Chapter 50—"We Gotta Get Out Of This Place"
My last semester started the third week in January.
The next weekend Julie, Billy, and I headed to Detroit for the Winter Soldier Investigation. It was the only time I broke my promise to Marty, the only time I couldn’t visit him on Sunday. Mom Olsen went in my place.
We checked into the Howard Johnson Hotel and I called Marty. We talked for a half hour and I gave the phone to Billy. I’m not sure what they talked about but by the time they were done, Billy was laughing so hard he could hardly talk.
Then we went to registration. As Billy waited at the table for his nametag, we heard a voice. “God damn. If it isn’t Billy Olsen. I thought you died.” We looked up and on the other side of the registration table was a big guy with dark hair down to his shoulders and a headband around his hair. He practically jumped over the table to get to Billy.
“If it isn’t Karge Christiansen. I was hoping you died. Semper Fi, man.” They locked hands, hugged, looked at each other. I could see the tears in both of their eyes.
“Really man. Once we put you on that helicopter, we didn’t hear about you again. I had no idea whether you were dead or alive. I can’t believe it. What happened to you?”
“The bullet destroyed my spine. I stayed in the hospital for a while. Then they shipped me home. I’ve been on a long journey back.” Billy looked over at Julie and took her hand. “Forgive my manners. This is Julie, my fiancée.”
“Shit, Billy Olsen’s getting married. I would never have expected it.” Karge held out his hand to Julie. “Karge Christiansen. Billy and I were in Nam together. Are you sure about this guy?” Karge patted Billy on the shoulder.
“Pleasure to meet you. I am absolutely sure.”
Karge held out his hand to me. “Karge Christiansen.”
“Becky is hopefully my future sister-in-law,” Billy said. “My brother is serving twenty-five months for refusing to be inducted.”
“Far out. I wish more guys did that.” Then he looked at me. “He’ll be out before you know it. And he’ll be alive.” Then Karge gave me a hug.
“Hey man, a few of us from the unit are getting together for a drink and to take a pleasant stroll down memory lane. If you got the time we can head over there now.”
Julie kissed Billy on the cheek. “See you later. Becky and I are heading over to the bar to pick up some cute guys.”
The event started the next day in a packed basement room with concrete posts and no windows, the local press lights shining on the participants. One hundred and nine veterans and sixteen civilians went to tell their stories. For three long, emotional, excruciating days.
One story after another after another after another one hundred and twenty-five times. Was anybody listening? How many times does the government turn its head pretending it doesn’t see? How many ears will it take to hear people cry? How many stories does it take until they listen?
“My testimony covers the maltreatment of prisoners, the suspects actually, and a convoy running down an old woman with no reasons at all.”
“My testimony concerns the leveling of villages for no valid reasons, throwing Viet Cong suspects from the aircraft after binding them and gagging them with copper wire.”
No reasons. No reasons at all.
“My testimony involves burning of villages with civilians in them, the cutting off of ears, cutting off of heads, torturing of prisoners, calling in of artillery on villages for game, corpsmen killing wounded prisoners.”
Billy, Julie, and I listened to testimony after testimony until I was numb with disbelief, grief, sadness. I looked over at Billy, holding Julie’s hand, seemingly unaware of the constant stream of tears running down his cheeks.
“My testimony will consist of eye witnessing and participating in the calling in of artillery on undefended villages, mutilation of bodies, killing of civilians, mistreatment of civilians.”
Courage to speak. No reasons at all. No reason.
“My testimony includes killing of non-combatants, destruction of Vietnamese property and livestock, use of chemical agents and the use of torture in interrogating prisoners.”
They call your number. You do what you’re told. Killing, mutilating, raping, pillaging. Is this what they call civilization? We did it to survive. We did it because all around us were the faces and sounds and the jungle and the heat and the noise and the 55-gallon drums of fuel and dead bodies in black body bags. We did it because we were ordered to do it. We did it because we had no orders.
No reasonable reasons. No reason at all.
The national media largely ignored the event. How many voices did it take? Obviously more than one hundred and twenty-five.
It was finally time for the Third Marine Division to give their testimony. Karge rolled Billy up to the head table and sat next to him. Billy worried all morning about what to wear and settled on a blue pin striped button up shirt, a Vietnam Veterans Against the War button, the red bandana tied around his head. The emcee announced his name, “William Olsen. Your testimony concerns the murder of innocent civilians.”
Billy cleared his throat and started speaking into the microphone. “William Olsen, Third Marine Division. My testimony concerns the murder of innocent civilians for no reason at all.” He stopped and looked around the room. He focused on Julie and then turned to Karge. “I don’t think I can do this.” Karge patted him on the back and whispered something in his ear.
Billy continued with a catch in his throat. “I am petrified to tell this story.” He looked out at the crowd. “Maybe if I do, someone will hear and this war will come to an end.”
Billy took a drink of water. “We were in a village, burning the houses of the people, watching them scatter, laughing as they tried to get away. A little boy, maybe eight years old, was running with his sister away from the village trying to make it to a grove of trees on the other side of the field. His sister reached the trees just as the boy fell, shot in the back.”
Billy Olsen, Third Marine Division, stopped, looked over at Karge who said something to him again. Billy turned back to the crowd, took another drink of water, looked at Julie and went on.
“I grabbed their mother as she ran towards her daughter and her dead son and threw her to the ground. I held a gun up to her head and then at the last minute, turned my rifle up and shot it in the air, leaving her there. I hadn’t gone five steps when I heard a shot and turned. The soldier behind me got her. Her daughter made it to the woods alone. The mother and boy got put on the Body Count board. I don’t know what happened to the girl. I don’t want to know.”
Tears ran down my face. Tears ran down Julie’s face. Billy wiped at his eyes, daring the tears to come. He looked at Julie and mouthed the words, “I’m sorry.” I grabbed Julie’s hand and she squeezed as though her life depended on it. “These weren’t people we killed. They were targets, Viet Cong. All of them. We played a game of who could kill the most. I became an animal. We all became animals. An entire generation of animals. Why didn’t I stop it? What were we doing over there in the first place? Why are we still there?”
When the Third Marine Division finished their testimony, Billy wheeled himself back to Julie. She sat in his lap and they cried. Marty would have been proud. Fuck pride.
By Becky Jamison
This past week the Vietnam Veterans Against the War sponsored the “Winter Soldier Investigation” in Detroit to expose the atrocities occurring every day in Vietnam. One hundred and nine Vietnam veterans and sixteen civilians told their stories.
Following the event Senators George McGovern and Mark Hatfield and Representative John Conyers called for an investigation, asking that the entire testimony be part of the Congressional record. Hatfield stated that if the testimonies were true, the United States would be in violation of the international laws of war and would suffer the moral consequences of their actions.
The war continues. Get involved.
Lt. William Calley was convicted on March 29 for his role in the murder of innocent civilians at My Lai and sentenced to life in prison. He only served three and a half years in house arrest before he became a free man.
U.S. Soldier Body Count: 55,860