Mike Fox – Gun 1 Crew


Lucky To Be Puny

I got drafted September 1969. I was twenty-three. I would have been there in 1966 but I couldn’t pass the physical on account of kidney problems. I finally got an induction letter to show up in Cincinnati for a physical and I passed that one. The Marine Corps was in there and this corporal was picking people to be drafted into the Marines. He got the guy in front of me and the guy behind me. He must have thought I was too puny because I only weighed about a hundred and thirty pounds.

I went straight to Ft. Dix for basic. They test you for everything and ask you what you want to do. I put down artillery because I had a real close friend in Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division down in the Mekong Delta. He was on the 155mm howitzer split trail. He was one of my good friends. I said if he’s in artillery I’ll put down artillery too. So they took me. I also put down Vietnam, and they sent me to Germany.

Worth the Risk

When I got in country I was put in Service Supply for the 27th Artillery Regiment in Phan Rang. We stayed in those old wooden billets that the 101st Airborne built in 1966. You went to work at seven in the morning and got off at four in the afternoon. When we got off at night this guy had an eight-track tape of The Grass Roots. All night long he would play “Sooner or Later” and all these other hits of The Grass Roots. Over and over he just left that eight-track on. In the morning we did police call looking for cigarette butts. You had to have your boots polished and uniform pressed. I had this crap over in Germany and didn’t want it.

After a couple of weeks I said enough of this shit, and I went to the battery commander and said, “Sir, I want to go out on the guns.”

He said, “You want to go out on the guns?”

“Yes, that’s what I was trained for.”

He said, “Okay. I’ll see what I can do for you.”

I told the guys back in Service Supply I’m getting’ the hell out of here. They said you’re crazy, man, you could get killed out on those guns. I said that’s the risk I’ll take because I sure as hell don’t want to do this stateside shit over here.

“Now You’re a Combat Veteran”

Two weeks after I got to Sherry on March 6 we took a recoilless rifle attack. The 75mm recoilless was a crew-served weapon that fired a twenty-pound shell capable of penetrating four inches of armor. A wicked, wicked weapon. The thing about a recoilless rifle is they first shoot a .50 caliber tracer round, and as soon as they see the arc of that tracer they fire the big round right behind it. As soon as you see that tracer you know the round is coming. It’s not like a mortar that comes in on a high loop and throws a shrapnel pattern in a 360 degree circle. A recoilless rifle throws most of its momentum forward when it explodes because of the velocity and low angle of it coming in. They are a lot like a 105 howitzer shooting low angle.


Viet Cong loading a Chinese 75mm recoilless rifle. The photo was discovered by the 5th Royal Australian Regiment during a bunker search in 1967.

I was in a little empty bunker by myself, because I had just come onto the gun, when I heard the first two rockets come in and the siren. I jumped up and ran out towards the gun. As I was running past the ammo bunker it took a direct hit. There was a big yellow flash, a quick bang, and sand went everywhere. I went back and started getting ammo out of the bunker.

By that time they were firing the shit out of Gun 1. We already had the time fuses set and the gun at 060 quadrant for low fire. Everything on that base opened up like a Mad Minute. Then you couldn’t tell what was incoming from what was outgoing. That’s when I looked up and seen that tracer coming at us. I thought it was going to hit me right between the eyes. Sergeant Smith grabbed me by the neck, threw me down and fell on top of me. We all thought it was going to hit in our parapet, but it hit the Gun 2 shower instead. We got back up and started shooting again. I looked over and saw flames shooting up on Gun 3. I thought, oh shit that’s probably killed everybody. And then just that quick it was over and everything got quiet. Sergeant Smith was real comical when it was all over. He said, “Gentlemen, you are now combat veterans.” I laughed at that.

Sergeant Smith
Sergeant Smith

The S3 Operations Daily Staff Journal for March 7, 1971 reported that commencing at 2235 hours the night before, LZ Sherry received three enemy rockets of unknown caliber and seven 75mm rounds, four of which landed inside the battery. Sherry’s Q4 anti-mortar radar acquired the source of the attack at 2245 hours, resulting in artillery fire upon the target. Return fire ceased at 2259 hours. In all the battery expended forty-three high explosive rounds. Four U.S. personnel were wounded in action (slightly the report notes).

The report does not include the ammunition shot by the two Quad-50s, the two Dusters twin 40mm cannons, the machine guns in the towers, or the many illumination rounds always lofted during an attack. A great deal of hot lead flew out of Sherry when it was under attack.

The strikes on Gun 3 ammo bunker and Gun 2 shower are well documented. This is the first account of what happened on Gun 1.

The next morning we looked at the damage to our ammo bunker. The recoilless round went through high on the bunker wall and exploded on the inside. We only had about a hundred rounds in the bunker that didn’t explode. It’s amazing it didn’t set the rounds off, I still can’t get over that to this very day. Where the round came in at the top, we normally had ammo stacked up that high to the brim. It was low that day. We was supposed to get ammo that day, and we didn’t get it. If we’d of had ammo up there it would have took that firebase out. And we had about ten rounds of white phosphorous and beehive right out front in the door of the bunker, and it looked like someone took a twelve-gauge shotgun and shot holes through the brass canisters where the shrapnel penetrated. They didn’t go off either. It was just pure fate, is what that was.

Gun 3 Ammo Bunker
Gun 3 Ammo Bunker

Two recoilless rounds hit Gun 3 ammo bunker. One hit to the right of the doorway and ignited a pile of powder charges on the ground. The other passed through the door of the bunker and out the back wall, missing the ammo inside and exploding in an empty area behind the bunker. This second round may have been armor piercing with a delayed fuse.

It’s a wonder the round that hit Gun 3 ammo bunker wounded only four guys. It went right into the side of the ammo bunker near the door and caught fire to the powder bags laying on the ground. My good friend Gerald Gideon was hit on the knee, and a lieutenant got it on the side of his leg up along his hip. Gideon was ready to come home; he had been there like eighteen months and told me the firebase got hit every Saturday night.

The war was supposed to be winding down, but ol’ Charlie was pretty good and maybe just pure luck that he made direct hits on two of our ammo bunkers from that far out. We found the recoilless canisters. I was going to make a lamp out of one of them. I tried to take it home, but had to put it in a bin when I got to Cam Ranh Bay, and I’m sure an Air Force guy got it.

Recoilless canisters recovered from launch site
Recoilless canisters recovered from launch site

Two days later we took mortar rounds down along where Murder Incorporated was set up. The mortars came in along that perimeter there and I think three guys got wounded.

The S3 Operations Daily Staff Journal for March 9, 1971 reported that LZ Sherry received six 82mm mortars at 1740 hours and responded with fifty-four high explosive rounds and fifteen firecracker rounds. Three U.S. were wounded in action (slightly the report notes). Again the report does not include the supporting fire or illumination rounds.

We then had that Purple Heart ceremony a couple days later.

Gerald Gideon center
Gerald Gideon center

Sergeant Smith, the chief on Gun 1, I wish I would have put him in for a Bronze Star with V for valor, because he grabbed me around the neck and threw me down and fell on top of me that night. We all fell down because with that big yellow tracer coming at us we thought the round was coming into our gun pit. He fell on top of me, that was great valor, something you do in a hurry. Even though it didn’t hit, it was the thought.

General Brown came out on a Chinook helicopter to look at the damage, and of course when generals come out they always have gunships with them. We all had to stand at attention and he went down the gun sections and greeted everybody. I got my ass in trouble because I had zippers on my combat boots instead of the regular shoe strings. You took your regular shoe laces out and used them to tie in the zippers. That way instead of having to redo your laces every morning when you put your boots on, you could just zip them up. Guys would get them because when you had a fire mission you could just zip up your boots. They were super quick, but not regulation. The captain later on said something to Sergeant Smith who chewed my ass and told me you’re supposed to have regulation. They like to have everything regulation when a general comes around. After the general left and everything cooled down we all just put them back in again.

When It’s Dark Out

I can’t get over seeing that tracer coming at me when Sergeant Smith threw me down. I see that tracer every night when I go to bed, and those Gun 3 bunker flames in the air, and that round hitting beside our ammo bunker when I was next to it. That’s stuff you can’t forget. I don’t notice it any other time of the day, but when it’s dark out I see that. Once I get up in the daytime it ain’t nearly as bad, but when it gets real quiet and dark it’ll come back to me sometimes. When July 4 fireworks come around that brings back LZ Sherry. It ain’t no big deal.

Close Call

fullsizeoutput_297aWe got a fire mission in broad daylight, which was unusual because most of them were at night. At the same time a Chinook is coming in, and he is really cranking with our new medic on board. The chopper starts taking sniper fire. The medic is sitting there and a bullet just missed his head. He was a lucky, lucky guy.

FO School

They asked anybody if they wanted to go to FO school, they had some slots open. I said I would go. I just thought it might be interesting. So I went to FO school up in Nha Trang in April of 71, me and another kid named Lee. You learned azimuths, and shrapnel patterns that they had displayed on a big wall. The worst shrapnel pattern was from the 122mm rocket, wicked terrible shrapnel when those things exploded. We took two or three rounds of 122 at Phan Rang when I first got in country. It was my second night and I had not even been to my unit yet, all of sudden these sirens went off and we had to run down into this big bunker, a big long trench with sandbags over it. The rockets hit on the far side of the airbase and I am glad they did not come close. They are wicked, wicked weapons.

We were supposed to be up there a week but were only there for four days. Lee flunked out, and I barely passed. When I got back Lieutenant Kanak said do you want to go out and work with the ARVNs and call in artillery? I said hell no, I didn’t want no part of the ARVNs.

Long, Cold, Wet Night

I had to do illumination shooting one night. Gun 1 was the illum gun that night. The ARVNs called in and they were guarding a bridge and they were being probed and they wanted illum around them all night. It was pouring down rain and I was the only guy up on Gun 1. I shot an illum round about every fifteen minutes. You could see it coming down real slow beneath its parachute way out there. It was an eerie, eerie thing to see floating down in the darkness. It only took one guy to handle illumination. We already had the quadrant and deflection set, so it didn’t take a whole gun crew. All night it just rained and rained and rained. I’d go sit in the little gun hooch there by the radio, and every fifteen minutes or so go out and sump another round into the gun and fire it off. I took a picture of all those canisters the next morning. And you’d see the gooks come out to hunt those parachutes for the silk.

Rituals on Gun 1

Every night we went around the perimeter and raked the sand smooth, so if anybody tried to probe your perimeter you could see the footprints the next morning. As it got dark I liked to get me a cup of Kool-Aid or coffee in my metal Army cup – I couldn’t stomach that stinkin’ water – and I would go set on the bunker of Gun 1. There was an ARVN mortar unit somewhere that every night would shoot for ten or fifteen minutes. You could hear that WUMP every time one of the rounds hit. They did it like clockwork, and I would listen to them work out. I’d hear that KABOOM, KABOOM, KABOOM. It was just indiscriminate fire.

Then I’d look out toward LZ Betty for flashlights or movement. Betty had a big tower searchlight that you could see all the way from Sherry. That was a free fire zone you could shoot anywhere into, unless the province chief called down coordinates where you couldn’t shoot. But I’d see flashlights and movement out there. (The battery fired on movement only when it was within mortar range of the firebase.)

The night at LZ Sherry was a wakeup because you’re on edge and you never know when something is going to happen. It’s that adrenaline. It can happen so quick, and stop that quick. You’re a sittin’ duck out there with nowhere to go. It was really bad at the end because you had no American infantry. You’re relying on six 105s, two Quad-50s and two Duster twin 40s on the perimeter. I was kind of gung ho at first because nothing was happening, and then all hell broke loose the night of March 6.

When daybreak came it was my job to tear down the breechblock. We’d punch all the bores with solvent and check it with a bore sighting board. I would rebuild that breechblock and make sure it functioned real good because of all the dust and the grime out there. We always kept that gun in A1 shape.

 Starlight Scope

View through a starlight scope
View through a starlight scope

I wish I would have taken a picture of the starlight scope in the far tower facing the mountains. I only looked through it one time. I pulled guard duty up there one night for about four hours. I turned the toggle switch to turn that big star light scope on and I could not believe it. It was two o’clock in the morning and it looked like Saturday afternoon. It was wavy looking, you know like how you see heat waves coming off the concrete in the summer. God, there was no way Charlie could sneak up on you with the starlight scope.

Sobering Demonstration

Concertina wire at Sherry
Concertina wire at Sherry

A Chieu Hoi sapper came out with a MACV major, and he put on a display of going through our wire. We had triple concertina wire and trip flares. He just took two pieces of bamboo and he went through all of our perimeter wire like it was nothing. He was with the 306th North Vietnamese sapper battalion, which was up around Da Nang. Through the interpreter he said he had brothers fighting on the side of the south. He did not want to fight against them, so he Chieu Hoi’d over.

Lizards, Rats, Beetles, Cockroaches, Centipedes, and Invisible Bugs

When I first got to Sherry I slept in this little bunker dug into the ground. When I was laying there I had a flashlight and I heard this chirping noise. I shined the flashlight and here’s these damn big lizards on the wall. There was a window at ground level covered with a piece of mosquito netting. As I lay there trying to sleep these rats came past my window. You could see their silhouettes through the mosquito netting, piles of them. I don’t know who got the idea, but we’d take a bar of soap, pull the lead out of an M16 round and pack it full of soap. With that guys would blow a rat to pieces. Thirty-four hundred feet per second is what an M16 round will do.

There was a big well by Gun 1. We would take 40 mm Duster ammo canisters, put them in a canvas sling and drop them down in there and fill them with water for our shower barrel. You’d look down in that well and there’d be dead rats floating in it where they drowned. Then the water you got was full of sand, so that after you showered with it and dried off you had to brush all this sand off with your hands.

I was walking out around the Gun 1 parapet and seen this massive orange-ish red looking centipede. He must have been ten inches long. I would have hated to get tagged by him because they got some serious venom in them. I went and got my bayonet and I chopped that damn thing up in pieces, while it was wiggling all over the place. I came back a couple hours later and that damn thing was totally gutted by red ants. They ate everything but the outer shell. I thought wow nothing lasts over here.

I came across a beetle so big I had to take a picture of it next to a Pepsi can to show how big it was. I thought it was a cockroach at first, but I ain’t never seen a cockroach that big.

The cockroaches would fly around, some an inch and a half long, to the point I’d have them land in my coffee at night. We always had to have somebody on the phone next to the gun in case a fire mission came down. I would sit next to the phone with the coordinates book, and the cockroaches would just swarm over the place. There were all these little lizards, which scared me at first but I got used to them. I would sit there for entertainment and watch the lizards sneak up on the cockroaches. They’d grab a cockroach almost as big as they were. It was a continual feast of them lizards gorging themselves on cockroaches.

We had about forty guys that got serious diarrhea. I wrote a letter to the Adjutant General saying we had a serious problem and nobody was doing anything about it. So they came out, made everybody shit in a little medical sample envelope. They took them all back and found out that the gooks who cleaned the trays in the mess hall did not have the water hot enough. There was bacteria on them trays if you ate in the mess hall. From then on they made sure the water was super-hot. I did not eat in the mess hall very often.

I got bit on the neck one night and I didn’t even feel it. My neck swelled up so big it felt like a golf ball, but I didn’t have no pain. I thought what in the hell tagged me to cause that kind of swelling? The medic looked at it and said if it gets any worse he’d call a Medevac. It was swelled for about a day.

It was a smorgasbord of insects out there. You had the food chain of everything eating something. I never got very much sleep and I never took my pants off. I always slept with my pants on because I could never get over all the cockroaches, lizards and the damn snakes. I’d take my jungle boots off, leave my socks on, and I’d put my boots on top of the bed and tuck that mosquito net around me. I didn’t want no scorpions and God knows what else crawling in on me. In case we ever had a fire mission I could just slip my boots on and run out. I probably averaged about four or five hours a night. Never got a full eight hours. And that damn heat.

Rat Skin Billfold

I don’t know what happened to my billfold, whether it was falling apart when I first got there. The prostitutes would come out twice a week to those culvert half shelters right outside the wire. They would bring watermelon and all kind of stuff that they made. I bought a billfold off one of them made out of rat skin. Believe it or not when I got paid I accidentally threw that billfold away with four hundred bucks in it. Me and a bunch of guys went out to the trash dump, that big old pit outside the base where we dumped everything. We hunted through all that stuff and luckily we found it. I was only a Spec 4 and hated to lose all that money. I got the billfold back and I still have it in my possession. It has medium brown hair on the outside. The gooks would make stuff out of anything. Of course they ate rats too.

Live Action

I went over to Gun 3 later and took a picture of the crew during an actual fire mission. I got up on top of the bunker and shot the picture. And you can see the shell in midair checking out of the tube, the next guy getting ready to throw another round in, and another guy bringing up the next round.


Version 3

That sergeant with the deck of cards on his front teeth came in my bunker one day. Anybody who ever saw him smile could never forget him. I never had a chance to take a picture of him. Of all the pictures I didn’t take I’d love to have a picture of him. He seemed like a decent person. At the time he was Chief of Smoke. I remember a major came out to do a readiness test to see how good our firing battery was. He made that sergeant lay the whole battery again off his aiming circle, and he couldn’t do it. He was embarrassed because that was his job.

When he came into my bunker he saw this picture I had on the wall that a gook had painted of Snoopy laying on his dog house with the little bird, it’s painted on a kind of velvet. Snoopy is saying, “F___ it, just F___ it.” You know what the word is.

Version 2He said, “Why you got that on your wall like that?”

I said, “That’s my attitude about Vietnam.” He didn’t ask me to take it down. I still have it wrapped up. It’s just a killer picture.

And I got a patch that I bought that says VIET CONG HUNTING CLUB that I wore on my flak jacket. I still have that too, because they are very collectible.


There was so much dope when I was there, it was really bad. Guys were buying pure heroin. It was so bad that one of my guys on Gun 3 who was in my bunker with me stayed high all the time. His nose would run. He couldn’t even do a fire mission. He would get so damned stoned if you had infantry out there he would put you in jeopardy. He was a very nice kid, but he didn’t give a shit. He had an eight-track player and he would send back to the states to the Columbia record club and they would send him all these eight-tracks. He would never ship them the money. He’d say what are they going to do, come over and confiscate them?  And Gun 2 had a guy that shot up with heroin. There was another guy on speed who wouldn’t sleep, and he looked like the walking dead, like a zombie. We had a medical officer come out trying to get guys into rehab. He said if you turned yourself in we would not prosecute you. Nobody would step up; they just did not trust the military. 

Sending a Message Vietnam Style

We teargassed a First Sergeant out there, he was a complete asshole. We threw a canister of CS gas in his bunker. He threatened to court martial everybody, and he went around the base trying to find hand grenades and stuff. He called a formation and said whoever did that is going to Leavenworth. He wanted you to have your boots polished and all that bullshit. We hated him.

There was a kid on Gun 1 with me – I got a picture of him, his first name was Kent – he threw the CS. Trouble was when that shit went off the wind brought it back over our gun. You talk about coughing and eyes burning. That First Sergeant he stayed with the Captain because he couldn’t go into that bunker for a week that CS odor was so bad. A week or two later he came back to his bunker and somebody had laid a frag grenade under his pillow. It changed his whole attitude; he didn’t screw with us no more. He got the point that this ain’t back in the rear, man. You’re out here and we got enough problems. You can’t screw with us with your stateside shit. That cleaned him up pretty good. I think that would put the fear of God in me too.

The Business End of a Howitzer

Right before I came home I took a bad concussion in my right ear from Gun 3, on one of the last fire missions we done. It was maybe a week before we stood down. We were shooting for an ARVN unit that was getting hit. We were shooting full Charge 7 and it was late in the night. The azimuth of the gun barrel was right over the top of the entrance to the ammo bunker. I went to get another round and as I came running out they fired that 105. I took the whole muzzle energy right in the head when that round left the barrel. It rung my ears for days. Within a week or so I was coming home. It’s bothered me my whole life.

Last Jeep

The last month at Sherry the fire missions really went dry. We had very little going on and we were short staffed. The last week we did not shoot our guns, so it felt like things were really winding down. You were supposed to have nine guys in a firing section, and we only had six.

Word came down suddenly that we were standing down. Everybody celebrated and they had one massive drunken party. I didn’t; I didn’t drink. I think it was on July 4. They got a big cooler from the mess hall full of water and ice, it must have been twelve feet long. Then these very strong guys were going around grabbing everybody they could find and throwing them in that tub. They went through all of the bunkers all over the base. If they found that you weren’t wet you were going into that cooler. I was laying in my bunker there on Gun 3 trying to get some sleep. They came in and grabbed me, one of ‘em had my feet and the other had me behind the arms, and they drug me outside. I seen they were heading for that big cooler and everybody was laughing standing around drunk. I said, “Let me take my billfold out, man.” They threw me in that cooler, and it was pure cold.

We left Sherry the next day on July 5. Two sergeants from MACV stayed that night at Sherry to hold the base for the ARVNs. I seen them there and thought they must be out of their damn minds.

When we were leaving the Duster guys let their dog ride up on the main Duster. He was a light brown dog, we called him Snoopy. That dog was blind, he had no eyeballs in his sockets, but he could walk around that firebase, and as long as you didn’t move anything he didn’t bump into it. He could smell you and would only go to certain people. He wouldn’t come near me.

I rode in the very last jeep on that convoy with the Sergeant First Class whose teeth looked like a deck of cards when he smiled. Me and him pulled rear guard. I had an M79 grenade launcher and this vest on with all the pockets filled with 40mm canister rounds with buckshot. And I had my M16. We took off out the east road and then up highway 1. Our job was to scan the sides of the mountains and the rear of the convoy to make sure nothing was coming up on us. We didn’t worry that much because we had three or four Cobra gunships that flew long circles around that convoy all the way back to Phan Rang. I think they were worried about somebody popping up with an RPG rocket and taking out the first vehicle, which would shut down the whole convoy and then you’re in an ambush situation. With the two Quad-50s and two Duster twin cannons we had plenty of firepower to take on almost anything.

Almost half way we came up on this big old bridge. Oh my God, it must have been seventy-five yards above the river way down in this gulley. The bridge had crumbling cement and must have been built by the French back in the 30s or 40’s. We did not think it would take the weight of the Duster, which is heavy like a tank. The Captain said if it collapsed it and a Duster fell that far it would kill everybody. There was a winding dirt and gravel road that went down the side of the gulley. The whole convoy followed it down to a big dam. A jeep went across first above the dam real slow to see how deep the water was. The Duster came behind and then the rest of the convoy followed. One of the trucks went too far off and turned on its side. It had a potable water tank on the back of it. We all had to go out and push it upright so a Duster could come and put a chain on it and drag it out. After that we got the convoy back up the side of the gulley and onto Highway 1 again.

I remember one big hill we went over where Firebase Mike Norton was that got overrun in 1970 and killed a bunch of people. (Charlie Battery 5/27 occupied Firebase Mike Norton for a time in 1970.) That was kind of a scary area, but it was so beautiful. I remember looking off to the left at an old narrow-gauge railroad that the French had built. And out there was a French tank with a big hole in its turret like it had taken a B-40 rocket. I said I wish I had film in my camera.destroyed tank along road on last convoy – Version 2

Steve Bell did have film in his camera and shot a blurry picture as the convoy sped past.

I thought what a lonely place to die, because they were fighting the Viet Minh back then.

The Viet Minh was formed by Ho Chi Min in China in 1941, to fight the Japanese in Vietnam during WWII, and then to gain independence from the French. With the division of Vietnam into North and South the Viet Minh took control of the North. When it tried to root out counter-revolutionaries it lost the support of the people and disbanded. It was replaced in 1960 by the Viet Cong.

We hit a blinding monsoon rainstorm about twenty miles out from Phan Rang. It poured by the buckets and we got drenched. Our main deuce-and-a-half truck had a bearing that was going bad and the wheel was smoking horribly. We were worried that the wheel was going to crystalize and break off. When we finally made it into Phan Rang in the pouring rain the colonel had a celebration for us, beer and T-bone steaks, because we had been convoying all morning.

The Duster guys told me they had to shoot Snoopy once they got to the rear, because they didn’t want the gooks to eat him.

The next day when we got up we heard from S2 Intelligence that once we pulled out of Sherry it got hit. There were only the two sergeants there and from what I heard they got hit real bad. I don’t think there was any hardened NVA in that area at the time. But all they had was a perimeter and some bunkers. If they got hit by a Viet Cong unit they would be in trouble. If they got into one of the good bunkers on the perimeter with a M60 they might have held them off long enough to call in a gunship. Just guessing.

That morning we had to go north to Can Ranh Bay to turn in the howitzers. The driver of that deuce-and-a-half started the truck up, drove about ten feet, and that whole wheel broke right off. Once it cooled down overnight, it didn’t want to go any further.

Home in A Flash

Coming home out of Cam Ranh Bay they took thirty-two guys off my flight because they couldn’t pass the drug test. We all had to go in a latrine, and they had this guy sitting in a chair above us. They gave each of us a tube and we had to piss in it, put a cork in it, and write our name on it. If your test came back positive they pulled you off the flight home. You had to either detox at Cam Ranh or get back to Ft. Lewis and detox before the Army would release you.

We also had to take everything out of our pockets and lay it at our feet. I had an Army knife they took from me saying it was illegal. Of course I also had the 75mm canister I was going to make a lamp out of I had to throw into a bid.

It was so quiet on my flight home.

I got into Ft. Lewis, Washington and they took pictures of the plane and guys sitting in the lobby you could buy. The next day they asked me if I wanted to re-up and I said hell no. They give me a steak dinner, process me, give me whatever pay I had coming. I caught a plane to Chicago, then went down to Dayton, Ohio. There was a phone strike so I couldn’t call home, nobody knew I was coming. Some old farmer saw me walking down the highway with my duffle bag on my shoulder. He picked me up and took me into Troy, which is about ten miles. Five days after leaving LZ Sherry I am back at my old job. It took a while to adjust to that.

Holy Ground

It was sad. Anywhere you go and see those mountains and you think of all the killing that went into the beautiful little country you never forget it. I knew even at that young age it was an historical event. I’m glad I got back. To stand next to an ammo bunker that took a direct hit and walk away from it is pretty good.

It was a short, quick time in our lives when we all got together on one little piece of land out in the middle of nowhere and hoped we made it out of there. We don’t realize until later in life that it was a wonderful experience in some ways, and a sad experience at the same time. It was something you never forgot no matter what you go through in life. Some made it and some didn’t, and when you look back it’s holy ground, very holy ground.

Steve Bell – Gun Crew – Part Two

The Wild Life

There were cockroaches and rats everywhere, and poisonous snakes: cobras and kraits. One of our guys shot a six foot krait snake from underneath a hooch.

Gary Sears with banded krait
Gary Sears with banded krait 

The krait is one of the world’s deadliest snakes. It’s bite injects a powerful neurotoxin, and if untreated is fatal within six to twelve hours. There is little or no pain at the site of the krait bite, creating a false reassurance in the victim. If bitten at night while asleep the victim can die without ever waking.

The rats were so bad that one night a guy on Gun 5 from Wisconsin woke up with a big rat chewing on his toe. One night I set a spring trap in my hooch, and every time it sprang on a rat I’d throw the rat out the door and reset the trap. Five minutes later it would go off again. It was BANG BANG BANG all night long.

There was an old hooch we tore down, and when we pushed over the first wall the rats and cockroaches rolled out like a wave and we had to jump to get out of the way. You didn’t want to set your beer down very long because the cockroaches would be all over it.

Haunted Hooch

Sgt. Rock was the new Gun 5  crew chief and a real nice kid. He was built like a brick shithouse and worked out all the time to stay in shape, and I supposed to fight the boredom of life on our base.

Sergeant Rock
Sergeant Rock

Shortly after coming to Gun 5 he decided we needed to build him a new hooch. This hooch Rock wanted was going to be twice the size of the normal hooches, and would hooch three people. So we collected ammo boxes. We rounded up god knows how many sand bags and piled into the back of our deuce-and-a-half. Where we needed to get the sand was outside the wire a ways. We went with our shovels and M16s. This new hooch was going to take days and days of sandbag and shovel work. As our hole got larger and deeper we started running into all these wooden planks. Big deal, right? Well we just kept on digging. Come to find out LZ Sherry was built close to a small village that had long since disappeared. All around our sandbag dig we could see bits and pieces of the village just showing above the dirt.

Remnant of the villagee
Remnant of the village

As we kept digging and filling the sandbags, we started to run into bones. First a femur, then a few ribs, and the next thing I know I dig up a human pelvis. Well that just about freaked us all out. We scrambled into our truck and called it quits on that hole.

The next day we were told that was the only place with good sand where we could dig safely, so here we went to dig more bones. When you’re nineteen years old not much bothers you though. Any bones we dug up after that we buried in the end. To this day it still does not bother me, I don’t know why. After that hooch was built I always thought of it as the haunted hooch.

The Best Birthday Present

This story starts two days before my twentieth birthday, when my gun chief came to my hooch and told me to pack for a short trip to Cam Ranh. He told me I had been chosen to become the battery projectionist. They wanted me to attend a two day class to learn to operate different movie projectors. Well I was new to LZ Sherry and thought movies would be fun for everyone. And I had a hometown friend in Cam Ranh that was a photographer for the navy and I might get to see him. I was all for this trip. I soon  found myself in a one day crash class for projection operation with no spare time to see my friend.

On my birthday I jumped on a Chinook for the one hundred mile trip back to LZ Sherry. We had about four other guys coming along with us. They were going to Phan Thiet after the chopper dropped off at LZ Sherry. Being that I was new in country and liked to take photos of everything, I spent my time hanging out the back port window taking pictures of the landscape from the air.

As I was hanging out the window I heard over the noise of the engines a series of very loud bangs, like someone was beating the chopper with a sledge hammer. I just turned my head in time for the crew chief to grab me by my shirt and throw me to the floor. The Chinook went into a ninety degree bank and started losing altitude. We were going down fast and everyone was on the floor. Finally it dawned on me we were taking fire and were hit. I really was scared shitless and if we kept losing altitude we were going to crash. Now this all happened all in about thirty seconds. The crew chief told me we were hit and losing hydraulics.

We finally leveled off, but we were not out of the woods yet, as we did not know if we would make it back to LZ Sherry. I was thinking: Great, three weeks in country and I was going to crash in the rice paddies in the middle of nowhere. Everyone was pretty amped up as we flew low and limped our way back to Sherry. We did make it and I almost kissed the ground when we landed.

The Chinook was damaged and could not take off for Phan Thiet. Sherry had a few extra guests that night, and we were put on yellow alert that night because the chopper was a prime target for attack. Those photographs I took out of the Chinook window always remind me of how I almost bit the big one on my twentieth birthday.

Picture just before chopper hit with machine gun fire
Picture just before chopper hit with machine gun fire

It’s A Guy Thing

The strongest memory I have about coming home on the plane is the stewardess going down the aisle spraying air freshener. She told us we smelled. I couldn’t smell anything, but I guess she did.

Steve Bell – Gun Crew – Part One

Snoopy’s Luck

I was nineteen in 1969 when a buddy and I sat in my VW listening to the dates for the draft lotto. I was young, had a good job and honestly did not want to go to the Army. So as we waited for our birthdates to come up we drank a few beers, both hoping our youthful good luck would give us each a high number, lessening our chances of being drafted.

As luck turned out my number ended up being thirteen, and my buddy’s three hundred and something. My friend never did go, but my story was different. I am color blind, have a heart murmur, and a knee that likes to pop out of joint. Still I passed the Army physical with no problem. The Army doctor did not hear a thing when he listened to my chest. Yet when I got out of the Army and applied for a DOT job, the old doctor had me step up and down a few times on a low stepping stool and said right away, “Yep, you’ve got a murmur.” Six months after my Army physical I found myself in Ft. Lewis, Washington getting a butch haircut, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

June 1970 I found myself hurrying down a sand road on LZ Betty to find my chopper out to Sherry. As I carried my duffle bag over my shoulder and worked to keep my footing, I noticed something shiny sticking out of the sand just off the road. I picked it up and found that it was a nice Zippo lighter. It was engraved on both sides. One side was Snoopy standing on top of his doghouse riddled with bullet holes. He is wearing aviator goggles and his aviator cap with his fist in the air. Underneath Snoopy it read: Fuck you Red Barron. On the other side was Psalm 23.4: Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and so forth. It was a nice lighter and I did smoke and needed one.

Lighter similar to Steve’s
Lighter similar to Steve’s

As I neared the chopper I remembered what the guys who gave me my orders told me to do, with me being a cherry and all. They told me to hang on and don’t fall out the chopper door as the door would be wide open. When I got at Sherry the chopper would not land due to the danger of enemy fire. They said it would hover about six feet off the ground and I had to jump and run. I thought: Oh God, was this lighter an omen? Was I scared.

I reached my chopper ride and hopped in. It was a short ride and I took snapshots of the area, noting all the rice paddies and the lack of trees. After a short flight we approached Sherry and circled the base, and for the first time I saw what a real firebase looked like. I saw a lot of sandbag bunkers, two tanks (the Dusters), many rows of concertina wire surrounding the whole base and all six guns in their parapets. The guns were not the same I was trained on at Ft. Sill, but something new I had never seen before. They turned out to be the new M-102s with longer range, much easier to air lift and set up.

As we circled I was thinking of the directions they told me back at LZ Betty about jumping from the chopper. So as we came in I was a lot nervous and readied myself for anything. After all, I was a cherry big time. The chopper didn’t hover but gently sat down on the pad, much to my relief. As I got my bag off I kind of laughed at those guys at Betty. I bet they told all the cherries to jump and had a good laugh also.

So My life at LZ Sherry for nearly fourteen months began. I kept that lighter the entire time I was at LZ Sherry, but lost it the very day we pulled up our guns to leave the base. So I think it served me well and was a good luck charm. I went home safe. Silly things stick in you head when you’re a kid.

First Action

My first week at LZ Sherry I am put on Gun 5, named Barbarella and the battery base piece. (Base piece fired the first adjusting rounds of a fire mission, followed by the other guns.) Everyone on Gun 5 was very friendly and helpful when I first got there. Some guys had been there for awhile and knew the ropes. For the first few days I just got to learn the layout of the base and was introduced to the new M-102 howitzer that I had never seen before.

Bell and Barbarella
Bell and Barbarella

I ended up sharing a hooch with two other guys, and that helped a lot. I was the third man in the hooch. Usually only two men were put in a hooch but they already had a full crew and I was  extra. My hooch partners were Clay and a guy from Wisconsin, his name was Hansen. I did have a cot, though and the only space was just inside the door. Most hooches were very small with two sections to them, the entrance and the sleeping area separated by a blast wall. The wall was there just in case of sappers. I slept in the blast wall entrance area.

On the fourth night, a very black night, Hansen and Clay and I were playing some cards in the hooch and we heard some distant thumps. I didn’t think anything of them, as at night guns went off all night long. Hansen and Clay jumped up yelling INCOMING and next the siren was blasting. My hooch partners grabbed helmets and flack jackets, yelled at me to stay put and not go outside, to wait until the mortars hit. They were out of the hooch in a split second.

I just sat there stunned for about three seconds after they left and thought: Shit, this is the real deal. Also I remember thinking: I got to go, this is what I am here for, my new friends are out there, and I should be with them. This all took place in just a few seconds. I hit the door and was exposed. I was shaking and scared, but thinking also of my duty. It was a straight shot to the Gun 5 parapet, about eighty feet across the road. I got about ten feet out the door and noticed it was no longer pitch black. Illumination rounds were lit overhead, and men, guns and hooches all swung to and fro caused by the illumination parachutes swinging above. The smoke from the howitzers was so heavy it was like fog, and I will never forget that smell. As I got closer to my gun I could see the parapet lit up. The scene was like having tunnel vision, shadows and light swinging, but also strobing from gun flashes.

When I reached the gun everyone was doing their thing. I couldn’t believe the gun could fire that fast, but the boys were pumping her. They needed ammo fast so I tried to get my shit together and do what I was trained to do. I did do it, and today am proud of my actions during my first enemy action. I don’t think I slept the rest of that night. I had to pull guard but was too worked up to sleep anyway. This was the first of many mortar, rocket and small arms attacks I experienced on LZ Sherry, but this time everyone came though safe.

Mike Leino – Fire Direction Control – Part Three

Going Home From the Nam

I was at LZ Sherry for almost 14 months. I had signed up for the five month early out of the Army if I would extend in Nam for another two months. So I did it cuz I don’t think I could have handled the spit and shine stateside after being in Nam. I don’t think I could have handled five extra months of military. Yep, it was a long two extra months. I kept my butt way low that last two.

Toward the end the way it worked out I was on night shift and got back to my hooch for a good sleep, did what I had to do to get comfortable, and went to sleep. I got woke up by someone, don’t remember who, but they said, “Pack your stuff, cuz you’re going home on the next chopper.”

In a daze I said, “Get the fuck out of here before I shoot you,” while I am reaching for my M-16 that was next to me on the wall. Whoever it was left of hooch quickly. They sent someone else back to tell me it was true: I’m going home. For some reason the Army was giving two-week early-outs from Nam. I was short but never thought I’d get it.

Anyway, the second guy that came to tell me the news (I believe it this time) said that I got only a little bit of time to get packed, cuz that chopper was on its way. I don’t remember anything else but getting on the Huey and looking at the back of the pilot’s helmet. It said TRAVERSE CITY, MICHIGAN. He asked me where I was from. I said, “Detroit Michigan.”

And he said, “Cool, I’ll take you for a good last ride.”

We dropped to ground level chasing water buffaloes and making the mama sans dive into rice patties. I finally said, “Get this thing high because I don’t want to die in a chopper.” WHAT A RIDE!

Did all the processing out in Phan Thiet, Phan Rang and Cam Rahn Bay. Got as drunk and stoned as I could at each place. It was pretty smooth going to finally getting on that Freedom Bird.

Once on the jet I couldn’t believe it. American women!!! WOW!!! They were nice. I just didn’t know how to act. I think I felt like a dirty animal.

There were hoots and hollers once we took off. I think my jet was going to explode once we saw the coastline go away. I think I slept all the way back. I guess after almost fourteen months of Vietnam I was ready for a good nap.

It’s a Whole New World

Got to the state of Washington after refueling in Guam I think, and it was all kinds of processing out again. “Put all your contraband in the big garbage cans before you go through these gates.” Who would be that stupid to try to get something through them gates? Like someone said before, you mailed it home.

Physical and mental checkups were done on us. We were all mentally shot. At that point we would have barked like monkeys if they asked us to. Sign a thousand papers, here’s your plane ticket home and $600.

Washington to San Francisco. San Francisco was not cool. Got called all kinds of names and I hid out at the USO till my flight to Chicago. Same at O’Hare on way to Detroit. Detroit my brother and sister-in-law were waiting for me. My brother had a bottle of Ripple and a joint for me for the ride home. It was morning too. My whole family was at my mom and dads when we arrived home. I cried! My so-called girlfriend was there too. My dad even took the day off for my coming home. It was great at home with my family. Lots of drinking and talking and getting buzzed.

Later that evening my girlfriend and I went back to her apartment and she gave me some tea (with LSD in it) then told me she had a boyfriend. I told her I hope you are happy and adios. Trying to drive back to my folks house was definitely a trip. I don’t know if I even had a drivers license anymore. Got back to the folks house and they were still partying. (It was good). A a lot of my buddies found out I was home and came by and it turned out to be a good night. Really got high. Mom and dad, brother, sister and friends were buzzed and drunk.

After that I noticed things have really changed and I’m thinking I don’t know if I like this too much. Stupid stuff really pissed me off. The buddy I got drafted with because of that trouble in Detroit got out of the army about three weeks after I got home. We did a lot of crazy stuff together. I think I could write a book about a crazy vet and his friend.

Summing up

I am not a crazy druggie or drunk! Some people back in Detroit say I was pretty out there. I guess it was just trying to figure what I was going to do. Just trying to catch up to the world. I tried everything without hesitation, had to find out what worked for me and what didn’t.

Now I am a peace loving guy that has a family. I enjoy a few beers and a couple hits of pot a couple times a week to calm me down when I get in hyper moods – it helps.

I am in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where my folks are from. Backwoods! Copper mining country. This is where my ancestors came to from Finland to make a new life for themselves after the Finnish-Russian war. A beautiful part of the country, but way too much snow. Gettin’ too old to move it around. Snow blowers and shovels are too hard anymore. Thinkin’ about Arizona where my son and his family are. Beautiful there.

I am going to veterans hospitals pretty regular now. Prostate cancer and forty-seven radiation treatments. My insides are not the same. Now I’m getting heart and vascular checkups and monitored pretty regular. They say it’s due to Agent Orange. To tell the truth I feel messed up. That’s where the beers and pot come in. Makes me feel good. So tired of doctors and appointments. Being in the boonies of the UP it’s a ride to a VA hospital. There has got to be a change where the civilian hospitals work with the VA.

Anyway, I’m not going to be a cry baby. I’m proud that I served with the 5/27. To me it was, let’s say, a well oiled machine. I loved everyone, well minus a couple. I tried to be a good guy and dependable. I’ve always loved new faces. I just hope I didn’t let anyone down. I did the best I could. Changed my life in a lot of different ways. I guess you could say I’ve got a lot of brothers from being put on LZ Sherry with a lot of good people.

Adios, Bros.

Mike Leino – Fire Direction Control – Part Two

Smart Enough

One day someone came to my hooch and told me the captain wanted to see me, and I said, “Why?”

“Don’t know,” he said.

I went to the Captain’s hooch wondering what I did wrong. In his hooch he asked me if I was interested in going into Fire Direction Control. I said, “What?? Why me?”

He said my test scores showed I was smart enough. Whoa! That’s a first. He said there was a shortage of trained FDC people, and we have FDC people leaving and we needed someone now.

I said, “I can’t leave the gun and I know nothing about FDC.”

He also said, “You would be protected during mortar attacks.”

I still said, “I don’t think so.”

He said, “I can make you, so think about it for a day or two.”

I finally said I would go into FDC. But all I could think is the guys on Gun 1 are gonna hate me. I just figured being in a sandbag hooch is safer for the remainder of time I had left at Sherry.

It was not easy for me going into FDC. All the guys in there were older and seemed a little too brainy and serious than what I was used to.

So the training began. Charts, maps, calculating, deflection, wind direction. What??? I was terrible at math in high school. I think the brainiacs didn’t have too much patience with me. Then I had to learn the radios and giving the commands to the guns on fire missions. I picked up on that pretty quick. Learning the codes for ordering supplies and ammo from the rear areas. I liked working the radios the most.

Mike Leino on his radios
Mike Leino on his radios

As time went on and the older guys were going home, younger guys were coming into FDC and it was becoming more comfortable and less stressful. It was a little crazy when getting mortars coming in and I had to go outside to the generator shack to switch over to a different generator, because one was about to run out of gas. Sometimes I’d just go and talk to the guys I was with on the guns. It was like a break. It broke up the boredom of just being in FDC.

The guys that were in FDC at the end of my tour were great. Ed, you and Kim Martin I liked the best. Kim and I had built a new hooch together. I have to say it was a good one. Another one I really liked was Lieutenant Christenson. He was not like any brass I had encountered. It’s like he was one of us. I got a couple little stories about him I don’t think I should tell! Medics were cool guys too.

I have to say I’m glad we were allowed to have a beer there. I know it put my head in a different place. There was also another tidbit that would put my mind somewhere else too. The rut of fire direction and sleeping really got to me, so I had to party anyway I could. I know Smoke knew I was doing something, but I was always a step ahead of him.

Leino in party mode
Leino in party mode

Comment from Kim Martin, hooch mate and fellow FDC guy:

Mike and I got to be pretty close in Nam. He gave me an embroidered ribbon-like cloth about twelve inches long and two inches wide with the word VIETNAM stitched in the middle which I keep in my den on an antique table from my mother.  It reminds me of those days long ago in Nam with Mike in particular, and other friends I made there. Mike had a great sense of humor and was a really good guy. I was lucky to share a hootch with him, which we built together.

Mike Leino resting on new hooch – Version 2

Mike and Kim taking a break Pictures by Kim Martin
Mike and Kim taking a break
Pictures by Kim Martin

Comment from 1st Lieutenant Bob Christenson:

 I remember Mike as kind of a quiet, introspective guy who didn’t say a lot but was taking it all in. In retrospect he was probably like the rest of us trying to figure out, What the hell am I doing here? He was an integral part of FDC though, and you could always count on Mike. I’m glad he had my back.

 When I think of Mike, two things stand out. First, I remember the firebase dogs, who were great judges of character. They liked Mike a lot. I recall that Tag was particularly close to Mike and vice versa.  Smoke, our FDC dog, was the son of Tag and Crash. Everyone on the firebase was really bummed the day Top had most of the dogs killed, and I think Mike was particularly upset. I think it took him a long time to get over it.

My other recollection is the day Mike saved someone’s life when they were out burning trash. Apparently the guy doused the trash in gasoline and splashed some on himself. When he lit the trash he lit himself. As I heard the story, the guy started to run and Mike tackled him and rolled with him to put the fire out. Mike was OK but the other guy was seriously burned and was sent back to the states. Mike never hesitated to put himself in danger to save this person, and I think that tells you everything you need to know about Mike. I put him in for a well-deserved medal, but was later told the battalion commander nixed it because he was afraid it would look bad if someone in his command broke Army regs by burning trash with gas.

Mike was a solid guy and an integral part of the FDC team.  Hard to believe that we were there over 45 years ago.

Picture by Bob Christenson Written on the back: “Mike Leino’s gear, now home and out of the Army”
Picture by Bob Christenson
Written on the back: “Mike Leino’s gear, now home and out of the Army”

Comment from Ed Gaydos, FDC section chief:

When I arrived at Sherry in early May of 1970 there were three guys in FDC brought in from the gun crews. All of them had learned the complexities of fire direction on the job. This was one of the most difficult specialties in the Army, and I was impressed.

Mike always had a dreamy, screw-the-Army attitude about him. Yet he took particular care about everything he did, sometimes moving in what seemed to me slow motion. He built the tightest sandbag wall on the firebase, each bag arranged like large bricks. This deliberate approach served him well in FDC. Working the radios or figuring firing data from charts and graphs and slide rules, I don’t remember him ever making a mistake or losing his cool under pressure. And of course, he was more than smart enough.

Mike Leino – Fire Direction Control – Part One

Editor’s Note

Mike sent me his stories handwritten, printed in the neat hand that made him the go-to sign maker at LZ Sherry.

Mike at work on a sign Picture by Kim Martin
Mike at work on a sign
Picture by Kim Martin

Like a Hooch

 Cover letter from Mike:

Hey Ed, Leino here.

I sure hope you don’t mind if I contribute to your book this way. It’s the most comfortable way for me. After reading all the memories from the other guys I feel like why not, it’s cool. Reading it all got me thinking about a lot I had forgotten.

I got a room in my basement where I listen to music and do some art, have some beers and a couple hits, and figured it’s a perfect time to write some things down. I guess the room is like a hooch.

A lot of what has been said is what I remember but I think I can add a few things. All I know is that we could be bored out of our minds and then total chaos.

Well Ed, I don’t know how much I’ll come up with but here we go.

Wrong Place – Wrong  Time

There was no lottery at the time, just the draft. Us guys, friends of mine, were just out of high school and working at little jobs that were opening up all over Detroit. Job shops! Making parts and components for the manufacturing of war components. Shops all over the place! You could find five jobs in a matter of hours then.

Anyway, all of my friends were hippies. Me too! We loved music and were going to the Grande Ballroom in Detroit to see all the bands from everywhere. We were going to see Led Zeppelin on Friday night. It was Led Zeppelin’s first time in Detroit, and First USA tour. Love their first album. Anyway, we got a ride with some friends to the Grande Ballroom and they said, “We have to stop at the house to cop some (to get high) for the concert.

So we said, “Cool, we will get some too.”

Got to the house, went in, and the next thing we knew every door and window was smashed in and the cops had us at gunpoint. I think there was seventeen people in that house that night. Everyone threw what they had in their hands in the air. I didn’t know any of these people, but I guess they were a lot heavier into the drug scene then I was.

I was hauled off to Precinct One in Detroit. Spent two days in jail, and when the cops interviewed me I said I was just a rider with friends to the concert. Cop didn’t care. He said, “We didn’t get you with anything, but we are still going to let the draft board know about you.”

Got home Sunday morning and walked in my folks’ house, and the first thing my dad said was, “Get a haircut or get out.” I turned around to go out and he said, “Where are you going?”

I said, “To get a haircut.” On Sunday – yeah right!

Instead I went to my brother’s– a hippie too! Stayed there for about two weeks. Then my mom called and said, “Come home and have a chat.”

Long story short, the folks and I got into each other’s heads and it worked out. My folks tried pot with me and liked it I guess. We smoked together quite a few times. Seemed to mellow them.

Anyway, shortly after, my buddy that was with me during the bust and I, we got our draft notices. Both the same day.

Where am I?

This is going to be trouble

When I was flying into Vietnam I was looking out the window of the jet and saw little specs out in the middle of nowhere and thought, what the hell are those? Getting off the jet in Bien Hoe and heading to the buildings or terminal, there was a boom boom boom noise and the guys that were going to get on the jet to go home started hitting the ground. I thought, What is going on? It was incoming mortars, and us new guys had no idea.

After doing all the reporting in and standing in line I was sent all over Vietnam. I guess the Army was trying to figure out where to send me. I enjoyed the NCO clubs in all the places. Finally they found a place for me, a place called Phan Rang, 5th of the 27th . What is that??? They gave me gear and sent me to Phan Thiet. Once there I reported in and whoever was in charge said, “God, do we need the people out there.”

I said, “Out there?”

It turned out to be one of those little specs out in the middle of nowhere. Shit!!! There were guys laying around in the bunks, and I started talking to them and found out that they were wounded and we’re going to be going back out in the field to LZ Sherry. Uh oh!

About a day or two later I was on a chopper with some supplies out to Sherry. I arrived at LZ Sherry in September of 1969. From the helicopter LZ Sherry was in the middle of nowhere. In my head I’m thinking I’m a goner.

Landing on the chopper pad, a big sand and dirt circle clearing, two guys in a jeep where there to pick up me and the supplies.
These guys were pretty grubby. They asked me if I was the new guy. I said, Yep. They asked me where I was from. I said Detroit. Then they asked if I was a “head” (as opposed to a juicer who preferred alcohol). I said, Yep. Next thing I know I am tokin’ with these guys. I went to their hooch and got pretty messed up. Then they blew my mind and said they had to do things and I had to go and report into the captain. How I made it through that, I don’t know.

I was put on Gun 1. The sergeant on Gun 1 was really a nice guy. He put me in a hooch with a black guy named Ed Parker from somewhere in south Michigan. He was a trip, I really liked him.

I was the new guy so I got all the crap jobs on the gun crew. Humping ammo for the gun was the worst. Really hard on the back. The ammo bunkers were low and carrying the rounds out really got me sore, especially during fire missions and martyrs coming in. It was scary. Working on the deuce-and-a-half was not fun either after mortar attacks. Eventually I worked my way up to firing the gun, but it still wasn’t fun when there was incoming.

Leino under a sneak attack Picture restored by Rik Groves
Leino under a sneak attack
Picture restored by Rik Groves


Ron Walker – Gun Crew – Part Two

August 12, 1969

That summer we got mortared not only at night but during the daytime too. It was just raining 81s on us (81 mm mortars). It was on Gun 3 and late at night when Pyle got killed. Two Medevac helicopters come in. We was there loading the wounded, and I was one of the guys on the stretcher carrying Pyle. He was dead before he went out. A real good friend of Pyle’s, Mulvihill was his name, he took it real bad I remember. The whole gun crew was wounded. A friend of mine I came in country with, his name was Ruben Wagner, he was wounded. He had a flak jacket on, but I remember he got wounded in the spine right below his flak jacket. He was a big guy and he must have had a small flak jacket.

In addition to Gun 3, early that morning at 1:30 AM Gun 2 also took a mortar hit. It killed Theodus Stanley and wounded two: crew chief Rik Groves and Paul Dunne. First lieutenant Hank Parker, soon to become battery commander, describes the state of affairs following the August 12 attacks.

“Now we are dangerously shorthanded at LZ Sherry. We lost ten men on August 12. That on top of the losses from the pounding we’d taken during July and early August. So out of a full strength battery of six guns and 120 guys, we’re down to five guns and 67 guys at Sherry. A full gun crew is eight guys, and we are struggling to find four for a gun.”

We had a couple of real good medics that saved a lot of lives. The medics always took good care of the wounded and got them on to Medevac’s. Especially that night. I think most of the guys wounded on that night recovered and came back, because a couple of them ended up on Gun 6. I remember because the next day or two they moved a bunch of guys around and took me from Commo onto Gun 6.

Humping ammo with Willie Wheat (on right) – Gun 6
Humping ammo on Gun 6 with Willie Wheat

Rik Groves had just thirty-two days left on his tour when he was wounded. After  recuperation he managed a brief, bittersweet visit back to Sherry but did not return to duty.  Paul Dunne did return.

Death of Paul Dunne

They were asking for volunteers to go on a mine sweep, and I guess I volunteered. We were slated to do the mine sweep and then go all the way into town with the convoy. There was a new Commo sergeant who was in charge of the mine sweep. He was the one who had the metal detector. I remember him sweeping all the way up to the bridge. The jeep stopped in the middle of the bridge and everybody got off. It might have been a C4 (plastic explosive) mine planted there, because he did not pick up anything. The sergeant gave the all clear and then we all piled back on the jeep. I went to the left front bumper and I set there on the front of the jeep. Something told me to turn around and look, maybe it was divine intervention, and when I turned around nobody was sitting in the passenger seat next to Dunne who was driving. I got off the front, went and sat down in the passenger seat. Jim Kustes he was on the back of the jeep, he went up there and took my spot.

The jeep began to move, and just as we got off the edge of the bridge we hit the mine. My eyes went black and my ears was ringing so bad from the explosion. After I come to my senses I somehow stumbled around on the other side of the jeep and I seen Paul laying there. I seen his jugular was cut. The first thing I did was put my hands down over his neck. It was just gushing out so bad. Then the Commo sergeant, he run up to where Paul was at. He always had this green towel around his neck. He took the towel off and pressed it down on Paul’s neck.

I stood up and then I heard Kustes hollering for help. Maybe twenty feet away I seen him laying in the creek down there off the side of the road. There was water in the creek up to his chest. I ran down and pulled him out of the creek. The first thing I noticed around his thumb area, I cannot remember which hand, it was peeled back pretty good. And there was a big hole in his leg. From those first aid pouches they gave you that I had on me I bandaged him up as best I could and gave him a shot of morphine. I said to him, “Well, it looks like you got a ticket home.” I wish I had not said that because he said back to me, “Oh don’t tell me that.”

We did not have a medic with us.

After Kustes and Dunne were Medevac’d out, they were the only two wounded as I remember, we went back to Sherry. They pulled the jeep back to Sherry and if you look at pictures of that jeep it did not have a windshield.

Picture by Andy Kach
Picture by Andy Kach

I do not know why they took them off. I think a part of the hood is what cut Dunne’s throat. If there had been a windshield on that jeep he might be alive today. It was just an inch or two on his jugular that was cut. I do not know if his lower body was injured, it probably was. But I am almost a hundred percent sure he died because he bled out from his jugular.

My ears rang for three days is all that happened to me. I was fortunate.

The Medals Were Purple

I came into Sherry in April 1969 as a PFC (E3). In December a bunch of us got promoted to corporal (E4) all because of one guy. His name was Cleaton, the guy who carried an M-79 grenade launcher out on that perimeter sweep with Parker. So many guys out on the guns were PFCs. If you were a gunner you were supposed to be an E5 sergeant. An assistant gunner was supposed to be a corporal. I was a gunner, I was an assistant gunner, I was a loader, but still a PFC. And I was not the only one. Cleaton was always bitching about not getting promoted. He said, “What do we got to do around here to get promoted? We do everything these people ask us to do. We run out in the middle of the night getting rained on by mortars, we return fire, we do our jobs.”

A colonel was coming in one day. I remember we were sitting around playing cards. Cleaton was good at cards, he always took our money. He said, “I’m fixing to either get promoted our I’m going to be court-martialed.”

I said, “What are you talking about?”

“When that colonel comes I am going to march down to his hooch and have it out with him about getting promoted.”

And he did. I do not know what he said to that colonel but it was not long after that all the PFCs who had been at Sherry for a certain amount of time got promoted to corporal.

Besides promotions there was a bunch of guys deserving of Bronze Stars and probably even Silver Stars. I was put in for an Army Commendation medal, but I never got it. We would get out on our guns to return fire with mortars still coming in. There should have been a lot more medals awarded. Instead we got Purple Hearts. I got mine on September 6 from mortar shrapnel. I caught a little bit on the knee and shoulder. It was not bad enough to get Medevac’d out. I was fortunate again.

Things You Thought You Forgot

Bacon Sandwiches and Cigarettes

The mess hall always had good, hot food. I especially remember the bacon sandwiches in the morning. A couple of kids worked in the mess hall and lived on base, a girl named Cindy and a boy we called Slick. They got caught one day in Phan Thiet selling black market cigarettes, which they probably got from those SP packs we would get every ten days. (Sundries Packs contained writing paper, envelopes, pens, foot powder, toothbrushes and paste, candy, chewing gum, and cartons of cigarettes.) The mess sergeant, a great cook but not a great guy, was in charge of dispensing the SP boxes. When Cindy and Slick got caught I think he got into some kind of trouble right along with them.

B-52 Alarm Clock

Bet some of the guys still remember getting rolled out bed one morning from a B-52 bombing mission on the mountains west of us. All you could see was smoke and dust. The ground shook like an earthquake.

Aiming To Please

I remember a fire mission one night when we had three guns firing a perimeter defense for a squad of a Army Rangers surrounded by the NVA. We fired all night long around their perimeter. For some reason they did not call in choppers, probably because it was too dangerous at night. The next morning here comes a dozen tired and lucky bunch of guys walking into Sherry. I don’t think they had anyone wounded. We fed them, helped them get some much needed rest, and that afternoon a couple of choppers picked them up. All courtesy of B Battery.

More Important Than Donuts

I remember the Doughnut Dollies that came out to cheer us up.

American Red Cross “Donut Dollies” were young, college-degreed women who spent a one-year tour in Vietnam as morale boosters for American troops. They traveled to front-line landing zones and base camps to bring games, snacks and a touch of home to soldiers.

ARC volunteer in the mess hall at Sherry Picture by Andy Kach
ARC volunteer in the mess hall at Sherry
Picture by Andy Kach

The only ones to get any personal attention from the Donut Dollies were the First Sergeant and the officers. I never actually talked with one of them. And never did anyone from Sherry go see a USO show with Bob Hope. Seems we were forgotten in many ways. But thanks to our memories from that far away place we can always say, “I served at LZ Sherry.”

Ron Walker – Gun Crew – Part One

Ron Walker on Gun 6
Ron Walker on Gun 6

Good News and Bad News

When I was still in high school in 1966 my older brother got drafted and went to Vietnam. He was in the 25th infantry division. When I graduated in 1968 he had just gotten out. The draft was still going pretty good and I was 1-A. My brother said to me, Whatever you do don’t go into the infantry.

I was driving around one-day and rode by the Army recruiting station. I just parked my car and went in there and talked to the recruiter. Of course recruiters get paid to sign people up. I said I did not want to go into the infantry.

He said, “Well we will get you into electronics school.”

I did not know anything about electronics, but it sounded pretty good to me. He signed me up for three years to become a fixed station technical controller. I did not even know what that was. He told me the school was in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. I did not know where that was either. He told me it was about 40 miles from New York City. I said that sounds alright.

About a month or two later I was at home still asleep when the phone rang. My mom came in and said, “The Army recruiter wants to talk to you.” This is around 7:30 in the morning.

I got on the phone with him and said, “Yes, sir.”

He said, “I got some good news for you and I got some bad news for you.”

I said, “Give me the good news first.”

“We got the school that you signed up for. You are all set to go.”

“Well what’s the bad news?”

He said, “Your bus leaves at 9:30 this morning. I got your tickets. Don’t be late.”

I did not have time to say goodbye to my dad or my brothers. My mom drove me over to the bus station and I caught the bus for Jacksonville to get sworn in. From there I took a bus to Fort Benning, Georgia where are I took my basic training – Sand Hill (the training facility within Ft. Benning). I thought to myself, I am from Florida so I can probably take the heat. But I know now why they call it Sand Hill, because it was the hottest place on earth in August. Anyway I took it a lot better than some of the guys.

After basic I did not have a chance to go home, but went straight to New Jersey. It was a beautiful school up there. The only requirement was to go to school during the day, and after that you were free to do whatever you wanted. But it was way above my head. It was one of those schools where you really had to be good at math and how to figure out circuits. A few of us flunked out of school around January. They came to us and said, You guys aren’t making it here and you have two choices: infantry or artillery. I said I wanted artillery. Most of us picked artillery. So we went to Fort Sill in January of 1969. I spent eight weeks training on the 105 howitzer, and then some extra time training on the 8 inch and 155 artillery pieces. After that I had twenty days of leave before going to Vietnam, my first time home.

I flew from home to Oakland California. They put us all in these airplane hangers. Everything was in there, bunks, even a PX. When you went in there they closed the door and would not let you out. When they did open the door, they had the plane sitting outside and marched us all out to it. I guess when you made it that far it was too late to back out. If you’re going to go AWOL you should have done it before going into those hangers.

About three or four hours in the air they told us to fasten our seatbelts, we were going to land in Anchorage, Alaska. The plane we were on, Northwest Orient Airlines, developed engine trouble. They said we were going to be in Anchorage a few days to get the plane fixed. They turned the whole plane load of GIs loose in Anchorage. They just told us to be back at a certain time. We spent two or three days there.

We stopped in Japan to refuel, and then landed at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. After you have been on the plane so long breathing fresh air, I remember when they opened the doors in Vietnam it had a rotten fish smell. I thought to myself, Oh my gosh do I have to smell this for a whole year? The smell was so horrible, I’m going to die.

Once we got settled they put us on a detail pouring concrete. I remember seeing nice homes with swimming pools and shopping centers. Where am I? I thought I was in Vietnam. We poured concrete from wheel barrels building sidewalks for three or four days.

Long Lonely Nights

When I got to Sherry first thing I had to do was go to the bathroom, which was a little two-stall latrine over these half barrels. Poor old doc (battery medic) had the duty of pulling the half barrels out, pouring diesel fuel in and lighting them up. Not long after that we had some combat engineers come in and build the Cadillac of all latrines. That’s when burning the shit barrels moved around to other guys. I remember I had that duty a couple times.

A Caddy with no wheels Picture by Rik Groves
A Caddy with no wheels
Picture by Rik Groves

My first job at Sherry was in Commo because they didn’t have any openings on any of the guns. Instead they needed guards for that one stupid Commo tower on top of the Fire Direction Center. We did not have much to do in Commo except pull guard duty. Which was probably a good thing because when I came out of Fort Sill I did not know anything about commo, radios and stuff. I was trained in artillery.

Walker on guard duty
Walker on guard duty

We had to pull guard for 24/7. There were only three of us so we had long shifts. There was a sergeant, a guy by the name of Jones, and me. We each had to pull eight hours of guard duty. It was terrible. After a while we got another guy which made it a little bit easier.

I remember one night I was on guard duty when we got shelled. In the tower it was real quiet, and you could hear the mortars going off. You never forget that sound. I hollered out IN COMING, and of course I said the direction it came from. I remember after the attack First Sergeant Durant and Smoke came out and started climbing up to the tower, and I thought holy shit I am in trouble now. I must’ve done something wrong. They said, How did you know a mortar attack came from that direction? I told them because there in the tower you had these round lids that came off the 105 shell shipping tubes, and we had numbers painted on them all the way around inside the tower. So if you heard something you just looked down and you knew what direction it was coming from. After an attack they would go out and look at the mortar fins sticking in the ground and they could pretty much figure out what direction it came from. Durant and Smoke told me I was right spot on about the direction I told them that the mortar had come from. They said, Good job and keep up the good work.

I took that job seriously. When you are up there at one o’clock in the morning by yourself and everything is quiet and all you hear is crickets, you could hear that mortar coming out of its tube. It was a sound like no other sound in the world. It’s like the smell of marijuana, there’s no other smell like it in the world. I could hear that mortar being shot and I put everybody on alert. Once the mortars stopped falling, everybody got out on their guns and started returning fire.

It was a lonely job. I remember ducking a few times. There were snipers out there, and sometimes I could hear a bullet whiz by my head. Back in those days I smoked cigarettes. They told us in basic training that you could see a lit cigarette from a mile away. I always ducked down behind the sandbags to inhale, and then came back up again.

I also recall being on guard duty and seeing these strange white objects flying overhead, they looked like glowing cylinders, and you could hear them whizzing. A bunch of us saw them and joked that they must be UFOs. Only to learn later that it was the battleship New Jersey off the coast in the South China Sea firing it’s sixteen inch guns right over our firebase. Never knew what they were firing or who they were shooting at.

I was in Commo for about four months. After I left I heard that the sergeant got caught sleeping on guard duty and they busted him down to corporal. I could understand him going to sleep because it was a tiresome job. You are awake all day long anyway, and then you have to pull eight hours by yourself of guard duty at night. You did not get much sleep. When I left Commo I think they only had two or three guys left. He could have been pulling double guard duty shifts, meaning sixteen hours in that guard tower by himself. 

An Infantry Outing

Hank Parker was a good lieutenant. One day he put together a sweep outside the wire, and that is a story all in itself. I think it was in June. We had been shelled quite a bit, and he was wanting to go out to find out where is the VC we’re shooting from. He asked for a bunch of volunteers. I guess we was bored cooped up there in that compound for so long that we was really just wanting to get out. Believe it or not, there was a little time in there when there was not much going on.

At that time we had two tanks that was assigned to us on the perimeter. And the guy that was in charge of the tanks, he was an E-6 staff sergeant, Parker was wanting to have him and one of his tanks to put all of us on the tank, and we was going to go out on top of that tank. The sergeant and Parker got into kind of a heated exchange of words.

The sergeant said, “I am not taking these guys out. These guys here is artillery, they haven’t been trained in the bush. They’re going to get in a firefight, are they’re going to get into landmines. You’re going to get them all killed out there.” He refused to do it. He said, “I’ll just take my two tanks and I’ll leave.”

Parker took us out anyway. There were maybe twenty of us. We waded through a couple of rivers out there.

In this picture Bean is on the left, me in the middle, and Cleaton on the right with his M-79 grenade launcher.

Bean, Walker and Cleaton w M79 grenade launcher

Some guys preferred the grenade launcher to the M-16, and boasted they could drop a grenade inside a basket at a hundred meters.

 We also had an M-60 machine gun out with us. I cannot remember who had it, but I was carrying an extra ammo belt over my shoulder. (You could never have too much machine gun ammo.)

I can remember at one point we hit the ground and opened up on the tree line, but didn’t get any response. Jim Kustes was with us I remember. We did not run up on anything on that whole sweep, and it’s probably fortunate. That’s the only time I can remember us going out and looking for trouble.

The tank sergeant was good to his word. It wasn’t long before he took his two tanks and left. After that we relied on the Dusters and Quad 50s for perimeter defense.

Dusters, each with twin 40 mm cannons - June 1969
Dusters, each with twin 40 mm cannons – June 1969

Jon Varat – Fire Direction Officer – Part Five

Back To School

The Army had never sent me where I asked, with this exception. While still in Vietnam I asked if it would be possible when I returned to the states to be stationed at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, and they said yes. Ft. Dix is 55 miles from Penn Law School in Philadelphia, which allowed me to work at the fort in the morning and take classes in the afternoon. I would work in the Courts and Boards section at Ft. Dix from 6:00 AM till noon prosecuting cases, and then go off to a 1:00 evidence class. I would race to school, park illegally and run to class, and it worked. I did not have time to go home and change, so I showed up in my uniform. At this time, the Fall of ‘71, Cambodia was underway and protests in the universities around the country were in full swing against the Cambodian incursion. There were banners in the middle of the law school that said: Get out of Cambodia.

I showed up in the law school in my uniform every day. The students didn’t know what the hell to do with me, and some were intimidated. I have to confess, although I am mild mannered myself and I usually don’t do this, but there was one young woman who screwed up her courage one day and asked me why I wore my uniform to school. Instead of telling her the truth I could not help myself, I told her it was because I was such a patriot. I was not a pro-war guy, I was actually anti-war. I was being sarcastic and said it with a smile, but I think she took me seriously because she never talked to me again.

I was not treated as badly as some veterans on campus. Most veterans just got ignored, which is being treated badly enough. The inability to do what Doris Kearns Goodwin later said, to distinguish between the war and the warrior, was pretty bad in those days. I didn’t find a lot of open hostility, but nobody wanted to acknowledge it or talk about it. Which was not good for people returning.

Picking up my law studies after Vietnam was wonderful. Most people think that by the third year of law school you’re getting tired, maybe bored or a little out of sync. Law school’s hard, but for me, no offense to the military, it was like an intellectual feast to go back to school after being in the Army. I’d had this break, and I came back very enthusiastic about school. I had the opportunity to be a research assistant for a famous professor in the area of federal courts when he was working on his book. He became my mentor and from that all kinds of goods things happened for me.

Jon finished first in his class all three years at the University of Pennsylvania law school, the two years before Vietnam and the one after.


I was a good student and I had spent a summer at a premier law firm in LA before Vietnam. I wanted a federal court clerkship, but when I returned from Vietnam it was late in the application process and the clerkships had already been snapped up.

At the appellate level, federal court clerks mostly conduct legal research, prepare bench memos, and draft opinions after discussing cases with the judge.

Through a nice fluke, one of my original law school classmates was clerking for a federal judge in New York. The appellate court judge in the chambers next door had a whole stack of applications, but was still looking. Long story short, I got an interview with Judge Walter Mansfield on Veterans Day 1971. He calls me into his chambers, we meet, and it’s like a bromance. I go to clerk for him right out of law school from ‘72 to ‘73. He becomes the closest I ever came to having a surrogate father. He was just a brilliant judge, a wonderful man, and a super duper war hero in WWII. Walter Mansfield was a partner at the law firm headed by Wild Bill Donovan, who started a clandestine operation when the war broke out. It was then the Office of Strategic Services and eventually became the CIA. Mansfield spends a year behind Nazi lines with Czech partisans, and eventually escapes through Greece. Then he spends a year behind Japanese lines in China. A fabulous human being, very modest, brilliant, one of the most excellent role models you can imagine. If you go to the U.S. courthouse in Foley Square in lower Manhattan there is a tree memorial on the plaza dedicated to him.

Then people tell me: You should apply for a clerkship at the Supreme Court. I thought that would be cool, so I gave it a shot, but of course that would be like getting struck by lightning. I end up having interviews with three Justices: White, Stewart and Blackmun. Justice Byron White makes me an offer to be his clerk the following year, which I accept.

And he’s another war hero, and a football star, and an extraordinary human being. Justice White was the Walter Payton of his day. He goes to the University of Colorado, where he is an all American and runner up for the Heisman trophy. The Rocky Mountain sports writers described him as the guy who ran around everybody and gave him the nickname Whizzer White, which he hated. He is drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates (today’s Steelers) and becomes their highest paid player. He leads the NFL in rushing his rookie year. He played offense, defense, special teams, scored a bazillion points. You’ll find him in the national football hall of fame in Canton, OH. He gets a Rhodes Scholarship and goes to England to study, putting off playing professional football. At the time the Ambassador to the Court of St. James is Joe Kennedy. The ambassador had a practice of inviting all the Rhodes scholars from America to his house. His son John Kennedy is there and the two of them become fast friends. They take a trip together to Germany, and they see that war is coming. They see what Joe Kennedy did not see. During the war, White is a naval intelligence officer, and guess who writes up the report of John Kennedy’s PT-109 incident in the Pacific? Byron White. White ends up being a war hero himself. He is on a ship hit by a kamikaze, on the bridge with a couple other officers. They think they are going to die, but the plane hits a guy wire and crashes into the lower part of the ship. The ship is on fire. By this time White is a celebrity, but he doesn’t care, he does his job. He runs down into the fire and pulls people out. After the war he goes back to playing professional football and graduating from Yale Law School, first in his class. Upon graduation, he clerks for Chief Justice Vinson on the Supreme Court. President Kennedy nominates White to the Supreme Court in 1962, making him the first Supreme Court clerk to become a Supreme Court Justice. An amazing life considering he grew up during the Depression pulling sugar beets in the field.

I start clerking for Justice White the Fall of ‘73. This was during the Watergate era. I was there for that whole period, when the impeachment proceedings were underway, when special prosecutor Archibald Cox was fired and Leon Jaworski replaced him. The Nixon White House Tapes Case, where the Supreme Court ordered the President to turn over tapes connected to the Watergate break-in, was the last case of the term before I left. I finished my clerkship nine days before Nixon resigned.


Now that I had clerked for two federal court judges, I was courted by a number of law firms. But I liked O’Melveny & Myers, the firm in LA I worked for that summer before going to basic training. I had heard from Warren Christopher while in OCS, and then from Phil Irwin, a partner in the same law firm, while I was at battalion in Phan Rang. I had met Phil before going into the Army, and he was the one who brought me back to LA. A wonderful guy. I understood that his dad by the way was a brigadier general. Phil is a wonderful, wonderful tax guy with a photographic memory. I loved working there and thought I would stay there forever.

I get a phone call a little over a year after joining the firm from my mentor from law school, the federal courts professor, and he has moved from Penn to Berkeley law school. He says, Are you interested in teaching? Because you should be. If you like I will introduce your name around at Berkeley, USC, Stanford and UCLA law schools. I liked what I was doing, and did not see myself teaching law as a refugee from practicing law. I was not unhappy, but I thought: You know, here’s one big difference between being a practicing lawyer and being a law teacher. When you’re a practicing lawyer you work on the agenda your clients need you to work on. You’re solving their problem. Which is fine and interesting. But if you become a professor, you set your own agenda, and you work on the things that interest you. I was getting more and more interested in the parts of my job that took me into the library to figure things out, because I liked that side of the law.

I interviewed with the UCLA law faculty, and I had more fun being interviewed by this group of people that any set of job interviews I’d ever had in my life. I just sat around all day talking to brilliant people about interesting ideas. I thought: Wow, this is really a great environment, stimulating all the time.

So I joined the UCLA law faculty in 1976. I bought a home, had a kid, started at the law school and took a salary cut, all within the span of three months. Mostly I taught constitutional law and federal courts, and I edit a textbook on constitutional law, which I update every year. I became Dean of the law school in 1998, something Warren Christopher had warned me about. He had told me before I went to UCLA that eventually they’d want me to do administration. I did take advantage of him later to deliver a commencement address at one graduation ceremony during that period, and it was one of the best ever given.

Way More Than 40%

I retired from the law school as an emeritus professor in 2013. I did not need to, but I had been at the law school a long time, and I still have been teaching one course a year. I wanted to travel, which is difficult as a teacher, and I wanted more freedom in general to do non-profit work.

I got my wish, but recently the Chancellor of the university recalled me from retirement to head the long standing, complex relationship between UCLA and the Veterans Administration in West Los Angeles.

The West LA Veterans Administration owns three hundred and eighty-eight acres close by the UCLA campus, separated only by highway 405. It serves the largest population of veterans in the country and is possibly the largest physically. We at UCLA have had a seventy year relationship with the VA, essentially since UCLA was formed. Our medical school, for example, was formed in 1948 and for the first seven years before a university hospital was built on campus, our teaching hospital was the VA hospital. We’ve trained doctors at the VA for decades.

Disabled and homeless vets have flooded into LA as a result of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—and the hospitable weather, of course. We have the largest homeless veteran population in the country, and therefore the largest needs. The VA initially did not do a good job responding. They were incompetent, frankly.

For the last fifteen or twenty years the VA land has been very poorly managed. Sizable portions, some of the most valuable land in America, were leased to various private enterprises and institutions at below market rates. Worse still, the lease revenue had not been used wisely for vets, whom this VA had not been taking care of as they should. A real travesty.

A lawsuit was brought by a set of plaintiffs and a group of fancy lawyers here in town for failure to keep the property a “home for disabled veterans,” as required by its 1887 land grant. The VA and representatives of homeless vets reached a settlement in 2013 to do a better job of using the VA land for activities that benefited veterans, including the construction of what looks to be 1200 places for permanent supportive housing for homeless vets over the course of the next decade.

Last year, the Chancellor of UCLA entered into an agreement with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs that, besides what the university is already doing for vets, UCLA will create a series of new programs at the West LA VA to benefit veterans for the long term.

There is yet another aspect to this situation. At the Phoenix VA, the wait list was so long people were dying before they got their appointments. General Shinseki resigned as the Veterans Affairs Secretary, and President Obama replaced him in 2014 with Bob McDonald: Chairman, President, and CEO of Procter & Gamble. Bob McDonald swept away the incompetent leadership of the West LA VA, and replaced them with the best people from around the country, to include specialists and a national expert on homelessness.

As a result of recent legislation restoring the West LA VA’s authority to lease land on the campus so long as the activities overall are veteran-focused, we are at the point where we can begin implementing the agreements between UCLA and the VA. There are a lot of vets suffering from PTSD and drug abuse and physical disabilities. And women veterans have a whole unique set of traumas. It’s a massive but terribly important set of problems for vets. If we can accomplish what we have on the drawing board, the partnership between UCLA and Veterans Affairs will be a model for the nation.

We are talking about transforming a fifteen-acre veteran’s garden that had been allowed to deteriorate, so that vets can grow things for farmers markets and maybe become entrepreneurial. And we can offer therapeutic activities such as yoga. And we’ve committed to introducing adaptive and recreational therapies That’s one piece. As a first step, just last week a group of volunteers from the Student Veterans of America joined with UCLA, the VA, and Home Depot, and cleaned up the front portion of that garden for planting. The long term vet groundskeepers were thrilled. Much more needs to be done, but we have a plan.

We are setting up a UCLA Veterans Legal Clinic on the VA campus, which we are very excited about. Our law students will represent vets with their legal problems.

We are going to have a family wellness and resource center. It is a very innovative concept one of our absolutely magnificent doctors in the psychiatric center has already implemented on military bases around the world. It will help family members who are not themselves vets or not themselves disabled. It will provide therapies for families, for example, so that children will have decent places to be while husbands and wives are helping the vets recover. A very innovative program that seeks to prevent transitional dysfunctions before they occur.

There will be a center of excellence for vets dealing with co-occurring disorders, which will be mostly for homeless vets who have PTSD and substance abuse problems. It turns out that for vets who have one problem, such as a physical or mental disability, you treat that one condition directly. But for vets with co-occurring disorders, you do not treat each condition separately. You have to deal with the special co-occurring issues and how they interact. We are learning new approaches all the time, and we have people at UCLA who know how to do these things. We have the innovative researchers and psychiatrists. And we’ve created interdisciplinary fellowships.

One of our English professors is teaching a creative writing class for vets on the VA campus. Which they LOVE. I was recently asked to facilitate the transportation of these vets to a Hollywood facility where Tim O’Brien, who wrote The Things They Carried, did a reading from his book and signed books for these guys. I read the book several years ago. It is beautifully written and well worth reading. To these vets in the creative writing course, many of whom have also read the book, it was very meaningful.

I’m the guy who is supposed to make sure all this happens, and is implemented as a joint partnership. So all of a sudden I’ve got all kinds of new best friends at the VA. I am spending a lot of time over there. And I’ve got my UCLA people I have to get together to figure out how we go ahead with the partnership in a way that is productive for UCLA and the VA. It’s important to understand that we cannot be the VA. We can’t take over their job of treating people. We can design systems and help implement them. Our people still have full time jobs at the university.

Being retired from the university means I can be recalled to do no more than a 40% job. It’s designed to prevent people from double-dipping: retiring on full pension and immediately returning to the same full time job. What that means for me is I can’t be paid for more than 40% time. You can believe that with this new VA job, and teaching and updating my textbook, I am way more than 40%. On the other hand it is energizing to feel I can do some good.

I also am involved—separately from my UCLA job, though with some important overlap—with this other little piece that Bob McDonald created called the Community Veteran Engagement Boards (CVEB). They exist around the country. The idea is that Veterans Service Organizations and others who are active in helping vets in the community act as a private group working pro bono with VA officials as a two way communication link between what veterans need and what the VA has to offer. It’s fine to know what you think people want and need, but you don’t know exactly until you have this link. And vice versa, this is a way for the VA to communicate to veterans what the VA has available. A lot of vets don’t take advantage of services because they don’t understand what’s available. They may not be that sophisticated in getting on their computers and searching on-line for VA services. We have spent the last many months creating the LA Regional CVEB and will be working to identify gaps in what is being provided to vets throughout the vast LA Region and to propose solutions.

Full Circle

When I became battalion adjutant in Phan Rang in March of 1971, I took it as my personal mission to look after the guys in the field. I had wanted to stay in the field with the guys at LZ Sherry, and in many ways I still felt like one of them. One of my men in the rear felt the same way as I did and he became my main support for making sure our guys in the field were taken care of. He was a talented guy, and he painted the regimental emblem on a small stone to make a paperweight for me. A really sweet gesture on his part. He did it out of gratitude. Not a huge deal to him, but a huge deal to me.

Paper Weight

For the past forty-five years that paperweight has sat on my desk wherever I’ve gone. It’s surprising how few people comment on it. It is still sitting on my desk. I periodically look at it to remind me of this bond with the men I worked with.