The First Casualty by Karl Orndorff

Karl Orndorff grew up in a household with an alcoholic and abusive father. He joined the Marine Corps as soon as he could—at age seventeen while he was still in high school in 1966—to escape the tumultuous situation at home. He also felt it was the patriotic thing to do.

“In the back of my mind dwelled a sense of patriotic duty. I owed it to my country to stop the spread of Communism,” Orndorff writes in The First Casualty: A Vietnam Memoir (CreateSpace, 392 pp., $14.95, paper), a thoughtful, well-written autobiography that concentrates on the author’s unique three tours (two-and-a-half years) in the war zone.

Unlike many Marine Corps enlistees, Orndorff had few problems with boot camp at Parris Island. It “was not the terrifying experience for me that it was for many of my fellow platoon members,” he writes. “The thirteen weeks of physical and mental training was a challenge and in some peculiar way, a pleasure for me. I was physically fit and mentally toughened when I arrived. The typical drill instructor’s demeanor pretty much mirrored the parenting style I had just escaped.”

After basic, he had more training at Camp Lejeune, then Bulk Fuel School at Camp Pendleton. Orndorff then volunteered to go to Vietnam, and arrived in country in the summer of 1967 at age eighteen. He wound up serving three tours of duty with the same unit: the Force Logistics Command’s 7th Separate Bulk Fuel Company in Da Nang, Hoi An, and An Hoa, among other places.

Part of the time Orndorff and another Marine were the only Americans serving with the South Korean Tiger Division. After getting that assignment, he notes, “we would no longer serve on night patrols, guard post duty, and mine-sweeping duty. In addition, we had no one whatsoever to report directly to at our base. The opportunity for us to survive the war unscathed had just increased exponentially.”

The author at a book signing

It was a “support job,” Orndorff says. But “being constantly in the cross hairs of a rocketeer’s sights, and surrounded by explosive fuel constituted an extremely hazardous occupation.” The job “was not seen by my peers in most other military occupations as a desirable line of work.”

Orndorff volunteered for a fourth tour, but the Marines turned him down and he left Vietnam physically unscathed. After he left the Marines, Orndorff went back to Pennsylvania, married, and had a long career as an industry designer. He devotes a chapter in the book to his return trip to Vietnam in 2006, where he was welcomed “with open arms” by the Vietnamese people he encountered.

Today, Orndorff says he is “a warrior” who  “harbor[s] antiwar beliefs.” Should a war “like WWII ever occur again,” he writes, “where it was absolutely necessary to defend my country, I would be the first in line. Should a war like the one in Vietnam occur again I (and my children?) would be living in Canada—not because I was a coward. I had unequivocally proven that I was not.”

—Marc Leepson