11/26/2013 11:54 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

Thanks, But No Thanks

Since Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays, it should come as no surprise that the U.S. Army pulled out all the stops to make us homesick G.I.s partake in a quintessential Thanksgiving dinner in Vietnam. Turkey and all the trimmings were served in all the Long Binh mess halls, and, for a few fleeting moments, we could savor a bite of cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie, close our eyes, and pretend we were back home enjoying our mother's home-made bounty.

I was only two weeks in Vietnam by Nov. 26, 1970, when we "celebrated" Thanksgiving, and the brass in the Command Information unit I worked for wanted Army "journalists" like me to visit several of the base mess halls and report on the U.S. soldiers' delight with their Turkey dinner, compliments of Uncle Sam.

Of course, like most everything in Vietnam, it didn't turn out that way. Half the guys wouldn't talk to me -- pegging me as part of the Army's war propaganda machine -- and the rest just wanted to enjoy their Thanksgiving dinner in peace. That meant I wasn't going to have much of a story. Not a good thing for my first assignment as an Army journalist for command headquarters. So, I tried interviewing a few of the Thanksgiving cooks, but they were working their asses off and didn't have any time for me either.

I was about ready to give up when I encountered a grunt in a boonie hat who was on his way out of Vietnam. He waved me over, pointed to a chair for me to sit down, and started telling me a story about how one of the units in the field (he didn't want to identity exactly who) had mortared the mess sergeant's tent right after Thanksgiving the previous year, because the mess sergeant had served them inedible crap for Thanksgiving.

"This is a true story, man," he reminded me, a line I would hear more than once from a "reliable source" in and after Vietnam. It's hard now to remember all the juicy details, but I was excited to have some scoop, since I figured this was probably the only incidence of fragging in Vietnam prompted by bad food.

By the time I got back at the office, it had occurred to me that this was obviously not the kind of story the Army would be publishing this day or any day. So, story-less, I was assigned to monitor one of the teletype machines in our office all night as my punishment. The only real "news" that came across had to do with the three Americans killed in action that day, a low count for a day in Vietnam, I was later informed.

One of the three casualties was a 21 year-old from Euclid, Ohio, Philip Eugene Richard. I remember the name because it was the first death I'd recorded in Vietnam. Philip Richard was a helicopter pilot, and his chopper had crashed. Hard to know if it was from enemy fire or not. He'd just turned 21. He had his whole life ahead of him.

That was the first night I cried myself to sleep in Vietnam, because all I could do was picture Philip Richard's family sitting at their Thanksgiving dinner, looking out their front window and seeing two U.S. Army officers walking up their driveway to deliver their sad news.

It made me wish I'd been able to write the story about the G.I.s who mortared their lousy cook, even if it wasn't true. It was weird and darkly funny. A lot lighter than the other news, like the deaths, which I also wasn't able to report. That was somebody else's job.

Thanksgiving was never the same after that.