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MRFA Speech 2007

SPEECH GIVEN BY EMILY STRANGE 
DURING THE MOBILE RIVERINE FORCE / 9TH INFANTRY DIVISION REUNION
AT THE ADAM'S MARK IN INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA
AUGUST 31. 2007

Thinking about coming to this reunion, I began to ponder the differences between visiting the firebases and visiting the ships – the difference between visiting the Army and visiting the Navy.

The 6 Donut Dollies in Dong Tam flew out in pairs 5 days a week.  The time of our departure depended on the schedule of the men we were visiting.  Often, the Army guys were leaving on a mission early, so we flew out really early so we could spend a little time with them before they left. 

If we were visiting the ships, we got to sleep in.  The Navy guys wanted to finish their REAL eggs, bacon, fresh fruit, coffee and orange juice, swab the decks clean and get showered and shaved in preparation for our arrival.

The added sleep before going to the ships made us feel more rested, gave us a little longer to perfect our make-up and look our best when we arrived on the ships.  (It sure would have been nice to have REAL eggs once in awhile.)

When visiting the firebases, it seemed not to matter what time we arrived.  Somehow they knew exactly when we would land and planned an odiferous ceremony welcoming us to their bases.  It was called, “burning of the shit.”  No matter what firebase, no matter what time we landed, we were always welcomed by the huge clouds of black, smelly smoke emanating from the 55 gallon drums.  I quickly learned that eating breakfast was pointless – given the small amount of time it would actually remain in my stomach.

(I’ve wondered, but been afraid to ask, what the Navy did with their waste.  I probably don't want to know.)

That smell, that early in the morning, stayed in my nose the rest of the day and that was a good thing because (and I say this with great kindness) you Army guys showered less often than the Donut Dollies.  Especially when you returned from the field, the odor could have wiped out an NVA battalion.  I mean, at that point, you guys didn’t even need weapons.  Even the leeches had fled your bodies hours earlier.

But, again, this was a good thing because we knew that your own stench would make us smell like roses despite our profuse sweating which attracted all that dirt blown up by the chopper when we took off and landed.  Make-up really didn’t matter when we were visiting the firebases because the camouflage of dirt covered sweat combined with the sunburn of the Delta sun gave us the appearance of having glowing tans (at least from a distance). 

When flying to either place, combing our hair was optional since, the instant the rotor blades reached full torque, our hair looked like a vacation resort for rats.  No hairspray in the world could outlast the whirling, rushing wind of the rotors.  And no fair ride could give such a thrill.

We knew the night before where we would be going the next day.  If we were going to the ships, we laid out our cleanest uniform – knowing it would be just as clean when we returned.  When going to the firebases, the uniform stained with peter prime was fine.  It would be covered by dust or mud before many people saw us anyway.

As those of you who are familiar with my speech at the last reunion know, I preferred wearing culottes rather than a dress.  It was especially more lady like when climbing the ladders on the ships.  Additionally, there is really no way of getting on a helicopter in a lady like manner.  That first step exposes everything.  But to your credit, none of you guys ever complained.  If you got on the chopper first, you simply sat down, held out your hand and smiled.  You were such gentlemen.

Now to lunch.  I was absolutely astounded by my first lunch aboard ship.  It was like a cafeteria, a line of various foods.  I got a tray and started down the line.

“Steak or chicken for you today?”

My mind wandered.  I have a choice?????  Then I went with the sure thing.

“Chicken, please.” 

In Nam, I would always choose chicken over steak.  The truth is, I never saw a cow in Nam, so I was always suspicious that any steak served had to do with friendly fire and a water buffalo.

 “Would you like mashed or baked potatoes?”

And these were REAL potatoes!!!  Someone had actually PEELED these potatoes.  There was no telltale box of powdered flakes.  These were GENUINE. 

There were assorted vegetables, fresh fruit, choice of milk, soda or water.  Frankly, it occurred to me to become a stowaway – not get on the chopper to go back to Dong Tam.  You Navy guys had REALLY GREAT FOOD.  

 Lunch was somewhat different at the firebases.  Sometimes it was C-rations.  Sometimes a sandwich.  The choice of drinks was either red or green unsweetened kool-ade made from rice paddy water and flavored with an iodine tablet.

Occasionally they flew out hot chow in those metal containers.  When that happened, the Donut Dollies would serve the food because you guys seemed to think it tasted better if we put it on your tray and gave you a smile.  It was always a good feeling to serve a hot meal at the firebase.  It was a momentary one on one contact with you guys who came through the line.  We would smile, make casual conversation,  ……“how you doing?” …………..“where ya from? ……. “would you like some powdered potatoes?”  Always the smile, always scooping the food gently on your trays with a touch of love.

But these many years later, I would like to give you a behind the scenes look at what was really going on.  As I mentioned earlier, I rarely ate breakfast, so by the time we started serving lunch, I was growing weak with hunger.  As all of us experienced, when the sun was high in the Delta, the sweltering heat and humidity sucked the life right out of you.  Standing over those heated containers of ………… heaven only knows what …………... I was getting light headed.  So, as I am smiling, making small talk and gently putting food on your trays, inside I was praying to all that was holy,

“Please Lord, don’t let me pass out, fall head first into whatever is in this container and drown.  If it is my time, please make my death look, at least noble.  Please don’t let the headlines in the “Stars & Stripes” read:

"Donut Dollie Drowns in Container of Shit on a Shingle While Serving the Troops.

 

We went to Vietnam from all over the United States.  We were of different races with different backgrounds, different religions and we had different reasons for going to Vietnam.

We came home and went to different states, different circumstances and went our separate ways, making different lives for ourselves.

Yet, despite all those differences, the fact that we all served in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam gives us a bond that cannot be broken by the differences of our coming and going.  It is the being there that bonds us.  It is the reason we are all here tonight.

No matter where you were in the Delta, you could not escape the heat, the monsoon rains, the dust and mud, the incoming rounds.  We were all, at one time, the FNG. We learned quickly to distinguish incoming from outgoing.  We can still hear the sound of the rotors. And we all remember those who did not come home.

Words can never explain to someone who was not there what it was like to serve in Nam.  But here, these many years later, together at this reunion, our experiences are shared with an understanding that surpasses words.  We understand the reality of war and the bond it forges.

We have our own secrete language:  
Beaucoup  
Ti Ti 
Nuoc Mam  
MPC  
Number One  
Number 10  
dinky dao  
xin loi

 

I am honored to stand here tonight in a room full of heroes.

Every one of you here tonight is a hero.  No matter where you came from or what your job was in Nam, when America called, you answered.  You put your life on the line for your country.  In most of Vietnam, but especially in the Delta, there was no “rear,” no “safe places.”  In the Delta, everyone was a potential target.

I know that some of you believe that you are not heroes.  Maybe you can’t think of an incident which allowed you to earn the title of “hero.”  And yet, you may have saved lives without even knowing it.  Maybe one of the new guys watched you out in the field, followed your example and, because of you, did not do something that got him wounded or killed.  Maybe you said a few kind words that you don’t even remember that made a guy feel good about himself and gave him the courage to save someone’s life.  Maybe the mere presence of your boat prevented an attack.  

For many of you, the war did not end when your freedom bird touched down on American soil.  Sadly, you were not welcomed home as the heroes you are.  But, because of what you endured when you returned, you have made life better for those who followed you to war.  

It is because of what you endured when you returned from Vietnam, that the soldiers now returning from war are welcomed as heroes.  You taught America that, no matter the politics of the war, the troops are serving for the American people.  It is because of you that people stand in airports and shake the hands of men and women in uniform saying, “welcome home” and “thanks for your service to our country.”  It is a great legacy that you have left and I know the price you paid to leave that legacy to this generation.

It is because of how the families of those killed in Vietnam were treated that there is an outpouring of sympathy and caring for the families of those who are lost in the current wars.  Some of you have ridden your motorcycles to funerals to allow those families to feel the respect they deserve for their sacrifice.  

And it is because you still care about those families whose loved ones did not come home, that you are still helping to heal the wounds of war which occurred so long ago.  It is why you welcome the members of our Gold Star families as members of your Vietnam family.  We all understand what was lost in Vietnam and we all feel the bond that can never be broken.

 

A guy who found my website, James (Snake) Stone and I have exchanged several emails.  He was a member of Div111 of the MRF in Dong Tam.  He intended to come to this reunion for only 1 day because he had prior commitments.   

But last week I received another email from him.  It said:

I had planned to stop by on the 30th for the day but I'll have to continue my trip further north instead of stopping in to meet everyone for the 1st time in 37 years. I have been communicating with Albert. I have yet to meet him. So please forgive me if I feel a little un-easy. I don't know what to expect. I know all will be OK. We all have changed over the years.  

I began writing a reply to Jim’s email and found myself expressing things that are meant for all of you here tonight.  So I will share them with you.  

My Dear Brothers,

You are correct that we have all changed in the 30++ years since we were in Nam.  Our exteriors are not as buff or perky as they once were – darn gravity.  Those of us who still have hair are getting to the point that the color of our hair is all the same.  I prefer to think of it as really light blonde. 

But when we look at each other, we don’t see the physical ravages of time.  We see the kind heart, the generous spirit, the caring soul that is the essence of our being.  We see friends who have shared the time in our life that changed us forever and we see the love in their eyes. 

We are not as strong as we were back then.  I don’t think there is even one guy here who could now hump 5 kliks with a full pack in the Delta heat.  Yet, our strength of character has not diminished.  It has grown even stronger with the passing of years, strengthened by those difficult times when we felt we could no longer go on, could no longer stand the pain, the sadness, the hurt, the loss, the guilt.  And we have gained the gift of compassion.  

Our internal organs don’t function as well as they did back then.  Most of us know the true blessing of a flush toilet complete with paper.  But, though our hearts may not beat as steadily as they once did,  the depth of our love for each other has grown and blossomed and produced the fruit of friendship which we gladly share with each other.  There is nothing sweeter.  

Our minds may not be as sharp as they use to be, but we have gained the wisdom of years, the knowledge taught by life’s lessons.  We have learned to laugh at ourselves and don’t mind if others join in.  We tease each other mercilessly, as only those who share a great trust can.  Together we laugh until we cry and cry until we laugh.  We have learned that tears are not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of humanity.  

 Our memories may not be as sharp as they use to be, but we have each other and when we are together, the memories come flooding back and it is as if we have never been apart.  And it is a blessing to get together and make new memories.  

Best of all, the Brotherhood has grown stronger with each passing year.  It was forged so many years ago in a place far away called the Mekong Delta, where life and death hung in the balance and was measured in inches.  It was built on a solid foundation of trust, assembled brick by brick with the courage of those who have faced the horrors of war side by side.  Its’ steel girders have been tempered by the baptism of fire.  And through the years, its’ interior has become gloriously beautiful as the gentle, caring souls welcome each other into the camaraderie which has bonded forever our family of Vietnam Vets.   

So I say to you, do not feel uneasy about meeting your brothers and sisters of war.  You are a cherished member of our family and we’ve been waiting to welcome you home.  Please, come in.

 

All of you here tonight deserve to stand tall and feel proud of your service.  Many years ago in Nam, you were my heroes.  Standing here tonight, you still are. 

Welcome home and thank you for your service to our country. 

emily strange
© 8/07

 

 

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