My best Buddy from the Army passed away unexpectedly recently. I write this is in memory of him.
I met Don Van Slyke on a Sunday night in April 1970 at the evening service of Centenary Methodist Church in Lawton Oklahoma, near to Ft Sill where we were both stationed. We became instant friends and spent the majority of our free time together for the next 8 months.
Technically, Don was violating an Army rule against fraternization. Officers like Don were prohibited from informally spending time with an enlisted man like me. Don was never one to let a dumb tradition slow him down, so he never even worried about it, but I constantly feared getting him in real trouble.
When I shipped out to Vietnam in January 1971, I figured I would never see Don again. But then one day months later, a forward observer out in the jungle, who was calling me on the radio for artillery support sounded just like Don. Without thinking, I totally broke radio protocal and said, "Don"! He simply said. "affirmative" and repeated where he wanted the shells to land.
For the next 5 months I shot artillery on and off for Don. Of all the locations he could have been sent to, he ended up on the receiving end of my calculations. What were the odds!
Many Vietnam veterans found it hard to truly relax when they returned home. Being constantly vigilant, day and night for a year, can cause a "hyper-vigilance" in us that manifests as a desire to check and double check that all is well.
This tendency was aggravated by the terrible abuse we received once home. We were not celebrated but accused of being "murderers" and even "baby-killers".
I personally know 3 fellow VN vets who still suffer internally with what they were asked to do by their country, then totally abandoned by their country.
It was for them that I wrote this note five years ago:
"A TIME TO KILL"
I remember as a young Boy Scout on a camping trip, when we discovered that one of the dads along on the trip had been in heavy combat in the Pacific during WWII, how we had all peppered him with questions around the campfire that night. He told us all about how he had been shot through the stomach, without even realizing it until he stood to advance on a Japanese position and saw lots of blood, then realized it was his! He even showed us the little scar in front, and the enormous scar in back.
But when we asked him the question that every boy had on his mind, "Did you ever kill anybody?" his response was very strange to all of us. It was a mixture of mild irritation, and a patronizing tone indicating that we shouldn't ask about that. Then the conversation became very strained, and someone eventually and awkwardly shifted the topic to sports.
When I was accepted into Artillery Combat Leadership School at Fort Sill, I was told it was a certainty that I would be going to Vietnam, and I would spend the next 6 months learning how to accurately shoot artillery at enemy soldiers. The whole time, that boyhood fireside conversation was in the back of my mind.
What was the verbal etiquette in merely acknowledging you had done the job you were trained to do, and why should soldiers appear as if they had done something wrong? I had already met "blow-hards", bragging about their personal number of "kills" in VN, but these were flakes, most of whom, it later turned out, NEVER were even in combat. But what was there for a combat veteran to be ashamed of? After all, America always celebrated a fighter pilotwhen he shot down his 5th enemy plane and became an "Ace.”
The book of Ecclesiastes says there is a time for everything… a time to kill… a time to love.
As recorded in my personal daily journal, in early June 1971, I was "squarely" between Ecccl. 3:3 and Eccl. 3:8.
June 8, 1971: “This was the last day I could work on my tan before meeting Judy in Hawaii for R&R. I stayed on the beach almost until time for my shift to begin, then I hurried into FDC”.
The Battalion Fire Direction Center where I worked was the ultimate authority on whether ANY artillery round was fired from the 6 firebases that protected our guys in the field, anywhere from the ocean where I was, almost all the way to Laos, 70 miles to the west.
As soon as I sat down at my computer station, I heard over my radio, "Bulldog 32 (it always "chapped" me having that as my call sign, being a Ga. Tech man), this is Tuscany 32, and I've got 30 NVA in the OPEN!” The whole room erupted with cheers, because we had been taking rocket fire for 5 months and never had a single confirmed kill of the enemy. Now in the middle of the day, I had the chance to bring "heavy-fire" down on the guys who had been killing our men inside Chu Lai since I got there in January.
The better news was that these were not the Viet-Cong, but instead were uniformed North Vietnamese Army (NVA), regulars, that all the American News Networks claimed were not even in that part of South Vietnam. It was often stated that we were only fighting a local "people's uprising”. Now we had a chance to prove this was an illegal invasion, and then perhaps ABC would say, "Who knew?"
The BAD news, and it was really bad, "Tuscany 32" was my best friend Don Van Slyke from Ft. Sill. Don was asking me to un-leash HELL, only a few 100 yards from his location.
For the next 3 hours, Don constantly called me, with adjustments to keep moving the actual impact point of "my" rounds as the NVA tried to escape. I did the math, (said a silent prayer that I wouldn't kill my buddy), and over the radio yelled, "clear to fire" to every firebase that was in range of helping Don.
When the smoke cleared, another cheer went up throughout the room; we had finally taken out 30 of the bad-guys who were constantly raining rockets down on us, inside the wire at Chu Lai.
June 8, 1971 (cont.): I got off work at 2am totally exhausted, but too hyper to sleep, watched "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", (courtesy of our old projector) that was playing on a bed sheet hanging on the wall, down in the far corner of my barracks. I fell asleep during the movie and later woke thinking I was back home.
June 9, 1971: “Today I left for R&R. I would be meeting Judy in Hawaii tomorrow for five days of total escape from the insanity of, tanning in the morning, killing in the afternoon, and then a movie at night.
After I returned from R&R, Don was in Chu Lai on a "stand-down" (a few days off from being out in the boonies), and he made a special point of finding me to tell me two things. The Marine mortars were given 15 of our "kills", because they were also firing on the same group of NVA, and Division HQ decided not to argue with them. But more importantly, Don said, "Avery you need to know those were real people we killed, and it was not some game that it might seem like inside FDC, and some of those arms and legs I had to pick up, belonged to YOU!”
Don knew I was a Christian, and he wanted to make sure I didn't violate my conscience by taking the killing of another human lightly. I took Don's counsel to heart, and I thanked him for his concern. I prayed that night that I would have the proper sensitivity as I did the job I had to do in Vietnam, but also thanked God that I had done my duty, and that I had not killed Don with friendly fire, and then slept like a baby.
Men have always been called-on to take up arms as warriors and to kill if necessary, "for their wives, their children, or their country", and we used to honor them for doing their duty. In my opinion, it does not glorify killing, it is merely appreciating the men who did what somebody had to do.
So if you know a Vietnam veteran who is still struggling from ALL the abuse we received when we returned home, and still feels the sting of being called a "murderer” by some doped-up protester, just tell him that's the goofy thinking straight out of the 60's, and when we stand before Jesus, I'll stand proudly by his side.