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December 7, 2001

Special Men

There are a few realities of war that are unique and immutable: the small number of people involved day in and day out in combat, the absolute clarity of the experience of man to man combat, and distinctions of love, courage and brotherhood that go so far beyond the normal experience of life that they are unimaginable to any one who has not experienced mortal combat.

During the height of the Vietnam War there were between two and three million men and women in uniform. Of these two or three million about one quarter, or 500,000, were in Vietnam. Of the approximately 500,000 American military personnel in Vietnam about one in 20 were engaged in combat on a day in and day out basis. This translates to 25,000 men.

The American (USA) culture at that time was composed of approximately 200 million people. Simply put, we were a group of 200-plus million people with 25,000 people fighting for us and in our name. The percentages are staggering, and reflect the fact that only one in every 8000 citizens was fighting for our country.

This small number of men was the wall, the armor plating, the membrane, the actual battle line between the population at large and the forces of tyranny. This "thin red line" of men is one of the most elite and courageous fraternities in the vast experience of life. Even more elite among the few is the handful of men who run long-range reconnaissance patrols far behind enemy lines.

Jim Sandoz was one of these few.

* * *

Within this thin red line of men who engage in combat there are distinctions. The most profound distinction in combat is among those who can assume leadership and those who cannot. All men are deeply frightened. It is not the quality of fearlessness but rather how men react to the numbing fear of mortal combat that distinguishes them.

A few men cower; their nervous systems cannot stand the threats and violence that is hurled at them and they simply cannot function. They may panic and rant, they may freeze up, they may just shake and sob. They cannot serve themselves and they endanger those around them.

Most men endure the onslaught. Under the harshest of conditions they manage to move and function within themselves.

There is a third distinction. A few not only fight through the paralyzing fear but are also able to take responsibility for those around them. They see clearly what needs to be done, they take charge and provide leadership for others, and they keenly observe and react to the reality at hand. These are the true leaders and heroes of war. These are the few of the few.

Jim Sandoz is one of these men.

Imagine for a moment that you are one of the few. You are about to go on a deep reconnaissance mission with three other Marines far into enemy territory. Your face is painted with green and charcoal colored grease paint. Every square inch of your body and your equipment has been gone over countless times so that nothing rattles and nothing reflects light. You are limiting yourself to very small amounts of water and food. You are not wearing any protective gear such as a helmet or flak jacket. You are lightly armed because your best defense if you are spotted inside enemy territory is not a few extra magazines of ammunition but the ability to move rapidly.

If it is the monsoon season you will be cold and wet the entire time you are out on patrol. If it is the hot season you will be in heat easily reaching 120 degrees. You will be moving through dense jungle and over steep terrain, without making any noise and without being seen.

The enemy will know you are there. They will not know exactly where you are, but they know what vicinity you are in and they will have specially trained teams of 10 to 12 men who are heavily armed and who will be hunting you and trying to kill you the whole time you are out on patrol.

Your “area of responsibility” will be a little more than one square mile of enemy terrain and the distance you will be from “friendlies” and your base camp is anywhere from four to 40 miles. In other words, there will be four of you and thousands of them.

You will go out on these patrols with the knowledge that sometimes teams never returned, that half the time your mission would be compromised and your team would be in contact with an enemy force that vastly outnumbers you and that your personal likelihood of leaving the combat zone without having been shoot up is low.

Jim Sandoz ran dozens of these patrols.

In the fall of 1968 Jim's team was moving across the edge of a clearing halfway up the side of a small mountain near Khe Sanh and the DMZ. Jim was assistant team leader. The team had sporadically observed and seen signs of the enemy throughout the patrol and they were on alert. It was the rear securities job to be observant of any enemy activity to the rear of the team, but it was Jim who spotted a group of enemy approaching the team. He quickly signaled the team leader. They huddled briefly and realized they were in a very dangerous position and had little time to react. All of this communication was done through hand signals and gestures. Within a second or two they had agreed to move the team into a small clump of bushes nearby and hope that the enemy patrol did not see them.

Within minutes the team was huddled up, back to back in the brush with their rifles off safely.

The enemy patrol of approximately 14 men came wandering across the opening. They were a counter-recon patrol and well armed and trained, but they were apparently unaware that the team they were hunting was so close. As they walked up to the small clump of brush one man, apparently the team leader, gave a command and the members of the team took off their packs and sat down with their backs against the brush to eat. An enemy soldier leaned back against Jim's knee.

No one on the team moved.

After the members of the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) team had settled in and began to eat, their team leader walked over to the small clump of brush, swung off his pack and in the process of turning his body to sit down made direct eye contact with the team leader. Instantly the team leader opened fire on the enemy. Jim Sandoz, experienced and collected under pressure, followed suit. It was over in an instant. Every member of the enemy patrol was either dead or badly wounded.

This is one of many similar instances in which Jim's courage and leadership saved the lives of the men around him.

Posted by dwinds1 at December 7, 2001 12:00 AM