A tragic day in Vietnam and, years later, a metamorphosis

February 4th marks the 54th anniversary of one of the darkest days of my life–the horribly-gruesome killing of U.S. Army 1st Lt. Billy Joe Blacksten, 23, of Versailles, Missouri, who served with me in the First Infantry Division in Lai Khe (LieKAY), South Vietnam.  His death occurred early in the Tet Offensive during a nighttime rocket and mortar attack.       On the night of the assault I was in a bunker next to my “hooch” (barracks), along with about eight other GIs, around 100 yards from where Lt. Blacksten died.       

About 8 a.m. February 4th, 1968, Sgt. Wilson stepped into our bunker and stoically said, “Lt. Blacksten was killed last night.”  It was a horrible moment.  I fell into such a state of shock that the rest of the day I was emotionally numb, moving in slow motion.  Lt. Blacksten’s death should not have happened. Sgt. Wilson said the officer was sitting in a small bunker, but was facing its entrance when a mortar round exploded just outside the opening, blasting hot shrapnel into Lt. Blacksten’s head and upper body.   Spec 5 Dick Klaprood was the only other GI in the bunker when it happened. He was sitting where I had sat a day or two earlier with Lt. Blacksten during an afternoon attack, which was to the side of the entrance.  Later that day Dick told me he regretted shining a flashlight on Lt. Blacksten right after the explosion. I immediately told Dick, “Spare me the details”, which he did.  We talked about something else.   

Truth be told, when I was drafted in 1966, I was what you might call a “baby hawk” regarding the war. My rationale was that North Vietnam was trying to take over South Vietnam, South Vietnam was our ally so therefore we had a moral obligation to defend South Vietnam.  Even after Lt. Blacksten was killed I defended the war. In retrospect I think it was because subconsciously I did not want to admit that Lt. Blacksten’s life was wasted. It took me decades to accept the reality that his life and those of more than 58,000 young perfectly-healthy Americans were wasted—sent to Vietnam to kill communists and today Vietnam, a communist country, is our ally against China. What did the ultimate sacrifice suffered in Vietnam by members of the Army, Navy Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard accomplish? Absolutely nothing. Same goes today for lives that were wasted in the Middle East.     

I think Lt. Blacksten’s immensely-tragic and senseless death three days after his 23rd birthday during an unnecessary war galvanized my opposition to war, along with the realization that politicians cynically and shamelessly manipulate us with their fear-mongering rhetoric. President Lyndon B. Johnson intimated in a speech that if we didn’t defeat the communists in Vietnam we would be fighting them here. Did that happen? President George W. Bush lied to Congress when he said Iraq President Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” when in reality, Bush was the one with weapons of mass destruction.        

I have been an active member of Veterans for Peace for several years, wearing either my 1966 army field jacket or 1968 dress uniform and carrying a peace flag at events drawing large crowds. I promoted peace on the world stage when the Republican National Convention was held in Cleveland in July, 2016.       

I appreciate the thought when people say, “Thank you for serving our country,” but I sometimes reply, “I did not serve my country. I served deceitful, lying, fear-mongering, war-mongering politicians and their war-profiteering bed partners.” Those truly serving our country are the medics, nurses, doctors and mental health professionals who work very very hard to mend as best they can the psyches and bodies of those ravaged and savaged by war. They’re the real war heroes. Not those who kill and destroy. That’s not heroic. It’s barbaric.

Drafted in 1966, Louis H. Pumphrey was a reporter, then editor, for the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division newspaper in Vietnam from July, 1967 to July, 1968. He lives in Shaker Heights.

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