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Newspaper In Education
A soldier's salvation
To Thomas Watt, one of the biggest shocks about Vietnam was his own survival. Then, when survival turned out to be as treacherous as war, he turned to his native roots.
OMAK, Wash. - When his infantry company was ordered to Saigon in January 1968, Thomas Watt was thinking "party time." After surviving eight months in the jungles of Vietnam and a couple of major battles, the soldier was ready for a little rest and relaxation.
Then enemy mortars and artillery began to shake the earth beneath him. It may have been the lunar new year, but it was no party. The 1st Infantry Division, the historic Big Red One, had been called in to protect Gen. William Westmoreland's headquarters in Saigon known as Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, or MACV.
The Tet Offensive was under way.
"A bunch of colonels and big shots were in trouble, and we got to get them out of there," Watt recalled in a recent interview at his home in Omak. "I remember seeing this colonel laying down there in his khaki uniform, a silver leaf, light colonel or whatever he was. He was laying there scared as hell, and we were taking fire."
That's when Spc. Watt, of Omak, Wash., made a rash decision.
"The enemy was across the street, and we're laying alongside the highway in this ditch," he said. "The enemy was going from house to house, and we couldn't keep up with them. We're trying to move these generals out. People are getting hit."
Watt jumped up on the highway and started waving his arms to draw the enemy's fire. As soon as the North Vietnamese gave away their position by firing at Watt, his company opened up on them. A U.S. tank ended the encounter with a round from its 105-mm gun, destroying the house the enemy was using for cover.
The soldiers eventually made it to MACV, and "these big shots come running out in their clean uniforms," Watt said. What amazes him to this day is that he never got hit.
"It was like these bullets were going right through me," he said.
Other Native American soldiers whom Watt knows have had experiences like that, he said, moments when they inexplicably survived the unsurvivable. Perhaps that helps explain why all of the enrolled members of the Colville Confederated Tribes who served in Vietnam - at least 125 men - returned alive.
The tribal government is paying the way for 25 of the former soldiers to go to Branson, Mo., this week for Operation Homecoming USA's tribute to Vietnam veterans. As many as 100,000 Vietnam veterans and their families are expected to attend the weeklong event billed as "the homecoming you never received." It is being paid for largely by a contribution from Texas billionaire Ross Perot.
More than 42,000 Native Americans served in Vietnam, and more than 90 percent of them volunteered, according to the U.S. Department of Navy's Naval Historical Center. Native Americans have the highest record of military service per capita of any ethnic group.
"It was an honor to defend your people and defend your homeland," said John Stensgar, chairman of the Colville tribal veterans committee. "That's why so many of us went."
Tribal elders have told Watt, 58, that his spirit protector was watching over him in Vietnam. Years later, while suffering the emotional wounds left by the war, a return to his Native American spiritual roots saved him from himself.
Watt, the oldest of 12 children born on the Colville reservation, was called "Tinker," as his father was. And like his father, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent him away to Indian boarding school when he was 17. Watt also followed the example of his father, a World War II combat veteran, by joining the Army while he was at school.
It was 1966. Watt was sent to Fort Polk, La., for basic training and then to Fort Lewis, Wash., for advanced infantry training. "They asked me where I wanted to go, and I said Vietnam," Watt recalled.
He got his wish, arriving in Vietnam on June 2, 1967. He had been "in country" about a week when his unit was loaded onto 30 to 40 helicopters to be transported to operations. One of the soldiers, "a new guy like me," was killed when he ran into the tail rotor of a UH-1 "Huey" helicopter.
For the first three or four months, Watt saw little action "except for a few sniper rounds." He joined the rest of A Company, 1st Battalion of the 18th Infantry Regiment, in the jungle. "We walked all the time, walked two or three days and we'd dig in."
On Halloween 1967, Alpha Company was taken to Tay Ninh province, where it surrounded Michelin's rubber plantation near the Cambodian border. Watt's company was ambushed soon after it landed.
Watt looked up and saw a sergeant "with a lot of stripes" standing and firing at the enemy from behind a rubber tree. He was a 20-year man, a father of six, who had voluntarily put his life on the line so he could come home with a combat infantry badge. Watt yelled at him to get down, and just as the soldier turned to look at Watt, a bullet entered his temple.
The soldier's blue eyes spilling out of his skull haunt Watt to this day.
Alpha Company dug in. That night and the next it fought the enemy "probably 20 to 30 feet from our bunkers," Watt said. "It was a big mess. We called in artillery and airstrikes."
Watt's first major battle had a name, Operation Shenandoah II. The exact number of enemy killed is unknown.
"When we got done, we stacked the people up in these irrigation ditches," Watt said.
About eight in his company were killed, as well, and many others were wounded. Watt has no idea how many U.S. forces took part in the operation. Later he found out other elements of the 1st Division and the 11th Cavalry were there, but at the time he thought it was just his battalion.
"It seemed like we were just left there, and this is how we got to get out of there," Watt said. "We have to fight, or we're going to get killed."
Over time, as his company got involved in more combat, Watt said, his fear became an adrenal high. "The more firefights we got into, I became more alive."
As Watt's platoon incurred casualties, the killed or wounded were replaced by new soldiers. Those, like Watt, who had been in country for some time, avoided the newcomers, whose chances of survival were even slimmer than their own.
Watt was close to two men in his squad, a red-haired West Virginian named Ronny Parks and a quiet young man from New York state named John Thompson. Both called the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Indian from Washington state "Tiny."
Their next big fight was on Dec. 10. Watt's platoon came out of the jungle to defend an artillery perimeter near An Loc. Such duty was considered "relaxed time," and that afternoon the men drank cold beer from stands along Highway 13 and swam in a rain-filled bomb crater left by a B-52. What they didn't know was that dug into the nearby hillside were North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong, waiting for nightfall.
The attack came about 10 or 11 p.m., after the platoon was nestled in bunkers around the perimeter of the artillery site. Watt described it as "massive screaming and gunfire … mortars, flares and tracers going off everywhere."
Watt, armed with an M-79 grenade launcher, shared a bunker with Parks. As the fight began, a spent casing from Park's M-16 rifle struck Watt in the eye, partially blinding him.
The enemy shelled the concertina wire 200 feet in front of Watt's bunker before overrunning the perimeter. A rocket-propelled grenade took out the bunker with the M-60 machine gun to Watt's right, killing one man and injuring another. Another rocket-propelled grenade hit the bunker to Watt's left. Parks ran over to find the platoon sergeant and a new guy dead.
Watt found it easier to operate the M-79 from the rear of the bunker, launching round after round over the bunker's roof until the concussion from a grenade or mortar blast knocked him back inside. An enemy soldier came in right after him. Watt killed him in hand-to-hand combat.
"When they get really close to you like that, it's scary," Watt said.
The next morning, Parks counted 186 enemy dead around the three bunkers.
"We stacked them up, and they hauled them off in dump trucks," Watt said.
The platoon lost its sergeant, who was due to go home, and "a couple of new guys" whose names Watt never knew. Watt earned a Bronze Star and Army Commendation medals for his actions that night. The next day he was given the M-60. The increased firepower made him feel more secure, but it also made him even more of a target.
On April 20, 1968, Watt was carrying the machine gun up a canyon somewhere north of Black Virgin Mountain in Tay Ninh province when his company was ambushed. Watt began laying down a hail of bullets, but the machine gun jammed. While he was trying to fix it, Thompson was hit. When the soldiers finally made it up to the top of a ridge, Watt's buddy was taken away on a Huey. Thompson died en route to a field hospital.
"I can't do this anymore," Watt screamed, throwing his M-60 down into the canyon. To this day, he blames himself for his buddy's death.
After that, the company commander took Watt out of combat for a while and gave him some time in Bangkok, Thailand. Watt went reluctantly. "We wanted to stay out there as long as we could so we would get an early release," Watt said. Also, Parks had just returned to the platoon after recovering from an injury.
Watt's last fight was at Dian on May 20, 1968, the week before he was to come home. Nearly a year after arriving in Vietnam, he found himself defending his division's headquarters 25 miles north of Saigon. It was a war without fronts, it seemed to him, a war without direction, purpose or measurable success.
"They had to call in jet strikes a quarter-mile away from base camp," Watt said. "That just didn't happen. That stuff was supposed to happen out in the jungle."
When it came time to leave Vietnam, Watt said, he did not want to go. Parks had to pour whiskey down his throat and put him on the plane. Throughout his service in Vietnam, he had suppressed his emotions and numbed himself to what he had to do there and what had been done to him. Now, he feared what emotions would surface when he finally allowed himself to think about his Vietnam experience.
As it turned out, Watt was a better fighter than he was a soldier. He felt he had served his time, but eight months remained in his enlistment. He could not obey orders. He drank, he got into fights and he went absent without leave. At Fort Ord, Calif., and then at Fort Lewis, most of his remaining time in the Army was spent in the stockade.
"I just wanted to come home to the reservation," Watt said.
When offered the chance for an early exit, he took it, signing an "undesirable discharge" in November 1969. The status of his discharge was later upgraded to honorable, under the Carter administration.
He returned to the Colville reservation and married in 1971. Seven years and two children later, his wife left him. "I scared her," said Watt, who ended up in the psychiatric ward at Sacred Heart Medical Center over the breakup.
In 1980, Watt's father, a veteran of heavy conflict in the South Pacific, committed suicide with a hunting rifle, leaving his son to clean up the room.
For years after, when Watt dreamed of his father's face, it was with the blue eyes of that sergeant killed during Watt's first battle in Vietnam. After his father's death, the emotions he had stifled since returning from Vietnam emerged to destroy Watt's family and his life.
He spent time in Omak and Spokane jails for drinking and fighting. More than once, Watt attempted to take his own life - including "suicide by cop." He had followed his father into battle and was about to follow him into oblivion.
As in Vietnam, he felt dead and needed adrenaline to come out of it, to put himself into situations where "I felt alive."
America has known about a soldier's heart, shell shock and battle fatigue through the Civil War and two world wars. But it was the Vietnam veteran who forced the nation to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder as a disability.
In 1987, Watt checked himself into the Veterans Administration hospital at American Lake, Wash. He spent a year at a psychiatric hospital in Sheridan, Wyo., followed by two in-patient stays at American Lake in 1988 and 1989.
During his first stay there, he was put in the same ward, the same room, that his father stayed in "back when they called it the 'psych ward.' " Watt remembered visiting his father there as a boy of 9 or 10. The nurse who cared for his father was now head nurse on the floor. As a patient himself, Watt believes he once heard his father call out to him.
Through therapy, Watt recalled being out on patrol in a "kill zone," where anyone he encountered was to be considered the enemy. Someone ran across the trail in front of him. Watt hit the dirt and opened fire with the M-60. It turned out to be three children about 10 or 11 in age. Two were dead, and one was dying. He knows they were Viet Cong "mules" carrying supplies to the enemy, but they were just kids.
"I started walking the trails, and couldn't get it out of my head," Watt said. "I learned that all the horrible things I did in the war were normal for war, but they were so hideous I couldn't accept them."
It was not until his immersion into his Native American culture that he found "healing, an awareness and acceptance of where I was in relationship to Vietnam." During a fasting vision quest, Watt's protective spirit taught him the Native song he sings today. It is a song of healing and love in his heart for his parents, his children and, most significantly, himself.
Watt has visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., and once visited Ronny Parks in West Virginia. Out of the original 34 members of their platoon, only the two of them remained in Vietnam after a year. The rest were killed or wounded.
Watt is looking forward to Branson, Mo., but he is beyond seeking honor from the nation that sent him to war.
"Honor comes from the other brothers, the other veterans," he said.
"There will probably be some other Native guys, maybe some others from the Big Red One." He hopes to connect with some of them in Branson. "When I left, it was pretty bad. I know my unit went into Cambodia. I'd like to know what happened after I left."