This is not a conspiracy story, this is a crime story.
Blame the scanner...going through photos from my time in Vietnam, I found some that I had forgotten taking. One is the woman in the photo below (blurred on purpose, as the story will reveal).
Drug addiction was a major concern during the war, as has been widely reported in the media, written about in novels, and portrayed in films. I lived with this aspect of military life and, as an officer, was involved in countermeasures. We had a vested interest in preventing drug addiction. After all our men serviced our aircraft, guarded the perimeter against enemy assault, and were susceptible to malicious thoughts about officers.
Although not as secure as a federal penitentiary, where drugs still slip in, most military outposts in Vietnam were surrounded by wire, explosive charges, and fields of fire; each had a single, well-guarded entrance. My first posting was to a large airbase. Soon after I arrived, it was discovered that drugs were being smuggled onto the base by the crew chief of the commander’s helicopter (an American sergeant). No one suspected him...until he was caught. Next, I was transferred to a typical “airfield” near Qui Nhon: a red scar on the landscape surrounded by barbed wire and home to numerous aircraft.
I imagine that all armies, from the beginning of time, have relied upon civilian labor for certain tasks. It was no different in Vietnam, where cleaning, food service, and entertainment (bar girls in enlisted, NCO, and officers’ clubs) were done by Vietnamese civilians. They were a familiar sight. These people came and went each day, searched before entering (to prevent drug smuggling) and exiting (to prevent pilferage). Still, soldiers got their hands on drugs. We would conduct surprise inspections early in the morning...we found more-surprising things than drugs (but that’s another story), but were never able to staunch the flow or discover the source.
I thought nothing of this subject until reading a book called The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (the original, which the CIA tried to suppress, not the currently available edition, which has been edited by the government). I won’t go into the numerous sordid details revealed in this book, but I did learn one interesting fact: the key distributor of drugs in Vietnam was the Vietnamese Army (ARVN). Yup, the guys we were supporting were making money off our soldiers (sound familiar?). I think I discovered how drug were getting in the “secure” airfield.
Which brings me to this lovely lady...
A familiar figure at all military installations (except, perhaps, forward fire bases) was the hoochmaid. This is the term for girls that cleaned the rooms and washed clothes. They became part of the scenery, usually ignored. None spoke English, and no self-respecting GI would think of learning their language. Our base had one English-speaking woman to manage the entire lot. She was stunningly attractive and flirtatious. She is pictured here in her small hut on base. She arrived by helicopter most days, claiming that her husband was a pilot. We joked about the unprofessionalism of ARVN: no US pilot would think of carrying family or any unauthorized civilian on a military aircraft. The woman arrived in a flourish, carrying food for her girls, which she served in her hut. When I inspected the photos of this woman (the focused ones), I noticed for the first time her expensive jewelry. ARVN pilots might have been paid higher than soldiers, but not enough to have such disposable income. No hoochmaid wore jewelry, and the bar girls sported only cheap costume baubles.
I can assume that I have discovered the drug courier. No one searched her bags; it would have been easy to hide drugs in the rice. No one questioned her story about her husband; the helicopter could have been flown by anyone commanded to carry her. She managed a network of poor, willing girls, who had access to all areas of the base. I recognize my stupidity at not recalling the use of a helicopter to smuggle drugs at my earlier assignment.
All photos show this woman smiling. I’m sure that she was laughing at how easily she was able fool the mighty US Army.
To be fair, I have given her the benefit of lacking concrete proof by shielding her identity. She may have ended up in a communist re-education program, she may have fled the country using her wealth, she may live in United States, or she may be dead.
Prior to writing novels, the author enjoyed a multifaceted career: from decorated combat aviator to advertising professional to global communications director of a major consumer brand. He has traveled the world and met sports, film and television stars, political leaders, and royalty. He graduated from Middlebury College, is married, lives in Germany, and has two grown children.