Wednesday, February 19, 2020

An Islander’s Reflection on The Wall That Heals


Every year on Christmas Eve, Phil Ridge—Captain for many years of the Blue Runner Fishing Charters on Marco Island—can never forget the Christmas Eve many years ago in the Republic of South Vietnam.

Phil was born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit and loved all kinds of sports, but when the Detroit Tigers were playing at home, Phil was probably there. He was living in the Motor City when the Vietnam lottery numbers came out, and Phil understood that he was destined to join the Army.

Boot camp in Fort Knox passed with vigorous and tough training, but as the time flew by, everyone in the green fatigues knew there was a nightly body count in Vietnam, and that was something for some of the newfound soldiers that would ultimately be a destiny.

When the airliner door opened onto the busy airfield in Bien Hoa Vietnam, Phil stood for a moment on the boarding steps leading to the cracked concrete runway. The air was hot, heavy, humid, and filled with the scent of a steaming jungle that everyone knew was not far away.

An airborne insect flew by as the new arrivals were gathering on the tarmac; the bug was as big as a small bird. After the insect had passed, there was a lingering scent that smelled like gasoline. Everyone looked at each other and thought, “What kind of place is this?” In the distance, across the airfield, there was another airliner. The undercarriage of the plane was open, and it was being loaded with long metal boxes. Everyone knew what the coffins contained, and no one wanted to look in that direction.

For the new arrivals, the first weeks in the jungle near Chu Lai were a learning experience that defined the rules for survival. One sweltering afternoon during a routine patrol, Phil’s platoon came under sniper fire from a distant tree line. For anyone that has ever wondered: The everglades scenery on either side of Highway 41 leading to Miami appear just like the terrain of South Vietnam.

When the sniper fire erupted, a young and inexperienced lieutenant ordered a full-frontal assault, and everyone began firing their M-16 rifles and charging the tree line. Within minutes, some of the soldiers were behind and tripping in the rice paddy muck, but some were still firing ahead with their bullets tearing up the rice paddies beside the other Americans that were in front and leading the assault. That was the day that Phil and his friend Mike decided they had better look after each other if they were going to survive the war.

The nights in the jungle could drive anyone crazy. The mosquitoes were so horrific; it was a real form of physical and mental torture. When the bugs were bad, the soldiers not on watch would cram cigarette butts dipped in bug repellent in their ears to keep out the buzzing. When the dawn finally did arrive, everyone was exhausted.

The first day Phil saw a Viet Kong it was almost funny. Here was the enemy everyone was looking for running around in what looked like black pajamas. The Viet Kong were jungle fighters, however, and they knew how to make the jungle deadly.

As the first patrols ended and the platoon learned they were going to rest at a fire support base out of the jungle, everyone was excited, until they were assigned latrine duty. With the new assignment Phil, Mike, and their fellow soldiers were given the task of burning and stirring whatever came out of the military outhouses with a wooden stick and a can of diesel fuel. After several shifts of burning, and dodging stinking soot, everyone was ready to go back to the jungle.

With the days passing into weeks, and the weeks passing into seasons, Phil and Mike learned more than ever they needed to apply the strategy of sports if they were going to stay alive. Baseball coaches did not send the weakest player to pitch the game and the same was true in Vietnam. The best players were out in front to scout out the jungle.

The winter season in Vietnam was better than the sweltering summer, but the cooler temperatures brought out aggressiveness in the enemy that was demoralizing at best and deadly if ignored. 

With Christmas only one day away and thoughts of a hot turkey dinner coming in on helicopters, Phil, Mike, and the platoon were hiking through the bush to a landing zone. As the patrol moved forward, Mike took point and Phil walked slack. The remaining troops followed with a strong and heavily armed team bringing up the rear. As Mike walked first as point, his job was to look down at the groundcover and search for trip-wires and booby-traps. Phil’s job walking slack was to be second in line, but he was looking up for signs of Viet Kong or hints of an upcoming ambush. Mike was armed with an M-16 assault rifle and Phil with an M-203 over and under M-16 and shotgun-style grenade launcher.

When Phil, walking directly behind Mike, heard the audible click, there was only a second until Mike looked over his shoulder. There was no time for an apology but the expression on Mike’s face said everything in an instant. He had triggered a mine and there was no time to do anything about it. For Phil, the explosion felt like someone had taken a giant tree branch, pulled it back, and then let it go. The sweeping detonation of the mine that popped up with the triggered spring was so tremendous that the next memory for Phil was waking up in a clearing and asking the medics that were bent over him, “How is Mike and where’s the bird?”

The bird was the medical airlift helicopter and after Phil was airlifted to the 27th Surgical Army Hospital, he underwent extensive surgery to remove shrapnel from almost every part of his body. His heart, however, still carries shrapnel as the mobile unit did not have the equipment to stop and restart his heart and remove the metal from a Viet Kong placed Bouncing Betty.

Mike suffered extensive damage to his legs and torso, but also survived the blast because he was wearing a flak jacket.  At 4:00 PM on the eve of every Christmas, Phil Ridge of Marco Island thinks about the time he was hurt and about how he almost lost his life in Vietnam on Christmas Eve.

When asked about the traveling Vietnam Wall visiting Marco Island, Phil Ridge shared his mixed emotions. “It’s almost scary to think about what it will feel like to stand there,” Phil explained. “I know there will be strong feelings, and probably tears, but I know I’ll have to go and be there. It’s something I have to do.”

One response to “An Islander’s Reflection on The Wall That Heals”

  1. Joe Batte says:

    Phil,

    You are the reason we are bringing the Wall back to Marco for the third time.
    Please join us, your fellow Vietnam Veterans & let the Wall continue to Heal us All!
    As Vice Chair of this event, I respectfully invite you to join us, & perhaps you can help us read the names of the Florida fallen brothers & sisters.
    God Bless you Sir & Thank you for your service!

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