In 1965, Rodney Grant signed the paper that would turn him from a boy of 17 into a man. Growing up in Indianapolis, Rodney looked at a career in the military as a good way to get a steady job and see the world while serving his country.
Signing on with the Marine Corps, Rodney started training in tanks. When officers came through his boot camp looking for volunteers for an impending conflict, Rodney was quick to volunteer. Always looking for an adventure, Rodney soon found himself in Vietnam and more adventure than he had ever imagined.
Today, memories of Vietnam come to Rodney like it was yesterday. Decorated and disabled, Rodney served in the first wave of combat Marines to hit the beach, ready to put his life on the line. He was an enthusiastic soldier who thrived on the adrenaline that comes from being under fire. When soldiers were needed to slide into dark foxholes underground to look for booby traps and enemy soldiers, many men shied away from such dangerous duty. To Rodney, though, it sounded like a challenge. “I used to think there was something wrong with me because I literally enjoyed combat. It was exciting.”
Serving in Vietnam provided plenty of challenges. Rodney remembers sitting in helicopters so noisy he could hardly hear his own thoughts. Suddenly, little spots of light began appearing in the helicopter walls next to him. Rodney stared at them, perplexed for a moment before realizing that they were bullet holes from Viet Cong shooting at them from below. “Now, if you don’t get a little rush from that, you need to go home!,” he laughs.
Not all memories were so exciting, however. With the ultimate thrill came a high price. Pain, both physical and mental, plagued soldiers of all ranks. Disease, wounds, and fatigue could be recovered from, but the wounds of the heart do not heal so easily. One of the most painful came one day as Rodney sat in a foxhole, guarding the front entrance to his compound. A mother and her nine-year-old daughter came to the compound entrance selling sodas.
The seemingly innocent act moved Rodney to purchase a few before sending them off. “The little girl was just beautiful, with black hair and dark eyes.” He remembers. After giving them his money, Rodney tried to tell them to go away, but they ignored him. The daughter wandered away while Rodney motioned for the mother to move on. The mother seemed not to understand him.
Finally, in frustration, Rodney pretended to put a round into the chamber of his gun and pointed it at them to frighten them away. Startled, the little girl jerked around quickly, and suddenly an explosion flattened them all to the ground. The mother and her child were dead. An investigation found that the little girl had been trying to set up a trip wire attached to a grenade, and when Rodney had pointed his gun, she thought he had seen her actions and accidentally set it off.
Rodney was unharmed physically — the mother’s body had shielded him from the flying shrapnel — but his heart suffered as if it had been at the center of the blast. Years later, the memory is still poignant. “I still, today, see their bodies floating in the air in slow motion and feel the concussion from the grenade. I just stood there wondering, ‘What the hell? What just happened?'”
It was anger that Rodney felt later that night in his tent. He was angry that a war would force a little girl and her mother to die when they should have been playing games together. The anger gave him a stronger resolve to fight against a government that not only condoned but also forced the death of innocents.
“What I did feel bad for was that there was an individual out there that was cruel enough to send a small child out to battle me. That made me angry, and that night I did cry.” Rodney sees many similarities between Vietnam and the war in Iraq. In both, American soldiers are fighting to free an oppressed people that suffer at the hands of a greed-driven government.
He sympathizes with the soldiers in the desert, hoping that they can take the painful experiences they are living through and turn them into positive action. “A lot of our congressmen and presidents have had this kind of experience and they turned them around for good. They are the heroes.” He says.
Many years have passed since Rodney was an adventure-seeking young man of 17, but the heart of a warrior still beats in his chest. “I got an e-mail the other day that said ‘I’m not as lean, I’m not as mean, but I’m still a Marine’.” Says Rodney laughing. “I’m definitely not as lean, I might be just as ornery, but I’m still a jarhead and a representative of my country.”
If he could, says Rodney, he would gladly go again, not to the jungle this time, but to the battle in the desert. Rodney told that to a young soldier recently when the airman apologized for having to search Rodney’s car before entering a base.
The soldier looked at the Purple Heart/Vietnam license plates on the car for a moment and replied “No sir. It’s our turn. You did your turn already.”
This was originally published on MilitaryLife.com on 13 April 2003 as Under Fire: War in Iraq Sparks One Marine’s Memories of Vietnam