First Day in Vietnam
By Daniel Strange, Army
Writing Type: Prose
By Daniel Strange
It was August of 1967, and I had just turned 18. I was thinking about my future when a bright, new idea came to me. I would join the United States Army and help Uncle Sam.
It was a cool Tuesday morning. My Mom and Dad, the recruiter and I were sitting around the kitchen table. After all the questions were asked and answered, Mom asked the one pressing question my family had. That question, of course, was, "Will my son have to go to Vietnam?" The sergeant quickly responded with a trite "O! No ma'am!" Just like that, I had a signed the dotted line.
Next thing I knew I was in basic training at Fort Campbell, Ky. I was learning all sorts of new terms and acronyms. I also learned that my new first name was "Private." It was "Strange, do this" or "Private, do that." My drill sergeants seemed to be stuck on numbers. They were always asking "What is your serial number?" They were always telling us to give them 50. Just numbers, numbers, numbers.
After completing basic training, I was sent to Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo, to receive training as part of the Army Corps of Engineers. At that time, we called it "Little Korea" because the weather was constantly changing, but always bitterly cold. After advanced infantry training, I received orders prior to going home that I was going to Vietnam. My home visit was short. I was then being shipped out.
I boarded a plane in Oakland, Calif. When I woke up, I was in Vietnam. My God, what a sight! It was like nothing I had ever seen. I scanned the area for a friendly face, but none were to be found, except for the GIs that were on the flight with me. I could see they also had the same puzzled, nervous looks on their face wondering how the hell they wound up in Vietnam. I guess the recruiter lied to their mothers too.
There were bunkers, choppers, guns, guard towers surrounded by sandbags, metal barriers, concertina wire, and short people in black pajamas I had never seen before. And Lord, the smell! The permeating foul odor of fish, diesel, and burning feces turning our stomachs. I wanted to vomit, but that meant breathing in more of the fumes.
This was about the time everyone noticed the sergeant barking orders like he was not just mad at me, but the entire world. The sergeant looked at me and said, "Don't get too comfortable here. You won't be staying." My wandering eyes were still taking in the new landscape. I noticed some soldiers cooking something in a barrel. The sergeant must have noticed what caught my attention because that nice sergeant read my mind. "Newbie, you will be burning that shit soon enough. Welcome to hell," he said with a smirk.
Not only was I an alien in a new land, but that nice man gave me a new first name. I was no longer "Private" Strange. I was now "Newbie." I was no longer in Kansas anymore. I was in hell and Vietnam at the same time.
And the things I learned as a Newbie! I saw stacks of beer guarded by soldiers. I was both amused and puzzled. He must have seen the puzzled look on my lost puppy dog face, because before I could ask the sergeant said, "That's liquid gold, Newbie. You'll understand in time." He is right. In time, I did.
We also picked up new terms like "Short-timer." Those Short-timers were really quick to tell us their time in country was almost complete and they would be heading back to the big PX in the sky soon. For good measure, they took extra pleasure in reminding us we were Newbies.
I saw a Short-timer standing close to me as I was taking in all the sights and sounds. He waved me over to him with a cigarette in one hand.
"Come here, I'll give you some advice on how to survive this place. Come on, I do not bite. Take a hit." He handed me the wacky tobacky which I cautiously accepted. I took a hit and coughed and coughed while he laughed. "Give it time, you'll become more accustomed to this shit," he said.
By his tough, confident, almost cocky demeanor and Specialist 5 patch on his sleeve, I could tell he was a Short-timer, a point he made sure I knew more than once. The Short-term Specialist 5 pulled out some of that liquid gold, motioning for me to come into his barracks.
"Come have a beer. I'll give you the ends and outs of this rice patty," he said. He seemed wise beyond his years, but this could have been due to the beer and grass he so graciously offered. This struck me as funny because he was just a year older than me.
After I left with his pearls of wisdom ringing in my ears and the scent of beer on my breath, we were told to exchange what little money we had from American dollars to what they called "funny money." It looked like Monopoly money. Who knew Parker Brothers got drafted to set up a mint in Saigon? I could not wait to tell my mother. She would be tickled pink.
After a few weeks in country, I started noticing how different the Vietnamese culture was. The language was beautiful but exceedingly difficult to learn. There were paved roads in the bigger cities, but where we were located had much smaller dirt roads congested with bicycles and motorcycles and small oxen-pulled carts.
The roads had rice patties lining either side of the road and stretching as far as the eye could see. You learned that crossing the street was like a game of chase. This was even worse during monsoon season, but at least others were getting stuck in the mud as well.
The people were very friendly no matter where we went. We always heard, "Hey GI! Hey GI! Chocolate, GI." Occasionally, we gave candy bars to the kids as we rolled through their towns in the deuce and a half. In some regards, I felt bad for how we treated the Vietnamese, even the ones who were our allies. It is like we forgot we were guests in their land. I came to love their differences, but we had way more in common. We were both scared and trying to survive. They bled the same color blood as we did. In the end, they weren't really all that different than us. Just people like you or me.
Those first days in Vietnam were eye opening. There was cooking, shit, fear, witnessing a new people and a new culture. There was also fighting and bullets and bloodshed and deforestation and a lot of talking about "Charlie" and Ho Chi Minh. Even as those first days turned into weeks and weeks lingered into months when I felt my time was getting short, I knew that life would never be the same. I knew that Vietnam would forever make an indelible mark on my mind and psyche.
Sometimes it was for the better, but often I felt the mental scars forming like Uncle Sam and Ho Chi Minh had decided that I would be in a bad arranged marriage from which there was no escape. Nothing and no one who fought on either side or lived there would ever be the same. Some suffered more than others.
The cycle continued. Outside the hospital window, I saw the last new batch of fresh-faced GIs I would see that tour absorbing the sights and sounds and smells with the realization that their recruiter lied to them and their mothers too. I giggled as they gagged. I had time to reflect on the brave new world they were entering, but I was grateful that I was being medevaced out of country that night. Those first days, like the last, changed me and my mind forever. Now I was a Vietnam veteran.