by Terry Farish
I went to Vietnam because it was so much a part of the culture I lived in. I went to a women's college in Texas not far from the primary helicopter school at Fort Wolters. Angel, my friend, married a W.O.C., a warrant officer candidate. The W.O.C. I dated was later killed.
I went, also, because of my mother. Her brother brought home his war buddy -- who became my father -- from World War II. They had both won Purple Hearts and from that time my mother held military service in esteem. My most vivid childhood memory is of my mother crying in pride for Eisenhower at the Republican National Convention. The band's patriotic music gave her chills of excitement and passion. I remember the woman with the powerful voice who began the roll call of the states, and my mother said "Alabama" the way the woman said "Alabama." Later sometimes my mother would say the names of various states in the woman's voice when she was trying not to be sad.
My mother and my father tell his war stories together. My father says, "I was in Northern Africa in the war." And my mother says, "He was with Patton. You remember him." My mother thinks of war in conjunction with its protocols, the Geneva Convention and the respective roles of combatants and noncombatants.
When I said I was going to Vietnam, my father said he hoped I wasn't going to be hanging around with the officers like the Donut Dollies did in World War II. He grinned. When I left they were proud. They were the only parents in Houston they knew who could say their daughter was in Vietnam.
I went with my mother's passion for serving. I was at Cu Chi in an eight-girl unit and we took recreation programs out to fire support bases. I couldn't work enough. I took any run they'd give me, even Sunday runs if a unit called and said they had men in. We worked in pairs, traveling by chopper since the roads weren't secure, and were often stranded in a place because there was contact -- fighting -- or heavy rain and a chopper couldn't come back for us.
We spent so much time in the field. When I was brand new in country, I stayed ten hours on Meade, a fire support base in the center of an A.R.V.N. base camp (Armed Forces of Vietnam). It was all artillery. There were seven men to a gun and every guy had a dog or a monkey. We moved from gun to gun talking. One of the soldiers told me he was twenty-one that day. It wasn't uncommon to turn twenty-one over there, but I told the mess sergeant and he dug up a stubby candle and put it in a piece of cake and when the soldier came through the mess line we sang happy birthday to him. Soon I'd be seeing men we programmed to in 12th EVAC, the hospital, but it always took a while to remember which fire support base I knew him from, and which guy with the monkey or the puppy he was.
I learned the men's war, hanging out with them waiting for choppers. I listened to war stories. We girls seemed innocent to the soldiers and they were chivalrous and offered us their bunkers and candles if the choppers never came. Some men hated us for being there, we didn't have any business in this place. Some men were grateful. A lot of them wanted to talk. They were angry. They said they were only there as targets to bring Charlie out. And when Charlie came out they'd bring down artillery on him for the body count. I heard about fragging.
Later I got so angry. I didn't like General's Mess when we were required to get dressed up to go to on Sunday nights. My father didn't have to worry about my hanging out with the officers. The bravado over body count at General's Mess rang false to me, though the general was kind to us and talked about his family.
On Sunday mornings we had staff meetings. We'd still be in our bathrobes and our hair in curlers and we'd sit under the umbrella we ordered from Sears and sometimes we'd have to wait for a chopper to stop hovering above us to go on with the meeting. I remember hoping a unit would call and we could get clearance and go out.
The protocols of war were liquid in Vietnam. It wasn't my mother's war. It felt amorphous. It rained and rained. I didn't know at 21 what could happen to the W.O.C.s I'd dated back home in Texas, or how sorrow, for so many, could endure.