The morning began with a gentle jostle from my wife shortly after six A.M.. I awoke to, "Honey...Martha Raye died...I'm sorry."
The sorry came because she knew how much I loved and respected Colonel Maggie. Martha Raye was a commissioned Lt. Colonel--a nurse--in the U.S. Army Special Forces Reserves. She was never Martha, Miss Raye, Maggie, or Martha Raye to us. She was always referred to as Colonel Maggie. Whether we adopted her or she adopted us is moot. She was one of us, a revered member of the team.
I had occasion to spend a long evening at a small camp near the Cambodian border drinking and joking with Colonel Maggie and a handfull of her beloved Green Berets. I don't remember a great deal about that night, but someone made a derisive comment about the "Legs," meaning the straight legs, the infantry, probably about the 4th Infantry Division, considering where we were.
Colonel Maggie went into a heartfelt defense of the straight leg infantry and how they got all the shit with the least recognition and no glory. She had a soft spot in her heart for the straight leg grunt. It struck me as odd that she'd take this stand, being a Green Beret and all. We didn't care much for the straight legs, preferring to work with the air cavalry, airborne units, or a mechanized outfit. Straight legs were unprofessional misfits-- dog-faced grunts. Colonel Maggie didn't think so.
After I got out of the Army in '71, after a three year out, I went back in and wound up in the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. In 1974, the 25th Division was the only straight leg infantry division remaining in the new, All Volunteer Army. Just my luck!
I hated it at first. I hated it with a passion. Colonel Maggie was right. It was a thankless job that nobody wanted, nobody looked up to, nobody praised, but had to be done. Some things in war must be done on foot. I learned to appreciate what it means to be a straight leg grunt and the pride grunts have for the job they do regardless of what others think. It's a bitch living out of a rucksack, humping 50 kilometers, and then digging a hole to sleep in.
It took four years, but I learned to take pride in being a foot soldier--the last of an ancient breed.
"Grunt's Dream" is for all grunts, but especially for the grunts of the Straight Leg Infantry. I wrote it for Colonel Maggie and me.
REMF, or Rear Echelon Mother Fucker, was never a term of endearment in Vietnam. Agreement on what was and who was a REMF is still being debated today. Those who used the term always set the dividing line as being short of where they stood. Grunts, without question, stood short of the line. For a grunt, the distinction was an easy one: if you lived behind wire, you were in the rear echelon. If you sleept in a bed, ate hot food, took hot showers, used a flush toilet, and got laid regularly, you were a Mother Fucker.
For me, the grunt definition stands. All other lines of demarcation are debatable, though all would agree that a REMF had it better than they did. Many REMFs are under the impression that exposure to combat lifted the label from their shoulders; however, a grunt will tell you that the term applied to day-to-day living conditions and had nothing whatsoever to do with combat or who got shot at. Grunts were sore about the disparity.
I was tempted to move the line short of where I stood; after all, under the grunt definition of a REMF, I was one. I prefer to think of it as straddling the line, but I won't argue. I did own a bed (didn't sleep in it much), took hot showers (not that many), ate hot food in a mess hall (with regret), flushed my doo doo (quite often, because I ate in the mess hall), and spent an awful lot of time/money fraternizing with the locals (shamefully).
In the eyes of the Infantry -- the legs (straight legs if not airborne, airmobile, or mechanized) -- Cannon Cockers, Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Avaitors, and MACV advisors were REMFs. In fairness to the above, there were degrees of REMFness. The line straddlers were, perhaps, remfs.
Grunts hated REMFs and with good cause. In no war has there been such a disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Our military bent over backwards to insure the safety and comfort of U.S. personnel. No expense was spared. Big bases like Cam Ranh Bay, Bien Hoa, and Da Nang were little Americas, complete with night clubs, slot machines, shopping centers, swimming pools, snack bars, Dairy Queens, Burger Bars, hot and cold running water, air conditioned living and work areas, movie theaters, massage parlors, and a whole host of recreational facilities from tennis courts to ski boats. Grunts had beans, bullets, and mud!
The smaller bases were not much worse off. It wasn't until you got out to the firebases and border outposts that you ran out of flush toilets. Air conditioners were at the most remote places. In the rear, hooch maids cleaned rooms, washed fatigues, and polished boots for the troops. Grunts wore mud.
We gave our troops the finest entertainment. Bands waited in line to get club gigs. Bob Hope toured with a bevy of babes. REMFs packed the area. Grunts secured the area. REMFs had Bob. Grunts had mud!
Grunts have always had it rough, but they never had it as rough as they did in Vietnam. Inhospitable does not come close to describing the Vietnam natural environment. Oppressive jungle heat lasted night and day. The animals that could not poison you simply swallowed you whole. Incessant rain, leeches, bats, rats, gnats, and flora with an appetite for flesh all conspired to make a grunt's life miserable. Insects appeared to have escaped from a mad doctor's laboratory and took refuge in anything a grunt might put close to his body.
As if the environment weren't bad enough, it was booby trapped. Like a bee sting on top of a mosquito bite, the booby trap did take a grunt's mind off the weather. The awful specter of taking a single wrong step and being blown straight to Heaven or Hell just plain took all the fun out of a long hike in the park. REMFs walked or drove on concrete or asphalt. Grunts walked in mud until their ears rang.
And then there was Victor Charles, the park ranger - ViC to his friends. The grunts called him Mr. Charles. The park ranger gave everyone a hard time, but he especially had it in for the grunts who lived in his park. "There will be no sleeping in the park!"
While REMFs slept the night through, snuggled in a blanket to ward off the cold from the AC unit, grunts had to take turns sleeping in two-hour shifts lest the park ranger sneak up to find them sleeping in the park. REMFs had the boogie woogie bugle boy to roust them from bed. The grunts were awake from the first light of dawn. You can't sleep in park, and there's no sleeping in mud!
To sleep - per chance to dream, and what do REMFs dream? They dream of the "world" silly boy, the land of milk and honey, round eyes, cool nights, soft sheets, ball parks, Mom's pie, and a pretty girl's thigh. And what, per chance, would a grunt's dream be. Grunts dreamed of Bien Hoa, Cam Ranh, Vung Tao, Da Nang, Phan Rang, and Nha Trang.
Grunts dreamed of a place in the line for the good things in life. They knew about lines, both the ones you got in and the ones that stood between. Only one in ten was short of the line that stood between grunts and REMFs. In the good line it was always the same, "Grunts to the rear; we got here first!"
Grunts stood in the long lines and shuffled along. The guys in front, with their polished black boots, always seemed to get theirs. Grunts stood in the mud at the end of the line. When they got to the front, they'd be met with a shrug, "Sorry, someone else got here first." Grunts were last for everything it seemed. Most, never heard the call. That all changed in '81. Grunts are first and foremost on The Wall.
You may think I am bitter, a tad jealous. I suppose I am a bit green. Of course, now that the mud has washed from my soul, and the long nights are but themselves a dream, I can see things more clearly. It could have been worse. I could have been a grunt in the Straight Leg Infantry.