RandySmith: I went into a killing zone straight out of high school.
WE NEVER MADE IT HOME
"Being with fellow veterans is the closest thing to having a real family. I do not think that I would still be alive, if I did not have this place to go to."
US Marine Bob Pope had been back in the states for 20 years, when I met him at a veteran assistance center in Anaheim, California. Three times a week Bob Pope participated in so called 'rap sessions' along with fellow veteran Randy Smith.
With the assistance of a psychiatrist the two former marines were trying to come to terms with their part of the war in Viet Nam. After some discussion back and forth the veterans had agreed to let a reporter sit in on the therapy sessions.
"We don't like reporters a whole lot. It was because of you guys that people called us baby-killers, when we got back to the World (the U.S, ed. note). But we have been promised a fair deal, and our shrink says that it will do us good to let things out," Randy Smith said.
The week before he had been sent on indefinite leave from the Los Angeles Police Department after a nervous collapse on patrol.
"I was sent to pick-up some guy with my partner. When we got there, I just froze. It could have become very dangerous also for my partner. My bosses still haven't decided, if they throw my off the force or give me a desk job. In any case police work is over for me. And this is the only thing I have been good at," Randy Smith said in a broken voice, with tears running down a pale face.
Helicopter pilot Randy Smith: The worst moments were,
when the wounded got quiet.
Randy Smith served as helicopter pilot in the Marine Corps, often engaged in air support for Marines under fire and evacuating wounded and dead soldiers.
Kids in the killing zone
"This is one thing you will never leave behind. Guys screaming from pain and fear. Begging me to get them back to the rear (Base, ed. note), before it was too late. But something else was even worse than the screams - the worst was when the screaming stopped, when guys got quiet. Guys that did not make it. I tell you, it still hurts like hell after more than 20 years. I just can't get it behind me. Man, we were kids, just kids. I went to the killing zone straight out of high school," said Randy Smith.
Bob Pope: I am a long way
from coming home.
Bob Pope served 18 months in Vietnam with a marine battalion in the Central Highlands, where some of the worst fighting during the entire war took place.
"During the last part of my tour, things really started getting hairy. In the beginning we mostly worried about occasional sniper fire and booby traps, but from the middle of 1967 we began to encounter regular units of the NVA. (North Vietnamese army, ed. note). They had proper weapons, and they were well trained. It became quite scary, because they seemed to stop at nothing."
Our fire-base was equipped with the best you could get. Heavy artillery, lots of M60 machine guns. No matter how many we mowed down, they kept coming at us. Only Puff the Magic Dragon seemed to really scare them," said Bob Pope.
Puff the Magic Dragon was GI slang for the giant Marine Corps helicopter gun ships, which were equipped with long range flame throwers and Gattling guns, which could bullet spray an area the size of a football field in less than two minutes.
"My last piece of action was the battle of Hue in February 1968. After days of fighting from house to house we trapped Charlie (GI slang for the enemy, ed. note) in the old citadel. They were obviously determined to fight to the end. They did not let us take any prisoners, and I don't think we wanted to."
It took 20 days of continuous fighting for Bob Pope and fellow marines to flush out the guerrillas, and soon after he was discharged and sent back to the US.
The war came back
"When I got back to the World, I just wanted to put the whole thing behind me. I told no one I had been in Nam. I went to college, met a wonderful girl and got married. For several years everything was okay. Then the nightmares started. it all came back at night - the horror, my fear, my anger - it just would not go away."
"I had to tell my wife about it. I asked her never to take me by surprise. I had become very nervous and could no longer handle sudden movements or noise. One night she tried to shake me out of a nightmare. I was back in Hue with marines dying all around me. I went for her throat right there and almost strangled my wife to death, before I came around."
"It became worse and worse. It came to a point, where I yelled at my wife, if she walked to heavily. I went about like a cat myself. Any unexpected sound around my house at night would send me straight into combat. After a while my wife had enough of it and left me."
Fear of Agent Orange
After a year of intensive therapy, Bob Pope said he felt a lot better.
"But I am still a long way from coming home. I cannot really control myself. One day I am just about killing a guy, who picks the wrong lane on the freeway. The next day I am crying my eyes out over an obituary in the newspaper."
Bob Pope also worried a lot about his physical health.
"There is this thing about Agent Orange. We spent a lot of time in defoliated areas, where they had sprayed a lot. Sometimes we even washed up in bomb craters filled with contaminated rain water. No one told us about any health hazard, we thought it was just a weed killer. We worried a lot more about sniper fire."
"My doctor told me that my liver is in very poor shape. He asked me if I had been drinking heavily for many years. But I never touched liquor except for a beer now and then. A lot of other veterans have the same kind of problems - some of them a lot worse. You heard about Poul Reutershan? He was not the only one," said Bob Pope.
Poul Reutershan had been on national TV last year - a few days before he succumbed to a rare liver cancer. He blamed it on Agent Orange: "I died in Nam without knowing it."
Click Here to meet Vietnamese war hero Nguyen Thi Hoa, who fought against the US Marines in Hué.