By SCOTT GRABER
It is 8 p.m. and I’m sitting in the Taco Boy restaurant (in Charleston) with Ben Peeples and his wife, Joanne.
In the fall of 1966, Ben and I were cadets at The Citadel, sharing Larry Moreland’s Constitutional Law course in Capers Hall. Moreland — a young, irreverent professor slowly revealed what Madison and Hamilton were trying to do. Moreland wasn’t quite Lin Manuel Miranda, or Leslie Odoms, but he had our undivided attention.
Ben lived over in Alpha Company — a “tall company” peopled with athletes. I was in India — a “short company” peopled by midgets who aspired to be athletes. Notwithstanding the difference in height, and status, Ben and I became friends.
Ben was a serious student, but he also wanted to fly helicopters — and helicopters came with an all-expenses-paid tour in Vietnam.
“The Huey smelled like a new car,” he said. “It was brand new, a replacement for Huey #646 which I had flown for months.”
Nine days earlier Ben had been shot down; Huey #646 rolling down a battle-denuded mountain until spearing itself on a tree. The rolling motion so confusing that when Ben released his seat belt he fell into the chopper’s ceiling.
His next mission, however, brought him under fire as he approached another landing zone with a load of troopers from the 101st Airborne.
“As we let the troopers repel out of the doors of the helicopter” he said. “A lone NVA soldier sprayed bullets through the cockpit of my brand new Huey. One of those bullets found my kneecap.
“‘I’m hit,’ I yelled. “Get us out of here.’”
But Ben’s co-pilot was on his first mission and froze-up. Ben took back the controls but felt his RPMs drop off. When he turned and looked he saw that a rappelling rope was caught in his tail rotor. Nonetheless he made straight for a fire support base on a nearby mountaintop.
“As I came in, I saw these troopers frantically making rise-up, lift-up motions that confused me. Then I realized a 101st Airborne repeller was still hanging on to the end of a dangling rope.”
In spite of his knee wound, Ben let the soldier down gently. “He ended up with a sprained wrist.”
“The Lancers lost 12 helicopters out of 20 in the 8 months I was with them,” he said. “Even when I was not flying, I felt responsible for my guys, pilots and crews who were out.”
When wasn’t flying he was reading.
“I knew we had made a deal with Ho Chi Minh during World War II — if the Vietnamese fought the Japanese, we would help them with independence (from France) when the war ended.
“But the French wanted their empire back,” he continued. “And we needed French help against the Russians. And so the French used our ships to take their troops to Vietnam.”
The battle of Dien Bien Phu was a disaster for the French, but the specter of Communism pulled the United States and Ben Peeples into the void and violence of Southeast Asia.
But he came back angry; and with a desperate desire to make every minute count for something. First it was mountains.
“We climbed Poco (Mexico),” he said. “On that trip I met some Outward Bound honchos who later invited me to come to Peru. I’ve been on Rainier three times, to the top once.”
Then it was motorcycles.
“I rode 10,000 miles on the track over five years. The speed and danger were intoxicating.” he said. “Daytona was a thrill as I exceeded 160 mph, but still did not hit my bike’s top speed of 175.”
All the while he had a law practice.
“I was an angry lawyer,” Ben says. “One lawyer told me I was the meanest vegetarian he knew. A judge took me to lunch, in the middle of a trial, and was nice enough to counsel me on my style.”
As we talk on the patio of Taco Boy — feeling happy and momentarily removed from Covid — I am impressed with the tactile life Ben has lived since his days of extracting long-range reconnaissance teams from North Vietnam. I am impressed with the way he used his anger in court. But I know I there is no way I will ever understand, or measure, his courage.
Yes, he was young. But he was informed, knowledgable about history and colliding ideologies. The reasons for the Vietnam War were complicated. It’s execution flawed. In the midst of all that he showed courage “beyond all understanding.”
I think he is the best of our generation.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at email@example.com.