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A Vietnam War veteran living in China

Charles J. Dukes, during a lull in an all-day battle east of Firebase Bastogne in April 1968

He volunteered to join the US Army two weeks after graduating from high school when he was only 17 years old. He spent a year training on the US mainland, and became a paratrooper serving in Alaska, before being assigned to the First Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division and fighting as an infantryman and artillery forward observer in Vietnam in 1967–68.

Being a soldier was no easy matter

Charles J. Dukes works as an editorial consultant for the Beijing Foreign Cultural Exchanges Center (BCEC). When talking about the war, he said he thought it was right to fight the war in the beginning, but after he got there, he realized how wrong all this was…“not only because it was having a murderous effect on the Vietnamese people, but because it was really corrupting American soldiers.

Vietnam, December 1967. Dukes had dysentery when he got shot in the leg. He lost a lot of weight before getting treatment in Bao Loc. His company’s Vietnamese interpreter was in the hospital as well.

“War is brutal, often cruel. To survive it you cannot hold life too dear. You cannot cringe or hesitate in action. Sometimes you act first and think later. Sadly, in my ignorance, I killed countless people, because I felt it my duty to do so. I will go to my own grave regretting this more than I can really explain to people who have not been in combat. War is no excuse.”

Apart from the danger of being killed, infection was another serious problem during war. “If you got cut, it almost always got infected, because of our living conditions. We slept on the ground and even in wet rice paddies, constantly assaulted by leeches and mosquitoes and sleeping with snakes. Medicines were not always effective.” One day he cut a path through the jungle for his unit, his hands scratched and bleeding. “When I woke up the next morning, I could barely move my hands. When I tried, pus came out everywhere.” He also caught a severe strain of malaria and endured dysentery on a couple of occasions. His weight fell to a little less than 50 kilograms (108 pounds).

“By then, we’d moved to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to protect the army headquarters there that was attacked during the Tet of 1968. There was a scale in a shop there. I dropped my rucksack on it and it weighed 52 kilograms; my machine guns weighed about 10 kilograms, not counting bullets. So I was carrying more than my weight climbing up and down mountains as many of our troops do in Iraq and Afghanistan today. I really don’t know how we did it.”

In action during an ambush west of Firebase Bastogne west of Hue in March 1968. This photo by a US Army photographer was published worldwide via Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper, and it ran in his hometown newspaper in Texas. Dukes didn’t know this until he returned home from Vietnam in July 1968.

Finally, near the end of his assignment, Dukes got a fever of unknown origin and had parasites in his body. He was taken to Saigon and poisoned in order to kill the parasites. The process almost killed him, and he was not allowed to return to battle or stay in Vietnam. After an honorable discharge from the US Army in 1969, he became involved in the US anti-war movement until the long war finally came to an end in April 1975.

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