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No medical form, no Purple Heart.

One of the “dirty little secrets” about the Vietnam War is that most of the 2.5 million U.S. troops who served in-country actually had it pretty good.

In a modern army, with its large train of support troops, nine out of 10 military personnel technically “in the field” are not exposed to the dangers of front-line combat. Although any place in the field can be considered a dangerous environment where a single mistake might end in someone’s death, most American troops in Vietnam enjoyed hot food, comfortable barracks, showers on most days, and even maid service. They worked in buildings. There were movies to watch at night, frequent beer busts and access to post or base exchanges much like stores in the States.

Troops assigned to units in the rear would seldom get the chance to be legitimate war heroes. Most were fine with that, happy to complete their one-year tour and go home. But for those raised in a culture that glorified combat and the heroic deeds of World War II and Korea, the lack of opportunity to prove themselves on the battlefield was a quiet frustration.

I came from an Army family and had completed more than three years at the University of Iowa when I joined the Army Security Agency in 1967. The ASA was an intelligence agency that intercepted and deciphered enemy communications. Officially, the ASA was not “in Vietnam,” but it actually was there—operating covertly as Radio Research Units positioned throughout South Vietnam, typically in remote field stations.

After I washed out of the school for radio intercept operators, I volunteered to go to Vietnam as a clerk—at least I could type. I was stationed at Can Tho Army Airfield in the Mekong Delta and assigned to the 156th Aviation Company (Radio Research), which used technology loaded on aircraft to locate the source of enemy radio transmissions.

I arrived at the base as a private first class in March 1968, just after the ferocious fighting of the communist Tet Offensive, launched on Jan. 31 throughout South Vietnam, had largely subsided.

The 156th, one of four companies in the 224th Aviation Battalion (Radio Research), was a hybrid unit, combining ASA members with other soldiers who handled our base’s supply, motor pool and aircraft maintenance functions. The Army pilot and co-pilot flying the unit’s RU-6 Beavers—“low and slow” single-engine Canadian “bush” aircraft—were not ASA members, but the third crew member, who operated the equipment used to detect enemy radio signals, was an ASA man. ASA soldiers also staffed a military police platoon and served as the company’s clerks.

Crews at Can Tho Army Airfield flew in RU-6 Beavers, equipped to detect enemy radio signals. (Robert Flanagan)

One of my jobs was to make sure that the pilots and radio-intercept operators received Air Medals, one for every 20 hours in the air on combat missions. We had five or six aircraft flying every day, and almost everyone on flight status earned those decorations weekly. There were so many flights that subsequent Air Medals were represented not by the oak leaf clusters normally pinned to the original ribbon, but rather with little brass numerals. The individual record for our unit was the 53 Air Medals that a crewman earned in one year.

I also processed our unit’s other awards and decorations. I wrote an official recommendation based on affidavits supporting the soldier’s combat actions, took it to the officer in charge for his signature and then sent the recommendation up the chain of command. The paperwork would be closely examined, primarily to ensure the recommended medal was appropriate for the specific action, but also to look for signs of fraud. Commanders with approval authority for specific awards could accept a recommendation, reject it or downgrade it to a lesser award.

We received informational copies of Medal of Honor citations awarded to the troops in Vietnam so they could be posted on bulletin boards for inspiration. I read them, but knew I would not be writing any recommendations for that lofty award. The Army did its best to keep us away from the action because our highly specialized skills and Top Secret/Crypto security clearances made us hard to replace. We were expected to avoid activities that would draw unwanted attention and essentially “hide in plain sight.”

My best friend at the 156th Aviation Company was Spc. 4 Bill, a skinny 19-year-old military policeman from Tennessee whose family had a history of military service going back to the Civil War. Bill—I lost track of him after he was transferred and don’t remember his last name—would show up at guard duty formation with his M1911A1 .45-caliber pistol, M16 rifle, several edged weapons, a few grenades, a 12-gauge shotgun and an old M2 carbine he had acquired on the black market because it was being phased out by the Army. 

Bill’s fellow MPs teased him about his mass of weaponry, and he also got an earful from the unit’s senior noncommissioned officers who were not in the ASA. Ironically, those same sergeants had given Bill a rationale for his heavy armament. They had been exaggerating the impact of the Tet Offensive. Although the Viet Cong attacked the airfield and destroyed parts of Can Tho, the senior NCOs’ war stories sounded more like the Battle of the Alamo. They regularly yelled at our perimeter guards, warning them that the VC were “still out there” and “more powerful than ever.” Bill knew that Tet had come as a surprise to many and wanted to be ready. So he remained quietly defiant.

When I reached the 156th, the person who had managed the awards detail was long gone. In addition to numerous Air Medal forms to be processed, there was a stack of combat award nominations for the defense of the airfield. They included Silver Star and Bronze Star medals, a Distinguished Service Cross and Army Commendation medals with “V” devices.

Those recommendations, supposedly written by my predecessor, were all correctly typed and carefully documented, with the required affidavits attached. One of the soldiers recommended for an award harassed me for not having sent the paperwork to headquarters for the signature of the officer in charge.

That prompted me to read the affidavits again. I noticed that a soldier recommended for one award would be supported by those recommended for other awards. All the men mentioned were career NCOs who had come to the unit from the regular Army. The whole thing stank of unethical collusion, but as a newbie and a private I didn’t have the authority to decline an award submission.

The officer in charge, a captain, was a pilot who hated paperwork and grumbled when I asked him to read each recommendation before signing it. But I insisted that he read the recommendations closely. The captain grumbled some more, like a kid wanting to go out and play rather than do his homework, but then got wise to my pleadings.

“What’s going on, Hamit?” he asked. “I know you. You’re up to something.”

“Please, sir, just read them. Think of it as a field problem.” He did, becoming more and more interested. He got to the bottom of the pile, and asked, “Hamit, where are the Purple Hearts?”

Even though the documents contained language such as “despite his wounds, he continued to advance,” there was not a single Purple Heart form. The captain’s face flushed as he realized that he had been reading fiction.

I had checked around and learned that the events described in the recommendations never happened. None of the phony recommendations were for our MPs, who were actually defending ASA’s part of the perimeter and would have been engaged had there been a fight. The sergeants recommending each other for awards had been back at the barracks as a reserve force.

The main Viet Cong attack during Tet had been perpetrated by the local VC cadre who rounded up some teenage boys, forced obsolete Chinese SKS carbines into their hands and drove them into the meat grinder of our machine guns and remotely detonated Claymore mines, although they did briefly occupy part of the base.

Additionally, a jeep of six VC wearing South Vietnamese uniforms had carried out a diversionary attack on the airfield. They entered through the front gate and simply rode up and down the runway and aircraft parking areas, creating as much chaos and damage as they could with small arms, grenades and other hand-thrown explosives. They then left through the front gate, before any American force could be formed and sent after them.

I was disgusted that NCOs seeking combat valor awards would sully themselves and the honor of our unit with such a dubious scheme. It would have never worked. Awards for valor go through a careful review process, which starts with a clerk like myself. I think the sergeants wrote and had typed those documents themselves.

Those NCOs were not combat soldiers but rather appeared to be over-age clerks in uniform who had joined after the Korean War on the assumption they could serve a safe 20 years, earn a pension and retire unscathed. They had cooked up this scheme during some drunken evening at their little club, but overlooked one essential detail. A Purple Heart could be initiated only by a medical officer, who would give a wounded soldier a form to pass along to his awards and decorations NCO. No medical form, no Purple Heart.

My captain lifted the entire stack of recommendations, turned in his swivel chair and dumped them all into the gray steel wastebasket next to his desk.

“Hamit,” he said, “If any of those ‘gentlemen’ wish to discuss these awards with me and why they will not be forwarded, I will be happy to enlighten them.” He stormed out of the room, cursing a blue streak. Word got around, and none of the NCOs asked for more awards. But the NCO in charge of my unit became hypercritical and started looking for new ways to chew me out.

Later that year my friend Bill, the young, well-armed MP, was assigned to a convoy going to Saigon to pick up supplies. The 156th Aviation Company contributed some big trucks, and guys from the motor pool went along for the adventure, as did a couple of others. Bill went in his usual “battle-rattle” of extra weapons and gear.

A 75-mile trip up to Saigon took about three hours because the highway was torn up in places from war damage. On the return trip, when the trucks were fully loaded with supplies, a local Viet Cong squad sprang a trap, firing on the trucks from the side of the road. The convoy stopped. Bill was riding in the passenger seat of one truck, and the driver was shocked stiff, unable to move.

Bill went into action. He pried the driver’s hands off the steering wheel, dragged him under the truck and told him to start firing his weapon at the enemy positions. Then Bill ran up and down the road, helping to organize a defense, as he was trained to do.

Rocket-propelled grenades began to explode among the trucks. The men later described Bill standing at the center of the highway, holding his M16 in one hand and his .45-caliber pistol in the other, directing fire and yelling encouragement to the others. Everyone else fired their weapons, and the Viet Cong broke off their attack and withdrew. No one was badly injured, and no vehicles were damaged.

By the time the convoy got back to the airfield, the rest of our guys were pumped up and excited. “Don’t let anyone tell you that combat isn’t a gas!” one of them shouted as they poured into the flight operations building to report. The 156th Aviation’s commanding officer listened and then told them to calm down and unload the trucks.

The driver of Bill’s truck was very quiet, but no one teased him about freezing under fire. Some of the guys had panic attacks during mortar bombardments, including career soldiers in a combat zone for the first time. Panic was something quietly noted, but not discussed. You just hoped that it wouldn’t happen again. Everybody got a pass for it—the first time. And most of us never gave in to it.

As the younger men were shouting and slapping each other on the back as if they had just won an important football game, I shook my head. None of them particularly liked Bill, but they were all talking enthusiastically about how he had led them to victory. They had no idea how lucky they had been. The Viet Cong had not used an L-shaped ambush, which would have caught them in crossfire. Most of the RPGs had fallen well short of the trucks. And the Americans in the fight had a good leader, the skinny 19-year-old they had teased for his “John Wayne” habits.

The next day Bill came to me at my office. “The medical officer gave me this and said I had to turn it in to you,” he stated, handing me the form.

“Bill, this means you get a Purple Heart,” I said. He was very surprised. “You’re kidding! For this? It’s a scratch! He took it out with a pair of tweezers. They covered it with a Band-Aid.” Bill unbuttoned his fatigue shirt and showed me the Band-Aid on his sternum, above his diaphragm. It was a minor wound.

I asked, “What was it?”

“A piece of shrapnel.”

“Do you have it?”

Bill dug into his pocket and pulled out a tiny glass bottle. Inside it was a wicked-looking, blackened, jagged piece of steel about three-fourths of an inch long.

“Hey, no big deal, right?”

I felt very solemn. I told Bill he should submit the award nomination. He had earned it, and if we didn’t forward it up the chain of command, it would look as though we had tried to deny Bill something he had earned. The Purple Heart would also help him with benefits from the Veterans Administration after he got out of the Army and give him points for a government job. But there was another, more important reason.

“That scratch is right over your aorta,” I explained. If the shrapnel had gone 3 inches deeper, he would have bled out and died in less than five minutes.

Bill stared at me for a long time and turned pale as that sunk in. He sat down hard in the chair next to my desk, suddenly short of breath, his eyes wide. Until that moment the fact that he might actually die in Vietnam hadn’t made much of an impression. He got up and bolted out of the room. That night, for the first time in his life, he got very drunk.

But Bill recovered and appeared for the next guard duty, still hauling his usual extra gear. But he was a more sober, less enthusiastic warrior from that day forward.

I went around trying to get affidavits to recommend him for a Bronze Star, but our commanding officer put the word out that he didn’t want Bill nominated for the award. He actively discouraged awards of any kind, and without his endorsement, there was no chance the medal would be approved. Bill didn’t think he had done anything special, so he didn’t care.

I did the paperwork for his Purple Heart, however, and walked it to the CO’s office. He wrinkled his nose as if he smelled something bad, but I said, very quietly, “The other copy of the medical officer’s form is out there somewhere, and if this is not signed and forwarded, it will make us look bad.” He reached over and signed the form.

Bill’s Purple Heart arrived about a month later. The following week he was transferred to a new Radio Research base at Long Thanh North, close to Saigon.

His was the only Purple Heart awarded in the 156th Aviation Company the entire year I was there. ASA wasn’t supposed to bleed. Perhaps that’s why Bill was transferred—for setting a bad example. In fact, we had ASA soldiers in other units who received not just Purple Hearts but awards for valor up to and including the Silver Star. They didn’t plan on that, but sometimes it just turns out that way. 

This article, published in the August 2018 issue of Vietnam, is adapted from Out of Step: A Soldier’s Memoir of the Vietnam War Years, by Francis Hamit. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, he is an author of nonfiction books, a film producer, screenwriter and novelist. Part of his memoir, about his time as undercover anti-narcotics operative in Iowa City before he went to Vietnam, is available as “The Perfect Spy.”