On this Veteran's Day, November 11, 2023, we would like to introduce you to Steven Grzesik and his new book, "We Had to Get Out of That Place: A Memoir of Redemption and Betrayal in Vietnam"
Steven Grzesik's counter-culture experience in Greenwich Village ended with a bad acid trip followed by a draft notice. The Vietnam War, then at its height, seemed doomed to failure by cynical politicians and a skeptical public, a prediction he weighed against his sense of duty to himself and to his country.
Through a variety of combat duties--with the infantry, the 36th Engineer Battalion, F Co. 75th Rangers and the 174th Assault Helicopter Co.--and several close calls with death, Grzesik's detailed memoir recounts his two tours in-country, where he hoped merely to survive with a semblance of heroism, yet ultimately redefined himself.
Steve's book is one that is just recently published from those who belonged to elite units. For some, it takes years to fully process the experience and be able to put it down into print. This book will will leave you captivated with a fresh viewpoint of a war that defined an era and of those who built our modern day Airborne Rangers, to who they are today.
This book belongs on your shelf after reading. Though Steve and I have never met in person, I consider him a friend and look forward to a fishing trip one day that we always talk about.
ORDER YOUR BOOK TODAY
We lost altitude and the former fuel stop come up at us. In no time at all, the ground loomed beneath us as the pilot adjusted his stick to touch down softly. The helicopter’s skids bumped the ground and there we were. It suddenly felt like no big deal. We sat on a perfectly flat landing area. If I didn’t know better, I’d think we were in some rear area. I no longer felt uncomfortable because my senses betrayed me. Piece of cake; land on the familiar-looking, man-made flat-top, grab the fire extinguisher, and go.
Baggett, the other gunner, and Crew Chief, jumped out of the bird on the other side. The fire extinguisher lay several feet away, though I couldn’t see it because it was on the right side of the bird. I expected to only be there only a few seconds and lift off again.
What happened next, I can only describe as a loss of consciousness for a fraction of a second. I don’t remember the explosion, only the ringing in my head immediately afterward. I never passed out, but I don’t remember any concussion either. It took a second or two to react to the sound in my ears. I heard what I can only liken to a giant ringing – the sound one would hear if their head was in a church bell and someone hit it with a sledgehammer. I did not hear the strike, only the ringing afterward. The sound penetrated to the core of my being. It stunned and immobilized me with its suddenness and intensity. Those two seconds stretched out into a short eternity. I snapped back to reality about the same time everyone else did. I turned to look at the pilots. One of them hit the stick. The engine screamed as we did an immediate lift-off. The aircraft lurched forward and up. Within seconds we were twenty to forty feet in the air. Wide-eyed and dumbstruck, I struggled to make sense of what was happening when I saw the black passenger jump out of the helicopter. He just jumped right out. His exit was not unlike a skydiver’s. He did not tip, slip or fall. He deliberately positioned himself squarely in the open door of our helicopter and jumped out. In disbelief and shock, I was watching the situation get worse by the second. I looked out the door and down and saw him below lying motionless on the ground. Now we had an injured or dead man to recover.
We were still gaining altitude when I realized that in addition to our jumper, we had another problem. We’d left Baggett on the ground. All I remember clearly is leaning out and looking down to see him waving his arms wildly. Our jumper still lay in a crumpled heap some distance away.
We immediately plunged down to get Baggett. As we descended he continued waving wildly and backed away from the helicopter. Upon touchdown, he ran up to the pilot’s door, opened it immediately, backed off a distance, and continued flailing his arms. The co-pilot’s head swung around. His wide eyes conveyed a sense of urgency as he mouthed silent shouts in my direction. I could hear nothing but I knew he needed me to do something. Then I realized he was yelling at me to open his door. Baggett and the pilot were already away from the bird when I swung around to see its entire port (left) side engulfed in flames. I had to get out of the bird to let the copilot out.
I grabbed my seatbelt latch and pulled on it. Nothing happened. I looked down and was horrified to see the repetitive loops I’d made in the seatbelt strap earlier. All these missions, the three feet of excess strap on the oversized seat belt had distracted and annoyed me. Now, around my skinny, twenty four year old waist, I saw loops of seatbelt strap wound around the barely visible metal buckle I needed to pull to escape the burning bird.
In a panic, I yanked with all my might, but to no avail. That strap could easily hold twenty times the strength I had. It took less than a second for me to realize that if I did not compose myself and begin undoing the turns I had put in the seatbelt strap, I would burn to death. I would die in Vietnam.
One by one, I undid those turns of flat nylon strap as I sat in that burning helicopter. I thought I was beginning to feel heat from the flames. Looking up once I saw the co-pilot’s head continue its crazy jerking turns as he sat wondering why I was taking so long. The closer I got to the end of the loops, the longer it took because the strap got longer as I undid it. The last loop was three feet long as I stretched my arm to clear it away from my waist…there was the buckle. I grabbed it and yanked; the seatbelt fell apart and away from my waist in two sections.
I jumped out of the helicopter and ran forward, towards the co-pilot’s door. Through the open doors across the cargo bay, dancing orange flames, fifteen feet high, blazed in the periphery of my left field of vision. I grabbed the handle of the co-pilot’s door at the same time he’d decided he’d had enough of waiting for me. He pulled his emergency escape pins and the entire door fell off hitting me in the head. Luckily, I still had my commo helmet on. Somewhat dazed, I stood there as he exited the bird and brushed past me. Ahead of us Baggett and the pilot ran towards a wood-line fifty yards forward of the ship. The co-pilot ran after them and I followed him. As I ran, I summed up the situation. We’d been hit by some sort of high explosive projectile.
Somewhere in the hills around us, or worse yet, in the tree-line near us, he watched us and was preparing another shot. I imagined his sweaty tallow skin and dead black eyes and anticipated another explosion or a burst of automatic weapon fire to finish us off. As I ran, I looked west towards Laos. I felt an intense sensation, similar to goosebumps or prickly heat rash across the entire left side of my body. For some reason, that was the direction I expected to get hit from. I ran as fast as I could waiting to be shot or hit on my left side, the Laotian side. I almost felt the vivid images of hot metal fragments or bullets tearing through me. The skin on the left side of my body crawled as I ran.
Ahead of me, Baggett and the pilot slowed to a walk once they’d gotten to the tree-line bordering the clearing we’d run from. I could tell they were hesitant to enter the jungle. The co-pilot ran up to them. Eyes turned to me because I was last. I ran past them into the trees about five yards and assessed the jungle quickly. All my Ranger instincts kicked in. I looked for, and immediately found the spot we needed to be in. Nearby, but far enough away from our entry point into the jungle, I saw a large, thick clump of bushy vegetation we could hide in and still see out into our surroundings. This was perfect for concealment and even absorbing some shrapnel if we got hit again. “Follow me,” I said. Without hesitation, they ran with me to the densest brush.
At some point, a truck raced madly by in the distance. I hadn’t even noticed there was a road there. The driver must have seen the flames…
We sat and watched our helicopter burn. I listened for any sound. I looked at the pilots for any sign of a game plan, but there was none. We sat there forlorn and mesmerized by the burning ship. By now flames had engulfed both sides of the bird and my realization that I’d left both my machine gun and M16 rifle on board came too late. I believe one pilot had a .38 revolver and it was all the weaponry we had. To my thinking, we had nothing but a pop gun. I assumed Baggett, the crew chief had been wounded but I wasn’t sure. He sat there silently staring at the flames.
Bullets began ‘cooking off’ as heat ignited them. They popped and hissed like a monstrous popcorn kettle inside the burning hulk our ship had become. Suddenly the pilot got up and announced that he’d forgotten his camera on the helicopter. He made a move to get up and go towards the helicopter which was engulfed in flame. Even without an enemy presence, there was no possibility of getting within reach of that helicopter. I grabbed him by the arm firmly and in a stern voice said, “Sir, you can’t go back there.” He simply looked at me and sat back down. He was not thinking right. Suddenly, dismay and panic moved me. Till now, I’d been satisfied to find cover and concealment and lie there hiding from the enemy. What he said jarred me into a new sense of urgency and prompted me to action because I realized our situation was not going to solve itself. His words only made the situation seem direr. I was the only one here with any jungle experience.
“You guys stay here.” I got up and moved cautiously towards the clearing.
I'd been alone in the jungle many times before with F Co Ranger teams. That thought filled me with courage, hope, and motivation as I carefully surveyed our surroundings again and thought about our options. The black guy was probably still on the far end of the clearing. For all I knew he was dead. I stood up and gingerly walked to the edge of the wood-line. I positioned myself to have a clear view of the entire clearing and its immediate area. I could see the black kid on the other side. I stayed there a while to watch for movement, then I took a deep breath and walked out into the open space so I could scan the skies around it. My pulse raced; I was completely exposed. I peered into the sky in all directions. I did it slowly because I wanted to be thorough and didn’t want to have to come back to expose myself again. I’d looked from left to right only a few seconds when, to my joy and wonderment, I saw the helicopter in the sky miles away. It was only a moving dot, far from our position. A surge of hope filled me. All of our lives, possibly our only hope of survival hung on that lone helicopter so far away.
When I left F Co Rangers, I’d taken two souvenirs. One was a strobe light for marking positions at night in an emergency, the other was a directional signal mirror. I carried that signal mirror on all our flights and I had it in my top left pocket that day at Lang Vei. I quickly pulled it out and brought it up to my eye. I’d never used one before and quickly calculated that it was a simple matter of angle. The mirror had to be positioned so the sun would bounce off it towards my target. I peered through the sighting hole and feverishly adjusted the angle of the mirror so the light dot would appear and align with the helicopter. I had to steady my adrenalin-pumped hands on the mirror as I clamped it. There…I had the light dot. Now I had to delicately move it onto the helicopter through the sight. If I moved it too fast I’d lose that dot and have to start all over again. I gently adjusted the dot directly onto the helicopter in the distance. Then I moved it away, then back. I got the feel of it and started repeatedly flashing that helicopter. I kept this up and before long, it came. Relief washed over me.
A UH-1H helicopter, almost identical to ours, roared out from behind the treetops. The explosion of sudden sound came at me like some triumphant crescendo of horns in some victorious symphony. It was beautiful. Caution to the wind, I ran out into the clearing further and waved my arms madly. I was sure the pilot saw me.
He made one pass, circled back to where he came from, and disappeared. I ducked back into the jungle and ran to my guys. I squatted and elatedly told them the news. Soon, another helicopter roared in on us. It was a Cobra attack helicopter. He began circling the clearing nose down with all those beautiful rockets and machine guns (mini-gun). Joy welled up in me; I knew we would be saved. Suddenly, something inexplicable happened. To this day I don’t understand it and I almost hesitate to write about it. The fog of war perhaps…
As I sat crouched with my guys, I felt a repeated, urgent tapping on my shoulder. Too much was going on so I tried to ignore it. Then I thought that one of the crew might be trying to tell me something. I turned and was astonished at what I saw. It was a reporter and his cameraman. I turned away from the distraction and tried to put it aside as I resumed watching the skies. The tapping on my shoulder resumed. Furious, I whirled.
“Do you know where the fuck you are? Leave me alone.” I hissed.
“Please,” he implored. “This story is worth so much money to me.” I don’t remember what I said but he sat down frightened and wide-eyed.
I heard it first, the unmistakable sound of a Light Observation Helicopter (LOH). It came drifting down and landed about forty yards away to our left, near a corner of the clearing. I heard it sit there, at a fast idle, for about fifteen seconds. No one came to us from the bird. Curiously, no one among our group moved. On a sudden impulse of sheer instinct, I got up and sprinted across the flat top towards the jumper who still lay motionless where he fell. I knew the LOH pilot would see me and not leave. As I ran, I once again felt that dread of vulnerability and total exposure. I ran what seemed to be three seconds but I covered eighty yards. I got to the guy and tried to rouse him. The most I could get out of him was a low, moaning sound. There was no recognition in his eyes. Reaching down, I grabbed his left arm and wrestled him up and onto my shoulder in the fireman’s carry I was taught in Basic Training. It worked. He was lucky he was thin and I was strong. Even as I ran the sensation of reward came over me. The Fireman’s Carry worked. I was saving him.
My strength surprised me and I ran as quickly as I could to the LOH with the weight of the man pressing down on me. When I got to the LOH, I opened the pilot’s door and was immediately struck by the eagle insignia on the pilot’s collar. The pilot was a Colonel. His rank made me hesitate and it struck me as odd that such a high-ranking officer would put himself in such danger. I threw my patient across his lap and turned to run. I took two steps and wheeled back around towards the helicopter. Somewhere in there, I’d seen a case of phosphorus grenades so I grabbed one though I knew it would probably be useless. The damn things exploded further than an average man could throw them.
I ran back to my guys and heard the LOH taking off behind me. Several minutes passed and a ‘slick’ helicopter just like ours came down to pick us up. As we took off I felt a great tension leave me: I felt able to breathe again. In what seemed a blink we were back in Quang Tri. One by one we were interviewed by a Major regarding the incident. I tried to downplay both pilots’ foolishness in making that landing, but the story could not be downplayed or changed. I’m sure heads rolled over the incident. I found out later that the guy I’d saved took a chunk of shrapnel right through his thigh in addition to his fall injuries.
After I left the Majors office I took a slow walk and found a sandbag to sit on. It felt good to sit there alone in the encroaching darkness of the evening. Fate had allowed me to snatch redemption from the jaws of death. My newfound strength slowly drained from me as I watched the sunset. Soon it would rise, bringing a new day. I felt a chill.
I didn’t know what happened to Baggett because I never saw him again. At first, I was told he had been wounded. That made sense because he had been so close to the explosion. Later, I found out he had been killed on Easter Sunday. He had volunteered to fly on his day off. He took a chaplain out to the field to perform a religious service for the troops and their bird got hit with an RPG upon landing. I got the news from a sergeant who knew me and was familiar with Baggett as well. I had just walked into the supply room to get something and was about to leave when I stopped because he was staring at me and his eyes seemed different. I still remember those bright blue eyes staring through me.
“You know Baggett got killed, right?”
“What” I was speechless. It was all I managed to get out and I simply stared at him.
I walked around the company area in disbelief.
I never got to know Wayne Carlos Baggett. Though he was my assigned mentor and superior as Crew Chief of my helicopter, there was a certain abstractness and distance about him. I don’t believe I ever saw him smile. He was just an average man with a very pink face and a blast of blonde hair - a short-haired beach boy look. I have often wondered where the name Carlos came from since he was a classic Caucasian.
We first met on the runway at Quang Tri as I stood eyeing the helicopter that I would be flying in for the first time as a crew member.
“Are you my new gunner?”
“You know how to use a ‘60?” He glanced towards the machine gun.
“Uh-huh,” I answered.
He backed up one step and pointed to the fuel port on the side of the helicopter.
‘You’re responsible for fueling the bird. I’ll show you how later.”
“When the pilot says ‘Coming up’, you make sure your side of the bird is clear and say ‘Clear up right’. Same thing coming down. Check the ground and say ‘Clear down right’. Got it?”
“Okay” I nodded nervously.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll be saying the same things after you, but I say ‘Clear down left’ understand?”
“Uh, yeah, I think so.”
Baggett was the gunner on the other side of the helicopter as well as the crew chief. His voice was even flatter when he leaned into me and spoke again:
“When we're coming up, out in the bush, usually the pilot will say ‘Go hot’. At that point, you fire the machine gun. Fire till we’re well away from the ground. Sometimes, though rarely, he might give you the order to go hot while were coming in. You have to be careful here. You don't want to shoot any friendlies. Don't worry about it for now. I'll coach you over the intercom.”
He said little else to me.
He gave me a tie-down for the blades of the helicopter and showed me how to pull a blade to the rear of the bird to secure it. Though I'm sure he must have, I can't remember him ever speaking to me again. I flew on other birds and I flew with other guys. I’d see Baggett in passing. In just one month, I would fly two hundred and fifty hours and then, later, I flew with him that one last time when we got our helicopter blown up. Though I remember him waving his arms at me during the emergency, I don't remember him ever speaking that day. Even as we hid on the jungle floor watching our helicopter burn, I don't remember him speaking. It was as though he was never even really there. Baggett’s death felt distant. My learning of it only saddened me temporarily. No tears fell and it was little more than a sad statistic at the time; an isolated fact about a man no longer there. Baggett seemed never there to begin with.
Years passed after my discharge before I made any military connections. My first tenuous forays into the past were hampered by memory and shards of emotion. I found out that Baggett’s hometown was Tampa, only forty minutes away from me, so I began looking for his family. I never found a single relative despite doing a lot of detective work and making a lot of telephone calls.
Though I never really knew the guy that well, he lays gently on my memory: a small sadness from a distant time, a futile death in a noble but futile war…
He is a hero who died protecting a country that would not recognize him: almost as if he was never there to begin with.
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