Last night my mind wandered through my memories of 1968, when I was a member of the best Chopper unit in ‘Nam; the 57th Assault Helicopter Company, in Kontum, Vietnam! I remembered the first day when I walked into the compound; it had been hit by a “Sapper” attack, when the VC snuck into the compound and blew up some of the Helicopters, the hooches, and killed several of the men! It was a scary place to walk into; helicopters shredded, guys walking around with blank looks on their faces, after finding their buddies dead! But the attitude was that “this will never happen again”, and they had a strong determination to do whatever was necessary to protect the unit from ever being infiltrated by enemy combatants in the future! I grew up around WWII and Korean vets, but this was my first view of the way combat changes the appearance of young men, turning them into warriors, and these guys were warriors!
I remember my first time in an enemy attack; they came at us in one of a great many assaults against the unit, and there was heavy fire coming in through the concertina wire, and mortars and rockets screaming in overhead, exploding into shredded metal, threatening anyone near where they hit! I ran to the bunker and stood with my brothers, firing my weapon into the darkness, hoping to hit, and stop any enemy headed towards us! Then my mind travelled to the night of the ’68 Tet Offensive; we woke up because we heard the sound of a mortar being fired, then the explosion at the back of the hooch, which severely injured two of my buddies; Pat Hills and Mike Fanning! I had just sat up on my bunk when it hit, and the explosion slamming me to the floor, knocking me out! When I woke up, almost everyone was gone, so I ran to the “First Flight” hooch where everyone had gone to gather up! We thought the enemy was in the compound, and it was damned scary, but we all got up and went out to do our jobs! That night was hell, we were hit by an overpowering amount of enemy soldiers, yet we stood our ground and fought them off! I saw many acts of extreme courage that night, and the nights that followed, and I saw an Aviation Unit turn into some of the best combat soldiers in the military! There were many times in 1968 when we were in extreme danger of being over-run, but we tucked it up and held our ground, and we earned our honor at “Rocket City”!
Being in an aviation unit, I flew as a Crewchief on a Huey helicopter, and I saw the bravery and total courage of the men from the 4th Division, and the 5th Special Forces, as they fought hard to protect the lives of each other, with many sacrificing those lives to save their brothers and, as I helped load their bodies on my bird, I told myself that I would never forget the unselfish sacrifice of each, and every one of them to save the lives of others in their unit! And I will never forget the faces of the severely wounded that we flew back to their home base, and the ones that I held as they died, listening to them ask me if their brothers made it out alright, and to tell their families that they loved them! And I can remember the sinking feeling in my heart when we loaded up the pieces of bodies, many times totally unrecognizable, knowing that this was someone’s son, brother, uncle, or husband, and that the families would never see their young soldier again, as there was so little left to be able to recognize who they were!
Civilians watch movies, read books, and play video games, and they think they know what combat is all about, but they have no idea of the depth of the courage and self-sacrifice that goes on, every day, in war! The smell of explosives, the odor of the dead, the screams of the wounded, the inner panic of not knowing if you will leave the battle alive, or in a body bag! That split-second decision when you either watch your brother suffer with wounds, or run out to grab him and drag him back to safety, the moment when you jump on a hand grenade to safe everyone else by sacrificing your life, which Jim Gillespie, a buddy of mine from High School did, or that moment when you could run to save your own life, or stand and fight with your brothers to save your unit! Those aren’t decisions made by some lawyer as to whether or not he will take a “risky” case, they are not decisions as to which group of people you will hang out with, maybe sacrificing your “cool”, and they are not decisions that a politician makes as to whether or not to support the people, as our Constitution dictates, or to support Special Interests, making themselves a power base and a lot of money; they are life-threatening, split-second decisions that a real man has to make, and they are not that hard for a soldier to make, because he has learned the true value of loyalty to one’s brothers, and their lives hold more importance than their own!
When you look at Veteran’s Day today, don’t look at it as a “holiday for home barbecuing”, look at it for what it truly is and reach out to the veteran near you and let him know that you truly honor his sacrifice for you and your family! Let him know that you understand that we would not be the America that has freedom for all citizens had it not been for him, or her, and many others like them; let them know that you understand that they did what they did to serve their country, to protect it from all enemies, so that you could live your life in safety and never have to worry about the futures of your children! I was so ashamed last Saturday, when St. Louis held it’s annual Veteran’s Day parade; the city did not hold some grand celebration for the men and women who fought to protect them, there was a small, short run path through a tiny section of the downtown area, and the turnout was so small that there were more people in the parade than on the streets! And those who were standing on the road cheering were families of the veterans in the parade, some very supportive citizens and, at the end, the largest group of people were the members of the parade who had already ended their part in it, and stood out on the street cheering their fellow veterans who were still marching through! What has happened to our country when the citizens feel so self-righteous that they feel that they are “owed” the sacrifice of our military, that they “deserve” to have others sacrifice their lives to protect them, and they feel no responsibility to stand up and thank the bravery of our young men and women who do the job that they are too afraid to do themselves? America, wake up! If it weren’t for those who fight for your freedoms and rights under our Constitution, you would have nothing that you now have, nothing that allows you live as you wish to live, nothing to give you the right to walk on the streets of our country as a free, self-determining American citizen! Start thinking about who maintains those rights for you and let them know that you care!
WAKE UP AMERICANS, OR LOSE AMERICA!
Michael J. Kilgus