Pair forges lasting friendship in the trenches
Set aside for a moment that two men, born within two days of each other, would end up in the U.S. Marine Corps enduring the Vietnam War’s most famous siege.
Consider that Mike Archer and Steve Orr first met while attending Marine field radio operator school at Camp Pendleton.
It would have been difficult enough to predict that they would be sent to the same unit in the Marine Corps, or that unit would have already been sent to Vietnam, or that the two would serve together near a little town just south of the demilitarized zone known as Khe Sanh. Or that both men would still be friends today, living and working in neighboring Nevada counties.
Mike, an attaché with the Nevada Legislature, has memorialized his friendship with Steve, now a lieutenant in the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, and several others in the book “A Patch of Ground: Khe Sanh Remembered.”
Their first encounter? Steve was having a little fun with a sleeping Marine who talked in his sleep.
Their first conversation? Steve tried to sell Mike a sweater to make some quick cash.
The two ended up in the same line after radio school and found themselves drawing orders to Okinawa, Japan.
It was not until they had flown over the Pacific that they found the unit had been reassigned to Vietnam.
Steve is one of two threads running through the Mike’s narrative. The other is the life of his childhood friend, who was killed on the day the Marines evacuated one of the last hills overlooking Khe Sanh.
Steve was there when the pair flew out of Khe Sanh and he was there when Mike mustered out of the Marine Corps at Treasure Island, waiting with a getaway car.
“I went to his parents and asked where he was,” Steve said sitting in his office 35 years away from the world of 1970. “I had this little MG and I was waiting for him when he mustered out.”
Steve and Mike swapped events back and forth during their entire friendship. Steve arrived in Vietnam ahead of Mike, Mike made it to Khe Sanh before Steve, Steve mustered out of the Marines before Mike. That was one of the links they had.
Mike’s book chronicles the two men’s young lives in Vietnam, but that was just the opening chapters in a friendship that has survived decades.
The two decided they were going to college together and enrolled at California State Sacramento.
Steve lasted about a year before his career in the hotel business heated up to the point where he was making too much money to stay in college.
Mike, a history major, stayed in school and got a job at the Social Security Administration.
Steve moved to South Lake Tahoe in 1973 at the old Way Station, first in the Sierra. A short time later he went to work for Harrah’s.
“I decided I was going to move to Reno and work for Harrah’s and I called Mike,” Steve said. “He told me he was being transferred to Reno. We ended up living at the same apartment complex in Meadowood, before there was a mall there. I would tell people where I lived and they would ask ‘Why are you living all the way out there?'”
Steve moved back to South Lake Tahoe and made a life-changing decision in 1981 when he started as a reserve deputy with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. A year later he was hired on full time and he has never looked back.
Both men have stayed close, something that is not common for those who have served under difficult conditions, as Mike found when he researched the book.
Mike told me that he believes his and Steve’s relatively normal lives point toward isolation as being an important factor in post-traumatic stress.
“Most vets who left Vietnam also left the only people in the whole world who they could relate to, who had shared their experiences, who understood their pain,” he said.
One more set of coincidences that will wrap up this story of two friends who faced both death and life together.
Both Steve and Mike have been divorced and remarried. At age 46, Steve and his wife celebrated the birth of their first child on March 1, 1995. Both Steve and Mike married women 18 years younger than they were. Mike had children from a previous marriage, but his new wife wanted a baby.
So on March 1, 2004, Mike and his wife had a son together. Happy coincidence and a happing ending.
“I attribute our success to each other,” Steve said. “He told me that I make him a better man. And I never want to let my standards to drop in his eyes. He is godfather to my daughter and I’m godfather to his son.”
Comrades in arms.
The book is an honest look at a battle that pitched technology versus ferocity. It cuts through the trite stereotypes and delves into the reality of fighting a pitched battle against a foe who often was just as miserable as the Marines surrounded at Khe Sanh Combat Base, established to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
In it Mike not only drops the reader into the bunkers with the Marines, but also explores the terrain and history of Vietnam. He puts the battle in context, human, tactical and strategic. It is available at Borders Book Store.