POW in Medellin: Day 38 of Confinement

April 22, 2020

 POWs:

 

Yours truly, third from the left, with fellow aviators at Camp Eagle Vietnam, 1970. 

 

This is a different kind of post. In light of the Coronavirus crisis, and recent demonstrations aimed at reopening economies, it occurred to me that today's situation matches mine, and many of my friends & colleagues years ago during the war in Vietnam.

 

I was not a Prisoner Of War, a true 'POW',  I don't claim to identify with those unfortunate soldiers who actually spent time in horrific Vietnamese prisons. But there were similarities: During my one-year tour in Vietnam flying helicopters, I sure as hell couldn't up and leave. My movement was restricted, my daily agenda dictated by higher ups who told me where to go, when to be there, and what to do once I arrived. There were consequences if I failed to follow orders. Life was highly circumscribed back then, just as it is today.

 

Additionally, the 'virus' that threatened my colleagues and me was real. Indeed, in the form of enemy AK fire, its instantaneous effect, indiscriminate peril, and its random application, it was more lethal, albeit somewhat less contagious. Face masks would not have been of use. There was no vaccine. 

 

The enemy was real, not easily traceable, highly elusive, and on the prowl for victims. An encounter with this enemy could very well be fatal. Like any war, that one demanded sacrifice, vigilance, and the participation of all if we we're to come out the other side unscathed. 

 

Khe Sanh, January 1971

 

My crewchief, Gil Alvorado took this shot.  I'm standing on the airstrip at Khe Sanh, three miles as the Huey flies from the Laotian border. There were bad guys around and about, but nothing like there had been a few years prior. The battle for Khe Sanh in 1968 mauled and killed a lot of U.S. Marines and North Vietnamese regulars. Those poor guys couldn't up and leave, either. The siege of Khe Sanh lasted several weeks. Then, as with many other battles during that goofy war, the combat stopped, and troops withdrew. Khe Sanh became quiet, and soon was all but forgotten.

 

When Gil took this picture in January of '71, I'd landed the Huey, shut off the engine, tied the rotor blades down, and then he and I meandered up and down the airstrip, as if contemplating a weekend picnic. Doing that in January 1968 would have been suicide.

 

Below, a picture I took of my crew that day.

 

 Above: My crew at Khe Sanh, January '71. 

 

Khe Sanh: January-April 1968 

 

So, why this particular post? For one thing, with the benefit of hindsight, and a lot of perspective gained after 71 trips around the sun, I see similarities between certain historical events and those happening now. Santayana was right: Those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I'd suggest that the folks I see today, the hapless souls demonstrating against closure of our shops, and malls, and theaters, and sports venues are the people Mr. Santayana had in mind. Ordinarily I avoid any tinge of political and/or social commentary on this site, but these are not ordinary times. Permit me to unpack this a bit.

 

I've recently seen demonstrators marching to reopen the country, demanding their 'constitutional rights' to freely assemble, and screaming about 'communism,' and governmental overreach, and their inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happy Meals.

 

Many of those people carry signs demanding they be heeded, That their demands for resumption of their comfortable, easy life, a life unhindered by such things as social distancing, or face masks, or threats of sanction, that those threats be cancelled.

 

We'd all like to resume our previous lives. I get that. To jump in the car without a thought, drive to the theater, sit elbow to elbow munching popcorn while watching the latest Hollywood escapism, all that seems very far away. 

 

Here's the thing. Many of the folks I see on social media claim that 'supporting our troops' is a high priority. Here's their chance to prove it. When I spent a year in Vietnam, unable to leave, the threat of an arguably more deadly virus lurking every day, I hunkered down, did my duty, and performed as I'd been ordered to do for the good of...something bigger than myself. Was our purpose in Vietnam just? Or right? Or noble? I'll let others decide that. The point is, like my colleagues, I did as I was told for a common good.

 

Medevac Mission 

 

Often the purpose was protecting my fellow soldiers. As a helicopter pilot I was in a unique position to do that. I flew many missions to rescue troops under fire, pinned down, unable to move until I plucked them out of harms way.  Flying those beleaguered soldiers away from danger, seeing them survive to fight another day, or better yet to board the Freedom Bird and go home to their families, was the most gratifying flying I did in Vietnam.

 

Here's a quick war story. In August 1970 I was dispatched, along with three other Huey crews, to evacuate a platoon of troops atop a ridge that we called The Rockpile. Those men were under fire, trapped, unable to move, and nearly out of ammunition. If my fellows and I had not gotten them off that ridge, their names would now be on a black granite wall in DC. Here's the thing: We never considered for one second leaving them there. The thought never occurred to any of us. We launched, raced out from Quang Tri to the Rockpile, landed on the only LZ available—an outcropping the size of a kiddie pool—and rescued those men. To place them in yet more danger would have been unthinkable. 

 

Just so, we all have the unique opportunity to help troops on the front lines. By keeping our distance, washing our hands, wearing masks, doing what we're told by experts, we can pluck those dedicated medical staffers out of harms way so they can fight another day, and return to their families.   

 

 Social Distancing 2020

 

This photo shows people following orders, maintaining their social distance as they await their turn at an ATM in Envigado Colombia. I took the picture this morning, April 22nd, on one of my  2 weekly free days that I'm permitted to leave the building.  Watching these folks obey the government's dictates, staying a meter apart, wearing their PPE, patiently waiting their turn is what engendered this post. 

 

 Like a War Zone

 

On an ordinary day in Envigado this street would be bumper to bumper.  I took this shot at 8:20 am.  When I left the mall at 10:00 o'clock it still looked like this. Here in Colombia, like in most other nations, we're living in a war zone. The enemy is real, traceable but elusive, on the prowl for victims. An encounter with this enemy could very well prove fatal. Like any war, this one demands sacrifice, vigilance, and the participation of all if we're to come out the other side unscathed. 

 

 More Social Distancing

 

The point, of course, is that we all need to do our duty at a time like this. We need to be mindful of all those around us, and to be aware that during these trying times inconvenience by governmental dictate is not tyranny. That none of us are alone on a planet with 6 billion + other humans. That what we do has consequences, not just for us, but for those around us.

 

 LAX March 19th 1971

 

The picture was taken hours after I landed in Los Angeles after returning from Vietnam. My WW-2 veteran uncle took it. I flew 1,200 hours of combat time in Vietnam, earned several medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, and did my duty as I was ordered. I was one of the lucky ones who survived, and went home. Nearly 60,000 of my colleagues, and countless thousands of others in opposition died. As the COVID 19 death toll approaches 60,000 Americans, a number I expect to see any day now, there are yet more sobering similarities to my Vietnam tour. 

 

We need to understand first that we are in a war. Secondly, that following data driven orders, and doing what the experts tell us is our duty. Third, that supporting the 'troops' in this war means looking out for those on the front lines, the health care workers, doctors, nurses, RTs, lab techs, EMTs, Paramedics, anyone facing the deadly enemy every single day without complaint, and often without the solace of returning to their families until their tour is over, whenever that may be. It means washing our hands, instead of wringing them when we can't do as we please. It means volunteering to make masks, or create a food drive, or researching hard facts instead of wallowing in emotionally indulgent rumor. It's something simple like thanking the delivery person, or the people who stock shelves long after we've crawled into bed.

 

It means recognizing that our health care workers are in mortal danger, under fire, beleaguered, with the enemy all around them, and nearly out of ammunition. Adding to their peril now is unthinkable. This is our chance to rescue them, so they can go home to their families. 

 

We'll get through this war. The world will be different. Our easy, carefree lives are likely over, for now, but we'll bounce back. We always do.  Something else Vietnam taught me is that we're resilient, and innovative, and resourceful. And we do our best only when we stick together.

 

Thanks for reading my post. And wash your hands!

 

 

 

  

  

 

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