Ivan Starr: Paying tribute to Lakota veteran Joe Brown Eyes

The following opinion was written by Ivan F. Starr. All content © Native Sun News.

Joseph "Joe" Brown Eyes, 1949-2013

Tribute to a veteran of Vietnam; Joe Brown Eyes
By Ivan F. Starr Comes Out

Dedicating this article to the late Joe Brown Eyes, my hunka (adopted) brother, a fellow veteran and friend, is the least I can do. Joe died on April 4 of last year due to health complications related to his service in the Vietnam War. He was buried with military honors at the Black Hills National Cemetery at Sturgis on April 12, 2014.

A year ago, a severe snow storm prevented relatives and friends in the outlying districts from making the trip into Pine Ridge for his wake and services held at the Billy Mills Hall. His memorial event is currently slated to occur on the last day of the Sundance in Slim Buttes. Will and Lena Peters are the contact persons.

Anyway, I did a tribute of sorts at his wake and in his memory and I am sharing that with those who were not able to make it to his wake. Of course, Joe was a veteran of the war in Vietnam and that’s where I begin.

The Vietnam War experience was undoubtedly unique for each veteran. One veteran described it as a time of quiet uneasy waiting, interrupted by moments of stark terror. If a soldier was not engaged in search and destroy missions in their Area of Operation (AO), he filled sandbags to make bunkers and did guard duty and base perimeter patrols.

The thick heat was oppressive and the men were plagued by millions of stinging mosquitos. Occasionally, a monkey or a tiger set off a trip flare or rattled the rock-filled C-ration cans hung in the wire to warn of Viet Cong (VC or Charlie) or North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers creeping up on their camp or base.

Then suddenly the nervous calm is shattered by deafening explosions and automatic weapons fire. Men fell mortally wounded or dead as they maneuvered to get into position to defend themselves. Each man coped with a personal battle – that potent feeling of stark horror.

It was against this setting that Joe, although not of age, volunteered for the military during the late 1960s. He passed the physical and was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington for Basic Combat Training. His advanced individual training occurred at the same base and he became a Radio Operator.

The military would not let Joe go to Vietnam immediately because his older brother Errol “Scotty” Brown Eye, also in communication’s, was already serving there. This is a policy that has its origins in the Civil War where no more than one member from a family is allowed to fight in a war. Scotty was hoping to keep his younger brother out of Vietnam by extending his duty in Vietnam two times.

However, Joe wanted to go and signed the required waiver relieving the military of liability to that policy and arrived in Vietnam in 1969. His first duty assignment was with the 9th Infantry Division (ID) operating in the tactical zone II Corp. Although the 9th ID was one of the first combat units withdrawn from Vietnam under Nixon’s Vietnamization program, he was not going home with his unit.

In Joe’s words, his excitement crashed as he was reassigned to a communications battalion with the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division to finish out the remainder of his 12-month tour of duty. Camp Evans in the northernmost tactical zone known as I Corps became his base camp.

Joe once said that people today do not know what the young men encountered during their tours of duty. He said that all people know is that we went away to a war in a distant place called Vietnam and most of us came home a year later. But they don’t know what we experienced there. Then after a moment of thought, he said that perhaps it is best because they can never understand.

One of these unknowns was the fact that every man was paid an extra $50.00 per month for hazardous duty, often called combat pay by the troops. The “Screaming Eagles,” Joe’s new unit, faced the trained, disciplined, and well-armed NVA. Alert and always ready to move at a moment’s notice, they were rarely taken by surprise.

When a U.S. force set out to sweep a remote area with enemy activity, troop arrival was anything but secretive. The massive helicopter movements and the prepping by artillery and aircraft and sometimes naval bombardment let the NVA know what was coming. If it appeared they would not survive, they split into small units and disappeared – always ready to return the moment American troops departed the area.

Oftentimes, the NVA held their ground at a known landing zone (LZ) and positioned mortars, light machine guns and other weaponry around them. The concealed NVA maintained total fire discipline as the choppers came in. When the order came, the volume of fire against incoming U.S. troops was often staggering.

The NVA would also wait for troops to push out from the LZ. Ambush was a classic pattern repeated throughout the 10-year war. Many times U.S. troops walked into a carefully prepared ambush while looking for the enemy. A fire-fight began with carefully placed trip-wired explosive devices or rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) followed by an intense hail of gunfire from hidden positions.

Radio operators packing PRC-25s (radio), like Joe, assigned to infantry companies, became a prime target. A unit without communications is basically neutralized and on its own. As they maneuvered for position, many could only hear a hissing-ringing sound caused by the din of explosions and gunfire. Every man would get flat as possible on the ground and stay there.

Communications became their only way out as they had contact with artillery and air support. An officer and his radio man were capable of calling in an amazing array of firepower from naval guns to Cobra gunships and napalm strikes to B-52 bombing missions. A key NVA tactic was to get so close to the troops that artillery or aircraft fire support was neutralized. Some units were forced to call down fire on their own positions to get at the NVA.

Then just as suddenly as Joe had been plunged into war, he was home within 24-hours. Coining a phrase synonymous with the Vietnam War, Joe came home with the reddish dirt of Vietnam still in his fingernails. He was glad to be out of that place, yet, he felt a sense of guilt because the fighting was still raging and he endured that the rest of his life.

On his way home, wearing his uniform proudly, a woman approached him at the airport and asked him where he was coming from. Joe proudly responded with, “Vietnam, ma’am!” The woman was clearly repulsed by his response. She spun around and stomped off.

Nonetheless, Joe’s family and his people, the Oglala Lakota, welcomed him home wholeheartedly.

Joe had endured much hardship throughout his life but he met all of it with a sound strength of mind. He had inspired others to endure and to make the best of whatever life had to offer. Knowing that the last moments of his life were immersed in agony, I find some comfort in the fact that he is no longer tortured by physical pain or emotional stress. I pray he is in a better place.

I for one will forever remember the legacy he built while he walked amongst us here on unci maka (grandmother earth). Tokiyab yaun kesa, wowahwa okahtanyan asniyakiye ni (wherever you are, may you rest in peace).

(Ivan F. Starf Comes Out, P.O. Box 147, Oglala, SD 57764; 605-867-2448;mato_nasula2@yahoo.com)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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