For months we'd been hearing about how hairy it was getting about a hundred miles inland from Qui Nhon, toward An Khe and Pleiku, the mountainous highlands, the front lines.  Blown bridges, ambushes, land mines, rockets, grenades, snipers, near misses, direct hits – night and day, day in and day out – especially on QL One-Niner, the main highway from Qui Nhon to Pleiku.

So it stunned us when Leadbetter practically volunteered our band to go play for the troops in Pleiku.  We were scared you-know-what-less to head up there.  But as the 127th was drinking beer under striped umbrellas at our company nightclub, there were hundreds of soldiers dodging the Cong in Pleiku – remote, isolated, in the heat of it, the real thing.  How could we not go?

I suggested a helicopter transport, hoping to bypass the treacherous highway.  Leadbetter agreed.  The TDY – Temporary Duty – papers were cut, and we were officially on our way to Pleiku.  But there was a slight change of plans...

Sugden sat cross-legged on his bass amp and lit up a cigarette.  "First time one of our gigs has ever been Army-authorized."

"First time for a chaperone, too," I said.  I leaned my guitar case on my amp.  "Sergeant Dirks is cool, though.  He's been around."

Jessen set the organ in its case next to us.  "Dean, you got those TDY papers?"           

"Right here."  I tapped the envelope in my shirt pocket.

Sugden flicked an ash.  "Let me see."

I tossed him the envelope.  He unfolded the papers and read.   "From Headquarters, 93rd Military Police Battalion, San Francisco. Temporary duty to Pleiku, Republic of Vietnam and return to Qui Nhon, Republic of Vietnam.  Period of approximately 2 days.  Purpose:  Official duty."    

Ioli did a little dance, his arms in the air.  "Official duty.  That's right.  Rockin' in the jungle."

"Special instructions:  Travel by government vehicle authorized."

"Finally," I grumbled, kneeling to check the microphone box.

"Authorized to carry weapons."

Everyone went quiet. 

These weren't Leadbetter's rules. 

It became crystal-clear.  This definitely wasn't an Army doctor's party or a gig at the officers' club.  This was serious.  Officially serious.

Ioli let out a low whistle.  "Guess even HQ in San Fran knows what's going on."

We continued loading the equipment out of the barracks in silence.

When we were almost done, Dirks and Leadbetter walked up.

“Men, there’s been a change of plans,” Captain said, returning our sweaty salutes.

“Sir?” I asked.

He pulled off his sunglasses and squinted at us.  “No helos today.  Charlie’s got air support all tied up.  Seems it's a busy day in the jungle.”

“We're going some other time then?"  I asked.

"Better start moving this stuff back in.” Sugden grabbed an amp.

Leadbetter put a hand on his shoulder.  “Hold up there, soldier.  You men have got to go today.  TDY orders have been issued.  They’re official, we can’t change them.  Plus, I promised Captain Needham that you’d come play for his men.  And I’m nothing if not a man of my word. "

The band exchanged uneasy glances as Captain went on.

“You won't be flying to Pleiku this afternoon.  You'll be driving."

My stomach dropped...  

Rock 'N' Roll Soldier: A Memoir by Dean Ellis Kohler with Susan VanHecke, foreword by Graham Nash  •  © 2023