A Second Christmas in Vietnam
My second Christmas in Vietnam was almost as lonely as my first. All my buddies were gone. Beginning in early December, guys who came in-country with me started getting orders for 30 day drops–early return home. For a couple weeks, a steady flood of friends started rotating back from the field on their way out. It was a heady time, celebrating everybody’s survival and leave taking (permanent this time) during their last days in the company. Much of the weed from the last stand down went up in many evenings’ gatherings at The Hill, the nightly assembly point for the battalion’s potheads. We all took our final tokes on the supreme unreality of the year just past. Every day someone was off, heading for the World, and others arrived to process out. Watching the Freedom Birds take off from the Bien Hoa Airbase took on a special meaning when I could think of my friends on board.
By mid December, though, the party was over. I would have been among the first to leave but my extension bumped me back a few weeks; I wouldn’t leave the company until the 29th. As Christmas approached, I felt more alone than I had in a long time. The buddies I had served with in the field, partied with in the hooches of numerous fire bases and during stand downs; friends whom I helped stay out of the field by a variety of subversive means available to a company clerk; comrades who, like me, were just pawns in a fucked up war were all gone. I had not anticipated the emptiness that would follow in their absence. Sure, I had other friends and acquaintances, people I knew from life in the rear, but the bond just wasn’t there.
Aside from the flurry of paper work occasioned by all the personnel changes in the company, the routine work environment was pretty decent. Our new first sergeant (like every first sergeant, known as Top) used this time to organize the company to his liking. He very quickly ditched the dickhead lieutenant who thought he, not the first sergeant, ran operations (another story altogether). The new executive officer was a lieutenant, who after six months in the field, was happy to get out and even happier to let the first sergeant run things. We had a company clerk in training, which meant that I had less routine work to do. I didn’t even have to do much training since Top wanted to train the new clerk his way. I handled some special projects and thought about home. I didn’t regret my decision to extend–unlike the guys who’d just left, I’d be out of the Army altogether when I hit the States; they had to report to new assignments after the holidays–but I sure wasn’t prepared for the void left by the absence of old friends.
As Christmas approached, time slowed. It was nice to have less work but the pace seemed glacial. Top received a huge care package from his girlfriend back in Chesapeake, Virginia that included a Virginia ham. He arranged for the mess hall to cook it and shared it with us, serving it with biscuits, honey and, I am pretty sure, whiskey. He invited me and other company staff for a drink some evenings. The days were not bad. It was fun watching Top take over the company. Unlike his predecessor, this first sergeant knew what he was doing and wanted to make sure it would be as little trouble to him as possible. And I watched my days count down.
On Christmas Eve, I became a “one digit midget” with nine days to DEROS (date expected return from overseas) on 02 JAN 72. So short a time compared to Christmas Eve 1970 but, somehow, a long time right now. I had long ago realized that I would not die in combat so I wasn’t at all concerned about survival any more, just going home, seeing my girlfriend, and getting on with life, which meant graduate school and, I hoped, a relationship with this wonderful woman I had known for almost two years yet spent so little time with. Christmas 1971 was surely a time of hope and relief.
The replacement clerk, one of the new guys who’d come into the company in October whose name escapes me, wanted to see the Bob Hope Christmas Day show. As a long timer (I had over a year in-country by now) I had a priority to attend but was not at all interested. Bob Hope, to me at that time was a right-wing apologist for the war. The new clerk snagged a seat but he was also scheduled for Quick Reaction Force (QRF) duty Christmas night.. Attending the show, which was maybe two to three hours long, was a 12 hour day of transport, waiting and more transport (another reason to pass). I volunteered to cover for the him until he got back. It wasn’t much of a risk. Although the QRF was supposed to be the first response to an attack, it never amounted to anything more than staying in the company area with a weapon ready After he returned, the two of us sat on the roof of our building, talking and watching planes take off from the air base. He told me he enjoyed the show and appreciated my assistance in going. We speculated on how long he would stay in-country and talked of life after Vietnam. As ususal, nothing happened that required a quick, armed response.
After Christmas, I hand carried a request for a compassionate leave through higher headquarters (it was turned down). I also began my own outprocessing, walking from office to office, getting signatures and approvals. At the brigade awards and decorations office, a clerk handed me boxes of medals. Then I was gone, signing out of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion 8th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) on 29 DEC 71 and reporting to the 90th Replacement Battalion, the same place where I came in-country 378 days before. To enter the battalion, I first passed through the Pee House of the August Moon where I gave a urine sample under the watchful eye of an MP who sat in a lifeguard-like chair looking down a row of urinals with mirrors placed so he could ensure that we in fact providing our own samples (wonderful duty, I am sure). Next we went through baggage inspection where I tossed an empty cigarette package into the contraband bin (the label was written in Thai, it was a souvenir of cigarettes reloaded with pot and I was taking no chances). One of the MP’s hassled me about it even though they said no questions would be asked about anything turned in. Nothing came of it.
Once in the replacement battalion, I was pretty sure I would have to wait three full days because that was the time required to qualify for my early out. My memories of the battalion from the previous year were pretty good, mainly because I had access to a library. Not so this time. We were restricted to the battalion area and mustered twice daily to learn if our name would be on the next flight manifest. The library wasn’t available to me as a transient and the available PX had nothing worth reading so I shot a lot of pool between formations and meals. While I waited, guys I knew from my old battalion were getting their 30 drops, arriving at the 90th Replacement and leaving on the next available flight. Even the guy whose compassionate leave had been disapproved show up and departed. I waited with nothing to do. New Year’s Eve was much the same as last year–flares and tracer rounds–but I knew that the danger was behind me. All I wanted to do was leave.
I woke up on January 2, 1972 to the sound of the Rose Bowl on the radio. I anticipated the day’s formations, expecting to hear my name called. My Class A summer uniform was ready, all I needed was a seat. My name showed up on the evening flight. Finally. Around 6:00 pm we boarded busses for the trip to the air base and sat in the same hangar I remembered from my arrival a lifetime ago. My plane left the ground to the sound of cheers somewhere around eight o’clock.
Because I know the feeling of separation during the holidays, I send hearty greetings to the many men and women now serving in the military. I hope you will soon be united with your loved ones, never to deploy again.