In Service to My Men
May 16, 2014
"My Men. . .," seems to be the way Stephen "Steve" Patterson starts every comment about his service in Vietnam.
He doesn't boast about his Silver Star or his Purple Hearts, he won't tell you about his personal accomplishments, and he definitely won't tell you about the internal struggles he faced as a young lieutenant leading a platoon of Soldiers through the jungles of Vietnam in 1968.
What Steve Patterson will tell you is that "My Men" were the most important thing.
This story really begins in Lewisburg, Penn. at Bucknell University where, as a young freshman, Patterson enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Program.
In recalling those days, Patterson refers to himself as a member of the JFK Generation and recites the famous line from President Kennedy's speech, "Ask not what your country can do for you. . ."
With a war in southeast Asia on the horizon, Patterson knew that the need for volunteers to serve would be critical, "I was a citizenship Soldier; however, I always wanted to serve in an elite combat unit and I wanted the challenge of the most demanding training."
Upon graduation from Bucknell University, newly commissioned 2nd Lt. Patterson was sent to South Korea where he served for four months before voluntarily joining the 101st Airborne Division and deploying to Vietnam.
At 0430 Hours, on January 23, 1968, Patterson reported to Lt. Col. Charles "Charlie" Beckwith, the commander of 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division.
During this initial exchange, Beckwith, who later went on to form and command Delta Force, never looked away from Patterson's personnel file.
"He said that 'We trained you and we expect a lot of good things from you -- now if we're wrong, or you prove to be a coward, you'll be out of the unit in 30 days'," recalls Patterson.
As Patterson recounted this story to students and alumni of Bucknell University as part of a speech he gave after being honored as a Significant Sig in the Sigma Chi Fraternity, Patterson said, "He (Beckwith) went on to say that when you're killed in action, because of the training you have had, your family won't be notified that you were killed in action because you were a dumb son of a bitch, but that you were just killed in action."
"At this point, I'm thinking to myself 'And I'm going to work for this guy?'" remembers Patterson.
But Patterson explains that Beckwith's evaluation wasn't far from the truth, "The life expectancy of platoon leaders in Vietnam was two weeks and I'm not embellishing this; in a firefight, it was seven seconds."
As fate would have it, Patterson soon found out just how true that was.
Just two hours after his meeting with Beckwith, "I fast roped to join the company (Alpha Company, 1st Bn., 327th Inf. Reg.) in their jungle location along the Cambodian border," said Patterson.
As Patterson recalls, this was merely six days before the North Vietnamese Army began the Tet Offensive, "Four hours later we made contact with an NVA battalion; we were outnumbered 4-to-1."
"In the two-day engagement, the three other platoon leaders were casualties," said Patterson, "So after day one, I was now the senior platoon leader."
For most people, it would be hard to imagine any other event having a greater impact on their life, but for Patterson, something else that happened during his service in Vietnam would shape the rest of his life.
"In early 1968, a young sergeant under my command (Joe Artavia) wrote home to his sister (Linda) asking that she prompt the city of San Mateo (Calif.) to formally adopt our combat company of about 150 men," said Patterson.
Patterson noted that it was only through the persistence of Artavia's sister that in March, 1968, the city of San Mateo became the only city during the Vietnam War to formally adopt a forward deployed unit.
"Three weeks later I lost Linda's brother in a firefight; he was killed in action," said Patterson.
Patterson shared that the loss of her brother and the relationship between Linda and the members of his unit had a profound effect on her.
"In late December of that year, Linda traveled to Vietnam and I was assigned as her military escort," said Patterson.
"We whisked her away when she landed . . . close to Saigon, and flew her to the northern part of South Vietnam, further than any civilians were allowed to travel. This was necessitated by the fact that this is where our men were located and Linda's purpose in traveling to Vietnam was to see and meet the men her brother had served with," continued Patterson.
Patterson said that the Soldiers were recalled from the field to meet with Linda over the course of two days, and that the trip would forever impact both their lives.
46 years later, during his speech at Bucknell University, Patterson explains that his military service lasted for only two years, but that the service of his wife, Linda, is entering it's 47th year.
As the founder and president of the non-profit organization Americans Supporting Americans, Linda has been responsible for linking over 100 cities with deploying units around the country, but for Patterson, it's done more than that.
"I'm sure I would have kept in touch with a few of my men, but Linda is the glue that holds us together," said Patterson, "The ABU (Alpha Company) Soldiers call her 'Sis' because she is one of us, she was there."
Though Patterson gives all of the credit for the success of ASA to his wife, at least one Alpha Company Soldier, who served with Patterson in Vietnam, believes Patterson should share in the credit.
In a letter to Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph Bossi, the regimental command sgt. maj. of the 327th Inf. Reg., former Sgt. Rick "Wild Bill" Smith recommended Patterson be named a Distinguished Member of the Regiment.
Smith stated in the letter that, "1st Lt. Stephen J. Patterson has put all his talents as a businessman and leader into the total support of ASA, . . . founded by his awesome wife and our beloved ABU 'Sister', Linda Patterson."
Smith went on to describe Patterson as a natural born leader of troops and said, "We considered Lt. Patterson a Soldier's Soldier."
Smith concluded his recommendation by saying, "We would have followed Lt. Stephen J. Patterson to Hell, as many times as he would have wanted to make the trip."
In the fall of 2012, Patterson was recognized as a Distinguished Member of the 327th Inf. Regiment at a ceremony on Fort Campbell.
Following the ceremony, Patterson spoke to current members of ABU Company and his Vietnam Era Soldiers about what their service means to him.
As a point of reference, Patterson explained that combat troops in World War II, on average, spent 36 days in a combat environment; the average infantryman in Vietnam spent 245 days in constant preparedness for contact with the enemy; but that the Soldiers of this brigade spent exactly 356 days in an environment where they could potentially be in contact with the enemy during their tour in Vietnam.
"In our day, I didn't think anything of it," said Patterson, "Now, as I look back, I don't know how you did it; always on the hunt, day in and day out, humping those mountainous jungle trails."
"As well as I can tell, A Co. lost 35 men and another 150 were wounded in March and April," continued Patterson, "Combined, we were pretty close to 100 percent casualties; yeah, we got bruised but that enemy suffered more, much more, to the tune of almost 10 times our casualties."
"You are great men, you are unique and very special; you are literally 1 in 10,000," continued Patterson, "I always felt it was a great opportunity and a great honor to go to battle with you."
After a short pause, Patterson went on to say, "We never had the opportunity to mourn our losses; it was always on to the next trail, the next hill, the next firefight."
"So what happens?" Patterson asks, "We mourn for them the rest of our lives."