By Jim Bracewell
Mekong Delta, South Vietnam - 1970
He was a war hero, and he wasn't even supposed to be there. Mike Sanchez (not his real name) was a product of Project One Hundred Thousand ...... or McNamara's Folly. Whatever name you gave it, the whole program was a joke. Some well-meaning bureaucrat came up with the idea of admitting 100,000 young people into the Army, even though they didn't meet basic entry standards. They were unable to pass the entrance exams, and many were actually illiterate. They were brought into the Army with an automatic "bar to reenlistment," which meant they could serve only one "hitch" and could not reenlist. The plan was to keep them in the continental United States, teach them some sort of trade, then release them to civilian society as productive citizens. It was a noble idea that was doomed from the start. If nothing else, the timing was awful. You can't do something like that in the middle of a war and expect it to work. It makes one wonder about the real motives. There is no telling how many of these young men got lost in the shuffle, and ended up in Vietnam ... no telling how many ended up in body bags.
Mike Sanchez was fortunate, in a way. He was sent to Vietnam ..... unfortunate. He was assigned to a compassionate leader ... fortunate. He experienced terrible things in combat .... unfortunate. He completed his year and became eligible for the GI Bill ....fortunate. He survived ... fortunate.
He was about twenty years old when he was assigned to the unit I commanded in an air cavalry squadron. He had been in Vietnam about five months when he came to me. After about two minutes of conversation with Mike, it was obvious to me that he shouldn't be where he was. I did a little checking, and learned some interesting information about Mike Sanchez.
To begin with, I learned that he was in the Army because of Project One Hundred Thousand. That is not what surprised me. Three words in his file all but jumped off the page at me .... "The Silver Star." I was stunned to learn that this simple young man had been placed in such a position. It was bad enough that he had been sent "mistakenly" to Vietnam, but he had served his first four months or so in the infantry, in combat! I read on. I even made a few phone calls to learn more.
It seems that as soon as Mike was assigned to his infantry platoon in the field, the young lieutenant platoon leader realized that a terrible mistake had been made. He radioed his concerns to his superiors, and requested that Mike be sent to the "rear" while awaiting reassignment. The process was very slow (perhaps because some personnel officer was reluctant to air a problem that he should have caught in the first place). Meanwhile Mike, a simple young man who could neither read nor write, remained in his infantry platoon. He was being asked to perform beyond his mental capabilities.
To his everlasting credit, Mike's platoon leader was a very compassionate young lieutenant who was extremely concerned about the welfare of his soldiers. He knew Mike shouldn't be there, but since he was, the young officer kept him "under his wing." This was a remarkable effort, considering the demands of an infantry platoon leader in combat. He sort of protected Mike from the inevitable ridicule from unfeeling soldiers, and he did his best to ensure that Mike put no one in harm's way.
One of Mike Sanchez' strongest traits is his intense, almost obsessive, loyalty to people who give him their time, concern, help, and respect. Not many people did that, but for those who did, I think Mike developed a feeling that bordered on love. He nearly worshipped his lieutenant.
On the day Mike Sanchez became a hero, he just did what he perceived as his only option when his lieutenant fell to enemy fire. As the story was told to me by a member of his old infantry unit, Mike's platoon was moving through some open rice paddies toward a stand of palm trees. About thirty yards before they reached the relative safety of the tree line, the platoon came under mortar and small arms fire from their flank. A few men dove behind rice paddy dikes, and the others scampered to the tree line. Mike was among them. As soon as they reached cover, Mike looked for his lieutenant. He couldn't find him. He frantically began calling the platoon leader's name. One of the other soldiers told Mike to stop yelling ... that he had seen the lieutenant go down, and he thought he was dead.
Mike tearfully asked where he was. When he pinpointed the lieutenant's position, he shed his equipment (including his rifle) and ran through heavy fire to his lieutenant. He scrambled to his young leader's side, and discovered that he was badly hit in both legs. Mike didn't know whether the lieutenant was dead or alive. He made no attempt at first aid ... it never occurred to him. He simply picked up the lieutenant as if he were a doll and ran back to the tree line. Neither of them were hit during their dash to the trees, and no one could believe it considering the intensity of the enemy fire. They said the pattern of bullets hitting the rice paddy water all around them made it seem impossible that they were not hit. The lieutenant received first aid, and a short time later was evacuated by helicopter. He survived.
Mike Sanchez was returned to the "rear" about a month later to stand in a parade and receive a Silver Star for heroism to be presented by the commanding general of his division. As is the custom when high ranking officers pin medals on the uniforms of their soldiers, they take a moment to chat with them and congratulate them in their own words. That gesture probably meant more to Mike than the Silver Star, itself. It was during this chat that the general realized something was not quite right. He directed that the situation be examined, and that action be taken to get this young man out of combat.
It's funny how things speed up when the big brass take a personal interest. Mike never returned to the field. He wasn't sent back to the states, either. Once again, some well-meaning higher-up decided that it was only logical for Mike to remain in Vietnam until his year was up. That way he would be credited with a "complete" tour. Big deal! They sure didn't ask Mike what he wanted. (In the end, it was the right thing to do, but it seemed stupid at the time).
The decision was made to reassign Mike to my unit. Since aviation units have rear-echelon sections that are manned by personnel who remain in camp, it was deemed a good place for Mike to finish his tour. When I found out about his assignment to me, I was not enthused, to say the least. However, as I learned more about him my respect for him began to develop. I still felt, selfishly, that they should have sent him somewhere else. I was busy enough trying to fight my little piece of the war, and I didn't need any distractions.
I racked my brain trying to figure out an assignment for Mike. I decided to have the First Sergeant (we called him "Top") assign Mike to the motor pool. I thought that if we could teach him to service vehicles, that we could keep at least keep some of the promises made to him by McNamara's Folly. He failed miserably. Mike was usually one of the topics of discussion during my nightly meetings with Top. Oddly, by now both Top and I wanted to keep Mike in our unit. We were afraid he wouldn't get the attention he needed in another outfit. I'd like to think he would have, but I didn't want to take the chance. Besides, we were handling the situation a little better than we had anticipated. We decided to make Mike my Jeep driver.
Mike Sanchez had never driven a vehicle in his life! Top and I taught him as best we could, and he actually did pretty well once he got used to the clutch. Even so, I did most of the driving ... it was easier than trying to tell Mike where to take me. It became a source of local amusement around the camp to see the commanding officer doing the driving while the driver was perched in the commander's seat, grinning from ear to ear. When it came time to service the Jeep, either Top or I would go to the motor pool with Mike and show him step-by-step how to do it.
When I found out that Mike couldn't read or write well enough to communicate with his mother, I developed a plan. One night each week, I had Mike come to my quarters, where he dictated a letter home. I wrote his words to his mother in English. I learned later that Mike's mother does not read English. Her daughter translated for her. Then "Mom" would answer in Spanish, "Sis" would translate to English, and I would read the reply to Mike.
Back to the loyalty trait. As he had done with his infantry lieutenant, Mike had developed a strong loyalty to Top and me. It never occurred to Mike that every commander and first sergeant have some disgruntled soldiers in their unit who sometimes say bad things about them, or even refer to them in less than flattering terms. We expect it, and take it with a grain of salt. Mike did not take it with a grain of salt! Whenever he heard someone say something bad about Top or me, you could bet there was going to be a fight. They might as well have said something bad about his mother.
I had promoted Mike to E-4 shortly after he arrived in my unit. I learned that he sent all of his pay to his mother except for ten dollars a month that he kept for himself. I really didn't want to reduce his income by "busting" him in rank, but I just couldn't tolerate the fights. I consulted with Top, and together with P.J. (my chief clerk), we devised a scheme. P.J. drew up papers for non-judicial punishment under Article 15 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. They were as phony as a three dollar bill! We called Mike in for his "Article 15." I read the charges, listened to Mike's reply, and told him I was reducing him one grade. Top rather ceremoniously removed Mike's insignia of rank, and I dismissed him. We never turned in the paperwork. Mike never realized what we had done. We actually pulled off the same sham, using the same phony paperwork, three times before the fighting stopped. (I had "promoted" him again each time after a couple of weeks).
As I neared the end of my final tour in Vietnam, I grew concerned about how Mike would get along without me. I knew my replacement quite well, and he assured me that he would look after Mike for his remaining time there. I started to think about Mike's future. I asked what he would do when he left the Army. He replied typically, "I don't know, sir." I pressed him ... "What would you like to do more than anything else?" He said, "I want to be a barber. My brother is a barber, and I want to work for him."
I remembered seeing dozens and dozens of schools advertised in the Army Times classified section, and they all wanted to cash in on the G.I. Bill. Sure enough, there were several barber schools listed in or near Los Angeles, Mike's hometown. I wrote to a few of them, and explained Mike's situation in detail. I pulled no punches, and told them all the good things and all the not so good things. I explained Mike's learning difficulty, but emphasized the fact that once he learns something it might as well be chiseled in granite ... he won't forget it!
I received several form letters in response, and one letter from a gentleman who took the time to send a personal reply. He expressed his understanding of Mike's case because of a similar situation in his own family. He actually thanked me for my interest in helping Mike, and assured me that he would give Mike all the attention he needed to help him become a barber. Mike and I filled out the application forms needed for the school, and selected a date that he would like to begin. I challenged him not to let me down.
I transferred back to the states a short time later, about a month or so ahead of Mike. We didn't try to correspond. I attended a school at Fort Knox for nearly a year, then transferred to California. I left the Army in 1974, and moved to Georgia.
One day, out of the blue, I received a letter by way of Fort Knox and California. The much-traveled note contained a few awkwardly written lines from Mike Sanchez. I think he had written the letter, himself, and I was very proud. He told me that he is a barber, and that he works with his brother. He probably had some help with his wording, because the vocabulary seemed a little out of his range.
In his note Mike thanked me for my help, and I couldn't help thinking ... the person who was really responsible for making Mike's dream come true was the young lieutenant who first took him under his wing.
If anything good ever came out of that time in our history, it was the good fortune that came Mike Sanchez' way. As it turned out for Mike, his being at the wrong place at the wrong time actually was the right place at the right time.
He was a bona fide hero, and he shouldn't even have been there!
By Jim Bracewell
Proud Honorary LRRP
UPDATE: In the summer of 2007, I read in our unit's association newsletter that Mike had died. There were no details. RIP, Mike … a good soldier and a loyal friend.
We need some Vietnam War Stories!