A nation at war

The Long Walk Home

Published in The Secaucus Reporter: 2003


By Al Sullivan

Months of humping jungle and Dennis Elwell still walked point, eating dust and danger, a weary grunt hobbling ahead of the patrol so to warn them of ambush.

People developed instincts to survive point, and he kept a wary eye out, each of his senses ready for that tingle that said: trap!

This trip took them along a safe zone, around the fenced in fire base where he could rest. But no one was safe anywhere, he kept thinking, even so close to rest as this, snipers picking off people in the compounds, squads of Cong laying ambush for patrols like his. .

This elite combat airborne unit had come in from the bush to bathe, not battle, and he hated being up front again, so easy a target when he could have been safer inside the wire.

"It was the kind of base where you got to take a shower, clean your clothing and get a decent meal," he recalled 30 years later, a short time after his unit's reunion and just before his trip to Arlington Cemetery to witness the burial of a man with whom he had served.

The moment outside the fire base captured his whole year's tour in a flash, a moment he often recalled as "operation palace guard" in which he would later be honored as a hero.

"We had to stay there a week, get cleaned up, medical checkups, clothes and supplies. But we still had to do patrols during the day," he said.

He remembered seeing the rear platoon veer off after the enemy.

"It was foolish," he said. "But we couldn't stop them. As it turned out, they ran into an ambush."

The brigade took up defensive positions, forming a circle, with Elwell's platoon taking up position in the middle to handle any breech. When several men got trapped outside the circle, the unit commander turned to Elwell.

"I was told to go rescue those who were alive," Elwell said. "Four of us went, only two made it there."

Among the ambushed patrols was a man named Maxie Meyers -- a staff sergeant that had survived long enough to win a field commission. Few field officers survived combat, so Elwell was not surprised to find Meyers hit.

"His stomach was blown open," Elwell said. "He kept telling me he didn't want morphine. They gave him morphine anyway and I got him back to a helicopter. I didn't think he was going to survive."

Elwell dragged Meyers to a rescue helicopter and threw him on it, and did not learn of Meyers' recovery until the reunion 30 years later.

Elwell grew up in Secaucus, New Jersey, where he had toted a gun through similar swamps, although hunting muskrat not Vietcong, a place famous for its garden, farms, pigs, slaughter houses, trash dumps, perpetually smoldering fires and stink -- all of which Elwell could see, smell and feel if he closed his eyes.

His father, one of the founding families, had built their first house in the 1800s before Secaucus was even its own entity. The old man had helped win the war in North Africa, trucking supplies to the troops -- an experience that led him to start up his own one truck business of his own at home after the war. Dennis grew up laboring for a local asphalt contractor with occasional bouts on his father's trucks. By the time he enlisted, he had not yet made up his mind what future to pursue.

The U.S. Army endowed him with a different tradition. His unit, the 173 rd Airborne Brigade had the distinction of becoming the first Army troops with boots in the Republic of South Vietnam when they landed at battle-battered Bien Hoa Airfield in May 1965. Although Elwell shared only a year's worth of that tradition, his brigade saw nearly six years of continuous combat, its members earning fourteen campaign streamers, four unit citations, thirteen Medal of Honors, six thousand purple hearts and seventeen hundred names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C.

Elwell, as part of the newly formulated Fourth Infantry Battalion out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, arrived in Vietnam in August, 1966. Of the eight hundred he had shipped there with, Elwell was among fourteen who had not suffered from malaria, and one of twenty five not wounded or killed. More than once he wondered who he managed to get home unscathed.

"I used to wake up from a dream that I was still over there waiting to leave," he recalled later.

His survival, he believes, came from being at the right place at the right time: luck, fate, God's infinite mercy. Yet he also attributed survival the cohesive nature of his unit. Trained as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne, Elwell emerged as among the toughest and most disciplined units in the American Army.

"We were an elite force, and were sometimes called the Geranamo Brigade," he said.

Vietnam, he said, continued that "education," the time and place teaching how to work within a team.

"I tried to be good at what I did, and I learned that in the army, it it's easier to get along if you do what you're told. That's the way the army operates. Everything is strict and regimented. When they told me to do something, I did my best to do it," Elwell said.

In describing his year in Vietnam as "digging a hole in which to sleep and regimented guard duty," Elwell learned pride and a good work ethic.

"I learned quickly that people who did a good job moved up," he said.

A good job in Vietnam was survival, and survival meant strict attention to detail.

"We paid attention to what to do and not to do," he said. "If we planned an ambush, we did it, and we looked out for one another. Looking out for each other was a big part of staying alive."

Although Elwell became a decorated war hero, he never considered himself particularly brave.

"The airborne taught me how to control my fear," he said. "When we were jumping, they told us that jumping out of an airplane at a thousand feet is an abnormal thing. Most of the guys had shaky knees. The idea was to control the fear and do it anyway. If you can control fear, you can do just about anything."

Exactly a year after being sent to Vietnam, Elwell came home, dropping down out of the clouds to a base near San Francisco. He went to a bar seeking roast beef on a roll with gravy, then considered his options. He thought about calling home, telling his family he was back. But after consulting the airline schedule, found that he would land in Kennedy airport at 3 p.m.

"I figured I'd be home for supper," he said.

His future wife and his aunt saw him in the Secaucus Plaza shopping district and offered to drive him to his house on the north end of town, but he refused.

"I wanted to walk," he said, and walk he did, arriving at the house just as supper was being laid on the table. He sat and ate with the family, then went to bed. Although entitled to two weeks unemployment, Elwell said he started work right away.

"I went down to the unemployment office and saw the line and said heck with that," he said. "That's not for me."

He came home and started working with his father and worked every day of his life since.

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