Veterans’ Reflections: Experiencing ‘Full Metal Jacket’

WASHINGTON — Like a lot of his fel­low ser­vice­mem­bers in the 1960s, Arlen Bliefer­nicht didn’t choose to join the Army. The DeFor­est, Wis., res­i­dent didn’t know what to expect when he fin­ished basic train­ing and shipped to Viet­nam with the 4th Infantry Divi­sion.

Army veteran Arlen Bliefernicht discusses his service in Vietnam during a July 15, 2010, interview
Army vet­er­an Arlen Bliefer­nicht dis­cuss­es his ser­vice in Viet­nam dur­ing a July 15, 2010, inter­view.
DOD pho­to by Navy Pet­ty Offi­cer 2nd Class William Sel­by
Click to enlarge

“For the first six months I was in Viet­nam, it was like a Boy Scout out­ing,” he said. “It was very casu­al, and we didn’t see a lot of action. But we didn’t see what was com­ing.” The last six months of his tour, fol­low­ing the Tet offen­sive in Jan­u­ary 1968, were less casu­al, to say the least. “It wasn’t non­stop action, but there was a lot of it,” he said. “Up to that point, we suf­fered very few casu­al­ties, but after Tet it was a roller­coast­er.”

At one point, Bliefernicht’s unit ran into a scene straight out of the movie “Full Met­al Jack­et.” In Kan­tum City, the troops got caught up in the “fog of war,” attack­ing hills where the North Viet­namese army had bunkered, not know­ing for sure if the attacks were com­ing on a small scale or were part of a larg­er offen­sive. It was there that they had their first sol­dier killed in action.

After tak­ing one hill, Bliefer­nicht said, he real­ized how much trou­ble his unit was about to encounter.

“One time we were on this hill, we could actu­al­ly see the North Viet­namese com­ing up the val­ley toward us,” he said. “We called in, … ‘Where’s the air strikes? The gun­ships? The artillery?’ They were out.”

The troops had to hold their posi­tions until the sup­ply chain could catch up to what they need­ed to fight back. “That was a very shaky feel­ing, that all of a sud­den we were so low on ammu­ni­tion,” Bliefer­nicht said.

But it was the bat­tle of Chu Moor, near the Cam­bo­di­an bor­der, that real­ly “chewed up” his bat­tal­ion, Bliefer­nicht said. The entire bat­tal­ion and a few oth­er com­pa­nies were involved, he said, and though it isn’t known as well his­tor­i­cal­ly, the troops who were in Viet­nam that year remem­ber it vivid­ly, per­haps more so than the Tet attacks.

It was there, Bliefer­nicht said, that he was wound­ed for the first time. He got shot, but the injury was rel­a­tive­ly small, he said, and he was back on his feet and in the field with­in a few weeks.

“I got a cou­ple of Pur­ple Hearts and a Com­bat Infantry Badge,” he said. “But the biggest medal I earned was get­ting out alive, and I don’t have any dis­abling injuries from that.” Bliefer­nicht said he vis­its the Viet­nam Vet­er­ans Memo­r­i­al here reg­u­lar­ly to pay respects to the sol­diers who weren’t as lucky as he was. It’s hard on him, he acknowl­edged, but he said he has learned to cope in a way sim­i­lar to vis­it­ing deceased friends or fam­i­ly mem­bers at a ceme­tery.

“The Bat­tle of Chu Moor is big in [the memorial’s] sec­tion 53-E,” he said. “There are a few names that jump out who are spe­cial to me. It’s an emo­tion­al impact every time I see it, but I’ve learned to deal with it.”

Bliefer­nicht said he learned a lot com­ing back from the war and see­ing the neg­a­tive reac­tion peo­ple had toward Viet­nam vet­er­ans, and that he thinks the Amer­i­can peo­ple have learned from that mis­take. He had only a few brief instances of peo­ple harass­ing him, he recalled, large­ly because he avoid­ed places or events that would invite harass­ment. He’s glad he hasn’t seen that kind of reac­tion en masse toward vet­er­ans of Iraq or Afghanistan, he added.

“We’re back­ing you,” he said. “I know the ‘Nam vets are going to get out there and make sure you don’t get any recep­tions like we got when we came back. While you’re over there, keep your head down and stay lucky.”

He said the best way peo­ple can sup­port vet­er­ans is to lis­ten to them, and steer them to prop­er help for PTSD or oth­er emo­tion­al issues that can arise after expe­ri­enc­ing com­bat. “The biggest thing, espe­cial­ly with return­ing vet­er­ans, is to have some under­stand­ing of the emo­tion­al and men­tal prob­lems they’re going through, and the mul­ti­ple tours,” Bliefer­nicht said. “So have some under­stand­ing; we didn’t get that under­stand­ing when we came back. They went through some very trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ences –- any­body who goes through war does.”

(“Vet­er­ans’ Reflec­tions” is a col­lec­tion of sto­ries of men and women who served their coun­try in World War II, the Kore­an War, the Viet­nam War, oper­a­tions Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the present-day con­flicts. They will be post­ed through­out Novem­ber in hon­or of Vet­er­ans Day.)

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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