterans who could
still teach with first-hand knowledge from the combat zone from the platform at least. I think that the tail troops should also get two weeks of summer camp combat training to stay better prepared for that possible actual combat exposure as either an individual in a SMOS or as a unit. There are other armed forces that do this. I remember our Division Band in the 25th ID. They were well-versed in MP duties, pulled security at Division/Brigade CP’s. They trained for it with the MPs. Another unit I was in, the band assisted the medics as litter bearers and assisted in erecting those g*&&#^% GP Medium tents. Most able-bodied Soldiers can do more than one job if given the chance or a need is there. I recall an assignment to a small supply sub-depot where nearly all 60 or so Soldiers had more than one job. Originally I was a security type then by promotion and appointment, unit clerk. Morning Report, Leave/passes, orders, duty rosters for the 1SG. I spent more time driving a bus, deuce and a half or a 5-ton wrecker. Others in the supply operation were firemen and so on. Perhaps the Army might try to reduce tail strength by reducing slots and forcing commands to train troops in additional and needed jobs. Is it worth a try?
General Milley’s comment on disobeying orders caught me by surprise. What came to mind was a few of my seniors over the years that followed the book to a T and made no decisions on their own. It was painful to see a good target never engaged move out of range. They faded out soon. I do recall some relatively junior officers and some senior NCOs who took the bull by the horns in the absence of orders and communications and made decisions that were based on their training, experience, and gut feelings and saved lives. I saw some of these rise through the ranks to some pretty high and responsible places. I often think of Colonels Chamberlain and Lewis Millett who in the absence of attack orders and short on ammo, fixed bayonets, ordered a charge and won the day over a fleeing enemy force. I think the General in talking about disobeying orders is really talking about leadership.
I don’t recall who told me or where I read it but for what its worth “The only bad decision is the one that is not made.”
This has been my monthly therapeutic tirade.