Sergeant Wes Selby blows smoke from his nose at a camp in Vietnam, carrying the Savage 12-gauge shotgun that got him through the War.
THE MEN OF CHARLIE COMPANY STILL FIGHT MEMORIES AND THE LINGERING EFFECTS OF AGENT ORANGE EXPOSURE
One hot day in Texas, a badge flapper parked his Rambler with black sidewalls and strolled up the walkway to Jim and Judy Lanning’s home. It was the 1970s. For America, the civil war in Vietnam was over.
“I remember to this day when the Criminal Investigation Detachment from Fort Hood drove up in front of my house,” Jim said. “This guy got out of the car in smooth-toed shoes. I knew right away I was next. I looked down on the paper, and it said, ‘Investigation of Vietnam murder,’ and so forth.
“Judy asked if he had eaten yet. She fed the guy.”
Across the United States, investigative agents shoveled up difficult memories for Charlie Company. Lanning kept a list of the names these men interviewed, which he brought with him to their 2017 reunion in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
The agents called on all of the men in the conference room of that Holiday Inn. They came for Jim Phillips of Tennessee, Bill Stoner from Alabama, and Larry Prater and Buster Hopper of Georgia.
The AP broke the story nationwide about alleged atrocities committed by Charlie Company. Lanning’s father offered to sell sections of his farm to pay for his son’s legal defense. But, in the end, all of Lanning’s men said the same thing when pushed.
“Best officer in the United States Army,” Phillips told the agent who placed photographs on his kitchen table. “[He] threw pictures down in front of me, and said, ‘do you know this guy?’ One of them might’ve been Selby, one of them might’ve been [Stoner]. He asked me this stupid question—did I ever see friendlies killed?
“He started to leave, and I said, ‘what did the rest of my men say that we were with?’ He said, ‘every one of them said the same thing you did—they said they’d go to hell with [Lanning].’”
The investigation came to nothing.
In the meantime, the Army sent Lanning to grad school for sociology, which he then taught at Fort Bragg, N.C., in the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center.
“He was on the fast track for promotion,” Judy said, seeing the incident her husband endured in a different light—it kept him from another tour of duty. “If there hadn’t been an investigation, he would’ve been back in Vietnam.”
“Don’t you miss the aroma of good C-ration coffee and napalm in the morning?” Prater asked, channeling 'Apocalypse Now.' In another movie reference, from 'Deliverance,' he warned us several times to steer clear of banjo music while visiting the South. “I went to the mailbox one day. I got a letter opened up that said, ‘Greetings. Your friends and neighbors have selected you [for the draft]. I thought, ‘What kind of friends and neighbors have I got?’”
For whatever reason, my father’s name, Wes Selby, was not on the ledger Lanning printed off for Charlie Company’s May reunion. No agent drove to southern Iowa to interview my father.
The only mementos my father brought back from Vietnam were bits of shrapnel in his abdomen, a combat infantry badge, a shoulder wound the doctors said would end his career in agriculture, and draftee Bob Prunier’s phone number.
On Oct. 28, 1966, Prunier and John Mucci killed a man in hand-to-hand combat. They both hailed from Massachusetts. Prunier broke his Army-issue machete in the arm of the unfortunate NVA soldier.
The half of the corn knife that did not remain lodged in the dead man’s limb sits on Prunier’s desk in Groveland, Mass.
“Everything was happening so fast,” Prunier said. “I just remember your father—I don’t know who the guy was—I can remember him jumping out of the foxhole and he pulled that wounded guy in. When you’re in a situation like that, you help each other.”
“We were killing some of them when they were running over the top of us,” my father said in his 2010 interview. “My dad had sent me a hunting knife, not a big one, but a five-inch blade or something….
“I was out of ammo for the shotgun. And I’d crawl out and get an AK-47 and clips off of their dead and crawl back in to fight with, and Glen Young, and Wilson from Kentucky and Whitten from Maine, kind of good friends of mine, were killed that night. That’s when I never made any friends again, never got close to anybody again.”
Young was a machinegunner from Wisconsin, carrying an M-60. At that point, he and my father were best friends. His ammo carrier was John Washington from North Carolina. When Young was killed Oct. 28, Washington killed that NVA soldier with a grenade.
“There were so many valor awards that were overlooked,” Lanning said. “PFC Young—he crawled up to my position with a wound on his left arm. That was just the beginning. He went back to that machinegun after he was wounded, and that’s when he got a round in both lungs. That wasn’t very far from Dolan, Mucci, Wilson and Selby.”
Members of Charlie Company in 1967, left to right, John Mucci, Jim Lanning, Wes Selby and Michael Dolan.
Michael Dolan is now a New York City firefighter.
“You can take nearly any of those, the 21st of March or the 28th of October, which are the big battles, and just think about old Selby, Dolan, Mucci and Young on the perimeter. I was one meter behind them, which was a whole lot of distance. Those are the guys that really did the dog gone gut-wrenching killing.
“And folks, those [NVA] were coming so fast and so many, they were in our foxholes. There were that many of them.
“And when there finally was a little break, the chopper came.
“All those fundamental decisions you have to make in your life—one of the men had an ankle wound. That wasn’t going to kill him. We told him, ‘we’ll dust you off tomorrow morning.’ But during the chaos of dropping the basket down, he crawled up there and got in the basket. And the last man in line survived because that man got in front of him.
“The RPG hits the chopper, and it all falls down.”
“The screams of those guys,” my father said in 2010. “If you ever heard it….”
“You listen to the pilots die, and here comes another bunch [of NVA],” Lanning said. “So all of this is going through old Selby’s mind, and he thinks of back home—‘am I going to see daylight again?’”
Pulled from the Oct. 28, 1966 helicopter crash, this became Jim Lanning’s journal.
“I would have never dreamed in my life I’d meet Selby’s son that looks so much like him,” Phillips said. “He was the best shotgun man you’ll ever find.”
After driving my mother and me to the airport in Knoxville, Tenn. to depart for Iowa, Lanning stopped me before we left.
“Your dad had a sixth sense for danger,” Lanning said. “He was a good soldier.”
I had informed Lanning my father scored a 136 on the GT, which is roughly the military equivalent of an IQ test. Lanning couldn’t get over that—he asked me twice to tell him again what my father scored on the GT. Lanning was a career Army man.
While my father lived through the night of Oct. 28, his story was unusual. Conventional wisdom says if a soldier loses faith—and especially if he believes he will die—that man is as good as dead.
After the reunion was over this May, when I learned who Washington was, I contacted him and sent a few photographs.
Washington expressed his sympathy for my father’s passing of cancer in October of 2016:
“The one positive thing about his recent transition is that, from my memory of him, he did not think that he would survive that deployment, but he did.”
The single time I attended a counseling session with VA psychologist Bill Miller in Knoxville, Iowa, Miller assumed my father did not think he would die in combat. Miller thought my father believed like many young men he was immortal. But my father had one boot in Vietnam and the other in eternity.
Perhaps that explained his sixth sense. Whatever the reason, my father made a dupe of conventional wisdom. He did not consider himself a hero more than any other soldier. He believed teachers—whether conventional or outside the classroom—were more valuable commodities than Agent Orange, napalm or B-52 bombers.
In fact, he got angry if someone called him a hero for what he had to do in war.
As well, he spoke with equal contempt of two of the most dangerous kind of men in Vietnam: drug abusers and glory seekers. They could both get you killed.
Like General Sherman, my father believed war was not all glory, but all Hell.
In his address to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy in 1879, Sherman told the students, “I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here.
“Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell.”
When Phillips got back stateside, not all of his nightmares made his wife jealous of another woman, when his old buddy Selby’s name transformed to Shelby in firefights.
His wife would ask again, ‘Who’s this Shelby?’
“I wake up in the middle of the night a lot of times, and I see these black eyes,” Phillips said. “They’re staring right at me. It’s not from the ones Jim and I shot when we jumped over into the trench. It’s not the ones, Bill, that we killed up on the mountain. We don’t know who we killed—we were just shooting.
“But it was a man laying over there with both legs off, and his arm off, infected. Starving—you could count every rib he had on him, Jason.
“I threw him a can of ham and lima beans. And he beat on it with a rock. I was too sorry to open it.
“And I laughed and I laughed and I laughed.
“Walked off laughing. Didn’t know if the man lived or died. That was right there at Pleiku, at Duc Pho. And my heart was, ‘you sorry Vietnamese.’ I had a hatred down in me. I’m sure [Selby] experienced a lot of that. That killed my brother, that shot my friend and hurt my buddy—‘you deserve what you got.’ I could have shot him 50 times, reloaded, and shot him again.
“But that was not me. On my office desk at my church, I have a rock, and I have a can of ham and lima beans. The real Jim Phillips would’ve picked him up, put him in his arms and fed him.
“I was at a conference, and one of the greatest preachers in the world, Adrian Rogers, walked right around the pulpit. There were probably 5,000 people in the audience, and I was up on the third row.
“And he said, ‘If you’re not feeding the hungry or clothing the poor, you’re not doing anything.’
“And Jim, it hit me like a ton of bricks. On the way home, I stopped alongside the road, me and another friend—we started a thing called the Care Center. That was just the beginning of it. I didn’t have the sense enough to carry it through.
“Our Sunday School class would buy two bags of groceries, and we’d take them out. We housed some homeless people. People would put us down: ‘oh, there ain’t no homeless people.’
“Today, that Care Center is feeding between 1,500 and 2,000 people a month.
“Not because of me—but I was the ruffian [that got it started]. I was the idiot that would do it—God uses some pretty rough people.
“That’s my hurt, when I hurt. Oh, of course I get in a firefight at night. But my main one is those black eyes.
“I had a dear friend. He’d heard me talking that day. He said, ‘Jim, you can feed him now.’”
Phillips provided another example of the self-inflicted nature of hatred, and how it turns on the aggressor:
“I took a C-ration can and made the edges jagged up. We were out on the beach, and I buried it in the sand. I said, ‘Watch some idiot come along and step on it.’ I made me a little booby trap.
“We were moving out. Well, I didn’t have my boots on. And this idiot stepped on it. It infected after about a week or two. And I got three or four [rest] days out of it.
“I’ve got a scar that long on my foot,” Phillips told Lanning, laughing. “You didn’t know anything about that. I didn’t say a word. If you noticed me hopping behind you, I wasn’t going to say, ‘I’m the idiot that stepped on my own booby trap.’”
“People said I must hate the Vietnamese,” Stoner added. “I told them, ‘Why would I hate the Vietnamese? I volunteered for this.’”
“They were spraying that stuff all over the place,” Stoner said. “On my second tour, where I was, it was Agent Orange Central.
“We would have these barrels that would catch rain with the Vietnamese. We’d catch rainwater off of roofs or whatever, and that was the cleanest water around. It was nothing but Agent Orange.
“As a doctor told me later, the colon is a perfect water extractor. So whatever moisture is in that C-ration gets extracted.”
The Army gave soldiers iodine tablets, and told them to put two in each canteen. That was supposed to make the water safe.
“I remember coming down the side of a mountain,” Hopper said. “It wasn’t real high. We got to a tree that was about as wide as here to that wall. I remember foam being in that water about [an inch] thick. We didn’t wait for iodine tablets. We started drinking water out of that creek.”
Despite the intentional poisoning by his own country, Hopper saw his share of God’s will or good luck.
“I was drafted,” Hopper said. “We got married in ’65, and her daddy had it annulled.”
“Was he that bad?” Lanning asked Hopper’s wife, laughing.
“I was drinking real bad,” Hopper admitted. “Six months later, I got my draft papers. When I got back [from Vietnam], I got married and had two wonderful sons.”
While Susan and Buster Hopper’s first attempt at marriage was not meant to be, fate intervened.
“Once it gets in your head, it never gets out,” Buster said. “Fifty years later, she found me on Facebook. And we started dating again in February and got married.
“I wasn’t afraid of anything,” Buster said of Vietnam, speaking to Lanning. “I would do anything you told me to do.”
“He said he didn’t get scared until he got back home,” wife Susan said.
“I saw maps,” my father spoke to his platoon in my 2010 interview, “where we were at, particular year, was the highest concentration of Agent Orange ever sprayed in Vietnam.
“We walked through it where it was still dripping off the trees. You know it had to be in that water.”
When the men got back to America, if they did not have one already, they developed a distrust of authority.
After my father returned from Vietnam, he farmed in Iowa and served as a drill sergeant at Fort Carson, Colo.
He had attended mechanics school—he knew how to soup up a car. If the highway patrol flicked on their cherries as he drove to duty in Colorado or back to Iowa, my father simply outraced the cops.
He just did not care. He had been on a wanted poster nailed up in Pleiku—possibly related to his use of the outlawed shotgun in war.
“They didn’t have pictures, but they managed to have names,” my father said of the wanted posters, which instead of striking fear made him proud. “If it hadn’t been for some of that off-the-wall stuff we pulled, you’d have gone insane.”
“I had a policeman stop me,” Phillips said. “I was in a different county, and I had different county tags on my car. He found out I wasn’t doing anything. He finally looked at my car.
“He said, ‘You need to get in your car and get back to your county.’
“And it just hit me wrong. I said, ‘You’re not man enough to put me in any county.’
“About that time, four more policemen came up. So I get surrounded. I’d have died right there. If they’d got me in that jailhouse, they’d have beaten me to death. I mean I crawled through the jungle. I shot people. And you’re going to tell me to leave my county? That’s the rage that begins to build up in you.”
After Vietnam, Phillips and my father understood the law is relative.
“This isn’t going to be the end of it,” Lanning said of his men not losing touch with each other. But he could have been talking about the struggle that will continue within mind and body, the bubbles and foam the soldiers were submerged in their upside-down baptisms, or the blood-orange communion of those jungle rivers after a storm.