Marines Washing Clothes in a Combat Zone

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Fifty years ago I was washing my clothes in Vietnam the same way these young Marines are washing theirs in Afghanistan. The more things change the more they stay the same. Combat really stinks both figuratively and literally.

Unless you’re a fellow Marine you really don’t want to get downwind of a jarhead in a combat zone. You gotta trust me on this. Not only are their clothes filthy and stinky so are their bodies—it’s the price we pay for freedom (said tongue-in-cheek).

The only two differences I could see between then and now were: they were using bottled water where we had well water (when behind the wire) and they were using plastic buckets when we had to use discarded metal ammo cans. The clothes never got really clean but everything is relative—after hand washing they were much cleaner than socks and underwear (and outerwear) worn for weeks at a time. In Vietnam we were always wet, wet with sweat or wet with rain—and oftentimes wet with both. Vietnam could be brutally hot and humid where Afghanistan suffers temperature extremes on both ends—hot and cold.

Discarded Ammo Can aka Marine Corps Washing Machine (Just Add: Water, Soap & Elbow Grease)

Suggestion: if you really want to support the troops send them CARE packages of: underwear, socks, toiletries (soap & toothpaste) toilet paper, reading material and personal messages of support. After weeks and months of living in squalid conditions even little things mean a lot—a pair of clean socks or underwear is like manna from heaven. Unless things have changed forget the fragrances (aftershave, cologne or deodorant) the enemy troops can smell them a mile a way. In Vietnam nước mắm (Vietnamese fish sauce) could quickly give away an enemy position to an alert field Marine or War Dog. Bang you’re dead.

Marines in Hue City (Tet Offensive 1968)

Dirty filthy living conditions, for the Marines serving in Vietnam, caused all kinds of uncomfortable but typically non-lethal ailments: Tinea Versicolor (a fungus causing loss of skin pigmentation), Tinea Cruris or Eczema Marginatum (other fungal infections known colloquially as Crotch Rot), Ringworm, Immersion Foot and parasites like Hookworm were common—I suffered from the first four on the list before coming home. I avoided Malaria and Dengue Fever in Vietnam but finally succumbed to Dengue Fever in Yucatan in 2013 (a truly horrible experience I can tell you).

Marines in the Field (Republic of Vietnam)

Lethal risks in Vietnam included: enemy fire, friendly fire, accidents, heat stroke, Malaria, poisonous snakes and even tigers. When I finally got back to the USA in February 1968 I swore I would never be dirty again or wear dirty clothes. I wouldn’t crap in a hole or piss into a bush or fail to brush my teeth or wash my hands. Now in my seventies I’m trekking the world with just my rucksack and photo gear—sometimes hot water is in short supply (limiting showers), I wear clothes longer than I’m comfortable with and I look kind of scruffy. So much for promises.

4 responses to “Marines Washing Clothes in a Combat Zone

  1. Quickly eliminated underwear from my wardrobe in Chu Lai in 1968. Commando was the way to go. 😎
    Between sweat, dirt, JP4 and hydraulic fluid soaking into your clothes some parts of your anatomy suffered all of the time.

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