Hill 102

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I remember lying in a puddle and realizing that it must be my blood. I couldn’t move. My right arm was curled up at a bad angle, and I could not make it unbend. I could feel air at the top of my head and worried that my skull was fractured. But I felt no pain, and I realized I was in shock.

A medic crawled over to me.

“How bad is it?” I asked.

“You’ll be okay,” he said.

“Are my brains exposed?” My first question in a hierarchy of fears.

“No, it’s just a scalp wound.”

“Are my legs still there?” “Yes.”

“Is my arm broken?”

“Yes,” he said. “But you’re losing blood, and I’m out of bandages. I’ll be back.” He crawled away.

My glasses had been blown off and an eardrum shattered. Eyesight blurred and half-deaf, I lay immobile through an apocalypse: screams, explosions, and the arcs of tracer bullets all around me. For the first time I knew real fear, fear that another North Vietnamese soldier would get through and stand over me, and I would helplessly witness, by bullet or bayonet, my own execution.

Our guys held. Somebody else took over the strobe and kept Spooky on target. Five hours later the fighting subsided, and at dawn I was dragged on a poncho from the building and deposited on a secured slope of the hill.

Tony, my radiotelephone operator, was unhurt. Tenderly he held my hand. “You’re gonna make it home.” A Huey medevac choppered down to the field. Tony and others picked me up on the poncho, ran to the helicopter, and flung me in with both the living and dead. It didn’t matter. No time for protocol. NVA machine gunners opened up, trying to take out the chopper. It rose slowly and tilted when a round ripped through its upper fuselage. For a brief moment I was angry with God, that He would take me this far and then let me die in a helicopter crash. I wanted to go home.

I heard a noise spring unwinding. “so this is death,” I thought.

The chopper righted itself, and I passed out. When I regained consciousness, I was lying in a field hospital, a doctor tugging at shards of shrapnel in my chest. It hurt like hell.

Out of the 130 men of Charlie Company who had walked into the valley, only 25 had walked out.

After 30 years, the experts said, you will never find the exact spot where it happened. Your memory will play tricks. The place will be overgrown with jungle. Every fragment of the building will be gone, taken by poor, industrious people who let nothing go to waste.

Only in recent years had I begun to feel a desire to go back. I can’t say that I even knew why. I did know that Vietnam was always with me. In the hospital I had read accounts of the battle in Stars and Stripes and about the death of Oliver Noonan.

Noonan’s willingness to die while covering a story fascinated me. He risked, and gave, his life because he believed in the truth of his images and what they would tell people at home about the war. He became a hero to me. After a long recovery I attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. I joined the Philadelphia Inquirer , wrote about politics in Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania capital, and won some awards. I became the press secretary for Gov. Dick Thornburgh just in time for the March 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident and continued as one of his top aides until 1985, when I joined the brokerage giant Merrill Lynch as head of its communications and public affairs group.

I have always been involved in veterans’ affairs. I took a special interest in the educational work of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and when the Wall’s indomitable founder, Jan Scruggs, invited me to join its corporate board, 1 jumped at the chance.

Despite those efforts, however, I never went back. In 1996 my wife, Patty, 10 years younger than I am and a half-generation removed from the pervasive effects of the Vietnam War, gave me a gift, a trip back “in country” whenever I wanted to go. I didn’t schedule it. Somehow there was always a work or family reason not to go.

Late in 1999 the corporate advisory board of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund decided to send a delegation to Vietnam for ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary—April 30, 2000—of the fall of Saigon. Two dozen U.S. veterans, all prominent business executives, would visit government, academic, and business leaders to promote reconciliation. Now there was not only a compelling reason to go; there was no excuse not to.