"Taking Care of Business"
By Sonny Hoffman

A young man needs a character model, someone to emulate. For me, it was Peterson from the Green Beret movie. I saw the movie right before shipping off to Vietnam. I saw myself in Peterson. I didn't care much for the way he exited stage left--being dragged feet first into a wall of sharp punji stakes. My backside still hurts when I think about that scene.

Peterson was a con artist and scrounge in addition to being a good soldier. I liked that. I could handle that role. I could act, think fast, and bullshit with the best. The Army called it hustling and frowns on the art. In the real world, it's called salesmanship and is highly valued. In the Army, a hustler is a plague to the supply system but a boon to those holding the short end of the logistics stick.

The politically correct term is scrounge. A scrounge doesn't steal; a scrounge merely borrows surplus or puts to good use stuff that no one is using. Every Special Forces A-team needed a good scrounge. Our supply system was not the best except for ordnance items. If it went bang or boom, we got all we wanted. For beans or bacon, we were on our own.

Because we operated in small groups in remote locations, we had no mess facilities or provisions. The Army paid us extra to secure our own. We had to buy C-rations if we wanted them. C- rations are expensive if purchased through the military supply system, but a grunt will part with a case of the stuff for a Playboy magazine--even one with the centerfold missing and half the pages stuck together. A REMF (a rear area soldier) will hand over ten cases for an AK-47, twenty for an SKS rifle.

Also, I had never given any thought to the everyday stuff of war--the housekeeping. Who did the dishes and took out the trash? Who would wash my clothes and cook my meals? What do you do on the weekends, and how do you meet nice girls?

As it turned out, the Vietnamese took care of everything. We hired maids to wash clothes, make beds, and shine boots. We hired a cook to prepare our meals and a girl to wash dishes. Nice girls could be rented by the hour at reasonable prices. I never did find out what happened to our trash; it simply disappeared, as did weekends.

A-502, the largest A-team in the world with over thirty members, had an insatiable appetite. What we couldn't scrounge, we had to buy. The mother lode of supplies was Cam Ranh Bay; the chief items of barter were war souvenirs. Anything from enemy weapons to bata boots could be traded for food, air conditioners, or refrigerators.

Periodically, Top Kemner (the team sergeant) called the team together to ante-up for provisions. Those who couldn't put up items of barter had to put up cash. Handing over an SKS rifle was a last resort, even an AK-47 hurt. Captured weapons were the measure of a team's success. Weapons verified body count and had to be turned in to be counted. Furthermore, an SKS rifle was a highly prized war trophy that could be legally sent home, unaltered. You could bring an old sergeant to tears if he had to hand over his coveted SKS in order to fill the team pantry.

The first time we were called on to ante-up, I witnessed such a parting--an SKS sacrificed to the pantry god. Most of the team members had families to support. They lived on a small allowance. Parting with cash did bring tears.

Peterson could fill the pantry without using weapons as items of barter and no one would have to reach for cash. A guy like Peterson would be a popular guy at A-502.

We had no designated scrounge. They all disdained the job. Going on a resupply run was not only risky--having to traverse thirty miles of open roads without convoy protection--it was humiliating. Obtaining supplies was part begging, part stealing, part trading, and part shopping.

Career soldiers (proud Green Berets), were lousy beggars, had too much at stake to steal, made poor trades (they'd never admit it), and were the worst shoppers (they'd proudly admit that). When I told the team sergeant that I wanted to make the next run with just my two Yard body guards, he said, "You got it, kid."

My first run to Cam Ranh Bay had to be a major haul. In preparation for that run, I hoarded war booty. I volunteered for every patrol, that might make contact and see most of the enemy dead, to secure trading stuff. Much of what I took, the old timers called junk, but the customers were young people like me. It wouldn't take much to impress the boys back home.

In my view, any enemy soldier stuff was good. Some enemy equipment had a red star emblem on it. These were highly valued items. Items of clothing came next. If they had bullet holes and blood stains, they got even higher marks. Anything was good for barter: personal items, photos, toothbrushes, letters.

The Vietnamese did not understand my morbid work, or why I carelessly got blood on everything. They didn't understand the war booty market. They were too busy trying to sell us our own goods. They could have made a killing with the stuff out of Uncle Ho's PX.

We knew, but the medium of exchange was food. A plain, ordinary, metal canteen might net a can of powdered eggs. That same canteen with a bullet hole through it could net a slab of bacon to go with it. A bullet-riddled, blood-stained canteen with a good war story to go with it could easily net a case of frozen steaks.

The booty had to look genuine, and the stories had to be believable. The mess sergeants at Cam Ranh Bay or Nha Trang had heard and seen it all. Troops rotated through Cam Ranh Bay. The grunts, after a year of war, carried their war booty with them. At Cam Ranh Bay Replacement Depot, a brisk trade went on with the REMFs (Remington Raiders) who were headed home empty handed. The mess and supply sergeants were right in the middle of this lucrative market. They knew what they could get for my canteen.

Image was everything. You had to look the part. Toward that end, I dressed in faded tiger stripe cammies, my beret, and a western style holster for my forty-five caliber pistol. I sanded the black off my jungle boots and stained the canvas with chicken blood. My Montagnard body guards, Danny and Joey, dressed in warrior garb, complete with cross bows and home made knives.

We were a sight, to be sure. We didn't impress many grunts, but grunts had no steaks. The REMFs (Chairborne Commandos), who had the steaks, were impressed. The stories I told were believed.

I went to Cam Ranh in a deuce-and-a-half (two and a half ton truck) carrying a duffle bag full of war junk. I never shopped or begged. I traded, lied, or stole; nonetheless, I returned with a truck piled high with good food: steaks, lobsters, fresh fruits and vegetables, ice cream, cake, and beer.

On the way out, the MP at the checkpoint on Highway One stepped onto my running board, looked into the back, and said, "What are you, a Green Beret cook?"

Green Beret cook, indeed! I returned to camp and received a hero's welcome. From then on, Top gave me unlimited access to our few vehicles. When I wasn't in the field, I was on a scrounging mission. I had it made like a dirty old man with a troop of nympho Girl Scouts.

Naturally, I abused this freedom, spending many days lounging on the beach at Nha Trang--skin diving, fishing, boating, or visiting nice girls. I always returned with something--even the nice girls gave me something. No one asked questions, no weapons were sacrificed, and no cash was ever needed for food. Sonny was as close to a Peterson as they were going to get.

The Yards also benefited from this trade. Danny and Joey did a brisk business. The Yard village kept them supplied. They unloaded their knives and crossbows, bracelets and trinkets, at every stop we made. They kept fresh supplies in the cab and traded for cash.

I rarely went anywhere without Danny and Joey. They learned their roles rather quickly. They discovered that reluctance to part with a cherished crossbow or knife could double or triple the offer. With just a little guidance, they became a pair of hustlers in their own right.

One consequence of this free enterprise operation was that I got lazy. VC flags were the hottest item. Everyone wanted a VC flag. The trouble was, enemy flags were as scarce as ivy league lieutenants. Those who had them wouldn't part with them. To insure against having a flag volunteered to the pantry god, the owner would immediately mail it home. The solution was a simple one--make them.

We had a camp tailor with a shop in the nearby village. I bought red, blue, and yellow material and paid him a buck a flag to sew them into genuine VC battle flags. He made ten, which I tied together and dragged behind my jeep. I threw the pile of rags against a berm and emptied an M-16 magazine into them. A sprinkling of chicken blood made them authentic. These flags kept us in groceries for months. There were only two problems:

First, the tailor screwed up. He sewed the yellow five-pointed star so that the point of the star faced the pole, not straight up, splitting the blue and red field. I traded off half of them before anyone noticed. I explained this away by telling my prospect that it was a VC battle flag banner, designed to be hung vertically. He bought my BS. The rest went the same way. No one challenged me on this.

The other problem was that my tailor got arrested before he delivered my flags. This was a big problem. I had a difficult time convincing the Quan Canh (white mice) that I hired him to make those flags. I arrived at their headquarters just as they were dragging him toward the courtyard.

The tailor made the flags wrong on purpose, as it turned out. While he pleaded his case, pointing to me, telling them "He made me do it," he strengthened his defense by reminding them, again and again, that the flags were made wrong. He acted as though they might haul his skinny old carcass out back at any moment and put a bullet in his head. They acted that way as well.

I wasn't too concerned. I was not about to let them shoot my tailor, even though he was a lousy tailor. We made many phone calls back and forth before they reluctantly released him. Getting him released was easy compared to getting my flags returned.

The upshot was that the tailor refused to make any more flags for me, and I couldn't find another who would. I wondered if the VC had the same trouble. I went so far as to try to go direct to the source.

We knew of a VC family, all women and kids. The men were part of the local VC. We had positive proof that they were contacted often. We never passed on this intelligence to the government authorities. The family knew that we knew. We knew that they knew we knew. Neither party would acknowledge this openly. It is all very complicated, but we considered them non- combatants; the government wouldn't.

I went to the old mama sanh and presented her with a simple proposition: "You supply me with VC or NVA battle flags, and I will pay you five dollars each, okay?"

She didn't say anything, but gave me a look that said, "Are you out of your fuckin' mind? When are you Americans going to take this war seriously? What will it take, a red punji stake up your ass?"

She had very expressive eyes. I got no flags.

While the flags lasted, the pantry stayed full. Somewhere in America are ten VC battle banners, tattered, riddled with bullet holes, stained with blood, embellished with bullshit, hanging over bars where veterans meet. If you see one, remember: a tailor almost gave his life for it; a chicken did.

Copyright 1995 by Sonny Hoffman all rights reserved

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