A Contrarian Hero

Nikko SchochBy Bill Dyer

Forty five years ago this month, American troops engaged in an 11 day frontal assault on a hill over looking the A Shau Valley, thought to be a major supply and staging area for the North Vietnamese Army, operating under the cover of triple canopy jungle and thickets of elephant grass. The Vietnamese called it Dong Ap Bia (Crouching Beast Hill). Originally referred to by the military as Hill 937, the metric elevation shown on their maps, the members of the 101st Airborne—the “Screaming Eagles”—came to call it Hamburger Hill.

Forty years ago I moved to the Napa Valley and soon thereafter met Nikko Schoch. He had grown up among the vineyards, as his family was in the wine business. He worked for a while as a winemaker, until he realized he needed more distance from alcohol. He was quite counter- cultural, with flowing hair and beard, and often shoeless. He became a devoted father of two boys, one of whom developed disabilities that confined him to a wheelchair. Nikko and his wife worked hard to allow this boy as normal a life as possible, though it turned out to be all too short. I vaguely knew that Nikko had served in Viet Nam as a medic, and that he had served in the battle to capture Hamburger Hill, though I never heard him speak of this.

Ever since I attended his memorial service several years ago, I’ve wanted to know more about his experiences in Viet Nam. I came across a book titled Hamburger Hill, published years ago, which mentioned him a couple of times, but not with much detail. More recently I read a more personal account of the battle, in which he is mentioned throughout. Additionally his family graciously lent me a scrapbook, with accounts of not only his service in Viet Nam, but also his deeds after the war as a peace activist. It is a story that needs to be told.

After dropping out of Columbia University in 1968, Nikko considered going to jail in protest of the draft, but instead filed as a Conscientious Objector. Within months he was serving in the 101st Airborne as a medic for one of three platoons sent to take control of Hill 937. They engaged in 11 attempts in 10 days to occupy the top of Hamburger Hill. Often the North Vietnamese Army would engage in violent battles, then retreat before American air fire was directed at them. This time they stayed and fought from a system of bunkers and tunnels near the top of the hill—believed to be a regimental headquarters or major supply base. American losses were particularly heavy at a clearing just below the bunkers, which some American soldiers felt was intended as a “killing field”, in that the NVA withheld fire until the Americans were exposed there. Then they were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and AK47 fire coming from the bunkers and from snipers in the surrounding tree canopies. Close combat took place throughout the battle, sometimes with each side separated by only 20 meters.

Additional American casualties were claimed during 5 attacks by supporting aircraft that were off target, resulting in 7 killed and 53 wounded by “friendly fire.” Over the 10 days of the battle to secure the hill there were 72 Americans killed in action, and 372 wounded, with an overall casualty rate of around 60%. Repeatedly the platoons had to beat a retreat due to casualties, only to be ordered back up the hill to attack the NVA positions. On May 20th, American troops finally controlled the top of the hill. The next day an Associated Press article titled “War Hater Is Medical Angel” appeared in newspaper articles across the country, accompanied by a photo showing Nikko giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to an injured soldier. This happened to be Nikko’s 21st birthday.

After his service was completed Nikko was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism. The official documents accompanying this award cited several incidents: while treating 3 seriously injured soldiers in an area devoid of cover, they were again attacked by a sniper in a nearby tree, and he saved his comrades by using one of their weapons to shoot the sniper; he came to the aid of a fellow medic who had ceased breathing after taking serious wounds, and while under continued hostile fire, he performed a tracheotomy allowing air to reenter the lungs; when a helicopter carrying ammunition was brought down by hostile fire, he entered the burning helicopter though it might explode at any minute, carried an injured crewman through sniper fire, and administered life saving first aid; while treating another casualty an fragmentation grenade landed near him, which he grabbed and threw back into the bunker from which it came. In total he was credited with saving 9 soldiers, additionally receiving 1 Silver and 2 Bronze stars.

Yet control over the hill was relinquished 2 weeks later, allowing it to again come under control of the NVA. This lead to widespread criticism of the military leadership for taking so many losses in taking the high ground, only to give it up shortly thereafter. If occupying the hill was not of strategic importance, why were the infantry repeatedly ordered to continue the frontal assault in spite of the horrible losses? If the objective was only to destroy enemy positions, why was this not achieved instead by bombing runs?

An account of the battle was published just last year. It is named Crouching Beast, and the author is Frank Boccia, the leader of the platoon with which Nikko served. It is a devastating insider’s account of what is was like to be repeatedly sent back to charge the hill, taking many casualties each time. The author describes in detail Nikko’s actions, and there is an emotional account of Nikko’s own battle between his pacifist views vs. choosing to use weapons himself in order to save his comrades. From Boccia’s narrative, it seems once the infantry was given the objective of taking the hill, there was fear of failure right up the chain of command, with the platoon leaders coerced to act by the brass watching from above in their helicopters, who in turn would have to answer that evening to their superiors back at the command center.

In this battle huge losses were tolerated while seeking goals that were sketchy and vague, and couldn’t we say this about the Viet Nam War itself? America sacrificed over 50,000 American lives on the premise there was an international Communist movement that must be stopped to prevent countries from falling like dominoes. Yet within the decade following our intervention, the Vietnamese tossed out their Chinese invaders, as they had done with their French occupiers in the decade previous to our debacle—they obviously value self-determination. Now it turns out the enemies we were once so determined to defeat are OK people to do business with. I know winery owners who stop in Ho Chi Ming City to sell Napa Valley Cabernet while making their marketing tours of Southeast Asia. The Wall Street Journal touts the current business opportunities:

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/vietnam-is-an-overlooked-opportunity-in-asia-2014-05-09?link=MW_popular

And we continue with our “wars of choice.” For all the casualties and expenditures in Iraq, the result may only be that we have helped the Shiites secure the upper hand in future civil war:

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2014/04/28/140428fa_fact_filkins?currentPage=all

In Afghanistan we have spent over 713 billion dollars, estimated to be 10x the cost of college tuition for all American students each year:

http://www.truthdig.com/eartotheground/item/college_would_be_free_in_america_if_it_werent_for_george_w_bush_20140508

It remains to be seen if we are leaving behind a stable country.

In spite of our leaders’ expressed intentions not to engage in nation building, we seem hell bent on entering conflicts about which we are naive. What is behind this impulse to act as the world’s police? While economic interests are always in the background to these actions, I think the hubris referred to in earlier postings on this site is a more powerful explanation: we seem to feel we are quick studies when it comes to determining the “Good Guys” vs. the “Bad Guys.”

When Nikko was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross For Extraordinary Heroism In Action at a ceremony at the Presidio in San Francisco, he said in an interview that day that his reason for accepting the award was that it was meaningful to him because it was originated with the people he served with on Hamburger Hill. He also said, “If I originally had the knowledge of what war, what the Army, is like, I would not have gone in ”–but would rather have gone to jail instead.

He became active in anti-war protests. He turned in all his medals during one protest at the San Francisco Civic Center, saying “The medals mean nothing to me. I’m concerned with people.” He became a long time leader in Veterans for Peace, in which there is now a Nikko Schoch Chapter named in his honor. Nikko continued in civilian life as a caregiver, working as a hospital nurse. But he never overcame the PTSD he suffered, nor the alcoholism that resulted from it, and died several years ago. He remains a contrarian hero.

11 thoughts on “A Contrarian Hero

  1. That is certainly a remarkable story. I would not deny applying the term “heroic” to this medic’s actions under fire, while being very aware that the very word “hero” has been cheapened terribly in the “post-9/11 world.” I was denied recognition as a CO by the US Army after I had already enlisted. (Why did I enlist? Why, to “beat the draft”! Sound like a contradiction to you civilians out there? All will be explained in my memoir, if I can find a publisher.) A pacifist had to recognize that by serving in Vietnam he would be seen as an enemy by the liberation forces. Upon picking up a rifle and firing at other human beings, a pacifist ceases to be a pacifist in practice, regardless of how much he may have longed to stick to his ideals. To avoid this contradiction, I twice refused to report for duty in Vietnam. This, of course, had consequences. But my own conscience is absolutely clean as to how I conducted myself in that crucible for American youth, an absolute criminal abomination of a war. You could almost say I am proud of my own military record, complete with its courts-martial and stockade time. What I learned from these experiences is precisely what has prevented me from supporting any US military action taken since then, regardless of who sat in the White House at the time. We Americans are “the good guys” in the world? It is way, way, way past time to discard this foolish notion.

    • I once wrote a mini-memoir of an experience I had working as interpreter/translator with some U.S. Navy medical personnel at Solid Anchor, a remote ATSB about two kilometers from the southernmost tip of South Vietnam. I called it The Hero with a Single Face and the Bewildering Stories web magazine published it in Issue 388. I think of that experience often, but especially when I hear of U.S. medical professionals participating in the torture/interrogation of captive prisoners, some of whom perished while in their “care.”

      Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate continues to wait patiently for the CIA to edit the Senate’s own report on the CIA’s various torture activities. I can remember a time when Senator Mike Gravel simply had the Pentagon Papers read into the Senate Record, in effect telling the Executive Branch to go to hell with all their self-serving blather about “vital secrets.” The “good guys” wouldn’t torture, maim, and kill helpless captives and then try to cover it all up to avoid criminal prosecution. The bad guys would, though. And there you have it. “By their works you shall know them.”

    • Greg, I will look forward to your memoir. I can only admire your choice to refuse to report. I know others who made the same choice and went to the brig. I was also subject to the draft in 1969. I considered several options: filing as a CO; leaving the country; or going to jail. In the end I drew a high number in the lottery and did not have to make the choice. I don’t think it is possible to say what I would have actually done if forced to make the decision. It is really important citizens in these times remain aware what people like yourself and Nikko Schoch had to confront back then.

  2. As a WW II veteran I have been opposed to all of our wars of choice since that time. None have been necessary including the current Obama approved illicit drone murders.
    During the Vietnam war I was very active in a nationwide group called Business Executives Move for Vietnam Peace. (BEM) . I had read about a group of Vietnam officers called Concerned Academy Graduates (CAG) who had resigned their appointments to lobby for an end to the war. One of them was a doctor, a graduate of the Naval Academy and a Lt. Commander in the Navy. Very young by my standards at that time. He and the two others who were West Point graduates and Captains had also resigned because they opposed what they had seen in Vietnam. I invited them to our city and arranged media interviews for them on radio, TV, and newspaper. They were all warm, compassionate individuals who had seen the horror of the war and wanted it ended. There were decent and honorable officers in the military then but Dubya worked hard to get rid of them during his start of another war of choice and Obama with his war on whistleblowers hasn’t relented. We are in a time of immoral leadership and a passive citizenry. It’s time to wake up. The war on terror is a sham to cover the immoral imperialism of our country and the destruction of our civil liberties and constitution rule of law.

  3. Today there are accounts in the news of Vietnamese demonstrating against the Chinese, and burning Chinese owned factories, over territorial aggression by the Chinese. Chinese citizens are having to be evacuated from Viet Nam. There are centuries of animosity between these two peoples. Yet the narrative we were asked to believe in during the 60’s was that we needed to stop a unified Communist movement. The domino theory was that we must stop them there lest we have to fight them here. It turns out there was no “they.” Pogo was right: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

  4. Not enough people are comparing the Vietnam War with our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The media has done a terrible job of covering these recent wars because they’ve rarely delved into why we’re really in these places. Thank you for talking about this! I just took an American foreign policy class last semester at my college, and we learned a lot about the Vietnam War that I haven’t learned anywhere else. My professor was in the Peace Corps during the war and chose to visit Vietnam while there was still fighting because he wanted to see it for himself.
    We need to remind people that we, as a nation, are still making the same mistakes now as we did then.

    • During the run-up to the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, many of us Vietnam veterans — along with millions of people the world over — saw the U.S. War on Vietnam about to begin again, only in the Middle East instead of Southeast Asia. But those in positions of power in the U.S. kept denying the obvious relevant similarities. They just kept repeating their maniacal mantra: “Iraq is not the same as Vietnam.” My fellow Vietnam veteran Daniel Ellsberg had a ready retort for them: “Yeah, like in Iraq it’s a dry heat and the language our military and civilian personnel don’t speak is Arabic instead of Vietnamese.”

      But the bitter lessons of Vietnam did not last long at all. Just consider what one of the war’s principal architects, Henry Kissinger, wrote in a memo to President Gerald Ford in 1975:

      “It’s remarkable, considering how long the war lasted and how intensely it was reported and commented upon, that there are really not very many lessons from our experience in Vietnam that can be usefully applied elsewhere.”

      So what does the United States and the world have to look forward to the moment the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan officially “end”? How about:

      Let’s Already Do It Again

      Let’s already do it again
      Let’s write with no ink in the pen
      On the paper no trace of the egg on our face
      Let’s already do it again

      Let’s start on our very next loss
      With a coin and some dice and a toss
      Let’s forget this here game where we’ve come up so lame
      The next time around we’ll be boss

      Let’s hurry to do it again
      With the chorus still shouting “Amen!”
      Before we can think of the fact that we stink
      Let’s pour on the perfume and then…

      Let’s you and him get in a fight
      Then we’ll get involved for a night
      Helping out here and there, we’ll of course gladly share
      What was yours that we’ve “earned” with our might

      The brass needs a billet or two
      And some soldiers in order to screw
      A few jumbo jets and they’ve got no regrets
      Not with CNN asking their view

      They “can do,” you see, though they can’t
      Rhetorically venting their rant
      They talk a good show then the battle they slow
      Making “long time” the footprint they plant

      A “journey,” they say, not a “race”
      Attempting to save naked face
      In four years and more, they’ve produced a “long war”
      Of their “victory” — no sign or trace

      Let’s unlearn our history now
      And not ask about why or how
      While still sort of numb and sufficiently dumb
      Let’s not any learning allow

      We failed in Vietnam before
      Despite all the blood, guts, and gore
      Yet no fortune’s vast for our leadership caste
      To squander on warbucks galore

      A syndrome we need to construct
      To conceal the true fact that we’re fucked
      Our governing group has just stepped in the poop
      Now they’ve got to deny that they’ve sucked

      We need war to prop up the few
      Who really have nothing to do
      Their lack of a skill means that others must kill
      To produce all the “metrics” they skew

      The Worst and the Dullest, they paint
      Every failure with their smell and taint
      In a rut or a groove, they have set out to prove
      What Tweedledee said “isn’t” ain’t

      We’ve got the worst leadership team:
      A truly mad, nightmarish scream
      But screwing the pooch while a backside they smooch
      To them seems like just a wet dream

      Wherever they came from, who knows?
      Incompetence in them just grows
      They get us bombed stiff then they jump off a cliff
      Demonstrating what already shows

      We just hung a man in Iraq
      Once gone, though, we can’t get him back
      Now without any rope, down the slippery slope
      Our excuses get ever more slack

      They talk of a “spike” and a “surge”
      All to cover a fear and an urge
      They’ve shot our last wad, now they’ve left it to “GAWD”
      To figure out where next to splurge

      They’ve had all the time that they need
      To knock off the bullshit and screed
      With their flat learning curve, they’ve one hell of a nerve
      To demand more sick bodies to bleed

      This ain’t good and it’s got to stop
      Whatever they try at they flop
      If left at the helm they’ll just wreck the whole realm
      In planting their dragon’s teeth crop

      So let us dismiss these vile men
      Now mainly less rooster than hen
      Before they can blow what at sundown they crow:
      “Let’s already do it again!”

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2007

  5. I am Frank Boccia, the author of The Crouching Beast, quoted above. First, let me reiterate my respect for and admiration of Nick Schoch; I talk of it in the book. I admired him because, regardless of his views on the war, he gave the men of Bravo Company the best possible medical care, and that is all i can ask of any man. I don’t ask him to share me views or follow my lead; just do what you are supposed to do. Nick did that.

    Also, let me correct a couple of factual errors: Nick was the senior medic for Bravo Company –roughly 120 men– while I was a platoon leader of one of the four company platoons. He never served directly under me, except for a brief one-week period when I was acting company commander. We had respect for one another, buy we were never friends, nor should we have been. Secondly, Mr Dyer repeats the often-expressed misconception that the hill –Dong Ap Bia– was abandoned by the US and then retaken by the NVA. It WAS abandoned, because we had no further use fir it. It was never retaken because the NVA had no further use for it. In August of that year. the US DID return to the hill and reoccupied it without resistance. The battle was never about terrain; it was about finding and destroying the enemy.

    With all due respect, Mr Dyer, I have no idea how you come to the conclusion that “there was fear of failure right up the chain of command, with the platoon leaders coerced to act by the brass watching from above in their helicopters, who in turn would have to answer that evening to their superiors back at the command center.” Certainly not from my writings. I was not “coerced”. I was a professional military officer and I had a job to do, and I did it. I didn’t have to like that job, I didn’t have to want to do it; I just had to do it, just as Nick had to do his job. If you read my book then you know that at the end I point out that every man, with every decision he makes, exercises moral choice. That is not coercion.

    Most importantly, there is a very large untruth in all this (not of Dwyer’s making): The DSC which Nick received is supposedly for actions on Hamburger Hill –Dong Ap Bia. It is written so. I confess that when i first read the citation, I assumed immediately that Nick must have received TWO medals, because the facts as related in the citation bore no resemblance to the facts as I knew them. In fact, after researching the matter, I am confident in saying that Nick received one medal and one medal only, and that was for actions at the base of Dong Ngai, across the A Shau valley and several kilometers distant, and two weeks prior to Hamburger Hill. There is, by the way, no intent to deceive on anyone’s part. During the battle most of the battalion staff and company leadership were killed or wounded, and the paperwork lagged behind with few survivors to verify details. Nick deserved his medal, whether he wanted it or not, in the same way that we all did. I know that I personally don’t give a damn about my medals; few of us do.

    In the interests of furthering the truth even more, the conversation i recount actually took place on two separate occasions and in two different places. I consolidated them for the sake of brevity and dramatic effect. However, the essence of the conversation is true. Nick WAS upset. he wanted to talk about it and I tried my best to divert him.

    Nick’s choices were devastating for him. In the end, he did what he thought he had to do –there is that moral choice that we all face– and in a very real way what he did is exactly the same as what the most recent MOH recipient did –sacrifice himself for his fellows. The one threw himself on a grenade; the other tore his own life apart. I could hear the anguish in his voice that night, but I had no remedy for it then. I lost touch with him immediately after our deployment; he came to my attention a decade or so later but I lost sight of him again. Only a few years ago, when I read his obituary, did I find out what happened to him. I don’t know that I would have done any good at all even had I gotten in touch with him. I had no remedy for his hurt.

    I have no particular desire to change anyone’s mind or to ask him to understand or to share my feelings. Aside from those factual corrections, I really have nothing to offer except this: That I will continue to respect and admire Nick Schoch, and mourn for his loss, for no other reason than the most fundamental and natural of all: He was my comrade and brother. Rest in Peace, Nick.

    • Frank Boccia, I belatedly saw your post in response to what I wrote about Nikko. My intent in writing this was to honor Nikko, and also invite reflection on our foreign policy. It seems to me there is a continuum from the Viet Nam era to the present in which sacrifices were incurred for goals which are obscure. I will of course yield to you as to the specific facts–you were there, and I was not. The impression I have from reading your book, and other material, is that those of you on the ground acted heroically, but decision making in the ranks above you seems questionable.

      I want to say to you that reading your book was very important to me in my attempt to understand the history of this battle and war in which it took place. I also appreciate that you are still engaged all these year later and providing input as to the facts concerning events 40 years past.

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