The reality of Civic Action in CAP 2-7-2
In theory, we would take a couple of Marines and some RF’s out into our village. There we would set up a clinic for the day to treat the villagers and win their hearts and minds. We were also told that the CAPs would do all sorts of humanitarian projects, such as teaching English, building things and generally being a cross between Albert Schweitzer and Sister Teresa.
Then we were sent off to CAP School where the do-gooder image was quickly shattered by the CAF Sergeant Major. I remember him striding into the classroom on our first day. After seating us, he took a good look around the room at the smiling young faces of eager Marines and Corpsmen. Then he gave us a short “briefing” on the mission of the CAF.
“Forget all that bullshit they told you about being in the CAPs to win the hearts and minds of the people. Your job and primary mission is to kill gooks, no matter what anyone else tells you. The only way you can kill gooks is to be better at killing than they are, so pay attention and you just might learn enough to survive.”
Of course that’s not a word-for-word recollection, but his message was very clear. We were to be combat Marines and not some kind of Peace Corps volunteers. It shook me up a little since I had liked the other version of our mission. It sounded so much more pleasant … like we might not even need the weapons we were issued.
Reading accounts of other CAPs and CACs, I think Civic Action was more important in the early days of the program. But somehow the emphasis changed over time. From those accounts it seems that going mobile had an impact on the Civic Action portion of our duties. For mobile CAPs, being elusive was a priority for survival. So, instead of learning how to do Civic Action projects, CAP School classes covered tactics, weapons, explosives, communications and enough Vietnamese language to make the villagers laugh.
After CAP School we were sent to the bush. Once I became a member of CAP 2-7-2, I noted that Civic Action was non-existent most of the time. MedCaps didn’t happen for two reasons. First, no Marines ever wanted to go with me. Second, announcing ahead of time where we were going to be for several hours seemed suicidal. So the medical portion of our Civic Action program became rather informal.
The villagers always seemed to know where we were, so anyone with a medical problem was brought to our day haven site for treatment. “Cool,” I thought, “no house calls.”
In time I got comfortable with life in our village, and I started making house calls. It was not unusual for someone to come and ask me to go to their house to tend someone with an illness or injury. As often as not, I would grab one of my med bags and my M-16 and head off into the ville with some child showing me the way. That all changed after the VC assassinated “Li’l Abner” the RF medic out in the ville one day. After that, house calls stopped.
There were two real Civic Action projects while I was at CAP 2. First we built a very nice covered marketplace for the ville. Someone arranged for the SeaBees to drop off lumber, cement, corrugated tin and some tools. Before that, the village marketplace was out in the open. Buyers and sellers and produce were exposed to blistering heat during the hot months and drenching rain during the monsoons. So, each day for a couple of weeks CAP 2-7-2 spent the daylight hours working on the new marketplace.
Actually, I would sit in the shade of the village hospital building and watch the Marines work. I have some good slides of Roch Thornton on a ladder nailing together the framework for the tin roof. They also hand- mixed and poured a concrete floor with water hauled from the river bucket by bucket. Many villagers helped and the Vietnamese kids did most of the water hauling, but it was an amazing feat considering the primitive conditions and the threat of ambush. Charlie left us alone, though, so he must have wanted a new marketplace, too.
The village hospital was a nice, multiple room, building near the marketplace built of concrete and tile. It had no staff, electricity or running water and was completely empty. It was never used. Somehow I heard the VC had decreed the hospital was not to be used. They may have prohibited its use because the South Vietnamese government built it, or because it would have given the Americans a place to win hearts and minds.
I went to the hospital a few times early in my tour and set up an informal medical clinic. I assumed that its location next to the market would attract customers. After all, the villagers could buy their fish heads and get a shot of penicillin all in one convenient location. No one ever came. No one would come to the building although I was often summoned to the market stalls. I seem to remember one of the village kids saying something like, “No come here, VC bac-bac (kill).” So I became content with people coming to me when they needed medical care.
Our second Civic Action project was “the kitchen.” One house where we sometimes spent the day had a nice cooking area separate from the house with a dirt floor and bamboo walls. We nicknamed that house, “The Kitchen.” Then a storm blew the kitchen away. The Marines happened to have some concrete mix left over, so they rebuilt the kitchen for the family. We poured a cement floor and used leftover lumber to frame the new cooking area. Then the family used local materials for the walls and roof. It was the nicest kitchen on the block. I had many meals there before and after the rebuilding of the kitchen.
Not only was the food tasty, but the family at “The Kitchen” had a cute teenage daughter. She was probably a VC by night, but pleasant to look at. In fact, we were so convinced she was VC that we set up an elaborate trap one night to catch her and her friends. We stayed at “The Kitchen” during the day and at dusk got ready to move out for the night. As we saddled up we purposely did some extra milling around and distracting while Mike Kubina and, I think, Willie Williams climbed up and hid in the rafters of the main house. They hoped to ambush any VC who showed up after our main body left. Nothing happened, but it was a great plan.
A few other attempts at Civic Action met with less success. I have slides of Roch Thornton “helping” one family plant their rice seedlings. The pictures don’t show that after he was gone the farmers pulled up and replanted his seedlings, much to my amusement. His rows had not been spaced properly and were crooked according to the farmer. I think they recognized his good intentions, but wished the Americans would mind their own business.
Apart from the marketplace and the kitchen, our Civic Action was limited to giving away small amounts of clothing sent by our families and churches back home. There were other small-scale tidbits of good will, but nothing substantial. Civic Action may have been a low priority because the VC were so active in our ville, or the problem may have been a lack of interest, but that’s the way it was.
Since I was only in CAP 2, I don’t know how other CAPs handled their Civic Action duties. In the end I don’t suppose it made much difference since the people knew we wouldn’t be there for long anyway…
Posted on Aug. 26, 1999