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Where Did Our War Go?

Patrick McAleveay enlisted in the US Army in August 1966, when he was 18. He served until August 1969.

by Patrick Mcaleavey
Oct 2 2007, 12:00am

Patrick McAleavey enlisted in the US Army in August 1966, when he was 18. He served until August 1969. His unit (part of the Army’s 9th Division) took part in the fighting in and around Saigon during the Tet Offensive of 1968. He was wounded on Valentine’s Day 1968 during a battle with a North Vietnamese unit just outside of Saigon. We asked him to watch some Vietnam movies and tell us which ones got it right.


When Charlie Sheen joins the platoon he is treated like the FNG (fucking new guy), and he complains in a letter to his grandmother that no one tells him anything. I found this so different from what I encountered. When I first joined my unit (Company C, 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry Regiment, 9th Division) I was warmly welcomed. Everybody made sure that I understood how we operated and how to react to different situations. This was not kindness, it was survival. The best way for all of us to get home alive was for everyone to understand his job.

Throughout the movie there is tension between Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger. In one scene, Berenger executes a Vietnamese villager while some of his soldiers rape a young Vietnamese girl. Atrocities like those happened in Vietnam, yes, but it certainly was not business as usual. There is also a scene showing all the soldiers smoking pot. Drug use was not rampant in 1967-68, especially among combat troops. I wonder if Oliver Stone, himself a Vietnam veteran, really believes “normal” soldiers accepted this behavior.

What I recall about a typical day in Vietnam was the boredom and the exhaustion. I was 19 then and in excellent shape. I could go for weeks at a time with little to no sleep. I could travel miles through the worst terrain imaginable with a 60-pound backpack. But eventually, the lack of sleep and exposure to the elements catch up to you.

I hated insects. I would expend all this energy swatting at them. At some point I learned to accept their company. Most days I was too tired to care. On such days moving a mile or two was considered good progress. You reach a state of fatigue, both physical and mental, where you do not care about life or death because they are the same.

The real danger is complacency. You start to accept this boredom as your daily routine and you don’t see the real danger. And then one day you stumble into the enemy. That is how it usually happens. It’s nothing calculated. It’s the convergence of two groups. It’s two groups wandering the jungle, each looking to destroy the other.

This movie is accurate in its representation of what an American soldier looked like at that time, and the battle scenes are well done. The actor who stood out for me most was Sam Elliott, who played the senior non-commissioned officer. NCOs really ran the army. Many were veterans of the Korean War, and a few had been in World War II. These were the guys who would, hopefully, get you through your 12-month tour.

Toward the end of my tour, my platoon got a new sergeant, Staff Sergeant Johnson. He told me about being cut off from his company during a retreat in the Korean War. He and one of his platoon mates were trying to find their way back to friendly lines in the dark. They encountered a North Korean soldier who had been separated from his unit, and they took him prisoner. Johnson knew right away that it was a mistake taking the prisoner, because the first chance the prisoner had, he would give them away. Johnson also realized he couldn’t shoot the prisoner, as that would give away their position. So he got behind the prisoner and strangled him with his bare hands.

I was stunned. Despite his craggy appearance, Johnson had a very gentle manner. I looked at his hands, and I remember thinking a man’s throat could easily be crushed by them.

The cast is great. I’m not sure Lee Ermey, the drill instructor, was acting. I think he was channeling his own experiences. Drill instructors have a god-awful job. How do you prepare a young man to face death? How do you yell at him, knowing that soon he may be dead?

The scenes where Ermey is yelling at the recruits are hysterical. It was always funny when our instructors were yelling at someone, especially someone else.

In the movie, Joker experiences the Tet Offensive of 1968. I was in the Saigon area for Tet. It was surreal. Out on patrol, I turned a corner and found myself facing several Viet Cong. I was dead. Then the lead Vietnamese smiled at me and asked me for a cigarette. The rest of his crew joined him chattering hellos and laughing.

It turns out these were local militia fighting house to house. They had killed a few VC, dumped their M1 carbines, and were now ready for some serious craziness. We traded cigarettes for some doodads they had, made our good-byes, and counted our blessings.

It’s a good movie but it really has nothing to do with Vietnam, because the circumstances they are under are so ridiculous. Several times they encounter individual US units where there’s absolutely no command and control. That’s ridiculous. Someone was always in charge. The closest I came to being out of touch with the person in charge was this time we landed in a rice paddy, and we didn’t have a radio for some reason.

I needed to get over to our platoon leader to let him know I had some guys wounded, one guy dead, and we needed to get a helicopter in there. The only way to do it was to get up and run to his position. He was probably about 25, maybe 30, 40 yards from me. Now, that’s exposing yourself to fire—you’re going to get shot at. So I got over to him, never really even thinking about that, and I said, “Sir, we’ve got to get a helicopter and get these guys out.” So he took my report, said we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that. I said OK and was going back to my guys, and I saw a line of machine-gun fire coming at me. It was one of those things where you see the ground being churned up in front of you. I fell down, and it went over me, and I remember kneeling back up and laughing and getting up and running again. You know, because they’d missed me. I thought it was funny that they had missed me.

The Vietnam sequence really caught me by surprise. The firefight between Forrest’s platoon and a Viet Cong unit is very realistic. It is hard to watch. I felt the adrenaline kick in, and that can be uncomfortable.

I guess I should finish the story from the last entry. Later that same afternoon, I was crouched down behind the earthen wall of a rice paddy. We had M72 LAWs, which are rocket launchers. They’re one-shot. You take the one shot, and you throw away the launcher itself. It’s all cardboard. It’s “Boom.” But they’re really good for hitting bunkers or troops who are entrenched. In this case, the North Vietnamese were in this patch of jungle. They probably had some bunkers out there, but more likely they were dug in, so what I was trying to do was put rocket fire up just above them, into the trees, because if a tree gets splintered, it’s like shrapnel.

I had fired about three or four rockets into their positions, and I think at that point I got them pretty pissed off. I was taking a lot of fire. What had happened was I had ducked down behind the rice-paddy wall. I was trying to cock one of the rocket launchers and it malfunctioned. So I brought my rifle back up and started to raise up to take a look again, and I got spun around, and I wound up on my back. I knew something had happened, because I was looking straight up at the sky, but I just couldn’t figure out what in the hell it was. I sat up, and a spray of blood went across me. I’m saying, “Where the hell did that come from?” And I happen to look over, and I see that my left wrist has been blown open at the artery. The round went through my wrist and hit my rifle, and it blew it apart. All the metal came back and hit my chest.

At the hospital that night, the first thing the doctor told me was that he was probably going to have to amputate my hand. And one of the orderlies was doing stuff on my chest, because at that point I still had a lot of metal in it. It was pieces of my rifle, pieces of the bullet, pieces of my watch. They were trying to get an IV started, but my veins had collapsed because I’d lost so much fluid, so the doctor couldn’t find one. So what they winded up doing was cutting my right arm open. The doctor stuck his little finger in, underneath the vein, and pulled it up, and stuck the needle directly into it. Then they closed my arm back up.

Then I went into surgery, and when I woke up, it took me a couple minutes to remember where the hell I was, and that’s when it entered my head: “Oh, do I still have a hand?” I raised my hand, and it was pretty bandaged up, but it was there, so I thought, “Oh, OK.” I was very happy about that.

I like this movie because, for Forrest, Vietnam is just a part of his life. It’s not something to regret. It’s an experience to be savored and appreciated. That’s what I have tried to do. What I went through, the friendships I made, helped define the person I am now. And I think I turned out OK.

It’s based on several experiences with the 101st Airborne. Those guys were up in that very mountainous terrain. The terrain we were in was mainly to the south and west of Saigon. North was more jungle, and to the east of Saigon was mostly rubber plantations. We spent a lot of time in those, too. We actually set up a fire base in one. It was very interesting; the trees were so huge. They were about 60 feet tall and a couple feet around. It was very dark, because the canopy was very thick. It was like dusk all the time, but the trees had been planted in a line, so you could see for a long way.

The plantation’s overseer was French. His house sat in the middle of the plantation, on the top of a small hill, and the village where the workers lived was down below. The US Army kicked him out of his house and used it as a command post. We built fortified bunkers and trench lines all around it.

There was an elderly man in the village, retired from the South Vietnamese army, who made a little money by giving us haircuts. He’d set up outside our camp and cut our hair for a few bucks. One night the Viet Cong pulled him out of his house and killed him, as an example to the rest of the village not to associate with the Americans.

Colin Farrell plays a draftee. He plays a rebel, defying everybody. I don’t remember the army tolerating people like that. They had ways of dealing with these things. You either wound up being kicked out or, more than likely, wound up in jail. I don’t remember anybody like that character… If you were, you would bring attention not only to yourself but to your platoon mates. That’s the great trick of the army: If you’re a jerk, they may not necessarily punish you. What they’ll do is punish everybody else around you. So instead of having one person that’s mad at you—maybe your platoon sergeant or your drill instructor—all of a sudden you have 40 or 50 people who are very irritated with you. That can be scary.

We had this guy named Shep with us. Shep was a nice guy, but he was really clumsy, and he probably should have never been in the army to begin with. We were out in the jungle someplace, and we had to get rapidly from one place to another because we were getting picked up by helicopters. But Shep, he kept dropping stuff. We’d have to stop to pick it up for him. Plus, we were moving so fast, he was starting to complain that he couldn’t keep up.

Our platoon leader at that time was an odd guy. I never really cared for him much, and he started in on Shep, and that set off the platoon sergeant. The two of them lit into Shep. They were really piling shit on him. He was a big kid, so they were calling him fat. The lieutenant kicked him a couple times. Finally a couple of us went over and picked up some of his stuff so he could move again.

Shep was quiet about it. That night, he kept to himself.

The next day we got picked up in helicopters and brought back to Bear Cat, our main base. Our commanding officer got some steaks and we had some beer, and later that night, a little buzzed, we’d all gone back to the hooch to relax.

All of a sudden I heard the door open, and Shep walks in, and he’s had a lot to drink, and he’s carrying his M16. I look, and there’s a magazine in there. So, he starts yelling, saying he’s going to kill somebody, and I’m saying, “Aw, Jesus.”

My biggest fear was that he was going to open up with the weapon. He wasn’t going to be able to aim at anybody in particular, because he was so drunk. But if he had it on full automatic, that’s 20 rounds, and God knows how many people he was gonna hit. Shep liked me, for some reason, so I assumed that he would not… That if he saw me, he was not going to want to aim the weapon at me, so I walked down the middle of the hooch, and he saw me coming, and I started talking to him. By this time, he was yelling and crying at the same time. As I got closer to him, he was actually looking at me, which is what I wanted him to do, because I knew he wasn’t going to fire if he was looking at me. I finally got up to him, and I took the rifle out of his hand. I didn’t have to do it violently. I just sort of took it away from him and got him into his bunk and put him to sleep. Next morning, he didn’t remember anything. And, thank God, we let it go.

This is based on a true story. Ron Kovic was paralyzed, and I guess it was one thing for him to be paralyzed, but it was another thing, what he went through in the VA hospital. I remember watching part of that movie and thinking, “My God, I’m glad that didn’t happen to me.” I mean, I don’t know if they exaggerated it, if it was really that bad… but I don’t think he had any reason to exaggerate it. He was hit in the spine, and it left him paralyzed from the waist down. It’s one thing to lose your legs, but it’s another thing to lose everything else that’s below the waist. And just… the way the guys were treated when they got into those VA hospitals in the New York system; they were just dumped into these systems, and the care there was so piss-poor. And after what these guys sacrificed, then to be treated that way, it’s just terrible.

I guess I don’t know.

I’ll tell one more story about my experience of the Tet Offensive… My company had set up a command center in one of the Saigon neighborhoods. From there we ran daily patrols. Late one afternoon a young Vietnamese man showed up seeking medical attention. His head was covered in blood and he had a deep laceration in his scalp. He didn’t speak much English but we assumed the wound was from shrapnel or a bullet graze. We figured he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. So the medics brought him into the aid tent and started patching his injury.

Next thing we hear is a woman screaming. There is a young Vietnamese woman standing at the camp perimeter yelling and pointing at the aid tent. She is pointing to our bloody young man. In her hand she is carrying a huge cast-iron frying pan. She was the one who had inflicted the wound. She was in a mood to finish the job. She was not going to be satisfied until she had humpty-dumptied his skull. I have no idea what this guy had done to get her this riled. But she wanted blood... and maybe even a brain.

To this day I’m still amazed by this entire incident. In the middle of the chaos that was Tet, these two people decided to start a private war. I guess if the world is in collapse around you, a skillet on the skull can seem like an appropriate response.