Ken went to Vietnam the way many did — involuntarily. For a large part of the year and a half he was there, the U.S. military decided he was to be a sniper. Someone whose sole job was to psychologically dismantle the enemy, to play mind games with them, to instill fear in them — not by killing them in mass but to select a few within the masses to kill. Here is a bit of his story.
What year did you go to Vietnam?
I got my draft notice in 1968 on Christmas Eve. I went in 1969. There was a huge push in the late 60’s because so many guys were getting hurt and killed over there.
What was your first impression of Vietnam?
They opened up the door of the aircraft and there was a rush of 120 degree heat and a smell that cannot be explained. It was a combination of fuel, death, fish, sewage and thick, thick air.
You were a sniper over there. What exactly does that mean you did?
I was in a team of six people. Our job was to mentally dismantle the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. The thought was if we just shot a couple of them — here and there — it would demoralize them. We did not kill high profile targets. Our basic objective was to scare the enemy.
You would kill North Vietnamese or Viet Cong that were just in small groups or a few of them that were in a larger group?
If we saw one or two of the North Vietnamese we never did what people thought we should do — which was shoot them. We would wait and see if there were 100 more of them behind them. We would always count them before we did anything. We didn’t just shoot people. We would keep quiet and just hide if we were out numbered. We were not trying to be heroes. We were scared. There were only 6 of us. A large group could have wiped us out in a hurry.
How would you pick who to shoot?
I would only shoot when there was a small group of them. If two or three of them are sitting on a pile of our supplies, eating our food and taking our cans to make ammunition and two hours later their buddies had not shown up — then we knew they were alone. Then we could light them up and a few days later their buddies would come find them. We usually left a little identification on them to let their buddies know what happened — a Cavalier patch or a playing card.
Did you spend most of your time looking for people or hiding from those that might be looking for you?
We hid a lot when we were supposed to be on specific missions. We got so good at hiding we could fake our position to our own military. There were landing zones in the jungle where we cleared spots so helicopters could land to give us food, supplies and ammunition. Even though we were supposed to be elsewhere on a mission, we would stay close to the landing zone when we were supposed to be elsewhere. When daybreak came if we woke up scared to death we could run to the landing zone. We would just tell them that we did not see anything while we were out. At times we were so close to the landing zone that we could hear them talking.
I would imagine a lot of American soldiers spent their time hiding and not fighting.
Nobody was trying to be a hero. Nobody knew what we were there for. We didn’t know why we were fighting these people and we did not have anything against them.
Was there talk amongst you and the five other guys you were with about the terror you were feeling?
We didn’t talk about it. Everyone knew that everyone was as scared as everyone else.
There are all kinds of movies that show the misery of the rainy season. What was that like?
We were wet for 180 days straight. It only quit raining between 2 and 3 pm. During this time, if we were sitting, we could put our legs up and have the sun dry our knees and our elbows and we would use these dry spots to rub ourselves and get a little dry elsewhere. The feeling of even a little bit of dry was incredible.
When we would spend the night on the landing zone and we would sleep in culverts. I either slept in a culvert or on the ground the entire time for 401 days, but even in the culverts I was still wet.
Wait, sorry, you slept on the ground for the better part of a year?
When I was in the field I would sleep on the ground. The sound of rain hitting a tent was different than rain hitting foliage. Rain hitting a tent is like lighting up a cigarette in enemy territory. I slept on the ground with nothing above me. We slept toe to toe all six of us. One guy was always on guard duty.
You would sleep outside and get rained on all night?
We would get poured on all night. When I woke up in the morning there was a perfect indentation of my body on the ground with a trough on either side of me with rivers of water running by. I used to have to gently shake my pants because snakes, spiders, ants, all critters would get between me and the ground because I was warm. The critters were just as cold as we were.
Maybe I am naive but I always imagined that you would go out on missions and come back to some kind of formal camp. I mean, I always pictured some kind of M.A.S.H set up. Not you being outside and your only shelter being a culvert for over a year.
Everybody thinks that.
What was actual combat like?
During the day we would walk through the villages and they would try to sell us pop, and wave and say, [in Vietnamese accent] “Hi GI, you #1, you #1.” and then at night they would hit us. Kill us. Every night. They were shooting artillery rounds from the middle of villages we had walked through earlier that day. We were helpless as the U.S. government had a 500 meter no fire zone around the village.
To add insult to injury, they were collecting our artillery rounds that had not exploded, modifying them and then using against us.
Did you feel supported by the U.S. government while you were out in the field?
We ran out of water. We put double the iodine tablets in it before we drank river water but got dysentery for two weeks anyway. Our legs were raw from all of the fluids running out of our body.
How is it that the US government could let you run out of water?
They couldn’t get to us because of terrain or because there was such strong movement of Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army.
What didn’t the U.S. government prepare you for?
Coming home. I was scared to death to come home.
Were you more scared coming home than you were being there?
That is two different kinds of fear. The fear of coming home was that everyone would hate us. I was worried I would not be able to fit in. I was worried that my family would not be ok with me. I was worried I might kill someone.
You were aware of the sentiment that Americans had towards Vietnam Veterans when you were coming home?
Yes, when we landed back in the U.S. we were put us on buses with bars on the windows because there were lots of people at the airport throwing stuff at us and holding protest signs. I just thought, “Hey, ass wipe, I didn’t draft myself. Why are you doing this to me?” It was horrible.
Was there ever a time when your efforts in Vietnam were appreciated?
When I first arrived back in the U.S., I ended up getting arrested because the bartender of the airport restaurant would not serve my buddy and I because we were in the military. The policemen that arrested me ended up taking me out for the burger and beer that I was trying to get in the airport. When I was flying home a peanut butter salesman gave me some peanut butter and the entire first class cabin got up and clapped and then bought me a bottle of whiskey — which they made me drink before the plane landed.
Do you feel like the U.S. Military prepared properly prepared you for the war?
We were well prepared for the war. We were not prepared for coming home. The guys that trained us were very instrumental in us staying alive. They pretty much told us how it was. They told us that we had no choice, that we were going to Vietnam and that some of us were not going to come home. They told us if we wanted any chance at life that we would do exactly as they they told us.
Did anyone in your group of 6 die?
What about drugs?
We never did drugs in the field. Never. Ever. All of the stories you hear and all of the movies you see are not real. The only movie you will see that will give you an accurate portrayal of Vietnam is the 10,000 Day War.
Platoon is bullshit?
It was stupid. We did not fight each other. We were so, so close. If one of us got mail from our girlfriend and another didn’t and she was telling you that she wanted to lick you, you would give it to your buddy when you were done. We were bonded brothers out there. We were not fighting for the United States we were fighting for each other.
How long were you there total?
I was there for 401 days because I went AWOL in Australia and had to make up the time that I was gone.
You went AWOL?
Yes. I went to Brisbane, Australia for 33 days. I was supposed to be there for seven.
How did you decide to desert the war and stay in Australia?
Because I was sick of what I was seeing and I was sick of what it stood for. I didn’t want to give my life for that crap. I was with this really beautiful Australian woman and I was 20 years old. I wasn’t thinking very clearly. I liked it. I liked being able to speak English especially to women.
How did you get caught?
The MPs caught me. I was at a house on a beach and I came out one morning and the MPs were standing there waiting for me. They walked up to the door and told me to get my clothes on. On the way to the airport they asked me, “Do you know how much trouble you are in?” and I said, “What are you going to do, send me back to fucking Vietnam?”
What is the punishment for going AWOL in Australia for 33 days?
They fined me two months pay and demoted me from E3 to E2, but on the way back over as soon as I got into Vietnam air space they had to give me back the rank because I had to be at least an E3 to be in a combat zone.
At the end of our tour, I was at the airport ready to go home and I was told that I had to go back to the field for another 33 days because of the time I went AWOL in Australia.
How crushing was that to be at the airport, ready to go home and be told that you had to go back out in the field for another month?
Everyone in Vietnam knew if you make it through the first 30 days and the last 30 days you know you are pretty good. I was crushed. I spent those 33 days slithering around on the ground. I would unbutton my shirt to be closer to the ground. I was scared to death. That is when you really make mistakes is in those last few days.
Is there anything about Vietnam that you think made you a better person?
Yes, I appreciate life. I appreciate what I have. Appreciate who I am. Everything that God has given me is great. I am the one that fucks it up.
Do you have any regrets about what you did over there?
No. The people we killed — it was either them or us.