Monday, August 20 , 2018, 6:33 pm | Partly Cloudy 72º


Ken Williams: Still Healing from the Wounds of War at Con Thien

Dark, deadly nights made the area feel nothing like a 'Hill of Angels' for U.S. Marines

Three in the morning, 1969 — yesterday, forever away. Con Thien was like a graveyard, deadly quiet with the troubled spirits of dead U.S. Marines lurking about. Bunkers, surrounded by dull silver-colored sandbags, are sunken into the red earth. They mark sacred space as tombstones.

Marines died by the hundreds during the vicious fighting at Con Thien in 1967. Also, just north of the base, Bravo and Charlie companies of the 1/9 were partially overrun by the NVA. It was here that my unit originally earned its nickname: The Walking Dead.

The night was pitch black, like dirty oil had been thrown upon the land. The silence was so thick that it had an unnatural physical presence suffocating in its effect. Breathing sounded like the rumble of soft, distant thunder. Every move I made sent sound waves hurling across the barbwire into the death strip of the no-man’s land that was seeded with land mines and trip wires that surrounded the base.

Looking up into the spooky blackness above offered an incredible contrast with sparkling stars. Coming from Southern California and all those bright night lights of a densely populated urban area, I never realized just how beautiful — and awe inspiring — the stars could be, nor how many. It felt like a million miniature suns were winking at me, confirming the cosmic joke that I found myself in.

This inability to see anything other than stars added to the incredible aloneness I felt as I sat on sandbags in front of a fighting hole. Behind the fighting hole was a reinforced bunker where the rest of my squad slept, along with rats the size of cats as companions. A few miles beyond lay the DMZ and North Vietnam. Surrounding the fire base that Con Thien was were thousands of heavily armed North Vietnamese regulars backed by heavy artillery across the DMZ and Laos anxious to kill as many Marines as they could. I’ve had more reassuring thoughts in my young life.

Being unlucky enough to have pulled guard duty in the middle of the night and relatively new to the war, but unfortunately already combat hardened, I was left alone with thoughts of home and subjected to every imaginary illusion that my mind could come up with. It was an uncomfortable feeling imagining the many ways that death could be delivered. But the only truth of war is that it is total chaos and that reality always trumped any projections that one had of where death decided to lock into us.

Entranced by the enforced silence and night blindness, I tensed. Something suddenly wasn’t right. In spite of the hot, humid night, a chill skipped down my spine and the permanent sweat that covered my skin turned to ice. What was wrong? Was it the noise of falling dirt, or a feeling of someone else being around? Or maybe the sound of a safety being clicked off on an AK-47, a communist assault rifle?

No. It was the sound of a high-pitched whine far above me, but one that rapidly grew in incredible intensity. What the hell was going on? The whine turned into a scream, like something was hurtling out of the blackness directly into my skull. Then a new sound: small explosives like missiles separated from a hard-charging jet fighter-bomber. I began my jump backwards just as the twin missiles hit in front of me. The shock wave slammed into me. I ended up sideways in the bottom of the fight hole. I wondered, had the North Vietnamese sent their air force across the border?

Unfortunately, it was simpler than that. It was my second encounter with friendly fire — as before a bizarre chaotic act that came very close to killing me. I wondered if the pilot had simply decided to shoot off his missiles before returning to base. Or had he misread a map? A thousand irrational rationales came and went.

Slowly my night vision returned from the washed-out haze that the explosions had left me with. The din in my ears would take longer to clear. Cautiously I crawled out of the hole not knowing exactly what to expect or do. Surely someone must want to know what had just happened, but I couldn’t leave my post so I waited for someone to come to me.

It may sound crazy, but no one in the bunker mere feet away from the explosions woke. Frayed nerves, exhaustion and escape from the reality of war had driven my comrades deep into the forbidden zone where the illusion of safety could comfort one. The feeling was that if the shootings and explosions didn’t kill you there was no need to worry about it, and if it had killed you then it was too late to worry about it anyway. The mantra of the war, which reflected this, was: “It don’t mean nothin’. Nothing means nothin’.”

The officer who eventually came by a half-hour later to see if I and the men in the bunker were alive or dead did not get a pass from me as my comrades had. He wasn’t one of us, not someone who had bled and shared the last of our rations, water and fear. My thoughts toward him were less than generous.

And what idiot came up with the term “friendly fire” anyhow? Was it supposed to be less deadly if it was an accident by our side? Was it supposed to hurt less somehow? Would I be less dead if the missiles were made in the USA? Don’t think so. Dead is dead. As a thousand times before the slow burn of this memory is tucked back into a leaking box within my mind. It don’t mean nothin’.

The Cost of War

According to Veterans for Common Sense review of government reports:

» 20 percent of the 2 million men and women who have served in our nation’s ongoing wars suffer from a mental condition.

» 712,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking help with Veterans Affairs.

» 109,000 casualties in both wars.

» 6,200 killed, which includes 298 war-zone suicides.

» 2,300 active duty suicides since 2001.

» 1 percent of Americans are veterans.

» 20 percent of those who kill themselves are veterans.

A profound statement on the lingering costs of war.

It’s passed the time to bring our sons and daughters home. End the war. Heal the wounds.

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. His writings and opinions reflect only his personal views. He does not speak as a representative for or on behalf of any organization with which he may be affiliated. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. He has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through Stripe below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Enter your email
Select your membership level

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >