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Column: How I got sandbag duty in Vietnam

I had some luck on my side, which is how I ended up with a special electronics classification in the Army. That luck did not, however, stop them from sending me to Vietnam. There, attached to a maintenance group which provided support to Army long range recon patrols and to a battalion of Marines, we attracted a lot of attention from the Viet Cong. That attention provided an indescribable amount of terror in what seemed like a constant rain of 122 mm rockets – the anticipation of them being nearly as bad as the explosions themselves – and assorted probes to check out our defenses.

About every 10 days, three of us soldiers drew 24-hour bunker duty. The bunkers were located down toward the perimeter of the combat base; the perimeter was formed of rolls of concertina wire and triangles of razor wire staked close to the ground, the whole works peppered with trip-wired Claymore antipersonnel mines.

Each soldier stood two hours on, four off, on what could almost be called a little boy’s fort made of sandbags, protected on top by some sandbag walls, with a small room underneath where a couple of wooden bunks were located so those off duty could sleep. The 7.62 belt-fed M-60 machine gun was down there, along with a couple of waterproof metal boxes of belted ammo.

We’d been getting hit pretty regularly, and everyone was behind on their sleep when I drew guard duty with two other 19- or 20-year-olds. I was 25. I was no longer immortal, no longer bulletproof, but the young ones? They’d go to sleep up on top, leaving no one watching.

I had to go down below and crash, I just couldn’t stay awake a moment longer. Yet, I knew Sgt. Rust was around. He made it his life’s goal to find a soldier asleep on guard duty so he could confiscate his rifle. Not good. You were asleep down below? With no way to lock the door, Rust considered you fair game, too. Knowing this, before I went to sleep, I wired a 60-pound box of machine gun ammo above the door, and hooked the wire to what served as an opener. Then I went to sleep.

 I awoke to the crash and clatter of that heavy box of ammo falling, and someone grunting. I switched on my army flashlight and found Rust knocked somewhat senseless, lying on the floor, tangled up in the wire. I locked and loaded on him, demanded the daily password of him, and when he was unable to produce it, I arrested him and shouted to the kid up on top, who was now awake although rifle-less, to call the sergeant of the guard.

“I have a prisoner,” I told him. Also, “Better send a medic. The prisoner is bleeding pretty good.”

I had done a good job of trying to remove one of his ears with the wire.

All hell broke loose. I found myself confined to my quarters, with orders to report to the Captain the next morning.

“Perhaps,” I remember thinking at the time, “this had been a good idea but one I hadn’t quite thought through.”

I was pretty nervous when I was escorted into the Captain’s office and noticed that Rust was there. I stood to attention, saluted, got an indifferent salute back from the Captain. It was a salute that seemed to say: “You’re dead meat.”

Rust, who had a good-sized bandage holding his ear on, explained his version of the events. He was of the opinion that it was fair to seize a sleeping soldier’s rifle, blah, blah, blah. He finished, and the Captain instructed him to leave. Rust protested. He wanted to see me get what I had coming. But he was ordered out and he left.

The Captain stood up and came around his desk at me. I remember thinking, “What the (expletive) is going on, am I going to get a beating?” He stuck out his hand, which I shook. Then he said: “If I had everyone here taking this s… as seriously as you are, we’d all be a lot better off.”

He went back, sat down, looked up at me, smiled, and said, “Of course, you know I’m gonna have to make you fill sandbags for a couple of days.”

Sandbags were filled by mama-sans, who chewed betel leaf and giggled in Vietnamese at me when I showed up. We had a great time. Rust was reassigned.

It was 1969. I had 100 days left.

The Prairie Spy by Alan "Lindy" Linda

Alan Linda