Tom Pennie in Vietnam during the Vietnam war

Tom Pennie in Vietnam

Written by Tom Pennie

Steve Hecht teaches writing at LaRoche University in Pittsburgh. Last fall, he had Vietnam veteran Tom Pennie in his memoir writing class. Tom Pennie writes his reflection below on his service, and his gratitude for his friend, Norbert Burleson. Tom served in Vietnam from December 1969 to December 1970. He received Bronze Star with “V” device, the Combat Infantry Badge, the Air Medal, and other ribbons and awards. Originally from Chicago, he has lived in Pittsburgh for almost 40 years. Thank you, Steve and Tom, for allowing us to reprint the story here with photos.

I first met Norbert Burleson on December 26, 1969. I had arrived in Vietnam one day earlier on Christmas Day. I had been assigned to the First Cavalry and attended the first two days of “Cherry School.”

Photo of Norbert Burleson during the Vietnam war

Norbert “Burl” Burleson

Cherry School’s one week training had the purpose of repairing the damage done to us by the pampering of basic training and advanced infantry training we had survived back home “in the World.”

“The “World” would become that forgotten place where we came from. Cherry School taught us the myriad ways “Charlie” (the Viet Cong) had devised to maim, mutilate and kill us.

Advanced Infantry Training had failed to mention “Bouncing Bettys” and “Punji Sticks.”

The “Bouncing Betty” was a spring activated explosive triggered by a trip wire. When the wire (buried and hidden in a shallow hole) was disturbed the explosion sprung upward — not killing the unfortunate activator of the device, but blowing his legs off just below the knees.

“Punji Sticks” were spears of sharpened bamboo made even more lethal by being smeared in feces, so that when the “Punji Stick” went through your boot an infection was almost guaranteed to be lethal in the festering jungle.

Cherry School taught many things including, maybe not intentionally, what consuming fear felt like.

On the night of that second day of “Cherry School” all of us were assigned overnight guard duty at various places around Bien Hoa where we were stationed.

I was assigned to a perimeter bunker with Burleson. Everyone called him Burl. We were to split the night 3 hours on, 3 hours sleep, from 2100 to 0600 at which time we would be relieved.

Our bunker was half a click (500 meters) into the sparse jungle and Burl found it necessary to tell me that three guys had died in that very bunker a year earlier during the Tet Offensive.

My fear was now threatening to overcome me when Buri asked, “You afraid?”

Norbert Burleson relaxing in Vietnam giving the peace sign

Burl giving a peace sign

I responded,  “Are you [bleeping] kidding me?” And for the rest of that night I didn’t sleep at all – though he did.

I spent my “on” time staring into the complete blackness of a moonless, starless night; hearing things, seeing things that weren’t there and tensely holding onto my M16 — ready to blast the imagined enemy to hell.

When Buri was awake, we talked … about fear.

About how fear could actually kill you or cause you to be killed. We determined that fear needed to be controlled and that fear was relative.

In that dark, musty bunker it started to become evident that having been stripped of all things familiar, we had each other to rely on. And each had only their own being, character and humanity.

No longer did “worldly” things have importance — education, money, girlfriends, race, wives, families, prestige or power. What mattered now was your truest self; exposed, laid bare by the lack of past familiar, supporting things.

Over time, my discussions with Burl on fear helped me form the following conclusions:

  1. It was not necessary to be afraid all the time.
  2. It was inescapable to be afraid sometimes.
  3. Fear at times of mortal danger could be the catalyst for life saving action.
  4. To recognize the difference between Number’s 1, 2, and 3 was relatively simple — are you being shot at, rocketed, mortared, or otherwise attacked … or not?

Burl and I decided that he would tell me when to be afraid and I would tell him.

We were in different companies of the battalion so I was not with him every day. But, when circumstances allowed he was always like home — until I went home.

I’m skipping a whole year now, with many instances of No. 2 (inescapable) fear, mixed with the intoxicating beauty of the jungle.

We went to Vietnam as individuals, not units as in other wars — individuals with a 12-month (or less) expiration. If you were lucky enough to complete the 12 months you were plucked from your unit to process out. My date was December 25 and about a week prior my captain told me to be ready — a helicopter would be coming to whisk me away on the beginning of a journey back to the World.

And that day, Burl and a few of my other close friends were there to see me disappear alone, bereft, devastated … a very large piece of me didn’t want to go.

I knew that Burl’s year was up after mine — but not the exact date. And despite the absolute depth of our bond,  I only knew that he had lived in Ohio, near Akron. He knew I came from New York through Chicago. I wound up in Pittsburgh more than a decade after Vietnam.

With no internet and no help from the Army, I was never able to find my friend.

Every Veteran’s Day I would be newly sad to realize I might never see Burl again —  my deepest, truest, best friend ever. I eventually told my wife and my two daughters about Burl and our deep friendship lost, for so many years.

And then, in 2018 my wife, using Facebook, found his daughter in southern Ohio. And she said “Anne Pennie? Tom Pennie’s wife? My father told me about Pennie, his lost best friend ever”.

My family knew so much about him and his family knew so much about me. I got his phone number and called him and we promised to get together and share old times. But, he was sick and didn’t want me to see him that way. Through his wife I found out that he hadn’t left Vietnam when he could have and signed up for another year over there.

I wasn’t there to tell him to be afraid and he got shot up pretty badly. Returning home he met his wife at a rehab hospital — she was his nurse. And the sickness that he was suffering was Agent Orange caused.

He died before we had a chance to meet. But, one thing he had told me before he die was that he figured I’d write a book about our experiences — dangerous, hilarious, scary .. and touching.

I was a storyteller in Vietnam, a poet and bard — but I have never written the book. Just some poetry.

I hope the words in this story somehow fulfill Burl’s wishes about a written account of our time in Vietnam.