Tuesday, March 18, 2008

One Very Dark Night

Nearly forty years ago, a guerrilla leader, let's call him Lt. Colonel Victor Charles, realized that he had spent nearly his entire adult life at war. He had fought the French, the Japanese, the French again, and now the Americans. He was tired. He had talked with a man he grew up with and trusted who told him that there were Americans living in his village. These Americans lived among his people. They worked in the rice fields and helped them with medicines for their children. One of the Americans (OK, it was me) was teaching the children of the village to speak English and was trying to teach the other Americans Vietnamese. His friend had told him about a program that the Americans had called "Chu Hoi" which in Vietnamese means "Welcome Home" or "Open Arms" that if he came to these Americans they would help Lt. Col. Victor Charles and his family. He searched his soul and his conscience. He decided to give it a try.

He came in. I was one of the first to talk with him. I didn't waterboard or mistreat him. I gave him the respect that one soldier gives to another. He told me that there was valuable and specific intelligence he could give me. Things that would save American lives. I told him that if the things he told us proved out we would bring his family (a wife, a young son, and a small daughter) out of the place they were living and bring them all to America. They would be given help getting started in their new life. I told him that he could count on my help from then on.

On another very dark night two other members of my team and I snuck into the little town where his family was. We were very stealthy, this was not a "friendly" town. There was no safe way for us to alert his family that we were coming. Quietly we skirted the shadows and hugged the dark walls. We moved quickly and very, very quietly. We silently broke into his house and sneaked like thieves into the room where his wife was sleeping. I woke her up, and quickly and quietly told her that we were there to take her and the children to where her husband was, I told her the name of the bhuddist monk who performed their marriage was and some other information that only her husband would know. I told her to get dressed as quickly as possible, to tell her young children to do the same. I asked her to tell her children that we needed them to be extremely quiet while we left the town. No, they didn't need to bring anything. Speed and silence were more important than any possessions. There would be new things for them, in their new life. She was terrified but she began to do the things she needed to do to go with us. The children were tired and frightened too. I watched the young boy (he was about seven or eight) struggling very hard to put on a brave face. I told him my name and asked him if he had ever heard about the American Indians. His face brightened and he nodded. I told him I was an Apache Indian, just like Geronimo, I told him that I would be his friend and that I would take him to his father. He pointed at me and said, in a whisper, "Geronimo." I nodded and we left.

Bear was carrying the little girl, the young boy wanted to try walking by himself but was too small to keep the pace that we were needing to set. I put him on my back. He was a lot lighter than the 85 lb pack I was used to carrying and he clung to me in frightened excitement.

We got out without being noticed and made it to our extraction point with ease. A tiny PBR chortled into a backwater eddy and we got aboard. The Boat Captain, a Chief Boatswain's Mate, made a crack about "hauling gooks" and I brought him up short. I told him that as of now, these were Americans who were being rescued. We then transfered to a helicopter for the ride back to our main base at Dong Ap Bai.

The reunion was beautiful. As soon as they saw each other the fear and apprehension of the long night evaporated. We brought them a big meal of Vietnamese food and left them alone.

Over the next week we carefully and exhaustively debriefed Mr. Victor Charles. We got some beautiful, actionable, intelligence regarding some choke points on the Ho Chi Minh trail. We got names and locations of "shadow government" operatives and, most importantly, the names, ranks, and duty stations of three agents who were in the provincial government. These all proved to be accurate very quickly.

After two weeks had passed Lt. Col. Charles and his family were spirited away from us and we went about our tasks.

Nearly a year and a half later I was in a bed at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego. I had a tube in my chest to pump my left lung back up and keep the chest cavity drained of some pretty noxious fluid. I had just about every antibiotic known to medical science of the time dripping into my arm about as fast as they could pump it in. I was not only wounded pretty severely, I had been wounded in the rain forest jungle and there were bugs and rot beyond name and number floating around what blood I had left.

At one point I was visited by a Captain from the Special Warfare Command in Coronado who, after inquiring about my condition and wishing me a speedy recovery told me that they had been getting postcards delivered to the Silver Strand that were small progress reports from a "Chu Hoi" who had settled his family in Chula Vista. He reached into his briefcase and pulled out a letter. It contained a family picture of Lt. Col. Charles, his wife and children in front of a small Pho stand they had just opened in Barrio Logan. On the picture was written "Thank you to the Brave SEALs who brought my family to this beautiful land." There was also an invitation for us to share a bowl of "the best Pho in the barrio" with them any time.

When I was able to get around I went there. The first person I recognised was the young son. He recognised me instantly, clapping and shouting "Geronimo! Geronimo!" I picked him up and put him down pretty quickly, I didn't want to rip any stitches. I spoke to him in Vietnamese and he began to look uncomfortable. Then I was greeted by Mr. Victor Charles, American Entrepenuer, who told me that there was an "English Only" policy for family and staff in the little restaurant. He said that they were real Americans now and that he wanted his children to get the best advantages they could when they were going to school.

Over the last decades I have been given the huge gift of being able to watch this family grow. I have seen them bringing more members of their family to this country and bit by bit prosper. The little boy opened a custom tailoring shop near the entrances of the Marine Recruit Depot by downtown San Diego. Turning out sharp marines and sailors in custom tailored dress uniforms that used to be the sole province of the China and Singapore sailors. I played the harp at his wedding to a beautiful young woman from Orange County. I just picked up a gorgeous jacket and slacks combination that was designed and sewn by his daughter, Po.

Given a chance, given the opportunity, I believe that most American servicemen would jump on a job like the one I did on that dark night so many years ago. No matter the risk, no matter the danger, it is something I would gladly do again.

When I was watching "Full Metal Jacket" for the first time I howled with laughter at the Marine Colonel outside of the city of Hue who told Joker "Inside every gook is an American waiting to get out." The rest of the audience didn't grasp the absolute truth of that statement as well as I could. At that point in time we were lucky enough to have a program like the strategic hamlets and Chu Hoi. We were able to accomplish parts of our mission without having to sacrifice parts of our souls.

Both programs were later discarded, it appears they were only photo and propaganda ops to begin with. They weren't sexy like body counts and bullshit press conferences touting the victory that was always just around the corner.

Still, there is an extended family in San Diego who have whole heartedly embraced the dream that is an America that I still believe in.

I would not trade the events of those dark nights for the world. I hope that someday we can again be that light in the darkness, the place that people dream about coming to stay.

I hope, through the bitterness and cyncism we old grunts are apt to lapse into. I hope along with Barak Obama when he talks about how much better we can do.

Dum spiro, spero.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this story. You're an original thinker. At least, it seems more like that with every passing day.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Sherry Pasquarello said...

i really liked this. a lot.

you are a very special human being.
you should always keep that in your spirit,

by the way, my graddaughter, soon to be 4, calls me po.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Wiglaf said...


Seems like every man of previous generations whom I come to respect (I'm 21) was in the Army, Marines, or Navy at one time or another.

That observation provokes the longest pause vis à vis the ample reasons there are not to enlist.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Deborah Newell said...

It would be hard to say which of your memorable tales have moved me the most, or which I liked best, or which played over and over again in my mind with the greatest frequency; it would be as hard as choosing a favorite sonata or sonnet or song. So I won't even attempt it. I will only say how much I enjoyed this latest gift of yours, and that I hope you realize--even if only a little--that these hopeful words are profoundly appreciated, more so, in these sad and fearful times, than even you might imagine.

7:52 PM  
Blogger maurinsky said...

You should write a book, my friend.

9:10 AM  
Blogger BadTux said...

Dum spiro, spero. Indeed. Not expect, but hope...

5:36 PM  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...


Excellent story. A fine counterpoint to what is happening today. Unfortunately, I was involved with the Earth Angel program. As you know, the U.S. government disavowed all knowledge of their activities, and left these agents to languish in NV prisons.

Afterwards, they had to fight in U.S. Federal court for a paltry $30,000 settlement, with no offer of U.S. citizenship. I am glad that your story has a happier ending.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

This is a very moving and compelling story. I am sure you must feel most proud of your involvement with this family's relocation, and clearly they are indebted to you.

What you describe is part of the only answer to endless world strife, which is compassion. But because everyone distrusts, and because we are taught a scarcity mentality, almost no one can implement such care. You do.

Thank you, and thank you for sharing.

6:10 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

It is wonderful to know that there were actually some decent things done in that place and time. I am glad that you had the opportunity to be a part of it and especiallu glad that you chose to share it with us.

Thank you.

7:35 PM  
Blogger nunya said...


You're lucky you survived Balboa at that time. Glad you did. :)

10:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With your writing and music abilities there must be some original music out there. Is there?

11:27 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

it's a very telling point to understand that after nearly three years in vietnam i have pretty much one story where a program i was involved with actually was implemented in the manner it was conceived and the promises made to the people involved were kept. most of the stories i have about working with vietnamese people end with a pretty shameless betrayal or an abandonment to slaughters like the ones that were visited on the hmong and the meo tribesmen.

even at it's best, in the strategic hamlets program we had to fight not only the VC and the NVA, we had to fight the local ARVN commander and a corrupt and rapacious provincial government. in the end it was a standoff with an ARVN unit (who were lucky to be advised by some stalwart and cool heads from SOG) that was going to loot our village which got us transferred out of the area. marvin won that round, but i sincerely hope nate ate his ass when he took over.

john paul vann was one of the very few brass hats who understood what was at stake in the countryside, and how to win the support of the people. the most telling part of the story for me is that a hardened and veteran VC commmander came into our program because people he trusted told him we could be trusted.

but, like was said, things like a prosperous, peacefull village just weren't sexy enough for the newpapers, the TV folks or the brass. quiet success is most often ignored in favor of the flashy and loud.

you'd think i would have more than one happy ending after nearly three years in that fucking place.

12:45 PM  
Anonymous Lisa Simeone said...

Amazing story. Thank you.

9:07 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home