Friday, November 13, 2009

The Varieties of War

Last Wednesday was Veteran's Day. Each year when it comes around I feel quite detached from the celebration. Fresno, a city of half a million that's an hour from where I live, has a big parade. I just can't imagine myself staggering down a street with a bunch of old dudes decorated with bits and pieces of my ancient uniform. I'm glad they do it I just can't bring myself to participate. As worthy as they are, I've never been involved in veterans' organizations.

On November 9th of 1967 I arrived in Vietnam. I was a second lieutenant, a graduate of the Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, GA, trained to be a combat rifle platoon leader.

Your first week or so in Vietnam was spent at a reception station getting acclimated to the heat and awaiting orders. Mine came late one night. My assignment was to a combat battalion that was flying out the next morning. The 4rth Infantry Division was in a major battle in the Central Highlands and we were going to back them up. As officers must do I had to report to the battalion commander. It was after midnight when I arrived. I found him and all the officers of the unit in their private club, a very large tent with a bar. And all of them were getting drunk. I could have hoped for a better moment to make my introduction.

So I came in and saluted Colonel Baldwin. That was his name. Now when you're the newbie junior lieutenant in a battalion you expect a certain amount of harassment. It just goes with the territory. You learn to take it and give it. After I reported to Colonel Baldwin (who was well into his cups), he invited me to have a beer. Now this was a problem. Having grown up in a conservative religious community, at that time I didn’t drink alcohol at all. My previous experiences with military drunks did not incline me to begin, so politely I asked for a Coke. The good Colonel did not appreciate this request.

Now there are three kinds of drunks. First, you have the guys who just get quiet and sink into themselves. Second, there are the party boys who think everything they do and say is screamingly funny. Last, and most dangerous are the belligerent SOB's. Very quickly I discovered that Colonel Baldwin fell into that category. He demanded to know why I wouldn’t accept a beer. Without going into detail I told him that I just didn’t drink. He proceeded to stand me at attention in front of all the other officers and gave me a direct order to drink a beer. At that point I would have drunk acid first. Politely I refused. For the next hour he proceeded to berate me: 1) for not drinking beer, 2) for being a second lieutenant, and 3) for being married of all things. Drunks are such pleasant people. The louder he got the more quietly stubborn I got. Clearly, the man was a buffoon, but put this into context. In a few hours he was going to lead us into battle. It was like entering the Twilight Zone. Thank God we didn't confront the enemy the next day. Later some of the other officers told me that they admired the way I had stood up to him. Of course they didn't have the guts to say a word that night. A week later came my birthday. I turned 22.

After several months Colonel Baldwin was reassigned. The man who replaced him was even worse. Not a drunk, just an arrogant egomaniac out to make a name for himself as a battalion commander. I will never forget his last day with us. We were operating as part of the Mobile Riverine Force in the Mekong Delta. Our rifle companies were on a search and destroy mission and as usual the Colonel was flying overhead in a helicopter. I was leading a rifle platoon. That afternoon my platoon was holed up in a bombed-out Catholic church, so I didn’t see what transpired. But I heard it as it happened over the battalion radio net.

By then a much older captain had joined the battalion. (Probably around the ripe old age of 42.) He was very experienced and he was leading one of the rifle companies. Well he wasn't moving his men fast enough for the Colonel in the helicopter. All of us moved slowly because we were up to our waists in rice paddy mud and the temperature was about 120 degrees. He ordered the captain to get his men up onto the dikes so they could run where he wanted them to go. The captain refused, telling him that the dikes were all booby-trapped with mines. His soldiers would die needlessly. The battalion commander grew furious. Ordering his helicopter to land, he screamed at the captain that he would show him how to lead. Then he proceeded to rush down a dike all by himself. He didn’t go fifty feet before he was blown to pieces. All of us listening on the battalion radios cheered. The reward for his arrogance and stupidity was a trip home in a body bag.

I have always said that my time in the army was excellent preparation for Hollywood because I learned how to fight and how to deal with idiots. The army has its share of bullies but there are far more of them in Hollywood, little martinets who rise up and strut for awhile making everyone's life hell. Then, they vanish away. I discovered long ago that you can do your very best to live at peace with these people, but if they feel you are not properly intimidated there's going to be trouble.

Years ago I had a deal with a production company at MGM. I had been brought in to write the pilot for a TV series and be the showrunner guiding other writers in the development of episodic scripts. The company had several series in production so there were a number of writers at work. The man in charge of it all had a reputation for being a bully, but my relationship with him had been fine.

As the weeks passed I brought in writers and we began to develop stories for the series. Finally I felt that one was ready to present for approval. I sent the detailed story over. A day or so later the man called for a meeting with the writer. The meeting took place in my office. To my surprise this little bully walked in, sat down and literally threw the story at my writer. Then he began berating him.

The writer was an old friend of mine. Years later he loved to describe what happened next. He said that my eyes grew wide, then they narrowed. I rose up and almost came over my desk. He thought I was going to grab the man and strangle him. In a quiet voice I informed him that he could yell at me and throw things at me all he wanted, but never again was he going to treat one of my writers this way. Like all bullies he shriveled. Well, the word got out to everyone in that company. From that moment the man was terrified of me. Apparently no one had ever stood up to him. After that I tried to be friendly and professional, but our relationship did not blossom. A month or so later he did some unethical things that forced me to leave. I was glad to be gone. Later he was fired from the company for illegal activities.

As a Christian I have discovered that when I am attacked I have a hard time defending myself, but when others are attacked I have an absolute responsibility to defend them if I am able.

When soldiers returned after a year in Vietnam so many confronted total rejection. In large part this was a result of the traitors in the media and the insane radicals in the streets. But it got very personal. Men came home not only to be spit upon by strangers, but to wives who had left them and families who didn't care whether they were home or not, to old friends who rejected them as "baby killers." It is one of the greatest disgraces in the history of America and it went on for years.

But I was blessed. I didn't face any of those things. The week I came home I was asked to speak in uniform at a chapel service at the Moody Bible Institute. After my talk, which was well received, the students were about to leave. My sweet wife was in the audience sitting with an old friend who was a professor. They decided to clap which was something that just didn't happen in those services. Suddenly, all 1100 students were clapping and cheering. That was my welcome home, that was my parade, and I will always be grateful.

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  1. Coleman, I read your post today with great interest. I think I might have mentioned to you at some point in time that my oldest brother served two tours of duty in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot.

    I would *love* to have him regale us family members with his recollections about Vietnam; however, he has never talked about his time spent there and doesn't want to "revisit" those memories. It was a really big event for him to join all of us other family members in San Francisco for Thanksgiving 2007, because he had bitter memories of his return to the States when coming home from Vietnam. San Francisco was his entry point, and he, like thousands of other brave men coming back from that war, was treated poorly and disrespectfully.

    He came to San Francisco; we had a wonderful Thanksgiving; and he made a point of telling me that the time with all of us there provided some "healing" (his word) for him.

    Thanks for this little "side trip" for me today as I visited your blog!


    Myrna White

  2. That was a great essay. I have seen my share of those Hollywood bullies, no question. You did the right thing, standing up for that writer.

  3. As a Christian and a Viet Nam Vet, thanks for this post.

  4. Great stuff and so true. Of course, not all of those radicals in the street were insane. Well, then again, I was pretty crazy back then...but I always had great respect for the vets even when I was protesting the war. I had friends in SDS but I never could commit to joining anything like that because I knew they weren't seeing the whole picture. Yes, the Government wasn't telling the truth but neither were they.

  5. Great blog! Thanks, Coleman. I'm going to pass it along to some of the soldiers/vets I'm in touch with.

  6. Coleman: Thank you for your service in VietNam, in Hollywood, and now. Thank you for telling us the truth about what you experienced. I salute you. Les Nordman

  7. Other than my eyes going out while reading little white symbols on a black background, this was a very stimulating and moving piece. I had no idea that Coleman Luck, the Equalizer, the Hollywood Executive, was pro-military and not afraid to say so. It actually gave me a real lift to my day, and made me realize that there may be a lot of us Hollywood types out there who don't quite march to the same beat as George Clooney. Thanks, Coleman, for fighting for us in Vietnam, and for standing up for your writers, and for modeling a different kind of Hollywood type. May your spirit be multiplied in the days ahead. -Jack Hafer

  8. Truly an inspiration. Thank you for your service, your courage and your character. You honor our God and our country with all three. Jill Farmer

  9. Coleman my old buddy,
    Thanks for sharing some thoughts on military life and Viet Nam as it helps me in dealing with some of my issues. I joined the US Army at the age of 17. It was either that or boy's reform school. I was not a Christian during my 3 years of service so my perspective is totally different than yours.
    I trained to be a demolition expert and assigned as a Combat Construction Engineer and was stationed with the Lightning Division (25th) in Co.D, 65th Engineers where our motto was "First In, Last Out". We had some intensive jungle training on the Big Island for 3 weeks and then shipped of to Korat, Thailand where we spent the next 8 months in the jungle just outside the air force base there. Our mission was to begin building what became Camp Frienship in the middle of this jungle. We were the very first troops there and spent most of our time sleeping on the jungle floor and cutting and clearing the jungle for the buildings. We hated 2nd LOUIES as they were usually college grads and had a US number which meant they were drafted.
    One of our regular missions was to do recon into Laos/Cambodia and Viet Nam. As an engineer we had to determine where to build roads/LZ's/ bridges/lay minefields and so on.
    Let me just say that when we were told to "lock and load" for a recon I had no idea what we were heading into. I soon found out as I was the point man on most of the patrols (they nicknamed them LRRP's- long range recon patrols) because of my ability to move quickly and marksmanship.
    After coming home (which was not very pleasant) I accepted Christ at age 20 and enrolled at Moody Bible Institute where the Lord showed me what it was really like for a young man to fully dedicate his life to Christ. This was the most valuable lesson I got from being a part of the Men's Glee Club and seeing their love for the Lord.
    Like you, I have never joined any of the veteran's organizations but I do have respect for them.
    Going to Moody was a challenge as just having been through the jungles of Nam and being told I could not even hold a girls hand was a JOKE to me. What helped me during my time at Moody was having a friend like Coleman who took the time to talk with me and even HANG out with me on occassions. I needed that then and still do today so thanks Old buddy for sharing this BLOG with us. May our Lord continue to work in your writing abilities and your desire to see others come to Christ. After all that is our new MISSION in this life. Go forth and make disciples of all nations.

    Dan Waggoner

  10. Cole, just a huge "THANK YOU" for all your service and influence to make this world a better place despite the Worwil... !

    Hi, Dan, thank you for what you have done for all of us as well! Flashback: that was great pheasant...thanks to your marksmanship!

    Karen Hutch.

  11. Uncle Coleman,

    A belated but heartfelt thank you for your service to Our Living Father and our country.

    "For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many."

    -R. Coleman Luck

  12. Your comments remind me of my father who I learned from my mother served in the South Pacific in reconnisance in The Great War. This experience later led him to becoming a renowned photo journalist with the Los Angeles Times. Although there were a couple of pics I had seen of my father in uniform, he would never talk about any of his experiences with me or my sisters.

    Only later in life when he was in his sixties did he suddenly open up to me @ his home after dinner. One of the things that surprised me was after returning to the states he worked as a clerk while still in the US Air Force, but stationed in Hollywood. That explains how he met my mother @ a USO dance in Hollywood. It also explained another interesting skill: he could type on a manual typewriter @ 120 words a minute! (Typing was an unusual skill for a man in those days.)

    He still would never talk about his combat experience till the day he died, but at least I learned something about his chronology during those crazy days.

    He picked up the common habit of smoking and tried to stop several times. Finally, one evening he took one last drag and calmly said, "This is my last." He did it, how I don't know. He didn't drink and didn't fall into some of the other bad habits of ex-smokers. I always admired him for his resolve. Maybe I just don't need to know certain of his experiences in WW II.

    My father was not a praying man. Just before the millinium, he called to say he and my mother wanted to take the Amtrak from San Diego to Los Angeles for Thanksgiving Dinner. He said he had something special. When we all sat down, he asked us to bow our heads and he proceeded to give the most touching prayer. I didn't cry then, but I did later that night.

    My father died a few weeks later, choking on a pill just before being released from the hospital where they almost killed him through gross inattention and an accident in the operating room while he was completely unattended!
    * * * * * *
    I've had similar experiences in protecting others. Some of my friends remark on my BBI, Black Belt in Intimidation, different from my normal mild-mannered self (smile). I suppose you could call it righteous anger, but it's just a reaction to others being threatened.

  13. Karen? No way, is that really you? WOW so nice to see you on Coleman's (the old fart) blog. How are things with you all? Is Ron still able to read these days? I mean he was slipping away even back then, we could all sense it in his funny little laugh.
    Hope all is well and really is nice to hear from you. I also saw Myrna made some comments on here and seems like days of old are staring us in the face.
    Let's all meet in Chicago at Pizzeria Uno's and tell each other how great we all look for our age.
    Dan Waggoner

  14. Colman I thank God for men like you who represent our Saviour well! May He continue to use you as you write your blog and serve a greater cause then yourself. Gene