Long ago and far away — in fact fifty-two years ago next month in the former Republic of South Vietnam — a group of American paratroopers arrived and began combat operations against an enemy force that was known as Viet Cong. The 173rd Airborne Brigade moved lock, stock and helicopters into Vietnam. I was a 19-year-old infantrym n in the 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, a component of that brigade. I went to war as a teenage soldier fifty-two years ago next month.
I am certainly not the only teenager who has gone to war. I was not even the youngest soldier in that infantry unit. I dare say that I am not the only Oklahoma veteran who has found him- or herself at war as a teenager. No doubt, I am not even the only Ada combat veteran who earned that status as a teenager. I am, however, the only one who was me. My experiences in war have contributed a great deal to the man that I am today, in ways that are both good and bad.
It is sometimes said that wars are fought by a few good men and women and many teenagers. There are good reasons for such. Teenagers are physically strong, energetic, and...how can I say this?...they usually don’t over-think things. Teenagers make good warriors. When they are matched with good adult leadership, these kids can be part of pretty effective operational teams. That is something of which to be very proud.
Now, consider what effective operational teams accomplish in war. The cold reality of war may set in during the combat experience, or years later. It will set in, however. Soldiers have ways of demonizing and dehumanizing enemy combatants in order to justify the inhumane behavior in which one must engage in order to survive, let alone excel, at warfare. This is the environment in which many of us found ourselves as teenagers.
All men and women who engage in war have stories to tell. Those of us whose stories include having gone to war as teenagers were influenced in ways that are difficult to explain and difficult to understand. Our stories need to be told as distinct from the annals of the “adult” combatants. I would love to put together some of the stories of the former teen warriors, of any war, and share them with the readers of this space. Names may be used or excluded. Please send me your stories. Relate your experiences in war and how those experiences have influenced your life since. I hope we can begin a helpful dialog.