Warning, this episode mentions violence, racism, sex, and self-harm. Listener discretion is advised.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll be hearing from Captain Shad Meshad. Meshad served in Vietnam in a psychiatric team where he evaluated and assisted soldiers dealing with mental health issues. In this first part of his interview, he talks about working with Vietnam vets at Fort Leavenworth Military Prison, and his service in Vietnam.
My name is Shad Meshad, left Vietnam Christmas Eve, 1970, US Army Captain Medical Service Corps. Today I'm the president and founder of the National Veteran's Foundation, which is a crisis and information hotline all over the United States for all veterans and their families and kids.
My first year was at Fort Leavenworth military prison, 10,000 prisoners in the castle. And if you're familiar with prisoners, there's the hole, it's the incorrigibles. And at Leavenworth the hole was, God, it was like a 100-year-old prison and it was cold and damp and they kept as many as 30 incorrigible combat vets down there for incidents upstairs, they call it the castle, the regular tiered prison. And I was a new mental health officer. And I was excited to get my feet wet. I've gone from infantry to Medical Service Corps, I went to Fort Sam Houston for basic, but I really didn't know anything. I mean, right out of school and everything. I wanted to find out, in the head of the mental health department there were 15 of us, five psychiatrists, five social workers, five psychologists at Fort Leavenworth for 10,000 prisoners. And he was looking for someone to volunteer to run a group in the hole. And I said, "I'm it." I didn't want to sit in an office inside the prison and see people complaining about their time or they didn't do it. Or we had 3,000 inmates in that 10,000 prison that were there for marijuana bust serving three years back then. Three years for possession of marijuana. So, I really deal with something more complicated. Well, I went down to the hole and there's 19 year old guards with shotguns. It's below the prison, it's damp as hell. There's just strip cells, if you know what a strip cell is, it's just a concrete floor with a hole or whatever. If they're behaving somewhat well they get a blanket at night to sleep on the floor. Other than that they're like caged animals. And so there was a section at the end which was secure where they were going to let those out that they didn't have to fight and drag out for the first rap crew for me.
So, I go in, I take off my hat, took off my dress greens, because this is stateside. They set up this circle with folding chairs and I'm sitting there facing at least 25 really hardened criminals in my mind and I'm going to run a group. So, the first thing before I started, I mean you've got four guys with shotguns behind the cage. And I'm sitting there and it's like, "Well, I guess maybe I'm safe." I didn't know I'd never been in the hole before. And it was getting kind of exciting. And then before I could start this one inmate down there looked at me and said, "Are you an officer? Who are you?" And I said, "Look, I'm, Shad." I just said my first name. And I said, "New here, mental health worker and I'm here to help you guys get upstairs in the population." And he looked at me and he said, "Those shotguns or whatever we want to eat you, they can't save you before we will eat you." And they're all looking at me. It was like being in a lion's den. And I'm just sitting here and I said, I got it. I understand that totally. I'm not here to do anything but to help you get out of here. And I started talking. So I had to address this guy who was very hostile and I can understand why because these 19 year old guards or whatever would harass them. And they're just teenagers, they're just kids with these guys I found out had been in Vietnam for all kinds of crimes, rape, fraggings or whatever that is where I learned about the dark side of Vietnam. And I got to meet combat soldiers who were angry, frustrated. Most of them black and Hispanic and a few whites. But it kind of taught me what I was going to go into the next year. Because the war had really swung in '68. The country was mostly Hawks. And then they became Dubs and it was like wow. They started telling me the stories of what they did and the fact that a lot of these second lieutenants and officers came in were having them do things where they had been there a year and knew was stupid and was going to get everybody killed. So, they took care of business, many of them, and a lot of them they all did serious crimes. But the fact is that they didn't have to be in the hole and regardless of what, you don't want to spend your life down in a cage. That's how I looked at it. So I started just talking my way into saying, Hey, let me try to get you out of here. Let me listen to your stories. And that's really where my career started. I mean even in mental health. Because that was the toughest ever. And I had to really listen and mostly in shock. Because I hadn't been to Nam yet. And here I'm listening to these combat soldiers and I could understand somewhat why they were in prison. But at the same time, what is their future? I mean, are we just going to storm down here till they die or what? I was, like I said, I was totally confused.
And so I started going down every week. I was the only one. I mean, the mental health team used to say, "You're out of your mind." They said that a few times. But eventually I started getting them back up into the thing. They trusted me. They saw that I had really no fear after the first time. I didn't show fear anyway. I was really like, "Hey, I'm your only hope. If you're going to get back in the population, I'm it." If I leave or if you take care of me, there's nobody coming down here. You're just going to rot down here. And I started the next six months I got about half of them back up in the population and I was kind of like the unique mental health officer that goes to the hole every week.
But I learned a lot about Vietnam, and that is when I had a two year oral TC contract. Even though I switched from, I got moved from infantry to Medical Service Corps because of my degree. I only had a two year contract because I started my contract in '63, right after that they went to three years.
So, end of my first year at Leavenworth was coming to an end and they can't send you anywhere after a year. If you only have a year left, you're going to stay where you are. They're not going to transfer you. And I had lost two high school friends during the period of '64 to '69, I lost two college friends and buddies I played ball with there. And working in the hole and really realizing what war's about. I wasn't aware. I'd seen John Wayne movies or whatever and always saw the heroic side of war and wanted to be that person. But the other side was I really, I'm 20, 24 going on 25. I'm an old man as far as somebody starting their military duty. And I need to know, my generation, I've lost four people out of my generation. And I woke up one night and I went to my commanding officer there, the head of the mental hygiene clinic and said, "I'm thinking, I need to go to Vietnam. I hear they've got these mental health teams and I've really learned a lot of whatever. I think I can do something or whatever." And he said, "No, no way, you're out of your mind." And we had a new psychology officer come in who was just married. He was assigned to Fort Leavenworth and his wife, he had a beautiful young wife and everything. He was [inaudible] outside. I was in the BOQ, he was in married quarters. And the second week there he gets a manifest for Vietnam. He's just right out of Fort Sam Houston. He's got a PhD in psychology, he's green, he's never been in the military, except as a mental health officer. And the next night his wife slit her wrist and nearly died. And it was like my cue. And I took that. I went in and I talked to commanding officer in switching me before the end of the year and put me in his place in the manifest. And it was not so much to save his butt, but it was like I really wanted to see it myself. My father, both of my uncles all were in World War II. And I really wanted to see if I was man enough to whatever. And I'm a mental health officer, I'm not going over as a second lieutenant, but I just needed to eyeball it. I'm just that kind of person. I want to smell it and whatever. And after a lot of negotiation I got switched. In January I was on my way to Vietnam.
And it's really interesting, the mental health team really thought I had went crazy. They wouldn't even talk to me. I mean, I was shocked. I figured, they thought I was mentally ill. You got to be out of your mind. Because they've spent their year stateside listening to war fighters. And I just was an athlete. I was trained infantry. Here I'm a mental health officer. I've had this experience in the hole. I got to know, I got to know if I can. I mean, I got to know. And so in January I flew in from Seattle to Cam Ranh Bay and the rest became my war history.
I was a U.S. Army Captain Medical Service Corps in 1970 in Vietnam. I was with, they were called KO teams. They were the first psychiatric teams in American warfare. Vietnam was the first time- I was probably one of the 15, maybe 20 officers that were mental health officers that served in country from '68 to '73. We were very rare birds. I was commissioned in college through ROTC, second lieutenant infantry, and I got a fellowship to grad school and I was trained 82nd Airborne actually in '65, '66. And then when I graduated the military gave me 36 months for grad school. And I went on to grad school at Florida State University. And when I graduated in '68, the Army approached me again and said, "We're putting mental health teams in there. Would you consider going into the Medical Service Corps?" Well, that was probably a lifesaving thing because the lifespan of second lieutenant infantry in Vietnam was about 60 seconds in the field. I was transferred on paper to Medical Service Corps, went to basic in '69 for that branch, and then in '70 went into Vietnam.
When I landed in Vietnam there was a lot of changes going on in the whole zone. There were four areas in Vietnam, I Corps, II Corps, III Corps, IV Corps. And they sent me to I Corps after I landed in Cam Ranh Bay to assist one psychiatrist that was up covering the DMZ, all of I Corp, Marines, Navy, Army, 101st. And there was the psychiatrist, myself, psychiatric social worker, and two motor pool technicians that screened maybe 50 or 60 combat soldiers coming through the 95th Evac Hospital, which is in Da Nang. And it was an incredible start. But the commander of one and two Corp medical was based or was lodged on the 95th Evac. He covered all medical, all the medevac ships, all the hospitals and everything. He was a colonel and he took a liking to me for whatever reason. I won't get into it here, but he decided because I was fifth Army, weight lifted guy, and he was a big, strong 52-year-old colonel that I should be able to fly and be the special services officer flying into all of his medical zones for any kind of problems, whether it was staff.
At that time in '70 there were racial issues, there were fraggings that many people don't talk about, but I was thrown amongst that. In the beginning of each week, Monday and Tuesday, I'd load up at around 6:00 a.m. and head up to one of the areas in I and II Corps, which he covered, from Quang Tri, Phu Bai, Chu Lai. I went to all the bases and dealt with whatever was thrown at me. To be honest, I mean everything was in anything.
I'm an author on my year in Vietnam, Captain for Dark Mornings, and at best we had to manipulate the system as a mental health officer because the commanders, the COs had the power. They would send people to us that they thought were having emotional difficulties. And then it was their decision to go along with our recommendation to either get him out of the field or leave him at the hospital for three weeks to unwind. They could nix any of that. So, we really didn't have any power. We didn't have any authority. We would do the evaluation, make recommendations. And in many cases, once they saw us they went back to their unit. And some really bad things happened. I've picked a couple, two or three in my book that guys that went back to the command because they thought they were shirking their military duty and there were some real tragic things that happened, including fraggings of the Commander to, well just trust me, there were some really horrible things that happened.
It was really difficult to not have authority or whatever. And it was the first time ever we were kind of feeling our way trying to be mental health workers in a combat zone.
And I brought up fragging. For those that aren't familiar with the term fragging, it's really when the enlisted men decide to take the life of their commander, usually a platoon leader or company commander. And what I experienced in Vietnam was basically setting up these Claymore mines in positions where the commander would trip it and get blown away. It happened quite a bit. It's not something that's written around a lot about, I wrote about it in my book. But that was what fragging is. Some of the interesting stories that led to a couple of fraggings was one, I had a artillery sergeant referred to me, it was on his second tour, came into my office when I was at the 95th because I had an office there across from the psychiatrist. And we would both split up 40 or 50 guys coming in, about anything and everything. And it was my first month there and he sat down in the office, these were Quonset huts, they were about the size of a nine by nine room with a metal table. But he was telling me about the fact that the concussions being in artillery after a year and in his second tour, he couldn't handle it anymore. And he just was freaking out. And it's pretty dangerous when you're dealing with 105s and things that you're loading. And I was trying to say to myself, "At least you're not out in the field humping the bush and driving through there." And he said, "Well, it's hard to explain about that time we had a rocket land. Oh, about 50 meters from our hooch. And I was under the table." And he was sitting there looking down at me, he says, "Captain, that's what I'm talking about." And I kind of got it. I can imagine 18 months of that going off, it could affect your nerves. Once again, I referred him for three weeks off, and once again the commander demanded he go back to his unit, so we didn't have any power there.
Another time I had another sergeant come in that was with these supply unit in Da Nang, which is big, a lot of supplies ran in and out of the Da Nang, the Marines were still in I Corps there. And there was everything coming through Da Nang harbor. And this kid one day just walked up to his commander and he was like one of the key sergeants in the supply group and said, "I got to go home. I need an emergency leave." And he said, "What do you mean? You can't go home." And he kept demanding it and he started acting weird. So the commander sent him over to the 95th. I was sitting down with him, and he was just shaking. I'm looking at this sergeant, decorated second tour and I said, "Why do you want to go on emergency leave?" He says, "I just need it. I just want to go. I just need three days and I'll come back. There's no problem. I love my job but I have to go back." And I said, "Really, your commanding officer's probably not going to let you go back and you got to give me a better reason than you need to go back just saying you got to go back for three days. There must be something serious. Is there something going on?" And he just started shaking. He closed up and then he started tearing and this is a big sergeant. And then he opened an envelope out of his shirt, Cammy, and showed me one picture at a time. And it was his wife making love to his best friend in every position. And he would just show it. And he was just staring at me and I was just staring at these photos with her, with the bird finger saying, "Fuck you for going back a second tour." And I just right away said, "Look, if I send you back for three days, I know why you're going back." And this was a tough decision on my part, but I said, "If I'm going to write this up," which I did, "and you go back to your commanding officers, it's in his hands, but I know what's going to happen. You're going to knock this guy off and maybe your wife and you're definitely not coming back here. I know where you're going." Because my first year I was assigned to Fort Leavenworth military prison and I know exactly how that goes.
And so I wrote it up, he went back to his unit and his commanding officer says, "You go back and take care of business." And I've always wondered what happened when he approved that leave to go back. So that was one of the stories.
Another, a lot of, we had been coming in that were fully armed right out of the field. We had the 100 first third Marines, Freedom Hill up in I Corps. So, we had probably 170,000 troops in our area. And there was four of us dealing with any type of problems like some of those I've shared. But we had one angry black soldier come in covered with grenades, a saw an M60 and the clinic, we would ask them to take their weapons off and just leave it right outside the hooch where we were. That was standard policy. And this guy came in and wouldn't take anything off. Was really upset. At that time in the war there was a lot of racial issues, particularly with the blacks. Martin Luther King's death had happened. There had been a lot of all kinds of crazy stuff going, particularly with the black soldiers and with the white commanders. And we had to wait. We had a big first sergeant that came in that tried to talk him in and we were near the ammo dump and he grabbed the grenade and went out to the ammo dump and was threatening to blow up, and would have blown the whole compound away. And I had to go out there and negotiate with him, telling him, "We're not the enemy. We'll do everything we can to deal, but we got to know what's going on. And we're not going to get anywhere if you blow us all away." And eventually myself and one of the team nurses, a woman that came out a major, never forget, and probably with her help in helping me get him to give the grenade. And the grenade was already pulled. He had it in his hand and he handed it over and we pitched it up against the concertina wire. The whole compound was surrounded and it blew and he broke down and we basically, I mean got him evac’ed out of country or whatever. It was just crazy stuff like that.
And particularly I would fly to different hospitals that the commander had when we would fly in and we'd have issues with drugs. That was another big thing. I had one, I think it was a 71st Evac, I think it was in Pleiku area. Can't remember all the names because I flew all the time. And there was a nurse that was protesting. She became very famous, but she was protesting the fact that the medics and everybody were overworked. They were getting a lot of MASH casualties. And so she tried to pull a strike, that was very unusual. I didn't know how to handle that. But I flew into it and I had to negotiate that so the hospital wouldn't shut down and everybody would be court-martialed obviously, because we're right in the middle of the war, Pleiku area was a very hot area. [inaudible] was operating and I had to sit with her and negotiate peace and try to meet some of the needs of some the medics or whatever. Met with the commanding officer and that sort of eased, it was funny, years later that nurse became very famous and she became a friend of mine years later. She became a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America and for the women veterans and whatever. But that was one.
Probably one of the strangest ones was I was sent up to Quang Tri, to the 18th surge, which is right on the DMZ. And the colonel said, "Look, the commanding officer's been there three weeks and he hasn't come out of his trailer." And they can't get him to come out. Well, it was a full bird colonel that's head of a surgical hospital right on the DMZ. And he sends me up there to find out what's going on. So, I chopper from Da Nang up to Quang Tri, get out, head over to see the commander of the hospital and knock on the door. And I tell him that the colonel sent me up to talk to him. So, he let me in and he laid back down on his, well, the trailers were pretty nice for the colonel's, at least they were air conditioned and whatever. He was curled up in the fetal position. And I'm just this captain. And I said I had to sit there like a man with a child comforting and realize that whether it was shell shock, whatever you want to call it, he just had never been in the combat zone. And it's a full bird colonel and he couldn't come out to manage the hospital. And I had to radio down to the I commander and tell him what was going on. I said, "We don't want to upset the hospital because it's casualties coming in every time and the nurses and doctors in charge do a pretty good job of running it. But the commander's down," that's how I put it. And I had to stay up there two days and escort him down. And eventually he was evacuated and they replaced him.
These stories are pretty shocking. I did all the mental health reviews for all the commanding general of I Corps who did all the court-martial cases. That happened quite a bit. As you may know if you were in Vietnam, there were all kinds of things that went on. But I sort of got a call from the JAG officer for the general, and he said he's bringing in, he wanted an evaluation of someone that was up for murder. And they brought him in from over in Da Nang over to our compound in chains with MPs. And he was in chains, sat down in my office, he was an LA kid, he was a sniper for the 101st and it was his second tour, another second tour guy. And he was key on that team. But the last three months they kept coming back on patrol with three of their own men shot in the head that were scattered setting up for ambushes in I Corps. And one of them finally realized that it was him shooting his own men. And that's what I had to deal with. So, when he came into the office, I have this report here and I said, "So, what's going on with you? You're up for several murders with your own men, what's going on?" And he says, "Well, have you ever been out there? Have you ever been a sniper?" And I said, "No, no, no. I still don't understand why you would shoot your own men." And he says, "well, for the last three months we haven't hit any enemy, any charges. We've set up great ambushes and nothing's going on." He says, "I got to keep my skills sharp. So I just started picking off some of my own. Some of my own. They were new FNGs, ‘fucking new guys’ and they didn't know what the hell they were doing. And I figured I just keep my skills sharp." That's all he said. And he just looked at me and I sent him back to the JAG. And that was his answer. He wouldn't say anything else. He didn't cry. He just said, I got to keep my skills up. And I just said, “My God, this is insane. What's going on?” I don't know if this went on in other war, but this was really pretty shocking to me.
That was Captain Shad Meshad. Next time on Warriors In Their Own Words, we’ll hear him describe the rest of his service in Vietnam, including the most traumatic night of his life, and how he continued to help veterans after he returned home.
To learn more about Meshad, check out his memoir, Captain for Dark Mornings. The link is in the show description.
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