The Frying Pan
By Nick Brokhausen Former SOG operator
When the grass whispers, the lion stalks the land…
The serenity of the South China Sea, splashed with the hues of the sunset, provides the backdrop to my musings. I am sitting on one of the bunkers on the sea side of our base in Da Nang with a bucket of beers, occasionally lowering their body temperature with a CO2 fire extinguisher before popping one open. I wanted some privacy to sort out the demons in my head.
We have been at this for nearly a year and my thoughts are not on home or even surviving, but rather on my family here. The members of this cabal of the deranged, this pool of the homicidally talented have become my brothers and, at this point, my kin.
We have just returned from a much-deserved in-country “R&R.” During our absence, the bombing campaign has intensified up north. Due to the Cookie’s indiscretions we are in double jeopardy.
A soft rain starts to fall and the air takes on that electrical excitement ahead of a storm coming from inland, across the marshes south of Da Nang. It is pensive and yet charged, fitting my mood as I recall the past and steel myself to get back into harness. The past is just that. I try to put it all in perspective and prepare for the new beginning.
The two Yards manning the machine gun on top of the bunker begin to laugh and chatter away in Bru about the camp dog, Ugmo. Ugmo is a cross between several breeds, including some Chinese breed that looks like a wrinkle factory, and possibly another species or two. He is built like a midget mastiff and has an overactive libido. If it isn’t mechanical, Ugmo tries to reproduce with it. I look over and see that he has chased down one of the camp ducks and has it pinned; he’s trying to mate with it, while the duck keeps pecking at his equipment in self-defense. The Yards find it tremendously amusing and are calling out encouragement to the duck. I find it somehow philosophically relevant. We are the duck, and circumstance is a big ugly dog with its own agenda.
After a tumultuous R&R, we are back at Marble Mountain, our “home” in Vietnam. It is also the home to 15–20 partial or whole Recon teams and everybody is acting like they know some dark secret that is yet to be revealed to me, a poor mortal. This would be the secret of what exactly was the social atrocity which the Cookie had committed while on R&R in Saigon. Now we wait.
My teammates are Mac (with nearly eighteen months running Recon), and our “new” guy, Cook (who had been with the team for nearly five months), a package of pent up militarism that will someday do him well—that is until this last sojourn in Saigon, where he had committed some horrible infraction that leaves us marked as social lepers. The team is under a dark cloud since those misdeeds appear to be worthy of excommunication and castration, just for a start. In the wisdom of the military, we all will pay for our collective sins against good order.
We had earned this trip as we were due for one. Each year, we are authorized one in-country and one out-of-country R&R or as we called it “I & I,” Intoxication and Intercourse. You would be lucky to get one R&R a year unless you were a Remington Raider in Saigon. Although in-country R&Rs were normally three days, we had wrangled an extra three days because of injuries sustained in a ruckus along the main hardball coming back to the camp from Da Nang the week before. Some deserters and other trash in a three-quarter-ton had pulled up behind us, tried to pass, and when there wasn’t room they pulled back and fired an M 79 grenade at our jeep. There never was a true escape from the war.
Cook sustained broken ribs from where the shell hit the back of the seat he was sitting in. Luckily, it had not armed itself. Mac sustained a sprained wrist and back. I escaped injury, but since the team was not able to run missions until we were healed up, I went along because I didn’t want to straphang with another team while we could be tearing up the rug in Saigon. I should have stayed back.
We’d had almost a week away from running Recon and Bright Light missions. Mac stayed with Cook in Saigon the first part of the R&R but I had elected to go to Vung Tau the old seaside French resort. I enjoyed a blissful four days of beach, alcohol, good food, and new acquaintances, before Mac showed up to tell me that we needed to get back to Da Nang and we would pick up the Cookie en route.
On the last day in Vung Tau, relaxing at a café, I witnessed a bombing. After the dust dissipated, I had lost one of my new friends and another was now without her legs. I was ready to go back up north where you knew where the threat would come from and were prepared for the carnage.
As planned, Mac and I retrieved Cookie on our way back from Vung Tau. Cookie had hung around in Saigon with Rocky the Ranger. Rocky is another Special Forces type, who is assigned to an A camp somewhere in the outback. A former Mobile Guerilla or Mike Force alumnus, he is unsafe to be around, especially anywhere that involves explosives or a proliferation of folks that go by the book.
When we get back to House Ten, which is the Saigon nerve center and safe house for projects, both Cook and Rocky are already considered unhealthy to be around. They had caused enough trouble in Saigon that there was a regular dragnet in force trying to locate them for questioning and recriminations, followed by swift incarceration. The MPs in Saigon staked out House Ten and have already made two sweeps in an attempt to ferret them from their hidey hole. Both times their luck
held and they were able to escape the long arm of the law. The staff at House Ten now wants nothing to do with them, and, though hiding them from scrutiny, are tiring of the subterfuge.
Rocky has now fled to wherever he is hiding out, no doubt with pleasant memories of the mayhem he caused. I am sure that he is safe, comfortably tucked into some remote outpost of the exiled. He and the rest of his A team are probably so far out in the boonies, they are grateful to be surrounded by the NVA just for the company.
We no sooner are reunited with the Cookie than we are quickly bundled out the door of House Ten, bag and baggage. We are taken to the airfield, with the admonishment to wait six months before coming back.
On the bird back to Da Nang, Mac and I listen to Cook’s tastefully edited version of the sordid events. Even the air crew is studiously avoiding us. Evidently they too have heard some hideous aspect that Cook is leaving out of our briefing, or they only know we have become persona non grata. I am starting to feel socially syphilitic. Apparently, Rocky had slipped the bonds of common sense, so much so that even Cook was thinking of ditching him in Saigon. The warm glow of finding
another Ranger buddy to hang out with has dissipated.
Cook and Rocky are both permanently barred from Mama Bics, our unofficial Rest and Recuperation headquarters downtown. That, in itself, is a record. I don’t think anyone has ever done that before.
The trip to Da Nang takes about ninety minutes and the sound inside the bird, limits the talking. I enjoy the time to think. As a group, Special Forces could exist as the mobile insane asylum for the army. It is chock full of type-A personalities with anger issues, ex-wives, and a predilection for violence. There also is a certain class of us that have been here for too long. These men have figured out how to manipulate the manpower shortages and the reluctance of the mentally balanced to
jump into projects that involve signing a suicide pact as a procedure for acceptance. They move from project to project with no break other than a thirty-day extension leave, and then strap on their gonads for another tour. If you show up at some A camp, or the Mike Force or some other acronym, they are always glad to have fresh meat. By the time you have been reported as AWOL from the shipping depot, you are too valuable and essential to the mission to be released. Saigon will forgive almost any sin as long as you are willing to do the work.
There are examples of the envelope if one wants to push it. Jerry “Mad Dog” Schreiber was a prime example. He was individually quirky, introverted, and deadly efficient in the bush. He was also burned out. He knew that his number was getting smaller and his chances of survival were almost nil. He wanted to quit, but he didn’t. One day, he went out as a straphanger with one of the hatchet companies at Command and Control Central, and never came back. He was last seen advancing on the enemy and is now officially listed as missing in action. Now he is a myth, a legend that haunts this war. The “bush” had just swallowed him up.
I am trying not to be like that. Once you take this war personally, you sever the bond that held you to following orders dispassionately. There is something fascinating about that, something akin to the moth and the flame. You have assumed a role that ensures your own destruction, but it flits around the edges of your conscience until it becomes more real than the thought of returning to a society that most of us have abandoned as surreal.
I try to remember the faces and names of the seven people that arrived here with me. Only three of us are still running missions; the rest are either dead or so badly wounded that they were sent to the States. I can’t remember their names, and only brief snatches of their faces. I can’t think about quitting though: it seems dishonorable, not to the army or even Special Forces, but to my peers here in this theater of the macabre. These are my brothers, my kin.
My reverie is broken by our landing in Da Nang where we will drive to our base
at Marble Mountain. It is one of the “particularly demented” category who arrives
to pick us up at the airbase, in the form of the incredibly talented and emotionally
twisted, Captain Robb.
As we make our way over to air operations, we spy Captain Robb motioning for us to get in his vehicle. We load our stuff in the back of his beat-up Land Rover which looks like it barely survived WWII. No telling where he acquired it. There isn’t a non-dented surface on it and there are obvious bullet holes in the body as well. There is, however, the faint remnant of a USAID “hands across the sea” emblem on one door. It looks like a wreck but runs like a raped ape.
Dai Uy Robb may be wearing captain’s bars, but I am sure that outside of his twisted peers in Recon, the rest of the Army wants nothing to do with him. He has been over here for four years already. He got his start in the Phoenix program, which was designed to eradicate the cellular structure of the Viet Cong. This was, in the main, accomplished by selective assassination. One normally conjures up a mental picture of assassins as Italian gentlemen in sharkskin suits, whereas the good Captain looks like a New England schoolmaster, until you look into his eyes. He is also one of the few men I know that are perfectly comfortable with the thought that his, or your, existence is only momentary.
He doesn’t say much and keeps looking at us and chuckling to himself, as if he is in on some secret joke. Cook and I are sitting in the back seat, with Mac up front with Captain Marbles. Robb keeps peeking at us in the rearview mirror and continues the chuckling. He turns out of the gate at Gunfighter, the sprawling airbase in Da Nang and into the evening traffic. For sure, Cookie has committed some terrible act that he hasn’t told us about yet, since no one wants to discuss the details.
I am not all that worried about any recriminations, since I have an excuse: I had escaped to Vung Tau before the horror story started. All in all though, there is bound to be some sort of team counseling session. Mac was involved in part of it, but I can see that he is getting foggier about the details and is trying to distance himself from Cook. Robb listens to Mac and me laying the groundwork for Cook’s plunge into the prime suspect slot. He looks in the rearview mirror at me and half sneers his first comment since he picked us up.
“Did you guys kill someone?” The thought seems to amuse him and he breaks out laughing. Mac and I look at him with the faces of two choirboys, and answer almost in unison. “We didn’t,Dai Uy, but no telling what Cookmay have done,” making sure to emphasize his name. Robb just snickers into the wind.
“It won’t do you any good,” he cautions, “he is your man.” But then he sighs and adds, “At least you guys have each other.” Now there is an understatement. Robb has always been a loner. Even when he was running targets, he ran light, just him and four little people. When he was transferred to NKP, his little people quit to a man. They just walked out the gate after discharge. If they couldn’t run with our mad captain, then they wouldn’t run at all. Joss, or luck as some would name it, is a river that we all swim in. I can’t help it; I use his isolation as a means to get back on track.
“You don’t have anyone, Dai Uy, because you are basically unlovable.” He just snickers at that. He jerks the wheel and we careen past a minibus with frightened faces peering out the mud-splattered windows at us. Mac looks at him and me before quipping,
“Rumor has it, Dai Uy, that your little people quit because you had taken to giving your weapon a woman’s name.” We both laugh at that until Cook chimes in from the back seat.
“I give my grenades names sometimes.”
“What?!” we both say in unison. He stares back as if it was a common thing and that we do it also. I make a note to check his gear when we get back to see if he has chalked something on his grenades, like some sort of weird bomb art from WWII. Mac just looks at me and makes the universal screw loose motion with his finger next to his right ear.
Robb downshifts and slides around the corner to the outer bunker line and the gate manned by the Yards from Security Company. They rush out and remove the barrier, all the while grinning like baboons. The Yards like Robb; to them he is the ghost that walks. They treat him like he was one of their tribal elders. As we wait for the wire to be moved back, he wags a finger at us.
“Now that you guys are back, they have something special planned for the three of you. I hope that you are healed up because it doesn’t look like you’re going to get any convalescence time.” He cackles about that before careening the last hundred meters to the main gate and bunker line.
“In fact, there are conversations going on right now about the three of you and your immediate future.” He hisses through a wolf-like grin. “There was supposed to be a special reception for you that I imagine included leg irons and handcuffs; but Captain Manes and SMAJ Waugh were diverted to more pleasurable pursuits and since I was in the neighborhood, I decided to pick you up myself and save you and the army that embarrassment. Something more important has come up, I imagine. You know how the war is.” He adds a few more interesting observations about “new concepts” possibilities.
What could Command have in mind beyond raids, ambushes, prisoner snatches, and running for your life? I am musing that over when Robb adds that if we need a straphanger he would be available, as if he was an addition to the equipment list. That would be just what we need, an armed nuke to remind us of the severity of our sins. We pull up in front of Recon Company. He drops us off, puts the rover in gear and cackles as he drives away.
As we walk over to our hut, I am mulling over the possibility that we are now so socially stunted, that only Robb wants to hang out with us. I look at Mac as we put our stuff in the hut, and we both eyeball Cook. Even with my highly developed sense of the bizarre, I cannot fathom what he has done that could possibly attract this kind of attention. We finish up and needle him into going over to the club with us, but not before tossing his web gear to see if he has chalked names or slogans on
the side of his grenades. He has.
The club is relatively quiet, with only about fifteen guys there. It is our personal retreat from the reality of what we do. It has all the charm and ambience of a honky tonk, combination biker bar and the trappings of pool table and war art. In the back is a stand up bar and a kitchen where they do fries, burgers and mystery dishes. Behind the bar is a velvet painting of a very supine, very naked lady as a talisman against mortality. As we walk in everyone goes quiet, then everyone starts laughing.
Laurent pops into view, and he howls at us, “You guys have been baaaaad!” As if it were a revelation from the Catholic Church. I look at him: Yup, he’s drunk. He emphasizes, “Baaaaad,” like your little brother would, after you convince him to pee on an electric fence while standing barefoot on a metal pole barn. You can’t help but like Laurent, he looks like everyone’s idea of the typical kid brother. Behind him is his running mate Bernie. Bernie has obviously been feeding his charge alcohol again. Laurent gets drunk on a shot glass, so Bernie has him on an alcohol training program. As a result, he has thrown up on everything over the last few months.
He even threw up on Captain Manes one night. That was entertaining. Mac and I get oblique to him since his reputation for projectile vomiting is legendary. Bernie holds up a container of the French fries they make in back. Christ, they are so greasy you could oil a machine gun with them. He makes a motion indicating that Laurent has already consumed a fair amount of heave ammo.
Laurent lurches toward us and we deftly avoid him since at this stage his time reaction and depth perception are about that of a ground sloth. Cook hisses something about getting him to throw up on us but we are past before he gets the opportunity. As we make our way to the bar, I hear the wet splashing sound of regurgitation behind us. Lovely.
Cliff is working the bar. He had gotten all shot to pieces and had retired from running missions. He was one of the most experienced One-Zeros and won the coveted Browning Hi Power for one particular mission; now he is running the club and helping out until they find a slot for him. This is a special category of convalescence in place, as a concept, to preserve the talent. We sidle up to the bar and he looks at the three of us and asks Mac and me what we would like. He studiously ignores Cook.
“You two,” he intones, “need to drink heavily, since rumor is,” he punctuates the next comment with a finger stabbed in Cook’s direction, “that HE has committed something that will guarantee your being either chained to him on a Georgia road gang, or sent somewhere that alcohol is not on the menu for a number of years.” He gets our drinks and finally gives Cook one but refuses to take our money, saying merely, “It’s on the house; I want to tell my grandkids someday that I actually saw the three of you before you were dragged off to purgatory.”
We try again to pull the story out of Cook, but he is still sulking over our checking his web gear for autographed grenades. He wanders off after an hour or so. The rest of the chimps close in on us with the grace of a Gestapo interrogation, trying to pull details out of us. So, we are not the only ones in the dark; only the Command appears to know. We start to make things up, just to test the waters. No matter how outrageous, we get no believers; everyone assumes that we are covering for the Cookie.
We stumble back to the hooch a couple of hours later. Cook is curled up in his sack, with a look on his slumbering face as if he were an acolyte in the order of peace and tranquility. I want to pour lighter fluid on him and set him on fire in the hope that in the few minutes before cognizance kicks in we might get some details. Mac points out the pitfalls of that plan, and we both are soon wrapped in the warm embrace of slumber land.Whatever Cook did, it is probably the only thing still secret in the war.
Interview with author
Soldier of Fortune
1.What was your motivation for writing your books?
I was drifting after I left the Army, with no purpose really and I went to visit my former One Zero and brother in arms who lived in Alabama. We had been on the same recon team and later in the 10thSFGA. It was an idyllic time, filled with mischief and fishing and renewal. I started writing the book as a catharsis and as a way of preserving the most dynamic time in my life at that point. It was a way of giving tribute to that unwashed, profane, and special brotherhood that made up the bulk of projects. I actually never intended to publish, but sought to preserve the experience for someone decades in the future to “ discover” and to read what we did and who we were. Not the white washed coached version that would eventually make its way into Special Forces history and lore.
2. Were there other books about SOG at that time?
Not really, David Mauer had written an excellent fiction based on his experiences in CCN circa 1967-68 called The Dying Place. John Plaster was just beginning to craft his excellent books on SOG. An interesting note is that John tried to interview a number of people for his book, who refused to speak with him because we thought that the information was still classified. He did an excellent job despite this handicap. I never started out to write a Norman Mailer great American Novel, nor a Sergeant Rock and the Howling Commandos rendition of SOG. I tried to portray the events and characters as I perceived them at the time nothing more. Today there are a number of authors like Jim Latham who wrote of his experiences as a FAC supporting our efforts, and John Meyer with his SOG Chronicles, who mirror the essence of the dedication and sacrifice of those involved.
3. Who were the readers that you were trying to reach with your book?
To be truthful, I really didn’t have a group outside of the Special Forces community and Special Projects in mind. Those that would understand my sometimes cynical and macabre sense of humor, and could relate to the events and the intense emotions of the moment and era. I was surprised at the diversity of people that seem to find it of value beyond using it to level their TV cabinet or as a doorstop. To all of you in that group, my heartfelt thanks for your loyalty and bizarre selection of reading material in the throne room.
4. What exemplifies the type of people that conducted ground combat operations with MACVSOG?
We were Special Forces. SOG didn’t have a selection course that prepared you for the missions other than the training we received once we were on a team and the One Zero School in country that was run by former One Zeros and taught you the fine tricks of thinking outside the box. Most were prior combat service, all were volunteers. It is rumored that a prior felony was a good idea, but that was just rumor. My brothers, for they are that to this day, were dedicated, talented and smart. Bush smart and exhibited that special ability to think and act under extreme pressure. I never came across a recon man who was mediocre or less than superlative. Most stayed in Special Forces and excelled in making the regiment as diverse and deadly efficient as it is today. We were also the progenitors of combined arms operations, as well as the process of honing the skills so that you never lose the edge.
5. What did the experience teach you and how has it influenced your life?
Never give up, never stop fighting. Perseverance and focus are the anchor points in life.
Special Forces is not a job description, it is a way of life, a philosophy. It is stronger than the Bushido and tempers your whole life. We as a group have a love for this great Republic that borders on religious commitment. I will carry that and the love and respect I have for my peers both old and new, to my grave. You will run into people that want the beret and never realize the value of what it symbolizes, for that is in the heart and can only be won in the crucible.
6. Any advice for others that are thinking of writing?
I encourage all who want to relate their experience and history to do so, for it preserves the history and relays to the new generation the times and tribulations of what it means to be a combat veteran. It also illuminates the special qualities that we have as a nation, and nullifies the effeminate notion that masculinity is brutish, and without compassion or thought.
If you are thinking of making a fortune from your work, stick to fiction and you may get lucky. Either genre, is a difficult struggle. It is humbling when you have someone relate to your work. That is the greatest reward. If you are sensitive to criticism or sharpshooters from the audience, stick to writing manuals for Microsoft or Waste Management. A good friend put it into perspective when he observed that critics are the guys that come down after the battle and finish off the wounded.
7. What about PTSD?
Why? Want some? I wrote these books as a way of coping with my demons at the time. It helped. There are incidents and flashes from the past that haunt me but not in a negative way anymore. I still have the occasional nightmare but I am not as angry at the world anymore. Humor is the best medicine, so are friends that spent time in the same conditions. Help each other. Don’t depend on the VA or the government to help; their solution is to drug you up with a year’s supply of tranquilizers that eventually eat your liver. Alcohol helps numb the pain but it only delays the bad times.
8. Any future works or books?
My peers who were with me after Nam want me to do a book on the 10th Special Forces during the VOLAR years and the aftermath of the war. Those golden years when we bought our own ammunition so we could train, the attempts from the big army to do away with SF, the joy of raising a family on low pay, just the highlights. It would make a good read as most of the projects people ended up in the 10thand other projects. There is a danger of sealed indictments but who cares now? I’d love to be embedded with someone downrange so I could write about the new generation of Special Forces. I am still active in business that brushes against that occasionally. I am busy with that but I would jump at the chance, because the new generation is most admirable and when no one is looking just as devious and focused as we were. I am sure that somewhere out there is another smart ass, management nightmare, personage that can live up to the task.
9. Who do admire the most from your past?
Those who gave their last full measure, and Major General Eldon Bargewell former SSG in CCN and my lifelong friend and apologist. He was our Warrior Prince and lived up to it every day of his life. We miss him mucho.
10. Who do you admire today?
The accused, who decides to use me or any of my friends as a character witness in an article 32 hearing.