Category Archives: Vietnam Veterans

Immortal Medic

The medic is always there in my mind. He’s always holding the bleeding head of the wounded infantryman in his lap. I’m always circling right above them in my gunship. The medic is always screaming in our headsets to land and evacuate the wounded soldier.

“It’s just a minor wound, but I can’t stop the bleeding!” screams the medic.

The head is a most vascular part of the human anatomy. Even minor head wounds can be tough because of that.

“He’s going to die if we don’t get him out of here!” screams the medic.

But the LZ is too hot to get the Dustoff in—the medivac ship—without it getting shot down and yielding four more casualties. And our gunship is too heavy to get in and out of such a tight spot. And, besides, the living grunts below us still need our firepower.

You can say words like “the calculus of war,” but those words don’t scream, and they don’t bleed, and they don’t smell of copper and urine and feces.

And we can’t control the LZ. And the firing is steady.

“Never mind,” says the medic in a voice broken with crying. “He’s dead.”

The young soldier had bled out in the medic’s arms. I can see the medic sobbing over the body. In my mind they’re always there. Always begging to be saved.

Both of those soldiers had names, but I never knew them. At least one of them has been a name on the Vietnam Memorial Wall for a long time. They are among the nameless ghosts in my mind, the lost army that didn’t get to come home with me. But I have not abandoned them. I never will.

A good friend of mine, Jack Bunton, founder of Ram Engine, sent me this link to the virtual Vietnam Memorial Wall:

If you knew someone lost in Vietnam, you may want to visit it and think of him or her. If you want a glimpse of the world from which he or she did not return you can go here, or here


Filed under Vietnam Veterans

Testament: Manifesto for Personal Action

With a long enough lever, said Archimedes, one could move the world. I think something like that lever exists and is in constant use between our ears. We just don’t pay enough attention to how we use it. But we all have memories of seeing the lever used. Here’s one of mine.

Burning Man

In 1967-68 I was a door gunner and then a crew chief on a helicopter gunship in Vietnam.

The gunner fired his M-60 machine gun from the right side of the ship. At night, after our long days were over, he was responsible for cleaning the ship’s weapons and repairing any damage.

The crew chief fired his M-60 from the left side of the ship. At night, he was responsible for readying the ship for the next day.

Wake-up was four in the morning. Lift-off was dawnish. We came home as darkness fell.

Sunset, Mekong Delta

If we got to bed by 10:00 we were lucky. Many times it was midnight. During the Tet Offensive I flew 48 hours straight without sleep. In the end I couldn’t keep my eyes open except when we were taking fire. When I stood down I couldn’t sleep because of all the adrenaline in my system. That’s what I know about bad drug trips.

My old Bien Hoa neighborhood after Tet

Our M-60s fired 550 rounds per minute and had an effective air-to-surface range of 2,200 meters. We sought to use them at distances much more up close and personal than that, however. On the ground M-60s were supposed to be fired in bursts of six to keep the barrels from overheating and producing jams. We considered our guns air-cooled weapons and used them like fire hoses.

We fired our 2.75 inch rockets, with their 10-pound warheads and 30-meter killing radius, from an average distance of a thousand feet. That was close enough that we sometimes broke our own chin bubbles with their explosions as we pulled out of our dives.

Gunner Shook

We fired our mini-guns—4,200 .30 caliber rounds per minute—when we were too close to use the rockets.

Crew chief Lucky Lakin, KIA January 1968.

I had the honor of flying with the highest performing, best aligned organization I have ever known, or even heard of: the Mustangs, our gun platoon.


Mustang pilot Ed Strazzini

Mustang pilot Roosevelt Webb

I was a very serious gunner—a helicopter gunship in Vietnam was no place for anyone who wasn’t serious.

Gunner Shook

But the Mustangs, when I flew with them, kept running out of crew chiefs. “High attrition,” the Army called it. I was serious enough, my bosses apparently thought, to be entrusted with an entire gunship. So they made me a crew chief.

I told them I was no motorhead, barely knew how to change a sparkplug back in the world.

“Fine,” they said. “You won’t be changing sparkplugs.”

Sandy Noyes, a wizened old man just turned 20, my own previous crew chief, taught me how to take care of a Bell UH-1C gunship.

Crew chief Noyes, left, and Mustang pilots Dave Holloway and the late Scott Alwin.

The Mustangs assigned me 667. She was more like a living creature to me than machine, part magic carpet, part dragon. I appreciated both qualities. You had to be there.

Every day, and many nights, 667 took us to war. Thanks to a flock of maintenance wizards, she always brought us home.

Crew chief Shook

Maintenance wizards

Even after they made me a crew chief, however, I cleaned my own M-60 every night.

Gas cylinder plug from my last M-60.

I loved the men I served with. I loved the infantrymen on the ground we tried to keep alive, although you could have tortured me at the time and I wouldn’t have admitted that. Testosterone toxicosis, you know. But it was love, all right. Each passing year makes that more and more clear.

I’ll put it this way: one of the most obscene things I’ve ever seen is the body of an American soldier wrapped in his poncho for transport off a battlefield. I have no idea how many of the names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall I saw leave the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam that way, but too many.


I did not love the Vietnam War. It broke my heart. It left me with a profound confusion about where “home” really was. Six months into my 12-month tour, I did not regard our business in Vietnam as a fit enterprise for the America I had been raised to love by a father who served as a Marine in the Pacific and a mother who awaited his return. From then on, I was no longer working for “America.” I was working for my buddies. Period.

The white smoke marks a target. The target is a farm village. Vietcong have been shooting at Americans from the village. The village is about to disappear in an air strike by Phantom jets.

A village dies.

Anyone who has been in a war will tell you that it feels like being a grain of sand in a sandstorm.

“Support our troops, support America?” Chalk and cheese, as far as I’m concerned. Any politician who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you a share in the Brooklyn Bridge. I respectfully submit that our troops are best supported by not throwing their lives away, not by swallowing government propaganda about throwing their lives away.

The helicopters that inserted the troops into battle were called slicks. (Their sides were slick—no heavy metal weaponry protruding.)


One day a single slick I was covering was inserting a load of grunts. As the aircraft flared to land, a command-detonated mine exploded right beneath it. The slick flipped upside down, stuffing its rotors in the mud, making its engine explode in a pulse of air that flattened the green rice in a circle all around it. Then guys scrambled out in furious low-crawls, leaving trails in the mud. I’m looking down from maybe 15o feet. Safety off. Waiting for the rest of the ambush to continue. If it had, we would have been on it like a match on gas fumes.

The slick started to burn. No flames, but heat waves were dancing over it. It was like watching a helicopter sink in clear water. It took a while to re-establish radio communication with the ground troops. Pretty soon the ground commander told us that everyone had gotten out. We called that “un-assing the aircraft.”

But then the voice in our headsets said, “No no wait a minute shit the gunner’s still in there he looks OK he’s just trapped we can see him struggling shit!”

Tongues of flame began licking the dead helicopter. The air-shimmer rapidly increased. In ones and twos and threes, grunts, who were hunkered behind the nearby dike line for cover, sprinted toward the slick to save the gunner. It took tremendous courage to do that, because they made themselves easy targets. But as they approached the crash, their hands would come up to shield their faces from the heat, and then they would turn back.

Finally, a lone figure sprinted from the dike. When he hit the wall of heat he plunged through and kept going. From above it was like watching a halfback run a draw play. The rescuer dove into the crashed slick, which was now shooting serious flames.

Nothing. Now we were watching two men burn alive, waiting for the inevitable fireball.

And then, there they were, one man dragging another out of hell. Next morning, someone pointed the rescuer out to me in the mess hall. I didn’t know him. He wasn’t a member of our aviation unit. I think he must have been one of the Crickets stationed with us. These were long-range recon guys who went out in small patrols to scout and set up the landing and pick-up zones.

Something made me approach him. He was a handsome, powerfully built black kid. Gray smudges dappled his face where the heat had burned him. His eyebrows were singed. His hair was singed where the heat got under his helmet.

“Why’d you do it?” I asked. Even to me the question sounded stupid.

He just shrugged his shoulders. A black kid, drafted probably, saving a probably drafted white kid, just because. That was Vietnam.

But it wasn’t “just because.” I understood that instantly, and it was a life-giving understanding, even if I wasn’t fully conscious of what I understood. Now I think I get it. That rescuer was prizing away at the world with his built-in Archimedes lever.

And I don’t think he did it “just because,” not if “just because” suggests there is no implicate order in the universe, governing our lives by invisible forces. Not if “just because” suggests that symbiogenesis isn’t our lot, connecting all of us to each other all the time, connecting everything that is, ever was and ever will be.

What that rescuer taught me was that all we can ever do in life is act. Act we do. The only real question is how we act. How we act connects us to the flow of all that is, was, and ever will be. And only we can decide on that connection.

Elegant, no?

How we decide to act, then—this is what I believe—is how we make our life.

So What?

I share this belief, because it informs everything you see in this blog and the half-million or so words of reporting and documentation linked to it. I’m still a Mustang, you see. I decided long ago to never stop being one.

Judging from comments people make to me, I know the reporting suggests to some that American governance has become a wasteland. The reporting documents that Spokane, my fair city, second largest city in Washington State, is controlled by organized crime. It documents that Democrats and Republicans are equally complicit in this sordid state of affairs, and that every level of government in the land, now including the Dreamworks of the Obama White House, is implicated.

But I don’t think the evidence means that American government has become a wasteland. All any government can ever be is reflective. If we don’t like the reflection we see, I think we have to study the face in the mirror to see what we don’t like. And then we act.

It’s not that we should act. Or that we must act. It’s that we do act. And that action creates a reflection. That’s what I believe.

It wasn’t American government that pulled that kid from the burning helicopter before my eyes. And the turpitude, avarice and deep moral confusion that sent the rescuer to Vietnam had nothing to do with the decision he made, the action he took, the lingering reflection he left in my mind, and now in your mind, too.

That’s the point I’m trying to make. And the reason I’m trying to make it is because people keep asking me what, in the face of the daunting evidence we all face about the mess the world is in—including evidence contained in my reporting—can the average person do about it?

The question concerns me, because the last thing I want to do with my reporting is contribute to what psychologists tell us is the epidemic of “learned helpless” now plaguing us.  But I also love the question, because I love the answer. The answer, the rescuer taught me, is this: do what you can. That’s all we can ever do. And it is the joyful reality of life that that’s enough. #

All photos copyright Larry Shook.


Filed under Public Corruption, Vietnam Veterans

A Note from Sugarbear

Former enemies. Hugh S., aka Sugarbear, was a helicopter gunship door gunner in Vietnam. Lam Van Tien was a Vietnamese schoolteacher until American bombs destroyed his village. Then he became a Vietcong. Lam was seriously wounded by a gunship's gunner in 1968 at Rach Kien. Sugarbear was wounded by VC ground fire in the same place, the same year. The two old foes met at a recent international conference, learned what they had in common, and joked that if they had shot each other they were glad they hadn't been better shots.

Had the note below from an old Army buddy today:

“If you view HBO’s ‘Wartorn’ anytime in the next few weeks and would like to help the more than 700 thousand new veterans suffering from PTSD, may I suggest a contribution to Soldier’s Heart. I also know a gift at Christmas in the name of a loved one would be greatly appreciated as well.

“The Soldier’s Heart statement:

” ‘Soldier’s Heart addresses the emotional, spiritual and moral needs of veterans, their families and communities using a unique and comprehensive model of healing. Our goal is to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD by developing a new and honorable warrior identity. We also promote, train and guide community-based efforts to heal the effects of war.’

“Soldier’s Heart, 500 Federal St., Suite 303, Troy, NY 12180, 518-274-0501 Ext 10

“I have worked with this amazing organization for several years now and can tell you their programs are successful. Please help them continue their efforts. Ask your friends and family to help.

“If you want more information, please go to their website at:

“It takes more than words, a button or a bumper sticker to Support the Troops. Thanks for considering support for this well-deserved organization.”

My buddy ended his note with this quote: “Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war. And they can teach us how to make peace with ourselves and each other, so we never have to use violence to resolve conflicts again.” —Thich Nhat Han

My buddy’s name is Hugh S. He doesn’t want his last name used. We served together in a helicopter gunship platoon in Vietnam in 1967-68. Hugh was wounded twice the year he flew with me. Then he went back for a second tour. He has never been able to remember the last nine months of his second 12-month tour. That’s PTSD.

Hugh has dedicated his life to helping other veterans with PTSD, which doesn’t surprise me. Hugh’s nickname in Vietnam was Sugarbear because of his size and sweet nature. He’s 6’3” and as a kid in Vietnam he weighed 230 pounds. As an adult, he’s one of those guys who has had to work at keeping his weight below 300. The thing is, Sugarbear’s heart has always weighed about ten times more than that.

Hugh has another animal nickname—matocante, which is Sioux Indian. It means Bear Heart. A couple of Sioux kids from South Dakota nicknamed him that after he persuaded them to sober up and helped put them through college.

Anyway, because the U.S. government is failing so utterly at helping its combat veterans deal with the trauma of their experience, Hugh is concerned that a perfect storm of PTSD now threatens America. Sugarbear isn’t about to stand by and let that happen. Matocante thinks 700 thousand traumatized veterans could make a pretty bright candle. What do you think?

Here’s a poem Sugarbear wrote that he recently read to some 500 attendees of the International Peace and War Summit at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

Message from the Dead

I marched in straight lines…wore uniforms fine.

I died for this country’s cause.

Years later I see…that it just wasn’t me

who knew there were policy flaws.

When you’re dead…there’s a dread

that the lesson is lost… on those who never did fight.

And as I lie in the ground…with my pals all around

I realize that I’m probably right.

Politicians take a stand over some foreign land…hell, there will

always be young ones to fight it.

But bring those souls here…..let them come near.

We’ll tell the truth…we won’t hide it.


Filed under Vietnam Veterans

Thank-You Note to a Wounded Vet

Art Guerrero

Had the following message the other day from a fellow who insists on confidentiality.

“Larry, I thought you’d enjoy this story because an email you sent some time ago regarding recognizing Viet Nam vets is partially responsible. I tell it to you on the understanding that neither I nor any of those involved have any desire for any publicity or recognition, so if you choose to use it in your journalistic endeavors, you do so without mentioning me or my role in it.

“The backstory is that I have a neighbor, Art Guerrero, who is a disabled Viet Nam vet who got ‘stitched’ with multiple AK47 rounds. Art is generally confined to wheelchair but has some upright mobility if he has something to hang onto and keep his balance. He’s been through a lot—for example, last summer he had to have a complete shoulder replacement. Think about that for a guy in a wheelchair. I can’t say we’re close friends, but I always stop and talk to him when I can, because I come away with a completely different perspective on the tribulations in my existence. He’s remarkable, always upbeat and positive and never, or rarely, ‘down’. Last winter I was tooling around on my ATV plowing snow in the neighborhood and I noticed that Art’s sidewalk wasn’t done, which raised all kinds of flags because his is always the first one done. He has a self-propelled snowblower that he can ‘walk’ behind, and he likes to do it, because it gives him mobility that he doesn’t otherwise have. Being the nosy fellow I am, I went to see what was wrong. He was in his driveway trying to shovel snow in his wheelchair (yes, he’s that kind of guy). I asked him what was going on and he told me his snowblower driveshaft broke. I asked him if he wanted me to do his driveway and sidewalk and he said, ‘Would you? That would be great.’ I then got to thinking—my ATV is totally hand operated—brakes, throttle, plow, all can be operated from the sitting position. So I said, ‘I’m happy to do it, but why don’t you do it, it’s all hand operated.’ After some coaxing, I got him on it and, of course, couldn’t get him off it. He tooled around the whole damn neighborhood moving snow from here to there and back with a grin clear across his face. He was a little kid in a sandbox with a new truck, and it was so cool.

“That got me thinking. I sent out an email to a bunch of buddies and contacted a couple of ATV shops in town. Virtually all of the people I contacted jumped on the wagon and a shop here in town, Colorado Powersports, went hunting after sending me an email to the effect, ‘Of course we want to be a part of this. Your email makes us think there are still some good people out there.’ The result was that last week a truck pulled up to Art’s house and offloaded a good used ATV with a new plow that has been specially modified to be completely controllable from the seat. (We even figured out a way he can change the angle of the plow.) When he was handed the title in his name, he asked who was responsible and, as we had all decreed, he was handed a note that read simply ‘Please accept this from a group of citizens who recognize, and appreciate, your sacrifice for your country.’”

The “Mystery Machine” arrives:

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Filed under Vietnam Veterans