By Colonel Wayne Murphy, PhD, PE, Ft. Belvoir, Fairfax County, VA
Leaving Wife and Home
There are many things in a life that are difficult, and I have always resisted trying to define the hardest for fear the worst was ahead. The day you drop your son off at college gives you a sickening feeling deep in your gut like no other. Maybe it is the realization that he is “gone” now – out on his own and nothing will ever be quite the same. It might be the day you sit by the bed of a parent or sibling as they take their final breaths, knowing that you will never have them with you to share your life’s remaining joys and sorrows.
However, the day I left my wife and unborn child to go to war was perhaps the toughest for me. At the time I really did not know what to do, so I did as the Army had trained me when a difficult task was at hand — I just marched on and did it.
We were living in a one bedroom garden apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. Mary Ellen was still in school and I was assigned to the 91st Engineers at Ft. Belvoir – an active duty unit used for “school support” and a transition unit for soldiers coming from or going to Vietnam. We had had an April wedding at West Point and a one night honeymoon at the Plaza in New York City on Saturday. My formal orders for Vietnam arrived the Monday when we got back to Virginia. I signed in at the 91st and the S-1 (Battalion Adjutant) said, “Hey, we have something for you L T.” (L T was slang for Lieutenant.)
Our guys at Belvoir were mostly draftees returning from their year in Vietnam with a few months left on their two year tour of duty, or recent AIT (Advanced Individual Training – the extra specialty training after basic) grads awaiting shipment to Vietnam in a few weeks. In any case both groups were hard to motivate with the attitude – “What can you do to me, I’ve been to Nam?” or “What can you do to me, I am going?”
The war was unpopular with a good portion of the American people and the press at this time. Only those who could not get deferred for college served along with the “professionals” like me, my West Point classmates, and ROTC types. Most of my contemporaries in the civilian world who claimed to be “against” the war were, in my view at the time, hiding behind the peace movement to cover the real fear – a fear of actually having to go and risk their lives for their country.
While at Belvoir my unit did get called up to be a ready reaction force as part of an Operation Garden Plot (civil disturbances), when the large Cambodian invasion demonstration was held in DC that spring. Nixon went out and “met” the demonstrators at the memorials, and the undercover police in the crowd and “peace” organizations helped direct government forces — and they were able to block any real time threat by the protestors. The most dangerous protestors were channeled in circles and never allowed to merge. Nothing materialized to threaten the government. We just sat by at Bowling AFB (Air Force Base) in DC and listened over the radio to the “action.”
Ironically, the night before, Mary Ellen and I had hosted and housed her brother, Tom, along with several of her friends, who were in town to participate in the demonstrations the next day. I do not recall any real fervor, just the college kid “this is a great idea for a road trip.” At 0100 when I got alerted I put on my uniform and gear and had to walk over them on the living room floor. We said, “See you tomorrow.” But we did not.
Maybe I cannot blame them in a way now. We were all kids and they were in no danger of having to serve, just out for some excitement. Besides we had five years of weekly death tolls, and thousands of burials all over the country. Hardly a family was not touched by the war and ALL seemed to know someone who had died or been wounded. And we all were getting the feeling the country’s leaders were going to cut and run anyway. Maybe I had sold their motivation a bit short.
The best news ever came in late May, or maybe June, for Mary Ellen and me. We found out that month that she was going to have our first child. I will never forget the day. She got the call from the doctor (there were no home tests) and I had just come home for lunch. She ran across the room and launched herself into my arms. We were elated! What did we know? The world was ours because we had each other.
My final days were spent on leave in NJ and NY visiting my family and hers. It was hard to say goodbye. I was flying from McCord AFB in Seattle and had to take a commercial jet from LaGuardia to Seattle/Tacoma. Mary Ellen wanted to go to the airport, but I did not think I could handle that. We spent our last night in a motel on Rt 4 for some privacy. It was a passionate, but a fearful night for me. But we did not speak of the fears – for my life and for her having to bring Sean into the world without me.
I asked my brother, Stephen, to drive me to the airport. Steve and I were 21 and 23 respectively and still learning about life, and we could put our heads down and just move forward. Saying goodbye to him at the airport would be easier as he was a young man and understood. Easier I assumed than leaving my Mom or my Pop, and definitely easier than leaving Mary Ellen. At least I thought so.
I kissed Mary Ellen goodbye at the door of 176 Grayson Place and got into the car. That feeling of loss is indescribable – to place a life together on hold for so long, or maybe forever.
Steve drove as I recall and we talked about a number of things. I asked him to look after my lady if she needed anything. He also agreed to send a dozen yellow roses from me to Mary Ellen on the day of our child’s birth no matter what happened. The rest is just a blur now. I would miss Steve’s college graduation in the spring, just as I had missed his HS graduation because of my “duties” – and that made me feel a bit further cheated. We got to the airport and he dropped me off. I picked up my B4 bag and Steve said, “Keep your head down.”
When I arrived in Seattle I checked in to a hotel as my MAC (Military Airlift Command) flight left McCord the next day and decided to call Mary Ellen. It was a repeat of a number of things we had said and maybe not necessary or even wise, but I knew it would be a long time before I spoke to her. Only voice communications that I knew of from Vietnam were through HAM (short wave) radio guys on the MARS program (volunteers who linked the SW radio with phones for soldiers) and hard to arrange. The call would go from Vietnam to a HAM operator in say California and he would make a phone call and link the radio manually. I spent a very lonely night.
Next day I boarded a chartered commercial jet complete with stewardesses. Officers were in khakis, enlisted in fatigues. We flew via Anchorage, AK and Japan to Cam Ranh Bay. On the flight were several classmates from ADA (Air Defense Artillery).
That is significant because they were there on the same plane with some of us who had volunteered for Vietnam. I was a bit late deploying in July 1970. Most of the other volunteers were in country already. In fact, I was to hear soon that a former roommate, Bill Pahissa, had already been killed in action near FB (Fire Base) Ripcord serving with the same 101st Airborne Division I was going to join — our class’ first poop deck announcement and Thayer Hall plaque. Bill was from Arizona. He was tall, a rugby player, and a pretty nice guy.
I had separated my shoulder in the first week of Airborne training the previous August (ingloriously jumping off the two foot platform into sawdust) and was “recycled.” I had been a month behind most of my classmates since that time.
Most of the ADA guys had chosen that branch to avoid Vietnam in a way. At least avoiding Ranger School – nine weeks of hard training that made Vietnam seem easy physically (except for the shooting). ADA officers were the only ones exempt from the RA (Regular Army) commission requirement to attend Ranger. Subsequently most went directly from branch school to units. They often went to the old Nike units that were placed around US in Miami, Baltimore, NY, etc. to shoot down Soviet bombers. However, their branch head felt that since ADA units were not being deployed to Vietnam (the North Vietnamese air force was not a threat), the ADA guys were at a career disadvantage without combat duty. So he volunteered his junior officers for convoy escort duty and protection slots using WWII antiaircraft 40mm “dusters” mounted in tracks – not a very safe job. So, volunteers and non-volunteers from my West Point class ended up together flying into “the Nam.”
We arrived at the end of July at Cam Ranh Bay — a huge logistic base for all services on the coast of South Vietnam. It was hot and muggy, and the air smelled of burning shit and diesel.
An excerpt from an unpublished work called “Pop’s War”.