I knew Vietnam would be my first tour when I joined the US Foreign Service fifty years ago this coming June at age 23. I served there for 18 months (April 1968 to October 1969) as part of Civilian Operations for Revolutionary Development Support. Known as CORDS, it was a US civilian military organization assisting South Vietnamese pacification programs.
I had an uneasy beginning; things both at home and in Vietnam seemed to be unravelling. The Tet offensive in early 1968 delayed my departure from Washington for two months. En route, I transited Honolulu where I saw LBJ on TV in the airport lounge announcing that he was not going to run for reelection. On arrival in Saigon, I learned that Martin Luther King had been assassinated and that rioting was rocking Washington D.C.
Moreover, no one met me at the Tan San Nhut airport, and a CORDS contractor I met on the plane offered a ride to the in-processing center. While I waited alone in his Jeep as he dropped his luggage at his apartment, two Vietnamese boys riding tandem on a motorcycle pulled up to the driver's window; the one in back aimed a pistol at me. I ducked, but he didn't fire.
A bit shaken by the events of the day, that evening I sought refuge in my hotel room and recalled the counterterrorism training I had had at Fort Belvoir, especially an exhibit of a pair of shears affixed to the bottom of a toilet seat aimed at castrating unsuspecting users. As I was inspecting every detail of my hotel room, including the toilet seat, there was a knock at the door. It turned out to be a lady of the night; I wasn't interested.
Stationed first at Four Corps headquarters in Can Tho in the Delta and then in Two Corps Headquarters in Nha Tran on the central coast, I worked in the Chieu Hoi Program that urged defections from the Viet Cong. I prepared reports and traveled in the provinces to troubleshoot problems. Not long after I arrived in Can Tho, I accompanied an Armed Propaganda Team consisting of a dozen VC defectors on a mission to "rally" their former cohorts in Vinh Long Province. After several hours of patrolling, we discovered an abandoned VC information booth; it was a setup, and the VC immediately pinned us down with AK-47 fire. We sought protection behind a dike where I lost a shoe in the rice patty mud. We had a choice: we could either stand our ground and await help, or we could retreat along the same path as we had come. We chose the latter. I tried to be totally...