war in iraq


'Being Shot At Is No Fun'

Bombs, screaming men and the terror of uncertainty. A Vietnam vet remembers

January 26, 2003

By Wayne Downing

Right up front I want to assert that I am no hero, but I know some true American heroes who not only survived on the battlefield but led their men to extraordinary achievements against overwhelming odds. I was adequate at best but tried to do my duty, as so many other Americans have done before and after me.

Like many soldiers who have been in combat, I have spent a lifetime trying to suppress many of my memories and feelings about the traumatic events that I experienced on the battlefield. But as the old war story always starts off, "There I was ..."

"The battle is the payoff" is an old Army saying that asserts that all the blood, sweat and tears spent training and preparing is only useful if the soldier and the unit can perform under fire. Every soldier, no matter how well trained, has a deeply ingrained fear that he or she will fail when meeting the enemy for the first time. Because of our highly realistic training, this usually is not the case. Soldiers do, by and large, perform well under fire, greatly exceeding performances in previous wars.

But being shot at is no fun, and I never got used to it. My first reaction to enemy fire in Vietnam was anger: "That S.O.B. is trying to kill me!" And then absolute shock as I saw our first casualties drop. It was then that my training kicked in. I had been trained to make a quick estimate of the situation, respond immediately and lead my soldiers in the actions we had to take. Responsibility and action usually gave me no time to be afraid.

In every fire fight I experienced in Vietnam, I recollect that things were very noisy and confusing with the crack of weapons, grenade explosions and screaming men. A battlefield is also very dirty with dust, wood chips and debris everywhere. I incurred numerous cuts and scratches as I repeatedly hurled myself to the ground and crawled from place to place. My clothing and gear were often ripped and torn. The simplest physical tasks were difficult, and I felt like I was moving in slow motion; in fact, I was at hyperspeed. Only the most basic plans could be concocted, understood and executed by the soldiers in these conditions -- which underlines the importance of

immediate-action drills learned in training. A 10-minute fire fight was like running a marathon. After the adrenaline wore off, I was usually exhausted -- totally spent. But the day was not yet over. I had to put my rucksack back on and continue with the mission and continue to do this day after day.

Someone has described combat in Vietnam as days of absolute boredom interrupted by minutes of pure terror. I think that is accurate. I often patrolled for days with my soldiers and found nothing. But, on that ninth day or 10th day we would find the enemy or he would find us and all hell would break loose -- maybe for one fire fight or for a battle that lasted three days. You never knew, and this added to the stress. A battlefield is unpredictable. You are opposed by a thinking, trained soldier who seeks to kill you before you can kill him. I had to be always vigilant or suffer the consequences.

One of the first things I usually had to do as a leader as a battle began was make sure we were not fighting each other. This often occurred in the dense jungle, where visibility was measured in inches. I had a very close call on my second Vietnam tour when I found myself on the tail end of a North Vietnamese force that was engaged by two of my flanking rifle platoons who didn't know I was there.

I experienced a different kind of fear as a staff officer and a senior commander. This was the mental anguish, often heightened by those occasions when I was distant from the battle, that I was not doing enough to help the troops in contact with the enemy or that my miscalculations would heighten their danger. I remember Oct. 3, 1993, when Task Force Ranger was involved in the life-and-death struggle in Mogadishu. I happened to call my friend and subordinate commander, Bill Garrison, that morning from my headquarters in Tampa not knowing that they were in a life-and-death battle. When Bill came on the line he informed me that the second helicopter had just gone down and he was scrambling to develop options. Sitting 8,000 miles away with the Task Force chopped to another regional commander, there was little I could do but offer encouragement and support. It was a miserable situation.

Fear continues to haunt a combat soldier when he returns from battle. When I came home after my first tour in 1966, I experienced many classic depression and paranoia symptoms, but this was not something a "real" man talked about back then. The unwritten rule was, suck it up and drive on. Talking with my Army friends at Fort Benning about shared experiences helped, but we all drank too much and partied too hard; some incurred lifelong problems with alcohol and other forms of addiction. Toward the end of the Vietnam War, the military began to recognize the phenomenon and gave it a name: post-traumatic stress disorder. It took years before treatment became widespread and acceptable.

General Downing, a former assistant to the president for counterterrorism, is a Newsweek contributor.


war in iraq