Penthouse – June, 1975
Bob Sampson came within three days of walking home. Sampson was a “green beanie,” a jungle thug from the Fifth Special Forces, trained to be something between boy scout and Attila the Hun. He was attached to the Seventy-fifth Ranger Regiment. The beanies helped the Army of the Republic of Vietnam troops watch over the Mekong Delta south and east of Saigon. Sampson, an E-5, spent two tours in Nam leading six-man teams around Cong turf in search of information. Long on experience, Bob Sampson turned up short on luck. On January 1, 1970, the captain took him aside and told him that this next mission would be his last. Only two days later Sampson learned the captain was all too accurate.
Sampson’s reconnaissance team was set up in what the army manual calls a “day halt position” – rifles spread in a defensive perimeter facing the surrounding jungle vines and triple-canopy plant life. Two days before, the team spotted a North Vietnamese army division in the neighborhood. The team leader was worried. Sampson sensed safety in motion. He gave the order to mount up, and raised to a crouch, trying to hunch his pack onto his shoulders. When he did, his future was sealed. A North Vietnamese soldier stood in the chest-high grass only ten feet away, and laced Sampson with AK-47 fire. Two of the bullets whined through Sampson’s left leg. A third hit his hip. Bob Sampson toppled into the muck, and the rest of the afternoon swarmed with automatic-weapons fire.
The bullets that entered just above his knee did the job on Robert Sampson. Right away he knew he’d have to change his plans for the future. Sampson figured on attending commercial pilots school after his discharge, but he immediately knew there wasn’t much flying to look forward to. The rounds pulverized five inches of his femur. Shivering on the floor of a Huey hut, headed for Saigon, Sampson thought he wouldn’t have his leg much longer, but the doctors proved him wrong. He regained consciousness in intensive care, and his leg was still attached. Sampson wanted to thank the surgeon personally.
The doctor was making his rounds through the ward, bed by bed, checking charts and adjusting tubes. When he reached Sampson’s bed, the E-5 interrupted his progress.
“Hey, Doc,” Sampson offered, “I want you to know that I really appreciate you saving my leg.”
The doctor was blunt in return. “I didn’t save your leg,” he answered. “I just didn’t cut it off.”
When the surgeon turned back to his charts, Sampson’s smile drifted off his face. For a brief moment he believed the road to recovery was a short one.
It wasn’t. The Nam hospital disappeared in the dust of a taxiing C-47 and was replaced by another hospital in Japan. After two more sessions on the operating table to have bone splinters removed and tattered muscles snipped, Sampson was shipped to San Francisco’s Letterman Hospital. It was January and he was still flat on his back. The army doctors wanted to operate as soon as they could, but changed their minds about it each week. When March rolled around, Sampson was still waiting. He felt worse and worse while he waited-lying in bed watching juice ooze out of his knee. And the doctors’ visits didn’t help-especially the first visit in March.
This doctor was new. He looked at Sampson’s charts, at Sampson’s X-rays, and at Sampson’s leg. His head was shaking the whole time. “You know,” he said, “if I’d been your doctor in Vietnam, I’d have taken your leg off there. By all rights, you shouldn’t even have it. “
None of the surgeons wanted the responsibility of cutting Sampson’s leg off, but they didn’t mind experimenting with it. He got all the benefits of ultramodern medicine. The doctors tried bone transplants, nerve transplants, and bone grafts. During the next year Sampson underwent surgery seven times … for as long as eight hours at a shot. That makes for a lot of painful days and weeks for anybody-but Bob Sampson suffered doubly. He would have felt it was worth something if his condition changed. It didn’t. By January 1, 1971, Bob Sampson still had his leg, still couldn’t walk on it, still had an open wound, and had added a marrow infection. Called osteomyelitis, the disease is frequently caused by short bursts of gunfire followed by long surgical histories.
Finally, his condition stabilized. Sampson was released from Letterman Hospital on crutches and told the next step was called wait-and-see-what-the-leg-does-next. Maybe some of that stuff they’d sewn in his leg would work. Meanwhile, Sampson was discharged and given a choice of benefits. Either military or Veterans Administration payments were available-but not both. The army rated Sampson’s leg 80 percent disabled and offered him 80 percent of his E-5’s pay a month. The VA’s figures amounted to more cash, so Sampson signed on with the civilians. After his first visit to the VA, Bob began to have doubts about his choice.
He went down to San Francisco’s Ft. Miley VA in response to a request that he appear for an examination. Robert Sampson reported to the VA precisely on time. Three and a half hours later, a nurse told him he could see the doctor. His doctor was a general surgeon who didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground about orthopedics and was honest about it. He said the best thing for Sampson was to make another appointment and see one of the guys who worked on bones. Sampson did, waited three and a half more hours, and passed his examination with flying colors. The knee was hard to ignore. When the doctor pulled out the gauze, he saw all the way down to the bone through a wound the size of a silver dollar.
“You’re one-hundred percent,” the surgeon gravely announced.
That approval was good for eight months-but not longer. In late 1971, Bob Sampson got a card telling him to come in for a revaluation to see if anything had changed. The new examination came at the wrong time. Bob Sampson was going to Chicago to get married; he wasn’t about to postpone his trip. On the back of the VA’s card, a printed section announced that anyone who found it impossible to make his appointment had only to fill out the card and send it back. Sampson did as directed and left town.
When he got back, Bob wasn’t feeling nearly so easy about his leg. It hurt like a motherfucker and oozed. When he called the VA asking to see a doctor, they told him his appointment was being rescheduled as he’d requested on the card. There was no chance of seeing the surgeons before then. Sick of waiting, the retired E-5 used the hospital privileges available to all “disabled” veterans. He checked back into Letterman and let the doctors there have another look. They said his leg was seriously infected.
While the doctors were deciding what to do, Bob Sampson’s wife brought over another card from the VA announcing his new appointment. Sampson filled it out and forgot about it. He had other things on his mind.
The doctors believed experimental therapy on the bone marrow would be helpful, and so sent Bob Sampson to the Long Beach Naval Hospital where he spent a few months in and out of decompression chambers. Unfortunately, the osteomyelitis wasn’t affected by any of the new techniques. Bob Sampson was tired of hospitals but he was even more tired of those damn messages from the VA. His wife called him to say the VA cut Sampson’s benefits to 60 percent.
“What the fuck?”
“The letter says it’s because you missed your last appointment,” his wife explained.
Four months later, Bob got everything straightened out with the Veterans Administration. In the meantime, he and his wife went from living on $495 a month to $179. The whole mess forced Sampson to make one of the most important decisions of his life. He told the surgeons back in San Francisco to cut the son of a bitch off. Two days later, he was walking on a plastic leg, feeling like they’d cut the load off his back.
Things are a lot easier now. Sampson has a job at the San Francisco State Veterans Center. He wears a leg that straps on to the end of the stump halfway between the knee and the hip. And except for his monthly check, he stays clear of the VA. If he didn’t, he knows what would happen. “I’d go to the VA hospital,” he explains, “and I’d say ‘I got a problem with my leg.’ They’d say, ‘Make an appointment for three weeks from now.’ In three weeks, I’d go out there and sit for hours. By that time, the damn leg’d fall apart. What I do instead is go on out to Letterman. They’ll take care of it right while I wait. It’s the same way with all the amputees.”
The specific department Sampson visits at Letterman is prosthetics. Sergeant Anderson, who is in charge of the seven-man shop, has been building legs for eleven years. The laminated-foam limbs are custom built and each is equipped with a hydraulic knee. The artificial leg is not the same as the one Bob Sampson had, but it does the job-and that’s all he wants now. The shop is assembling a new model for Sampson so he can play golf. The one he has folds up halfway through his swing.
Gunny Musgrave was a long time “in country,” too. The grunts called him Gunny because of his gunnery-sergeant rating. He’d been with the First Battalion, Ninth Marines, fighting out of Con Thien just south of the DMZ for eleven months, nine days, when he received what the telegram to his parents called wounds in the face, chest, and back.” After eleven months, seventeen days in Indochina, John David Musgrave, 2294574, 19 years old, was on his way back to the States in a hospital transport.
Gunny was wounded on Operation Kentucky, during which the 1,000-marine base was surrounded by 35,000 NVA regulars. The papers back home called Operation Kentucky “The Alamo.” Attempting to break out of the trap, Musgrave’s Delta Company was sent north from Camp Carroll to meet with another company in a pincers movement. The two groups never met. A thousand meters out, three NVA stood up, popped at Delta Company, and then took off.
Gunny’s platoon was led by a first-mission lieutenant fresh from OCS. The lieutenant reported the gooks to the captain and the captain said, “Bring me their bodies.” Gunny and the grunts warned the lieutenant of a trap, but he wouldn’t listen. The Third Platoon went off into the deep grass. After a while, the grunts saw moving figures around them. They noticed the men wearing steel pots and marine flak-vests. The men shouted, “Don’t shoot. We’re marines.” It was Halloween and the disguise NVA called “trick or treat.” Lenny Blair got hit first, and then all hell broke loose. Within the first minute, both corpsmen were dead. Gunny decided to help Blair. That was his mistake. Five meters short of the wounded marine, Gunnery Sergeant Musgrave got caught in a spurt from a machine gun. The round hit his him and ricocheted through the lip of his helmet. Gunny was out cold and B.J. Forbes, his best friend in the platoon, came running. Forbes picked Musgrave up and so did the machine gun. A second burst blew Gunny out of his buddy’s arms. It smashed Gunny’s chest and blew most of Forbes’s head away.
The platoon finally got Musgrave and Blair to the medevac choppers. The grunts never abandon their wounded, no matter how badly they’re injured. And Gunny was bad. Even if he didn’t trust his own judgment, the conversation he overheard at the landing zone confirmed it.
The company’s executive officer was talking to a corpsman on the other side of Gunny’s litter. The two spoke as though the gunnery sergeant wasn’t there.
“Looks like Musgrave bought it this time,” the exec said.
The corpsman looked up. “It’s either through the lungs, or heart … or both,” he answered. Gunny wasn’t even tagged for evacuation. The ground crew figured he’d be dead before he got to a hospital.
Gunny swears he would have been dead if it weren’t for the chopper’s gunner. As the copter struggled out of Con Thien-bullets shaking the tail and blowing holes in the belly-the man on the belt-fed M-60 fired with one hand and held on to Gunny with the other. Every time Musgrave started to fade out, the gunner gave him a hard shake and brought him back. Gunny was still breathing when they landed at Dong Ha.
The doctor there took one look and said, “There’s nothing we can do for this kid. What’s his religion?” Gunny whispered, “Methodist.” The doctor cut a hole in his side, then inserted a tube into his chest to drain the hemorrhage. The orderly hooked blood up and called a chaplain. After the chaplain finished praying, the surgeon came back. He leaned down by Gunny’s ear.
“We’re going to take you to Phu Bai ,” he said. “They can do more for you there.”
Phu Bai was just a short flight away and when Musgrave arrived, he was all set to call it quits. Fortunately, the Dong Ha doctors were right … the doctors at Phu Bai were able to do more for him. After eight days in intensive care he went home. John Musgrave wasn’t the same as when he’d arrived in Vietnam, but at least he was alive. The machine-gun burst had shot away most of his chest muscles, two of his ribs were blown to splinters, and his left lung had been reduced to a thin, pink liquid that ran out of him through pipes into a jar kept beside his bed. A bullet was still lodged against his spinal cord. Before he left Nam, a general came by and pinned the Vietnamese Cross for Gallantry, Gold Star, on Musgrave’s sheets.
For the journey stateside, the doctors closed the bullet holes with thick-gauge surgical wire. They shipped him to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. From there it was on to Japan, Alaska, and a final touchdown at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. When they carried Gunny Musgrave off the transport, it was snowing. Gunny felt the flakes on his cheeks and cried.
After another month at Great Lakes Naval Hospital, Gunny’s wounds closed up enough for him to go to St. Louis on leave. A month after that, the navy surgeons gave Musgrave his final examination. Gunny felt great…except for the pains in his chest…and he couldn’t lift his left arm higher than his shoulder. The doctor finished the exam and gave Musgrave the good news.
“You’re fit for duty,” he said.
“But I’m having trouble with my left arm, sir. I can’t lift it.”
“That’s not our problem,” the doctor shot back. “That’s up to the orthopedic people.”
“But sir,” Gunny argued, “you just released me fit for duty. You’re not transferring me to another department. “
“That’s your problem, Marine. You ‘re finished in surgery.”
Gunny didn’t know what to do. When his orders came for Quantico, Virginia, Gunny decided to go ahead. He loved Virginia and the assignment was a good one-a Weapons Training Battalion where he’d instruct officer candidates in small-arms marksmanship. Once there, the job didn’t last long. Shortly after his arrival, the NCO in charge of the firing range ordered him to do something that required raising his left arm over his head.
“Excuse me, Sergeant,” Musgrave said, “my arm won’t go up that high.”
” It’s true,” Gunny continued, pulling off his shirt to show the scars.
“Jesus Christ, grunt,” the amazed sergeant roared, “get down to sick bay.”
At sick bay, the medics said he never should have been released from the hospital. The gunnery sergeant was given a room in Quantico’s facility and spent the next twelve months in physical therapy. When the year was up, a naval medical board reached the conclusion that Gunnery Sergeant Musgrave would never raise his left hand past the shoulder again and placed him on the “temporary disability list.” If after five years, they explained, there was no improvement, he would be moved to the ” permanent disability list.” From the point of his discharge, Musgrave would be eligible for payments at 70 percent of his base pay.
Gunny went with the VA because the money was better. They rated him 100 percent disabled. At the time, it was a little over $400. “I felt they were trying to cut me a good deal when they examined me,” Musgrave remembers. “But the next time, I felt like they were trying to cut my feet out from under me.” The VA reduced the ex-Marine’s disability to 50 percent, reasoning that only half of him was disabled. The reduction meant a drop to $145 a month.
Fortunately for Gunny, the Marine retirement program was designed with the VA’s fluctuations in mind. If you sign on with the VA and the VA reduces your disability below the sum you’re entitled to under the Marine plan, the Marines make up the difference. For John David Musgrave, that amounted to $77 each month. For a long time, Gunny lived on his $232 a month. Now he’s got a job in a bookstore. It’s a good thing-last year he lost his Marine check.
The Marine Corps sent Musgrave a letter saying his first five years were up and it was time to be examined for the permanent disability retired list. His orders were to report to a naval hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Both of the doctors who saw him there said he’d go on permanent disability at 70 percent. At the end of March 197 4, the Marine Corps disbursement center in Kansas City sent a letter instead of a check. Since the center hadn’t heard from Marine Corps headquarters in Virginia that John David Musgrave, 2294574, was still a disabled veteran, they were ceasing payment. When Gunny called Marine Corps headquarters, they said they didn’t have any evidence that he even reported to the hospital in Memphis. Musgrave’s been trying to get his check ever since. So far, the Disabled American Veterans and the Kansas. State Veterans Committee have both made inquiries on his behalf and have received no answer.
To be honest, Gunny Musgrave isn’t surprised. He believes the universal condition of Vietnam veterans is to be fucked around. “We’re living evidence,” he explains, “of a war that people want to sweep under a rug. So they’re gonna sweep the disabled veteran under the rug with it. Wherever we go, we are the war in Indochina. I think about that war all the time. I have to. I can feel it. When I reach with my left hand and all of a sudden it stops and I get a shot of pain, I know what that war’s about.”
Gunny’s body looks like a plaque in honor of the history he was forced to live. On his left side, there’s a crescent-shaped scar an inch long. There are two more on his chest -the longest is over four inches. Another scar meanders down his back. In 1972, he got USMC tattooed on his arm because he was tired of answering questions about his scars when he went to the beach.
Mike Valentino has never had a problem getting his VA benefits. His check for $1,250 shows up every month on schedule. Mike’s saddled with one of those wounds nobody questions: his body is still alive, it just doesn’t know it. From the armpits down, he has no feelings. He just hangs loose like a rag doll and shits at random. Valentino is a paraplegic. The last time Mike used his legs was March 25, 1968.
Valentino was a medic with the Twenty-fifth Infantry Division. Attached to a column of armored personnel carriers, the infantry was on its way from Trang Bang to Cu Chi, early in the day. Up ahead and off to the right, Valentino could see gunships circling and spraying the jungle with rockets. When they got close to the action, the dogfaces were ordered off the road and across the paddies. They couldn’t move through the mud, so Valentino ‘s company just made a skirmish line and waded forward knee-deep in rice. Halfway across, the woods opened up, blowing infantry every which way. The lieutenant cashed in his chips in the first few seconds. Everyone else around Mike ran forward to the closest dike and took cover. Before Valentino got there, a Cong bullet had blown off the top of his toe.
It hurt like hell, but the wound wasn’t that serious. Not nearly as bad as Tom’s. Tom was Valentino’s friend, even though Valentino can’t remember Tom’s last name anymore. Tom was wounded, laying in the open. He called for his buddy.
“Medic,” he groaned at first. “Medic.”
When no one came, Tom used the personal approach. “Mike,” he begged. “Mike.”
That was too much for Valentino. Bullets were dinging off the berm and he didn’t want to go, but he did. When he reached Tom, Valentino strapped a pressure bandage over the hole in his bowels and hoped Tom would last until they got out. Valentino looked up from his wounded friend never to use his legs again. A bullet entered through his throat, cut his spinal cord behind his head, and lifted him straight up in the air.
Mike Valentino lay face down in the paddy for twenty minutes before the army picked him up. At first nothing hurt. His body was in shock. Valentino’s biggest worry was choking on his own blood. Then the shock wore off. From that point on, pain blurred the day for Mike Valentino. He remembers finally being jammed through the rear hatch of one of the tracks and landing in the chopper at Cu Chi’s Twelfth Evacuation Hospital. The first doctor to get to him after the medics cut his clothes away and stuck a probe into his mouth.
“Can you feel that?” the doctor asked.
Valentino screamed. He “came to” three days later.
When his eyes opened, the first thing Mike noticed were the tubes. They were sprouting from his nose and side. He was suspended on a stryker frame and could only breathe in sips. His left lung was collapsed and his right lung was fed by a hole cut in his windpipe. On that first day he was awake, Mike Valentino was sure he was going to die. Every few hours, the medic used a machine to force air into his lung and suck congestion out. That meant one more tube down his throat. He felt like he was being choked each time the machine was hooked up.
After a week in intensive care, Mike wasn’t so scared. He began to assume he’d make it, and his thoughts turned to just how that was going to be. He knew he was hurt, but he didn’t know how bad. The day he found out how things were, it was 120 degrees with only a small fan in the corner of the room; the Quonset hut hospital was an oven. Since Valentino wasn’t allowed to drink fluids yet, he had to do with a moist cloth pressed to his lips for sucking and chewing. The doctor walked up to his bed in a hurry and planted his feet.
“Valentino,” he began, “your spinal cord’s been severed. You’re paralyzed. You’re not going to walk again for the rest of your life.” The doctor didn’t stick around to answer any questions. He turned on his heel and headed for the next bed.
His condition is something Mike has since learned to accept. “I got used to it,” he explains, “because I didn’t have much choice. Even now, you get depressed because you can really think of a lot of things you really missed out on. But if you keep on thinking about things like that, you’d go out of your mind. You’ve just got to decide you’re paralyzed and you’re gonna be that way for the rest of your life and do the best you can with what you got.” But Valentino thinks of himself as lucky. Had the bullet struck a half-inch higher, he would have been a quadriplegic, denied the use of his arms too. He’s grateful he still has those.
Mike’s parents found out about his wound in spurts. The first news was a telegram on April Fools’ Day. “Your son,” it read, “Pfc Michael Valentino, received gunshot wounds in the chest, neck, and back on March 25. He is in critical condition. We will keep you informed of all new developments.” His mother got hysterical and only calmed down when the family doctor guessed that, because of all the places the message mentioned as wounded, Mike must have been hit with a shotgun blast. That, the doctor explained, wouldn’t be all that bad. So she wasn’t quite prepared when her son was finally shipped stateside to Letterman Hospital.
She and Mike’s brother stood at the foot of his bed. “I’m paralyzed,” Mike said. Mrs. Valentino didn’t believe him. She interrogated the neurosurgeon and, until Mike stopped her, wanted to bring in an outside consultant. It wouldn’t have done any good. Mike Valentino’s walking days were done. All that was left, Valentino told himself, was learning how to live on wheels.
The place he was sent to do it was the Long Beach VA Hospital. It took Mike a year, which is longer than most. He went slow because he still had medical problems. While at Long Beach, his lung kept collapsing and forcing him onto his back. When the lung finally filled up and stabilized, Mike returned to his routine. Aside from counseling and getting their bladders drained, the ward was full of paraplegics attending physical therapy to keep their shriveling legs from getting stiff, and corrective therapy with weights to develop the muscles that could still be used. Instruction was given in handling chairs and transferring from them onto beds and toilets. When the program was over, the former Pfc could take care of himself, cook his own meals, and drive a car with hand controls. The only thing left to learn was called back-to-the-world.
Which isn’t all that easy a place for the paraplegic to be. The most common danger to spinal cord injuries is from their own numb bodies. The bladder and bowels are not subject to any effort of will; they either drain sporadically on their own or have to be coaxed to empty. As a result, the biggest killer of paraplegics is bladder infections. The biggest discomfort is the curse of their position: they sit. The body rests on the bony protrusions upon which the butt is built. Most folks can feel their ass on the chair and shift automatically, creating little movements that relieve the pressure on any one patch of their butt’s skin. If they didn’t, the skin would break down and begin to form sores that eventually bleed and leak. Which is exactly the common plight of someone bound to a chair. They spend all their time out of bed sitting on one spot and not being able to notice when the butt tells the brain to lighten up. Their butts get raw, and the smallest scratch becomes infected in short order. Hot coffee spilled in the lap means a trip to the hospital where you lay on your stomach and wait for your ass to heal.
That’s happened to Mike Valentino a lot. He’s been in and out of the VA hospitals for the last year and a half. His problems started with an infection the doctors identified as a simple abscess. They “cut and drained.” Mike healed up long enough to leave. Then he was right back again with more drainage. On five separate occasions, the doctors repeated the treatment with no success. Finally, Valentino was taken to surgery and the whole spot was cleaned.
It’s not so hard on Valentino now. The Palo Alto Hospital has opened a new spinal cord injuries center and it’s the nicest place he has ever seen. He’s back with a rectal infection now and will be there for a few more weeks. “When I leave this new place,” he predicts, ” I don’t particularly want to come back. But when I come back, I know it’s not gonna be that bad. If I had to come back to that old building, I’d think about it for three weeks. It’s a dungeon.”
Mike has come to accept his condition, but not the place where he got it. “The war,” he says, “was worthless. It’s just the fat cats in the city, that’s who we were fighting for. It was crazy.” The last time the army got in touch with Mike Valentino was three years after his final day in action. He got a box in the mail marked U.S. Government on the return address. Inside was his Purple Heart and a brief note apologizing for the delay.
Nobody knows better than Don Rice what a crazy war it was. After he got back from two and a half years of it, Rice changed his name to Maximum Casualty and became Max to everyone who knows him. Max crossed the ocean in June of 1966 with every intention of being a professional soldier, but more shit seemed to collect around him the longer he stayed. Max’s wound is a map of Vietnam burned into his brain. Max made it through his first combat tour easily enough. He had a temper-that accounted for a spotty military career in which he was shifted from helicopter mechanic to door gunner to infantryman. The only heavy action Max saw the first time around was the Battle of Pleideranj on November 11, 1966. Max and his chopper crew had loaded 228 dead Americans before it was over. The next week’s Seattle newspaper printed the total American casualties for the week as 116 dead and wounded. As soon as he put the paper down. Max knew something weird was going on, but basically he still liked the army. Liquor was two dollars a quart and things were still light enough that he wasn’t worried. When Max requested another tour, he was sent stateside to rest up.
It was back home that Max’s war began to go a little sour. He was drunk most of the time but stayed sober long enough to find out Nam had taken its toll of little Winfield, Kansas, where he’d grown up. Max’s high school debate partner had been paralyzed from the waist down. the boy up the street had both lungs shot out, and his cousin had come home in a box. Visiting Wichita, Max saw his first antiwar demonstration. In the middle of it, a green beret ran into the line of march, knocked down a girl carrying a Vietcong flag, and kicked her in the face with his combat boot. A week later, Wichita had a race riot-Max cruised through the streets, watching the National Guard column move in convoys towards “niggertown.” Max bought a .32 pistol just for safety’s sake when he was home on leave. In a way, he was glad to report back for duty. Max felt more at home in Cu Chi than the Midwest. The realization was all the excuse he needed for one more drink. The night before he embarked from Ft. Lewis, Washington, the base theater was rocked with a grenade explosion. An agent from the military police had been killed.
In May, Max was back repairing choppers nine miles north of Saigon. By September, he was behind a machine gun in a chopper door hosing down the bushes with .30 caliber fire. Right away, his outfit was sent south to Phu Cat. Their duty was supposed to be training the Two-Hundred-and-Fifth Division but they fought the Battle of Phu Duk instead. When it was, over, the Army’s First Infantry Division was knocked out of the war for six months with 33 percent casualties. During the fighting Corporal Beefheart on Max’s chopper crew won the Distinguished Flying Cross. The bird was all shot up and Beefheart saved it by sticking his middle finger into a hole in the aft transmission. His act kept scalding oil from leaking out. Beefheart’s finger was amputated at the hospital but he refused to go home. He went back to flying missions and got his face shot away the next time he went up.
After Phu Duk, Max’s outfit was sent north to reinforce the 173rd Airborne. The generals were expecting what was later called the Battle for Oak to and Hill 875. The battle hadn’t developed by November and Max was still there, demoted to the infantry, and in charge of a perimeter guard. The base was 250 meters from a village called Phu Hep. Max was on his way back from Phu Hep to close the perimeter for the night when the Cong opened up with mortars and recoilless rifles. Max was blown sixty feet through the air. Except for a little shrapnel in his back he was uninjured. Two weeks later, Max was sent to the hospital to be treated for jungle rot. While he was in the hospital, everything they’d been waiting for happened.
In the Battle for Oak To, the Fourth Infantry lost a thousand men in three days. The 173rd Airborne lost 1,500 men to reach the top of Hill 875 and find that there weren’t any Vietcong there. The field hospital Max was in handled 3,000 wounded in the first twenty-four hours. Max’s old battalion lost forty choppers, sixteen of them blown out of the sky lost full crews. The papers listed 553 American dead for the week. When Max was released for duty, he and his outfit limped to Na Trang to regroup. Na Trang was supposed to be a “secure area.” The first afternoon Max’s chopper spent there, the crews watched a pitched battle raging across the surrounding mountain side. That night Na Trang took mortars, rockets, and a full-scale ground attack. During the fighting, Max had a 76 mm shell pass right over his head. Two men behind him were blown to shreds.
And that’s the way Max’s winter in Na Trang went. The choppers stayed at home half the time and the rest of the time were out on the road. In December, they were ferrying troops into Camp Carroll and took 1,000 122 mm rockets in fifteen minutes. Camp Carroll was leveled. By January, everyone knew something was coming and it would be big. Max was drinking a quart of liquor every evening and flying all day. When he wasn’t in the air, or too drunk to notice, Max was in the nearby village with his woman. Her name was Kim Wa, she was fifteen years old, and she cost $50 a month. Max had known her when he was in Na Trang on his first tour. When Max came back she ran up to him on the streets, held a baby up to him, and called Max “Daddy.” Max bought it, and set up housekeeping in her place.
Max was on his way out to her when the Tet Offensive began. The base had been on alert for two weeks, but Max had a few drinks and decided he didn’t give a fuck. When Max reached the nearby village, it was overrun by two regiments of Vietcong. As Max huddled under cover, he watched an American airstrike on the refugee neighborhood where Kim Wa lived. The planes used napalm. It spread in a flaming carpet, the heat sucking a windstorm in. Kim Wa, her baby, and half the women who worked in the base laundry were burned to a crisp. Eight hours later, Max started screaming in his platoon commander’s face and wouldn’t stop. E-4 Donald Rice ended up in the hospital tagged “battle fatigue” and well on his way to becoming Maximum Casualty.
Max was sent to Okinawa. The psychiatrist there told him he needed “rehabilitation.” That sounded fine to Max until they told him that rehabilitation translated as “Nam-one-more-time.” He spent his last three days in Okinawa at a bar, staying drunk.
Max spent his first night back in the war huddled in a drainage ditch at the Replacement Depot under an all-night mortar attack. He was trying to keep a man with shrapnel wounds warm. After six hours, the man bled to death. The next day, when Max reported for assignment, a man to his left accidentally killed two people with his new M-14. It wasn’t any better out with the Twenty- Fifth Infantry where Max was sent. Max was a convoy guard, covering the truck’s flanks with a machine gun. On their way from Long Binh to Cu Chi, the convoy lost a hundred of the tanks and the APC’s in their escort. Short of Cu Chi, the trucks were abandoned and the whole outfit jumped on the tracks and ran the rest of the way. Max’s unit had nothing to do without their trucks, so Max was sent back to Can Tho.
The day he got there, Max was put on the perimeter guard’s outer layer. When the sergeant checked the watch and found out Max had only been in the outfit for eight hours, he moved the new man back to the second row. Max’s replacement had his head blown off in that night’s Vietcong “probing action.” Max was sent back to the front row and in the next night’s attack, his freshly issued M-16 jammed. No one had bothered to test it. Before the night was over, the VC had come through the wire and destroyed the airfield.
It was all getting to Max. The troops at this point “lost morale.” The day the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis reached Can Tho, all the lifers were flying confederate flags and celebrating in the NCO Club. The outfit’s blacks were clustered around radios listening to Radio Hanoi playing live tapes of battle sounds from downtown Detroit. In a few days, the front of the NCO Club was blown in with a fragmentation grenade. Not long after that, Max got drunk and hit a major. Ninety days later, Max was discharged under Section 212 stipulating character and mental disorder. Released in Oakland, Max made it across the bay to San Francisco in time to drink up his entire $750 severance pay.
And that’s the way it was for the next two and a half years. Max lived on Sixth Street, in Oakland, got $82 a month from welfare, and slept outside a lot. Max was a wino. Until June 16, 1970, that is. On that day, Max finished off a gallon of burgundy, scaled a parking-lot fence, and ignited the gas tanks on two for-government-use-only sedans. The cars were completely destroyed. Eight months later, the judge let Max out of jail on probation-as long as he kept away from the bottle. Four months after that, Max was placed in Agnews State Mental Hospital. He’d been found by the police wandering around with complete amnesia.
Since Max was released, he’s gotten better. He calls himself Don again. He gets $235 a month, and he sees a shrink once a week. Max gets no disability from the VA. He first applied in 1969 and had his first hearing just last month.
Gunny Musgrave put it best. “You know,” he said, referring to all the men who ate dust and lead from the DMZ to the Delta, “it’s like we’re all still missing in action.”