NEVER PISS OFF THE FIRST SERGEANT
Before I discuss this little experience that I had in Vietnam I should begin by explaining a little about the chain of command and who does what. The company commander, usually a Captain by rank, is the guy in charge of the company. If you want to relate this to something in civilian life consider this person the husband and the head of the household. He is usually out and about and running the affairs of the company, like a husband might run a business. In the companies that I was in the affairs of the company involved combat, as this is the type of units that I served in. The captain had a lot of help out in the field and this involved several officers, usually First and Second Lieutenants, and they had groups of guys that they supervised. These were the enlisted men or grunts as they are called. The grunts were kind of like the captain’s children in that they had to follow orders and do as they were told. But, the captain took good care of them. Back in the company office was the First Sergeant who was kind-of-like the captain’s older wife. He ran all the business affairs and really made all of the non-combat decisions, like a wife might do if she could stay at home. The First Sergeant, while he was not technically in charge, sometimes told the captain what to do, as he was the captain’s eyes and ears in the rear. The rest of the crew in the rear were like kitchen helpers. We ran the company office, supply, and the mailroom and took orders directly from the First Sergeant. When the grunts (kids) were not out in the field we took care of all their needs, as we were also the nannies. It was always very important that you had to remember who you took orders from.
I was pretty healthy in Vietnam and, other than some relatively minor illnesses, managed to stay quite well. The one exception to my good health had to do with, of all things, the heat, rain and humidity that we always had to deal with. Most people, if I don’t explain a little more, don’t really know what I mean by rain and humidity. Suffice it to say that in the month of September 1969, during the monsoon period, we had over 60 inches of rain, which set some records, even then. The effects of this rain on my general health manifest itself in a couple of ways. I had an infection in one of my ears that was so sever that not only was my hearing affected but I had severe pain as well. The cause was a result of the constant wetness and humidity. The other medical problem that I encountered was what we simply called foot rot. Even though we were issued boots, which allowed our feet to breathe, we were also issued wool, cotton blend green socks. They were pretty warm. The constant wetness, heat and sweating exacerbated this condition. Also, we had no effective way to wash any of our clothes. We paid local Vietnamese women to wash our clothes and while they “looked” clean and the shirts were pressed and even starched, if we so desired, nothing was really clean. Maybe they were washed in the rice paddy next to the water buffalo? Maybe wearing dirty socks for some months had taken their toll?
When the itch and rot on my feet did not seem to abate, I decided that I would visit my Navy friend, the corpsman (in the army they were called medics). He looked at my feet and said, “Yup, you have foot rot.” He gave me some powder to sprinkle on my feet and gave me a package of 12 pair of brand new WHITE cotton athletic socks. I figured that I could wear one pair for a day or two, throw them away when they were soiled, then wear a new pair. In a couple of weeks I’d just go back to the corpsman and see if he could give me some more clean socks. I had one small concern with this plan. We were in a Battalion rear area at the time and I did not think that the First Sergeant would approve of me wearing white socks, as they were not Marine issue. Even in Vietnam, you were expected to dress like a Marine. While it probably would have been smart to talk to the First Sergeant about my medical problem, I decided I would just usurp his authority instead. I had the corpsman write me a chit (or official statement) on a piece of paper that said “for medical reasons” I was directed to wear white socks.
The very next day I walked by the front of our company office just as our First Sergeant was stepping out. He immediately saw my white socks and said, “What the hell are you wearing white socks for?”
I said, “The corpsman told me I could wear them and here is the proof!” I handed him the chit. He rolled his eyes as he read the chit and then he handed it back to me. I thought that I had won, as he didn’t say another word.
It was about a week later and we had a lot or work to do in the company office. We handled all the clerical work for the whole company and there were a myriad of things to do. We worked six days a week, long hours, and also had guard duty at night where we manned bunkers to protect the perimeter of the camp. This particular night I had guard duty and I reported about 20 minutes late, as I was finishing up on some of my clerical duties. I did not think that there was a problem as I was there and had only missed the little meeting that we usually had before starting our duties. I went to the bunker where I was on duty that night after reporting for guard duty. We had been late before and it was never a big deal if we had an explanation.
The next morning the First Sergeant took me into his office as soon as I reported for work. He said, “You were late for guard duty and you will receive an appropriate punishment for your dereliction of duties. I have already talked to the captain and you can accept the punishment that I have come up with or we can have a formal hearing (office hours) and it will go into your service record book.”
I said, “What is the punishment?”
He said, “Tomorrow you will be required to work the whole day on the LZ (landing zone – where the helicopters come and go) and you will have to do physical labor in the warehouse that is adjacent. You will have to do whatever the PFC tells you to do.”
This whole thing was really a surprise to me but I immediately caught the reason for this whole thing and said, “I certainly agree to accept my punishment.”
The next morning at 8:00AM I reported to the LZ. There, waiting for me, was the PFC that I had been assigned to assist. I think that he was just as surprised as I was that I was supposed to help him on this day. I outranked him by two grades and, since he knew that I was one of the office workers, he also knew that I was probably the one that typed up his recommendations for promotion as well as his orders to go home.
We spent about 20 minutes moving some boxes and supplies around in the warehouse. He said that there were no helicopters scheduled to come in or go out on this day. After we had worked for this brief period he said that we should take a break. He turned on the radio that he had in the warehouse and we sat in some really comfortable chairs that were in the back. He had a small refrigerator in the warehouse and he got us some cold cokes. We talked until about noon and then he said that we should go to the mess hall and have lunch. After lunch we headed back to the warehouse where we talked and listened to the radio.
It was about 3:00PM (1500 military time) when he said we would have to go outside to the perimeter of the camp. I was not sure what he had in mind but followed him. When we got to the edge of the camp I saw that there were two Vietnamese women approaching carrying a large bag. I was a little concerned but remained quiet. When they reached us, they opened the bag and took out a large watermelon. We gave them a dollar and returned to the warehouse. The rest of the afternoon we ate cold watermelon and continued listening to the music on the radio. It was the only time in a whole year that I ever saw a watermelon. Finally, at 5:00PM (1700) I returned to our company office just as the First Sergeant was about to leave.
The First Sergeant looked at me with a sly grin on his face and said, “Well, did you have fun today?”
I said, “No, it was really hard work.”
He said, “I guess you won’t be late for guard duty again.”
I said, “No, First Sergeant, I don’t ever want to be late again.”
By John Oscarson