The following morning, Hudelson wandered over to the base’s radio tent, where officers were monitoring an ambush that had been sent out the night before.

“This colonel had walked them into another ambush, and they were getting slaughtered,” he recalls. “They called in four dead. And I was pissed because I hadn’t killed the colonel.” That day, Hudelson’s captain broke down and was removed from the line of duty.

Hudelson survived several other ambushes and eventually the war itself physically unscathed. But he says the psychological baggage he carried home has ruined his life.

John Wylie Needham is accused of murdering his girlfriend just months after returning from Iraq
John Wylie Needham is accused of murdering his girlfriend just months after returning from Iraq

He is still filled with remorse for not murdering the officer whose bad orders caused so many of his friends to die. “I was against the war in the first place,” he says. “If there is a God, why would he take this pronounced anti-war guy and put him in Vietnam? I had no control over the situation. I tried to kill a colonel, and because I didn’t do it, four more guys got killed that would be walking this earth right now. That’s where my craziness comes from. Years later, I’d be sitting there, and it’d suddenly pop out: ‘I’ll kill him next time.’”

After successfully resisting the urge to attack a police officer who pulled him over for speeding, Hudelson, now 60, checked himself in for PTSD counseling at the Long Beach VA Hospital and started attending group therapy at the Veterans Center. He recently stopped going to the meetings at the Garden Grove Elks Lodge, citing personality conflicts with its members, but he continues to visit the VA Hospital almost every day. He’s behind on his mortgage and worries that the bank may foreclose on his home.

“My life is a mess right now,” he says. “A couple of weeks ago, a guy came into our group who had attempted suicide, and it hit me real hard. I had been contemplating suicide that week myself.”

*     *     *

Walter Lee Treadwell killed his first Viet Cong sapper about a month after he arrived in Vietnam. He was watching the barbed wire from a forward observation post one night when he saw movement. “We had rocks and cans strung to the wire so that when it moved, you could hear it,” he says. “But this guy was so good, I heard no noise. I just saw the wire moving. It glinted.” Treadwell grabbed a pistol and crawled out to the wire until he could see the sapper, who was naked except for a loincloth, his entire body camouflaged with shoe polish. He carried a wire-cutting tool and had an explosive charge strapped to his waist.

“I capped him from about 10 feet away,” Treadwell says. Because his lieutenant wanted to interrogate the Viet Cong, he busted Treadwell down a rank and restricted him to the airstrip for a month. Treadwell didn’t mind. “I was proud because I had a kill,” he recalls. “I wanted blood at that point.”

A military brat who grew up all over the country thanks to his father’s “pencil-pushing” job in the Air Force, Treadwell dropped out of high school in late 1969 to enlist in the Marine Corps. “Part of why I enlisted in the Marines was so I could beat that son of a bitch up,” he says. “He was a mean drunk who used to beat up on my mom.”

Treadwell’s stint at the airstrip lasted roughly half his tour. He also worked guard duty for “hearts and minds” operations, like one involving a Navy corpsman distributing medicine to local villagers. As Hudelson watched for suspicious movements in the crowd, he saw someone running a zigzag pattern. He reacted the way he says he was trained to do and neutralized the perceived threat. “I shot a 13-year-old kid. An innocent kid,” he says. “He was running because he was excited.”

On another occasion, Treadwell says he executed a villager he believed was a Viet Cong responsible for setting booby traps. “I thought he was VC,” he says. “I made that judgment. We’ll never know. I terminated his life. I don’t know if I was more pissed off at his attitude, but I labeled him a VC and fucking popped him.”

He’s still tormented by the incident. “I saw myself as crossing the line. That’s what haunts me. My government is telling me to help stop the spread of communism, and here I am committing a frigging murder. I went out and hunted this guy down. There’s no getting rid of it, and I don’t deserve to get it off my conscience.”

Six days after returning home, Treadwell spent the evening drinking a six-pack of beer in the driveway of his parents’ house in Whittier. A neighbor who didn’t recognize him called the police; a plainclothes burglary detective took the call. Treadwell remembers only that someone stepped out of the bushes on the side of the yard and startled him, so he backed away to the house.

As Treadwell opened the door, the officer shot him through the shoulder. Oblivious to the pain, he calmly walked inside, retrieved a shotgun and .45-caliber pistol from his dad’s bedroom, and began firing out the front door. Fortunately, he didn’t hit anybody, and a judge sentenced Treadwell, then 20 years old, to three and a half years in a youth-authority prison. He received an undesirable discharge from the Marines.

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