Redemption Song

Dave Herrick's strange odyssey through the U.S. war on drugs

"He was shot down and killed six months after he got there," Herrick recalled.

On April 1, 1969, Herrick arrived in Vietnam, assigned to the 5th Battalion of the 1st Air Cavalry Division—whose exploits were fictionalized by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now.

"There were 160 guys in Charlie Company," Herrick said. "We weren't like the Marines. We were out in the field all the time. We stayed out. We had observation posts and listening posts and all that other happy horseshit."

In 1969, daily life in a 1st Air Cavalry infantry company was at best a tiresome trek through a mosquito-infested, humid jungle and, at worst, a major encounter with a well-armed and highly disciplined enemy. Given the uncertainties, every venture into the bush brought with it a mind-boggling mixture of mortal anxiety, sheer exhaustion and sometimes death.

"Firefights are like earthquakes," Herrick said. "They're either going to be long and turn into a battle, or they'll be short. They're unpredictable."

Herrick's first happened near the South Vietnamese village of Quan Loi. "We were backing [famed Indian fighter General George] Custer's old battalion, and we had to bust ass to get to where they were. It was one of those do-or-die situations, and we were up against North Vietnamese regulars.

"I took six wounded and three dead in my company that day," said Herrick. "Most of those were from mortars. They had us pretty well-pinned. You get into these situations where you're in the woods and you have no idea where the hell you are. You're at the mercy of the terrain."

Later that year, Herrick participated in a gruesome military campaign in the A Shau Valley, where the 101st Airborne lost dozens of soldiers in an assault on a remote peak that became known as Hamburger Hill. "We came in on the ass-end of that one," Herrick recalled. "When we got there, the soldiers were sitting around ready to shoot their officers, and I didn't blame them. When they finally got on top of that hill, they just turned around and left."

Not surprisingly, many American soldiers turned to drugs to alleviate the pressure of fighting a war that had no front lines against an enemy often indistinguishable from innocent bystanders. "You didn't know who your enemy was," Herrick said, "and you didn't care to meet the enemy.

"After you get in combat and actually get a kill to your name, it takes its toll psychologically," Herrick continued. "But the more people you kill, the more they reward you with medals and decorations and pump you up. So you begin to realize that this is all bullshit. Guys are dying, losing legs, and everyone is getting hooked on heroin."

The drug problem in Herrick's company was so intense that when Herrick tried to treat wounded soldiers in the wake of a firefight, he frequently found himself short of morphine. "The junkies in my company would raid my morphine whenever they couldn't get their heroin," Herrick explained. "No matter where I put it—in my aid bag or in the front pocket of my fatigues or even if I tried to bury it in the bottom of the rucksack—it'd always end up gone."

Without morphine, Herrick says, he turned to marijuana to medicate the wounded. About a month after he arrived in Vietnam, Herrick's company was patrolling a rubber plantation outside Tay Ninh when it took small-arms fire from what turned out to be a band of Viet Cong. As the crackle of gunfire sounded in the distance, a soldier who had been in-country for only four days fell to the ground, shot through the shoulder.

"This kid was 18 years old and scared shitless," said Herrick. "He was sobbing like a banshee. I had no morphine. So I went over to a guy I knew who had just scored and grabbed two joints and gave them to the kid. He fired one up." Herrick moved on to treat the other more badly wounded. Five minutes later, he returned to the kid, "and he was lying against a tree, joking like it was no big thing."

Herrick said the firefight at Tay Ninh convinced him of marijuana's value as a painkiller and anxiety-suppressant—at least in post-combat situations in which morphine was not available. "I made it a habit from that point on to always dispense marijuana," Herrick said. "I bought it with my own money. Whenever someone got shot, came out of shock and started to feel the pain, he'd usually start screaming. I would hand him a joint. Usually, he'd smoke it. If you got shot and weren't a smoker, you either became one or just shined it and lived with the pain."

The medical uses of marijuana were just as controversial then as now. Herrick's captain, a Special Forces-trained career officer, opposed any marijuana smoking by his soldiers in the field because the odor might attract the enemy. Herrick argued that a wounded infantryman who was hysterical and screaming his lungs out posed a much greater risk to his comrades than a stoned grunt who shut up and stayed out of the way.

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