A Vietnam Veteran’s First Experience in Combat

Hey Sgt Grit,
I have been reading your newsletter as I have always done for the last several years since my retirement in 1994. I just read a story in your recent newsletter #76 of the wife who fortunately enough, got some good hard advice from another Marine wife and made a very smart decision by staying with her Marine husband and being there for him!

That took a lot for her to see the errors of her ways and I admire her for having the fortitude to be able to share it with us in your newsletter.

I wanted to share something with everyone. I remember listening to a story that stayed embedded in my mind to this very day from a crusty hard charging Marine Sergeant who was a Vietnam Veteran.

I remember the question I asked him, being a new sharp crisp Marine. I was so green behind the ears, and my cammies were so green you could tell how new I was to the Corps.

I wanted to know what it was like being in combat, and I had asked this sergeant to describe his experience. I will tell you what he told me.

It was very tough to be a newbie in Vietnam. When you get to your unit, the other men look so angry at the world, they look tired and unmotivated.

They look at you and quickly notice how neat and clean you are. Cammies neatly pressed, alive with that Olive Drab color that almost could blind them.

They know you are the new guy. Some have some negative things to say, because they fear you being close to them while on a patrol because they know the odds of you making it through the eighteen months you must endure.

Day one, you are going to be going on your first patrol. As you prepare, other Marines start to warn you of things to do. Some say things that would probably do nothing more that scare you out of your pants.

“Stay away from me Private, you understand me, and watch where you step! I don’t want you stepping on a mine and having your blood getting on me!”

You are filled with fear of what could possibly happen.

Once on the patrol everything is quiet, no one talks, communication is done by hand and arm signals. You can only hear the sounds of the jungle.

The jungle is relentless, you think to yourself, “What a God forsaken place”. It is hot and muggy, your soak and wet in your sweat.

You continue moving when all of a sudden you hear a loud bang, small arms fire all around you, people are shouting and you hear screaming. That screaming you hear will stay with you for the rest of your life.

It feels like the world is coming to an end. Everything is breaking loose. You are lying on your face in the dirt, you try to look up, all you can do is feel rounds whipping so close by you. You do not dare get up, you are looking all around you to try to make sense of what is happening, but everything is so confusing.

You are literally trying to dig a deep hole with your very hands. You cannot see the enemy, but you can see your fellow Marines moving. Someone is shouting but you cannot make out what the words are.

You think to yourself, “My God, I have eighteen months in this place, how the hell am I ever going to survive this?”

Once the small arms die, you can now hear those God forsaken screams, the screams of your fellow Marines. Ones who have been wounded by shrapnel or have been shot.

Some are maimed and mangled, bleeding to death before your eyes.

Some scream, “I don’t want to die!” Some scream for their mother before they die where they lay.

Should you be lucky to make it through that day, once back at camp you lie in your cot, you stare intensely up to the ceiling still hearing those screams in your mind, they will never leave you again.

Day 2 and you are on patrol again, and again the world feels like it is coming to an end, although this time, things do not seem as confusing as the day before.

You hit the deck, you are looking forward, you still cannot see the enemy and again you hear those familiar screams. You realize that once again one of your fellow Marine has been hit.

You begin to feel angry. You do not know why just yet, but you start to feel agitated at seeing your fellow Marines getting hit by enemy fire or stepping on mines or booby traps.

It is a fear that stays with you your entire time during your tour.

Once back at camp you think over your experience, thoughts are running rampant through your mind, “Will I survive this hell hole?”

It hits you of the fellow Marines you are losing, the way they die, the wounds, and the maiming and mangled devastation the body endures from shrapnel.

Day three of your patrol, once again it seems as though the world is coming to an end, however this time you do not hit the deck.

You stand straight up and you are looking intensely through the jungle, trying to focus on the enemy, small arms fire is piercing through the jungle and rifling just inches from you, but you are no longer afraid.

This time you are mad as hell, and you want nothing more than find that son of a bitch out there and kill him for killing your fellow Marines.

You run right in the direction of the small arms fire, your weapon tightly in your shoulder, you scream at the top of your lungs attacking in the direction of the enemy.

At this very moment, a transformation is taking place. This newbie of a Marine has gone from young boy to a man. He is no longer afraid; anger has now taken overcome that fear!

Welcome to combat! Nothing has changed except today our Marines have better equipment and weapons. Our close air support has better equipment in their aircraft, but in the end, it is still the foot warrior who will determine the outcome of the war.

What I have just described is a fact of war. It is not pretty and it never will be. War is hell, and every day, every war we encounter; our Marines do marvelous things on the battlefield. This story of Vietnam is exactly what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only the environment has changed.

Most of these young Marines today have no combat experience yet they have done a superb job doing what they have been trained to do. A different war, but it is the same scenario.

The day has come or will come when that transformation will take place. We see it every time a new Marine with no combat experience will endure.

What we do in combat is a direct result of the training we get. This is why we train as we do during peacetime.

It is a dirty job and someone has to do it. It takes a special individual to endure this hell, but everyday we are awed by what we hear. Everyday there is a hero that steps forward and does something we could not even fathom! It is amazing what these young hard charging lads will do.

They do not do it for recognition; they do it for their fellow Marine. They watch each other’s back, and one will lay his life for his buddy!

If you are a wife of a Marine and your husband is in either Iraq or Afghanistan, you need to know the only thing that keeps him going other than his fellow Marines is the thought of you and his family.

Stand by his side; I know it is not easy for you to be home taking care of the home front, always wondering how he is doing. He is in good hands. He has the best training anyone in the Armed Forces could have been given.

Be proud of him, he needs to know you are still there for him and you believe in what he is doing!

They all know they may very well not make it home the way they came. They are willing to make that sacrifice, and that is why the Marines stand in the front!

Let’s not forget to thank these Marine’s wives who also serve by being faithful to their husbands for doing a “thankless job” of preserving our freedoms!

So thank you Marine Wives for serving your spouses!

GySgt Mike Angelo
Aug 23, 1974-Sept 1, 1994

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