Potawatomi Books, Gary E.  Mitchell]


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In the 1960s, the United States intervened militarily in a small Southeast Asian country, 10,000 miles from the Potawatomi reservation.

The country was called Vietnam. Few understood the politics of this decision, but many left home anyway to serve in this conflict. Joe Hale was 18 years old when he left the reservation "to be on his own," and joined the U.S. Marine Corps, in 1966, knowing he would end up in Vietnam.

He was to say, "Little did I know what was in store for me, traveling across the big waters into a complete different country, environment, people and to witness death in front of my eyes."

On August 8, 1966, his group boarded C-130 aircraft and flew to DaNang, South Vietnam. As they were in the air, there was a lot of laughter and talk among the soldiers, but as they made their descent everyone became quiet, realizing that some would live through this experience, while others would never see home again.

Hale's first impression of Vietnam as they left the plane at DaNang was the heat and humidity. He was assigned to Charlie Company, 1st BN, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division located in Chu Lai, south of DaNang, 50 miles away.

During this trip to join the unit, he enjoyed the beauty of the countryside, where all the mountains were green and people were waving at them. The Vietnamese all dressed in a similar manner, with large straw hats, pajama type clothes and sandals.

He thought "How could a war be going on here?"

After the men arrived and joined their company, they were issued combat gear, helmets, weapons, and ammunition. And they were informed on what to expect, and given rules and regulations.

Shortly after his arrival, Hale's unit was told to "saddle up" and they went out on patrol. On leaving the perimeter of the base camp, they were told to load their weapons and be ready for combat.

Hale experienced a feeling hard to explain --a combination of fear and wonder on how he would react in a firefight.

After forming up in a single file, several yards apart, the men marched forward and Hale no longer had to wonder because his first combat experience soon followed.

Suddenly gunfire erupted all around the unit and the Marines all hit the ground. Calls of "corpsman up" rang out. Corpsmen were medics - naval personnel - assigned to each unit. The Marines shared a deep respect for the corpsman. Sometimes a corpsman saved many lives, while other times he was too late.

Meanwhile, the unit moved up to form a line and return fire. The firefight lasted for a few minutes and then everything became quiet again. A helicopter was called in to take out the wounded and the rest of the unit continued on patrol to see if they could locate dead Vietcong. However, the Viet Cong would haul off their wounded and dead to keep the Americans from taking an accurate body count. After this first firefight, Hale thought that it would be a long 13 months.

Vietnam was a war fought without any front lines. An attack could occur at any time and the soldiers never knew who the Vietcong were. Hale said the people would talk to them when they met them, but would shoot at them when they got out of sight.

During the course of Hale's tour, he found himself looking at the Vietnamese people as similar to his own Indian people. He drew comparisons to the past when similar atrocities occurred to Indian people, and he could visualize the suffering they experienced. American soldiers would burn the Vietnamese villages down, American aircraft destroyed village after village and innocent men, women, and children died by the thousands.

The Vietnamese people did not have the luxury to choose sides and were in a dilemma. If they chose to support the United States, the Vietcong eventually killed them and if they chose to support the Viet Cong, the Americans took them prisoner. And in some operations "no prisoners will be taken" meant exactly that.

Toward the end of his tour, on February 1, 1967, Hale's unit had been marching for two days through mountains, streams, thick vegetation and stopped to take a break. During the break, rifle fire broke out from across a rice paddy. Orders were given to move out and to silence the rifle fire.

The squad moved out, with Hale in the middle of the column, into the open area of the rice paddy, fully exposed. Heavy enemy rifle fire came from the Viet Cong pinning them down for several minutes. The Marines were told to get up and seek cover.

In this move, Hale was hit in the upper left arm by the rifle fire and was stunned by the impact and knocked to the ground. He lay there, wounded, with rifle fire everywhere.

Things went blank for a moment until a corpsman came up to help him to cover. In those few scary moments, Hale was afraid to look at his arm because it felt like there was nothing there. Along with several other wounded soldiers he was immediately airlifted out of there.

Hale was sent back to the United States after this incident, recuperated and finished out his service time. He was discharged on June 6, 1969.

In time, he developed addictions to forget his war experiences, but has done his best to come to terms with the past. In retrospect, he did what the military told him to do and served his country with honor.

First published in the Topeka Capital Journal, Thursday, July 20, 1995
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