Crossroads Experiences - The Warrior's Journey®

Crossroads Experiences

Author: Chaplain, COL Scott McChrystal, USA (Ret.)

Virginia Guard chaplain support teams support military personnel in Louisiana. Photo by Coast Guard is licensed under CC By 2.0

The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge; the ears of the wise seek it out. (Proverbs 18:15)

God’s knowledge and wisdom are available for those who genuinely want to listen and learn. His Holy Spirit can speak to any person who will keep an open heart and mind to truth, even someone who does not really know Him in a personal way. I say this with confidence because it happened to me at a most crucial time in my life.

In South Vietnam in early 1972, I was serving in the northernmost U.S. military sector, known as I Corps. I was an Infantry platoon leader in an infantry battalion whose mission was to interdict the enemy’s progress southward in the rest of South Vietnam. It was a tough mission for many reasons — booby traps and changing rules of engagement were two of the most frustrating. Rules of engagement governed the ability of U.S. forces to use force against the enemy, and these rules were especially challenging around built-up areas with a largely civilian population.

This particular day my platoon was to fly by helicopter into an unsecured area, set up a patrol base, and send out squad-sized patrols in search of the enemy. My greatest initial concern focused on enemy dispositions near the proposed area of insertion. The enemy often lurked in concealed positions to ambush incoming aircraft. Another tactic was to saturate landing zones with booby traps. Sometimes these tactics were used in combination.

A potentially complicating factor for this mission was the presence of a village about a thousand meters from the scheduled landing area. We normally used preparatory fires on the objective area prior to landing. Any civilians nearby would be in serious danger.

We crowded my platoon onto four UH1H helicopters, each armed with M-60 machine guns at the left and right side doors. Accompanying our flight were two Cobra helicopter gunships and one C & C (command and control) helicopter that carried leaders who were directing the airmobile insertion.

Once in the air, I monitored the battalion command radio net, the frequency the battalion operations officer (known as the S3) was using to communicate with all pilots and with the battalion commander back at the battalion firebase. The S3 passed the word that we were five minutes from the objective area. At that point I could feel the butterflies begin in the pit of my stomach.

I mentally rehearsed actions on the objective as we prepared to land and secure the area.

Suddenly the S3 came over the radio and ordered the lead helicopter to pull back from the objective and continue in a wider orbit until further notice. He had spotted several personnel on the landing zone, apparently dressed in black and possibly carrying weapons. I continued to listen to the S3 as he discussed the situation with the Cobra pilots and with the commander back at the firebase. Finally, he gave orders to the Cobra pilots to place fire on the objective area. Immediately, I saw the Cobras make a sharp turn and begin their descent to the target area. In just a few seconds, the landing zone would be enveloped in a hailstorm of bullets and rockets. Any person caught in their sights would almost certainly die.

The Cobra pilots did their duty with deadly accuracy. The helicopters carrying my platoon were cleared to land. As we hovered to within a couple feet of the ground, I jumped off into a windstorm of dust created by the powerful rotor blades and ran out away from the chopper.

With my platoon on the ground, the choppers quickly left the landing zone. I checked to make sure each squad was performing measures to secure the area. We posted 360-degree security at sufficient distances to protect us from ambush while simultaneously sweeping the immediate area for booby traps. None were found. Our attention now focused on attending to five personnel present in the landing zone when the Cobras made their firing run. Not a pretty sight. I will spare you the details except to say that two of the people were still alive — barely. All five appeared to be between the ages of 5 and 16. They were wearing what looked like black pajamas and had been carrying sticks. Perhaps they had been searching for firewood. I don’t know. As I surveyed the carnage, I recall saying out loud, “This never should have happened.”

I immediately directed my RTO (radio/ telephone operator) to call the pilots who had just dropped us off. We needed their assistance with transporting the three killed and two wounded boys to the rear area. Maybe emergency medical help could save at least one of the survivors. Within three to four minutes, the choppers were back. We loaded the five personnel and they were in the air in minutes, but I doubt the two survived.

About 15 minutes later, another helicopter landed and the battalion command sergeant major motioned to me to get on the aircraft. Apparently, the battalion commander wanted to see me back at the battalion firebase.

The helicopter landed and I was escorted to the commander’s office. He pointed me toward a seat then looked at me for a few seconds before speaking. I sensed he was choosing his words very carefully.

“Lieutenant,” he began, “I know you didn’t like what just happened on the objective. I didn’t either. I understood that you spoke aloud within the hearing of some of your men that the incident never should have happened. We need to talk about this.”

Unknown to me, the battalion sergeant major had apparently landed on our objective shortly after my platoon had landed and overheard my comment about the incident.

From my perspective as a young officer, I did view the event as clearly avoidable. It appeared to me that young civilians had died needlessly. I was very angry, and the commander knew it.

My battalion commander, a veteran of multiple tours in Vietnam, had a different perspective. He explained that he had seen American soldiers wounded or killed when the enemy used civilians as decoys. He furthered explained that the village had been properly warned about impending U.S. operations and that the area was a free-fire zone strictly off limits to all villagers.

He continued, “I don’t like to see any innocent people hurt or killed, but my first responsibility is to protect soldiers under my command. You and your platoon could have been victims of the enemy’s deceptive tactics. I was not willing to take that chance. I gave the order for the Cobra pilots to place fire on the objective area.”

Like a father, he followed with this: “Scott, war can be very tough. I want to offer you a choice. You have already completed more combat field duty than normally required for lieutenants in this battalion. I will be happy to reassign you to a rear area job. If you don’t want that and would rather return to your platoon, I need your word that you will not second-guess my decisions in front of your platoon again. Is that clear?”

Have you ever had one of those moments when you know that what is about to happen could change the course of your life? I call these “crossroads experiences,” and I was definitely having one.

If ever I needed wisdom, I needed it then. From seemingly out of nowhere, it came. It was the Lord speaking to my heart, but I didn’t realize it back then. I was not a Christian, and I knew almost nothing about the things of God. The voice, though not audible, spoke and told me to listen to my commander. That he was a man of reason and experience. He clearly hated that civilians had been hurt, but he was correct to take actions he deemed necessary to protect his troops. I sensed that I should tell the commander that I wanted to get back to my platoon, that I would not second-guess my commander’s decisions in front of my men again.

I followed that counsel to the letter. I shook hands with the commander, saluted, and left his office. I got on a chopper and returned to my platoon.

Decades have passed, but I’ve never forgotten that day. The faces of those Vietnamese kids haunt my memory. But the Lord has given me perspective. I am convinced he made what he believed was the right decision for that place and that time. On top of that, I can see that the Lord used him to teach me some tough lessons about war and the need for leaders to maintain discipline and self-control at all times.

Over the years since I put my faith in Christ in 1973, I have seen the Lord intervene countless times in my life. I also know that many times He was acting behind the scenes even when I didn’t know it. That day in Vietnam was just one example.

Do you need wisdom and guidance? Ask the Lord. He will guide you. You can count on it.

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