Forty-two years ago I was laid up in a hospital in Japan recovering from a minor wound that had become infected. I had been serving with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam.
Lying on my back, staring at the ceiling gave me a lot of time to think. I recall thinking about the helmets we wore. It was a most useful piece of equipment. My own belief is that protection from harm was not one of its most important functions. Unlike a turtle's carapace it didn't offer much in the way of security. I think its official nomenclature was M-1 Helmet.
Let me begin by saying that I can only speak to my own experience being in the infantry and being part of the Vietnam War. Others may have a different experience with their helmet. First, it would be helpful to understand the parts. The main part we call the "steel pot" for obvious reasons. It was steel and it looked a little like a pot. The steel pot was covered with a canvas material usually in a camouflage design. We called that the helmet cover. The cover was secured to the steel pot with a rubber band.
Inside the helmet was what we called the helmet liner. The helmet liner was molded plastic with web gear within it to hold it to our heads. The liner made up the rest of the M-l Helmet. Most helmets could be fitted with a chinstrap, but my recollection is that those were removed and seldom used.
If the steel pot were being used for any of its most practical applications, the liner would still be worn as a cover for some protection from the elements, but also to make sure it wasn't misplaced.
The canvas cover was used in no small part as a bulletin board emblazoned with all manner of laconic sayings or kitsch. Soldiers would often write their hometowns on them and often how they felt about the war or some other usually clever saying.
Lacking was any sign of rank with the exception of a vertical one-inch white stripe on the back of the cover to indicate a commissioned officer or a horizontal stripe to indicate a noncommissioned officer. Without one of those stripes one would usually be an enlisted soldier. This I believe applied mostly to those who spent their time in the field. I do not think that protocol was followed in the rear areas.
The rubber band also functioned as a reliable and handy fastener for a variety of things we needed to carry. Most often that's where our insect repellent would be kept. For those who smoked that's often where cigarettes were carried. The rubber band could also be used for securing foliage for additional camouflage; the panache of the jungle fighter.
The steel pot was the most useful part for a soldier. A few of its uses were: a seat for resting while on patrol, a pillow while lying down, a cooking pot, a tool for digging, a hammer, a step-stool to reach something just out of reach, a platform to steady a rifle or to keep its working parts off the ground, a pail for carrying water, a basin for washing and shaving, and a stage for one of the few entertainments we had. Let me explain the latter.
Entertainment was not easy to come by in the jungle. On the other hand, land leeches and insect repellent were. Here's how it went. If you were to stay still for just a few minutes, land leeches would start moving toward you. I'm not sure if they were attracted to heat, scent or possible carbon dioxide, but it's of no difference. Attracted they were and came they did.
If you've never seen a land leech they are dark, almost black, in color, they are about an inch to an inch and a half long, they walk like an inch worm using the large back end as one foot and their smaller head as the leading foot.
They were after our blood. Seems like there was a lot of that going on in Vietnam. To get our blood they simply had to attach themselves to our skin (they seemed to prefer soft skin, but that wasn't mandatory). I don't think they penetrated the skin. My belief is that they sucked the blood through the skin as if giving us a tiny hickey. Some sort of blood thinner must have been used as after they were finished with us, the area where they supped often kept bleeding for some time. There were times when someone would think they'd suffered a gun shot or shrapnel wound only to discover they have been feasted on by a land leech or two.
So how were we entertained? Using our steel pots with cover kept on we would squirt insect repellent around the top creating a circle about six inches in diameter. Then we would collect the leeches as they were on their way to dine and put them inside the circle. They would continue to walk, but as their front foot hit the repellent they would quickly lift the foot and head in another direction. If you could collect six to 10 leeches and get all of them in the circle it would soon look like a troop of ballet dancers moving around the top of your helmet. As soon as you were finished with the show you only need to squirt them with more insect repellent causing them to curl up and die an apparently unpleasant death.
I suppose some of you are thinking that you've missed out on one of the great joys in life. You have. There's really nothing like being a soldier (especially a grunt). Great food, lots of exercise, fellowship with nature, camaraderie, cool toys and almost endless opportunities for cheap entertainment.
There was one serious, dead serious, use of the helmet. When hung from an inverted rifle stuck in the ground it was a sign signifying a warrior killed in action. A reminder of one of our own who has given his all. I have a decal on the window of my car as a memorial to my nephew Cpl. Jeffrey Starr, USMC who was killed in Iraq and to all those who have made that sacrifice. When a veteran sees that symbol it's a reminder of just how close we came to having our helmet hung from our rifle.
Today is the day to thank a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces for their willingness to serve.
Lickness, a resident of San Diego and general counsel for Golden Eagle Insurance, served in the infantry in the Vietnam War.