Not until daybreak on the second day of the battle did a helicopter manage to land and evacuate the few survivors, leaving behind the bodies of most of Supply Column 21.There were 564 dead Viet Cong found in the area of the three Amtracs of Supply Column 21. The seven surviving Marines had fought without food, sleep, or water for two days. When the seven were pulled from their Amtrac, they had less than 250 rounds of ammunition left.My uncle wrote those words shortly after returning home from Vietnam. This week, my father decided to publish his brother's words with some accompanying thoughts in advance of Veterans Day in a piece he titled Prisoners of War.
I, Grady DuBose, was one of the seven. My job was machine gunner.
My uncle was a Marine paratrooper who went to Vietnam as a very green 19-year old. In the span of one year, he went from serving in detention hall to serving in one of the most gruesome battles of the entire war. As a member of 3rd Marines, 3rd Battalion, he was tasked on what became known as Supply Column 21. On a fateful day in August of 1965, his mission was clear - bring essential supplies to one of the first Marine installations fighting in Operation Starlite.
Then something terrible happened. My uncle and his group found themselves bogged down in rice patties, their amtracs unfit for movement in the Vietnamese jungle. They were ambushed and as his story notes, they fought for two straight days to survive. His story details the sheer terror of war. Sleep deprivation did not provide enough of a fog for my uncle to miss watching his comrade take multiple rounds to the head just a few feet away. He experienced the sheer desperation of knowing that his group had only a few hundred rounds left to fend off the attack of hundreds of charging Viet Cong. A 19-year old kid, he heard enough mortar rounds go off that he was able to say the following with the kind of depraved situational insensitivity that war forces on warriors:
They left the ship just before daylight. As they approached the beaches they were mortared and hit very hard. The tractors’ .50-caliber machine guns began snapping. This would be an experience they would never forget, if they lived through it.
As it turned out, my uncle was one of seven surviving Marines from that Supply Column. When he was finally rescued two days later, the Marines noted hundreds of dead Viet Cong bodies around his immobilized amtrac. The devastation was so great that it led famed journalist David Arnett to write:
Under a sweltering midday sun, U.S. Marine Supply Column 21 lumbered to its death Wednesday in the morass of a Vietnamese rice paddy.Arnett couldn't have known how prophetic those words would be. My uncle was a war hero - a proud son, brother, and father who had fought and survived one of the most mortifying battles in American history. His body beaten, it was his mind that received the brunt of the attack.
By the end of the day the armored column, 287 tons of steel, was no more. Some of the 30 leathernecks survived the withering Viet Cong attack but none escaped unmarked.
He returned home not long after that battle and he took English classes where he was asked to pen stories like the one quoted above. He was able to recall with remarkable clarity the events of that day. I have no doubt that this vivid memory played in his mind during every hour of every day from that point forward.
He suffered from what we would certainly characterize as post-traumatic stress disorder today, though few psychologists were ready with a diagnosis in the late 1960s. He often suffered from the kind of delusions of war that many veterans experience. Sounds, lights, and sudden shifts brought on flashbacks. Just a boy when he left to go fight the war, he returned a man with great pride but great scars, as well.
I never knew my uncle. He took his own life after the fight with post-war stress took the part of his mind that Operation Starlite so graciously spared. But his service remains a great source of pride to those in my family. A brave warrior, I consider him KIA, though the Marines make no such distinction for those killed in the service, after their service. He left behind a brother, two parents, a son, and a wife. To me, his nephew, he's little more than a picture, a second-hand memory, and the chilling words he wrote about the war that took his life.
That letter sparked my search for my uncle. And though I haven't found him yet, I have come to understand that the mental scars of war play as the background music to the last years of his life. My uncle's heroism was unique, but his story of mental anguish is not. During the first seven months of 2012, 116 active duty soldiers committed suicide in the Army alone. The problem is even more evident among veterans, with 18 taking their own life each day. Not all of these casualties are caused by PTSD. A significant number can be linked directly to the condition, though.
With Veterans Day around the corner, we must remember that for many of our service members, the war doesn't stop when they touch down at home. Adequate funding and research for military mental health is a must. We should make a commitment that these people can get the help they need. War is hell, especially for the 18 and 19 year old men who make the transition from patrolling school hallways to patrolling hostile territory. Brave men like Grady DuBose deserve more than a pat on the back and an American flag waving ceremony at the local airport. They deserve the full strength of American psychological research. As more men and women return home from Iraq and Afghanistan, we have the opportunity to provide the sort of support that may have saved my uncle's life.