"Death alone gives meaning to life."
Robert Pressnall was a 19-year-old U.S. Army private when he read that sentence in 1967. He was browsing through his base’s library when he stumbled upon Introduction to Modern Existentialism.
"It was one of those books that speak to you at the moment," he said. "It said: We are captives of our high-tech materialism and consumerism. We don’t have any meaning in life. We’re just trying to get ahead, get the highest pay we can get."
For Pressnall, the book offered a suggestion that he live a life close to death. Only with death looming, it seemed to say, will people pursue their dreams.
Pressnall wanted to follow the book's advice. At the time, he was a lost and confused teenager. Maybe the danger of death, he thought, could give him focus.
Eventually, he would spend seven months in Vietnam, as a paratrooper with the unit that would later become the Army Rangers.
But, in 1967, Pressnall was nowhere near death. He was stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany, as a communication center specialist, a position he described as “the safest job you can ever have.”
Five thousand miles away, however, the U.S. military was waging a fierce counterinsurgency in Vietnam. In 1967, almost half a million American soldiers were battling Viet Cong guerillas and the North Vietnamese Army. The same year, more than 9,000 GIs were killed in action.
"Well, how convenient," Pressnall recalls thinking. "There is a war going on. I could go into that war and learn something."
An graduate, Pressnall is now 63 years old. He retired from in June, after teaching eighth grade English and history for 30 years. I visited Pressnall at his house in Albany to hear about his Vietnam experience.
VOLUNTEER FOR THE DRAFT
When Pressnall graduated from El Cerrito High in 1966, he wanted to travel the world. He had already ridden his motorcycle from El Cerrito to Acapulco, Mexico, that summer.
But Pressnall’s traveling plan had one major obstacle: the draft.
Pressnall believed he would be drafted because he wasn’t a college student. (At the time, college enrollment deferred men from the draft.)
Pressnall didn’t want the draft to interrupt him in the middle of his world tour. The sooner he could finish its two-year service, he thought, the sooner he could travel. So Pressnall went to the selective service center in Richmond and volunteered.
"Every typewriter stopped clacking when I said, ‘Can I be drafted?’" said Pressnall. "I just remember all the secretaries staring at me like, ‘Are you crazy?’"
A LITTLE CRAZY
Pressnall told his mother of his decision when she was holding a tray of baked salmon.
"By the way, Mom: I volunteered to be drafted in the Army," he recalled telling her.
His mother dropped the salmon on the floor.
Pressnall, his family and his friends were all against the Vietnam War. Pressnall had passed out anti-war leaflets and attended anti-war rallies.
But despite his opposition, he accepted the draft.
"I thought (that) whether I participated or not in the Army, it wasn’t going to change the war," said Pressnall. "What I do is like a drop in the ocean."
FROM DRAFT TO ENLISTMENT
Since Pressnall was entering the military, his father, a World War II fighter pilot, advised him to enlist. Enlistment required an additional year of service but provided more placement options. Perhaps Pressnall, thought his father, could find a safe position, far away from the battlefield.
Pressnall followed his father’s advice to enlist. In the Army, he was trained as a communication specialist. He later became a paratrooper because he thought jumping out of airplanes would be fun.
During one jump, Pressnall's parachute failed to open properly. As he plunged toward the ground, he grabbed onto another paratrooper's parachute. Fortunately, they both landed safely.
Given his communication background, the military assigned Pressnall to operate coding machines in Germany. In Germany, Pressnall read the existentialist textbook, prompting him to volunteer for Vietnam.
INTO THE JUNGLE
Pressnall embarked on his existentialist mission to Vietnam in September of 1968. His paratrooper qualification gained him entry into the 51st Long Range Patrol (LRP), an elite scouting unit.
Each LRP (pronounced "lurp") team consisted of six heavily armed men, said Pressnall. They would be dropped by helicopter into the demilitarized zone separating North from South Vietnam. Teams would spend five days in the jungle, miles away from other American units.
"They put us into areas where they didn’t know what was going on and we were supposed to find out," said Pressnall. "Sometimes there was nothing going on, just bugs, birds and reptiles. Sometimes it was completely hot (with activity). So you never really knew until you got there."
On some missions, the Viet Cong walked within 15 feet of Pressnall.
The triple-canopy jungle was so thick with vegetation, he said, that if he wore camouflage and green face paint, then I, who sat only a table across, could have barely seen him in the jungle.
But on one mission, the Viet Cong spotted Pressnall near a bamboo thicket.
"I could hear bullets hitting the bamboo and I could see people taking aim as I was ducking," he recalled.
WHY ARE YOU HERE?
Pressnall said he had a personal mission for being in Vietnam: to be close to death.
Out of curiosity, Pressnall asked other American soldiers why they were there. The most common answer he got? Revenge.
"'They killed my friend.' 'They killed my high school buddy.' 'They killed my friend on the last mission,'" many soldiers told Pressnall. "'I need to get as many of them as I can.'"
Combat addiction was the second most frequent reason he heard.
"You are very focused on the present. You don’t think of the past or future," said Pressnall, of being in combat. "So it was an adrenaline rush, like in sports. Except in sports, there is less at stake."
Loyalty to the country was the least common motivation Pressnall found. Some soldiers believed it was their patriotic duty to serve in the military, regardless of their personal opinion of the Vietnam War.
"If it is hawks versus doves (at home), then soldiers are just a reflection of the country. They’re also divided in their own minds," said Pressnall. "So unless the whole country...shares some reason to be in a war, you actually can’t win, I think, or succeed in the long run."
The United States withdrew combat troops from Vietnam in 1973. Two years later, North Vietnam captured South Vietnam, which had been allied with U.S. forces.
TO SHOOT OR NOT TO SHOOT
On LRP missions, Pressnall was often in charge of rear security. His job was to make sure no one was following the team. Pressnall would often look backward, scanning for unusual movements and disturbed vegetation.
During one mission, Pressnall detected suspicious movement inside a dense field of six-foot-tall elephant grass. He crawled toward the elephant grass to investigate.
Suddenly, a small Vietnamese person, possibly a child, jumped out of the grass and sprinted away.
Pressnall had only a split second to shoot before the runner disappeared into the jungle. If he escaped, said Pressnall, he could alert the Viet Cong.
When the Viet Cong detected a LRP team, said Pressnall, they would surround the nearest helicopter landing zone. The jungle was so crowded with trees that helicopters could only land in certain clearings. As the LRP team boarded the helicopter, the Viet Cong would open fire.
That kind of ambush, said Pressnall, had killed several LRP teams and helicopter crews.
But if Pressnall opened fire, the gunfire itself could attract the Viet Cong.
Pressnall decided to hold his fire. Pressnall had shot his rifle in combat before, but he never knew if he hit anyone because the enemy was undercover.
In this case, the target was in the open and less than 10 yards away. When faced with the certainty of taking a person’s life, said Pressnall, he couldn’t pull the trigger.
"I just couldn’t kill a human being," said Pressnall. "His back was to me, he may have been a child. I wasn’t going to kill a child."
Luckily, Pressnall’s team completed the mission without incident.
After each combat engagement, Pressnall wondered if he was close enough to death to experience meaning in life.
"Did you get close enough?" Pressnall remembers asking himself. "You can still hear those bullets hitting the bamboo near your ears, isn’t that close enough?"
The answer was always "no," until his 19th mission.
It was May of 1969, Pressnall and his team embarked on an exhausting trek through the jungle. After crossing a river, his legs and ankles were covered with leeches.
In disgust, Pressnall looked up at the sky. The sky was usually covered by the jungle’s thick canopy. But from that spot, Pressnall saw a small, triangular patch of bright blue through the leaves and branches.
The blue sky sparked an epiphany.
Peace, said Pressnall, was the meaning he had been searching for.
"I knew I was struggling and I was in conflict, with myself and with the world," said Pressnall. "If you don’t want human angst, the opposite of that would be some kind of peace of mind."
Ironically, he found peace in war.
OUT OF THE JUNGLE
A few days after his epiphany, Pressnall developed a hernia, an abdominal muscle complication, and was flown out of Vietnam for surgery.
Pressnall was transferred to a U.S. military hospital in Yokohama, Japan, where he, for the first time, witnessed the carnage of war close up.
"I saw nothing but heavily wounded, screaming GIs, which I had never quite seen on missions," he said. "There were wounded (LRPs) who came back, and people who got killed, some of my best friends were killed, but they were on different teams."
Pressnall finished the rest of his military service at Fort Ord in Monterey Bay, CA, and left active duty in 1970. In all, he spent seven months in Vietnam.
THE RETURN HOME
When Pressnall returned to the civilian world, he couldn’t talk about the war. For 10 years, he kept his Vietnam experience mostly a secret.
Survivor’s guilt, said Pressnall, was partly responsible for his silence. When he was in Vietnam, his LRP team suffered no causalities. After he left Vietnam, several members of his team were killed in action.
Pressnall was also embarrassed that he fought in a war he disagreed with.
"The biggest thing I had to live down in the end was that I was a hypocrite," he said. "I did something I didn’t believe in. I caused suffering to other people, to the Vietnamese, because I had this personal mission of getting close to death."
Eventually, Pressnall started speaking about his Vietnam experience.
"I realized I was never going to get over having been in the war. I just wasn’t going to recover," he said. "The only way I thought I could begin to heal is to teach the truth about the war, so that is what I started to do in my classroom."
Pressnall told his classes in Albany Middle School about patrolling in the jungle, and the confusion he felt in Vietnam. His students, said Pressnall, in jest, were like free therapists.
And the reflections, said some of his students, made history come alive, and stuck with them over the years.
"They were very interesting (stories). It made me more engaged," said Catheryn Li, a former student of Pressnall's and a current sophomore. "So it’s not just sitting in class and reading a textbook."
Looking back, Pressnall said volunteering to serve in Vietnam was foolish and dangerous. But being close to death, he said, enabled him to discover peace and revere life.
"If we don’t appreciate that life is going to end and act as if we are going to live forever," said Pressnall, "then all we do is make ourselves feel good at the moment. We would have a very short term view."
Postscript: After his military service, Pressnall completed his original goal of travelling the world. He spent a year and a half hitchhiking, then driving through Europe and the Middle East in a Volkswagen mini bus.