"Morale of the men is fairly good considering the situation we're in, but there is an underlying gloom," Greg Landon wrote home to his parents. There had been no attempt by the military to explain the war, he reported, and he felt "relatively ignorant" about jungle warfare even though there had been a Vietnam focus to his advanced infantry training at the notorious Tigerland compound at Fort Polk, Louisiana. What he thought he knew was discouraging. "Vietnam seems to be a real hell-hole," he lamented, reciting a litany of horrors: Viet Cong (from Viet Nam Cong San, meaning Communist Vietnamese), poisonous snakes and plants, mysterious diseases, leeches, chiggers, ticks, tigers, contaminated water. With all that, he was shipping off to a war that from his "lowly Pfc's viewpoint" could not be won short of a miracle because the Viet Cong could "easily blend into the populace while the large American" could not.
The one certainty Landon confronted was morbid. "Sad to think that a certain percentage of people here are sure to die in Vietnam," he wrote. In a P.S. he confided that he could sense even then who would die and who would survive and that he had to "extricate" himself from the doomed so that he would not die with them. Mike Troyer had similar thoughts. The favorite epigram of a gruff Tigerland drill sergeant stuck in his mind: It's not your duty to die for your country. It's your duty to make an enemy soldier die for his.
Most of the enlisted men in C Packet entered the military as draftees or volunteers for the draft. Few had attended college. Even fewer were from professional, comfortably middle-class homes like Landon, whose father, an Amherst graduate, was a lawyer for IBM, or Troyer, who had studied psychology at Urbana College and whose dad was a labor leader at the truck plant. They were working-class kids drawn from a handful of states scattered around the country: Landon, Peter Miller, David Halliday, and Frank McMeel among a group from New York and Massachusetts; Faustin Sena and Santiago Griego part of a cluster from New Mexico; Troyer, Bill McGath, Doug Cron, Terry Warner, and Tom Colburn, five of the large contingent from Ohio and Michigan; Michael Taylor from Alaska; Doug Tallent from North Carolina; and Jack Schroder in a group from Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Schroder was a quiet young man with reddish blond hair who had entered the army at nineteen after studying to be a dental technician at the Career Academy in Milwaukee. His aim was to own a lab and make false teeth. He had volunteered for the draft mostly out of a sense of duty and family tradition, partly from frustration. His girlfriend, Eleanor Heil, a nursing student, had become pregnant but at first did not feel ready for marriage. She feared that her father in the small northern Wisconsin town of Edgar would disown her if she tried to come home, so she chose to keep the pregnancy a secret until she could put the baby up for adoption. In early March, when her boy was born, Heil realized that she could not give him away. She felt instantly grown up and ready to marry Jack, who had gone off to the army a few months earlier and was finishing infantry training at Fort Bliss, Texas. Jack was elated by her change of heart. They got married on his first furlough and spent a few days together as a family before he reported to C Packet. When Eleanor learned that the packet was being shipped to Vietnam, she traveled to Fort Lewis to be with her new husband for his last few weeks stateside. They shared a mobile home in a trailer park near the fort with two other married couples. On her final day there, as she was saying good-bye, Jack blurted out that he would not come home a cripple.
Four days later, on the day after the Fourth of July, Private Schroder started keeping a daily journal. "Was woke up this morning at 0515, had Reveille at 0600 and chow following," the first entry began. "Had formation at 0800, the captain telling us that we had approximately 24 more hours till we leave Fort Lewis, Washington. He said to plan on leaving base at 0300 in the morning. There is a lot to do and a short time to do it in."
Copyright © 2003 by David Maraniss
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