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Introduction

This 2004 essay from my book “Penucquem Speaks, A Look At Our World From A Different Culture” is published here as a stands alone piece to counter-balance the satire “The Great Phuc Uuus Massacre” in my collection of anti-empire essays. As a Native American trained story teller (story teller trained by Native Americans in Native American technique), my adapting the cosmic joke element to personal narrative satire might be easily misunderstood for the fact of this accurate stylistic description:

“My satire in the present genre is to be honest in the Native American way; in effect, constructing a joke story closely resembling real life, a sort of collage of facts assembled from bits and pieces of diverse experience, combined with anecdotal information to create the culturally intact inherent Native wisdom found in their humor. In other words, parts of the story consist of an autobiographical facts incorporated, multi-faceted rip-off of other peoples life stories and experience. And because unlike the White world, the Native world entertains paradox in daily approach to life, some aspects are simply made up from the imagination’s fund of plausible improbabilities”

The point of republishing this excerpted essay from Penucquem Speaks is to contrast the reality to the (satirical) story-telling; however the difference might seem insignificant to some, for the fact the insanity of the common soldier’s experience in the Vietnam late stage conflict resembles nothing so much as a satire. But this narrative is precisely why the USA moved away from a conscription army to a ‘professional’ all volunteer force; establishing a mercenary army had become a necessity to maintain the present day, extra-constitutional, American “Empire.”

In this personal narrative, there is little element of the Native American joke story-telling format (deliberate entertainment, created with license.) Other than the self-satirizing (it is not allowed to be ‘holier than thou’ … one must present oneself at the level of stupidity integral to circumstance in the story-telling), it is entirely straight-forward narrative of events as they had actually happened and I had witnessed. That the described insanity can hardly be distinguished from a lampoon is, in and of itself, a damning indictment of Western culture at multiple levels; that I had emerged from the insanity as a decorated & promoted soldier, a soldier who was considered to be professional & responsible (I did a few important things), simply underscores the complications laden paradox of the Western war-addicted society that is inherently self-deceived.

A residual Native American element in narrating what follows is my allowing my former soldier-associates to maintain their perception of themselves, that is, I do not condemn their belief in what they had been doing, because everyone is entitled to their own reality is a very Native American approach, in fact this is a ‘libertarian’ pillar of the Northern Plains culture. For my real criticisms of the soldiers’ behaviors, one must return to the satire because it brings the narrative to the native, culturally correct, cartoon social perception; for the reason one’s idiocy must always be laughed at with the honest self-lampoon, no matter what personal evolution might have brought on in the intervening years. This (nearly extinct) original (pre-Western education) Northern Plains Indian personality stems from a culture which had recognized there cannot be any rewrites of history. Native American cultural integrity should demand one live this principle, the current social climate’s politically correct arguments notwithstanding.

The essay title in the book is “My Beginning.” Here I have renamed it “Metamorphose” as in fact these events, which are largely, accurately depicted (minimally ‘Hunter Thompson-esque’), are responsible for transformation at both; the personal and national level. At the personal level, the insanity depicted in paradox of an anti-war, but nevertheless war-zone environment, finally had subverted myself to a journey far, far away from mainstream. At the national level, the Empire had been ‘burned’ and consequently became even more radically militaristic.

My post-war military trajectory was from Vietnam to the 82nd Airborne Division and then onto the 19th Special Forces Group but the subversive seed of self-examination had already been germinated. Perhaps there will be more to be told of my journey towards, subsequent transition to, and rehabilitation in, Blackfeet culture, but that is for another day.

 

Metamorphose

 

Photo: The author in 1971

 

It was a starry night, I was lying on my back thinking in retrospect, where/what my life had come to. For the past twenty minutes, my name had been, was still being shouted, “West!” I did not care. The sky was absolutely beautiful, that is what was important at this moment. My father had returned a hero from the Pacific after the defeat of Japan.. and I was the second mistake of his subsequent union with the young woman he had met at the USO. Nineteen years and several months subsequent to my birth, an intervening period in which I seemed at times to have been an abused lawn ornament, I only wanted to understand why. Why was I here. My name was still being shouted in several directions, sometimes near, at other times farther away. “West!” That did not matter. Retrospective contemplation and the stars were what mattered. My biggest resentment was that no one had taken the time to explain things. Not ever. Not in any way that had made sense. “West!” It was getting louder, but then the shouting would become muffled under me. This had already happened several times, no one was thinking of coming up to where I was lying. Looking again at the stars, I knew nothing would ever be the same again. I would never believe in anybody, anything. Suddenly there was a slight noise close to me. Ray was there. “You have got to come down” he whispered to me. “all right” I said, with a little resignation. Then I added “Bring me a beer first.” Ray whispered “OK” and disappeared.

I had been lying on top of a sandbag, steel and concrete structure that I normally lived in.. it was a bunker. I was a Jeep driver for the pilots attached to the Headquarters of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade at the brigade main base near Long Binh, Republic of Viet Nam. Just an hour earlier I had smoked an Opium laced Marijuana cigarette and I knew I was in no condition to drive anyone, anywhere. Ray had returned with the beer and I had taken a swallow and then deliberately poured the rest of the beer down the open front of my jungle fatigue jacket. Clutching the empty beer can, I stumbled a little as I entered the Fire Ball Aviation ‘CQ’ (Charge of Quarters) office and mumbled to Major Lewis “You wanted me, sir?” I was not known to drink often, it was after my normal duty hours, and I was forgiven and dismissed. The Major made a call to Headquarters and found another driver and jeep for the several Command rank officers that had flown in on short notice.

The few times I actually had drank in the several preceding months may well have saved my life. I was never a good drunk, always becoming sick, usually for at least a day, and on the first two occasions that I was sent on emergency duty as a helicopter flight gunner, substituting for the regular crewmen, it just happened that I had been drinking the night before, and the consequence was that it was decided for me by my superiors that I suffered from air sickness. I had quit drinking subsequently, but the ‘air sick’ label had stuck and I had become a jeep driver. So now I smoked dope, because if you did not drink or smoke dope in Viet Nam, you did not fit in. There would be nobody to relate to. No social life. And very few people want to be a loner. I was not yet a loner. But I was a good jeep driver, did not smoke dope during normal duty hours, was devoted to my pilots, always punctual, and on one occasion drove four of these pilots through a barrage of B-40 Rockets, exploding just short of us, without flinching. After all, we were the 199th, and a certain attitude was called for. I was promoted and given an Army Commendation Medal before I left. As a group, our 199th Fire Ball Aviation unit was awarded the Viet Nam Cross of Gallantry with a Valor Device, but that is someone else’s story to tell.

One year later I was still in Viet Nam, now with the 330th Transportation Company at the little Army Airfield at Vung Tau. In the intervening year, since the night on the bunker with the stars, possibly beginning that night, some profound psychological change had overcome me. My classmate and friend from Army Aviation School, Fred, had died, shot down. He had been assigned to the 25th Infantry Division (Aviation Support) after the 199th Brigade had redeployed to the States and disbanded. Fred and I were just short of the required six months in the war zone to return to the states and were reassigned in country. We had spent a nearly year together up to that time, trained together and shipped to Viet Nam to the same assignment. After the 199th, I had been sent to Vung Tau, a coastal French Colonial resort city that had seldom seen the war. I was still there, afraid to go home, volunteering extra time in a mythical corner of the war zone, a tiny Shangri La, already sensing I could never really know my old life, or my home again. In these days I was an E-5, equal to a Sergeant, and my life was surreal, like a movie. There was no open job that fit my rank, so I did several things at different times. For awhile I was the Non Commissioned Officer in charge of the off/on switch of a steam cleaner. I spent my days reading paperbacks, sun tanning and listening to a stereo while waiting for the privates to tow a helicopter to my steam cleaner machine so I could turn the switch to the machine on for them. I thought maybe I could do that for a few years, the war’s end seemed far away. But then I was pulled from that dream job to carry dispatches, Personnel files and Courts Martial records to Saigon, because I knew my way around that city and the intervening countryside. I used this job and its administrative passes to hitchhike around Viet Nam. I had learned from my six months in the 199th to keep a personal weapon with me at all times, and a Jungle uniform easily conceals a 45 caliber Colt automatic pistol. I never needed it.

I lived a dangerous private life in my off hours. I had rented a studio apartment in the town of Vung Tau. It was an abode unknown to anyone except myself and the mysterious Vietnamese I shared it with, Dom Tay, and the Chinese madam that rented it to us together with her daughter and the more trusted whores. There was adjacent to the bar that the madam conducted her business from, a hallway that went from one of the main streets in town with the bars that catered whores, to an alley behind the bar that was a passageway to the market street with all its open stalls, a place you never saw Americans because they could not handle the smell. Our apartment had two unmarked doors into this hallway and it appeared as though they were entries to separate flats. Sergeant West always came and went from the main street with the bars, and used the hall entry to his apartment closest to that side, not an unusual sight. Soldiers were always frequenting rooms adjacent to the bars for their carnal cares. It was totally unremarkable. Dom Tay always left and returned to the hallway via the rear alley and used the entry towards the rear of the building, nearest this alley, and was seldom ever noticed. It was in reality as though we were neighbors from the outside view. But in fact we were alter egos. Having come in from the main street as Sergeant West, I would go back into the streets via the alley and market dressed in a south Vietnamese style military uniform without rank or insignia, only my moniker translated into Vietnamese, “Dom Tay” (Mr West) embroidered on my shirt in place of the typical name tag. With dark prescription glasses hiding the lack of slant to my eyes and of short stature and dark complected, I looked something like a French/Vietnamese halfbreed, perhaps in the Intelligence Service. Nobody wanted anything to do with me downtown, the Vietnamese civilian police or the military police, Vietnamese or American. I would stare directly at them. They would look at me and keep moving. In Viet Nam, sometimes there were people you just did not want to know anything about. I was able to be one of those. I went about and did as I pleased. Viet Nam had become my personal Wild West. I had found its underbelly, I was functioning there, and it was a place seldom seen, let alone survived, by most of the Americans. The Chinese madam’s daughter was sweet on me, and I was circumspect in that relationship, I spent time learning the Mah Jongg with her together with her mother and the ‘girls’, never touched heroin and I did not sleep with the whores. There was a certain amount of respect and I am certain, protection attending my friendship with these people. It was the whores who did everything, they were runners for drugs, business couriers for criminal deals, cover for arranged meetings. But all I wanted to do there was watch what was going on. I needed to understand. What was all of this, really?

Now my job had changed again. It was mid 1971 and anti war sentiment was growing in the troops throughout Vietnam, and it was evident in Vung Tau. The Playboy Magazine had come out with the ‘Viet Nam Veterans Against The War’ membership application and tens of thousands had joined from the war zone. I did not. But there were a few dozen soldiers in my company that were no longer going to contribute to the work at hand and had become troublesome to the cadres. The logical thinking was, here is a job for West. So I got my unofficial platoon leadership, my ‘Dirty Dozen.’ This included some of the anti-war guys, a few of the junkies and the only ‘Jesus Freak’, the one guy who was straight, he did not drink, he did not smoke dope, and he did not whore around in town. He was really sweet and nobody could stand being around him. He was normal and normal was unreal. All I had to do was keep these guys out of trouble. And it was about this time it looked like the war might come to Vung Tau.

So my new job was a pain in the ass and I was rethinking staying forever in Viet Nam. But I worked out the details and it went like this.. The junkies could never be trusted to do anything, but if they had their junk, they were happy no matter where you put them. So they were sent to the helicopter graveyard, and arrangements made to supply them their junk. There they drooled and vomited with glazed eyes and seemed to see their world only in the colors of black and white, like old TV. Probably about 30% of our soldiers were addicted to heroin at this time, and I had the worst of them, the ones that were so bad they could not function. The anti war guys were all dope smokers and they were sent to sandbag detail. The deal was that only the most trustworthy of them could go to the adjacent village through the perimeter wire and bring back their marijuana and the heroin for the junkies. These guys suntanned, read books, smoked joints, listened to music and jumped up to work with shovels, sand and bags, on a signal that administrative people were sighted. They rotated the guard duty assignment set up for this signal system, intended to protect them from their own officers. Nearly everyone stayed out of trouble. I kept the Jesus Freak with me. Nobody ever seemed to notice there was little progress in the sandbagging, only that the only that the anti war guys were being forced to work at the job soldiers most hated. It was slick. But this job had also subverted my psychology further.

I was not a dope smoker before I went to Viet Nam and I have not been a dope smoker for many years. But at this time I was smoking some of the most robust marijuana in the world, like a Jamaican dock worker. This was normal in the surreal world that we lived in. I had come from the 199th where people were dedicated soldiers although some of them recreationly smoked dope, others drank, to relax from what could be an unimaginably brutal job. The courage of the men of the 199th could not be questioned, and their devotion to duty sometimes delivered them to their deaths. These were fine men, and my admiration for them is undiminished to this day. We are Americans, and one thing that is totally American is the right to follow your beliefs. These men I knew of the 199th, these titans of personal courage, saw themselves as having defended American ideals of freedom and democracy, and they are forever entitled to see themselves in that light. Because that is what they did. And I will never question that mentality in these men. But that mentality was breaking down in me. As ‘Dom Tay’, my alter ego, I had seen the corruption of war, up close. Prostitution, Racketeering, Drug Trafficking, all departments were involved, and at high levels. My own First Sergeant did not know Dom Tay as I watched him, our Mess Sergeant and our Battalion Sergeant Major, make the deals and collect the money, selling our soldiers rations downtown. Repeatedly, the food service to the soldiers was cleaned up for a day or two, as the Army inspections and visiting congressmen were brought to Vung Tau by the soldiers’ complaints. Then the good food was sent downtown again. At a meal served a couple of days after one of these visits and a few decent dinners, I took the ribs served to us outside to a starving dog. This dog only had the strength to turn 180 degrees so that his ass was where his mouth had been when I offered him the meat. A starving dog would not eat it. We all had to buy our food back at the sidewalk cafes in town to survive. The sergeants a rank higher than myself were privileged to eat in the officer’s mess and their food was fine. One of the cooks, a private, became so outraged that he made marijuana brownies for the officer’s cafeteria. As Dom Tay, I saw the food he was supposed to prepare for us sold downtown by our own superiors, who formed a mafia. As Sergeant West, I delivered this same cooks Courts Martial papers to Saigon. What else did Dom Tay discover? That American Intelligence Service officers were the source of the Heroin that plagued our army. The Golden Triangle opium crop bought by the CIA to secure the loyalty of the remote tribes against the communists was processed into heroin and marketed to the United States Army in Viet Nam. I had seen enough. It was time to go home. But I had no home.

Before the extension of my Viet Nam tour expired, and I was actually able to leave, a couple of remarkable things had happened.

On my arrival in Viet Nam, as a member of the 199th, I had seen the invasion of Cambodia, professionally handled, militarily. The political aftermath of that had been Kent State however, and now the Army was in a different mood. Now, before I was to leave, I was to see the result of that mood with the invasion of Laos.

Nixon’s ‘Vietnamization’ of the war propaganda had been thrown at us repeatedly by the US Army newspaper, the Stars and Stripes. It worked well. Senior officers were now having to personally lead their troops into the field, walking the point that would be ambushed. It was the only way to get the American Army to fight. The soldiers would go along on these sorties just to see their leaders shot. Hand grenades were more often used to murder the more criminal cadres, the assholes, it happened in my company at Vung Tau shortly after I left. One of the Sergeants First Class that was part of the Cabal I had seen selling our food downtown had his toe blown off, but lived, apparently because the grenade rolled under his bed and the mattress absorbed the brunt of the explosion. A soldier I knew, Wally, did time in Leavenworth for that. So things had gone from bad to worse since the invasion of Laos. But it was the Laos invasion that was the scene of a war wide sit down strike by the American Army. At Vung Tao, when the 330th transportation company was ordered mobilized to assist in the effort to extract the Army of the Republic of South Viet Nam from a pre laid ambush on a titanic scale by regular divisions of the North Vietnamese Army, and the southern soldiers were being slaughtered like pigs in a pen, instead of loading their gear into the trucks as ordered, our company’s soldiers turned up Jimmy Hendrix Star Spangled Banner to a deafening decibel level and sat down in the assembly area clapping their hands and chanting “Hell no, we won’t go!” and they did not. Do you Courts Martial an entire Army? It happened everywhere. I learned years later that one of my former pilots from the 199th made so many trips into Laos due to the shortage of crews to the rescue, that even though he was shot down twice, managing to survive, rescued both times, he kept making trips. South Vietnamese soldiers were hanging on the skids of helicopters to get out alive. It was a slaughter brought on by Nixon’s propaganda. The war was being turned over to the Vietnamese. They would fight it. By now, the attitude of the American Army was ‘Well, let them.’ I recalled how General Lee’s deployment of the Confederate Army in the Wilderness Campaign caused General Grant to tantrum on his cot. Our allied Vietnamese army never stood a chance against the prepared and deployed line divisions of the North. Of course, the situation being what it was in Viet Nam, my guess would be that the North Vietnamese had the detailed invasion plan before the before the Southern army ever invaded. Dom Tay had already witnessed a world where all sides met and did business together. North, South, American, Viet Cong, all bedfellows, all criminal. Money could accomplish anything.

After Laos, for the most part, the 330th soldiers were no longer trusted with their weapons, they had to remain locked up in the armory. Some war huh? By this time you can’t trust your own army with their rifles! Well, this had an interesting consequence.

Thirty percent junkies, fifty percent dope smokers that sometimes used psychedelics, and twenty percent drunks, our army airfield was a disaster waiting to happen. We were receiving ‘care’ packages from the states, the people at home were being asked to support the troops, but this was a draft army, and a lot of the troops did not want to be here and in fact had been drafted out of areas that were hotbeds of the anti-war movement. So it was not unusual to receive ‘peace and love’ care packages that contained as many as one thousand doses of LSD. A C-123 cargo plane with a collapsed nose gear that had been simply dragged off of the end of the airfield runway was the ‘trip ship’, with more than 50 LSD ingested soldiers using it as a giant See-Saw- 15 or 20 men out on each wing, men sitting atop the fuselage and the rest inside trying to keep their balance. Not an uncommon sight. And then it happened one night. The unheard of Red Alert, an impending attack, the junkies did not even care, 200 soldiers high on LSD reported to the armory for their weapons, all of our senior sergeants and our Commanding Officer turned up shit faced drunk, and the guy with the keys to the armored building containing the weapons could not be found, he was passed out drunk, but nobody knew where at the time (with his whore in the village.) There actually was no backup set of keys to this building that could be located. I secured my personal weapon that I kept unknown to my superiors, plotted my escape route to the Australian compound that neighbored us, just in case I needed to be with a group of soldiers that could fight, and sat on the stair to a second floor barracks, and watched the riot that unfolded below.

Our First Sergeant simply stood frozen like a statue, and he had both pissed and shit his pants. Men were milling in panic around him, screaming like idiots, and they were easily identifiable as mostly drunks, these were our cadres, and nobody paid any attention to them at all. It was surreal under the floodlights that illuminated what was happening. But now here came a group of the LSD freaks, 20 or 30 of them, they had somewhere rounded up an utility pole, of the sort power lines are strung on, and now they had it employed as a battering ram against the door of the armored building. Again and again they slammed the pole against the door, and I could see our Commanding Officer was sobering up fast and now directing this effort, the United States Army of the 20th Century, employing a siege weapon older than Rome, trying to break into their own fortified building. Finally, someone had located the backup set of keys, and I put my personal weapon away and went to draw an M-16 Rifle.

The heroes of this fiasco were the Cobra Helicopter crews. While our soldiers were locked out of their weapons, these crews had scrambled with loaded rocket pods and mini guns. And these were the weapons that turned back the assault. After the riot from being locked out of the weapons, we received out rifles and deployed to our assigned stations, and I was hugely relieved to have a sober captain commanding our squad, but nothing happened. The attack did not materialize close to us. I was visiting with a Cobra crewman, he had come to see me particularly, after the grand riot. I had been informally working with the junkies that wanted to quit heroin for several months, I could not stand the tragedy of these people. There were no programs for them, they simply rotated out of Viet Nam and went home addicted. And the addicted soldiers that did not want this fate looked me up, I had a reputation for being willing to help them try and quit. On this occasion, the Cobra crew chief was not a junkie, but had been high on LSD while arming rockets for his pilot, and just wanted to talk about it. He said the experience made him want to examine his life and we talked about that. It had scared him straight. After this, I knew of two soldiers that did not drink or use drugs, this man, and our Jesus freak.

Just a few examples of heroin stories, people I personally knew, two Texans, Thedford and Mitchell were both heroin addicted. By the time they were due to go home, finally there was urine screening and the junkies were being diverted to Japan for hospitalization, because of the heroin epidemic. Thedford took a ’clean’ urine sample with him, along with copious amounts of heroin, he was not drying out or being diverted. Mitchell, a former Bull Rider, toughed out his withdrawals before he left, rupturing his skin which he showed me, huge blotches of red, like foot square bee stings. Darling from Indiana gave lip service to quitting, but did not have the resolve, a naive young man, innocent in the extreme, he did not even know what heroin was before he became addicted. Davis asked me what to do about his addiction on his way home and I told him just to be up front when he was out processed, tell them immediately he was addicted badly and be diverted to a hospital for detoxification. Many others known to me faced this problem. Modic had the worst luck of all.

Modic was never cut out for the Army and he saw his time in Viet Nam as a prison camp, a prison he was desperate to escape. He had taken LSD and had the idea to be someone like Papillion who had escaped the French Penal colony in South America. Modic told me he was going to re-enlist for the bonus money and desert. His plan was to take a short trip to Singapore with his money and disappear forever in Asia. I told him he was crazy. He had only a few more months to tough it out. His plan did not work. He re-enlisted, got his money and could not get out on his R&R vacation. Desperate, he tried to get kicked out by becoming a heroin dealer, very brazen, but no one turned him in. Now he began using the heroin himself, burning up his money, even his dog was addicted, he would tap a little into his dog’s mouth from the vial each time he was snorting the drug himself. Horribly addicted, Modic finally was busted. Sent to Long Binh Jail, an unimaginably brutal place, he did his heroin withdrawals there without medical mitigation, and returned a broken shell of his former self. Offered his one wish at his Courts Martial, to be allowed to leave the Army, Modic could no longer mentally function. He opted to stay in for the duration of his six year re-enlistment, the course of action he was advised at his Courts Martial hearing „would serve to make him a better man.“ I had talked with Modic on his return from Long Binh Jail. He was not even cognizant of what had happened to him. I had never met a more mentally broken man.

I tried heroin once. It was in Viet Nam. Something deep inside me told me there was something fundamentally wrong with simultaneously feeling orgasmic and vomiting.

In the middle 1970’s, I recall estimates of as many as 500,000 homeless Viet Nam Veterans were living on the streets of America. If that were true, this one half million American men should have been in the prime of their life as productive citizens. Today, in 2004, they are reduced to something like ten thousand. These were the junkies. Many of them are dead. A more certain fact is: as of this writing, more American Vietnam veterans have committed suicide than died in the war.

I had arrived in Viet Nam on April 7, 1970. I returned to the United States on November 8, 1971. I was not addicted to heroin. But I felt homeless. Like a man without a country.

*

30+ years life in Indian country

My social satire and political lampoons are best explained this way: The devil on the one shoulder and the angel on my other shoulder climb into my head to make love and a satire is born .. having little to do with morality and much to do with ethics. As a writer there is no fear, no guilt, no shame in my approach, only accountability demanded of the public personas who presume to lead with lies as our world burns around us .. and making people laugh at the hypocrisies of western culture in a way should steal the power of those lies and reduce their influence.

A former Sergeant of Operations and Intelligence for Special Forces, Ronald Thomas West is a retired investigator (living in exile) whose work focus had been anti-corruption. Ronald had lived over thirty years in close association with Blackfeet Indians (those who still speak their language), and is published in international law as a layman: The Right of Self- Determination of Peoples and It’s Application to Indigenous People in The USA or The Mueller-Wilson Report, co-authored with Dr Mark D Cole. Ronald has been adjunct professor of American Constitutional Law at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany (for English credit, summer semester 2008.) Ronald’s formal educational background (no degree) is social psychology. His therapeutic device is satire.

Contact: penucquemspeaks@googlemail.com

“Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with the good” -Mahatma Ghandi

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