That decision has haunted me ever since. Many of the young men I trained with died. I didn't. No one succeeds and graduates from Infantry Officer Candidate School without bonding with the other candidates in their class. We supported one another, we bore the same tests and harassment, we struggled, sweat, and hurt side-by-side. Less than half of us who started, completed the course, and those who graduated and commissioned shared a peculiar bond meant to bear us throughout the crucible of war. We would never fail or abandon a comrade. But, I feel that I did. As they marched to the front, I marched to a division headquarters. They wore the crossed rifles, the insignia of infantryman and I wore the “Shield of Shame.” They had one MOS, 1542, Infantry Platoon Leader. I had two, 1542 and 2210, Administrative Officer.
I could have avoided all that strain and pain and taken a direct commission. I was offered one, to be a commissioned officer in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, the Army lawyers. I voluntarily enlisted in the Army after graduating from Law School in 1965. I would have been a captain, but would have been obligated to serve on active duty for four years. I graduated from OCS as a lieutenant with just a two-year obligation. The funny thing is that I ended up serving for more than five years and even tried to become a “lifer” (one who serves until retirement after 20 or more years).
The error of my decision began to press on me just a few weeks into my tour of duty in Vietnam. I had arrived in-country shortly after being commissioned. My classmates arrived several months later inasmuch as they had been given short term assignments stateside before being deployed. I suppose this policy was created in recognition of the fact that infantry lieutenants had a life expectancy in combat just short of the common housefly. They were very expendable. I met one at the Post Exchange (PX) at our division headquarters shortly after he arrived in-country. He was on his way to take command of a combat platoon. I can't remember his name, but I remember meeting his young wife at our graduation ceremony. That memory would later haunt me as I wrote her of her husband's death in combat. I was in charge of casualty reporting at that time.
As I processed casualty reports and later, recommendations for awards, I wondered, what would I do? Could I do that? Could I have saved that man? In one recommendation for the Medal of Honor, men took chances because a platoon leader couldn't find his location on a map to direct artillery. I was a champion navigator. I had excelled at land navigation. They even wanted me to remain at the Infantry School to teach it, but I was commissioned in the Adjutant General Corps. No place for a personnel officer at the Infantry School.
My guilt drove me to embark on many adventures that were outside the scope of my duties in the rear with the gear. I suppose that I exposed myself to some unnecessary risks in a vain attempt to expunge the regret. Here I am, more than 40 years later, still trying to reconcile myself to that decision.
However, my age and education, as well as my vantage point serving at an infantry division headquarters, provided me with insight into aspects of the war that were not available to those fighting for their lives. Their vision was often limited to the view through their gun sights, and their attention was riveted solely on survival. I, on the other hand, could indulge my curiosity.
I was also given many opportunities to travel around our division’s tactical area of operations, to investigate and report on acts of heroism. My law degree attracted the attention of the division’s Judge Advocate General, and I was assigned to serve as defense counsel at courts martial. The Provost Marshall, commander of the division’s military police, engaged me in hearings on the status of prisoners of war and criminal investigations.
History has been a passion of mine all my life, especially military history, and this has helped broaden my perspective. Whereas most of this book is based on personal observations and experience, the last chapters include information that I could not have possibly learned in Vietnam. However, my experience there inspired questions that I was compelled to study and answer in later years. Why were we there? Why did our nation revile us when we returned? Did we accomplish anything worthwhile even though our government abandoned the South Vietnamese? Why does the tragedy of Vietnam continue to influence our foreign policy and make us timid in prosecuting war against our enemies?
My conclusions are not popular. They are contrary to the lessons being taught in our schools and propounded in our popular media. I won’t ask your forgiveness if you are offended. I will simply be offended if you dismiss me as wrong without empirical evidence.
I propose to correct history. Maybe I can better serve the veterans by making sure their story is well told. I will begin next week.