Peace Corps Writers
The Commander Wore Civies
   by Leo Cecchini (Ethiopia 1962-–64)
 
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“Where is your weapon?” the District Police Chief asked as we stood at the base of a moonlight rocky hill watching the provincial force search the nooksPrinter friendly version and crannies for Viet Cong.
     “In my briefcase,” I replied.
     I was in Vietnam as part of the pacification program or as it was officially titled, “Civil Operations Revolutionary Development Service,” the famous (or infamous) CORDS program that sought to “win the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese. How did I get there? I was a Foreign Service Officer at my first post, Panama, when I volunteered in 1967 to go to Vietnam. It was a redundant exercise. The US Agency for International Development (AID) had been unable to recruit sufficient people for the CORDS program. The State Department offered to fill the gap by detailing its “best and brightest” to AID. Any junior officer who was unmarried and had a good ear for languages was fair game. I would have gone, as a volunteer or not.
     We were sent to Vietnam in groups, most after a few weeks of area studies, and the rest after almost one year of language study. I was in the language group. The incentive to learn Vietnamese was direct — as long as you progressed in the classes you would stay at the school in Washington. However, if you failed to keep pace, it was early to Vietnam. We all bet on staying in the course with the hope that it would all be settled before actually having to go. We lost the bet.
     I knew that something was wrong with my approach to the matter when I discovered on arrival by plane in Saigon that my heavily laden briefcase, that I had carefully stowed under my seat to protect me from errant bullets, had slid back several rows of seats leaving me totally unprotected. The next thing I remember we were in a briefing room where the instructors told us not to bother to request staying in Saigon; we were all to be sent to the field.
     After that session I told the instructors quietly that I had found a job in Saigon and that my brother, who was an Air Force Officer, was to be stationed at Tan Sha Nook air base next to the city. They told me that if I could get a letter from the CORDS unit in Saigon, which bore the catchy acronym SCAG (Saigon Civil Advisory Group), stating that they had a job for me, I could stay. The letter was on their desk within the hour.
     Sometime later an Army Colonel, whom I had met in the area studies course, came to Saigon for leave. I took him out to dinner. He asked me why I had not come up to the DMZ to work for him, as had been planned without my knowledge. I replied that I had an important job in Saigon. He said, “Too bad, I had to replace you with an Army officer, he was shot and killed.” I then replied, “Great, if I had gone to work for you I would be pushing up daisies.”
  
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