Thursday, July 19, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: The Sad-Sack Sergeant-Marines Know Link Must Lose Stripes, And They Aren't Sorry

November 9, 1966

Dong Ha, South Viet Nam--A coward's life in military service, especially in combat, is one of unmerciful, prolonged agony heaped upon him unceasingly from every direction.

I met such a man, a Marine Sergeant, who disgraced himself in front of his men while under attack at a small ville south of here. To prevent further humiliation, this man will be identified only as Link.

Link was wearing the stripes of a Staff Sergeant when I met him, but he probably would not wear them much longer. He was awaiting a court martial for failing to obey a direct order.

Link had once been a second lieutenant but he lost his bar long before he came to Viet Nam. No person available could provide details regarding that incident in Link's life.

He is a tall man and very thin. His skin is darkly tanned and his shoulders are drooped from the burdens he carries. His cheeks are hollowed and his eyes are always red because he is nearly always drunk.

Link doesn't talk much, but then hardly anyone talks to him. However, everyone in his tent talks plenty about him, in bitter and resentful tones.

Link had been removed from the field a few days before and sent to the rear to serve as an assistant supply sergeant, until the wheels of military justice grind far enough for him to stand trial.

According to Marines who served with him, he had a chance to possibly redeem himself, but he failed there too.

I asked the Marines in the tent how Link had failed in battle. They said their unit had entered a small ville and were in the process of conducting a door-to-door search for Viet Cong or civilians to question, when the VC opened fire from a nearby woods.

Several Marines were immediately wounded by the gunfire and the mortar attack. Link was not among the wounded. His men searched for him but couldn't find him. They were hesitant to move without him. After all, Link was the Sarge.

One Marine said of Link, "He's been a Marine 20 years. We were afraid to make a move without him for fear we'd make the wrong move."

"Know where we found him?" another Marine said. "We found him with his arms around his knees and his head between them, crying like a baby in one of the huts. He'd chickened out," the speaker said bluntly."

Link staggered into the tent shortly after that pronouncement, carrying a half-bottle of cognac. He offered the four Marines present a drink. They refused him coldly. Link then asked if he could have a beer.

"Gee, Link, we've only got a couple left and we've got company," a Marine said. Link said nothing. He turned around and went to his bunk.

Link's presence in the tent did not stifle talk about him. "Don't feel sorry for him," one Marine said with a nod of his head. "We're all scared out there. None of us like to get shot at. But we get up and go just the same. He had another chance," the young Marine said angrily, "and he really goofed up on that one."

Shortly after the attack during which Link froze, his outfit received orders to move into another ville. When Link got the orders, the Marines said, he headed for the Non-Commissioned Officer's Club and got drunk. His men tracked him down and tried to get him back to his outfit in time. He refused to go with them, said he was all right and he'd be there.

But Link did not get there. After his pals left him, he stole a jeep and wrecked it. The Marines said it was for this incident that Link was being prosecuted. His earlier break down under fire had not been reported, but it had not been forgotten by his men.

Another incident happened to Link, the Marines reported, after he was charged. An operation was commenced which required a staff sergeant. Since units at Dong Ha are short of non-commissioned officers, Link was called upon. Dutifully, he shouldered his pack and rifle and headed for the out-bound helicopter.

As Link started to get aboard the helicopter, a captain recognized him and, without hesitation, refused to let Link aboard, and ordered him away.

Link returned to his tent, fellow Marines said, with tears in his eyes, and proceeded to see how much cognac he could drink.

While his former pals talked about him, Link snored loudly just a few feet away.

"Out here," one marine said, "all you can depend on are your buddies. You can't let them down, no matter how you feel. Or, this is what will happen to you," he said as he pointed at Link. "And it's a hell of a thing to try to live with."

A young Marine winced as he watched Link writhe in fitful sleep on his cot.

"Out here you've got to forget about being civilized. You have to do your job and you expect everyone else to do theirs."

"I'd rather die than let my buddies down and go through what he's going through," the youngster said as he pointed to Link.

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