Reading about the recent no-notice deployment of 3,000 82nd Airborne troopers to the middle east brought back memories…
I was behind a Fort Bragg mess hall, putting a spit shine on an aluminum garbage can because, God forbid, you should put Army garbage in a dirty trash can. Hulbert sidled up. Hulbert didn’t have a first name anyone knew. He always sidled. And he talked out the corner of this mouth. He was also the carrier of the latest inside information.
“The Brigade’s pullin’,” he said. He was grave so I adopted a grave look as well. “No kidding?” He nodded and sidled on down the street looking for a larger audience. I just stood there. I had no idea what he meant or what he was talking about. That night in the barracks I was to find out.
Seems something had happened called the Tet Offensive, we were getting our asses kicked and the 3rd Brigade would be winging our way to Vietnam in 72 hours. This was speculation because our destination was classified. But since we were issued jungle fatigues and jungle boots that just about cinched it. But the diehards wanted official word. The guys from Boston called Ted Kennedy’s office, ’cause he was famous. But his staff said they had no idea. The South Carolina boys scoffed and called Congressman Mendel Rivers, the decades-long chair of the Armed Services Committee who would know whatever there was to know about Army decisions. Rivers sent word that it wasn’t any of our damn business to know the Army’s plans and suggested we shut up and stop whining.
The 82nd Airborne is a STRAC unit. In Army gobbledygook, that means it is a strike force capable of being deployed anywhere in the world on short notice. The recent deployment to the Middle East was the first such emergency deployment in 30 years. But imagine what it’s like for wives (or husbands) and children to have a service member give you a hug and then disappear one day with no idea when (or if) they will return.
Looking back at the Vietnam war, there are those who argued that the Tet Offensive was a major mistake by the North Vietnamese Army that decimated its forces. Hawks have blamed the anti-war media with giving the impression that we lost, when in fact we won. They are right that the NVA lost thousands of troops, but it didn’t matter. We were being deployed because the U.S. Army was reeling from the onslaught. The communists had demonstrated that they could strike deep into the heart of South Vietnam, even into the suburbs of Saigon itself. The 3rd Brigade would land, join up with the 101st Airborne in Phu Bai and Hue and the invasion force in the A Shua Valley was pushed back to the DMZ.
All across South Vietnam the counter-Tet offensive drove back the NVA. As I recall it took three months to reclaim all the country.
The line for the pay phone was long and slow as we called home to break the news of our deployment. I was so caught up in the excitement of it all it didn’t register with me what devastating news it must have been to my family. Having had children and grandchildren, I now have an appreciation for what it must have been like to have the news out of the blue. My family immediately began the drive to Ft. Bragg to pick up my car and to say goodbye.
In the arrogance and ignorance of my youth, I had volunteered to join the Army, with the intention of going to Vietnam. My Dad was in World War II. His younger brothers were in the service during the Korean War. This was my war and, after all, what would Hemingway have done? How could I write the definitive novel about the war without going? Little did I know that the stories of the war years would be written by anti-war kids on college campuses. Vietnam veterans were about as popular as chicken pox and no one wanted to hear what they had to say. Gloria Emerson, writing in Esquire magazine, said, “There are two kinds of people, those who have opinions on the war and those who have been there.”
I worked in the finance office at headquarters. I was the only idiot who actually volunteered to join the skeleton headquarters staff that would travel with the 3rd Brigade.
My family made it to the base. We went out to dinner and visited for a bit before they delivered me back to the barracks. The rest of the family went outside and it was just my father and I. We loved each other but we never communicated very well. We exchanged some inane conversation and exchanged a clumsy hug. He turned to go but not before I saw it.
It was the first and only time I ever saw my father cry.
Frank Cagle is a former managing editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel.