Other than the images, the casualty counts and enemy KIA (killed in action) counts streamed over network television nightly, I didn’t know much about the Vietnam War until my brother Joey came home from the war. (Tripwire Joe to the Delta Rats 101st Screaming Eagles – How far ya going? All the Way! RIP Brother.) I try to use his words when telling his part of the story.
His army brothers gave him the name Tripwire Joe. No, he didn’t trip over them. He had an uncanny sense and ability to spot them on the trail or figure out where on the trail ahead was a likely spot for their placement. His brothers loved him because of this but platoon commanders soon figured out his best placement was at the head of the herd. His thick Army issued horned rim glasses only enhanced his spotting reputation. He came home with two Purple Hearts, neither given because of a Tripwire. He said he’s pretty sure he shot the SOB that threw the grenade that got him some shrapnel souvenirs in the back of his legs. Even then, it wasn’t a “million dollar wound,” good for a one-way ticket back to the states. He got patched up and a bit of R&R back in the world, but then, back to the war. He did come out alive. At least a part of him did.
He had trouble adjusting, shall we say, when he walked back into life in the world, which for him meant the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation and the border towns. A few of the habits that made life in the Vietnam War tolerable trailed him home. The one habit was just a generational part of life on the rez, but exacerbated by more intense imbibing over there and the toking that went along with it. Unfortunately, the one that allowed him to avoid sleep and the nightmares that came with it, is probably the one that destroyed the organs and eventually took his life way to early.
Along the way, after he was back in the world, he eventually got to the point where he knew that there was something better in life for him than constant sickness. He sobered up and got clean with the help of some traditional people and counselors as well as a wife that stood by him through a lot of shit. He married and fathered and raised some beautiful kids and lived humbly in the middle of one of the roughest, drinkingest towns in Montana. He used to joke that Butte was the asshole of the earth and it needed an enema. Eventually, he became a CDC Certified Counselor and worked at the state hospital with addiction patients. The sweat lodge at the center and the one behind his home became a healing point for many. His Butte neighbors just got used to his firing up the rocks and seeing cars in the driveway without some loud party going on, as would have been standard for the area. They probably came to like the sound of the water drum he and buds would tie from time to time and singing they heard from the little lodge in his backyard. I like to think that many may have gotten a start behind that little white house along the road to sobriety. The older men who would come from the rez to his sweat, with names like Aaron, Joe, Baptiste and Ozzy, would stay for supper and visit and exchange stories for hours. Sometimes they would be there for breakfast too. Joe’s Indian education never stopped.
Joe wouldn’t talk much about the Vietnam War when he was sober, but if he got a little stroked up he might, usually out of the blue, start telling about something he did or saw. He said a lot of his nightmares were not about getting shot or blown up, but rather about the snakes and spiders and other crawly things that happened. For a time, he slept with that .45 Pistol so we were always instantly alert when he’d start thrashing and we’d be hollering “Joe, your home, your home in your own bed” and then he’d say, “aw shit, I’m sorry you guys-nightmare” and go back to sleep or get up to smoke. He talked about getting separated from the platoon during a fire fight and crawling and hiding for a couple days in the bush by himself. I never knew if that one was a nightmare or did happen.
The only time I remember him talking about the Vietnam War much was when he and I went hunting. I had bought an AR-15 with 30 and 70 round clips and 500 rounds of surplus reloads. It had a post scope that was pretty accurate at a couple hundred yards. I invited him to fire off a few rounds, which he did in pretty rapid succession, making a rock roll with each hit. He handed it back to me and said “Jeezus-flashbacks.” He talked about how they had shot up a farmer’s cart just to be assholes and burned what was probably half of his rice crop. He said villagers would sometimes ask “why are you doing this, you are like us.” His dark skin, hair, dark eyes and slim build giving away his indigenous origins. He said that, yeah, he questioned it in his mind, but survival was the primordial instinct that governed every day.
There was one thing I always regretted not doing with my brother Joe and that was taking him on a trip to D.C. to see the wall. In 1992 I had, quite accidentally, attended the 10th Anniversary of the Vietnam War Memorial, as I was in D.C. on some other matters. It was a rainy day and I had come out of a meeting at the Interior Department and could hear drumming and singing in the distance. It was coming from the Mall area. I had noticed that there were vets walking towards the Mall, some in wheelchairs, some accompanied by women and kids. As soon as we cleared the buildings that obstructed the view of the open areas of the Mall, I saw teepees with men standing around it, many with red berets or green bush hats with Eagle plumes or feathers. It was surreal to see these Indian men and women, some with shawls, standing with an Eagle Staff in front of them.
As I made my way toward the crowd which numbered in the tens of thousands, I found out later, I found myself on the edge of the walkway that leads down into the part of the wall that has the names of those killed in action etched into stone. It looked impossible to get through the crowd. I started inching my way in, thankful for the raincoat I’d thrown on at the hotel (I thought I probably looked like a Fed, except for the pony tail.) as it was raining in a steady mist, not hard, but enough to make it wet and slippery on the grass. I found myself at the memorial of the three soldiers in field gear, with one that has his rifle swung across his shoulders behind his head. One of them looked like an Indian. I stood there looking at that statue for a few minutes and then put some tobacco down at the base (I smoked at the time.) and said a prayer for the vets who were there alive that day, thinking of my brother Joe pretty much the whole time.
As I turned back to the crowd, I heard the drums again and saw the Eagle Staff rise into the air on the far side of the wall and then it moved as if magically on its own over the heads of the crowd starting down into the apex of the wall. I could see that it was held aloft by one of the vets in the red beret and he had an escort of several other red berets as they danced down to along the wall. I made my way down the opposite side until I stood behind a group of war mothers in their shawls, my hair standing up as they did their lulu salute to the veterans coming down the walkway. When the processional escorting the Eagle Staff got to the apex of the wall, the Eagle Staff was planted into the ground and a smudge of sweetgrass, cedar and sage was made and lit. As the vets smudged themselves, many non-Indian vets were invited to come and smudge themselves which many did. Some began to see buddies that they had not seen since the war and they embraced, many with tears. There was not many a dry eye in that circle as the tears mixed with the rain slid down the faces, including mine. I wished upon heaven that my brother Joey could have been there to witness this. I’m sure he would have found some Delta Rats in that crowd. The war mothers also were meeting and hugging the non-Indian vets that came forward. The entire area took on an aura of sacredness that I’m sure many, if not all, could feel. That ground and the names on that memorial were consecrated that day with the presence of those men and women who had been to the jungles, highlands, rivers, deltas, tunnels and villages of Vietnam and many had left their blood and limbs, as well as their mental and physical health behind in service to America. Such is the sacrifice of real patriots. Hie! Hie!
Harold Monteau, is a Chippewa Cree Attorney and Consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.