Not many Vietnam memoirs refer to “fond memories,” but Barry Fixler is not your ordinary memoirist. Fixler was a feisty little (130 lb. — 60 kilo.) Jewish kid from Long Island, who decided that he needed more discipline and joined the Marine Corps instead of going straight to college in the late 1960s, during the War in Vietnam, when pretty much everybody else was dodging the draft.
Fixler survived the ordeal of Marine Corps boot camp, and indeed went to Vietnam.
We landed in Da Nang and walked down the stairs from the plane to a Marine sergeant waiting on the tarmac. He started in alphabetical order, handing guys their orders telling them their assigned units.
“Okay, Adams? You’re alive! Baker? You’re dead! Crawford? You’re a basket case!”
I’d been in Vietnam for an hour and the sergeant was telling me I’m already dead. I turned to Mike Ali, my good buddy from boot camp. “Fuck, I’m dead!”
“Yeah,” Mike said. Sergeant just told me I’m a basket case.”
We didn’t realize at the time just how ominous that label was for him.
If you are alive, that meant your unit was in one of the less dangerous places in Vietnam. If you were a basket case, your unit was in a pretty bad place. If you were dead, that meant you were headed straight into the deep shit. Your unit was in the middle of the worst of the worst combat.
The sergeant probably should have only designated Fixler “a basket case,” as he was initially headed, for the first part of his 13 month tour, to Phu Bai to walk combat patrols and arrive by helicopter into hot landing zones.
Fixler really became “dead” in the second portion of his tour, consisting of defending the besieged Marine base at Khe Sanh, where Fixler and other Marines were overrun on Hill 861-A, February 5, 1968. Despite being overrun, Barry Fixler actually survived Khe Sanh, and later got to patrol the DMZ out of Con Thien and Dong Ha.
Fixler finished his enlistment showing the flag in Dress Blues in the Mediterranean. Unlike a lot of people who complain, Barry Fixler tells his readers that he enjoyed his time in the Marine Corps, that he liked the discipline and comraderie so much that, when he got home, he re-enlisted in the reserves.
Barry Fixler is the kind of guy who remains a Marine all his life.
Many years later, his home of Rockland County was looking for combat veterans to counsel soldiers who’d returned from Iraq and Afghanistan complaining of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Fixler volunteered, but he was never assigned a position as a counselor because he simply does not believe in PTSD.
Some great anecdotes from the book illustrate his position.
During a course given to volunteer instructors, preparing them for their roles, there was a lecture and book signing by a nationwide PTSD specialist, at which Fixler encountered quite a coincidence and expressed his own opinion.
He was only 10, 15 minutes into a two-hour lecture, and he started describing one of his patients who had fought in the siege of Khe Sanh. He described how traumatized the Marine was, how his hill was overrun, how he had to kill or be killed, how his life was torn apart, how he lost his soul right then and there.
It was obvious to me that Dr. Tick was describing the night of February 5, 1968 â€“ the night we were overrun on Hill 861-A.
Tick was quoting this patient, speaking for the Marine now:” I lost my soul! My life is gone! Everything is gone! I can’t continue! I can’t fight! I can’t do anything!”
People sat with their mouths open in awe, listening to Tick talk about the so-called warrior who lost it all, lost his soul, everything, died, spiritually died at that point, and I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. ..
I stood and introduced myself.
I was at Khe Sanh. I have credibility, a unit citation from President Lyndon B. Johnson. And I was on that hill, at that exact place, at that exact moment. If what that Marine said to you about losing his soul and losing his life, losing everything, if he had said that to me then or now, I would say to him, “You are a coward!'”
Then I sat again. The room was silent. Tick lectures for living –he’s a professional –but he struggled to regain his composure.
“I see your point,” he mumbled. “I see your point.”
As the talk proceeded:
I kept my peace and let the other veterans speak for the rest of lecture, until one of the West Point cadets stood and asked Tick, “What can we do to stop this PTSD?”
I blew it then. She asked Tick the question, but I popped up.
“That’s easy. Are you guys trained to get used to seeing bodies scattered all over the place? Well, when we kill a bad guy in Iraq, when we blow their skulls apart, we should freeze that body and send it to West Point and scatter it around so you could smell the blood and the horror and get used to fighting that way. If you’re used to fighting with blood and dead Iraqis all over the place, it will be nothing. That’s what needs to be done. Period.”
Everyone was quiet again. I glanced at the three West Pointers. Their eyes were wide, mouths still, like “Whoa!” I got that look from some others in the crowd, too.
My WWII Marine father would have said exactly the same kind of thing.
I recommend Semper Cool (great title, isn’t it?) highly, as a fun read for any aficionado of Marine Corps culture.
The author, by the way, is donating all the book’s earning to help wounded veterans.
More evidence of just how hard-core little Barry Fixler remains, long after Vietnam:
On Valentine’s Day 2005, Barry Fixler proves to two armed robbers that you don’t want to try to rob a former Marine.There were actually two more of them outside in the car, equipped with a body bag. The robbers had intended not only to rob the jeweler, but to murder him as well. This security camera video shows that their plans did not work out.