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The Lonesome End
William Nack
October 04, 1993
By standing apart, Bill Carpenter became an All-America at West Point and one of the country's finest soldiers
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October 04, 1993

The Lonesome End

By standing apart, Bill Carpenter became an All-America at West Point and one of the country's finest soldiers

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She married him anyway. In fact, they got engaged the night before he graduated, in 1960, and made plans to marry in June of the following year. But one night in the summer of '60, Toni received a moony phone call from him while he was training at Fort Benning, beseeching her to move up the date. "I'm really lonely," he said. "I need a wife."

They were wed on Jan. 2, 1961. A month later the young second lieutenant became a platoon leader at Fort Campbell, in Kentucky, and set about to make himself a troop commander. Even as a young officer Carpenter began resisting the brass. That fall, when the division commander at Fort Campbell, a two-star general, told him he had to play football for the base team, Carpenter refused. The general was leaving the command, and he did not force the issue. However, the two-star who followed him did. In the fall of 1962 Carpenter was ordered to give up his company command and play football. He became furious. "Football for me was over with and done," he says. "I wanted to go on and be something else."

He ultimately yielded to the brass and played that year, but he vowed never to do it again. Sure enough, the following spring he was ordered to give up his new command and rejoin the team. Playing football for the base team was cushy duty, but Carpenter wanted no part of it. He had been drafted by the Baltimore Colts, and he was thinking that he would rather leave the service than play service ball. He called his assignment officer at the infantry branch, in Washington, D.C., and said, "Look, if I am going to be forced to play football, I'm going to do it for a hell of a lot more than $200 a month." That was lieutenant's pay.

"Where do you want to go?" the officer asked.

"Anywhere I'm not forced to play football," he said.

"How would you like to go to Vietnam?"

So in the spring of 1963 he went to Southeast Asia as the adviser to a South Vietnamese army unit. On that first tour he was twice wounded—once by shrapnel and earlier by a VC bullet; as he was setting fire to a stand of sugarcane, he surprised a Viet Cong soldier, who shot him in the right arm. "I threw three grenades at him lefthanded, emptied my carbine into his foxhole and then emptied my pistol," he says. "Jesus, I was mad."

Home by June 1964, Carpenter returned two years later, just in time to climb that finger near Dak To. For his extraordinary gambit there he did not receive the Medal of Honor—he got the nation's second-highest award for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross—and he lost his company command. Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, pulled him out of the field and made him his aide-de-camp. "I thought he was going to get himself killed," Westmoreland recalls. "It was kind of a reckless affair. I'm not saying it critically. It was a battlefield decision that had to be made. I was a little shocked by it."

Carpenter liked Westy well enough, but not the job. Most rising young captains would have considered being named an aide to Westmoreland a plum assignment, but within a week of joining the staff Carpenter began urging Westmoreland to release him. After a few weeks of this steady pestering, Westmoreland said to him, "Only ask me once a week from now on." So Carpenter set aside every Tuesday morning to spring the question.

"Can I leave yet, sir?"

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