LIFE THROUGH THE LENS – 07.04.2019: Staring Death In The Face

By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor


JimWelcome back, Bruthas and Sistas, to another installment of Life Through the Lens.  With this being 4th of July week, I wanted to take a side step from my regular wrestling focused column and share a pair of stories that come from two veterans.  The tales come from different generations and across fifty years, but the thread of patriotic service, and answering the call that so many choose to turn a deaf ear to, runs throughout.  I hope you enjoy them, and they move you as much as they did me.

On my last trip to New York City I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the son of Fabio-lous Sir Christopher Michaels while I was enjoying a Splendid visit at his house one sunny afternoon.  His son Michael, is a Vet with four tours of duty under his belt, three of which were spent in mountainous terrain of Afghanistan.  It was there that he came face to face with death, but the story starts four years earlier, as many military stories do, with a young man finding himself at a crossroads, where life changing decisions are made.

During a 2005 trip to visit his grandparents in South Carolina, Michael had talked to a military recruiter and put no thought into the conversation, as he was headed back to his Indiana home to begin work as a member of the management team at a prominent local retailer.  Upon his arrival home, he learned that the job he was expecting was no longer available, and he found himself questioning his future prospects when the phone rang.  To his surprise it was another recruiter, who had been contacted about the possible acquisition, and wanted to talk to Michael about his life path, which was not as certain as it had been to him two hours earlier.  He decided that there was no harm in talking about about what they had to offer him and told the recruiter where he lived and awaited the arrival.

On the drive back to the Ft. Payne office, he was told about all the thing that could happen during a time of war, and the real dangers that faced the men who enlisted.  Then, as the positives were being laid out before him the recruiter found the hook that would land this fish, and his reaction to Michaels response made me laugh

airborne rangers“I liked how real he was with me.  He didn’t try to bullshit me and told me straight how things were.  He was telling me about all the free school I could get, but that there were dangers to be aware of, and nothing was really was catching my interest.  Then he said I could be in Airborne and that was it for me.  I was like, wait a minute….they Army is going to pay me to jump out of planes.  Sign me up.  The recruiter shook his head and threw down his paperwork laughing.  He couldn’t believe THAT was the selling point for me.  So I joined up and went to ‘jump out of perfectly good airplanes with the rest of the crazy idiots‘, as he had put it.”

In a matter of weeks he found himself on a plane headed to Ft. Jackson in South Carolina for Basic Training.  His original plan to be an Airborne Ranger was side lined when he arrived at Airborne school to find that the summer session was full of military school cadets that got first pass option and were not refused if they chose Airborne.  Due to the over enrollment for that slot, Michael was forced to change his MOS, (Military Occupational Specialty), and was sent back to Ft. Jackson to be re-classed.  It was decided that he would be an All-Wheel Vehicle Mechanic, and he took on the task of learning that job during his AIT or Advanced Individual Training.  The sobering effects of his decision hit him as he walked out the door of his first class and read a sign on the wall that said, “As soon as you go to your first unit you could be gone.”  And that’s just what happened to the young Private.  He was able to get back and go through his Airborne schooling first, but within a month, he was headed to Afghanistan under 782 Delta, attached to the 473rd Cavalier Battalion for a fifteen month tour of duty.  With all the vehicles in action and the amount of IED’s that they were encountering, being Airborne with a can-do attitude, and having the all wheeled mechanic’s endorsement made him a sought after commodity.

It was one trip with a platoon, whose mission was searching for missing or kidnapped personnel, when he found much more than he bargained for, and life came to a stand still.  This is what happened, as he described it to me:

MaxxPro_international_Navistar_MRAP_Mine_Resistant_Ambush_Protected_armoured_vehicle_US-Army_United_States_640_002“We had been working our way around all day to different towns, meeting with elders to try and get help in finding these MIA’s.  We had crapped out at every one of them and on the way back down the mountain we came to a wadi, or washed out, dry riverbed.  There was a truck that broke down on us, and we decided to camp there for the night and wait for the FLE, (Field Logistic Elements), to deliver the proper parts needed to fix this truck.  We all started to lay out our mats for the night and pick our sleeping spots.  I took off my gear, had my little wet wipe shower in the field, sat down on my sleeping bag to eat my spaghetti MRE, (Meals Ready to Eat), dinner and go to bed.  The guys on the other side of my truck had all their gear laid out, but decided to go have a dance-off to kill the tensions of the day.  Combat arms guys are the strangest people, but you come to love em.  It’s just getting to twilight and I’m two bites into my spaghetti and I started seeing flashes.  It sounded like a laser blasts ripping by, and then I turned and saw a rocket go past me, close enough that I could have reached and touched it.  Then everything went nuts and we were under attack.  I was still only wearing my pants, no boots, no shirt or armor.  I watched the rocket go by and explode into the cliff behind us.”
With his world in chaos and playing out to him in slow motion, it was a nearby grunt that snapped him back to the reality of it all.

“My friend and I hit the ground and started crawling to the truck, which was filled with people by the time we get there, so we rolled under it to find some cover, while bullets hit the dirt all around us.  We were getting hit pretty heavy, and the guys on the guns were keeping them at bay.  It finally calmed down around us enough so that we could roll out and at least grab our armor and get back under the truck before taking fire again.  After about three or fours we had em beat back and were able to asses the damages around us.  The craziest thing about that whole scenario was that the guys that were having that little dance-off, where they had their sleeping bags propped up for bed was bullet ridden, and full of shrapnel.  If we had waited thirty minutes more to go to sleep, we would’ve all been dead.”

You hear the cliche of “being in the right place at the right time”, well, Bruthas and Sistas, it can equally be said for the wrong place as well.  They were luck that night, no one was seriously hurt or killed, and Death had to take a rain check in the face of Divinity.
Our other story takes us back nearly fifty years, to the sticky jungles of Southeast Asia, where air that you wear, the deadly two-step Viper, and after 1970, one head-strong, Hell-raising, ginger with the last name Phillips.  The particular Phillips happens to be my Dad, and one of the most selfless and patriotic men that I have ever known.

gate1_JUN_16Ron or “Red” as his friends call him got his draft notice in the mail during the round of selections in the Spring of 1970, and was inducted that June and received his basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri.  He was assigned to the Bravo 3-3 and his eight weeks of old school Army boot camp began.  Upon completion he was sent across base to get his AIT as a Combat Engineer, where he learned all the aspects of road making, bridge building, and the operation of the heavy equipment that it took to do such work.  In October of that year he was sent home on leave, before his deployment to the Southeast Asian Theater of combat.

While home he spent time with family, and married my mother, Becky Bradley at that time on the 16th of that month.  It was common then as now, for troops to marry prior to deployment so that their spouse may receive the benefits of their military service.  Sadly, for many, this was the last time they would see their loved ones, or feel their embrace.  The death toll was high, even though the convoluted kill quotes of Kennedy’s neophite McNamara showed differently.  The fact that the war was front page on every news paper, and for the first time in our nation’s history, it was a regular feature on the nightly news, as the families of the enlisted sat there hoping to see the faces of their loved ones, but masking the dread of seeing their corpse.  The Cronkites and Rathers of the day brought the vivid images of Vietnam to the living rooms on America, for all to see.  It has been said many times that the soldier enlists but is their family that serves.

“I was working for a guy by the name of Mullins, plowing underground phone cable when I got my draft notice, and I knowed right then in my own mind, that I was probably going to Vietnam.  That’s when I left.  The first night or two away from home it was strange in the barracks there with all these guys around ya, from all over the place, that you didn’t know. You find yourself laying there thinking, “How did I get here and what’s going to happen to me?”  But I kept my eyes and ears open and got everything out of it that I could.”

Leaving his family behind and heading towards an uncertain future, Red left Oakland, California a few days later on a military transport plane, with his next stop, after a quick re-fuel in Hawaii, being Bien Hoa Airbase, Vietnam.  He was there only long enough to try to get his bearings before he was sent to a town called Phu Bai, just south of Hue, where the Army and Marines had a combat command base, and attached to the 45th Engineer Group.  He was headed to the far North of the Theater to what was designated I-Corps, and assigned to the 14th Combat Engineer Battalion, stationed in Quang Tri, South Vietnam, but more specifically at a fire support base called Camp Evans, which had about four hundred men there.  He was to serve as engineer for the companies there an to give support to fire-base and rocket-base nearby.

In January of 1971, the forward command decided to send them to Khe Sanh, which had been the site of a serious fire fight, after the Marines were attacked by enemy forces there in 1968.  They had abandoned the city shortly after and had decided that they need that particular piece of real estate again to try to cut off the supply chain for the North Vietnamese being fed by neighboring Laos and Cambodia using the now infamous, Ho Chi Minh Trail.  I’ll let Red tell you how the rest of that story unfolds:

MovinDirt“They sent us up there in February in what was called Operation Lam Son 719 which sent us back into the area called Dewey Canyon in the A Shau Valley where they had seen alot of heat back in ’68.  We were up there building landing pads for helicopters and buildings for fire direction centers, to tell the artillery where to be targeted, roads, bridges, and things of that nature.  Now the enemy was still there.  They would use mortars, and they would rocket us, and the infantry in the bush had the normal ground battles back and forth.  They didn’t want us up there to bust up their supply line and they fought back hard.  Sometimes they would drop rounds just at our perimeter to let us know they were there.  That was fairly regular, days, and nights.”

The day that Red remembers all to well happened up on a ridge top in that Canyon, a few weeks after they arrived:

“I had walked my dozer up to the ridgeline and was working that section alone.  Walking it means I drove it to my jobsite, and it obviously moves slow, so I walked it up there.  There were times that I walked it back after dark and that was a scary proposition, because it wasn’t out-running anything by pace, and made one Helluva racket, and made the running after dark with no lights so as not to give away your position, a little pointless.  But we did what we had to do.  The day of the explosion I was up on the ridge clearing out a place for a field of fire to help spot for mortar fire and the like, as well as to help direct our response.  I was on pushing back all the elephant grass and bamboo that had grown up around there since last we were there in ’68.  The right corner of my blade caught a double stacked set of landmines that had been left and not recovered.  It set both of those mines off and it blew me clean off the dozer.  I’m lucky I wasn’t blinded.  Dirt and debris blew back and hit me in the face and I knew for sure that I was dead.  I came to my senses on the ground and the dozer was still locked in forward gear, and plowing deep into the dirt.  I jumped back up and ran to the left side and climbed the spinning tracks like a moving walkway and shut it down.  The front of the dozer was blown to Hell, but I was alive.  The next day it was back to work, and business as usual, but I almost cashed in my chips on that one.”

So many of our young soldiers didn’t come back from that war, or the ones that were to follow after.  Many more came back broken either of body or spirit, fractured to their very soul sometimes and haunted by the things they saw, or maybe did in the heat of battle.  While there will be those whiney asses that say that 4th of July doesn’t have anything to do with these events, and to them I will say this: While you may dislike our government, and with I can assuredly find merit, it is against us and our collective consciousness as Americans to hate the soldiers.  They went, and were sent to far away lands to put their lives on the line for an ideal; the ideal that freedom isn’t free and comes at a price that is to be borne out of the patriotism for our nation and the love of the Bruthas and Sistas that stand beside us to keep it that way.  And, my friends, what could be more at the core of the 4th of July than that.

I want to close this with some words from my Dad, the man that showed me through his actions that it was best to help others if you can, and to stand your ground in the face of those that tell you that you can’t.  We didn’t always see eye to eye, but he has all my respect, and admiration for the things he has achieved in his life since.  I also want to thank Mike Pierce and his father Bill, who are also cut from this same cloth as we Phillips, and so many more who have sacrificed in the face of failure only to stand tall in it’s defeat.  Peace my Bruthas and Sistas, and remember what the 4th really represents to us, as Americans.  Take us home Red…….

“It was an interesting and harrowing experience.  You’ve just got to get it in your mind that this is something that you’ve got to do, and personally I was proud to be there.  It was a good opportunity for me to serve my country, that has been good to me and my family.  My Dad drove trucks during WWII in Germany, and I figured it was just my turn to take up the slack.  I met people from all over the United States and we had guys in our Unit that were from all over the world.  It taught me a good discipline that I was able to carry on through the rest of my life.  I’m glad I did it, and I wouldn’t bat an eye, even at damn near seventy years old if the needed me again.  That’s how much I love this country.”


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