Looking Back at Vietnam

By Nicola Smith

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 09-15-2017 10:00 PM

Two weeks after being hospitalized on an American base in Japan for a severe injury sustained in a firefight in South Vietnam, Mike Heaney wanted to make sure he would remember what had happened to him, and where, and how.

So he drew two maps: blue ink on white paper, neat lettering, roughly-drawn circles representing the surrounding jungle, straight lines representing the movements of the Americans, and dashes for the North Vietnamese.

The first map showed the overall topography of the area in Pleiku province in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam where the U.S. Army had established a landing zone, and South Vietnamese Special Forces had a camp; the second was a detailed inset of a 1,000-foot ridge where Heaney, a 2nd lieutenant, and the 25 men of 3rd platoon, B Company, were headed on the afternoon of May 16, 1966.

It was overcast, with a lowering sky and light rain. The jungle canopy was high and dense but the understory was relatively open. Heaney and the platoon were part of a long column of some 120 men from the 1st brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division strung along a narrow, muddy trail, patrolling for units of the North Vietnamese Army. They’d debated whether to take other, rougher trails to the top that would be less vulnerable to attack, but decided on the most straightforward route.

The men’s unofficial motto, Heaney said, was “We’re the meanest motherf-----s in the valley. But at the same time you know you’re really not.”

Looking ahead, the point man at the head of the American column saw a soldier in uniform where he wasn’t expecting to see a soldier in uniform. When the point man shot at the soldier, there was an immediate and overwhelming return of fire. Ten men from Heaney’s platoon, including the point man, were killed within the first two minutes of the ambush.

“It was a fluid and horrific situation,” Heaney said in an interview this week at his home in Hartland.

Heaney is one of the many American and Vietnamese soldiers and civilians interviewed in The Vietnam War, the 10-part, 18-hour documentary film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that premieres Sunday on PBS at 8 p.m.

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It is the first major PBS documentary about the war since the 1983 Stanley Karnow film Vietnam: A Television History, and it has the advantage of nearly 35 years of new scholarship, as well as 35 years in which to reflect on what happened to both the Vietnamese and the Americans. How do the Americans and the Vietnamese now think about the war, the people who prosecuted it, the people who fought in it and the millions of others affected by it?

For Heaney, the act of remembrance, in the film, in interviews and in talks locally, is a kind of civic duty. It is not a passive chronology of events but an active commemoration of the soldiers, both Vietnamese and Americans, who did not return. Remembrance is, for him, a lamentation, a threnody. Why do humans still persist in going to war, even when they know the consequences?

Heaney feels emotion sweep over him as he recalls what happened during the ambush.

“I’m wired,” he said at one point during the interview, as his leg jiggled and he checked a blood sugar monitor for diabetes that he wears on his left wrist. “I’m hypervigilant.”

When the Americans came under attack that afternoon, the commanding officer ordered the soldiers to retreat and form a defensive perimeter, where they remained until the next morning. Because of increasing cloud cover and rain during the afternoon, American helicopters were unable to provide support to the surrounded GIs. The North Vietnamese numbered around 300, Heaney said.

“We were there through the night,” Heaney said. “We thought we were all going to die.”

There were wounded, but all the medics had been killed, Heaney recalled, and they were running out of food and water. They expected a pre-dawn attack by the North Vietnamese, and didn’t know whether they could withstand it.

In the middle of the shooting and chaos, desperation on the faces of the men around him, fearful that his own death was imminent, Heaney made a bargain with God: You can take me instead of them.

“In my own little calculus, God heard me and said OK, I’m not going to kill any more men but I’m going to hurt you bad,” Heaney said.

About an hour before the end of the battle, Heaney’s right calf was struck by mortar fire, which also severed one of the main nerves to his foot. The pain was intolerable and he could see blood pulsing from the wound. The supplies of morphine and compresses were gone. Only by crawling on his stomach inside the perimeter was he able to find a soldier who hadn’t used his compress.

When the sun broke through on the morning of the 17th, American helicopters resumed strikes on the North Vietnamese, destroying their mortar positions. The North Vietnamese broke off the engagement, withdrawing into the jungle. Twenty Americans were dead, and perhaps 75 Vietnamese, Heaney said.

At the base in Asaka, doctors performed surgery on Heaney’s leg. He contracted gangrene and, despite heavy doses of antibiotics, doctors warned him they might have to amputate. Nurses regularly irrigated the wound and one in particular maintained such a high standard of care that he credits her with saving the leg.

In the hospital, Heaney labored on his maps, sketching the particulars in meticulous detail, as if he were a military historian reconstructing the battle that the Army would later call the opening skirmish of Operation Crazy Horse. (Why the Army chose to name the battle after the Sioux leader who was one of the prime forces in the defeat of Gen. George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn is another question, Heaney said.)

“I AM WOUNDED HERE,” Heaney would write on the inset map, drawing an arrow to a point near the outer line of the defensive perimeter. He was just 22.

Now 74, Heaney still bears the deep scars on his right calf, which looks as though a harrow had run over it.

After he left the Army’s medical care, he was given a combat retirement from the Army because it was clear he couldn’t go back into battle. He went through four surgeries in all. After rehab, exercise and the passage of time, he regained most of the movement and feeling in his leg. He is at pains to insist that, in the larger picture, he was more fortunate than many.

Over the years, Heaney has lived through the full range of emotions experienced by other combat veterans, of any war. He suffered from PTSD and alcoholism, which while not directly caused by the aftermath of combat, was exacerbated by it.

“You go through a real transition into combat and a real transition coming out,” he said.

He began and ended one marriage, and remarried. He has five children between the two marriages, and moved to Hartland 10 years ago with his wife, Lucia Jackson and their two young sons.

He has spent the last three decades volunteering with veterans, including leading an Outward Bound program for vets in Maine, and speaking to civilians about his experiences in the war.

The short version of his life is that he grew up in northern New Jersey and studied anthropology at Middlebury College, where he also joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. His father had been a fighter pilot in India during World War II, flying missions against the Japanese over Burma, and Heaney’s admiration for what his father had done played a role in his desire to join the ROTC.

Heaney enlisted in the Army and after standard training at Fort Benning, Ga., Army Ranger school in the Florida Panhandle and then Fort Dix, N.J., he went to Vietnam in December 1965.

“I was proud of my country, proud of the Army. I thought we were the best military in the world,” he said. “I thought I was a real STRAC (Strategic, Tactical and Ready for Action in Combat) soldier. I was full of myself.”

After his tour ended, Heaney went to Harvard Law School during the height of demonstrations against American involvement. Although he had by then turned against the prosecution of the war, Heaney kept his own counsel and did not march with other campus protesters.

“I didn’t want to break faith with my men. I felt a certain satisfaction in working hard and doing my best. I’m proud of other veterans and I thank them,” he said.

He practiced law in New Jersey into the 1980s before deciding he wanted to get a Ph.D. in American History, which he earned at Rutgers University. He later taught American history at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., with an emphasis on the war. He returned to Vietnam alone in 2008.

“I wanted to go there to say goodbye to my men, which I’d never been able to do,” he said.

Accompanied by a young female translator and six Vietnamese men, who had fought on the North Vietnamese side during the war, he went back up the ridge.

He prayed for the Americans and the Vietnamese who had died there and buried a First Cavalry patch in the ground. When he attempted to explain through his translator what he was doing, she stopped him. They know, she told him; they know, and they understand.

When he went back down the mountain, he “felt emptier in a good way, I’d emptied out a lot of crap.”

He learned over the intervening decades to make peace with his combat service, to deal with it in the best way he knew.

A part of that struggle has been a letter he writes nearly every year to the men from his platoon who died on the ridge: radio and telephone operator Terry Carpenter and squad leader Sgt. Sammy Barga, both from Ohio; squad leader Sgt. Picardo Mays and PFC Walter Felton, both from Pennsylvania; forward observer Jesse Wages and Randall Cadenhead, of the 1st Machine Gun Crew, both from Indiana; PFC Fredrick Mangat, from Oregon; John W. Teague, of the 1st Machine Gun Crew, from South Carolina; PFC Arlos Wilder, from California; and medic Rochester Mitchell, from Tennessee. He tells them what has happened to him and the country since the last time he wrote them, and he asks after their wellbeing.

“It is my way of not forgetting,” Heaney said.

Six years ago, Heaney saw an advertisement from Florentine Films, Ken Burns’ company, looking for people who had gone through the war. He went to New York City where he did an informal pre-interview with Lynn Novick in 2011, and then did an on-camera interview in 2013 for the documentary with Burns at Burns’ house in Walpole, N.H.

He saw a rough draft of the entire film about a year-and-a-half ago, which he calls a masterpiece.

“This is not just another extended documentary (about Vietnam). I think by far it’s the best one that’s ever been put together,” Heaney said.

“They’re trying to create a work of art, not just a documentary. It’s important right now because we haven’t learned, our leaders have not learned, what to ask of our military — and what it can do, and what it can’t do. We continue to make the same kinds of mistakes that we did in Vietnam. War is the highest stakes game there is. It kills our children and traumatizes them. That hasn’t been discussed. (The film) puts that all in front of American viewers and asks them to wake up.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.