Two Kinds of Heroism

A Vietnam vet remembers two unlikely teachers.

While their rabid supporters fought about the combat records of Bush and Kerry, I was remembering two GIs I'd served with long ago and far away. I hadn't thought of them for many years. Then I couldn't get them out of my head.

They couldn't have been more different from one another nor from our presidential candidates. Neither looked like a proper soldier. Whomever you favor, you have to admit that our president and his challenger both look good in uniform. Not my guys.

One of my totally-un-presidential Vietnam contemporaries weighed about 120 pounds. He was a nervous kid. The other one slumped like a saggy duffel bag stuffed with 200 pounds of dirty laundry. They weren't teachers. They did what they had to do. Yet they taught me that moral courage and physical bravery aren't the same thing.

Rico Colalucci was my platoon sergeant in the First Air Cavalry. A skinny kid from North Boston, Rico gave off energy like helium leaking from a balloon. He never stayed still. He wisecracked, fidgeted, and fussed in constant motion.

I literally couldn't understand him. Rico spoke pure Bostonian: "Ya take the T, not ya cah, to get to Cambridge," Rico warned, "or you're just a wicked stoopid pissah. Nobody drives in Havad Yad."

Platoon sergeants were supposed to be grizzled NCO lifers in their late 30s. Rico was 19, a year out of high school. I wasn't much older (24) but fuzzy-cheeked enlisted men still called me "The Old Man" with no irony.


On our first mission, helicopters deposited our company on a mountain a few kilometers from Laos. Our job was to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a crazy network of monkey tracks and foot paths. This was no American interstate. Loads were carried by men wearing sandals made from old tires. We dropped tons of bombs and defoliants, obliterating maybe ten percent of the jungle, but we left plenty of cover for the bad guys.

Our North Vietnamese enemies were tough, mean, and all around us. We made contact with them nearly every day. Ambushes, mines, grenades, mortars: little flare-ups and a few big rumbles. Sometimes they found us. When we were lucky, we found them. Regardless, metal flew through the air and people bled.

Every day, fresh fire fights. Every day, Rico demonstrated his gift.

When shots sounded, suddenly, Rico would materialize from the jungle. Where bad things happened, he arose like a phantom, M-16 ablaze, rallying us. He had an uncanny instinct for plugging the worst holes. Don't misunderstand. He wasn't calm when bullets zinged by. He was no John Wayne, code in Vietnam for glory-seeking hot dog. Far from it. As time passed, he was a twitching, scared mess who often looked trapped in a mythic caricature he'd created for himself. We expected him to act heroically, and he delivered. It got harder when people nearby him were getting shot and maimed. Rico's eyes would go wide with fear, but his body still did the job.

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Robert Nylen
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