Remembering The Elephant

The following was written in 2004 when, yet again, the author was reliving a profound personal experience that shaded his life ever since and re-erupts at the same time every year. Don Ecker now hosts a podcast called Dark Matters Radio—not about war and other daily dark matters that have engulfed humankind, but about the paranormal. To those who have never experienced war first-hand, though, this is about as paranormal as it gets.

Tomorrow, April 02, it will be my anniversary of my wounding in Viet Nam in 1972. 11 years ago, when I was doing DMR with Dwight Schultz he suggested I talk about my experience with our audience because of the war then raging in Iraq. Instead I did a “blog” and made it available to the audience. Here it is … the day is important to me and you might find it interesting. It is somewhat long … so hang on.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Remembering the Elephant
Today I’m going to blog again and call it “Remembering the Elephant.” For whatever reason, this is not something I can do daily. First, I don’t even know if anyone cares what I think so why subject them to daily ramblings?

As I write this, it is March 30, 2004. Exactly 32 years ago today, I saw the “elephant.” Now, I don’t know if you will understand that, so allow me to explain. Back during the Civil War, or as our southern friends call it, the “War of Southern Secession,” young troops, their heads filled with mush, proudly marched off to battle. Most of them believed that glory awaited them. They thought that war was marching bands, fluttering banners, colorful uniforms, and gleaming bayonets. Men proudly marched to their doom thinking only of how proud they were to die for their cause. This was all before the first battle. After the shot and shell started flying and men started dying and men were maimed, the horror of war was driven home. They said they “saw the elephant” and the meaning was clear: They witnessed what a horror story war truly was.

32 years ago I was part of a nine man American team stationed at a base on the DMZ called Alpha 4. We were attached to a South Vietnamese unit, which belonged to the ARVN 3rd Division. Our mission was running intelligence operations against the North Vietnamese Army. We were as far north in South Vietnam as you could legally be; I could actually climb up on our bunker and look north and see a NVA camp across the Cau Viet river. The Cau Viet marked the DMZ, and to say we were in the middle of nowhere would be an understatement.

All our electronic equipment was classified top secret. Our mission was gathering electronic intelligence from the North Vietnamese using different types of methods. Our unit was a part of the super-secret Army Security Agency, which, by the way, the government denied was even in Viet Nam. If any of our team were to be captured by the NVA, we could look forward to torture, brutal interrogations and possibly even being shipped to the Soviet Union for further interrogations. Even though we were Army, and a part of special operations, we were NOT U.S. Army, we were the military arm of the National Security Agency, or as we joked “No Such Agency.” And ASA had been in Viet Nam since 1961.

Now, if you were not around then or if you were but not paying attention, this was the situation. By 1972 the U.S. was pulling combat troops out of Viet Nam and turning over to the South Vietnamese combat missions that the U.S. had been previously doing. We were in the middle of what was called “Vietnamization” of the war. The story that was floated around was that no Americans were even above the city of Da Nang. Horse pucky. Be that as it may, the real story was if the “stuff” hit the fan, we lonely troopers were waving in the breeze. And of course something did happen.

On March 30th, 1972 the might of the North Vietnamese Army was unleashed all over South Viet Nam. Early that morning we were suddenly hit with a massive artillery barrage. Hundreds and hundreds of shells began impacting all over the area. We went to “red alert” and contacted our site in Quang Tri, advising them what was going on. I was providing security for our bunker; our stuff was so secret that even the ARVNs (or South Vietnamese troops) were not allowed near our bunker. I was tasked with manning the M-60 machine gun, and I grabbed several hundred rounds of belted ammo and set up in the bunker doorway. That is when I looked north and saw what looked like a “million NVA” heading right for me! As I later found out, elements of two NVA divisions were assaulting us. And I do mean assaulting … parts of the NVA 304th and 308th Divisions were heading right for our wire. I yelled to the guys getting our top-secret equipment ready for destruction, that we had “gooks in the wire!” This was very bad news for us. We all knew that whatever else the NVA were planning to do, we HAD to be at the top of their list. Somebody started a frantic radio call back to Quang Tri for an EVAC. “Send the choppers to get us the hell out of here!” We knew that there were no American troops available to help us, and quite frankly the South Viet 3rd Division guys were not worth a shit. Well, I digress.

My guys inside were popping incendiary grenades on our electronic equipment to destroy it before the NVA could get to it. My job was to make sure no one got in the bunker before they could finish the job. That meant that anyone, even ARVNs ( who could have been NVA infiltrators ) could look forward to being shot if they tried. I opened fire on the onrushing NVA hitting our wire. Looking back now, after 32 years, it is as if I were looking at someone else’s life. Three times I was blown out of the doorway by impacting explosions close to the bunker. Other than being shaken up, I was not wounded … then. Someone brought me more ammunition for my machine gun and quickly told me we DID HAVE AN EVAC chopper on the way. We had to break out the rear of the camp. We already had an escape and evasion route planned ahead of time–that was only prudent. Now that I had someone to feed ammunition to the gun, I got back to work.

I do not remember how long we fought before the chopper was in our area. Someone once asked me what the experience of combat was really like. How can you explain something that is unexplainable? I thought for a second and then told them “imagine you are going to a biker bar and you drop a tab of acid before you get there. Then once inside a HUGE fight breaks out with clubs, knives and guns. And suddenly EVERYONE is clubbing, stabbing or shooting everyone else! And you are standing there with your mind filling up with a million colors and everything including your hearing is enhanced. And it hits you, you are in another dimension.” That is combat.

Suddenly someone kicked me and told me it was time to book out of there. I dropped the machine gun, grabbed my rifle and we headed to the wire where we had to blow holes in it to get to the chopper. I do remember it was like charging into a madhouse where all the inmates had suddenly escaped. We blew a hole in the razor wire, and made our way out of the camp. Suddenly, Thank God! the Huey chopper showed up. We sprinted to the chopper and began to jump on. There were nine of us, several were wounded, and that meant a tight fit inside. But the problems were not over yet. A dozen or more South Vietnamese soldiers were suddenly there and they all tried to jump onboard, too. We couldn’t have taken even one, much less a dozen. We butt-stroked them off the chopper skids, and had to threaten to shoot them to get them to back off. The pilot hit the gas.

That was March 30th, 1972, the beginning of the spring NVA EASTER OFFENSIVE. They flew us all the way to Phu Bai, where we were met by the Army brass who wanted to know what the hell happened. South Vietnam was suddenly engulfed in flames and blood. I got very drunk that night, I and several other survivors stole a jeep, then got caught by the Major who was assigned the jeep. Luckily for us, he took pity on us because he was a Korean War survivor. He led us to bed to sleep it off. A new day was arriving, March 31st, where I made a fateful decision that morning. Maybe I will try to relate that tomorrow, but I got to tell you this is painful, this remembering. Tomorrow, I’ll see if I want to continue with this. But one thing I will never forget, I will never forget the day I saw the Elephant.

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