Many soldiers operated in units that carried out patrols. Describing what they were like one patrol sergeant told Time: “I don’t know, man. You chopper in. It’s raining. People are shooting at you. You’re running, just trying to stay alive. It doesn’t matter.”
A patrol was usually lead by a “point man.” “For me,” Tim O’Brien wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “Vietnam was party love. With each step, each light-year of a second, a foot soldier is always almost dead, or so it feels and in such circumstances you can’t help but love. You love your mom and dad, the Vikings, hamburgers on the grill, your pulse, your future—everything that might be lost or never come to be. Intimacy with death carries with it a corresponding intimacy with life. Jokes are funnier, green is greener. You love the musty morning air…You love your friends in Alpha Company.”
On walking the point, Chuck Hagel said: “Well, a point man, as I think most people know, is the individual who was out front. And these are usually squad- sized patrols, sometimes a company-sized patrol, depending on the mission. And you have the front — physically the front position, but also the responsibility of essentially not walking your squad or your company into an ambush or a trap. So you had to be very, very focused on the peripheral vision and the antenna and just the sense and the instincts and something doesn’t look right or grenades hanging in trees, which booby traps were just a way of life. You dealt with that all the time. And just generally having an antenna that’s on 360 degrees all the time. And there were a lot of guys who just didn’t pay attention to it. They just — it’s just the way they were. And I, again, always felt better if I was up front than maybe some others. [Source: Mark Thompson, Time January 16, 2013]
The Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols unit was called “some of the baddest s.o.b.s in the war.” They were units of four- or six men who played a cat-and-mouse game with the enemy to try and figure out their positions. They operated in places everyone else was afraid to go. “If you saw them in a civilized setting, they were likely to be drunk and abusive.”
Describing a routine patrol near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam, Doug Dromey told the Washington Post, “our battalion was helo-lifted into the mountain jungle [searching] for 200 Viet Cong. As we left the choppers…50 cal. machine guns opened up along the .30s You’ve never imagined as much havoc…Four night and three days it rained and we were awake 90 percent of the time. No food for five meals, or water. No ponchos for protection…We walked through jungle so thick a machete didn’t hardly help. Our bodies took a worse beating than any man could endure…
“Few men were bullet casualties, but we had to walk back [through] 10 miles of waist deep water (sometimes chest deep). No choppers because of foul weather. We suffered better than 45 percent casualties in my platoon from ‘immersion foot.’ … Some were so bad their feet were a mass of blood. … “Have you ever seen a grown man cry? Probably not, well these men were crying while we were returning. It’s hard to explain the pain unless you’ve felt it yourself … but you learn to love a real man over here.