The Price of Freedom ©
Less than one month after my twenty-first birthday, I arrived in South Vietman with the commission of leading men in combat. The Tet Offensive of 1968 started three days after I landed in Danang.
I brought with my assignment, a beautiful, grey, brown and tan, 65-pound, German Shepherd named Husky.
We were a Scout Dog Team. Our responsibility was to walk point in combat operations. Months before, I had been assigned to a platoon of Marines that went through the intense four-month Scout Dog School at the Army base, at Ft. Benning, Ga. It was here that I first met Husky. We were assigned to train together and become a team. Because dogs have such an advanced sense of smell, sight and hearing, when properly trained, they have been used, with great success, to provide military combat units with early detection of enemy troops, weapons storage, booby traps, land mines, caves and tunnels.
The German Shepherd breed is used for this type of military application because history has proven the dog to be noble, extremely intelligent, fiercely loyal and tireless when working. The proper use of the Scout Dog Team requires the dog and handler to walk in front, or ahead, of the body of men in the operation. This is called the point position. Husky and I led operations for as few as four men and as many as several hundred. Husky was not trained to be aggressive and the men with whom we worked felt comfortable and secure being around him. He reminded our Marines of home, of pets they left behind, and they always wanted to get near him, to pet him and get to know him.
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The dog is controlled with a six-foot leash and if he would discover something, by either smelling it, hearing or seeing it, he would silently alert me to his finding. I would then inform the men we were with and the proper action was taken.
Husky was so well trained that he would hear the vibration of a trip wire stretched across a path, walk back to me and sit sideways in front of me, preventing me from walking into the wire and detonating the booby trap. Imagine a very thin wire, invisible to the human eye, stretched across a path and connected with detonating explosives, to a 500-pound bomb that didn’t explode when dropped from an aircraft. Husky heard the sound of that wire moving in the wind and warned me of the imminent danger.
Husky and I graduated from dog school first in our class and during the 13 months I spent in Vietnam, there was never a time, when he and I walked point, that a mother, wife, son, daughter or a family received notice that their Marine was fatally wounded in combat operations. I am told, but have made no effort to confirm, that during the war years in Vietnam that I was one of 17 Scout Dog Handlers assigned to Marine Special Forces, Recon.
During one evening, several months after arriving, our seven men Marine Recon Team disembarked from a transport truck. In this elite group was my trusted friend, Fred. I trained with him at Camp Lejeune, NC, and while stationed in Cuba. Fred was, quite simply, an outstanding Marine in every respect – a man of honor, integrity and, without hesitation, in whom I entrusted my life. Fred was about 5’10”, 170 pounds, with light-sandy, thinning hair.
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He came from Maine and, when he spoke, he had the most wonderful accent I have ever heard. Fred was dedicated to God, country and corps and was totally committed and faithful to the young lady waiting at home for him.
The rain had let up for a short time as we jumped off the truck, but the weather was overcast and humid, and was bad enough that helicopters couldn’t fly safely. A short walk from the truck found us at the foot of a mountain that housed a base camp of military operations. We were to check in at the base camp operations center, a reinforced sandbag bunker that was across a meandering stream separating the mountain from the rest of the world. Engineers had placed a large drain pipe in the stream, filling in the sides and covering the top with dirt, creating a solid surface connecting both sides of the stream that would allow crossing without wading in the water.
After checking in we gathered in a large tent where we were to spend the night and from where our two-week long patrol would begin early the next morning. The tent was positioned on the side of the mountain within a few feet of the bunker. Olive green and made of military-grade canvas, the tent had a mud floor slopping so that water running into the tent from the high side would run through and drain out the low side. Not long after settling in our tent, once again, the heavens opened and the rain started. The rain seemed endless as it poured in such a torrent that, the individual falling drops seemed as large as buckets; the sound of the combined rain and wind beating against the ground and the canvas of our tent were so loud that I surrendered my ability to focus on anything except surviving the storm.
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The flow of water pushed by the driving wind became horizontal, losing any resemblance of what I know as a normal rainfall; the ground could not possibly absorb the excess water and the resulting run-off created flash flooding of such magnitude that I can only imagine the destruction brought with it. Yet, if this rain, the seasonal monsoon, did not fall, the rice crop would fail and the people of South Vietnam and, indeed, all of Asia would face famine and many would suffer, go hungry and possibly die.
That evening I came to rest near the center of the tent with my head elevated on my back pack. I secured Husky on a leash looped over my left wrist. The water flowed into the tent and over its soaking wet floor with such force and in such volume that I spent the night with a flow of water hitting the top of my shoulders then cascading over my neck, shoulders and chest. There was no escape, no relief, no hotel, no warm bed and no other option.
Our patrol was cancelled the following morning. The rain stopped. The clouds and overcast gloom were so thick that I wondered if the sun would ever again rise on the horizon.
We had a serious problem: To board the waiting trucks and return to our unit, we had to cross the stream to get to the road. The stream was now far outside its banks and was no longer intermittent. It was, however, an angry, raging river, sweeping away anything in its path and presented itself as our final obstacle to returning to some element of civilization, hot food, cold beer and dry clothes.
We managed to throw a rope to a Marine on the other side of the river. Realizing that our lives depended on him, he skillfully tied the rope around a good-sized tree located outside the running water.
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With our end also secured to a tree, we worked to make the rope spanning the water as taut as possible. A loosely tied rope would mean a lack of control while wading from river bank to river bank.
As I watched the water, standing near its edge, it was both mesmerizing and terrorizing. The sound of the water’s roar is something I have never been able to forget; it was far too loud for what had been, just the day before, a small stream. The water swept past me at jet speed, carrying debris of every description. The water would spray and splash as it struck rocks and trees and swirled within itself.
Holding the rope, the first man stepped into the water, and crossed safely to the other side. The second man made it. It was now my turn. At that moment, my fully dressed body weight, including military issue boots, was 125 pounds; Husky weighed 65 pounds and my backpack, rifle, ammo, and other gear, added another 80 – 100 pounds, making my total walking weight, as I waded the river, about 270 pounds.
I squatted, placed my left arm around Husky’s chest, just above his front legs, my right arm around his back legs, and as I stood with him in my arms, in one motion, I lifted him so that the soft part of his abdomen rested on my right shoulder. Our heads faced the same direction. I talked to him, gently, quietly, to assure him that this was just another, in our growing list, of adventures.
Now, with my dog on my right shoulder, being held secure with my right arm and hand, my rifle on my left shoulder, I nestled my head into the fur on Husky’s left side. It was still damp; it was his smell, unique to only him and could not have been sweeter to me, than at that moment.
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I took hold of the rope with my left hand and to gain an element of leverage, I placed the rope as high as possible under my left arm, and stepped into the water. Instantly, I was gripped by the hands and long, fluid fingers of the river. The water seemed to mock me, saying, in a sarcastic, taunting voice: “Boy, now you have entered my realm. I will hold you and only, at my choosing, may you exit. I will burn into your very heart and soul, with a white hot branding iron, the memory of my water. If I choose, I will take you into the very fire of hell. You will only exit my water if I so choose.”
The water was cold; it felt gritty with sand and silt. The fabric of my trousers moved in the current with such force that I thought they might be torn from my body. The water moved from left to right and we walked on the right side of the rope. I could feel the coarse texture of the sand on the sole of my boots as I moved over the sandy river bottom. With each step I found my boots sinking just a bit in the sand. When I advanced another step, my boot stuck in the sand. The river refused to release me. Each step was an effort.
Husky didn’t move and made no sound; he was totally submissive and accepting; his trust in me, his faith in me and his love for me was unconditional. We would go together, we would do together, and we would overcome together. Failure was not an option; no second chance; no do-over; no hesitation; only to face the fear and overcome it. I literally held his life in my hands. To fail at this moment meant certain death for both of us. I was patient in my progress; deliberate and determined with each step. The others started behind me.
The river somehow released its grip, and then regurgitated me on the other side. As I stepped out of the water, I fell into and became entangled in several strands of barbed wire.
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The small, thorn like barbs dug into my flesh. With each movement lighting bolts of pain shot through my body. It was difficult for me to move, but Husky stayed at my side, patiently waiting for me to gain my freedom. Over the years, the scars from that fall have mostly faded.
From my entangled mess I looked back to watch our progress. The second man behind me, Johnny, carried our radio on his back. It was heavy and awkward. The average age of the men serving in Vietnam was 19. Johnny was not a day over 20, 6 feet tall, thin build, jet-black hair and dark eyes. I remember most his energy and sense of humor. He always seemed to be in motion, and I don’t think any three of us could match his grit. We operated deep in the most remote and primitive locations, and our radio was our lifeline. Johnny proved critical to our survival. I watched in disbelief as John’s hand came off the rope and he slid away with the current. The water pulled him under. With amazing speed, two men joined hands while one held the rope, stretching out for our radio man, but it wasn’t enough. Then, as suddenly as he went down, the current pushed him up and Johnny’s head broke the surface of the water. Now others frantically worked to increase the human chain to three-men. John went down again. We made the three-man chain and Fred was the man on the end, farthest out in the current. Johnny came up again. While in Vietman I was with, or near, and sometimes I even knew men who gave their lives, but I have never seen the look of stark terror that I saw on Johnny’s face, at that moment, in that river. Try as we did, with every fiber of our hearts, the three-man chain was not long enough to reach him. The current pulled John down again. This time, as we watched in helpless horror, he was swept away, face down, head first, and only inches from the surface.
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One of the men on my side of the river ran in the water after Johnny. By the time he was knee deep in the river, he too was in serious trouble.
The river took its stranglehold and swept him into its current. Slamming into a sapling tree partially under water, he managed to grab the small tree trunk and hold on for his very life. Fred, never thinking of himself or his personal safety, only thought of another Marine. He released his hold on the man behind him and dove in the water, hoping to come to John’s aide.
At that moment, that instant, time stopped. For all eternity, the image of the river, the three men stretching, pulling, trying so hard, so desperately to reach John, the rope being tugged and pulled to its capacity, the sound of the water, the frantic movement of men up and down the rope, the voices yelling and our Marine in the water, proved an indelible picture. I watched all movement freeze and then, I heard Fred’s voice speaking with me in quiet conversation, from months before, as he talked of family, friends and his special lady; I heard his contagious laugh; I watched his head tilt to the side, the way it did when he laughed; I saw his eyes, blue and intense. My mind would not accept or admit to what I was now watching, as Fred was immediately swept away and out of sight.
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