My Vietnam Experience

Joe Abodeely
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I was born in Tucson, Arizona July 14, 1943 (Bastille Day). I received my undergraduate degree in 1965 from the University of Arizona as a Distinguished Military Graduate in Army R.O.T.C., and commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant, Infantry, in the Army. I went to law school for a year (won 1st place in the Fegtly Moot Court competition), changed study for a semester of business graduate school; and then went on active duty for infantry training. I arrived in the Republic of Vietnam in January 1968 and was assigned to the 1st Air Cavalry Division as a combat infantry unit commander during Tet 1968–the bloodiest year of the war. Think Apocalypse Now or We Were Soldiers and Air Cavalry helicopters and combat air assaults.

The following are some excerpts of a book I wrote, “Dear Mom and Dad, Love from Vietnam,” which earned three Global E book Awards:

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President Johnson and his advisors were terrified for weeks that the siege of Khe Sanh by the NVA was the start of a full-scale assault on the Marine Khe Sanh Combat Base like General Giap’s 1954 Viet Minh victory over the French at a similar base at Dien Bien Phu.

The Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei was overrun, and aerial resupply of the Combat Base was endangered by intense shelling. This forced the Air Force to devise methods of dropping pallets with supplies from the cargo aircraft which were skimming the runway without landing (LAPE—Low Altitude Parachute Extraction). General Tolson, Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) had a three-fold plan- -Operation Pegasus–for the relief of Khe Sanh: (1) to relieve the Khe Sanh Combat Base; (2) to open Highway 9 from Ca Lu to Khe Sanh; and, (3) to destroy the enemy forces within the area of operations. The 1st Air Cavalry Division augmented by non-divisional units of U.S. Marines and Army of the Republic of Vietnam forces was perfectly suited to accomplish the mission. Linkup was planned at the end of seven days.

On April 7, we air assaulted near the top of a mountain that seemed to be solid rock. As we moved toward the crest, I heard bullets whistle overhead and noticed that the ground had no cover and was too hard to dig in. My point squad radioed that they saw bunkers and were cautiously approaching them. I got the rest of my platoon in an “on-line” formation- -all firepower was to the front. I expected a firefight any minute. We made it to the NVA bunkers and saw a deserted regimental-size NVA complex with all kinds of weapons—mortars, machine guns, antiaircraft guns. We found ZPU-4s (4-barreled anti-craft guns), AKs, RPDs, RPKs (light machineguns), RPGs (rocket propelled grenade launchers), ammo, and commo wire linking bunkers surrounding the whole area. We found dead NVA soldiers in bunkers with blood coming out of their ears.

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One of my guys nicknamed “Turtle” found an old French bugle in a trench and put parachute cord on it to make a tassel. While putting the cord on it, a cobra snake rose up, puffed out, and he shot it with his personal, unauthorized, .38 caliber, snub-nosed pistol. It came in handy that day. Turtle brought the cobra to show us stuck on an SKS rifle bayonet. It was a beautiful bluish-and silver-colored creature, pretty much shot up. He must have put all six rounds in the snake. He gave me the bugle which came in handy later.The area was pockmarked with bomb craters courtesy of the U.S. Air Force and probably the result of Arc Lights. The jet jocks can brag about how sexy their “fighters” are, but I love B-52s. We were about two miles outside of Khe Sanh, and although this NVA bunker complex was abandoned, Route 9 to Khe Sanh still had to be cleared. My platoon was tasked to lead the clearing action—to be the point platoon for the division.

I was concerned about ambushes at any time. The Marines could not move up and down Route 9 for over two months. If the NVA left the area, all they had to do was slip over the Laotian border and cross back and forth as they chose. When Lang Vei Special Forces camp was attacked by NVA with tanks in February, the Marine contingency plan to go down Route 9 as a relief force was not implemented because the NVA controlled the area.

Now, we were on Route 9, and we started down the road. We had to avoid the “toe poppers” (bomblets dropped by the Air Force) and other potential booby traps as we cautiously proceeded along Route 9, and we still did not know the status of the NVA as we moved along. I had some of my men straddle the road by 30 to 40 meters to be flank security and kept my RTOs nearby for commo with whomever I needed to have contact with, especially my squads. Our weapons were “at the ready” for the unexpected. We discovered that the NVA strategically placed bunkers lining the road all the way to the perimeter wire at Khe Sanh to ambush anyone going down the road. We found NVA backpacks, opium, weapons, etc.—but the NVA had vanished. My platoon was “point” for two miles to KSCB, and we were ordered to stay outside the wire.

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On April 8, my platoon was the first platoon to walk into Khe Sanh. We were the tip of the spear of the 1st Air Cavalry Division relief force as we entered the perimeter wire single file. We probably were a sight—I was at the head of the column with my equipment, M-16, and AK-47, and blowing the cavalry “charge” on a bugle.

A Marine captain directed where my platoon was to provide security along the length of the air strip. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner on April 8 reported:

“A two-mile victorious march by the Army 1st Air Cavalry Division formally ended the 78-day Communist siege of the fort Hanoi vowed it would take and American generals pledged would never be lost. The siege was over but the battle for control of South Vietnam’s Communist-infested northern frontier roared on…At Khe Sanh, where round the clock Communist artillery fire had driven 6000 Marine defenders underground, the Leathernecks Sunday whooped it up as Army 1st Lt. Joe Abodeely’s unit walked the last two miles into the camp. Abodeely, 24 of Tucson, Ariz. and his platoon formed the 1st Air Cavalry spearhead of the 20,000-man Operation Pegasus drive that broke the Communist grip around Khe Sanh in a week-long drive that covered 12 miles of jungle, hills and minefields…”

General Tolson wrote “…that it became increasingly evident, through lack of contact and the large amounts of new equipment being found indiscriminately abandoned on the battlefield, that the enemy had fled the area rather than face certain defeat. He was totally confused by the swift, bold, many- pronged attacks…”

On April 8, at 0800, the relief of Khe Sanh was “mission accomplished”, and the 1st Cavalry Division became the new landlord. We all knew this was a big deal at the time because Khe Sanh was all over the press in 1968. The Marines held the “fort” until “the cavalry” got there and ended the siege. I am most proud having left Vietnam without losing a man during my entire year’s tour.

LEGAL EXPERIENCE

I came back “to the world”, as we used to say about the U.S., in January 1969, returned to the University of Arizona Law School in February, and graduated in 1971. The law and the military have been intertwined for most of my life ever since. I was a Maricopa Deputy County Attorney for a decade and a half while serving in the Arizona National Guard as a Military Police Company Commander and later a JAG officer. I learned various skills to be a competent trial attorney—reading reports, interviewing witnesses, preparing motions and responses, arguing motions, and dealing with judges and juries. I even prepared some of my own appeals to the appellate courts.

I tried cases or obtained pleas involving murder, rape, robbery assault, child molesting, drugs, conspiracies, RICO, and organized crime, etc. Many of them made significant Arizona case law—State v. James G. Jones (joinder of charges and discovery), State ex rel. Berger v. Maricopa County Superior Court, Margarito Almeda, et. al, real parties in interest (speedy trial), State v. Karstetter (insanity plea and self-incrimination), and State v. Albert McDonald (identification by photo lineup).

As administrative deputy, I designed a file folder cover for cases in the County Attorney’s Office to outline the speedy trial time limits of the then new Rules of Criminal Procedure (1973), devised procedures for greater use of the Grand Jury rather than using preliminary hearings; and I supervised the Phoenix office of Arizona Drug Control District, a Drug Intelligence Agency co-located in the County Attorney’s office as part of the Four County Border Strike Force. I also enjoyed teaching legal issues and classes to law enforcement.

One of my cases involved the investigation of Jerry Buss, a California multi-millionaire mogul with vast real estate holdings and numerous L.L.C.s in several states, who paid “owner occupied taxes” instead of non-owner-occupied taxes on hundreds of houses in Maricopa County, Arizona; thereby avoiding legal tax payments. We reviewed thousands of documents from the county Assessor’s, Recorder’s, and Treasurer’s offices; and after an extensive RICO investigation, we negotiated a civil resolution of the case without trial and obtained a one million-dollar settlement for the county. While a Deputy Count Attorney, I was a JAG officer in the Army Reserve. Later, in private practice, I continued military education and assignments, attained the rank of Colonel, and was Chief, Law Branch, U.S. Army Military Police Operations Agency where I helped develop Army policy. I’ve practiced in city, state, federal, and military courts and provided legal advice and training on issues relating to terrorism, combating terrorism, the Law of War, and International Law to law enforcement and military personnel. I graduated from high level military courses including the Air University War College Associate Seminar Program and National Defense University National Security Management Course, and numerous others.

In U.S. District court, I defended the leader of the Tucson Hells Angels in a federal RICO case involving a confrontation between the Hells Angels and Mongols in Laughlin, Nevada. The government’s case involved drug violations, gun running, murder, racketeering, and other crimes. ATF agents spent two years penetrating Hells Angels, attending drug parties and becoming privy to various plots against rival gangs. The sheriff’s office duplicated casino video tapes showing a major fight between the clubs for trial discovery; but they lost video recordings in the process. I persuaded the federal court to dismiss the case against my client, in part, because, the authorities altered the casino video evidence showing the fights.

Nicki Arron Bonner was an inmate at the Arizona State Prison who was deaf, mute and legally blind with narrow tunnel vision. He had difficulty communicating with people who did not know American Sign Language and had had several counseling sessions and administrative or disciplinary hearings while in prison. He filed suit pro se alleging that prison offi- cials did not provide him (a deaf person) with a qualified interpreter for an administrative hearing in violation of his constitutional rights. An expert in sign language, helped me communicate with Bonner, tell his story, and successfully win his case in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which reversed the district court’s rulings against Bonner’s due process claims. This was a landmark case which gave rights to handicapped persons in prison. I was proud of this case because my father was deaf.

I have been the CEO of the Arizona Military Museum since 1980. The museum portrays the military history of Arizona from the Conquistadors to the present and has won numerous awards. The Governor appointed me to serve on the Board of Directors of the Arizona Historical Society. I spend time advocating for and promoting the exemplary service of our Vietnam veterans. Many do not know that 2/3 who served in Vietnam were patriotic volunteers—NOT draftees, and that the U.S. forces won all the major battles. The American military ended the war after winning all the major battles and conducting extensive bombing of North Vietnam in 1973 which prompted the 1973 Paris Peace Accords requiring U.S. and Communist forces to leave South Vietnam. The U.S. withdrew, Congress refused to resupply South Vietnam as promised, and the Communists renewed attacks. and invaded Saigon in 1975—two years after U.S. combat troops left.

The U.S. defense of South Vietnam was reported by biased journalists, not historians; and the media, Congress, academia, and the anti-war protesters misrepresented Vietnam veterans’ service to justify their antiwar views. This is the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive when so many young American risked or gave their lives, and nobody truly honors all those who served. As a lawyer and a soldier, I know we cannot have laws unless we defend them and the “defenders” of our Constitution and our nation. Remember and honor Vietnam veterans, before they fade away. Telling the truth about their service would be a good start.  Joe Abodeely

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