by Peter McShane
For years, I believed that I had failed on the Bunard mission, the firefight during which Perez and I got wounded. If I hadn’t been following him, I wouldn’t have been shot. He could have been grandstanding for a medal, something I’d expect from a young officer, not a seasoned one. Rushing into an enemy position was not SOP on our team, but that’s what he did. He could have learned it in one of the basic infantry tactic classes in Officer Candidate School—classic operations where you can see the enemy—WWI, WWII, Korea. It doesn’t work in the jungle. You can’t see the enemy. You can’t see your own men.
Perez was Nigel Lauder’s best buddy. Both Cuban exiles, they were veterans of the failed CIA-led Bay of Pigs invasion. I had great respect for Lauder, our CO, and assumed by association that Perez was a seasoned warrior. He wasn’t a member of our team, and I knew my teammates never trusted outsiders, which amounted to anyone they didn’t know. Some officers and senior NCOs from headquarters were given a chance to experience the combat environment as part of their education as military leaders, to let them qualify for a Combat Infantryman Badge, or if they got lucky, a medal. They’d go out on “low-risk” operations, maybe a klick or two into the bush, spend a few days tromping through the jungle to experience what it was like being a grunt, then go back to their desks.
I was still green compared to my lifer teammates, and was right behind Perez on that operation. I needed to trust him, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps to bolster my own self-image, I would never have considered a trained Special Forces operative to be incompetent.
In counseling, I questioned not only my own performance in Vietnam, but the motives and actions of others. I judged everyone based on my own standards of performance, which my shrink said were impossibly high. I expected the same extraordinary personal commitment from everyone, the same commitment that I expected from my Special Forces teammates. There were incompetents everywhere, even Special Forces officers. The stories from other medic classmates bore this out. I spent years not wanting to believe or acknowledge this, because it had a direct impact on my own self esteem. My adult life was forged on my image as a Green Beret. I was angry. I thought that Perez fucked up. I hated him and what his failure might say about me.
One of my classmates at the reunion who had replaced me on the Mike Force had also served with Lauder. Short of interrogating him, I wanted to know if he had heard any scuttlebutt about me. When he said my teammates had nothing but good things to say, I was shocked. I looked around the hotel meeting room and out the window. Yellow haze shrouded the foothills of the Sierras in the distance. I couldn’t put the words into context. I never thought I’d get feedback about my performance in Nam. And yet, there it was, dished up like a gourmet meal. I should have felt validated, but I didn’t. He gave me Lauder’s e-mail address, but I had no interest in making contact. Why push it? At least, it isn’t negative feedback. But I had to know.
In 2006 after months of counseling, I got up the courage to send Lauder an e-mail asking about him and Perez. There was a response within 15 minutes:
Dearest Pete: I am delighted to receive your e-mail and to know that you are doing well. Rico Perez’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send him an e-mail …he will be delighted to hear from you… You are a hero in his mind and in mine too.
I feel sorry that I missed the Song Be operation. I went on R&R to Hawaii to see my sweetheart. We married on November 16, 1968 after I had spinal surgery from a helicopter crash soon after you were wounded.
If you have an opportunity to visit the Washington area, please let me know and we will make room for you and your wife. Yesterday we gave my oldest daughter a wedding at Fort McNair in DC. It was fabulous and we had many grunts in the ceremony.
You are welcome anytime.
De Oppresso Liber, Nigel
I was in shock. Never did I expect a response like that. After 36 years of carrying Perez’s crucifix, the definitive judgment came from a man I had held in the highest regard, a man I had followed into battle and trusted with my life. I was elated and overcome with emotion. I sat at my desk crying as I read the email over and over. All the things that the shrinks and counselors had told me about my over-critical self-judgment were true. They had said: “Under the circumstances with a bullet hole in your chest, you saved Perez’s life, plus the lives of 15 Cambodian strikers. And you think that you didn’t do enough?” I realized how absurd it sounded, but it’s difficult to change ingrained perceptions.
No sooner than I wiped the tears from my face, the phone rang.
“Pete? This is Rico Perez.”
I had often wondered what I would say or do to Perez if we ever met again. I despised the man. I wanted to scream at him, call him a fucking incompetent worthless piece of shit. I thought of all the ways that I could belittle him, perhaps in front of Lauder or his family, make him feel the kind of crushing self-deception I had endured for 36 years at his hands. Yes, I hated myself because of him.
“I am so glad that you contacted Lauder. I often think of you,” he said.
Tension filled my gut. Where do I start? Standing in the kitchen, I thought about calling him Captain, but that was 36 years ago, and he’d be a Bird Colonel by now. But you’re a civilian, and he introduced himself as Rico.
He’s still a fucking asshole. I held the phone so tight that my hand began to cramp.
“Hello…Rico…” I felt strange calling him by his first name.
He seemed anxious, almost out of breath.
“You saved my life, and I’m grateful. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.” The words stuck in my ear, his Spanish accent coloring his voice, charged with emotion. I conjured up an image of the man on the other end of the line—bald and paunchy, tears streaming down his cheeks. There was sobbing on the other end of the line.
“I just did my job.”
“You did a lot more than your job, my man. You could have let me die…saved your own ass…Hey, did you get your Silver Star?”
My team XO had visited me at the MASH hospital and said he had submitted me for the award. I thought I didn’t get it because I had fucked up.
“No. I got a Bronze Star with ‘V’.”
Perez was livid. He shouted into the phone: “I can’t believe that! Those damn pencil necks! I put you in for the Silver Star twice.”
Could that be true? How many times can you put a guy in for a medal and still get turned down? I couldn’t help thinking that had I been an officer, even one from behind the lines, I would have been awarded the Silver Star. Still in a huff, he said, “Jesus Christ, Pete, you should have gotten the Distinguished Service Cross for what you did.” He floored me. The DSC is second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor. Holy shit! Medals were the stuff of military careers. I wanted that Silver Star as validation of a job well done —but it never came. As far as I was concerned, I had fucked up. And every time I’d think of how Perez kept yelling for a medic, that he didn’t even know my name, it made me feel like a worthless piece of shit. Now, it meant little more than a reminder of how close I came to dying for someone else’s mistake.
“How you doing, I mean, with your wounds?” he said.
I really didn’t want to talk about it, but I had to say something.
“I took an AK round in the chest. Luckily you and I got to the mash in time for surgery. I had two surgeries and after ten days in recovery, I was shipped to Camp Zama, Japan for observation. From there I spent five months recuperating stateside in the hospital.” I didn’t say anything about PTSD.
“How about you?”
“My gut wounds got infected and took a while to heal. My arm was really fucked up. Two years of physical therapy and it’s still not right. Luckily I was able to go back to active duty with SF.”
Perez said he did another tour in 1972 with SOG, running covert ops into Laos, and then went on to other assignments. I thought about how crazy you’d have to be to go back into battle after getting shot up like we were. You’ve got to be addicted to adrenalin, or have a death wish. Was he an incompetent? Maybe like the rest of us, he learned to be a warrior on the job.
“Lauder and I did some state department work, you know CIA. Now we’re both pushing 70. Maybe we’ll retire someday. Hey, we’re neighbors. You’re always welcome here, my man. Please come down. I’d love to see you.”
I had known the man for little more than a day, and hated him most of my life. Now we’re best buddies? I envisioned him hugging me, slobbering on my shoulder, his family pawing me over like some kind of holy savior.
“I’ll look you and Nigel up next time I’m in DC.”
He signed off.
What could I say? Perez was just a run-of-the-mill career officer who’s alive today because a medic did his job, period. Hey, he said thank you. What more could you ask?
My mind was overrun with feelings that I couldn’t put into perspective. Thirty-six years of tension dissipated as if someone had stuck me with a pin and let out the pus. I had done my job, a good job. Period. Yet, I should have felt elation and joy. I’d always thought of officers as being somehow superior and deserving of respect. I suppose I could blame my Catholic upbringing. Priests and nuns would say: “Obey your parents, obey your superiors; they know what’s good for you.” After Perez, I scorned all officers. You’ll have to earn my respect. Rank and privilege don’t equate to experience, character and fortitude.
Recently, I learned that our team was disbanded after a vicious battle where many lives were lost. This happened about a month after I got wounded. There’s no question I would have been the only medic on that operation. It occurred to me that Perez, indeed, may have saved my life.
When searching a database of medals awarded to Special Forces units, I remembered how I felt after receiving the Bronze Star certificate in the mail. I didn’t want to know whether Perez had been awarded a medal, because it would have made me feel even worse about my performance. It was inconceivable that he could have received any medal at all, but there it was: Rico Perez was awarded the Silver Star for his actions that day. It confirmed my long-held belief—rank has its privileges.
Peter McShane has completed a collection of short stories, a novella, a memoir, and a number of personal essays. His work has been published in Ginger Piglet, Syracuse University’s Intertext Magazine, The New York Times Warrior Voices, Fear of Monkeys, O Dark Thirty, Shooter, and can be found on the Syracuse Veterans’ Writing Group website.