Russ McLaughlin’s first tour of duty in Vietnam started off easy enough. He joined the Marines at age 17 and was stationed on an aircraft carrier, out at sea and away from the action. But after two years, he started craving excitement and asked to be transferred to the 9th Expeditionary Brigade. “I wanted to go see what it was like,” he says.
They hit the shores of Vietnam in March of 1965 ready for a fight, but instead, they were welcomed by our South Vietnamese allies. “We were the first Marines there. We landed in Da Nang, stormed the beaches just like in World War II, and here’s the mayor of the city and these girls in Áo dài, (traditional Vietnamese dresses) and the band was playing.”
Reality hit two weeks later, when they were sent out on security patrol. They waded through fetid rice paddies fertilized with human waste, crept through jungles, and forded rivers. “I weighed 145 pounds and I carried a 60-pound pack, a 23-pound rifle, 100 rounds of ammunition, a 5-pound helmet, and a 30-pound flak vest.”
They were on constant lookout for the enemy, and for booby traps. There were trip wires across the trails, attached to grenades in C-ration cans. There were sharpened bamboo sticks, hidden point-up in holes in the ground. “They had some in trees, and they’d swing down and nail you. Some you’d just bump into them and they’d prick your skin and you’d get diseases,” Russ says. It didn’t take long for infection to set in, in the 115-degree heat. And nearly everyone got parasites. “You have to drink the water. You’re supposed to take the tablets but sometimes you don’t have them. Sometimes when you cross a river you just start drinking because you’re dying of thirst all the time.”
After Russ left the aircraft carrier, his best friend was still stationed there. He kept writing Russ, wanting to be transferred to his unit. Russ looks down. “I told him, no, you stay where you’re at. You don’t want to come over here, it’s not nice. Well, he got transferred. We got into a firefight, and I felt something hit me and I turned around and the only thing left of his head…” he stops and tries to compose himself “…was his lower jaw.” He gets up and walks away. When he comes back he apologizes. “PTSD,” he says.
On his second tour in Vietnam, he got hit by a mortar round as he was walking across the street. He didn’t even hear it coming. “I woke up in Japan,” he says, wounded so badly it took 13 surgeries and nine months in the hospital to rebuild him. He wanted to go back to war after he recovered, but his wife begged him to get out. “I might as well have stayed in. We got divorced a year later anyway. Because when I came back from Vietnam I was out of control. I was a wild child. Drank hard.”
He got a handle on the drinking, but the PTSD is a fiercer adversary. “99 percent of the time I maintain pretty good,” he says, matter-of-factly. “But I have tough nights. There’s been a lot of nights I sit there listening to music, I shut the TV off, glass of whiskey in one hand and a .40 cal in the other.”
“It’s just something that goes through you all the time,” he shrugs. He used to talk about it with another veteran who was a farmer. “We’d go drive around, look at his crops, go sit by the river and bullshit, drink some beer, talk Marine stuff. I asked him, when does this shit ever end? He says ‘How long do you think you’ll live?’”
I ask him if he could go back in time and change things, maybe not enlist, and he says “Nope. I’m an American. 100 percent.” He flies the Marine Corps and the American flag in his front yard every day, serves as a color guard at military funerals, and is an active member of the VFW. “I’d go back in now if I could.”