The extraordinary daring and personal courage of Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY
in attacking a numerically superior force in the face of intense fire
were responsible for the highly successful mission.

His actions were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.


dem bones’s undaunted concern for the welfare of his comrades at the cost of his life
are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service
and reflect great credit on himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.


(Your Name Here)’s personal heroism, indomitable leadership, selfless devotion to duty, and bold fighting spirit
inspired his men to resist the repeated attacks by a fanatical enemy, reflected great credit upon himself,
and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the U.S. Naval Service.

He gallantly gave his life for his country.

You get tired of the medals and their getting. Like so much to do with the military, in the end it all comes down to one long sad soul-wrenching tragedy.

For the sins of my youth or another life, they gave me a dirty job: as a member of a putative Honor Guard, I was present at a large number of award ceremonies back in the last century. The recipients of the Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, Silver Stars, and Congressional Medals of Honor were all dead. In their stead shakily stood young wives, mostly. Mothers, occasionally. Next of kin. The circumstances were never celebratory.

The awkwardness and sadness and mundane inadequacy that pervaded the little rooms where these ceremonies were held really got to those of us who watched, standing tall and professional—”strack”—unable to wait, really, till it was over.

Towards the end I thought I was going to go insane, and it was at that point your parents and grandparents sent me off to Vietnam.

As if medals made it all worth doing.

I think it’s important to note that WE, the citizens of this wild republican experiment we call America, are ultimately responsible for the deaths or the life-altering wounds both physical and emotional of every soldier and civilian caught in that tragic web which, for lack of a more honest word, we call war. They (the Military, the Administration, the Congress), after all, do what we TELL them to do. They do what we ALLOW them to do. They only do what they WANT to do when they think nobody’s looking. Because death before dishonor (whatever that means) is a very big part of the public warrior mind set, but Cover Your Ass speaks a great deal better to the Truth of the military matter.

And so today we find ourselves imbued in a ridiculous skirmish-for-swing-votes over who did what when THEN when the Holy Truth of What’s Happening NOW is descending upon us like the drug-riddled hallucinations of a criminally insane circus clown.

I’m just curious to know if anybody besides the whole rest of the world (none of whom are registered voters), is watching. All my European friends are certain that George W. Bush is destined for the trash heap of history as the worst President who ever woke up and found himself with a hangover in the highest office of the land. Yet here, in this country, according to the papers and particularly Fox News, it seems like this poseur might actually get re-elected because We the People are afraid to change horses in mid stream. (This “war” ain’t gonna end soon, folks. We’ll have to prune the dead wood eventually, sure as God made little white lies.)

But that’s not what compels me to try to siphon a hundred and fifty billion dollars worth of watery shit into a ten-gallon (gas)tank here today.

I want to talk a little bit about the fact that, basically, nobody really gets away with much in the military when you come right down to it. The Army keeps RECORDS like you wouldn’t believe. You can’t take a dump in basic training, for example, without everybody knowing about it. There are no STALLS, no DOORS, in a basic training billet for precisely that reason. The commodes sit whitely shinily there, ranging almost into infinity, awaiting the sorry asses of every GI who ever answered nature’s call. The whole idea of soldiering is a consolidation of the old Three Musketeer ethos—all for one and one for all.

And sooner or later, everybody gets caught. All it takes is one really brave fucker to stand up and tell the truth. Rarely does this guy get a medal. He’s usually lucky to keep his job. If he happens to be a civilian, say, like Seymour Hersh (who broke the story of the My Lai massacre after a lowly enlisted man told the TRUTH), or Gloria Emerson, who was never seduced by the shiny stuff the army likes to flash in a pretty girl’s face, if it’s a lowly newsman or woman, well, he or she may find him or herself reviled by the average “patriotic” American, whose tedious mantra is always “support the troops.” (As if bringing them the hell back home isn’t always TOTAL support.)

But the troops, you see, aren’t children. Anymore. They get pretty goddamned good at taking care of themselves. And each other.

The revolt of the enlisted men in the Awards and Decorations Office, Adjutant General Section, 15th Administration Company of the 1st Air Cavalry Division’s base camp at Bien Hoa, Republic of South Vietnam began on the night of October 5, 1970.

The captain walked in on a little party the enlisted men were enjoying. He’d been ordered to prepare the paperwork necessary to give some general a Silver Star—real quick like—before the raggedy-assed lifer PCS’d to another assignment.

A Silver Star. The decoration right below the Congressional Medal of Honor. For doing nothing.

The captain was apparently a good guy. The men liked him. They appreciated the fact that the captain’s orders came from two majors above him who were aware that there were no realistic records for the general available. The men were to stay up all night, if necessary, they were told. Also, they were ordered to “make it for something done in the Cambodian operation.”

Specialist 4 Roy Trent, Jr. was so disgusted that he risked a charge of insubordination and left the office. The unsavory, not to mention illegal, detail was left to the two office pros, Specialist 4 George Tillinghast, who protested mildly to the captain to no avail, and Private James Olstad, drafted out of Dartmouth College in November of 1969, a man who had shown himself without peer in matters of giving credit where credit was due. “He’s a born artist,” said Spec 4 Trent. Olstad was “well-read, mocking, brilliant and totally unimpressed by the Army and what it required of him.”

It was a tall order: there was no act of heroism. Nothing to go on, nothing to work with or from. The brigadier general in question might just as well have been Mickey Mouse, so far as the two Awards and Decorations specialists were concerned.

Since both men had been “partying” when the order came down, and since they’d been in-country plenty long enough to embrace the general attitude of FTA (Fuck the Army, a common enough sobriquet back then in that dirty little war), it was no surprise that they rose to the occasion.

They borrowed heavily from the citation of another 1st Cav general who’d laid waste to the “Fishook” area of Cambodia in June of 1970. They worked in to beautiful effect those phrases they knew the Army loved, concepts sure to keep the general happily on the road to further promotions, things like “dynamic leadership,” and “courage and devotion to duty.” Axiomatic was the assurance that the general’s actions were “in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflected great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.”

They picked June 9th as the date of the general’s heroism, because that was the birthday of one of their buddies in the office, as well as the birthday of the buddy’s wife, a most excellent irony.

But Private Olstad was unable to restrain himself. The college poet he had been before Vietnam came to the fore. The general’s aircraft soared overhead, the firefight raged below. The general made “an immediate and flawlessly competent determination on the course of action to be followed.”

He called in artillery support, he took his command chopper lower, to a level that endangered his own life. “Ignoring this threat to his aircraft, and disregarding the personal danger to himself, he continued with his observations and adjustments, keeping the tactical situation calmly and totally in control.”

The general flew back to the nearest firebase to ferry extra ammo to the beleaguered troops. Directed casualties into his aircraft, flew them to the hospital. “Brigadier General (your name here)’s conspicuous gallantry and decisive leadership were the deciding factors in turning a desperate situation into a defeat of a determined enemy force.”

Private Olstad had typed a masterpiece. And basically, his first draft went all the way to the top. All concerned were ecstatic. The Chief of Staff, a colonel, was delighted he had given the assignment to the boys of the 15th.

“I reviewed it and quite honestly I was elated,” the officer said to New York Times correspondent Gloria Emerson some time later. “It read like a dream.”


The chief of staff, of course, had not checked the facts of the citation. He "assumed" there were legitimate records available. He knew the brigadier was such a modest man that there would be no need to embarrass him by going to his personal crew for details. “It sounded exactly like what I expected it to be—you know, what I heard discussed in the mess halls, that he was in the thick of everything.”

The general was awarded his Silver Star on October 15th in a small awards ceremony at Phuoc Vinh. He was remarkably modest, all things considered.

But it was Spec 4 Roy L. Trent, Jr., the enlisted man who’d stormed out of the office that night, who would not let this stand. At work he sat next to the man who typed letters of sympathy to the families of those who died in Vietnam. Sometimes, I suppose, proximity is all it takes. Trent demanded a letter be sent to Mendel L Rivers, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Private Olstad composed the letter, informing the congressman of "a grave infraction of military policy and an abominable insult to the integrity and intelligence of all lower-grade enlisted personnel.” He demanded an inquiry be initiated, for several reasons, including “the vile reflection one can perceive cast by these events on the entire American military structure."

It was Roy Trent’s letter, but five soldiers in the office, including Olstad, signed it, knowing full-well what the consequences might be. Somebody copied The New York Times.

And thus it fell to Gloria Emerson to investigate the matter, since it was Times policy that the accused be told of the charges and be given a chance to reply.

And things unraveled quickly, as they always do. The captain pointed to the majors. The majors implicated a lieutenant colonel who thought the enlisted men must have sent the letters because they were “disgusted at having to work late.”

Information officers at MACV headquarters were interviewed, and eventually the colonel, the chief of staff, was confronted. He was charming and controlled, which is often the military way, and Ms. Emerson reported that she “might have almost liked him if he had not said he thought the enlisted men were being “sanctimonious.”

The colonel summoned the general’s aide who said HE was IN the helicopter and it had all happened on June 9th. It was at this point that the colonel looked sad “as the lieutenant stuttered and moved his feet and half shut his eyes.” He tried to defend the general. Ms. Emerson mentions that she “did not take notes on the lieutenant’s moment of disgrace. I just looked down at my sneakers. I seem to remember that he was a southern Baptist and made some mention of going in the ministry.” She continues:

When the colonel realized at last that I was going to write the story, his final plea to me was based on everything he thought was decent and maternal in women. “If you print the story, think how it will affect the mothers of all our dead boys who won decorations.”

It was a mistake. I was thinking of all the dead, just as Trent and Olstad and the others had been thinking of them. For a long time I was afraid that the enlisted men would be punished and sent into the field despite being clerk-typists, for even cooks could be shifted around in Vietnam, whose every corner was considered a combat zone and every man expected to fire a rifle.

The Army worked itself into a frenzy over this, you can be sure. The situation was not unlike the Abu Ghraib scandal today, which of course is still unwinding. But Olstad and the others never worried about punishment. The truth is always ultimately irrefutable, and even the Army knows that.

Miss Emerson’s life post-incident became complicated. She was inundated with reports of more than fifty unearned citations for medals to generals in Vietnam. They were often stunning in their lack of originality, since few of them were written by men of Olstad’s talents. Always the generals were commended “for gallantry/outstanding courage and devotion to duty/valorous actions/disregard for personal safety/extraordinary heroism/in keeping with the highest traditions/” yadda yadda yadda.

But as the war spiraled downward, it was the draftees, the enlisted men, MY brothers in arms who came to represent an increasing percentage of the soldiers who risked the most, and whose deaths rose disproportionately.

In 1965, draftees represented only 16 percent of the total battle deaths in the war; a year later they constituted 21 percent. By 1967 they made up 34 percent. By 1969, 62 percent of all Army deaths due to combat or hostile causes were draftees. Draftees represented 70 percent of all combat soldiers for the fiscal year 1970.

In 1969, the casualty rate for Army draftees was 234 per 1000. I went from cap and gown in the Spring of ’69 to close order drill by Christmas. Chicago’s first album came out and The Rolling Stones were singing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

It was a lousy time to be an American.

Winners and Losers, Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses and Ruins from a Long War, Gloria Emerson, Random House, New York, 1976.

On Vietnam:


  1. I was a prisoner in a Mexican Whorehouse
  2. A long time gone
  3. How to brush your teeth in a combat zone
  4. Libber and I go to war
  5. Fate takes a piss
  6. Thanks For the Memory
  7. Back in the Shit
  8. LZ Waterloo
  9. Saturday Night, Numbah Ten


a long commute
Andy X Kirby True
a tale of two Woodstocks
Buy a Gun
Dawn at The Wall
Feat of Clay
Funeral Detail
I was a free man once, in Saigon
The Joint Chiefs of Staff
the shit we ate

Breaking Starch
Combat Infantryman Badge
David Dellinger
Dickey Chapelle
Firebase Mary Ann
Garry Owen
Gloria Emerson
Graves Registration
I Corps
Project 100,000
the 1st Cav
The Highest Traditions
Those Who Forget
Under the Southern Cross
Whither the Phoenix?

A Bright Shining Lie
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
We Were Soldiers

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