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Education Comes Fast When You're in a Firefight

Ken is a disabled American combat veteran of the Vietnam War. He was awarded both a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with V device medal.

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Education comes hard and fast when you're in a firefight.

On February 15, 1967, my flight landed at Bien Hoa airport, near what was then named Saigon. As we deplaned, we were handed two things and told never to be without them while in-country.

Neither of the two items was rifles or bullets. Instead, we had been handed a canteen of water and insect repellent. Malaria was a widespread problem and the Army didn't want its fighters becoming incapacitated by the disease.

Another supplement we were given was salt tablets. The temperature always hovered around 90°, counteracting the water we had consumed. The more strenuous the work, the more we sweated.

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March 5th, 1967 was my first introduction to a firefight

For the most part, I would write home as often as possible. There were times, though, where it was impossible to write because we were kept busy. One such occasion was March 1st, 1967. We were ordered to move as quickly as we could to help one of our companies, B Company. They had been pinned down by the Viet Cong, and they were being decimated with injuries.

For two nights and days, we moved through the jungle to Rendevous with B Company. We hooked up with them in sheer darkness, then rested ourselves, waiting for daybreak.

When dawn came, it was standard operating procedure (SOP) for us to "sound off" with our weapons, directing our bullets to our front to clear the area. On this particular morning, the Viet Cong (VC) decided to reply. They had stuck around, hoping to entrap us with B Company. They were heavily dug in through a chain of tunnels, foxholes, and trenches. The only cover we had was trees and logs, which made it very challenging to determine where the firing was coming from.

Our company commander put in a call for resupplies, airstrikes, and artillery to help counter the heavy volume of gunfire we were receiving. While shells rained down from the skies, we were able to get supplies off a chinook and get them back to our command post.

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Every man was given ample provisions and fortifications, so we went about our task of clearing the killing field in front of us. When we started firing the second time, there were no responses. It appeared the enemy had left the battlefield (didi mao in Vietnamese.)

We were unable to get an idea of the casualties we inflicted, while they had wounded 22 members of B Company, which, fortunately, had no one killed.

A quick search of the VC basecamp gave us a variety of staples most soldiers carry with them: water, ammo, several rifles and pistols, candy, sodas, and beer, along with some communication equipment. We then sent the tunnel rats into the tunnels to ferret out any stragglers for possible interrogation.

As each tunnel system was swept clean, more of us were being called to enter the tunnels to help carry out all the supplies we found. Besides more firearms and ammo, we also found penicillin, morphine, and trenching tools. The highlight of our find, however, was 88 bicycles stored beneath the ground. That was their usual mode of transportation through the jungle.

My baptism into how to respond in a firefight was nearly textbook perfect. I hadn't made any mistakes, and I had kept myself alive. It took some time for the adrenalin to stop flowing, but I was told that's the normal reaction after a battle.

I found myself thinking this exposure to danger, while very dangerous, was not thrilling at all. I was more scared than thrilled, but I was definitely not anxious to have it happen again.

The remaining eleven months I spent in Vietnam was just as taxing as this battle. Firefights arose sporadically, sometimes with fewer enemy fighters, sometimes with more. Bit by bit, each taste of action taught me something new about our adversary. It was a constant learning process and quick adaptation to whatever new element was presented to us. Sometimes, it was booby traps with hand grenades. Other times, it was punji sticks placed in elephant grass or mines in open rice paddies.

Slowly but surely, we were able to identify tell-tale signs of the enemy's presence, especially when we walked into small villages. Those provided the Viet Cong with safe harbor, while also wooing the Army into believing they were on our side. I found the Vietnamese people to be very cunning.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2021 Ken Kayse

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