"I had seen so many things and I wanted to forget them all. I thought I did a lot of bad things. It took me almost 40 years to realize that the fault did not lie with me, but the Army that had sent an 18-year-old to combat without fully preparing him for all the horrors of war. "
My name is Romie Bassetto and I was a Specialist IV in the US Army 9th Infantry Divison. I served in Vietnam from 1968-1969 when the war hit its peak. I still remember my first day in the ‘world’. I had been picked up from the Delta by this man in a jeep who said they had been looking for me for 2 weeks and I had 15 minutes to pack up before they sent me to Tan Son Nhat airport and from there to Oakland via Hawaii. In Hawaii, I stepped up to the airport bar and asked for a bottle of Jack Daniel so I could celebrate with my friends. The lady at the bar looked me up and down in my combat fatigues, realized where I had come from and still asked me for my I.D. I told my friends to bring the M-16 so I could show it to this lady who I was. Apparently, I was old enough to be trusted with an M16 to kill but not old enough to buy a drink.
I was drafted right out of Serra High School in San Mateo – I had received an invitation from the President of the United States to serve in the US Army which I could not turn down. I showed up at the base in Oakland surrounded by protestors who shoved peace pamphlets in my hands. Past the fence, there were these 50-gallon tanks where we were ordered to trash those peace pamphlets. Despite my telling the army I was claustrophobic, they sent me for tank training in an armored unit. I was a bit late in joining my unit in Vietnam, so I was assigned to a rifle unit in the Mekong delta instead. After spending lord knows how many millions of dollars in training me to be a tank specialist, I was instead assigned to a rifle company. That’s the army for you. But I couldn’t complain; on the contrary, I was happy.
My Commanding Officer was a man we called Colonel Dietrich who had served in World War 2, Korea, and now Vietnam. He was among the most honorable men I knew. Once driving down the road, I told him I could smell a dead Viet Cong. He thought I was kidding. But sure enough, we went by a convoy where the lead officer had a body of a dead VC strapped to the bonnet of the half-track and it was being slowly roasted. The Colonel was furious. He ordered me to stop the jeep in front of the half-track, ordered the Lieutenant, chewed him out and reported him in. He then took the body of the enemy, had it wrapped up in a sheet and out and sent it to the Graves Commission to be given a proper burial. That man was a soldier and somebody’s son and he deserved a proper burial, Colonel Dietrich told me.
Another time I was on lookout and around 3AM I thought I was seeing things – there in horizon I saw an elephant walking slowly by. I called it in, but no one would believe me. By then, the entire unit was awake. Soon the order came in to take the elephant down. We fired everything we had but nothing happened – my friend had one of these rockets which finally took the animal down. The next morning, we went to take a look and found the villagers had stripped the animal of all its meat. But strapped the body were two rocket launchers the VC’s were planning to use – the animal had walked all the way from the Ho Chi Minh trail from where it was used for transportation to the delta undetected!!!
Homecoming was a letdown. I arrived in Oakland and after processing was let out at 3 in the morning. When I stepped out of the side door into the world, these punks cruising by saw me in my dress uniform cursed me and threatened to beat me up. I told them I would go to the hospital, but I would take at least one of them with me, so they back off. I went home, took my uniform off, put it in my duffle bag and that was all there was to it. One moment I was in the delta in Vietnam and the next I was shivering in 70-degree heat in the Bay Area. There was no transition. I had seen so many things and I wanted to forget them all. I thought I did a lot of bad things. It took me almost 40 years to realize that the fault did not lie with me, but the Army that had sent an 18-year-old to combat without fully preparing him for all the horrors of war. My brother was simultaneously serving in the Peace Corps in Samoa while I was in the army – what irony! My advice to the veterans of today is to fight and protect your rights. We had been exposed to Agent Orange and Lord knows what other poisons the government was dropping on us claiming it was all safe. We were too trusting. I hope you and every other kid does not have to see combat.