Just yesterday (for Santi)

I saw you yesterday

You weren’t so far away

Not as far as most

But still, not so very close.

If I could have touched you

The ripples would roll through

To the end of days

And in so many ways

Make our spirits one

Our time would not be done

You wouldn’t be so far away

I saw you, just yesterday. 

 

Please remember my brother with me today.  Santi gave all on this day in 1972.  We all lost that day.

SP4 Santiago Herrera Escobar, US Army Scout and Patrol Dag Handler, 34th Patrol Dog Platoon, 3rd Bde., 1st Cav., Bien Hoa, RVN.  RIP Brother. 

Santi.jpg

Last Days (Written on the 18th)

Most of you know I struggle with remembering “those bad days“.  Today I had another revelation.  It so happens that this is the anniversary of my injury date.  As has happened the last three years on or around this date, memories jump out at me.  Sometimes they come at me in droves.  Sometimes just one.  This year, so far, just the one today, but it’s a big one…and it’s early.

45 years ago, today (about right now, I think.  I was either injured on the 18th at 0300 and transported to Saigon later that morning, or I was injured at 0300 on the 17th and managed to suffer through an additional day in Saigon before shipping out.  I think that last is unlikely.

3rdFieldHospital

Welcome to U S Army 3rd Field Hospital. I read the sign sideways and realized I wasn’t on Bien Hoa anymore.  I’m on a gurney entering 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon.  I didn’t know it was Saigon at the time. I was still trying to sort out the ringing in my ears.  I’ve been in and out of it since cracking my head on the Tarmac at the 11th Cav’s Heliport on Bien Hoa earlier this morning, so I don’t remember a lot, but I remember rolling past that sign.

I’m lying on my right side, holding my damaged left one.  There’s a group of young Vietnamese women (girls, maybe) sitting under a large tree, in the shade, sipping tea no doubt.  It seemed like they were inside the Hospital compound.  I smiled when one caught my eye.  She smiled back, drawing her hand across her throat, the smile turning into a death’s head grimace.  I laugh and flip her off.  She feigns disgust and turns away.  An NCO is in my face screaming at me for messing with the locals.  I laugh and flip him off too.  Fuck it, I feel gooo-oood!

I think I spent at least two days here, though I can’t be sure.  It could have been one overnight and then across the street to Tan Son Nhut and home.  I just don’t know and there’s no fekkin records, of course.  I lost the Army when I left the 34th in Bien Hoa and they didn’t find me again, it seemed, until they discharged me 2 months later.  Things were so messed up, they paid me twice for my last 4 months, then took it all back before they discharged me…all that in about 45 minutes while processing out at Fort Devens, MA.

I do remember snippets at the hospital.  I remember looking out my window, I think it was my window or a window near my bunk in the hospital, though I don’t think I was able to get up then.  I was on the second floor.  The view was of the roof of a portico that stuck out from the hospital below me.  There was a sandbagged fighting position there.  I was suddenly thrust back into reality and fear gripped me.  I had neither Prince, nor any of my weapons.

I remember moaning.  Mine perhaps until I wake, but often, it comes from the fellow next to me who has no feet.  They must change the bandages every few hours.  He’s out cold and he screams through the entire process anyway.  I catch myself screaming with him more than once.  He doesn’t realize it, he just reaches out.  I reach out and grab his hand.  It’s a mistake.  He crushes my hand and there’s no getting it back until he finally gasps one last gasp and surrenders to what counts for his respite…an unconscious, raging, nightmare that never ends…and never will.

I look up from my bunk and someone is turning away from me, saying something about “sleepy heads”.  I feel a weight on my chest.  This man says something and my next-door neighbor moans, loudly.

“Hey! Can’t you keep this guy calm? I can’t hear myself think. Come on, now!”

“Yes, sir. He’s just very uncomfortable, sir. We keep him sedated but the pain still leaks through and his nightmares are horrendous, sir. He’s struggling.”

“I see, yes…”

My neighbor screams as his bunk is bumped with all the traffic.  There’s people all around.  WTF, over?

“Oh, hell.  That’s it.  I’m done with this.  Let’s go.”  The man turns from my neighbor to walk away.

“Sir?”

“I said, I’M DONE!  LET’S GO!”

I grab what’s on my chest and pitch it at the back of the jerk.  It connects.  The gent freezes.  Starts to turn, then freezes again.  He continues out of the ward with his entourage in tow.  Questions flying.  I’m disappointed the ass didn’t confront me.  I’m still feeling great.

Someone’s in my face in a minute.

“You better hope we can get you out of here, NOW, you idiot?  Do you know who that was?”

I’m not having any of it.  This was fun.  I laughed.  Whoever it was turned and walked away muttering.

I turn on my right side.  My neighbor is looking at me through drug crazed eyes.

“Fuck it, man. It don’t mean nuthin!” He was warning me.  I didn’t hear him.

————

My next memory is of sometime after that incident in the hospital ward. It could have been hours and it could have been days.  I’m back on a gurney being wheeled somewhere outside.  It’s blistering hot and sunny, I can smell diesel and Jet fuel.  I think I was headed for my Freedom Bird, a Medivac flight on Tan Son Nhut AFB.

I remember croaking something and trying to sit up.  Someone plants me back down and says, “Easy PFC, easy.  Don’t want another knock on the noggin, do you?”

“Where…” was all I could manage.

“Home, you lucky bastard, home that’s where.  Now, sit still and let me…”

I seemed to fade out for a while again then.  My next continuous spell of consciousness (lasting more than a few hours) occurred five days after I was injured, possibly 2 or 3 days after the incident in the hospital ward.  I was on a C5A Galaxy headed for Guam.  I had supposedly already been to Japan for a refuel and spent 2 days on Clark AFB in the Philippines.  I don’t remember anything but snippets of those times, if anything, but when I woke on that jet to Guam and had no Prince and no weapons, again, I went nuts.  I remember that because when the guy approached me with the needle to knock me out again, I begged.  He did anyway.

This is a bit of a breakthrough for me.  I hadn’t remembered much about the hospital until now. Tomorrow is the day I will have left Vietnam in 1972.  On this day, back then, I am trying to help my neighbor whose name and fate, I never will know while condemning myself to a difficult path out.  I wonder who that officer was and if he had awarded me some commendation????  No matter, I…ahem…promptly gave it back to him.  Lol!  The memory is worth twenty.  He was a shit!

Son

Son

I’ve been working on a different chapter lately.  I remembered some things about Papasan I had forgotten and more too.  This seemed a good time to sample it out…comments are always welcome when you read my stuff, especially where it concerns my memoirs.  I want them to read well, so please, comment away…criticism is how we learn to write better.  We learn that or we write terrible forever…bleah!!!

“You hack.  You no carve, you hack, Shawty.  Not should cut hard.”  Papasan pointed to his head and continued, “See what you makin in heah, den carve.  Not hack, hack, hack.  Hack look like shit”, using one of the American cuss words he was proud to have learned with a, pardon the redundancy, shit-eating, toothless grin on his kisser.

I laughed and responded, “Oh,  Papasan,  it don’t matter.  I’m just killin time here.  I don’t expect it to look like anything,  it’s a stick.”

“It stick before you hack it.  Shoo be sometin ess affah, or you no touch.  What you tink,  Shawty?”

“I tink you’re pulling my leg, Papasan.” I returned with a smile.

Son, Papasan, was always joking with us “dinky dao GIs”.  He was the head of the household of local Vietnamese civilians who took care of our domestic needs.  Well, he joked with us as long as we kept our distance from his daughters.  We all received the same greeting from Papasan when first we came to the 34th, “you no touch girls, less you want to wake wit no man”.  Spoken with that red-lipped toothless smile, holding his nasty looking, hooked carving knife for all to see, while slicing the end off a banana.  You got the message, and trust me, the way that sneaky little guy could come up behind you and be nearly in your pockets before you knew he was there, nobody gave his daughters a second thought.  Besides, we all understood the taboos these people’s lived with.  Your entire family would be scourged if your daughter was caught alone with an American, permission given or not, and permission was almost never given.  I was proud to say that my Platoon mates and I were all good men.  None of us ever tried to take advantage and even without Papasan’s warning, we wouldn’t have.  I’ve always considered myself extremely lucky to have ended up with the “salt-of-the-earth” Americans that made up the 34th Patrol Dog Platoon.  These guys were the best of every world and I was their mate.

Son’s family consisted of he and his wife, we called her Mamasan as we never heard her name, three daughters, two daughters-in-law and four grandchildren, three girls and a boy, Hong.  The other men in the family,  three sons and two sons-in-law were all fighting on the Cambodian border with the ARVN 25TH Division.  This was a family hugely divided.  Not only were all the men from this local family branch away fighting in the war, the majority of Son’s family lived north of the 17th parallel, the DMZ, in North Vietnam.  Many of those had served or were serving, men and women, in the NVA.  Things were at the lowest for them during the TET offensive of ’68.  Eight members of the northern clan died in the fighting.  Another seven were seriously injured.  The southern clan went unscathed physically except for minor injuries, but what they experienced taking Hue back from the VC, scarred them mentally forever.

Papasan bemoaned the evil being done to his family and country and blamed everyone from the north to the south, the French and we Americans of course;  but mostly he was pissed off at the whole world for letting it go on so long and so needlessly.  To Papasan,  who cared who ran the show, as long as it ran.  He declared to me one dismal day that the world would suffer greatly and for many years because of its ignorance towards Vietnam.  Hocus pocus?  Let me ask you this, where are we right now as far as world peace and prosperity?  Just sayin…

After spending several days on shit-burning detail with Papasan as punishment meted out for insubordination by our CO, I got to know the old man a little.  In a very short time, I went from thinking, “I’m stuck with this useless old man burning shit because it’s all the CO thinks we’re capable of” to, “This old man has more on the ball than the entire chain of command and all us super-duper-American-soldiers too, and maybe that’s really why the CO stuck me with Papasan.”

Regardless, it worked. Papasan rekindled in me the ethics lessons my working class parents taught me.  Loud and clear I eventually heard the message, “hard work pays dividends.”  In Son’s world, there were simple things that brought him great joy.  That was all he needed and all he had to do to achieve that goal was burn shit twice a day, 5 days a week.  We burned our own on weekends.  There was always someone on the Lt’s shit(burning) list…ha!  Anyway, Son was in heaven.  His family was safe and lived like kings, relative to those who did not work for the GIs and even though the men were away, they were all extremely happy people.  Yet they still lived, all 11 of them, in what the poorest American would call a hovel.  God only knows what they did when the men came home.  There was one not terribly huge room, with walls made of scavenged or pilfered US materials, rejected plywood and 2x4s, windows and doors were just openings in the wood walls, and a combination corrugated steel/thatch roof with a hole in the centre for the cook-smoke to escape.  There were flaps to cover the holes during monsoon.  They could prop the roof flap open enough to let the smoke out without letting the rain in.  Their cooking fire was usually a wood fire, though Papasan said they occasionally had coke to burn.  At least I think that’s what he meant.  He showed me a fist-sized rock and said  “black, make mark on groun you rub. Burn too…lon tine”.  They ate whatever fish they could catch from the Song Dong Nai that ran through and around Bien Hoa Ville, the chickens they kept and their eggs, and what rice they grew in their community paddy.  We supplemented their supplies but they didn’t like our food much.  They took tea bags and instant tea mix, rice, chocolate and cigarettes happily, though they couldn’t figure out what we did to our rice to make it so tasteless???  Who knew rice had a taste?  We also paid the family $5 a month each in Military Payroll Currency (MPC…script), for the domestic work they did around the company area. They did laundry mostly, but also housekeeping, grounds work, helping around the kennel (when the dogs were away) and of course Papasan was our sanitation engineer.  For this sum, they lived well above the average peasant’s standard of living.

I shared my mother’s brownies with Papasan once. He begged me to ask her for a box just for him.  I did and she complied, adding two dozen of her signature chocolate chip cookies.   I was their hero for weeks.  They actually invited me to break bread with them for dinner one day.  This is not a normal thing for a Vietnamese family to do with your average GI.  I brought my CO with me to be sure there were no improprieties, I am an idiot after all.  As the guest of honour, I was given the head of the chicken.   I can’t be sure, but I think Papasan was pulling my leg again, because when I came back inside from running outside to heave up what was left of my lunch, the chicken head was gone, everyone was chowing down and no one said a word about it.  Either that or LT took care of it??? Damn!  Idiot!

I found myself gravitating to the back of the latrine whenever I was down.  My hanging out with Papasan was a kind of escape really.  No one went to the back of the latrine but him or the poor slobs who had the duty on the weekends or anyone on punishment, so it was just him and I.  After I gave up on hacking, we just enjoyed the quiet together.  His serenity gave me peace, for a minute anyway.  He carved, hummed and smoked that crazy long ivory pipe with the strongest smelling tobacco I ever smelled, and, no, it wasn’t pot.  You may wonder about the smell from the latrine.  Bien Hoa (and Vietnam in general) had very predictable weather patterns.  The Airstrip on the US air base on Bien Hoa ran north to south for a reason; the wind almost always blew north to south.  With the airstrip running that direction, the aircraft, usually well overloaded, by taking off into it could use the wind to help generate the lift needed to get off the ground.  Now, whoever built out latrine had been around awhile and must have learned from the Air Force’s example because he built the latrine so that the poor bastard that was burning the stuff didn’t absolutely have to breathe it too.  Most of the time it was blowing south and the back of the latrine was on the north side of the building.  If it was blowing any the other way, you moved to the side of the building rather quickly, ahem.

Son was terrified of our dogs and made no bones about it.  He’d had incidents before with k9s getting too close.  Once was with me and Prince the first time Hong got loose and was grappling with Prince’s slimy tongue, laughing with the kind of glee you only hear in a kids laugh.  Holy shit did Papasan go through the roof.  I thought Prince was going to go ballistic.  I’m sure he could feel papasan’s angst and that makes dogs nervous.  I had to leash him to control him.  After that, whenever a Handler brought his partner too close to Son or any of his family when Son was around, especially the grandkids, he went nuts.  The carving knife came out and he moved into a perfect fighting crouch, ready for the worst.  Most of our furry partners, of course, are looking at him and I’m sure, thinking, “Does he have treats?”  It took most of the entire time I was in-country to get him to let me approach with Prince and that only after he again stumbled on his four-year-old grandson this time rolling around on top of Prince without being eaten.  After he settled down, that is to say, once he was done berating me, my parents, America, the daughter who was watching young Hong, and anyone else in a hundred mile radius; he sucked it up, grabbed Hong off of Prince’s belly, teeth and knife in play the whole time, handed him off to his daughter and chased them off. Then, not to be outdone by his grandson, he deliberately walked up to Prince, who was by now a bit miffed at the old man’s behaviour and had his teeth bared, (I think by now Prince had full recall of their last meeting).  Son then said something in Vietnamese that made Prince turn his head the way dogs do, he calmed immediately, then Son patted him once on the head, turned to me and said, “Nevah gain, Shawty, nevah!”  That was the only time Son made contact with any of our partners.  It was not, however, the last time for Hong.  He had a knack for losing his watchdog and always ended up in the kennels.  No worries for little Hong, our dogs all loved the little rascal, but if sure set Papasan off.

The last time Son and I Spoke was a very sobering experience.  Son’s oldest son came home to recover from battle wounds and told his dad a very different story from what was being said in the news.  Because we Americans were backing out, the south could no longer say they were winning.  In fact, they were starting to lose.  It was just a matter of time before the Americans would all be gone and then after the south ran out of everything, the north would sweep down and destroy the south and her people.

When I went to visit with him later that day,  he was a very different man.  He hardly said a word and kept giving me what I can only describe as the “evil eye”.  After pressing him for an explanation,  he angrily said,  “You will go home to America soon.  Then we will die”.  Shaking his head and with a tear in his eye he turned away from me and said, “Why?”  He never looked back and never said another word to or for that matter acknowledged me or any of us.

Two weeks later, with more grief in my heart than hope, I fucked up for the last time and was injured bad enough for the Army to give up on me and send me home.  I still dream about Son, Hong and the rest.  I still wonder, what if.

RIP Son.  I hope you found your serenity again after we left…somehow I can’t imagine that and I cry.

Chapter 6

If you’ve ever wondered how Military Working Dogs or their handlers are trained, the following is a glimpse of what we did in training at the Scout Dog Handler School on Fort Benning in Georgia.  These k9s were already trained, so what we did aside from learning ourselves how to be good handlers, we also worked at re-training our partners.  The process is continuous.

From my memoirs:

6. Ft Benning and the Scout Dog Handler Training School

As far as I was concerned dogs were pets. No cats lived in our house ever. According to local folklore from my neighborhoods; birds, squirrels, rats, raccoons and sometimes cats were pests you slung rocks or shot B-Bs at. I didn’t buy into to any of that but that had been my education about animals until the day I got to Scout Dog Handler School. After indoctrination in the Day Room, we marched down to the kennels and the noise was incredible. These animals hadn’t had handlers in over a month and they were just crazy for attention. Some were huge and scary some were small and sweet. Some were awesome specimens of breeding; others were mutts of every size, shape and color.

There was one, Rebel, who weighed in at over 130 pounds, was solid black with longish hair and kind of looked like a Sheppard on steroids (turned out to be a Newfie mix). He had canines as long as my baby finger. No one got in on this dog except an older SSGT who was shorter and slighter than I was. Rebel fair swooned when SSGT Dixon showed up. Rebel hadn’t had a student handler for three cycles. That trend didn’t end with this group of newbies either, though several of us tried, including me. I loved a challenge. My very first experience with skid marked chonies occurred when Rebel cornered me in his kennel after letting me in with his food dish. The SOB set me up. I threw the bowl at him and scrambled over the fence to get out.

Training us was one thing but learning how they had trained and are constantly re-training the K9s was an education in itself. The system was referred to as “Repetition, Praise and Reward”. Basically, after performing the proper behavior for the task at hand, the K9 got a treat and a lot of glad-handing. Then the task was repeated often to reinforce the proper behavior. Eventually the K9 would perform the behavior for a pat on the head only and be quite thrilled with that.

In general, dogs are very personable and love the attention of their handlers more than anything. The term loyal is an understatement when referring to these marvelous creatures. Devoted is closer to the truth along with adoring, noble, fearlessly protective and loving. Aside from learning to control this creatures talents, we first had to learn how to “bond” with our partners. This was far more important than what size, breed or color your partner was.

With this in mind we spent 8 or more hours of everyday with our partners. We fed, groomed, trained, re-trained, hung out with and basically lived with our partners as if they were family and we were the parent. In two weeks I was spending more time with my partner Lady, than I was with my platoon mates. I once fell asleep in Lady’s kennel on a Saturday morning. I woke to the kennel master spraying me down along with the kennel.

Back to training; at some point in the history of using MWDs it was decided that a sort of prompt was needed to “inform” the k9 that he was working as opposed to just being an obedient dog. They all wore choke chains all the time. Basic obedience training was done with the choke chain only. When the team was switching to “work” mode, the handler put a leather-working” collar or a harness on his partner. Retraining was a constant, especially when these k9s would sit for a month or so without working in between training cycles.

The way these MWDs (Military Working Dogs) were taught or retaught to perform their intended function as a Scout, Sentry, Drug, Patrol or Mine and Tunnel Dog was exactly the same method as they used to teach them the basics, sit, stay, down, come, heel, crawl etc., via “Repetition, Praise and Reward”. A target of some sort (usually a very small amount of explosives or ammo or medical supplies or ever food, like rice) would be set along a trail and the K9 team would advance slowly past it. If the K9 showed interest in the target right away, “praise and reward” happened immediately and the course was run again until the animal had that behavior down. They would actually associate finding the thing that “smelled like that” with a reward and after so many repetitions a behavior is implanted. Then they would hide the device under some leaves or grass or whatever, and repeat the process. Then the device would be buried (like an IED or a cache of supplies etc.). If the MWD happened to skip on past the device without noticing it, the handler would stay him, perhaps “show” device to the animal, let him smell it, mouth it if appropriate and then the device would be replaced and the MWD worked past it again until he or she did show interest invoking praise and reward from the handler. A target would not be buried for a particular animal until he “alerted” on the device while above ground and then just slightly buried. Repeat, repeat and repeat again. Some animals took no more than a rep or two to catch on, some took more effort.

The behavior the dogs perform when they “find” a target or person is called an “alert”. This is the cue for the handler to stay his partner and investigate the alert. When the k9 finds a device he sits in front of it. For personnel and other scent related alerts his nose would point into the scent cone or he’d tilt an ear towards a sound or move his head if he saw movement.

Over time they learn to “look” for these things as soon as the handler puts his “working” collar or harness on. They use all of their senses to locate anything. K9 senses are exponentially more acute than a human’s. Their sight and hearing are hundreds of times more sensitive than ours, but their sense of smell is perhaps the most sensitive of all. It is difficult for a human to understand the difference without examples. A drug dog we watched demonstrate his talents found a pinch of marijuana in a small plastic bag inside a dirty sock and hidden inside the gasoline fill spout of a 2.5 ton truck. He in fact tried to pull off the fill cap. I once had my dog in Nam, Prince, scent-alerting on personnel at just over 200 meters with a steady breeze blowing our way. When a MWD “finds” a trip wire it may have used all 3 senses. He may hear the trip wire vibrating with tension, he may see the vibration or he could smell the explosives or the person who set the trap for up to 3 days after he left if it hasn’t rained too much in the meantime.

Human scent lingers for far longer than 3 days really, hence the ability to “track” someone via a day’s old trail of scent left behind. It is important to remember though, that as a Scouting team you’re working an MWD along a trail under great pressure to find everything. The scent left by a person that is more than a few days old may not trigger the response you want from your partner because there is so much more going on that is far fresher than the days old human scent. Just as it is essential that you train your partner to use all his senses when walking point, it is also essential that you zone in on your partner’s every move. Some alerts are so fleeting your partner might get a whiff for just a moment and then the wind shifts or something with a stronger scent assails his olfactory nerves. If you were looking at something else, like where you were walking, instead of at your partner, you could easily miss that alert and walk yourself into trouble unless he alerted again.

Walking a patrol with an MWD is an exercise in self-control. Your base instincts tell you to look where you’re walking so you don’t step on something you don’t want to step on or fall into. That is wrong. Watching where you’re going is the MWD’s job. As a handler your job is to watch your partner for alerts all the time, keep a sense of wind direction all the time. Only after your partner alerts should you use other cues to help you discover actual wind direction and therefore the “true” direction the “scent” came from. For instance, scent can swirl around in the forest or in high dense brush. If you want to be sure of wind direction, after you stay your partner and alert everyone with you to take cover, look to the tops of the trees where the wind is unfettered and you can get a true wind direction from watching which way the top limbs and leaves are blowing.

If you thought you may have caught one of those subtle alerts from your partner but are not sure what kind of alert it was, hold up the folks your leading, call your partner back to you and re-prosecute that same terrain again and again if you have to until you’re satisfied with the results.

To continue with the training after you and your partner were up to speed with the basics you moved on to personnel. This was a whole new ballgame. With a fresh personnel scent to follow an MWD could get really excited. Since the idea of scouting was to be as quiet as possible so you didn’t alert the bad guys to your presence and also so you didn’t stumble into something bad because you were in too much of a hurry, you had to work your partner deliberately and pay attention to everything he did. Some alerts were so subtle you could miss them if you blinked at the wrong time. As I said, a stale scent might just barely attract your partner’s attention if there were any other distraction(s) around. You could easily miss that sudden heartbeat-long flick of an ear or a tending of the nose to swing left or right into a scent cone for a millisecond.

To compound the problem further, in the rain scent falls to the ground so your partner’s tendency is always to follow his nose, his head will drop to the ground as long as you allow him to do so. In that case you must keep at him constantly to keep his head up, with a little jiggle on the leash or hissing through your teeth or even using the dog whistle. With his head down, his sight is wasted and he sees movement 10 times faster than a human. You learn to keep his head up if you want to live. K9s may not see with crystal clarity or in color, but they see movement very well.

Every MWD has his or her own way of displaying an alert depending on what kind of alert it was. For instance, Prince had his own way of alerting to incoming or outgoing ordinance. His ears would flatten out to the sides and he would crouch. My guess is he “learned” this from experience. Over time he’d heard a number of artillery pieces firing or mortar rounds dropping into a tube and eventually related those noises to what happened after that: big noise, bright flash and everyone running to cover. He became conditioned to take cover, thus the crouch. The flattened ears were just a normal reaction for that particular k9. Others I saw would alert heavily on people but hardly noticeably on things. Some would be just the opposite and some would throw a barely recognizable alert for everything but never miss anything. So you learned to “learn” your partner’s ways in a hurry, again if you wanted to live.

Personnel alerts were the coolest I always thought. Their noses would almost dance into the scent cone. Some would get really animated while others would simply freeze (point). When Prince got a real strong scent alert (meaning either that the target was close or the wind was strong and steady) he would stand on his hind legs and rotate into the cone. Lady, on the other hand (my training partner in Ft Benning) would bob her nose into the direction of the wind. Other dogs might just toss their heads this way or that and you had to catch it or lose it. Knowing your partner was the rule.

We had a behavioral scientist teach us about how K9s function and how repetition and praise was the best method of training. He claimed that you could teach a bright k9 anything you could teach a 3-year-old child, except for some dexterity talents and how to talk. For my money I thought that last bit was debatable. I know Lady and Prince both communicated with me via tail wagging, pointing, licking, whining, barking, mouthing and nudging. Is that not talking by another name?

There was a Staff Sergeant at Ft Benning, SSGT Dixon, who’d been around MWDs since he joined the Army, a natural dog whisperer he would he called today. He saw so many in-a-hurry newbies miss alerts over the years that he took it as a personal challenge to not let those folks get through the course until he’d corrected that tendency. He spent some extra time with the struggling handlers who once they got out in the field had their brains turn to mush and they’d miss more alerts than they’d catch. He would work with the team, taking over the role of handler and showing us how to really “see” our partner’s actions. SSGT Dixon without a doubt “talked “to these animals and they subsequently “talked” to us, if we were willing to “listen”.

 

Kennel Talk – The MWDTSA Newsletter

I enjoy this every month and thought I’d share it. Please feel free to read and pass along. Once again, this is a great cause near and dear to my heart.  This is also one of the best put together newsletters I have the good fortune to read.

This is a .PDF file.  You’ll need a reader. Enter “adobe” into a search bar, you’ll find it.

MWDTSA Newsletter

 

First time

Over the years I have slowly been able to bring back at least most of what my brain stowed away in denialville. Still, there are instances of either memory or imagining that flash into my mind’s eye for brief moments that leave me stunned, lost, unsure and unfulfilled.  Lately there have been various events, sights, voices or noises that bring these things into clearer focus so I can, the hope is, resolve these flashes into either reality or fantasy. I have yet to discard any of these flashes to the fantasy pile. I don’t know for sure why I remembered some and no other events, but most of those I’d buried had death all over them.

I had always thought the experience I had with the old peasant man was my first trip outside the wire but I had forgotten the real first trip which triggered us going outside the wire much more often after that.  I had an “epiphany” this morning as I woke and several lingering unresolved flashes of memory morphed into one event and I remembered it all in a rush.

Link to the earlier article describing what I thought was my first trip outside the wire: https://mikeisasking.com/page/4/

I’m sure I will re-remember this several more times and will add detail as time tick-ticks. This is what I recall as of now. This will be a new chapter in my memoirs.

Tears still stung at the corner of my eyes.  Humidity like a warm soggy second skin clung to my arms.  It was a habit I had to check all the time or I’d miss something.  That would be bad.  I have to watch Prince all the time like he was my eyes, but I often found myself sighting down my arm, the leash and then to the back of Prince’s head. If I saw anything on my arm, it might cause me to delay and I could miss that flicker of an alert my partner might throw with the mild scent, sight or sound of something new, different or maybe a threat. I had to work on that. Even when we are just walking on base camp I practice looking directly at his ears, skipping the long arduous path of arm, leash to detector extraordinaire. I don’t need to look anywhere else. That’s his job. As Prince slept I reflected on the last 30 minutes. Bouncing along in the back of that truck I wiped away the last vestiges of the salty tracks of the tears shed six men’s lifetimes ago.

Noticing the sheen on my arms right then was a distracting annoyance more than a mistake. We were in a transport headed back to the 34th Patrol Dogs company area and a much-needed rest and I needed to stop thinking about everything…desperately. In fact Prince was zoned out already. We were the first team retrieved out of six and we are spread out all over the compound, inside and outside of the wire. It takes most of an hour to collect the six teams coming home. With the night Prince had I knew he was exhausted and he was gone the second the truck started moving. He would eat a little when we got back and hydrate while I cleaned my weapons and gear. Then when he “knew” I was okay and going to bed myself, he would traipse off to his kennel, curl up in his hooch and crash. He never played with another dog nor for that matter did he pay any attention to his kennel-mates. He never went anywhere else, just to his kennel. I know because I very “discretely” followed him a couple of times. Satisfied that he was indeed going to his kennel only, I would then head back to my hooch where Prince would once again be waiting for me to drop off to sleep. He was always there when I woke too.

I don’t think it was always terribly restful sleep for him. We’d lived through some minor horrors together and he’d been here for four years before I arrived.  I have no doubt my partner was already in the throes of PTSD and it showed.  Whenever I couldn’t sleep, I would pace a bit but always ended up leaning against his hooch, watching him sleep. I thought I dreamed too much but his seemed to last all night and he was in distress most of the time. Maybe I should have woken him but one of us needed to sleep. When it was time to go to work, that hero of mine never flinched no matter his “mental” condition.

Earlier this night we had started out walking the perimeter of the Air Force’s huge ammo dump. Donnie Lassiter and his partner, Bodie, were working in tandem with Prince and I sweeping north to the fence in an effort to thwart the aspirations of our friendly neighborhood sappers. We chased them all the way to the fence without seeing them but found the hole they came through. There was nearly 200 meters of open space beyond the fence, if you consider three rows of concertina wire and minefields open. There was no sign of the combat engineers we were looking for though both hounds were chomping at the bit to have us let them go. That sure wasn’t happening.  Semi defeated we reported in and headed back to continue walking our posts assuming the MPs would prosecute this contact then, or the air cavalry would.

Along the way back we found that this group of sappers nearly made it to their goal. We found three satchels of explosives behind the last bunker before the first row of bomb pallets. They caught us with our pants down during shift change. If it wasn’t for Donnie’s insistence we do a “clearance to the fence” first, that night would have ended way differently. Talk about in the nick of time, eh?  Firing warning shots when Prince and Bodie both alerted on personnel, probably caused the sappers to drop what they were doing and didimao their butts on out of there with us hot on thier trail. Only providence (or Donnie’s natural country boy awareness) put us there in time to prevent them from arming the charges or remotely detonating them.  Only the pitch black of that night prevented us from seeing them because as far as the hounds were concerned we were right on top of the bastards.  If we weren’t so close to the fence line we might have let them go too.

Thinking we were going to return to the routine of a normal guard mount, we were surprised to find some brass waiting for us at the dump. After a short debrief the OD pointed at me and said, “PFC, you and your partner are to head for the east gate on the army side to join an ARVN unit in pursuit of our recent visitors. They have to be gone to ground nearby. We need you to find them. There’s transport at the dump gate to bring you there.”

“With all due respect sir, isn’t this a job for a tracker team, sir?” I hated the idea of going alone to work with ARVN.

“I gave you an order son in case you didn’t recognize it.”

“Yes sir. On my way,  sir.”  I signaled to Donnie with my hand miming a phone to my ear.  He knew I meant for him to notify our boss. Our boss met me at the gate with a full load of ammo, a couple of pair of GI socks in case I need to cover Prince’s paws and more water.

This is my first trip outside the wire since setting foot on Bien Hoa Base Camp.  In spite of the encouragement of our company Sergeant, I am terrified the second I pass under the gate’s archway. A cold bead of sweat traced is way slowly down my spine. I felt as though the dark settling in around me was measuring me. My first glimpse of the men I would be working with was fraught with trepidation. With everything else I should have been thinking about, I was stuck on wondering if this crew was one of the bad ones that often disappear unsuspecting GIs.

Sergeant Ďung Lam introduced himself in near perfect English and my fears melted away with a warm, strong handshake and a penetrating look. It was evident that Lam was a veteran right away. His squad responded to his directives with the dedication of worshipers. My comfort level grew with each moment as I listened to him clearly and concisely describe what we would be doing for the next few hours, then he conveyed the same spiel to his charges in Vietnamese. Shortly, we were off on a quest to sniff out and prosecute our worst nightmare of the last few months, the highly trained, incredibly ingenious, pain in the ass sapper, or “combat engineer” in friendly parlance.

I really thought this job was better suited to a combat tracker team, (maybe just because i was scared, though) but they too were in high demand and like most k9 ops in 1972 except Sentry and Patrol, the field units were all slowly standing down and going home. There we’re no tracker teams available that night.  Thus it was decided that one of the two Patrol Dog teams who first found the sappers would continue the pursuit outside the wire.  Enter Shorty and Prince 16×5.

Lam had as good a plan as I could hope for.  His experience must have included the use of k9s. He had us quartering the field the sappers escaped into or through from the other side of the minefield and rows of wire.  The wind direction was optimal as it was blowing straight into Prince’s face. If we found nothing,  we’d go two hundred meters farther out and begin searching again.   We actually picked up their scent on the second pass. They had indeed gone to ground while still inside the wire. With all the effort to locate and fix them going on they must have felt staying put in the deep scrub brush at the end of the runway was the best plan for the moment. As Lam was calling it in, the group of six or so sappers we are after rose about one hundred meters away and started firing as they tried to withdraw further west and perhaps escape through the fence down the line. I froze. Prince barked at me and I snapped back to life. We covered with me stooping and Prince tucked tight between my legs and then I started to fire down range. I hesitated because I knew I was firing into an American compound, but only for a second as I soon realised that those pretty little sparkly lights I could see pointing at me from the sappers position were rounds being fired at me. I don’t know if I hit anyone. it’s too dark to be sure, but I know I had center of mass twice when I squeezed…

At some point I looked down at the last full magazine I had left and the pile of 5 empties at my feet and thought, “WTF, over. Fire discipline much?” I couldn’t recall changing mags once let alone five times and I know I only clearly saw two targets that whole time, which may have been as long as ten seconds or ten minutes. I had no idea and my crotch was wet.

The cacophony of small arms fire was drowned out violently and suddenly by the staccato roar of the approaching helo. Then the night lit up with a stream of hellfire from the nose of that Cobra.  The noise stopped my heart while I prayed a quick thank you that we were not on the receiving end of that gale from hell. Lam had done his job well calling in the alert which resulted in the dance of the Cobra quickly ending the fight. His call also kept the Americans on the other side of the wire from firing at us while we pinned the Cobra’s prey.  Good thing someone knew what they were doing,  eh?

The realization that six or more lives had just ended horribly came to me in pieces.  Exhilaration, remorse, joy, fear, guilt, nausea and escape all fought for my attention until I shut down.  When a brisk non-com’s stentorian shout shocked me out of my fugue, I found Prince holding off and protecting me from an entire company of MPs. One MP was leveling his weapon at Prince yelling, “I got this sarge”.  Then my .45 was in my hand and I was yelling, “no you fucking don’t”.

Lam stepped in front of Prince and me and said, “It’s over Shorty. Let’s go home.”

“Oh please, yes.  Home, please God.” Then the tears came and I didn’t care.

 

Santiago Herrera Escobar, my hero.

Santiago, or Santi as we knew him, was my best friend in life. He was instrumental in my passing Scout Dog Handler School as well as in becoming a man. I was with him only for a while in Nam. He fell one month after I was sent home. I can never have him back until I go too. I take comfort in knowing that old soldiers don’t die, they just go to hell and regroup. See you then brother.  Keep guiding me please…

(the following is excerpted from my memoirs)

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Santiago Herrera Escobar, SP4, US ARMY, SCOUT/PATROL Dog Handler and American Hero.

Fell on 19 May 1972 in the south of Bien Hoa Province, RVN in service to his country.

RIP brother

“We’ll walk through it together, Shorty. No sweat huh? This is what we were made for, man. I did it. You can do it. Let’s go before it gets any worse.”

It was almost too noisy from the downpour to even hear Santi, let alone see what I was doing, but we both whispered because we knew the cadre were spread out in the woods to catch noisy teams and fail them for this stage. That meant a do-over and the more times you had to do it over the harder they made the next run to pass. The next thing you knew it was dawn and you’d been at it for over 8 hours…and you still hadn’t caught the sapper.

“I guess.” I sulked, “Still, they could have picked a better night, you know? One with a moon or something? This shit is worse than dark. I can’t even see her ears man. How am I gonna call her alerts if I can’t even see her?”

At this point I was just bitching. You might think Georgia would be a nice place in the summer. That depends on how moist you like to keep your clothes when wearing them and your sheets when sleeping on them. I thought the humidity was bad in Boston. WHOA! My skin also attained this rich clay colored tint from the grime that was ground into your every exposed pore day in and day out. My partner’s drool always added to the sweet elixir of bodily fluids and nature’s detritus I collected while crawling through the underbrush.

This exercise was a critical stage in our training. Basically this was man-hunting. The scenario: Your Partner alerts on personnel…usually a scent alert. You then prosecute the alert to the successful termination or capture of the threat. For the initial runs through this type of exercise the cadre set the trails up intentionally working with Mother Nature. Good weather, stiff breeze blowing more or less in the team face, fairly simple terrain to cover. Once you got through that, they got serious. Truth is, in real life scenarios, the enemy isn’t stupid and isn’t going to put himself in a position that would make it easy for us to find him.

We are now well past the easy training. And I am on my third pass. Lady and I have died both previous times. Santi and his Partner Rebel, made it through in one.

“Hahaha. Shorty, you’re a trip man. What, you want to paint orange stripes on Lady’s ears? Come on, man. Tighten up on the leash a bit. When she finds something you’ll feel it, right? No slack…feel her doing her job and then do yours. Come on now. I’m cold, I’m wet and I need to crap in the worst way. Let’s get this shit over with. Roget that?”

“Roger that!”

Santi is playing Shotgun/RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) for me. When I give him the go he signals, “Team two to tower, we are Oscar Mike, over”.

“Team two, Tower, copy. Acknowledge you are on your third, I repeat, third run, over.”

“Fuckers!”

“Shut up, Shorty”

“Team two, Tower. Roger that. Third time’s a charm. Out.”

Then Santi repeated “Fuckers. Let’s show these dick’s what you’re made of man. Come on.”

I made it through on the next pass using Santi’s simple suggestion to maintain a better “connection” with my partner no matter the environment. A lesson learned that served me well over the next several months because all I did was work at night. This wasn’t the only time Santi’s guidance brought me through.

We finished Scout Dog Handler School together in December 1971. We all made our way to Vietnam separately or perhaps in very small groups. Donnie Lassiter and I made the trip together from Fort Dix, NJ. Others came from the west coast at different times and dates.

About half of our graduating class made it to Bien Hoa and the other half went north to Da Nang. Santi was in the latter group but we’d heard they were all doing well through the grapevine.  Santi was slowly making his way south towards us at Bien Hoa and in fact just a few weeks before I left Vietnam, Santi and the rest of our graduating Scout Dog School class, made their way to our unit, the 34th Patrol Dog Platoon, 3rd Bde, 1st Cav.

On April 19th during a rocket attack on Bien Hoa (no rockets landed near me), I got tangled up with Prince when we were trying to get to cover and ended up with my third concussion in two weeks and a second AC separation of my left shoulder in the same time frame. Though I didn’t find out about it for a few days when I woke on a medivac jet headed to Guam, the Army decided I’d had enough, at least for a while, and sent me back to the world.

I wish they’d sent me to rehab and that I’d made it made it back to see my brothers again because I’ve never seen any of them since, as happens a lot with solders. Can there ever be anything more unfair than what happens to soldiers when their “trade” is no longer needed? You spend the prime of your life living, bleeding and slowly dying in spirit with men you never met before but would readily give your life for in an instant without hesitation. Then you are ripped apart suddenly and you never see them again.

I had great aspirations of meeting them all again one day. I especially looked forward to meeting Santi and Don, Jeff and Joe my hootch-mates, and oh hell all of them…Ron, Jimbo, Jack, Charles, Duel, James and Henry too. But just a few months after I got home I got a MARS call from Jimbo telling me that Santi had passed away in-country. The call got cut off and I couldn’t get it back.

Santi got pneumonia on duty and he got so sick that he died from complications. I can’t help but think those complications were heavily seeped in Agent Orange poisoning. More than one of our guys came back from that duty with sores all over their bodies and breathing difficulties because of inhaling that poison for a whole shift several times a month.  Even our K9 partners suffered with blisters on their feet until we refused to brings our dogs with us. The storage complex for that defoliant was, unfortunately, one of our Patrol posts. Don and I lucked out and got the AMMO Dump instead of the defoliant yard. Santiago Herrera Escobar, my brother aspirated in Vietnam on 19 MAY 1972.

After that call from Jimbo everything seemed to deflate for me. I didn’t make an effort to “meet them” again until the VDHA (Vietnam Dog Handlers Association) put me in touch with Donnie last year.

God rest your soul my brother. I’ll see you on the other side. Give Prince a hug and tell him I’ll meet him over the bridge. I will always love you and remember you brother.

RIP

Shorty