Although there was no legal compulsion to the performance of military duty; yet every man of full age and size was expected to do his full share of public service. If he did not do so, he was “hated out as a coward.” Even the want of any article of war equipments, such as ammunition, a sharp flint, a priming wire, a scalping-knife or tomahawk, was thought highly disgraceful. A man who, without a reasonable cause, failed to go on a scout or campaign, when it came to his turn, met with an expression of indignation in the countenances of his neighbors, and epithets of dishonor were fastened on him without mercy.
The Great West, by Henry Howe (1851)
I have sat on the mountaintop and seen the eagles soar. I sat on that same small staked-out piece of land where Sitting Bull and Black Elk, Red Cloud, and other great chiefs had sat long before me and looked outside to find themselves. I sat there all alone for four days and four nights, and I said my prayers and sang my songs and asked the elders to guide me to a peaceful place. For a time, my spirit flew with those eagles, but when they went to nest, it came home to me. When I came down from the mountain, only I knew what I’d left behind.
I know who I am. I know what I’ve done. I know who I did it for. I don’t pretend to be anything but what I am. I’m a soldier; I’m a warrior. I am an American fighting man. For the last half century, wherever American soldiers were fighting an enemy, some piece of me was there. If I wasn’t there myself, someone I’d fought alongside or trained to kill silently or taught to survive was there. It didn’t matter if it was a jungle, a forest, a field, or a desert, if Americans were on the ground, some part of me was there. I’ve got plenty of wounds to prove it, although sometimes I think the deepest ones are those you can’t see.
My reputation is pretty direct. At Fort Bragg it has always been possible to find experts in almost every kind of warfare: shooting any type of weapon, all the martial arts, surviving on the land, there is always someone there who can teach the best way to do it. When my name was mentioned there, people would respond, “If you want to know about combat, go see O’Neal. He’ll teach you how to kill.”
Every man is born with the skills of a warrior, but it is the circumstances of his life that put him on that path. When you have to fight to survive, you fight; and if you do survive, then you remember those lessons. The fighting makes you a different person, a harder, tougher person. Then you continue the journey by training your heart, your mind, your body, and your soul to be better prepared for the next time. The next time always comes.
Fighting fills my soul. I’ve spent my life walking the path of the warrior. I’ve got nine bullet holes in me, and I’ve been left for dead twice. I’ve been cut and stabbed more times than I can count. I have served my country, and I killed the enemies of my country. I killed a lot of them, more than I ever counted. That was my job. It was what I was trained to do, and so I did it to the very best of my ability. I did whatever I needed to do to survive; I didn’t think about it, I didn’t worry about it, I just did it. I used whatever weapon I could find. I killed the enemy from a long distance, and I looked him right in the face from a few inches away and I killed him.
I got damn good at it.
The O’Neals settled in Maryland in the 1700s, and since then an ancestor of mine has served in every war in our history. My direct ancestor Nathaniel Thurber was a guerrilla fighter in the Massachusetts Line in the Revolutionary War. My fifth great-grandfather John O’Neal signed the Oath of Allegiance and served with the Maryland Militia during the Revolution alongside his son, Peter O’Neal. My fourth great-granduncle Solomon Sparks was a member of Captain John Boyd’s “Rangeing Company” from Pennsylvania and was named captain of a company of Pennsylvania Riflemen during the War of 1812.
My great-great-granduncle Emanuel O’Neal was with General Sheridan during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign in the Civil War and is believed to have been present for Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.
Three weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor my grandparents signed the papers that let my father, Chester David O’Neal, enlist in the army, even though he was a minor. He fought with the 88th Infantry Division, the Blue Devils, for the whole Italian campaign. He won a Bronze Star with service stars during his nearly four years in the army. Sometimes he talked about it, but whatever happened to him he carried with him for the rest of his life. After the war he came home to South Dakota and met a young Sioux woman. That was my mother. The Sioux were a nation of fighting men. I’m sure there was blood spilled for the Indian nation on that side of my heritage.
I never knew my mother. Never knew one thing about her. By the time I was old enough to remember, she was gone. I never knew her name, never even saw a picture of her. There’s a name on my birth certificate but no other record anywhere of a woman with that name having lived. In fact, until I was about ten years old I believed my stepmother was my natural mother. That all changed when I caught my stepmother in a car with another man, a friend of my father’s. I warned her that if it ever happened again I would tell my father, so she set out to poison his mind against me. It got real rough between my dad and me. By the time I told him the truth he had me down as a liar and a troublemaker. The man knocked me around and then threw me out of the house. That was easier for him than knowing the truth about his wife. I was twelve years old.
I went to stay at the home of one of my few friends. His mother was a beautiful, kind lady who was hurting for me. She sat me down and told me that everybody in the town knew what happened and that I was welcome to stay in their house as long as I wanted. It was all beyond my understanding. I asked her why my mother hated me so bad.
Then she told me, “Gary, she’s not your mother. She’s your stepmother. Your mother is not here anymore. You need to talk with your dad about that.”
I guess on some level I had always known that, but I was relieved to hear it. What I couldn’t understand was why nobody had told me that before. I never found out what happened between my mother and my father; even after he divorced my stepmother and we healed that wound between us, he never would talk about it. He carried all those answers with him into the ground. The most he would ever tell me was that I had native blood in me and I came from the Pine Ridge area in South Dakota.
I didn’t need him to tell me that. I could feel it in me when the wind blew. I could sense the presence of danger, I could always move swiftly and silently, and it was easy for me to make friends with the spirits.
I came up hard. I lived for a time with my dad and my stepmother in Pretty Prairie, which is outside Nickerson, Kansas. Farm country. Mostly I got passed around to relatives in Colorado, Nebraska, Utah, and South Dakota. Supposedly they were all my uncles, but who knows. I didn’t stay with any of them too long. Maybe because I moved a lot, I never made serious friends; I definitely was an outcast. Seemed like I was always having problems in school and getting into fights. A lot of the white kids didn’t like me ’cause I was Indian, and the Indians didn’t like me ’cause I was white. If somebody said something derogatory to me I’d hit him. I didn’t care where I was, in the classroom, on the playground, in the hallway, I hit him. I had no tolerance for those remarks. I didn’t win a lot of those fights, but I never quit trying. I’d get knocked down, but I’d get right up again and go at it. Nobody could keep me down. Sometimes people would just quit because they got tired of hitting me. They could beat me, but they couldn’t hurt me. I already was filled up with pain. I would never give them that satisfaction.
I was never afraid of getting hurt, never afraid of pain. There was nothing I wouldn’t do, especially if somebody told me it couldn’t be done. For me, that was a direct challenge. So I was always doing things like jumping out of the barn onto a horse or riding the bucking bull out of the barn. I would jump my bike off a ridge, dive off the bridge, climb a sheer cliff. I would never admit there was something I couldn’t do. I broke both my arms once by trying to do a three-sixty on a swing set. When I went over the top it flung me straight out, and I flew with my arms outstretched like Superman. When I landed I broke ’em both, and then I went through the rest of the school day without complaining.
I stayed the longest with my grandparents on their ranch in western Kansas, mostly because they let me be. It was a big operation, probably 16,000 acres, and they farmed wheat and maize and raised cattle and horses. I loved it there; that was the only place in my life where I wasn’t confined by other people’s boundaries. I was on my own, mostly with the animals, and I got along with animals far better than with people. Most animals weren’t afraid of me; I could approach them, even wild animals, without difficulty. I could ride horses no one else could ride, and when I walked into the barn the cows would follow me. Whatever it was about me they sensed, it made them feel safe.
I searched to find my roots. I was drawn to the Native American reservation, trying with no success to find any information about my mother. As a result I embraced the Indian traditions. They seemed to make sense to me. Once I went up to Sturgis, South Dakota, where they had a vision quest going on. You needed to be invited to participate; it’s an honor, and I hadn’t earned it. I was just a spectator. I sat and watched the ceremonies, and even then I envied the people chosen to go up the mountain. I was sitting with several other people around a campfire, drinking tea, when an elder came up to me and handed me a feather from an immature golden eagle. “Carry it with you,” he told me. “Where you are going, you will need this.”
That was all he said. It made no sense, he didn’t know me at all, but it seemed like he had seen a vision or my aura and knew that I would need this. To receive an eagle feather from an elder was a great honor, one that I knew I hadn’t done anything to earn. It meant that he respected me as a warrior. From that day I carried that feather with me everywhere that I went. I wrapped it in a red cloth and kept it in my whole baggage, which is what I called the little kit I kept with me.
Between my dad and my grandfather I learned the skills that would make the difference in my life. By the time I was six years old I could survive in the woods; I knew how to hunt and fish, make a fire and cook what I caught, and build a shelter.
My father was a genius with his hands. He could make or repair just about anything; he could fabricate or repair machine parts. He actually built his own tractors. I used to sit and watch him for hours beating on the anvil, patiently shaping white-hot steel to fit his needs. He taught me the practical things a man should know: how to drive a car or a tractor, how to weld, how to build a motor or fix an engine. I bought my own first car, a ’47 Pontiac, off a junkyard for ten dollars when I was ten years old and fixed it up by myself. It was a flathead six, and I painted it red right out of a paint can. I wanted people to know I was coming. By the time I was twelve I could barely see over the steering wheel, but I was driving my grandparents to church on Sunday, and a couple of years later, I was racing stripped-down hot rods on a quarter-mile dirt track.
It was my grandfather who taught me respect for the land and all living things on it. He taught me how to live off the land. He taught me how to plant and harvest, how to track, trap, and hunt food animals. He taught me how to be in the woods without fear and to recognize the signs, and how to move without leaving my mark. He taught me that there was more around me than I could see with my eyes and that my most valuable tool was my mind.
Later, in the jungles of my life, I would use all of this to track my enemy, find him, and kill him.
I grew up comfortable with guns and knives. My dad kept all types of weapons in the house. He had a Thompson machine gun he’d carried with him in the war and brought home; he had a German Luger; he had Japanese swords and British knives. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t comfortable carrying a weapon. When I was six or seven years old, I would take my grandfather’s .22 long rifle and go out hunting. As I got older I got myself a 12-gauge. I’d spend hours in the woods by myself, but as I was taught by both my grandfather and my father, I never killed anything I wasn’t going to eat. That was a rule we lived by. When I killed an animal or a fish, I always said my little prayer thanking them for helping me survive and wishing them a good journey.
It was from my mother that I got my spiritual side. It was always in me. I had a place where I would go when I was troubled or needed my peace. At the south end of the ranch there was a big cottonwood tree surrounded by willows, and I would ride my pony down there. It was my place, a secret place no one else ever visited. When I felt the need, I would go down there and gather willow saplings and build a fire and sit back and look into it. The native peoples call this a vision quest, although I did not know that at the time. Later we would describe it as Ranger TV. As I looked into that fire I could let my imagination loose and go anywhere in the universe. I would spend days hidden in the willows, staring into the fire and opening my mind. Eventually I would be visited by all the elders.
A lot of kids struggle to have imaginary friends, but this was more than that. These people were my teachers. They would teach me about fire, about weapons, and animals. They taught me about nature. I never questioned any of it. I accepted it and I absorbed it. It would be a long time before I understood that these were the spirit guides that were giving me access to my subconscious being, teaching me how to use all of my senses, all of my mental capabilities.
I didn’t realize this type of intense experience wasn’t that common—it was real to me, and I just assumed everyone else would understand it. When I told my stepmother about these elders, though, she thought I was crazy and wanted to take me to a child psychologist. My grandmother accepted it as the product of my imagination. Tell me about it, she said, tell your grandfather about it, but don’t tell anybody else. They won’t understand, and it’ll just make everything worse for you.
When I looked into the fire I had visions. I saw things. Mostly it was combat. It was battles, battles from the past and, while I couldn’t know it then, battles I would fight in the future. Not so many years later these visions would save my life more than once. I didn’t see the details; it wasn’t on that type of conscious level. Instead it would be the sense of the moment. I would be in a situation and I would know what I was going to find. I would stare at a map and see the enemy. I would come to a clearing and know what was on the other side. I didn’t have to think about it on any conscious level; the knowledge was already there. The only thing I had to learn was to accept it.
I was wandering. After that fight with my father I had no destination in life; I didn’t seem to have any purpose. I was just moving through the days, dealing with whatever happened today without any thought about tomorrow. I stopped going to school, and it seemed like nobody even noticed. I didn’t really care much about anything or anybody. If people got in my way, I pushed them out of my way. I wasn’t ever a mean person, I never intended to hurt people, but there’s no question I could have gone that way.
I didn’t know it, but I was ready to be molded. It was a question of what came along first.
When I was fifteen I’d gone to stay at my older cousin Butch’s house in Kansas. The only thing it had to offer was that it wasn’t my house. I just wanted to be gone from anywhere near my stepmother. One day I saw that Butch had left all his identity papers lying around, including his birth certificate. I picked it all up and left. I had no plan to use it, but it was there and I took it. It wasn’t too much later that I first began thinking about enlisting.
We were a patriotic family even before I understood what that meant. The people from my part of the world had always believed in doing their duty. At that time this country was in the middle of the Vietnam War, and even with the draft the army was desperate for volunteers. It seemed like a good place to have an adventure. All I knew about the army was what I’d seen in John Wayne movies and the little my father told me. I knew we were fighting in Vietnam, I’d seen it on the new TV we’d gotten, but Vietnam, wherever that was, seemed awfully far away from western Kansas. I never really thought about the possibility of getting hurt or killed. I knew that wasn’t going to happen to me. Legally, I was still too young to enlist, but Butch O’Neal wasn’t. I decided to go up and talk to the recruiter.
I was waiting in the lobby to go upstairs when the elevator doors opened and standing right in front of me was about the most impressive sight I had ever seen. It was a large man wearing an absolutely perfect-fitting tan army-dress uniform, several rows of medals laid out neatly on his chest, spit-shined jump boots laced up his calves, and he was holding a green beret in his hands. I looked at him in awe, in absolute awe, and asked, “What army are you in?”
The answer didn’t matter to me. Whatever army it was, that’s the one I wanted to be in.
He told me, “I’m in the Special Forces.”
I didn’t even know what that meant, but I said to him, “I want to be like you.” This turned out to be the recruiter. Everything about him was absolutely in order. Spit and polish. When he asked me my name, I told him what my papers said, “Butch O’Neal.” It was that easy to become somebody else.
We sat down and talked. He had served in three wars, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and he was retiring, so they’d assigned him to recruiting duty. His job was to visit high schools and talk about the military as a career. When I asked him how I could get to be like him, he told me that the Green Berets were an elite force. I would have to enlist in the army and eventually volunteer for Ranger training, and if I made it through Ranger School I could apply to Special Forces.
I signed up. I raised my right hand and swore that I, Butch O’Neal, would defend the Constitution. I was fifteen years old and alone in the world. I had completely separated myself from my family and they didn’t know where I was. The army sent me to Fort Benning, Georgia, for my basic training.
I fit in. For the first time in my life, I finally fit in somewhere. I was accepted by the people around me for the skills that I had. They were teaching me, not criticizing me. I had never before felt like I was a part of something important. It just came to me naturally. From the first day I felt that I belonged there. Everything about it was comfortable for me—the uniform, holding a weapon, walking through the day, sleeping in the woods at night. Everything. Those things we were taught in training were the things I had always been doing. They gave us baby guns to shoot, and I just knocked down the targets. Our PT—physical training—was mostly running; on the farm it had been quicker for me to herd the cows by running around them than to saddle a horse, bring in the cattle, then cool down and feed the horse, so I could run through the morning and afternoon without even breathing hard. The training was easy for me. I wanted to shoot, I wanted to throw grenades, I wanted to learn how to read maps and track the enemy. I wanted to learn everything. This was my school.
I’d lie in my bunk at night waiting for the morning to come to get it started all over again. They made me an assistant squad leader, a responsibility I took very seriously. No one had ever given me authority before, or pretty much even trusted me. I pushed my guys, and when it was necessary, like up the hills on long hikes, I pulled them. Maybe because I had never been part of a team, that feeling of having people depend on me, and having people I could depend on, really affected me. This was just about the first time that I had a purpose in my life. The army was the perfect place for me.
Even the daily bullshit didn’t bother me. I knew it wasn’t aimed at me. While I had self-discipline, most of the people I was with did not. Most of them had come off the street and did not want to be there. They had to have somebody smoke their ass to put them in a position mentally to be trainable. That meant shaking up their minds by coming down hard on them for the petty shit. Our senior drill instructor was pretty good at figuring out who needed to be disciplined. He recognized that I had embraced the program and never focused on me. We all had to do our normal squad details, but I was used to working hard, so it made no difference to me. I did what they told me to do when they told me to do it, and I never had a problem. I made hospital corners on my bed, I memorized the serial number of my weapon and my RA—regular army—number, so I never got harassed.
We knew we all were going to Vietnam. There was no doubt about that. In 1967 the war was escalating and eating up troops, and we were the next meal. Several of our trainers, mostly E-7s and E-8s, had been over there and would tell us a little about it. You’d better learn this stuff, they told us. Almost all of you are going to be in combat, and the enemy is smart and well trained, and if you don’t learn it you are going to die. Our senior DI said, “I learned the hard way, you don’t need to do that. Listen to me, do what I tell you, and you may come back alive. Don’t listen to me, then God help you.”
None of that scared me. I had no grand thoughts about the meaning of life. I figured, if I lived, I lived; if I died … I didn’t intend to die. I bought into the training. I still accepted the notion that if you were well trained, if you did things the right way and listened to your commanding officers, you would survive. Like it was a game and if you played by the rules you’d come out a winner.
I was fifteen years old. Back then, I didn’t know how the world worked.
When I finished my basic training and my advanced individual training, which was learning how to be an infantryman, a frontline fighter, I applied and was accepted for Airborne training. There was never a doubt in my mind that I would apply for that. All of the elite units in the army are Airborne. That was their main delivery system. If you wanted to be a Ranger, if you wanted to be Special Forces, you started by going to jump school.
I knew how to parachute. From the time I was old enough I had been skydiving. My grandmother had paid me seventy-five cents an hour for working on the farm, and I used that money to put gas in my car and go skydiving. I was always fascinated by flight. I could lie on the ground and watch the birds flying for hours. I jumped off bridges because I loved those few seconds of being totally free in the air, and I wanted to go higher and make that sensation of free falling last a little longer. Years later I would become a member of the army’s Golden Knights, the greatest competitive parachuting team in the world, make jumps to test survival gear from as high as 38,000 feet, and even become the first person to parachute into Stonehenge in England, but when I began jumping in the early 1960s skydiving wasn’t organized at all. There were no rules, no safety regulations. It was all outlaw—just find somebody to take you up in a plane and jump out. I bought my first parachute for twenty-six dollars in an army-navy store, an old air force bail-out chute. On my reserve chute’s rucksack I carried a big-ass altimeter that had come out of an airplane. It didn’t look so good, but it did the job. Though sometimes when I was falling it would bounce on up and crack me in the face.
I admit it, first jump I made, I definitely was afraid. That’s the only sane way to be, but the way I was shaped, fear was a challenge to be overcome, not anything to be backed away from. I never let fear dictate my actions. Instead, I met my fears head-on. That first time I had three hours of instruction, and then we went up about 4,000 feet in a little Cessna 180, a tail-dragger. I thought I was ready for it, but when the door opened and I heard that whoooosssshhh of air for an instant I began to reconsider. I was committed, though, and attached to a static line. I closed my eyes and went out of that airplane and experienced the greatest few seconds of my life. There wasn’t much for me to do. My chute popped open automatically and I floated down. That day I made three static line jumps and then went up free-fall, meaning I pulled the rip cord when I was ready. Racing through the air hypnotizes you; you’re up in the sky doing whatever you want to do, gravity isn’t a barrier, so you flip, you stand up, you sail on the wind, flying like a bird, and the feeling is that you can just float above the earth forever. There’s no sensation of falling, because there are no stationary objects to measure yourself against. Only when you get lower does your depth perception kick in. As soon as you get down, the only thing you want to do is get back up there.
By the time I went to jump school, I’d already made probably a hundred jumps. In training we worked our asses off on those swing landing trainers, jumping out of a thirty-four-foot tower, then running around in formation. I never bothered to learn the names of the other people there, because they kept disappearing. I’d wake up in the morning and the guy in next bunk was gone. Nobody ever said a word about it; it was as if they never existed.
When I graduated they assigned me to the 173rd Airborne Infantry. “The Herd,” which is what it is called, is a highly decorated brigade, known for being a hellacious fighting unit. Some people say Bob Hope put that nickname on us because we were “the herd of animals.” The 173rd was activated in World War I and became the first major command deployed to Vietnam. Basically, the Herd was sent wherever the heaviest fighting in country was taking place. One thing you knew for sure, if you were assigned to the 173rd you were going to see combat. By the time I got there, they had been kicking ass for almost three years. Their mission was pretty straightforward: Search and destroy. Go out there in the boonies and find Charlie and kill him.
We landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside Saigon. The first thing that hit me when I got off that plane in Vietnam was the overwhelming humidity and the putrid smell of burning shit. No one who served there will ever forget the heat or the stink. By the time I took three steps on the tarmac I was dripping with sweat. I literally could see the heat rising in rippling waves from the concrete runway. I thought, I’m back in Georgia, but it was much worse than that. No matter where you went, the humidity hung on you like a wool coat in August. It rotted away your clothes and clogged up your weapons. One of the first things we were told was to throw away our underwear and prize dry socks, ’cause if you wore underwear you were eventually going to get a painful rash, and if you didn’t keep your feet dry they were going to rot. There was never any escape from the heat and humidity. The thing I learned right away, and never forgot, was that whatever I had to deal with, my enemy had to deal with it, too.
By the time I hit the ground, I’d gotten used to being Butch O’Neal. I was sixteen years old and I looked it, but all us grunts were kids and we all looked young, so nobody ever wondered about it. I couldn’t tell anybody the truth because they would have booted me right home, while all I wanted to do was get into the mix. There was an irony to that. Most of the people I met were trying to get out of the army; I had to lie my way in.
It took about three weeks for us to get processed. I remember during that time they gave us a little book about Vietnam. Most people just tossed it in their footlocker, but I read it carefully, because I wanted to know what kind of creatures were out there waiting for me. It had all the information about our enemy: the NVA, North Vietnamese Army, seasoned troops who moved and fought like a regular army; and the VC, Vietcong, guerrilla fighters that too often lived in the villages as farmers during the day and became killers at night. It also discussed the animals and insects that lived in the jungles, including tigers, elephants, wild boar, monkeys, snakes, and the biggest fucking bugs you have ever seen in your life. Just the pictures were scary. Everything was big, big spiders, scorpions, creepy crawlers, big and ugly. They had all kinds of eyes and legs and stingers. According to this book only certain snakes and insects were dangerous, but none of them looked especially friendly.
Hanging over everything, even more than the heat, was the fear of battle. Like every other soldier who has ever gone to war, I was wondering how I would react in combat. I definitely knew that I was going to be in combat. There was no question about that; that’s what we were there for. While I was real excited, I also was anxious to experience it, and I was scared. Everybody was scared; if you weren’t scared in that situation there was something wrong with you. We had landed in a war zone; we knew that some of the people getting off that plane were going to die. In fact, as I got off that cargo plane I had seen flag-draped coffins on a conveyer belt being loaded onto another plane for the flight home. Nobody was paying special attention to them. I was a little shook by the fact that everybody was treating a conveyer belt of coffins like something normal.
The fear was natural. The ability to control it was personal. No matter how bravely anybody talked, nobody knew how well or how poorly they would respond until they were in it. We talked about it, and when we weren’t talking about it we were thinking about it. We just wanted to get it over with. We wanted to know. We were “cherries,” the new guys. The waiting for it to come was really hard. The people who had been there awhile kept telling us to stop worrying about it, that worrying didn’t do anybody any good. There was no way to prepare for being in combat because there is nothing to compare it to; the live fire exercises we’d done in training were about as realistic as pictures of food in magazines were filling. The combat veterans I spoke with admitted to their own fears but tried to be reassuring. When it comes, it comes, that’s when you’ll find out. You’ll do fine. That’s what they said, you’ll do fine.
From brigade headquarters I got on a bird and was flown to the battalion. When I got there, the company I was assigned to was out in the field. I just stored all my belongings in the supply conex, which was basically a steel shed, took my rucksack and my weapon, and got on a helicopter. About forty minutes later they dropped me off into my new world. I had left civilization. In just a few hours I’d been transported from a massive military base to a company in the middle of the jungle, and finally assigned to my squad.
I reported for duty just like I had been taught—and the first thing I did was throw away everything that I’d been taught. We had never fought this kind of war before, and it had taken the army some time to adapt to it. The Vietnam War wasn’t anything like those set-piece battles that we had fought in World War II or even Korea, wars that could be plotted on maps and you could measure progress by how much territory you gained. This was an unending series of small ambushes and skirmishes. It was a war with no front lines against an enemy that seemed to be able to strike and vanish into the earth. The only land that mattered was the strategic points, the heights from which you could observe enemy movements, or those places where the jungle trails came together, and even that was only temporary. When our first large force got there, we didn’t understand this type of warfare at all; we tried to make the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong fight our war. Too many people died before we finally figured out that wasn’t going to work, and that’s when we began to learn from our enemy. This war wasn’t about gaining and protecting territory. About the only thing that would really make a difference was the attrition rate—how many enemy did we kill?
At Fort Benning we were still being trained to fight World War II, so my real training began when I got to my squad. I was exhausted, but I didn’t sleep much that first night. I’d spent nights in the woods before, but never anything like this. The night was dark and peaceful. It was much too dark to see anything at all, and nobody lit anything out in the open, so I just lay there and listened, with my weapon right next to me. I had no idea how many people were around me, but I felt alone. In the jungle you learn really quick to rely on your senses, the regular five senses plus the additional ones you didn’t even know you had. That first night the sounds were all new to me. There wasn’t any of that comfortable crickets chirping. I heard people stumbling around, making noise while trying to be quiet, and I heard the jungle. I heard the tops of the trees moving, I heard a few animals, I heard the breeze easing through. I didn’t know what was normal, so I couldn’t know what was different, so I just hunched up and paid attention to everything going on around me. I figured if there was a problem I’d find out quick enough.
The important thing was to grab hold of your imagination and keep it tight. I had the sense that if I let it go, the night would be even more difficult. I knew that the enemy was out there somewhere, and I knew that he was comfortable in the night. I had spent most of my life moving, I had rarely waited for anything; so staying still, waiting, was hard for me. I had been warned about the shadows, that eventually if you stared at a shadow long enough it would begin to resemble a person and it would move. That was your imagination playing with your mind. I had been taught when I was a kid, camping out at night back in Kansas, that you were supposed to look at a position, then take your eyes off it and scan all around, then go back to it fresh to see if there had been any changes. That was the way to determine if it was really moving. I had been warned about that, but it didn’t make a difference. At night, shadows moved. So too often for us to get comfortable, somebody would fire a burst, giving away his position and making everybody else respond.
For security at night we put out two-man advance observation posts, and several squads would set up ambushes. The thunder of a claymore mine exploding is the best possible early warning system. The next few days I started going out on patrol, searching for any sign of the enemy, hoping for contact while wary of it. That was when I began to get to know the real Vietnam. There were several different types of landscape; we moved through open fields and rice paddies, we walked around villages, and we disappeared into the jungle. We walked up and down hills and on the sides of mountains. We walked alongside streams and occasionally on a path. Generally, though, we tried to stay off the paths because that’s where most ambushes were set up. Usually we cut our way through fields; sometimes the grass was so high that if you didn’t keep focused on the man directly in front of you, the grass would close up behind him and you could lose him in three steps. Or we followed animal tracks; if the animals had used that path and not gotten blown up, we knew it wasn’t booby-trapped.
I spent more than three years basically living in those jungles, and there wasn’t one day I felt truly comfortable. In different areas of that part of the world we worked in triple-canopy jungle, meaning there was no difference between and night and day. The jungle was claustrophobic; it seemed like it was always closing in on you. Eventually I would learn how to use the jungle to my advantage. It wasn’t my “friend”—the jungle doesn’t make friends. Even the NVA and the Vietcong didn’t like being in the jungle. Still, I understood it and respected its power. There were times when we were on an ambush that I would stand hidden a foot off a path, literally one foot, and the enemy would pass by me and not see me or sense me. I would wait, and wait, and wait, as a patrol passed, and then in one motion I would grab the rear guard, yank him off the path, and kill him instantly and silently. The enemy would never see him again, never know what happened to him; as far as they were concerned the jungle just swallowed him up.
That was later. In my first days in country, when we were on patrol with the 173rd, we were always on alert. The anticipation was worse than the fear. Where the fuck were they? We never knew what was around the bend or waiting at the edge of the jungle. Everybody was trying hard to be as quiet as possible, but with as many as two hundred people on patrol, that was never very quiet. A line company is about as quiet as a herd of elephants. Equipment would bang, people would cough or curse—there was always some human sound that I knew would give us away if the enemy was listening. The enemy was listening, of course, but there was nothing I could do about it.
Those first few weeks we didn’t have any contact. A couple of times I heard rounds being fired somewhere in the distance, but as I was learning, it was very difficult to determine where one or two gunshots were coming from. Sounds just bounced around the terrain. They echoed off the trees; they were muffled by the grass; they traveled down the streams. We heard them, we tightened up, we kept going. Other platoons made contact and inflicted some damage, took some light casualties. We’d listen to their stories, and it was impossible not to wonder, Why not us?
About my fifth week with the company, we were going up a hill. My squad was walking point for the company, meaning we were out in front. I was third in the line behind our squad leader and the radio guy, and I was thinking …
There was movement in the bushes off to our left, and we fired them up. It was the first time I’d seen the enemy, and he was a shadow running through the tall grass. We started moving fast in the direction they were running. That’s when they opened up on us from our flank. They had been waiting for us. We strolled into their ambush.
I hit the ground. The noise … the noise … our officers were shouting commands, the sergeants were screaming, some people went down and were screaming for help. Bullets were flying all around me, zipping through the leaves and hitting tree branches, sending leaves flying off the vines. I was just trying to stay as low as possible. Somewhere to my right I heard the thumping of grenades exploding, onetwothree, boomboomboom, then sporadically.
It was nothing like I had anticipated. There was no pace to it at all, no rhythm. There was no break at all in the firing; the intensity of it overwhelmed me. My natural response was to try to make sense of it, but that was impossible. There was nothing in my life to compare it to. I was stunned. I pissed my pants.
My mind was racing, warp 10, but the battle was warp 20. Once I got behind, there was no way to catch up to it. You have to be in it. Once the wave has passed over you, you’re behind it forever. I was trying to figure it out; the mistake I made was that I was thinking what to do rather than responding and doing it. The speed of thought is so much slower than what you need to be doing. Thinking gets you killed; responding, reacting, keeps you alive. You see something, you respond. No pausing, no thinking, no analyzing, you respond. A snake is coming at you, you kill it.
In those first few seconds I was frozen with fear, too scared to remember my training. I hadn’t fired a round; I didn’t know where to shoot. After those first few seconds I started seeing what the people around me were doing, and I began doing the same thing. The guys next to me were wheelin’ and dealin’, and I did what they did. I followed my leaders. We started concentrating our fire in the direction the bullets were coming from. It wasn’t any type of target shooting, it was just blasting, trying to create overwhelming firepower. Most times you never knew if you hit anybody. I was young and dumb and lucky.
During a firefight there is no such thing as time. It goes on until it ends. While you’re in the middle of it, you have no past and no future; it is that moment and nothing else. Everything you are, everything you know, every experience you have ever had, you have to bring into that moment. Then when you survive that moment you get to the next moment. You exist totally in each moment, as if you are wrapped in some type of blanket that shields anything but the present. You have to completely block out everything else—your feelings, your senses, everything that is not directly focused on that one moment. Every step you take forward, you have to forget about that step behind you; it’s nonexistent. Strange as it sounds, after the first shock I forgot to be scared. I wasn’t feeling any emotion; I wasn’t thinking about what could happen. I let my training take over. I just kept firing, firing, firing. Instinctive shooting. Target, front sight, squeeze. Twenty rounds, change the magazine, keep firing.
I looked up, and the gunships had showed up on station and were blasting away at the enemy. It could have been five minutes, it could have been forty-five minutes, I had no idea. My mind had separated completely from my body. Those Hueys had brought hell with them. They opened up and tore a hole in the jungle all around us. The enemy was gone; killed or just gone. I lay there, the battle ringing in my ears, covered with my own sweat and piss. Gradually, sounds of life began filtering into my consciousness. People were moving around tentatively, trying to make sure that no enemy had survived that fusillade. I rolled over onto my back. I wasn’t ready to stand up. For the first time I felt my weapon in my hands. It was burning hot. A little smoke was rising from it. I could smell the battle, the smoky scent of spent ammunition, all around me.
A sergeant leaned over. “You okay?” I gave him a thumbs-up and sat up. I heard a few seconds of laughter, which was so bizarre; later I’d understand that it was a way of expressing relief, a sound of life. We had one serious casualty, no deaths. A bunch of people had been nicked by shrapnel, but nothing that would even take them off patrol. Gradually, like the sounds, my emotions began filtering into my body. That’s when the fear really hit me. I started shaking. The emotions became overwhelming. Not only wasn’t I dead, I had never felt more alive.
When I stood up I had to take a few seconds to regain myself, just let all my parts settle into position. I couldn’t stop looking around; I wasn’t convinced the enemy was gone. He was, though, and he left some of his people behind. I didn’t see any complete bodies, just a few scattered body parts. I didn’t connect them in my mind to living beings; I didn’t have any feelings about them, just curiosity. I’d never seen anything at all like the carnage after a battle.
What was really strange was that I couldn’t remember what I’d done during the battle. I tried, but I couldn’t remember any of the details. Other people told me what I’d done, that I’d been right next to them and that I’d done my part, but much as I wanted to remember it, it wasn’t there.
As we saddled up and moved out, there was one thing I understood completely. I was a totally different person than I had been just a little while earlier, and those changes would affect me for the rest of my life. I was still anxious, but I felt like I had finally been baptized. I’d been in the mix, and I’d survived it. I felt something else, too. I was exhilarated, and I could hardly wait to get back into it. I’d had my first dose and I wanted more.
I got my fill. After that we were in the mix all the time. There was no place in that country where you could just relax. Even when we went back to battalion to take a little break we could get hit by rockets and mortars. We were in the middle of a civil war. The enemy was always around us and looked just like the people who were fighting alongside us, and since we couldn’t look into their souls we never could be sure who to trust. So we had to live on the edge all the time.
The enemy was an outstanding soldier. He was smart, he was brave, and he was determined. The enemy had several advantages over us. His people were seasoned troops. They had been fighting consistently since long before World War II; they had fought the Chinese, the Japanese, and the French, and they had developed guerrilla techniques that took us too long to learn. The enemy also had excellent equipment. The Russian AK-47, which was his primary weapon, was superior to the M-16 we were using. Early in the war, especially, the M-16 got people killed. It would get jammed too easily, leaving people without the means to defend themselves. Everybody there knew it, and complained, but the people who could have done something back home didn’t seem to pay attention. The AK-47 was prized by Americans. If you could pick one off the ground you did, and you used it.
The enemy was the home team. They knew the terrain. They had built the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the supply route from the North down into the South, which ran into Laos and Cambodia. They knew the safest places to cross rivers, they knew the best places to hide, and they knew how to live off the countryside. They would carry supplies from the north by animal, by bicycle, and when necessary on their backs. In many places they had the cooperation if not the support of the locals.
Most of my first tour I lived at a company base camp. We set up a firebase in the Central Highlands. That was a static position; the enemy knew we were there and constantly probed for our weaknesses. The camp was ringed by concertina wire—barbed wire that would entangle anybody trying to get through—sandbagged bunkers, trip wires, claymore mines, some booby traps, forward observation posts, and patrols waiting in ambush. We took turns going out on patrol or being in the observation posts at night. I never minded. I liked being out there.
We’d change the location every night. We’d move out beyond the perimeter right after dark; sometimes it was so dark we’d have to keep a hand on the shoulder of the man in front of us so we wouldn’t get separated. After we settled down into a position we’d wait, but then we’d move again just in case somebody had been watching us. Once we got settled for the night we’d put out claymores around our position, making sure we left ourselves an exit corridor. A claymore mine can do some serious damage, and knowing they were there provided comfort.
One of the first lessons we learned was to make damn sure after an ambush or firefight that every enemy soldier on the ground was dead. I learned that lesson when we were searching for bodies after blowing a claymore. We always searched bodies for any intelligence they might be carrying. A guy who should have known better put his foot under the shoulder of a dink and rolled him over. Boom! The dink had a pistol in his hand and put a round through my guy’s hip. What I used to do to make sure that dead was really dead was tape an aluminum bag filled with CS powder—that’s the riot control gas that makes your eyes tear and causes you to cough—around the mine, and then I’d put a white phosphorus grenade in front of that. When we blew the claymore it spread the CS and ignited the white phosphorus. Willy Peter, we called it. That shit was going to burn as long as it got oxygen, so if it got on your skin it was going to keep burning until it got smothered. Anybody hit in the kill zone was going to be gasping for air and screaming for mercy. One thing guaranteed, they definitely were not going to be lying still. That was the end of that problem.
While there were people who never got used to being out in the boonies at night, right away I was as comfortable as I ever got with it. I wasn’t exactly comfortable, but I liked it. It stirred something in me. Being in the night somehow seemed natural to me. When you are vulnerable like that, you can either fight it or embrace it. I made friends with it, in the Indian way. I lay there and I tried to make myself part of nature.
That wasn’t easy. Any movement could jeopardize the lives of the whole team. It meant training my mind to ignore all the normal behaviors I’d been doing my whole life. I had to be absolutely still, silent. It meant not slapping the bugs and mosquitoes, not scratching those itches; it meant ignoring my bodily functions. To be undetected when we were out there, we couldn’t do anything to change the environment—its sounds, its smells, or its appearance. If we did have to move, like crawling out of a position, each movement had to be slow and precise; it had to flow rather than being abrupt. Doing this forced me to draw on a self-discipline that I never knew I had.
It also forced me to expand my senses. We grow up being told we have five major senses, but in those first few months in Vietnam I discovered two more, at least. One is instinctive feeling. Or maybe a gut feeling. When people say that they “sensed danger,” this is the sense they are talking about. I always referred to it as my spirit talking to me. It’s the feeling that tells you not to walk through a door or, in Vietnam, not to walk down that path because there is danger. It’s the combination of all your conscious and subconscious knowledge and experience coming together to send you a message. It isn’t easily defined, but I guarantee that paying attention to it saved my life several times in several countries.
The seventh sense is your mind. People don’t generally think of the mind as a sense organ, because it isn’t part of our physical being, like our eyes, ears, nose, skin, and tongue, but as I learned, it may well be the most important sense organ. The mind not only provides access to information about our environment, it actually interprets that information and enhances all of our other capabilities. In a life-and-death situation, like combat, your mind takes control. It isn’t your brain—the last thing you want to do in combat is think. It is your mind that is running all the machinery of survival. Your body is just transportation for your mind and your spirit. It’s the mind that enables a little woman to pick up a 3,000-pound car that has trapped her child; it’s the mind that allows you to survive a wound that should have killed you; it’s the mind that warns you not to jump off a path when you’re ambushed because the enemy has booby-trapped the ditch. It was my mind that enabled me to lie still in an ambush position for hours, focusing on the situation without allowing any distractions to bother me.
I didn’t talk about any of this stuff. I didn’t care if anybody believed me or agreed with me; I wasn’t interested in attracting any attention. For me it was real, and I paid it respect. What got a lot of people shook in Vietnam was the randomness of death or injury. People dealt with that in a lot of different ways. I carried my eagle feather with me in my kit every time I went outside the perimeter, and I also performed a ceremony before going out on a mission. I’d light a little fire and say my prayers for the safety of my team and the success of the mission, and I’d ask that if we did have to mix it up we would be given the guidance to survive. I’d watch as the smoke from that fire carried my prayers up to the Creator.
Then we’d go out hunting.
I’d been lost living in America, and in Vietnam I got found. War was what I was good at. It made me a whole person. Like other people fighting over there, I became addicted to the high of being at risk. Almost right from the start I started taking every opportunity to fight, and in Vietnam there was no shortage of opportunity. We didn’t have to look for danger; it would find us. I don’t know for sure when I killed my first enemy soldier, but I suspect it was the first time they attacked our firebase.
Firebases were definitely vulnerable. Basically, we were targets. A firebase is a fixed location protected by a limited number of troops, although we were never outside the range of air and artillery support. We would go out and set up a firebase and live there for several weeks, sometimes as long as a month. Then we would pack up and leave. While we were there the enemy was constantly probing us. Suddenly they’d drop a mortar shell on us, or a sniper would take a shot. It was just harassment, just enough to keep us aware. Only on occasion would they actually attempt a full assault. There were a lot of times when the word got passed that they were coming that night, and we’d increase security and wait all night, but they wouldn’t attack. When they finally did come, they were relentless and it was intense.
There was little warning. If we were lucky one of them would hit a trip wire and send up a flare. Then they would open up on us with as much firepower as they could generate. The first thing that they would try to do was blow a hole through the concertina wire so they could get inside the perimeter. We’d immediately light up the night with flares and get on the phone to the command post, letting them know we were under attack. Within minutes the artillery fired the first marking round; after that they walked it in dangerously close. For me, there was an instant of terror, then I’d settle into doing my job. The anticipation usually wore on me worse than the combat. By this time I had been under fire several times. I knew what I was supposed to do. While my first time in combat the battle had raced by me, now I was able to slow it down a little. We had four platoons, and each of them had responsibility for a certain segment of our perimeter, and each person in the platoon had an assigned fire point within that segment. We were capable of sending out a rapid ring of fire.
This was the first time I had seen the enemy up close. A mix of NVA regulars and VC, they were wearing uniforms and helmets. They were charging, they were blasting. I just kept firing. There was nothing else I could do. There was no strategy, no aiming, no thinking. Fire twenty rounds on full automatic, drop the magazine, load up, keep firing. Just fire, reload, fire, reload, keep shooting, don’t stop. At that moment the enemy was not human, not people, he was just a target that had to be destroyed before he could get to me. See, squeeze; see, squeeze.
They just kept coming. Our artillery was moving closer and closer to our position. Sometimes it seemed impossible anybody could survive the firepower we were putting on them, but they kept coming. Bullets were winging all around me; there was a lot of shit just bouncing around. A round hit the sandbag in front of me, a couple of inches from where my weapon was resting. I thought they had got inside the wire and were coming up on us from behind. Later we figured out that a round had ricocheted off somebody’s helmet and bounced back.
It lasted until it was over, ending as abruptly as it had started. When they were gone we took a deep breath, resupplied with ammunition as quick as possible, then sat in our positions waiting for them to come back. Eventually the sun came up.
In that early light I saw the remains of several enemy soldiers caught up in the wire in weird positions. Nobody reacted much to it. We had some wounded who needed to be evacuated, and I believe we had two KIA. We didn’t have time to spend talking about the attack; we had too much work to get done. Charlie was coming back. There was no boasting or bravado or analysis. Maybe I felt a little bit of pride in myself—I had done my duty—but if I did, I know I didn’t show it. We were professionals, even people like me who were learning our craft, and professionals did their job without the expression of undue emotion.
We had to clean our weapons and check our radios to make sure everything was still functional. We had to replace the concertina wire. We had to get more ammunition and fill the gaps in our positions left by our KIA and wounded. As much as possible we stayed away from the bodies and the wounded; there was nothing we could do for them except make sure the wounded got the care they needed and the bodies of our dead were treated with respect. There were people assigned to take care of the wounded; that wasn’t my job. About all I could do was hope they made it. The choppers came in at first light with more ammunition and collected our dead and wounded.
I knew I must have hit some NVA, and I didn’t even give it a thought. My hope was that I’d killed them, as many of them as possible, but there was no way of knowing. I didn’t think of them as human beings. At that point they were not human, and this had nothing at all to do with humanity. It wasn’t about virtue or morality, there wasn’t any bigger point; it was kill or be killed. It was get through the night alive. I didn’t hate them, that wasn’t in the equation. I killed a number of people during my career, and I don’t have any regrets. None. I never hurt one person who wasn’t trying to kill me. So I looked at the bodies hanging in the wire mostly with curiosity, like I was looking at a freak show or an accident, but without any emotion at all.
Looking back, maybe what was most surprising was how quickly we were able to accept scenes like this as our normal life. We shed the rules of conventional civilization and lived by our own. Even the rules that governed the military got bent and eventually broken. From time to time we would have replacement officers coming in and trying to impose some sort of military structure, but that rarely lasted very long. This wasn’t the place for it.
My life was pretty spare. Combat became the routine. That first year I spent at least eight months in a combat environment. I lived out in the boonies, I went out on patrol, set ambushes, killed my enemy. I rarely even thought of what was going on back in the States. This was my home. I’d get an occasional letter from my half brother, and my grandmother would send me packages, but home was fading fast for me. There wasn’t anything there I was holding on to. There was nothing there I needed or wanted.
If it’s possible to be all alone in the middle of a massive war machine I was alone, and it wasn’t bothering me at all. It enabled me to discover resources inside myself that in the noise of a normal life probably would have remained hidden. When I looked into the fires I could see myself catching up to those things I had been chasing my whole life. I wasn’t there yet, but in some ways it was beginning to make some sense. My shell was getting harder every day, but my spirit was beginning to soar.
I didn’t form any close relationships in Vietnam—if people were there they were there, if they were not they were not. A lot of times I only knew people by their nickname; I couldn’t even tell you their real last name. I didn’t really get to know the people I was with. It wasn’t like the movies in which everybody bonded. I wasn’t interested in knowing much about anybody else and didn’t want anybody asking me many questions. In earlier wars a group of guys lived together and fought together as they marched across Europe or Korea, but that wasn’t the way it was in a line company in Vietnam. People were always coming and going. It’d be a little bit different later, when I joined the Rangers, but in the Herd I was Butch, or kid, or to an officer looking at my name on my uniform, just O’Neal.
I celebrated my sixteenth and seventeenth birthdays with the Herd, but as time went on I realized I didn’t belong there. The army is a vast society with its own status and structure. There are line companies, massive units that fight the biggest battles and do the grinding work of war. Most draftees end up in line companies. Then there are the elite outfits, the smaller, highly trained Special Forces who perform the most difficult and most dangerous missions. These are units like the Rangers, the army’s Green Berets, and the navy’s SEALs, all-volunteer units comprised of the best combatants in the military. Many more people wash out in training for these units than ever get to serve in them. These are the one-percenters. America’s elite warriors. After spending just a few weeks clomping around in that jungle with two hundred other guys I knew that I wanted to be part of that group.
What I didn’t know yet was how to get there. That would begin when the army discovered Butch O’Neal.
Copyright © 2013 by Gary O’Neal with David Fisher