ate of xpected eturn from vereas.
DEROS is a military acronym. If, as a soldier, you had one or more hostile-fire tours overseas, those dates are seared into your brain. Today, October 12th, 2019 marks 50 years since I returned from Vietnam a changed person: no longer the hawk of prior years, but at the time confused and just happy to be going home.
I departed for Vietnam on October 12th, 1968. I was 25 years old. This was eight months after the start of the Tet offensive, a defining moment in the war, and one that saw a marked increase in the number of US forces in country and a concomitant increase in the doubts about the war in the minds of Americans.
My brother dropped me off at Travis Air Force Base outside of Davis, California where he was a student at the University of California, Davis. A day or so earlier, we had gone to hear Pete Seeger sing in Berkeley where I saw the anti-war protestors outside the auditorium. But I was there to see the great folk singer. I felt no animosity toward the demonstrators, but I knew they were wrong… until my DEROS.
The commercial airline that flew us to Vietnam left Travis bound for Honolulu. On board were a mix of soldiers going to Vietnam and military families being sent to various posts across the Pacific. I sat next to another Army officer for the entire trip. He, too, was an intelligence officer. As we hit island after island (Hawaii, Wake, Guam, Luzon) the families debarked and more soldiers embarked until the moment we left Clark Air Force Base on Luzon, at that point, there was nobody aboard but young men, the airline’s pilots, and some stewardesses.
We landed in Vietnam and were quickly ushered off the plane because the longer the plane was on the ground, the more the government had to pay for the hazard to the civilian crew of being on the tarmac. They were a target for about 2 hours, the soldiers were targets for the next 364 days. As I stepped out the door, I glanced back and looked at one of the stewardesses. She was weeping. Then suddenly the air hit me like a hot wet towel at a barber shop. Welcome to the tropics. 364 days to my DEROS.
Waiting to get on the aircraft were a few hundred troops who had arrived at their DEROS and were going home. They taunted the newly arrived with choruses of, “You’ll beeeee sorreeeee!”
Everyone was taken to Long Binh, to the “repo depot” (replacement depot), where you were processed in, your record checked against the needs of the units on the ground and your qualifications. My situation was very precarious, but I had accumulated several MOSs (military occupational specialties) in three years. I had MOSs as Interpreter/Translator (French) and Strategic Intelligence Officer. As a captain, a trained parachutist and an infantry officer, I was a prime candidate to become an infantry company commander in some airborne brigade. However, over the past 6 months I had trained for and qualified as a HUMINT (Human Intelligence) Officer, and that MOS was controlled by Congress. After my training, I could only be used in that capacity. However, I was in Vietnam and Congress was a very long way off… and infantry company commanders were in high demand.
While my fate was being determined, I spent time with my Army officer seatmate from the chartered plane, mostly at the “club” at the repo depot, drinking beer, eating hamburgers, and watching the nightly show in the sky. Flares shot up to illuminate the areas around the depot as night patrols were carried out. Tracer rounds pinged off into the sky as someone shot at somebody. And there was also the dreaded Spooky gunship, also known as Puff the Magic Dragon, whose Gatling guns spit out streams of bullets and tracer rounds that looked like a dragon breathing fire. Spookies turned lazy circles in the air like rapacious condors, their presence revealed only when the streams of fire emerged from their guns. Months later, I would watch the same spectacle from the roof deck of the Rex Hotel during a weekend revisit to Saigon, sipping wine and listening to the music. A bizarre juxtaposition.
The beer joint also hosted a band with a young Vietnamese woman singer. The group repeatedly played The Animals hit, “We gotta get out of this place!” for an appreciative crowd of soldiers who were on their way home. The recent arrivals just gaped at the spectacle. Those going home screamed the lyrics along with the woman as she sang, “We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do. We gotta get out of this place ‘cause girl, there’s a better life for me and you.” Of course the song was not about getting out of Vietnam, but the lyrics fit for the purpose of these young men who had just spent a year in hell. Subtleties are not a soldier’s specialty. But I remember thinking, “What do these band member think of this?” They had no DEROS.
So, the decision fell upon some clerk in the replacement battalion who matched MOSs with requisitions. A requisition from the 525th Military Intelligence Group called for a HUMINT Officer and off I went to Saigon, briefly. There, I was hoping that some of my Army Intelligence buddies already in-country would influence my assignment and that I would remain there, in relative safety, at some high-level, air-conditioned intelligence center for the next year. Not to be. I was off to the Mekong Delta and more than a bit frightened.
I was assigned eventually to a small town in the Mekong Delta, My Tho, to advise a Vietnamese HUMINT intelligence collection unit in what was called a bi-lateral operation. We were far from any US forces, essentially three Americans in a small house. The US 9th Infantry Division, at Dong Tam, was about 5 miles away but their mission likely was not prioritized to save us in the event of another Tet. My counterpart was a Army of the Republic of Vietnam major with whom I spoke French, our only language in common. He mostly wanted me to supply him with equipment for his team, equipment that likely would be on the black market within in hours. I saw him only a dozen or so times. He was not much interested in my advice. My US team mates, a lieutenant and a sergeant, coordinated with his subordinates. We got the job done, mostly reporting of night movement of “Viet Cong” supply boats (mostly sampans) which were then obliterated by elements of the 9th Infantry Division, local SEAL teams or river assault squadrons, but it was clear to me that the Vietnamese soldiers were generally not interested in doing much, a refrain I often heard from fellow officers. But how many “enemy” Vietnamese were doomed by my reporting?
Obviously, I survived, having only been shot at once in My Tho by a machine gun (the bullets missed, although I could hear them flit by my head) and having been awoken from a deep sleep several times by mortar rounds landing yards away from our house, more closely than I would have wanted. And they don’t go BOOM, like in the movies. It is more of a loud CRACK, like a lightning bolt. The headboard and mattress of my bed contained traces of shrapnel from a mortar round that nearly killed my predecessor who was sleeping when the round exploded outside his bedroom.
About 361 days later, I turned in my revolver (yes, I had a .38 caliber snub nose) and my Garand carbine whose previous owner had sawed off the stock for some reason. I also handed in the two 30-round “banana clips” (now called high capacity magazines) that I had taped together, back-to-back, so I could rapidly change to a new full clip. I never had to. I began with 60 rounds of ammunition and turned into the supply officer the same 60 rounds a year later. I did fire my revolver, twice, at a coconut floating in the Gulf of Thailand while visiting the town of Rach Gia. I missed both times. The inaccurate revolver would have been better used thrown, like a rock; you were more likely to hit a target that way.
In Long Binh once again, I shed my “steel pot” (helmet) and my thick heavy flak jacket, designed to protect from shrapnel not bullets. Also gone into a large bin were my boots and other uniform items, destined to be recycled and given to Vietnamese government troops. Back at the repo depot it was truly déjà vu. The same club, the same singers, the same song by The Animals, except this time I could sing it because I was going home… but I did not sing. The officer who was my seat mate on the plane a year before showed up. We compared notes on our year in-country. I was now disillusioned and no longer a hawk. I saw America’s treasure and forgotten values strewn about the countryside: destroyed vehicles, aircraft, tanks, armored personnel carriers, boats. Schrapnel. Expended bullets. Shell casings. Body parts. The greed. The booze. The prostitutes. The abandoned children of US soldiers. The purposelessness. To that date about 36,000 US dead and climbing towards the grande finale of over 58,000.
Eventually our names were called, and we later lined up with the others to board a commercial charter jet that had just landed. Some of the younger veterans in our line again took up the chorus of “You’ll beee sorreeee!” that they had heard 365 days earlier. There was much excited chatter as those going home settled in their seats. My seatmate and I found the same seats we had occupied the year before. Doors closed. Then the taxi. Then the roll. V1. Rotate. Wheels up and inside the plane, cheering and pandemonium. Then feet wet.* And shortly after the pilot announcing that we had left Vietnamese air space. More cheering.
But then the “homecoming.” We landed at Oakland Airport due to high winds on the runway at Travis Air Force Base. We taxied to a spot away from the terminal and stopped and waited. And waited. The door finally opened, and a guy in a white shirt strolled up and down the aisle spraying an insecticide.
The airport was not expecting us, so there were not enough customs officers to process our return. Customs? Did they think we had been on holiday? We would have to sit on the plane until “someone” showed up. The senior officer on board, a colonel, spoke for the unhappy soldiers who had just spent 24+ hours crossing the Pacific and reluctantly the officials allowed us to enter the terminal and occupy an unused area in the arrival lounge. But some of the soldiers, being resourceful, wandered off one by one to use the bathroom, where they changed into civilian clothes and melted into the crowd. I followed suit. I called my brother in Davis who then made the two-hour drive to pick me up.
Sitting on the curb outside the terminal I watched the people greeting friends and family. Laughing and enjoying the sunny day. Did they not know that there was a war on? How could they be so insouciant? Twenty-four hours earlier I had been in a combat zone. I was astounded. Baffled. Visiting my uncle in Berkeley a few days later, I knocked on his door and he welcomed me with a wary, “I suppose you don’t want to talk about it.” I never was spat upon (was anyone?) nor did I experience any direct harassment from anti-war activists. Mostly, people did not want to talk to me about Vietnam or did not know how. They still don’t. On the way home, during a stop in Denver, I was treated like a hero which made me somewhat uncomfortable.
Other Army friends were harassed. One so insistently in an airport that he swung his briefcase at the guy and broke his jaw.
That day at the Oakland airport was DEROS + 1. Five decades later troops still come home to a generally uncaring, clueless public and a government that cuts funding for the care of service members and their families. I left the Army in 1978, disillusioned. Two college friends never came home. Dead. As for my Vietnam veteran friends during the five decades, two drank themselves to death, one shot himself in the head, one developed cancer of the bladder and another now with cancer of the jaw—both from Agent Orange.
You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!
["Tommy" by Rudyard Kipling]
*military pilot jargon for flying over water