Shadows of the M-16

Shadows of the M-16

By Marc Yablonka

While volunteering with the Sar El unit of the Israeli Defense Forces, military journalist Marc Yablonka cleaned and re-oiled hundreds of M-16s, many of which had been used by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. While working on all these weapons, Yablonka had many thoughts about the U.S. servicemen who had used those M-16s decades earlier in Vietnam.

TELNOF AIR FORCE BASE, ISRAEL – “I wish I had known the soldier who used this gun in Vietnam,” said a young Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) rifle instructor, clutching her M-16, the strap draped about her.

She said those words twenty-four years ago when I had come to write about the Sar El unit of the IDF for the Stars and Stripes newspaper. They were participating in a program in which people, young and old, Jews and non-Jews alike, pay their own way to volunteer on IDF bases to repaint tanks, mend fences, garden, and even do KP.

I had been stationed then at Ashdod Naval Base repairing parts for the very same PBRs (River Patrol Boats) that the U.S. Navy had used in Vietnam.

Female IDF troops with their M-16s.
Female IDF troops in the Tel Aviv bus station with their ever-present M-16s by their sides.

Two years later, after coming back for a second tour of duty, this time to Telnof Air Force Base outside of Rehovot, the words of that strikingly beautiful twenty-one-year-old still haunted me.

The far more rewarding duty I drew at Telnof was in the Neshekiya, (weapons arsenal in English), where, among the Uzis – a rifle the Israelis call the “Galil” and RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) – I was surrounded by M-16s, most of which had seen action in Vietnam.

Vietnam to me, both fortunately and unfortunately, remains a country that I have only seen after the war, as a freelance military journalist for Stars and Stripes, American Veteran magazine, the National Catholic Register, and several foreign English-language dailies, such as the Japan Times and Jakarta Post.

Since the fall of Saigon on April 30th, 1975, Indochina has been a region whose peoples, histories, and cultures I have come to study and love. The region has been constantly in my thoughts, and has been the genesis for two books I’ve written: Distant War: Recollections of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (Navigator Books) and Tears Across the Mekong (Figueroa Press). And it certainly was, when, during the summer of 1994, the fingers that I am now using to write this piece grew tired and sore from taking apart, cleaning, and re-oiling hundreds of Uzis, Galils, and M-16s – whose magazines I loaded over and over again.

Very soon, I began to reflect, “Had this gun been used in the Ia Drang Valley?”

Taking another one down from the rack in the arsenal, I asked myself, “How about this one? Had it produced many NVA KIAs (North Vietnamese Killed In Action) in the infamous battle for Hamburger Hill, in the Ashau Valley?”

“I wonder if a GI used this one during the Tet Offensive in 1968,” I pondered.

But the most haunting of my thoughts came over and over again: “Had the soldier or Marine who used this M-16 made it home alive?” It was not just the M-16s that spoke to me of Vietnam at Telnof. It was also the continuously deafening sounds of F-4 Phantoms and F-15s rising quickly into the Israeli sky after lights-out.

A sky that, one air-traffic controller pointed out, takes the secretive, elite, revered, and (Israelis themselves would be the first to tell you) rather pompous pilots, thirty minutes to traverse, from Eilat, the southernmost Israeli city at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, to Lebanon in the north, in their American-built Israeli-tweaked aircraft.

It was also the occasional sight of the fabled Bell UH-1 Huey and Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters, both synonymous with Vietnam.

At Telnof, when the subject of Vietnam came up, IDF troopers expressed utmost reverence for their fighting brethren of an earlier era, a feeling that escaped so many people in the United States until the Vietnam Memorial was erected in Washington, D.C., in 1982.

When that finally happened, America opened its heart, battled old wounds, shed tears, and finally thanked our Vietnam veterans for their service and sacrifice.

Marc Yablonka, at right, wearing an IDF uniform, with an Israeli Air Force troop in the hills overlooking Jerusalem.
Marc Yablonka, at right, wearing an IDF uniform, with an Israeli Air Force troop in the hills overlooking Jerusalem.

One can see very quickly that this has always been done in Israel, from the Latrun Memorial to the fallen tank commandos, to the memorial for the fallen paratroopers in nearby Rehovot. One might posit, therefore, that the U.S. could have learned a lot sooner from Israel how to thank and honor our soldiers who served in Vietnam.

Not so coincidentally, author Jim Morris, (Maj. USA, Ret.), noted chronicler of Vietnam special operations (Fighting Men, The Devil’s Secret Name, and several other books), who, as a correspondent for Soldier of Fortune magazine, covered the IDF and Lebanese Christian Phalangists during the 1981 Israel-Lebanon war, likes to tell the story that Israeli Defense Forces soldier Steve Hartov told him about of one of Maj. Morris’s fellow Green Berets, who came to Israel after his service in Vietnam to enlist as a paratrooper in the IDF: “Why do you want to jump for us?” questioned the recruiting commander from behind his desk. “You are not even Jewish.”

“I just want to fight for a country that appreciates what I do,” the Green Beret replied.

Thankfully, there is now a wall on the mall in Washington that has gone a long way toward mending that sentiment, assuring Vietnam veterans that Americans do care.

To be sure, the duty I undertook at Telnof would have classified me as a REMF (Rear Echelon M*****F*****) in Vietnam-War parlance. And twenty-four years ago, several IDF troops I befriended thought I was a bit loony to be doing what I was doing, even in the name of military journalism. At the time, Iranian-backed Hezbollah threatened Israel’s northern border, while Israeli Air Force jets flew nightly sorties dropping their payloads on Lebanon in an attempt to interdict them.

Today, Israel still faces threats from Hezbollah to its north, Hamas in Gaza, and enraged, knife-wielding Palestinians on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, even an aging REMF is glad that he served in a country that appreciated him.

 

Marc YablonkaMarc Yablonka also served as a public affairs officer in the 40th Infantry Division Support Brigade to the California National Guard at the Joint Forces Training Base, Los Alamitos, California, 2001 through 2008. Many of the articles he wrote and photographs he took for several official U.S. Army publications in support of troops mobilizing for and demobilizing from Operations OIF and OEF can be seen on his web site at marcpyablonka.com. His book, Tears Across the Mekong, about the secret war in Laos, is available through amazon.com or through the publisher at figueroapress.com.