One Young Soldier
    A Novel

        by Gary DeRigne

"Hell, if it exists, can't be much worse than this..."

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Battalion logo of 1st Bn, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile).  The "1st Cav" was the Army's first Airmobile division, and the first Army division deployed to Vietnam (1965).

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3rd Platoon, Co D., 1st Bn, 12th Cav. taken 4 September, 1969, just before we left the Brigade rear area in Tay Ninh for an operation against the North Vietnamese Army.  Taken by 1st Lt. Jonathan Dodson, platoon leader.  I was the platoon sergeant, seen squatting down checking equipment, to the right in the photo.  The average age of these young soldiers was probably about nineteen.  Most were draftees, with a few regular Army, and some activated National Guard, who were deployed to Vietnam as replacements in regular Army units.




Official Army Photo taken 7 September, 1969, just a few days later.  I am at the left, then Tak, our Vietnamese Kit Carson Scout; John Coleman, a 1st Platoon sergeant;  "Pinky", a 1st Platoon infantryman; 1st Lt. Peter Connor, the 1st Platoon leader; Ernie Kerstetter, another sergeant from 1st Platoon; and another grunt named Tim Pinter.   The company point had killed this 12 foot python with a machete.  We cooked "snake steaks" over burning chunks of C4 plastic explosive, and ate them for dinner that night.  It did NOT taste like chicken.
Lt. Connor, a 1968 West Point graduate and a fine young officer, was killed in action about a month after this photo was taken. 

Photo taken at the same time as the cover photo on the book.  I'd been in Vietnam for about ten days, and we were in a relatively secure area, working as palace guard for Division headquarters in Phuoc Vinh.  That explains the unauthorized headgear, bought from a Vietnamese vendor in a nearby village.  Bandage was for a cut I picked up in Cherry School, not wounds from the enemy. Three months later...  This was taken after we'd been in the bush for about four weeks, without a bath or a change of clothes.  Stinking, filthy, covered with ringworm and jungle rot sores that don't show up here, blended in with skin the color of mud.  Hopefully the Army is treating its soldiers better than this now. 
At left is a view over LZ Grant, our battalion forward fire support base in Tay Ninh Province, 1969.  You are looking northwest across the battalion Tactical Operations Center (TOC).  Clouds in the distance are from a B52 strike, an "ArcLight" about 2 miles away.  LZ Grant was the site of numerous pitched battles during 1969, including one in March where U.S. Air Force Phantom fighter bombers mistakenly dropped napalm on the bunkers on the south side of the base during a night attack, killing several American soldiers.  Our battalion suffered numerous friendly fire casualties during my time there, a natural occurrence of the chaos of war.  There was a mass grave just outside the northwest gate of the base where scores of dead North Vietnamese soldiers were bulldozed into the ground after these battles. This was a major excavation site where the Hanoi government sought to find the remains of its missing soldiers after the war. 
1st Lt. Jonathan B. Dodson (left) and me.  This is in a rear area in Tay Ninh a few weeks after we had both been wounded by the same NVA mortar round, during the opening seconds of an all-night firefight.   Lt. Dodson spent 33 years in the Army, retired as a full Colonel.  We both still carry shrapnel from those wounds. Here we are again in 2002, 33 years later.  OK, we both filled out a little.  Col. Dodson, a 1968 West Point graduate, is one of the finest leaders I have ever known, and we remain fast friends today.  After his return from Vietnam, Dodson earned his PhD in Psychology, and to this day, works with severely wounded veterans through the Wounded Warrior Mentoring Project at Walter Reed Hospital (not the same as the Wounded Warrior Project being supported by book proceeds, but they work together.  Both fine organizations doing critical work).  
At right is an aerial photograph of the northern half of LZ Grant.   You see the "fields of fire" outside the perimeter at the top, where all vegetation was removed to provide us a clear kill zone during ground attacks.  Then the perimeter, a berm of bulldozed earth with bunkers every twenty or thirty meters, facing outward.  This is where the grunts stayed during their rare time on the base, defending the perimeter from ground attack.  The circular emplacements are artillery pits, where 105mm and 155mm howitzers were placed, to provide fire support for the grunts in the field.  During a ground attack these guns would often fire "direct" right over the bunkers, using "beehive" rounds that contained thousands of finned nails, directly into the attacking enemy soldiers.  There is a dirt road through the center of the fire base.  LZ Grant straddled old Route 1, which once ran from Saigon to Phnom Penh, Cambodia during French colonial days.

The light colored spots on the photo are puddles of water, after the frequent monsoon rains.  The base was always either slogging, sucking mud, or unbearable dust.  There was no shade.   Keep in mind, this is the place the grunts looked forward to "coming home to" every four or five weeks when they came in out of the bush.  In the book, you'll notice similarities between LZ Grant, and "LZ Sherman."

This is me (left) with Spec4 Jonathan Wild, early in my tour.  Jonathan came home in 1970 and settled down near Santa Barbara, became a well known entertainer in the region, appeared with such greats as Bob Hope, Mayor Giuliani, and many others. Here's Jon on a more normal day back in '69, humpin' an M-60 machine gun.  
Here we are together in 2006, a couple of months after we found each other at a festival near his home in Southern California. Jon's video "Keep Old Glory Flying" won  acclaim as best Patriotic DVD at the 2004 Los Angeles Music Festival.. This is Jon and me together in October, 2008, about two years later, after he'd undergone treatment for illnesses caused by exposure to Agent Orange in 1969 - 1970 (that is the finding of the Veterans' Administration).

Jon is a casualty of the war, forty years after he thought he'd made it home safely.

 

Specialist Greg Ciardi, our platoon medic.  Greg was a Conscientious Objector, refused to carry a weapon or in any way risk harming another human being.  One of the bravest men I've ever known (and I've known a few).  In a firefight, when everyone else was finding cover, Greg was up, moving around, taking care of the wounded.  Hell of a guy. Here we are together in Greg's home in Boston in October, 2009.  Greg is now Gregory Ciardi, Ph.D. and a superintendent of schools in western Massachusetts.  Still a hell of a guy.
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Copyright 2009 Gary M. DeRigne