Vietnam magazine: One stint in the Marines wasn’t enough for you?
Sides: When I got out the first time, I went to college on the GI Bill. I got into a little trouble there, so I went back in. I put in 21 years, four months and one day, total.
How did you start competing as a marksman?
I was a sergeant and we were on the pistol range qualifying. I was shooting a .45 and said to somebody, "Watch me shoot the target off that stick." Pow, pow, pow. He said, "I don’t believe you can do that again." Pow, pow, pow, I knocked off another one. A captain was watching from behind and yelled, "Bust that one off that stick, sergeant!" Well, I did a few more and the captain said: "You’re probably the only one on this range who can do that. Come to the tower and see me." He sent me over to the armory and I got a set of pistols. He told me, "Sergeant, shoot until the brass stacks up to your ass!" That’s when I started competitive shooting. I won a gold medal in the 1964 competition.
How did you become a sniper?
It was in 1966 and I was a platoon sergeant on my first tour in-country. I hadn’t been there long when George Hurt and Jim Feathers at division headquarters, who were both big shooters on the Marine team, came out there and found me. They said they needed a little help. "We want you to come out and train the boys." My captain came over and says "Hey, what’s going on here?" George says, "We came to get Sergeant Sides to help train a sniper platoon." The captain said, "Goddamn, Sarge, do you want to do this?" I said, "I don’t know, I ain’t had time to think about it." Then I said, "I’m going." Old George had orders already cut and pulled ’em out of his back pocket and said, "Get in the jeep." I said, "You’re kidding, that fast?" I didn’t have nothing, just a seabag.
Were there already Marine snipers in Vietnam?
They had some of the rifle experts in organizations, and they pulled them up and called them snipers. There was a school where they trained a few guys for a few days at a time and sent them out. To my knowledge this was the first sniper platoon in Marine Corps history to be trained in a combat zone. We came in with all the full-fledged shit, the survival training and all, and started recruiting Marines as they came in. I think I started with 40 men. We built our own range and were good to go.
You called yourselves the Rogues?
Sure did. One guy actually suggested something like the "Transitional Killers." We said, hell no! The Rogues was the first Marine Corps sniper package to go in there.
The name Rogues fit pretty well—you had a pretty wild group?
Yes. When we were training on the range, this damn Army colonel came out and we were "yes sir’n and no sir’n" him and all that shit. Then he says: "Well this is a range out here. I’ve never shot my .45 so I guess I can shoot it out here." I said, "Yes, sir!" Then, I swear, as that sucker pulled that thing out of the holster, it went off and damn near blew my foot off! I said, "Goddamn, colonel!" That was so funny.
How accurate is Ed Kugler’s Dead Center?
Pretty much all true. There’s very little fiction in it. I’m telling you, when I read it I thought how did he do this? He even wrote about my card games. He didn’t forget anything. It took me a month to read it. I’d read a little bit, cry a little bit. God, I had a hard time with that. I still do. That’s the way it was. You know it’s just one of those things. You know you’re in there doing a job, doing what you’re paid to do. Somebody has got to die, and somebody goes home. It’s hard. If you ain’t been there you don’t know.
Is it true that when Kugler wrote the book, he thought you were dead?
He said he heard I got burned up in a tavern fire, and knowing me he had no reason not to believe it. Kugler was hell in the bush, man. He got mad if you’d bring him in. He’s a Mormon now, he doesn’t own a gun and he doesn’t even drink!
What qualities did your men need to have?
They had to have self-discipline, follow orders and be a hell of a shot. You only shoot 500 yards to qualify as expert in the Marines, but we had to shoot 1,000 yards. Some couldn’t adjust. When you start shooting at 10-inch cans at 1,000 yards, you have to be pretty damn good.
Shooting was one thing, but to be a sniper?
That’s where it got gritty, boy. You know. We had over 300 kills in the Ashau Valley in about 18 months. We ruled.
You were essentially counter-sniper snipers?
Well, your line company commanders were getting picked off, and you know they’d do their reports and somebody in division said, "We’ve got great marksmen here, so we need counter-sniper activity." They formed the 3rd Division sniper school at Da Nang in March 1966, where they’d pull a few guys in to train shooting through a scope, then send ’em back to the rifle company they came from. Finally they decided to train a whole platoon. We were going after Viet Cong snipers.
Had you seen much combat before that?
No. I had only been in Vietnam a couple of months when they pulled me.
But the men you recruited thought you knew everything?
Yeah. They did. I had ’em buffaloed! Now, I knew more than they did about what we were doing. I had about 10 years in the Marines by then. I knew how to sneak and peek and all that, but man, you learned as you went.
What was it like training these guys, then going out in the field?
The guys were good. It took a lot of patience at times, laying around in the mud and whatever. You had to be highly disciplined, you know. If you moved too much before the other guy did, you would be dead.
Did you have respect for your adversaries?
Yes, sir, they were good! We were shooting Viet Cong snipers. We were looking for them and they were looking for us. They weren’t any fly-by-nighters. Those bastards were masters at booby traps, too. Absolute masters. But we got the better of them.
How long were you with the sniper-scout platoon?
I did a whole tour with the platoon, but then I got real pissed off and I quit shooting. See, there were a number of big shooters in-country, but when I got ready to rotate, none of those bastards would come out to relieve me. You know, they had to have somebody relieve me. Then they send out a little lieutenant who didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. So the colonel called me in and said: "Sarge, you know these heavy hitters? Well you better get one of them up here, ’cause if you don’t you ain’t leaving." I finally got a good guy to come out and relieve me. But that really pissed me off. All that training, shooting, winning gold medals and then the bastards won’t come out!
So it was all volunteers?
Yes. Well they could have yanked somebody and said you’re going. They always have that prerogative. But they want somebody to want to come. Pulling a guy from one battalion to another can to be difficult, too.
What did you do after leaving the Rogues?
I came home for a while, then I went back to a line/infantry company up north near the DMZ, C Company, 1/3. I was company gunny there. I’d never locked ass with the NVA until then. Man, they came to fight. Up there you knew you were on a different plateau. I left Vietnam in 1970 and went back to Camp Pendleton as a marksmanship instructor. I stayed in the Marines until 1977.
What did you do when you retired?
I became a general contractor. I got a contract to build some cottages out on the beach around Camp Lejeune. Then I started building about anything you wanted built, made a little money—and was having too much fun. I eventually moved up to Virginia.
You had some PTSD troubles?
When it hit me, it hit me hard. It affects everybody differently in their own little world. Listen, when I was in a room in the early ’80s and someone said the word Vietnam, I was gone, I left the room immediately. I didn’t want anything to do with it. But I’m one of the lucky ones. I got out half sane—although I’m not sure I was fully sane when I got into it.
Is it hard to see today’s vets suffer the same way?
Yes it is. But it’s better now than it was when we came home. Nobody knew anything about it then. But finally we got enough limelight, and we kept yelling and they came up with something. It’s definitely better than it was. But, we still got guys from Vietnam, hard PTSD victims, walking around and not even knowing it.
So how did you deal with your troubles and then emerge a leading activist?
Self help, other veterans and Rolling Thunder. It was about the time they built the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and I started mingling with vets. I guess John Holland was a big influence. He wrote a couple of POW/MIA bills in Congress. I got hooked up with him at the memorial. One thing led to another, and 23 years ago a few of got together to form Rolling Thunder.
Why did you believe there were POWs left behind in Vietnam?
In 1973, when the first planeload of POWs came in, we knew damn well there were more than that. We have it on record, and all these guys who came back were walking and talking. We had a number in Cambodia and Laos, and we didn’t get any back!
How do you reconcile yourself with your belief that our country knowingly left prisoners behind?
Well, you do it like we are doing. You protest, you petition Congress, you lobby. They have made some great improvements over when the first George Bush was president. We now have a U.S. recovery team in Vietnam. We’ve got a number of bodies back, some of which I’ve helped bury. I think we’ve recovered 29 bodies last year. It’s not like they are sitting on their hands exactly, but the effort could have been made much, much earlier. The POW/MIA issue became a political football, but it caused many vets to get into politics, to stand up and be heard.
But still no admission by the government?
No. But we know it. Billy Herndon, former North Carolina congressman, spent 10 years researching the book An Enormous Crime.
Who do you blame for leaving POWs behind?
The government. Hell, who else would you blame? It wasn’t our fault, we came home. I think it goes all the way back to LBJ.
What about those, including former POWs, who deny that any were left there?
You can’t judge those people, you know, if you didn’t walk in their shoes. But, you know, if we’re digging up bodies now, they were there when we left. We know that Bobby Garwood stayed there for 15 years before he came home.
Why are some activists at extreme odds with John McCain.
I have a little different feeling about McCain. If you ask a lot of vets, they do feel differently than me. I got an email yesterday from a vet wanting me to help campaign against McCain in Arizona. McCain said he broke and made some statements. I wasn’t there. But I know he has done more on the issue than most people think, but he’s not been overly vocal, being in the position he is.
Do you think any Americans are left living in captivity in Southeast Asia today?
Over the years, we have had thousands of so-called "sightings." I work closely with a retired Army colonel who was a POW for six years. He doesn’t talk very much, but he did say to me recently: "You know, it’s been 40 years. How long do you think somebody can survive in captivity?" The only answer to the question of, "Do you have any proof people are living over there?" is, "Do you have any proof they are not?" That’s the best answer you can come up with.
How do you convince those who are skeptical?
Well, I wouldn’t try to convince anybody, that’s not my thing. But what doubt is there in one’s mind when we had a list of hundreds of POWs who were never released? All the ones who didn’t come home, what happened to them? We had names of those in captivity. They never owned up to killing any or gave a list of those who died in captivity, so where did they go? We’re digging some up now. I won’t say they are all POWs, but they were certainly MIAs.
Why are some Vietnam veterans critical of the Rolling Thunder image?
I haven’t been around many vets who are. I told one, "Listen I’m an old man but I can still hit like a mule." There’s some controversy about bikers, but we’ve overcome most of it. Some people are just afraid with bikers around, but we are not in the age of the Hells Angles. I’m sure some people in the area don’t like the loud bikes. My God, we’re getting 900,000 people in Washington, and they are from all walks of life, including veterans not just from Vietnam, but also from the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan. We get support from across the spectrum: the Vietnam Veterans Association, many in congress such as Chuck Robb, Bob Smith, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Jim Webb and many others. Some hate to admit it, but even John McCain supports Rolling Thunder.
What are you most proud of about Rolling Thunder?
We brought the POW/MIA issue back to life when it was getting kind of quiet. Not any more. Everybody knows a little bit about it now. And then our support of all veterans causes and how we have brought all the activist organizations together. Rolling Thunder is the largest annual event in Washington, the largest motorcycle event in the world, and we keep getting bigger.
Besides the event itself, what is Rolling Thunder doing?
We are still lobbying Capital Hill to form a House select committee on POW/MIAs. I remember when Ted Shpak started lobbying, he was always in his three-piece suits and all. But then he started wearing jeans, leather vest and Rolling Thunder shirt, and he started getting more attention. This is not just another lobbyist. While the core effort of Rolling Thunder remains POW/MIA issues, we are very active in support of all veterans and, with the Aleethia Foundation, we hold a lot of events for wounded Iraq/Afghanistan vets.
How does it feel to know you’ve created a tradition that will keep on living?
Not just me, it’s we. We’ve definitely turned some heads and changed some minds at least.