Tuesday, November 16, 2010

From the Pages - Naked in Da Nang

Searching for an elusive enemy, forward air controllers (FACs) in Vietnam flew low and slow, often offering themselves as bait to draw fire from NVA troops. In addition to the perils of enemy fire -- which ranged from lucky AK-47 shots to .51-caliber machine guns and SA-7 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles -- they also had to watch out for B-52 Arc-Light strikes and friendly artillery fire. FACs were regarded by many of their aviator brethren as insane, suicidal, or both.

In the following exclusive excerpt from Naked in Da Nang: A Forward Air Controller in Vietnam, Mike Jackson recalls his experiences as a FAC during the Vietnam War and what they meant to him as the war moved further into his past.

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CHAPTER ONE - The FACs of Life

I shifted my weight from cheek to cheek and tried to count the American flags jutting across the angled aisles of Veterans Hall in Columbus, Ohio. As the unofficial poster child for attention deficit disorder, I have little patience with pomp and ceremony; in fact, I have little patience for much of anything. It’s a character trait that served me well in the military and above the jungles of Southeast Asia. But in the more relaxed setting of the real world, I often find myself stepping to the rhythm of a snare drum while everyone else marches to a more dignified bass beat.

Okay, Jackson, unclench your jaw, relax your neck, and chill. This shindig is partly to honor you, after all. The least you could do is try not to look like someone’s giving you an enema.

I heaved an inaudible sigh and peered past the edge of the stage, where my family and friends sat listening for my name and military history. Their cameras were poised in preparation for the moment when I would leave my orange plastic chair and collect the plaque, medal, and handshake that formalized my induction into the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame.

I shifted again. Sitting still has never been one of my strong suits, and it is complicated by the enduring pain of getting bounced on my head during a rocket attack in 1972. But today’s discomfort was only partly physical; something larger gnawed at my psyche. I was not at all comfortable with the event unfolding around me. I like to think I’ve got a pretty firm grasp on who I am and where I fall in the grand scheme of things, and I was certainly honored to be sitting on this stage, proud to be considered one of Ohio’s exemplary veterans.

But my mental hobgoblins were relentless in their quest for emotional integrity. How the heck does a regular guy from Tipp City, Ohio, end up being honored alongside soldiers who survived the Bataan Death March and earned the Medal of Honor? As proud as I am of my tenure as a United States Air Force officer, and my subsequent volunteer work with veterans, I wasn’t certain that any aspect of my career quite compared to the sacrifices and contributions of the men who surrounded me.

Then again, it wasn’t like me to step shyly away from the spotlight.

Sit back and enjoy yourself. You were nominated and selected; apparently someone has a more enlightened view of your accomplishments than you do. And this isn’t exactly the time or place to debate the issue.  

Twenty-three years of military service had instilled a measure of discipline in my body, but my mind raced merrily along its own peculiar path. Impatience and energy were the hallmarks of my life. Certainly they had come in handy in my previous life as a forward air controller (FAC) in Vietnam. In fact, it was one of the few vocations I could think of where attention deficit disorder not only wasn’t a disadvantage, it was absolutely essential.  

FACing was not a job for the faint of heart or the slow of wit or, in my case, the sound of mind. Wrapped in a sluggish, marginally militarized civilian aircraft, FACs hugged the Earth, plodding along at ridiculously low levels to direct air strikes, observe troop movements, gather intelligence, and/or choreograph search-and-rescue missions. The FAC had to be a master of multi-tasking long before computers popularized the term. We were the traffic cops of Southeast Asia, telling everyone where to go, when to go, how to get there, and what to do once they were there. We were everybody’s eyes and ears, everybody’s link to one another.

We called the shots, literally, but even we had a higher power that scripted our movements. In any encounter with the enemy, our bible was a kaleidoscope of insanely complex Rules of Engagement, or ROEs. A contemporary version might be titled “The Idiot’s Guide to Combat.” It was apparent to everyone in-country that two different wars were being waged: the one we lived with twenty-four hours a day, and the one that somebody behind a desk in the capital had dreamed up after a few too many boilermakers at some Washington pub.

The ROEs were modified monthly, sometimes weekly. They reeked of political engineering, with little or no semblance of military strategy. But as FACs, we had to know them inside and out. We had no choice in the matter; we were tested on every nuance, on each fresh layer of political bullshit. If the sun is shining on the west side of a VC weapons cache at 17 minutes past noon on the third Buddhist holiday of the calendar year, no FAC may call in an air strike on that cache, unless it is covered by green burlap and lies within 20 meters of the DMZ.

If it wasn’t always quite that bad, it came too close too often.

The ROEs tied our hands at every turn while simultaneously placing us in charge of practically everything that happened in the air or on the ground. For all intents and purposes, FACs owned the world, or at least the spit of land that hugged Laos and Cambodia on the west and spilled into the South China Sea on the east. Ours was not, however, an enviable position, for with ownership came responsibility.

On any given mission, we could be scanning the terrain for troop movements, orchestrating a search-and-rescue mission, or coordinating interaction between troops-in-contact and vital air support. A-rated FACs were fighter trained, the luck of the draw (or lack thereof) having separated us from our high and fast brethren. Because we understood fighter pilot hows and whys, we were the only guys allowed to play with firepower around American troops. We’d been schooled in air-to-ground operations, jungle survival, and ground combat procedures. When we were knee-deep in a mission, our focus ricocheted between four radios, target coordinates, fighter activity, the location of friendlies on the ground, and—oh yeah—guarding our own young asses against enemy fire, not to mention bombs or napalm dropping from the very fighters we were directing. Once the dust settled and the fighters headed home, we got to hang around and play cleanup, evaluating the extent of the damage and the success of the strike. If there was fuel left in our tanks and time left on the clock, we’d head off to the next target and do it all over again, no matter how badly our bodies longed for a hot shower, a warm meal, or a stiff drink. 

For friendlies on the ground, a skilled FAC was a guardian angel with metal wings. A lousy FAC might as well have enlisted in the Army of North Vietnam; the end result was the same. We all knew the worst-case scenario. It was the stuff of nightmares, more potent, even, than those sweat-soaked dreams about our own body bags. These nightmares involved doing something stupid that got an American soldier, or a whole bunch of them, killed. We called such tragedies “short-round” incidents. The American public came to know these lethal screw-ups by the ridiculously inappropriate label “friendly fire.”

No FAC could afford to be too cautious, but neither could he take hotshot risks that would place ground troops and fighters in peril. We walked a tenuous and solitary tightrope over the jungles of Southeast Asia. Our jobs as FACs, as soldiers—as Americans—always seemed strangely at odds with the ROEs and the convoluted grand plan that somebody, somewhere thought would win the war. It was the most irritating of many inconsistencies that governed my daily life from 1971 to 1972.

Suddenly aware that the induction ceremony was proceeding in my “absence,” I shook off the impromptu trip down memory lane and attempted to refocus my attention on the parade of speakers. My thoughts never returned to Vietnam without uncorking a jumble of emotions and memories. I had found a lot of humor there, sometimes laughing at things that were genuinely funny, sometimes laughing because it was the only way to keep from crying. I had also found fear, stupidity, anger, and waste.

But I wasn’t one to squander mental energy revisiting the past. The thought of re-fighting the war in my head smacked of both self-indulgence and self-defeat. Plus, I figured it would be as much an exercise in futility now as it had been the first time around. On the rare occasions when I permitted myself to resurrect detailed memories of Southeast Asia, it always left me feeling perplexed, disheartened, and thoroughly disgusted. Even now, perched on a stage surrounded by people, my stomach twisted into a queasy knot and my jaw grew tight and rigid. Startled by my physical response to these thoughts, I took a breath and brought my muscles back to parade rest. Too much reflection.    

Someone at the podium was rattling brief biographies of each inductee into the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame class of 1997. We sounded like quite an impressive group—loyal, trustworthy, brave, and reverent. I smiled to myself. I hope I am any or all of those things when the situation warrants it. But none of those qualities paints an accurate or complete picture of me. I suspected the same was true of everyone else on that stage. We all sat straight and stone-faced in our stiff orange chairs. Model citizens. Model soldiers. “The best Ohio has to offer,” the speaker solemnly declared. I knew better. We weren’t the best, or the worst, or any other fancy adjectives. We were just a bunch of guys shifting uneasily under the weight of praise. Each of us had distinctly personal combat and military experiences. Each of us had endured, survived, and moved forward with a unique blend of strengths and weaknesses. And sometimes it was hard to distinguish a strength from a weakness. They trade places from time to time, depending on the circumstances. That’s what makes people interesting, and why every individual reacts differently to combat and other absurdities.

I knew that others on the stage had war stories and recollections vastly different from mine. Some of these guys had genuinely lived through hell on Earth. My 210 combat missions didn’t leave me horribly scarred, either mentally or physically. Admittedly, I don’t care to relive them, especially now that I have grown accustomed to the finer things in life—such as hot and cold running water, cars with leather seats and shock absorbers, sheeted beds with comfort-built mattresses, clothing that isn’t being consumed by some strange jungle rot, and functional television sets (or, for that matter, television programs; there were nights in Da Nang when a rerun of Gilligan’s Island in Burmese would have been a rare treat). 

All of these thoughts crowded my mind as the color guards’ heels clacked across the stage with crisp precision. The speaker traded places with the presenter, and the event shifted from a celebration of Ohio’s knack for breeding warriors to the gentle rhythm of your garden-variety awards ceremony.

As the first inductee was lauded, I pondered the irony that although combat itself could drag on forever, those same battlefield encounters could be summarized in a few brief words. Was it really that simple? Could an entire year of my life—a year unique in its extremes—be summed up in less than one sentence?

Once again my mind wandered backward. Despite my best efforts to remain in the here and now, the years fell away as I stood face-to-face with that awkward all-American kid who stepped off an airliner at Cam Ranh Bay into a world unlike anything he’d ever known. I winced as my youthful apprehension flooded back. There I was—naive, still sporting pimples and peach fuzz, looking like a troubled tourist in desperate need of a refund. I recalled my mute discomfort as I watched an elderly Vietnamese woman squat down in the airport terminal and pee right in front of  everyone. Culture shock didn’t even begin to describe it.  

Two weeks later that same green kid climbed into his twin-engine O-2, pushed up the throttles, and coolly initiated a takeoff roll that would place him directly over some of the most heavily defended turf in the history of warfare.

Cripes, Jackson, what kind of mental calisthenics did it take to turn a naive little altar boy into someone who could casually count the number of legs scattered on the ground below, divide by two, and call in a bomb damage assessment?

Every so often, almost as a passing thought, I wonder who I would have become had Vietnam not intervened. It’s not something I dwell on, because I try to avoid pondering impossible questions. Still, my world was never quite as simple after a year in Southeast Asia, and the same could be said for my psyche. I’m not sure all the changes were bad, nor do I know how many were natural byproducts of maturity (though many people would argue that I managed to grow up without ever quite making the leap into maturity). It could have been an intriguing (and lengthy) personal dissection, if it didn’t violate my prohibition against overanalyzing the past.

I renewed my focus on the ceremony—or tried to—but this time the past would not be denied. The induction process had flipped a switch. I gave up and handed the controls back to that awkward twenty-four-year-old lieutenant: cocky on the outside, clueless on the inside. I could smell the aviation fuel and feel the throttles in my hand as I shoved them forward and barreled down the runway and into a gray morning sky.

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