The memory still bothers Roger Marnell. It was the thought that his unit didn't pursue a possible American captive of the Viet Cong because leadership didn't want to violate the Christmas truce in 1968.
Marnell was then a staff sergeant leading a combat tracker team with the 9th Infantry Division in Dong Tam, Vietnam. They received a mission to load onto a helicopter for a reconnaissance flight over the Plain of Reeds on the Cambodian border. The helicopter circled the area for about 30 minutes watching troops moving in the so-called elephant grass, which was 7-8 feet high. They returned to the Dong Tam airfield where the pilot shut down the engine and told them that a "Caucasian had been spotted on the ground" with the North Vietnamese troops and they were to return to the area, track him on the ground and find him.
But while circling in the air, they received a radio call to return to Dong Tam "because higher-ups were concerned that we would violate the Christmas truce," Marnell recalled.
"Of course the VC (Viet Cong) violated it every day. The pilot was so mad, he was livid," he said. "To this day, you have to wonder if that individual was a Russian adviser which they had over there or an American captive. It always bothers me to think couldn't you have done something for him. To this day, I wonder who was it on the ground out there."
Each division had one combat tracker team per brigade plus one reserve team. Their role was to rto re-establish contact with the enemy after ambushes or firefights. If they located the enemy, the infantry would come in and do a sweep. Most of the time, the tracker team would be helicoptered to a site to follow a blood trail.
"One of the big problems over there was booby traps. There were booby traps everywhere so we had to always be careful we didn't trip a booby trap on our team," Marnell said.
His best friend was the team leader of a 25-member tracker team that got hit with a combat-detonated bomb. "We lost five out of that group," Marnell said.
On another mission, Marnell and his fellow Soldiers were on a landing craft in the waters of the Mekong Delta. They were fired upon as soon as they landed on one of the islands. After the firefight, he and others volunteered to help evacuate a wounded infantry Soldier who had been shot in the stomach. The four of them waded through chest-deep water holding the wounded Soldier overhead on a poncho. The Soldier was evacuated by helicopter.
"We found out later he died on the way to the hospital," Marnell said. "You do your best trying to get a guy out, you know."
Marnell served in Vietnam from April 1968 until April 1969. After 20 years in the Army, he retired as a major in February 1983. His last assignment was at Redstone in the Patriot Project Office; he headed the preplanned product improvement program, a research and development program. He worked 30 years for defense contractor CAS until retiring in June 2010.
A native of Peru, Nebraska, he joined the Army at 18 in 1959. "I always wanted to be a Soldier since I was a little kid," he said. He was the oldest of three sons; both parents farmed. His father worked on a B-29 assembly plant line near Omaha.
Marnell, 74, and his wife, Ann, have four grown children and three grandchildren. David, 38, an assistant movie director in Hollywood, California, is married and has a year-old daughter. Michael, 36, is a master carpenter in Louisville, Kentucky. Amy Deer, 33, of Hoover, is a married school teacher with two young daughters. Sarah, 32, resides in Raleigh, North Carolina.
He and Ann reside in Owens Cross Roads and they enjoy traveling. Marnell also likes to read and walk. He is a life member of Huntsville Chapter 1067 of the Vietnam Veterans of America.
"Since they've started this 50th commemorative year for Vietnam veterans," he said, "I've had more people come up to me in grocery stores and say 'thank you for your service' than I have in the last 45 years before that."
Editor's note: This is the 14th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.