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Page 28
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<< 27. After the Apocalypse29. Excavations Update: LZ Ranch / Patrol Base Frontier City >>

Vietnam - Iraq - Afghanistan

By John W. Conroy

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I first went to Vietnam in November of 1966, previously having a farm deferment. Between chores during those prewar years my one saving grace was that I was a reader. My sister had gone off to school and left behind a subscription to The Saturday Review which was edited by Norman Cousins. He was vehemently anti Vietnam war and backed up his position over the years with concrete facts. Most everything he wrote made sense and most other mainstream publications did not, at least to me.

At any rate I eventually ended up in Long Binh with the 185th Maint. Battalion where I never quite fit in, and consequently ended up an odd jobber. Ration man, Saigon driver for the radio shop, jeep driver for the captain, etc. Quite often there were night ambush positions including various patrols surrounding the Long Binh Ammo Dump, which I might add blew twice when I was there. These explosions were so large that they broke windows in Saigon and produced a mushroom cloud that resembled a nuclear explosion. What did I know? I would add that night patrols picked up enormously after those explosions.

What bothered me right off was the attitude of many GIs toward the Vietnamese civilians; those that worked for the army on post, and those in the surrounding countryside. The Gook Syndrome was everywhere. At work or at play. A common opinion was "they're all VC." I think much of that came from fathers and brothers who had been in WW 2 or Korea—and of course the movies. You know, that old draft dodger John Wayne. Probably much of it was a clash of cultures. Most GIs hadn't been anywhere and neither had the Vietnamese. At any rate it was a sad situation and certainly didn't help the so called war effort—as if we ever had a chance.

I was fortunate to have a friend in Saigon who was stationed with the 1st MI Battalion on Chi Lang St. and was able a number of times to hitch hike down to Saigon on the highway or by helicopter. The II Field Force chopper pad was nearby, and it was fairly easy to hitch a ride most anywhere. A number of times while on the highway either jets or gunships would be bombing houses not far from the road and I doubt like hell they had any idea who was inside. And let's face it, we were an occupation army as well as a military opponent. When you added it all up success did not look very probable.

Of course we were not just taking on the people. We were destroying the country. Using the pad at II Field Forces I was able to fly around much of III Corps when I could skip out which was fairly often. Even back then in '66 and '67 the countryside was nearly covered with bomb craters. The C-123s were out spraying Agent Orange any number of places. I was sprayed twice on the outskirts of the Ammo Dump while they were trying to clear the outlying countryside to deny saboteurs any cover while approaching the wire at night to lay more charges. All it took was a small charge and a wristwatch timer to blow it to hell.

I spent a lot of time in the nearby off limits village of Tam Hiep which obviously was not heavily populated with GIs. There were girls and beer and dope as you would expect, but the interesting thing was that this town was a supposed VC haven. And quite frankly it appeared to be, but I never saw any violence between us and them. Most able bodied male residents were in one army or the other, so it was just old men, women, and kids. There were times when we were warned by the girls to stay away. Don't come here for three days or whatever. and I for one never did. Later on, it appeared that the reason for that was that the "boys" were visiting family and friends. Obviously the "boys" were not regulars in the army of the Republic of Vietnam. No need for trouble. I was definitely anti-war at that point. After all, wars begin because of a breakdown or absence of diplomacy and are eventually settled with diplomacy, so why not skip the war.

I returned home thinking I'd get back perhaps as a photojournalist or some kind of war reporter. My great uncle Mark Watson had been a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Baltimore Sun during WWII and Korea, and I figured it would be great to follow in his footsteps. It was '89 before I did return, but as a lowly tourist, not a reporter. I've been back dozens of times since, sometimes pursuing various business possibilities but eventually many times visiting my brother Mark who was the director of The East Meets West Foundation. He ran the farm during the war but eventually lived 23 years in Da Nang while in that position. My other brother Ralph was with the 1st Cav in 68 and 69 and fought in the A Shau Valley which isn't so far from Da Nang. His stories helped me in writing The Disillusioned, much of which takes place in the Da Nang area. I'd written a few articles on Vietnam for the local paper during those years so when Iraq and Afghanistan rolled along it got me thinking.

I was a bit long in the tooth for war reporting but eventually got myself embedded with the 25th Infantry that was based outside of Tikrit, Iraq. There was an airfield within their compound and apart from securing it, I wasn't quite able to figure their mission out. Perhaps Command and Control of a certain area. At any rate I was shortly flown up to Kirkuk in a Chinook, one of a number of Vietnam era pieces of equipment that were still at work for the US Military. The policy in Iraq and also Afghanistan was to always have at least two choppers on a mission in case one had trouble. I never experienced that in Vietnam. I liked flying around because they always stayed at a low altitude, perhaps a few hundred feet, which gave a great view of the countryside.

Kirkuk was much more interesting mainly because I was able to get "outside the wire" so to speak. But there was no free access as in Vietnam. It always required a convoy with the men, and women, wrapped in full combat armor to venture forth. This city was a mess as far as trash went. Paper, plastic and junk of all kinds were everywhere which was like much of the country actually. Part of the time there was spent with a team that was attempting to set up or organize some kind of democratic government, but they weren't making much headway. Kirkuk is heavily Kurdish so there were difficulties working together with Arab Iraqis. I was with a company that did some patrolling along the streets but there was not much chance of communicating with any of the locals. Preventing any American casualties seemed to be the main mission.

I flew a great Chinook flight leaving there. It was up to Mosul, then back through Tikrit, Taji, the home base Camp Victory, where I was sent to the 10th Mountain Division. Their mission was to pacify the area South and SE of Bagdad as far s the Euphrates River. I returned to this unit five more times, one reason being that they were near my home, and it gave me another paper to submit articles. On my second trip in May of 2007 this same unit had had an outpost attacked with the loss of a number of solders, with four taken prisoner. None were found alive when all was said and done but I returned there two more times until that unit left. It was the 2nd Combat Brigade commanded by Col. Michael Kershaw. He was one of the few military men that I met who was interested in Vietnam. Most were not into it. Some were defensive as if I were trying to top their stories. But certainly, this was no war like Vietnam. I'd have termed it "Military Occupation" but who knows. Another odd thing I thought was that there was not much pro-war or anti-war conversation. They were just there. The whole experience left me more anti-war more than ever. Another country being destroyed, with large numbers of civilians being killed. So, with a little twisting, I made my way to Afghanistan.

Transport to Bagram was from the American staging airfield in Kuwait, as was travel to Baghdad International Airport. This time C-17s were used rather than Vietnam era C-130s, that ordinarily flew the route to Baghdad. I ran into Les Neuhaus, a reporter for Stars and Stripes on arrival where we were met by a young lady from the Public Affairs office. I'll stop here to say that I met a number of females in the US Military which was unexpected. They held every kind of job including door gunner on Blackhawks. Quite something, and I would also add that they were more professional than the males—in my opinion.

At any rate in no time we were in a Blackhawk heading to Jalalabad on the way to the mountains above the Pech Valley to hook up with troopers from the 173rd Airborne. Like with the 25th I'd gone on patrols with them securing the Ammo Dump in Long Binh. The 173rd was embarking on Operation Rock Avalanche which was meant to clear out the Taliban from three mountain valleys in the Pech area, including the Korangal Valley of Restrepo fame. In fact Les and I ran into Tim Hetherington who was filming material for his documentary at that time. In my eleven embeds I ran into one outpost that resembled Vietnam. That was Able Main which had sand bags, concertina wire, and even latrines with cut off oil drums. It felt like home.

The Company I was with did not run into anything resembling armed combat. I missed the Company that did, and it so happened that one of their soldiers, Staff Sgt. Sal Giunta, won the Medal of Honor. I would add that two or three years later all US military were pulled out of these valleys. It was decided that all these people wanted was to be left alone. Too bad the US can never figure that out ahead of time. One thing also, a couple of years later Tim Hetherington was killed on the job in Benghazi, Libya.

Kandahar was something else. The press people were housed near the PA office at Kandahar Airfield (KAF) the main site of US military in South Afghanistan. I was sent off to a number of outposts, none of which were that interesting. Once again, not much anti-war, or pro-war conversation. People going with the program, putting in their time. And once again not much interest in talking with a Vietnam Vet which always surprised me.

Whatever. Once there I was beaten out on a chopper ride out in the field by the NY Times people, Carlotta Gal and Jao Silva the south African photographer. Unfortunately, Silva stepped on a mine and lost his legs, a bad trip for him and a common injury for American soldiers. I also got to know Marie Colvin who reported for a London paper. She wore an eyepatch covering an injury received in Siri Lanka and unfortunately was killed while reporting from Syria.

Looking back on eleven embeds I'd say that the Military Ops in both Iraq and Afghanistan were so mechanized and computerized that there wasn't much person to person contact in the killing. All transportation outside of the wire is by convoy and few local civilians, except for interpreters, work inside. And like Vietnam where "they're all VC," locals were felt to be Taliban or Al-Qaeda in Iraq. I don't know the fix, but to be diplomats rather than warriors would be a good start. The three wars I've been to were sad, unnecessary and failures, with three countries destroyed and millions of casualties.

All three of my books, The Girl from Tam Hiep, The Disillusioned and The Embedded Ones, I think would be termed anti-war. I certainly am.

John W. Conroy is 80 years old, married with four kids. He was embedded with the US Army six times in Iraq and five times in Afghanistan. He was a soldier in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. Since returning to Vietnam in 1989, he has written numerous articles concerning the country, and some focused on veterans of the conflict. His published novel is The Girl from Tam Hiep. The Embedded Ones and The Disillusioned are in progress.

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