''Richard,'' as my late grandmother used to say, ''always remember, that there but for the grace of God go you!''

It was one of Grandma Harriett Paden's favorite sayings, at least it seemed she was always saying it to me anyway. And if she said it once, she must have repeated no less than 1,000 times.

Now I have to confess that the first few hundred times I heard that second generation Irish woman say those words, I hadn't the slightest idea what she was talking about.

But I can still recall with near crystal clarity the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of the first time I understood exactly what that oft repeated phrase meant.

It was the night of November 14-15, 1965. I was planted on the shotgun side of a recon gun jeep, with my rear-end in the uneven and distinctly uncomfortable spring-cushioned seat, my right elbow propped up over the chair back and my feet hanging out over the side. And I, along with most of the rest of the guys in my platoon were listening to the sounds of a battle in the chattering report of radio messages as a lot of very scared young men spit out their fear over the airwaves above the Central Highlands of what was then South Vietnam. The newly arrived 1st Air Cavalry was in the process of having the decidedly dubious honor of becoming the first wholly-American fighting force to lock horns with a unit of North Vietnamese regulars. A battalion of the Air Cav, which was the first U.S. Army outfit to display what has become a military given today -- infantry soldiers borne into battle aboard helicopters -- swooped down into the Ia Drang Valley and right smack dab into more NVA troops in one spot than had been encountered by American forces either before or since in that war.

In an ironic twist of fate, an historic déja vu so to speak, the U.S. Army descendants of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry, had once again set down in the midst of overwhelming odds. There were only a couple of cogent differences -- instead of horses the troopers were riding those egg-beater contraptions that make sounds few from my generation will ever get out of their ears, and this unit of cavalrymen had far fewer members (400 in all) in eye-ball to eye ball contact with an estimated 2,000 well-armed and trained North Vietnamese. And from the sound of things on the radio that night, the horses of the old 7th Cavalry might have been of more use. The reason I and most of the rest of the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division got a chance to eavesdrop on this night of history, was the fact that we had spent the previous couple of months clearing the 1st Cav's initial base camp at An Khe, just west of the Route 19 pass into the mountains that climb up from Qui Nhon on the South China Sea. I can still almost hear the whispered pleas and in some cases pained curses that made up the bulk of radio traffic that night. ''Red Six, this is Red Five, over! I've got a lot of people down, Six! And I've got no shot at a med-evac (medical evacuation) until daylight. Keep the flares coming, over.''

''Hold your position, Five. We're trying to sort this out. We'll have flare ships up until dawn.''

''Foxtrot, Six, this is Foxtrot Three, over!'' ''Go ahead Three.''

''Sir, automatic weapons fire is falling like raindrops out here,'' came back the unit already fully engaged in an absolute breach of combat radio procedure.

''Keep the traffic to a minimum, Three!''

''Foxtrot Three, this is Six, over! What's you're sit-rep (situation report)? ''Foxtrot Three, this is Six, over! I say again, what's you’re sit-rep? How close are the Indians (enemy), over?

''Foxtrot Three, this is Six, over!''

''Hold on, Six'' came a whispered voice at the other end of the line, ''and I'll let you ask them yourself, out.''

Aside from the crackling radio traffic flying between rear area command posts and the completely surrounded first elements of the Cav, there was also a lot of chatter between obviously separated units in the field. Swallowing came awfully hard for a whole lot of us that night, listening to what sounded for all the world like a live-ammunition reenactment of Custer's Last Stand.

What brought back these memories was the anticipated release of Mel Gibson's latest cinematic effort, ''We Were Soldiers.''

The film is a recounting of that November night in 1965 and the ensuing three-day battle which made a lot of men out of what were a lot of very frightened American boys. It was perhaps the night that America learned, at least those of us in-country at that time, what a truly horrible struggle lay ahead, as the 1st Cav. suffered more than 200 dead. Yup, that was the first time my grandmother's words really meant something to me. And I can still remember just how positively thrilled I was that I could use them.

Uploaded to The Zephyr website March 13, 2002

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