I served in the Army from 1968-1970. I spent most of 1969 as a combat correspondent with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam. The division operated in an area from Saigon north to the Cambodian border.
Over the course of my tour, I came to have a special "affection" for The Infantryman. The poor fellow who had to slog through the mud, the jungle, the rice paddies...always with the risk of ambush just around the corner. The fellow who didn't have the connections to get into some reserve unit back home. The guy whose family had a long history of military service. The guy who wasn't the sort to sit around in a coffee house, praising Jane Fonda's visit to North Vietnam.
While over there, I wrote an essay in praise of The Infantryman. The essay was published in The Overseas Weekly in 1969. I have incorporated a segment of that essay into a solo (stage) show that I wrote and performed last November in New York City. "Vietnam...through my lens." www.vietnamthroughmylens.com.
The essay is printed below, as is one of the photographs from my show.
actor/playwright/life member of American Legion Post 581 (NYC, NY)
By Stu Richel
"His body is covered, not with modern fashion, but with the rags and grime of war. To remove the stain, he looks to his sleeve or a towel around his neck, not fortunate enough to have greater convenience at hand.
The clouds around him are hardly silver-lined. They are laden with rain, makers of mud. Their only redeeming value is as a buffer, stopping the sun from mercilessly bearing down. When rain appears, he retreats to the sanctity of a disciplined mind and listens to the patter of the drops on his head, not a roof. And while others bathe, he scrounges to drink. Water is sometimes too precious to waste on keeping the body clean.
As if to tease, the sun will replace the unbearable rain and dry the feet, sore and rotted. The grunt takes it, doing what he must, doing whatever he can against the elements.
He warms his food, if at all, with the heat from sticklike explosives. Fruit cocktail and pound cake are delicacies, much the same as snails or caviar to the Beautiful People. His food is tolerable, but becomes tiresome after nine or ten months of similarity.
Don’t speak of loneliness to him. He knows it too well. Don’t preach about losses and the meaning of death. He can count higher than you. And no one has undergone more of the experiences which make a guy cherish life and what it has to offer. He has lived and fought with great friends, some of whom will return home. But he notes the irony that those who live, live only to return to riots, bloodshed, despair…or perhaps hope.
Don’t speak to him of race. The blood his brothers shed was real, and not strangely was red, as his. When life was on the line, colors blended. After all, color won’t stop a well- aimed round.
Speak to him of nice things. Scream about living and life itself. Whisper about people, love and softness.
He is a human being who wants to leave the names “grunt” and “leg” behind him in the dim past, where such history belongs.
His personal victory is simply in terms of leaving Vietnam. He has finished his tour. No more chalking off days on a calendar. Now his future lies with his folks, his girl, his job, his world.
That world should thank him and let him go on his way. Give him the respect he merits. Let him pick up the pieces and move on to a new and fruitful life. As an infantryman, he has earned his place out of the sun. He deserves no less."