The Toughening

Boys went to Vietnam and returned as men. Men went to Vietnam and returned changed men. Most can trace their metamorphosis to a specific incident; for others, it was a very gradual change. All were changed. Loved ones back home could not understand the change. Perhaps this story will help.
"The Toughening"
By Sonny Hoffman

They say we were young, the youngest army this country ever sent to war. The mean age of a U.S. line unit in Vietnam was nineteen. We were just kids. I would have argued that point back then, but I know better now.

I was, at one time, the youngest Green Beret. I joined the Army at seventeen and completed Special Forces training at eighteen. The rules said you had to be nineteen to begin SF training. Green Berets make great soldiers but lousy clerks. They screwed up, and I wasn't about to bring it to their attention.

I wasn't the only young man having difficulty making the transition into manhood. The dayroom was filled with young green beanies on Saturday mornings, eager to watch cartoons. We also traded comic books and did childish things while on pass at Myrtle Beach. We were man/boys; what can I say?

I turned nineteen the day after arriving in Vietnam. I entered the mean age; and believe me, there is nothing meaner or more dangerous than a nineteen-year-old American boy, convinced of super-human strengths, immortal, inspired by a rightous cause, with a machine gun and a bag of grenades.

After fifteen months of intensive training, most of it Vietnam oriented, I was ready to fight--a trained killer with comic books in my jungle fatigues. Although I joined the SF ranks reluctantly, I learned my lessons well and understood guerrilla warfare.

After viewing John Wayne's Green Beret movie, I knew the SF mission in Vietnam: to arm, supply, and train indigenous forces (Civilian Irregulars) and conduct counter-insurgency operations to purge the freedom-loving people of South Vietnam from the Communist aggressors. I had a mission, and the Duke was my commanding officer.

The fierce warrior Montagnard tribesmen were the perfect irregulars for our Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG). I had visions of leading a company of these magnificent soldiers into battle and pitied our hapless foe.

I volunteered for Vietnam and went with my eyes wide open. I calculated the odds and increased my odds of survival by taking to heart the sacred laws of combat, drilled into our thick heads by the vets: stay low; fire and move; never be third on a match; look both ways before crossing the road; don't talk to strangers. Okay, those last two came from my grandmother, but they still applied in Nam.

I was cocky and self-confident when I landed at Cam Ranh Bay the morning of September the 18th, 1969. I knew what to expect, and it was as expected--hot, muggy, and quiet. I knew the war was a nocturnal affair. The others, the regular army, the ones who had been in the army all of five months and were trained for European armored warfare in open rolling hills, didn't. They were nervous and looked about expectantly for incoming rounds or human wave assaults.

As we marched into the replacement center, we passed a barracks filled with men going home. On average, they were one year older than us but seemed senior by a decade. There was not a boy in their group. They jeered us, shouting, "Hey, cherries, you're all gonna die! Charlie's got you number, man. You're all body bag stuffing." This was common; seasoned troops did that throughout the war. Their taunts upset many of the boys, but I was an immortal man. I wondered what happened to the boys in their group.

The few SF troops were separated out and placed on a chopper for the short ride to Nha Trang. Later that same day, a group of us newbies were returning from in-processing at the finance center. We walked along a paved road, none of us in step. An Army truck came screaming around a corner and hit a Vietnamese man. The impact knocked him fifty feet through the air and another fifty on the pavement. His body came to rest inches from my new jungle boots. I had never seen anyone seriously hurt, and the only dead person I ever saw was in a casket, looking good.

Seeing a man killed on my first day was rather unsettling. I took it as a bad omen. For five in our small group, it was. I stared at the dying man as people ran over. Someone said, "Welcome to Vietnam." Those words came up every time something bizarre happened. Those words came up a lot.

We moved on with affected casual aplomb and joked to mask our shaken nerves. Each tried to outdo the other with demonstrations of how much that scene had no effect on him. I think I said something like, "He should have looked both ways." When we returned to the barracks, each boy found a quiet place.

Later that afternoon, they issued M2 carbines to us. We even got real bullets, all we wanted. I took a bunch. As I loaded the thirty-round magazines, the reality of being in a war zone sank in. I found it exciting. That evening, we gathered on the bunkers and watched the war. A C-123 raked the distant hills with streams of 7.62mm bullets. The red tracers made a solid thin line in the night sky. Occasionally, solitary green tracers arced up uselessly in answer. Chuck was a gutsy little guy.

Back at Ft. Bragg, a three-tour vet told us that we call him Chuck. He said, "The REMFs call him Mr. Charles; the grunts call him Victor Charlie; the Marines call him Charlie; we call him Chuck, because we are on more intimate terms." I liked that. I called him Chuck.

Small outposts dotted the area around Nha Trang. We could see some of them from the bunker line. They looked awfully small and vulnerable, but they prevented Chuck from getting close enough to the air base to hit anything on purpose with their mortars and rockets. The camps were part of Special Forces detachment A-502, the largest A-team in the world with thirty members. A normal A- team had twelve.

Nha Trang looked down the throat of the Dong Bo valley, a notorious stronghold of Chuck's. Recondos trained there. The first SF casualty of the war died there in '61. The Dong Bo lay between Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay. A-502 had responsibility for keeping the Dong Bo valley free of bad guys. They failed.

Nobody wanted to draw A-502. Besides being a tough area, it was too close to the flag pole. We all wanted to go to a traditional SF camp on the border and work with the Montagnard tribesmen (the Yards). A-502 was a Vietnamese camp, mostly rejects and Hoi Chanhs (Chucks that crossed over under the Chieu Hoi program). A-502 had a recent SF opening. One of the Hoi Chanhs did not completely cross over and decided to un-Chieu Hoi. He took an SF man out on the way back.

After a one week combat orientation course conducted on Hon Tre island--the place where Senator Bob Kerry earned his Congressional Medal of Honor--we drew our assignments. I drew A-502. I was not thrilled. A-502 was not thrilled with me either. By the looks I received, you'd have thought I came from a barrel's bottom. They called me, Kid.

I replaced the man who had been killed. I had his room, his bunk, his armory, and his old company. I tried extra hard to prove I was no kid. I conducted myself in a military manner at all times, acting very professional. They placed me in charge of maintaining the crew-served weapons; in short order, they sparkled.

The CIDG force at A-502 were, for the most part, rejects from the ARvn. If you can imagine the type of person the Army of South Vietnam might reject, you may have some idea of the class of warrior we were taking into combat. I was the new advisor to Company 54. Of the ten companies at A-502, Company 54 had the dubious distinction of killing more friendlies than enemies. Due to sick, lame, lazy, and AWOLs, they rarely fielded more than a platoon.

They were armed with WWII weapons: 30 Caliber machine guns, M2 Carbines, M1 rifles, and Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs). M-16s were too valuable to waste on Company 54. They had a difficult time keeping the heavy, high recoil weapons from climbing and were a great threat to monkeys in the trees. They used mortar rounds for fishing and took Claymore mines apart to use the C-4 explosive for their cooking fires. Grenades were out of the question. They thought those were Dupont lures.

If we issued too much ammo--and anything more than one magazine seemed a burden--they left a trail of it in our wake. Company 54 was ultra-light infantry. Chuck, of course, policed-up the excess ammo and returned it to us at his convenience. Going on patrol with Company 54 was a joke, but not a funny one. We conducted search and avoid operations and set up ambushes that the deaf and blind couldn't stumble into.

Chuck considered an engagement with Company 54 as friendly fire and did not press an attack for fear of hurting too many friends. Company 54 may not have been steadfast, but they were fast in one direction.

I once saw a notice on our bulletin board: For sale. One BAR, never been fired and only dropped once. See the advisor of C-54. I didn't think that was very funny. I had heard the disparagement applied to the ARvn (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam), but when applied to C-54, it was the truth. The truth hurt. My irregulars were most irregular.

The one saving grace of A-502, we did have a platoon of Yards. Their sole function was to try to protect the American team members. We each went out with a body guard. I had two, Danny and Joey. They were Koho Yards with Americanized nicknames.

The Yards were fascinating people--one step out of the trees. They lived in the mountain jungles and hunted with crossbows. They gave one to me on arrival. I found it extremely accurate at close range.

The Yards were like children in many ways, even the older adults. They loved to rough house and play games, so we got along great. They welcomed me right away and made me feel like somebody important. They gave me instant respect and doted over me in the field. They, in fact, were too friendly.

Homophobic, through and through, I found it difficult to accept the custom of males touching males. They liked to walk holding pinky fingers and would sleep together in a mass huddle of near- naked bodies. The only way to avoid becoming a Yard sandwich at night was to sleep in a hammock. I was a hammock soldier.

The other annoyance was that they did not want me shooting my rifle or doing anything that brought attention to myself. I wanted to carry an M-16 with five hundred rounds of ammo; they insisted I carry a carbine with three magazines (90 rounds). The theory being, there wouldn't be anyone sticking around long enough to use more than three magazines. Besides, anyone shooting back, especially with an M-16, would stick out like a turd on white bread. I compromised; I carried a carbine with three-hundred rounds--a turd on wheat.

During the few enemy engagements with Company 54, I spent most of the fire fight pushing Yards off of me so that I could get into a firing position. Between the Vietnamese that flat refused to fight and the Yards that prevented me from fighting, Company 54's war record stayed intact for the two months I served as their advisor. A few Chucks may have been injured by falling monkeys, or tripped over weapons left at the scene. My training did not prepare me for Vietnam after all. If I had watched more episodes of F Troop, I would have been better prepared.

Those first weeks at A-502 were a tremendous disappointment. My fantasies of illustrious engagements with hard-core warriors faded quickly. Nothing ever happened during the daytime. I craved action and wanted Chuck to come out and fight. I spent my days in the main camp maintaining weapons and my nights with Company 54, swinging in my hammock, watching Danny and Joey eat the jungle.

I lived in a mans' world. The mean age of SF troops was thirty. We had no Saturday morning cartoons and nobody read comic books. We played tag football in the courtyard, but nobody wanted to sit on the berm and shoot frogs in the moat. Their only other amusement was catching and creatively disposing of rats. They were dedicated to the war on VC rats. We had traps of all types.

I never understood the paranoia over rats. I liked rats. They were just big mice. I knew a girl once who had a pet white rat that she let roam all over her lovely body. It would run up a pant leg and exit a blouse sleeve. I envied that rat and his journeys. It was a smart rat and did tricks. The first time I saw a rat at A-502, I tried to make friends with it. Over a period of weeks, I succeeded in getting it to eat from my hand. It crawled along the louvered wooden slats between the mosquito screen and the slats. I fed it trough a slit in the wire mesh. I named him Mickey. He was a small rat with cute bugged-out eyes and long whiskers.

I fantasized taming Mickey and taking him to the field with me. He'd ride in my pocket or on my shoulder. At night, he'd go out and look for enemy activity and scurry back to warn me with a whisker tickle in my ear. Boys love to fantasize.

My salvation was the gift of a puppy. I love puppies, and this little guy got the best of care. Alone in my room, I'd get down on the floor and let the little fella have his way with me. The rough tough little cream puff would chew my face with his needle sharp teeth, but I loved the smell of puppy breath. It took me back, way back, back to my youth.

I lost that puppy two weeks later. He just disappeared. Fortunately, there was another from the same litter, almost a copy, only scrawny. I quickly got him in shape and picked up where I'd left off with the other one. A week or so later, it disappeared.

The last of the litter was still available, so I got it. This time, I guarded that puppy, turning my room into an impregnable fortress. I took seriously the claim that a python inhabited the rafters. I trusted no one. I quickly fell in love with this last puppy and kept him the longest. When he disappeared, I went berserk. I tore that camp apart in my search. I tried to get the other team members involved, but they weren't interested. The Yards, I knew, would help, but they were not in their hooch. I went around back and found them squatting in a huddle around a fire, roasting a puppy on a spit.

ROASTING a puppy! I turned pale and staggered back into the triple thick wall of sand bags going around the Yard hooch. I rolled away and regained my feet, moving away at an unsteady gait that became a near run. I headed straight for my armory, my sanctuary. Once inside, I mounted a 30 Caliber machine gun in the vise and pulled back the cocking handle.

I pulled the trigger, sending the bolt slamming against an empty chamber. I cocked and fired, cocked and fired repeatedly until I felt another's presence behind me. Lieutenant Holt's voice said, "Bru [the Yard leader]is at the team house. He seems to think something is wrong with you. Is there a problem?"

I slowed my activity and with forced calm said, "No, there's no problem."

"Well, he thinks there is. Why don't you go straighten it out with him?"

I spun around and shouted, "How do I straighten it out? They're cooking my puppy!" I tried to mask my emotion with anger but it came out like the wail of an injured animal. I quickly turned away and drew so hard on the cocking handle of the gun that I pulled it from the vise, sending it clattering to the wood floor. Lt. Holt departed. The tears poured out after he left.

A few minutes later, someone else entered my domain. SSG George Cottrell came up and hoisted himself onto my workbench just behind and to my right. I concentrated on stifling tears, keeping my head turned away. George and John Cottrell were brothers. They were both on the team and were old-timers. I respected them, but one was rather stand-offish while the other was openly friendly. One was hard; the other, soft. I'm not really sure which was which, but I think it was George who came to see me.

To have something to do besides beating up on a defenseless machine gun, I began to disassemble it. George began by saying, "Welcome to Vietnam."

The 30 caliber machine gun has a little quirk. In disassembly, if you don't follow the steps exactly, you can send the spring- loaded spring guide shooting back like an arrow. We were carefully trained to avoid this potentially dangerous mishap. The spring guide (a steel rod about fourteen inches long) shot under my arm and passed over George's crotch before sticking in the plywood wall like an Apache war arrow. I didn't think I could feel any lower; but at that moment, I could have walked into a snake's rear end without stooping or bending.

George calmly said, "Look, I can't say I totally agree with John's method of toughening-up newbies, but I know he means well. Kid, there's a body bag with your name on it. You better grow up fast, or you will be going home early and probably taking a few innocent people with you."

He had my full attention, but I still could not face him. He grabbed my shoulder, turned me, then thumped my chest over my heart, saying, "This will get you killed. In case you haven't noticed, you ain't in Kansas, Dorothy. You are going to see shit here that you can't even imagine. If you can't stay focused on your job, you are going to make mistakes, stupid mistakes."

He reached over and drew the shaft from the wall, handing it to me. "You fuck up here, and somebody dies, probably you. John uses puppies to make his point. Most get wise after the first one. A few take two. You are the first that took three. You are the best puppy fattener we've ever had. Am I getting through to you?"

I nodded, but he wasn't. "You're a good kid, Sonny. I'd hate to zip you up. John is not looking forward to it either. In case you haven't noticed, the Yards have taken a special interest in you. They are determined to keep your young ass alive, but you ain't helping.

They feel pretty bad about the last man we lost. You took his place. Bru put his two best men on you. There's none better than Danny and Joey. I hear you've been giving them a hard time trying to play hero. You ain't here to fight. Your job is to provide a support link in case your company steps in some deep shit. Who do you think will call in the medevac, adjust artillery, or bring in TAC air if you get greased? They don't need or want your advice. You should at least know that by now."

He was dead right on that issue. The light was beginning to dawn. "You've been here two months. You're not a newbie anymore. The team is getting attached to you. We'd like to see you straighten out and go home one breathing piece."

He hopped down and started for the door, pausing to add, "Oh, about the Yards. Yards eat puppies and damn near anything that isn't painted or bolted down. They are at the top of the food chain here. Puppies are a delicacy; it's their lobster. Don't be holding hard feelings towards them. They were under the impression you were doing this as a favor. They appreciate the fine job you did. Bru is still waiting to see you."

I went to Bru and told him I wasn't feeling well. He smiled and returned to his lobster. Later that afternoon, I laid on my bunk, thinking about George's words. Just before it was time to saddle-up for the nightly ambush avoidance patrol, Mickey came out for his snack. I calmly reached under the bed and drew out my cocked crossbow, took aim at him, and nailed that beady-eyed, VC, rat bastard to the wall.

The toughening was cold but effective. The tears I shed that day were the last tears I shed for twenty-three years. I zipped close friends into body bags and shed no tears. I lost relatives and shed no tears. I blew off my arm and shed no tears. In 1992, I knelt at the Wall and shed twenty-three years worth.

Copyright: 1994 By George "Sonny" Hoffman

Continue to Mountain People