Frederick Richard “Rick” Ohler’s name is just one of about 58,000, mostly men and barely old enough to be treated as adults had they avoided military service. They are all dead. Rick, at 24, was one of the older soldiers in the 519th MI Battalion and, like many of us, he was an intelligence analyst.
Our compound was in a rather rural place known as Xao Ding. We weren’t that far from where I worked 12 hours a day— the Combined Intelligence Center Vietnam (CICV) at Tan Son Nhut Air Base— but our only protection from enemy combatants were the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) troops around us, That wasn’t a concern until the Tet Offensive, which was launched on Jan. 30, 1968. Then there were Viet Cong and NVA all around us, and we were in a compound that had been allotted dozens of M-14s for the couple hundred of us stationed there. Real soldiers were armed with M-16s, and most of us hadn’t fired a weapon since basic training.
There were some harrowing hours lurking behind makeshift barriers overlooking a narrow branch of the Saigon River. Men were dying just a few hundred yards in front of us. Tracers filled the sky, and we knew we were vulnerable should an enemy unit decided to cross the water that was barely as wide as a typical Pennsylvania creek during a dry summer. They never did, but we were dumb enough and young enough to think we wanted some action.
Despite the potential of attack, we owed much of our protection to the ARVN combat troops nearby. I remember learning that the commanding office of our unit, a major, had put himself in a for a Purple Heart because he cut a finger while moving some gas cans during the scramble on the most dramatic night. That somehow seemed to cheapen what a band of volunteers were going through that same evening and into the early morning hours when they came under fire.
Rick Ohler, a big strong guy from Garden City, NY, who loved to pump iron, was a nice guy and one of those itching for action. It was in April 1968 when he and a handful of others volunteered to go to the Plum Farm, a compound nearby where various supplies were stored for compounds within the 525th MI Group. It was certain to come under attack, they were told, and they needed some bodies on the premises. It was essentially guard duty in a hot spot, and there were combat troops and helicopters in the vicinity to keep the enemy, in this case North Vietnamese (NVA) units, at bay. Some of us who didn’t get to go were envious because, at that point, we didn’t have many war stories to tell when we got home.
As it turned out, few people back in the states ever asked. They were either protesting the war here or pretending it didn’t exist.
I wrote about Rick Ohler a few years ago. I knew his mortal injuries were incurred from friendly fire— one of our own misdirected rockets— but I didn’t know the particulars beyond that. Not long ago I came across a book written by Jonathan Stevenson entitled “Hard Men Humble: Vietnam Veterans Who Wouldn’t Come Home.” It was actually a preview of the book— part of one chapter that was linked to the Vietnam Memorial website— and I was suddenly back in Vietnam where Rick Ohler and others were leaving for the Plum Farm.
In writing about another soldier, the actual fate of Ohler was revealed in a fragment of a paragraph: “…A close friend, Rick Ohler, had one leg blown off in ‘friendly fire’ and later died at Walter Reed Hospital, just as he was about to have the other leg amputated…”
I never knew he lived long enough to make it back to the states. I never knew that this powerful guy who treated his body as a temple, had he lived, would have had to return to civilian life without legs. He had been frozen in time more than 50 years ago, never to grow old, and he was suddenly not among us. That was the way it was in Vietnam and the way it is today in modern warfare.
I don’t think I ever had any symptoms of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), but I remember how surreal it was returning to the United States. There was some survivor’s guilt, I suppose, knowing others were dying every day, eventually to the tune of 58,000— approximately the population of my native county— and memorialized on the wall in D.C. (At least four times as many South Vietnamese troops died plus an estimated 1.1 million civilians.) Many times more joined the legions of disabled in this country. It was tough, after living for a year in a hostile environment, especially the six months after the launch of the Tet Offensive, to go back to being “normal.” I still had another year to serve after returning, so I was more slowly weaned from the threatening war environment than some who may have had fewer days to adjust between ‘Nam and civilian life.
I was 19 when I went to Vietnam and during my final months in the Army, I married and Mary and I moved off base in Arlington, VA, experiencing civilian life for the first time. I was a heavy smoker when I returned, and I was able to quit that habit during those first few months of our marriage. By late summer 1969, I received an early discharge of some 45 days of my three-year enlistment to return to college on the GI Bill.
It was as if Vietnam had never existed. It was more like a bittersweet dream that you had to shake from your consciousness. I made some great friends in Vietnam. I loved those guys. One of them was an usher in my wedding. I haven’t seen or heard from most of them since the summer of 1969.
My chief regret is I lost track of a handful of valued friends. I guess we all wanted to move on and revisiting Vietnam was not a priority in our lives in the 1970’s. After that, maybe it was too late to reconnect. I can only imagine how hard it is for 21st Century soldiers returning from war zones— and having to do it multiple times during a span of several years.
I’m afraid to Google the names of those Viet vets with whom I served. It seems every time I do, I’m reading an obit. Too many have died. Maybe its best to remember them when they were young and healthy, brimming with optimism in a war-torn country that would be unfairly remembered as the first war we ever lost. Korea, of course, was, and continues to be, a draw and an unfinished struggle. We’ve had too many of them lately and too many Rick Ohlers.
(Note: I’ve been in a beautiful and very rural part of Maine known as the Western Mountains —on the shore of one the larger lakes in Maine— since Sunday. Wifi at this abode is unpredictable and I wasn’t even sure I could get this posted. I chose something I wrote as a newspaper column years ago with minimal revisions. Looks like it will get through.)