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To kill or not to kill is a question most people never have to face. Even in an infantry unit during combat, soldiers firing at the enemy are often aiming at a general position off in the distance, not at a specific person whose face they can clearly see. Those close encounters do happen, however. This is my story about the time I was presented with a dilemma: to kill or not to kill?

I was born in Houston in 1947 and raised in Baltimore. My mother died when I was 17. The first year after her death was a struggle for my father, who could not understand why his wife was gone at the young age of 40. Unsupervised, my brother and I started to run wild. I knew I had to do something before I got into real trouble and decided to join the Army at age 18 in May 1966.

I was sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for basic training and then to Fort Polk in Louisiana, where the sergeants told us constantly that we were going to Vietnam. They tried to put the fear of God into us. If we did something wrong during a training exercise, we were told: “In Vietnam you would have been dead.” If we performed some function in a certain amount of time, we were told: “The Viet Cong did it in 20 seconds less, so you are dead.” If we slowed up on a march, we heard: “What are you doing? Waiting for Charlie to catch up?” Some of that sunk in, but most of us were young, and everything seemed a lark.

Duane Russell

After Fort Polk we received orders for Vietnam. We all got a 30-day leave before we had to ship overseas. I visited with my friends and relatives and tried to act like a man. Relatives who had been in World War II or Korea told me war stories from their experiences. I don’t remember getting any advice. When my leave ended, I had to report to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey for my flight to Vietnam. On Nov. 27, 1966, my father drove me to the air base, and we said our tearful goodbyes. That was the last time I would see my father—he died while I was overseas.

I flew out of McGuire on Dec. 2. After stops in San Francisco, Hawaii, Wake Island and Okinawa, we got to Saigon sometime during the day of Dec. 4, 1966. I was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division, headquartered at Pleiku in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands. At Pleiku, I was placed in the 3rd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, stationed on the coast at Tuy Hoa, where we were issued our rifles and combat gear. There was more in-country orientation and a trip to the rifle range. The war was starting to get real.

We were put on duty at the base’s perimeter wire and taught about fields of fire (the area that could be covered by our weapons). We also learned how to set up trip flares and mines. One of the sergeants would check on us every night, mainly to see if we were awake. Some men dozed off. I never did. If you got sleepy you would stand up or wake someone. We also patrolled outside the wire. We were told to look for anyone coming up to the wire at night and other suspicious activity.

Before the end of December, I was a private first class in the boonies with a line company from the 3rd Battalion. In a line company, you don’t face the question “to kill or not to kill?” Once the shooting starts you tend to just join in, sometimes firing at a tree line. You shoot at a color or something that’s moving, anything that looks different from the surroundings. If fired upon, you aim where you think the firing is coming from.

One day while we were in camp, a major asked for volunteers to serve in a reconnaissance platoon. I didn’t like being in a line company, so I volunteered. I went to a recon platoon in Headquarters and Headquarters Company. By the end of January, I was in the field on six-man recon missions.

Running four- or five-day recon missions was very different from being in a line company. We avoided fights and looked for information on enemy activity that we could report to intelligence officers. We would hide, and when we spotted enemy soldiers, we reported how many and which way they were heading. If we found a trail or old camp, we reported that.

One morning, while we were running missions in the hills west of our Tuy Hoa base, the sergeant said we were going to a landing zone so helicopters could give us a ride back to base camp. We had been in the bush for four days. We were operating in an area not as densely vegetated or rugged as some of the places we had been in. We had seen Viet Cong on a trail on the second day and reported that. There had been no other signs of the enemy.

We reached the landing zone a little before midday. The sergeant radioed for a helicopter to pick us up. He was told to sit tight because the line companies were in a big firefight and all the choppers were in use.

The landing zone was shaped like a boot, maybe 80 yards long and 50 yards the other way. We were walking on a trail that entered the landing zone at the top of a clearing in the toe area and ran through a line of trees, exiting at the far end. We didn’t know how long we were going to be waiting, so the sergeant put me at the lower side of the clearing. I was supposed to sit about 35 yards from where the trail entered at the top of the clearing. The other five members of my team were on the other side of the tree line. It was a beautiful day, and as I sat looking at the different shades of green, my mind wandered.

We had been there maybe one hour when suddenly a movement caught my eye. Looking at where the trail entered the clearing, I saw a Viet Cong walk into my view. He appeared to be about my age and build, only shorter. He carried a U.S. M1 carbine and a pack. He was not looking around and seemed to be enjoying the beautiful day, just like I was. He had no idea that an American soldier was hiding 35 yards in front of him.

My heart started to race. He was in full view walking straight toward me. My M16 rifle was ready with the safety off. I was full of indecision. It was just him and me. Should I shoot him? He was now 30 yards away. Should I show myself and let him flee to safety? He reached 25 yards away. Should I call out to the other members of my team? This was not like before when everyone was shooting. I could see the Viet Cong’s face when he was about 20 yards away. I had all the information I needed right in front of me—and still could not make a decision. Soon he was less than 15 yards from me. I gripped my M16 and steeled myself for what was about to happen. As I stared into the face of the enemy, he was less than 10 yards from my hiding spot.

The question loomed: to kill or not to kill? At 7 yards distance, the Viet Cong saw me in my hiding spot and made my decision for me. He started to raise his M1 carbine. In a battlefield second, I felt the M16 recoil in my hands. I saw the rounds impact his chest. He stumbled and tried to turn away. After a few yards he fell. Two members of my team came to investigate. They went to the young enemy I had just shot and told me—I had not moved from my spot—that he was dead. They took his rifle and pack and left the body where it fell.

So when I was faced with the kill-or-not-to-kill question, I was unable to make a decision until the question changed: Who will be killed? Him or me? Then I made my decision. I killed. V

Duane Russell was wounded in May 1967, then spent five months in Hawaii and in October 1967 was sent to Fort Meade, Maryland, where he served until his discharge as a staff sergeant in May 1969. He worked with the U.S. Postal Service for 34 years. Russell lives in Durant, Oklahoma.

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This article appeared in the December 2021 issue of Vietnam magazine. For more stories from Vietnam magazine, subscribe and visit us on Facebook.