Ernie LaFountain sits for an interview at The Billings Gazette for its “Vietnam Voices” series (Billings Gazette/YouTube).
Montana lost a living piece of history on March 24.
Staff Sgt. Ernest F. LaFountain died after a year-long battle with cancer. I met him through the “Vietnam Voices” project The Billings Gazette produced during 2015-’16. He was one of nearly 80 Vietnam Veterans I interviewed.
Not only did the state lose a Purple Heart veteran, we also lost a living, articulate link to one of the most shameful chapters in an already dark history of the Vietnam War.
When Ernie told me his story, which can be seen in its entirety on YouTube, I frankly thought he was lying. His story sounded so outrageous — and I had heard plenty of wild stories during my interviews, from seeing a Zippo lighter that had stopped a bullet from piercing Will Crain’s heart to Greg Childs having to deliver elephants in an airplane as a gift to a camp of Montagnards.
I didn’t publish LaFountain’s story at first because, well, I thought he may be — what’s the right term — … embellishing.
Turns out LaFountain wasn’t merely telling the truth, he was underselling what he had endured.
He was proudly one of “McNamara’s Morons” — a derisive term used to characterize a class of soldiers that entered the war around 1966 under the auspices of then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.
As the Vietnam War escalated, the demand for more combat troops grew as did the death toll of young American boys who came home in a coffin. The court of public opinion began turning against the Lyndon Johnson Administration, and the president need two conflicting things – more troops and to assuage the growing resentment of a war that was supposed to last weeks, not years.
McNamara, a former auto executive, hatched a plan that was both creative and morally bankrupt.
Instead of upping the draft, calling on more young men to go to Vietnam, he lowered the standards for induction to the Armed Services, recalling many young men who had previously been excused from the service for physical and mental disabilities.
The majority of these men were illiterate or even had below average IQs. Many would have been likely classified as “mentally disabled” in a future generation.
Yet many of them didn’t make it to see much of a future.
Military leaders objected, calling the men “McNamara’s idiots” or worse, pleading with the Pentagon not to draft them. The were concerned that inadequately trained or mentally disabled soldiers would be a liability in the jungle warfare of Vietnam. And they were right. According to one of the only books on the subject, “McNamara’s Folly” by Hamilton Gregory, the men drafted as part of the “100,000 plan” (as McNamara termed it) would die at a rate 10 times higher than their combat comrades.
Ernie was classified “1F,” a medical exemption from service, because of a series of hernias, not because of any mental problem. The military reconsidered LaFountain and decided those hernias probably wouldn’t affect his ability to tote a gun and sent him to Vietnam, where he did three tours.
LaFountain’s teary interview still haunts me today as he told about being shipped to boot camp with many of these men, some who couldn’t read, couldn’t tell which shoes went on the correct foot and didn’t seem to understand what they were about to face.
LaFountain was a living reminder of the human misery of war, of how stronger leaders preyed on those who could not fight back.
LaFountain served as an uncomfortable testament that not everything done in the name of a freedom-loving government was right or moral. We need people like Ernie living to remind us what happens when ethics give way to expediency. We need him to remind us that good people make bad decisions in the name of war and country.
Ernie was literally living history.
Now, he is history, to put it bluntly. However, he told his story, shared his tears, and it’s obvious he still wrestled with what he had been a part of; he told me his story so that what he had seen would not be forgotten; so that other people would not forget the men we sent to Vietnam who might as well have been given a death sentence.
Ernie may have earned a purple heart, but to me, the real color was closer to gold.
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