It’s no surprise that Richard Alexander is among the best Masters swimmers in the country. Six feet three inches tall with long arms
and broad shoulders squared and level like bookshelves, he has a physique well-tailored for propelling himself through the water. Even at 71, he just looks like a swimmer.
It’s hard to picture this formidably proportioned man cooped up in an armored personnel carrier, but back in 1966, after the
Army’s cursory evaluation of draftee skills, Alexander received the MOS (Military Occupation Status) 11Delta20, Armored Reconnaissance–in other words, a tanker.
After basic training at Fort Dix and an eight-month stint at Fort Knox driving tanks to within an inch of their operational lives for the Test and Evaluation Command, Private
Alexander was assigned to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment–in Vietnam.
I was introduced to Rick by a mutual friend who correctly guessed that we’d have a lot to talk about, not only as former soldiers but
also as Masters athletes (I’m a distance runner) and writers. In particular, our friend thought we might want to discuss the book Rick was finishing, a memoir of his
Now the world can read his story in My Other Life: A Combat Soldier in Vietnam, newly published by The Darwin Press here in Princeton.
As he states in the opening sentences, it’s a story a long time in the making: “Not a day has gone by during the past forty-six
years that I haven’t thought about that place over there–the Nam, as those of us who fought over there called it. Not Nam. Not Vietnam. The Nam.”
As I read Rick’s first few chapters, I was reminded of another war memoir, E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed, considered by
many the finest personal account of combat in World War II and certainly the best to emerge from the Pacific Theater.
True, their combat experiences vastly differed and Rick, who has since read Sledge’s book, would be the first to point it out.
Sledge survived relentlessly savage fighting on Peleliu and Okinawa with small-arms, mortars, and artillery, while Alexander describes armored patrolling in Vietnam as a
harrowing game of Russian roulette with mines and rocket attacks. Sledge began writing his account while still in the service; Alexander waited decades to finally commit his
observations to paper.
Where Alexander reminds me so much of Sledge is in his tone and persona. In the best sense, he’s an Everyman, sane and decent. My Other Life comes across like a conversation; as with
Sledge, when you read Alexander narrating his story, you feel like you’re a friend. And both men suffered because they
couldn’t look away, couldn’t keep the heartbreak at a mental arm’s length: they never stopped caring.
Throughout the book, he has the recurring epiphany in recounting what he did and thought during those times that it
feels as if it happened to someone else. This phenomenon, shared by people throughout time and not limited to those who
fought in wars, informs the book’s title. As I said to Rick, it reminds me of the opening line of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the
Storm:” “’Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood.”
Part of the incredulity Alexander feels in looking back at his Vietnam experience begins with how he entered the service. The
title of his first chapter says it all: I Wanted to Go. But to use an Army parlance, he greased the skids:
I brought the war upon myself, of course. Flunking out of school–well–allowing myself to be placed on academic
suspension for the upcoming 1965-66 school year with what was happening in Southeast Asia, I was pretty certain that Uncle Sam would soon come knocking, saying, I WANT YOU! So, feeling that–who knows?–the Army might do me some
good, help me grow up as they say, help me set some more meaningful priorities for myself (my father was certainly thinking that way), so I wrote to the draft board and asked
them to please speed things up.
And so, like the other 2,709,917 Americans who served in Vietnam, Alexander found himself stepping off a plane onto the
broiling tarmac in Saigon. The next day, at unit assignments, his name was called by a sergeant from the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.
The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment . . . in the context of Vietnam, a unit with that title speaks volumes to the absurdity
of American involvement. You hear “cavalry regiment” and picture men on horseback, fluid, far-ranging battles, the wide
open vistas of a John Ford Western. Knowing that such a unit actually means tracked personnel carriers and tanks beggars
belief: how do you fight a war using armored vehicles in a land of swamps, rice paddies, near-vertical mountains, and clotted jungles?
Well, you don’t. What you do is get ambushed by a few “dirt
farmers” with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) or trip a land mine with enough force to flip your 13-ton armored personnel
carrier like it’s a child’s Matchbox car.
But as Alexander makes painfully clear in several episodes, the Viet Cong wasn’t the only enemy. Sometimes, the most
dangerous, most despicable men were right in your own unit, like Sergeants Hanover and Waters, two NCOs from the deep South who found in Vietnam a paradise in which to practice
racism and sadism. One of his central experiences, Alexander begins:
The first patrol I went out on–that Lonnie bless his trombone-playing heart was missing because he’d been
whisked away to go off and play in the 11th Cav band–was an eye opener; what happened that insufferably hot, muggy
afternoon in the small, bombed-out jungle village we ended up in on the other side of the paddies, I have carried around with me to this day; it set the tone for my whole tour.
Just prior to the patrol’s setting out, Sergeant Hanover called over to me as I was walking back from the mess tent. I
squinted to see who it was. The sunlight was blinding. It was that tall, skinny, curly gray-haired individual I’d seen on the
ship but had no idea who he was. Well, a sergeant, someone who had free rein to fuck with me any time he wanted. And
he was fixin’ on doing just that at that moment. Damn. I’d almost made it. I’d come three-quarters of the way down the
hill and was almost to Two-three’s [his track] position on the perimeter when he stopped me–and like it’d been jus’
buggin’ the shit outta him an’ he jus’ had t’know–said, “You like niggers?”
“I got nothin’ against black people,” I said.
He shook his head back and forth, disgustedly, and then peering at me with his steely gray eyes, said, “I ain’t sayin’
nothin’ ‘bout no black people now. I said, ‘you like niggers?’”
Young Private Alexander thinks it’s a joke, some kind of hazing of newbies. Sheepishly, he looks at several black NCOs in
earshot, expecting to see them cracking up.
But no, no one was laughing and when Hanover looked at me and said, “well, since y’all don’ seem t’mind bein’
aroun’–black people as you calls ‘em–ah might jus’ ‘ave t’see to it you get yer ass assigned to a nigger track” I just
During the patrol, while keeping watch as Sergeants Hanover and Waters search a suspected enemy position, Alexander
encounters an unarmed kid, “a filthy, bare-footed boy wearing tattered black pajamas.”
When the two NCOs discover the boy, they relish his terror as they conduct a mock-debate on how to kill him, Sergeant Waters
adding, “lucky I don’t ‘ave the time er I’d string yo ass up like a nigga in one of them trees yonder.” Then they extend their
cruelty to Private Alexander:
Sergeant Hanover stood for a long time watching the boy’s eyes dart back and forth in fear, and then calmly, as if he’d
suddenly become bored, he turned, aimed his cold, gray eyes at me, and with a huge smirk on his face, said, “Shoot ‘em! Shoot the motherfucker!”
I gazed at the frightened boy, and then turned toward the sergeant. “Look, sarg, he’s. . . .”
“But he’s. . . .”
“. . . he’s unarmed and. . . .”
“That’s an order, Private. You hear me?”
“But. . . .”
I pleaded with Sergeant Hanover to take the boy prisoner, stating how the boy was unarmed and maybe with an
interpreter he could provide some valuable information, but neither of the sergeants was listening, they both just looked
at each other, shaking their heads, until finally, with a kicked look in his eyes, that all too familiar, merciless, gonna git me some look, Sergeant Hanover gunned the boy
Alexander follows up this nightmare by informing us that three weeks later, Sergeant Hanover was paralyzed from the neck
down when his track set off a mine. As we all do when we relive scenes of anger and personal insult, Alexander wished he could
“go visit the sorry ass bastard as he lay helplessly on a hospital bed somewhere and inform him, face to face, eyeball to eyeball,
that I was glad he was he suffering and would no longer be able to get around–War’s a bitch, ain’t it sarg?”
Of course, Rick never obtained such dramatic catharsis. His has been the longer path to reconciliation: the burden of memory,
the obligation to bear witness.
On the back cover of My Other Life, there’s a photo of Alexander standing among a dozen South Vietnamese children ranging in
age, I’d guess, from 3 to 10 years old.
It’s a study unto itself. Weaponless, he stands squarely on his feet, tree-like both for his towering stature and his enormous
dun boots and O.D. green fatigues and boonie cap. He’s nearly twice as tall as the tallest kid there. His track looms in the
background, but close examination reveals a child’s hand reaching up to climb on the hulking vehicle.
There’s something at once startling, beautiful, and terribly poignant about this picture. It’s a sunny day. The children are
smiling, utterly at ease around this giant. Who knows what misery and brutality await some of them, but for one moment in
the pointless tragedy of America’s involvement in Vietnam, a kind of innocence obtains. I have no doubt that the children knew that this big American was a good man.
My Other Life: A Combat Soldier in Vietnam, The Darwin Press, Inc., Princeton, 2016. www.darwinpress.com