After watching Tiger Force soldiers execute an unarmed villager, Sgt. Gerald Bruner did the unthinkable.
He raised his rifle with his own threat: He would kill anyone who tried to shoot any more civilians.
The soldiers backed down.
For his efforts, he was berated by a commander for turning on other soldiers - and told to see a psychiatrist.
But his actions in the village near Chu Lai in August, 1967, was the only known time a platoon member threatened to shoot one of his own to stop the brutality, Army records show.
He complained to superiors about the attack on the farmer, but nothing happened.
Seven years later, he complained to Army investigators looking into Tiger Force atrocities. Again, nothing happened.
In the end, the sergeant was unable to bring justice to a case that troubled him to his grave, said family members.
When he died of cancer in 1997, he was still bothered by the two months he spent with the platoon.
“He used to tell me that he hoped justice would come of the investigation,” said his younger brother, Michael Stuckey. “He was disillusioned with what he called the zealot characters in Tiger Force. He said they often went beyond the gray area. They took their aggressions out on villagers.”
Two weeks after the shooting in the village, Sergeant Bruner asked to be transferred from the platoon after watching two lieutenants scare a farmer by shooting at his feet and killing his cattle, records state. He served two more tours in Vietnam, including a stint as a sniper.
Karen Bruner of Colon, Mich., examines photos of her late husband, who died in 1997.
Morrison / Blade photo Enlarge
But his memories of the execution in the hamlet 36 years ago remained a powerful image for him, relatives said.
“Every time he brought up Vietnam, he would bring up the village, and what happened,” said his widow, Karen Bruner of Colon, Mich.
The confrontation began after the platoon entered a clearing with a cluster of huts on the edge of the Annamese Mountains, records state.
The soldiers were greeted by smiling adults and children emerging from a hut, three soldiers told Army investigators.
The villagers were holding leaflets dropped days earlier by the Army allowing them to be evacuated from the area.
“They were happy as hell to see us,” Sergeant Bruner told investigators.
But what followed was a fatal shooting that was recalled by several witnesses during the Army's investigation.
Soldiers said Sgt. William Doyle, a team leader, began asking the farmer if he had seen Viet Cong in the village.
The farmer said he would show the soldiers where the Viet Cong guerrillas were hiding, but he wanted them to escort his family to a relocation center for safety, the soldiers said.
Sergeant Doyle insisted the man tell the soldiers immediately where the enemy was located, striking the farmer in the head with a rifle. Again and again, the man pleaded for his family's protection.
Without warning, the platoon leader raised his M-16 and shot the man through his forearm.
Medic Ralph Mayhew recalled the next scene.
“The Vietnamese fell to his knees and spoke tearfully in his language. I didn't like the sight of it, so I turned away and walked away from the area.”
Sergeant Doyle then ordered his men to shoot the farmer.
Moments later, the farmer's 16-year-old brother was brought to the platoon leader and was tossed to the ground next to his dead brother.
One of the soldiers pointed a 45-caliber handgun at the teenager's head, until Sergeant Bruner intervened. The boy and the rest of his family were whisked away without injury the following day.
In an interview with an investigator in February, 1974, Sergeant Bruner said he detailed the atrocity to Capt. Carl James, a battalion officer.
The captain later told investigators he recalled a conversation with Sergeant Bruner about the case, according to an Army investigator's account of the interview, but the captain refused to sign a statement.
Sergeant Bruner said he was told by an unidentified company commander “that this particular incident was being taken care of, and not to worry about it, and just to forget it ... not to talk to anyone about it.”
He said the commander began yelling at him about the incident, suggesting the sergeant see a psychiatrist because of his threat to shoot fellow soldiers.
In an interview with The Blade, Mr. Doyle said the events described by witnesses “are all true.”
Mr. Doyle said he tried to kill the farmer, but his gun jammed, so he ordered his men to carry out the execution. “I wanted to summarily execute him, but my gun only fired one round and it hit him in the arm.''
He said he was aware that Mr. Bruner had objected to the killing, and was critical of the former sergeant.
“Everyplace he went, he was the only one carrying goddamn Chu Hoi leaflets,” he said, referring to the Army leaflets dropped in villages by helicopters that guaranteed the safety of civilians if they moved to relocation camps.
“It was like he was on a civilian-affairs program. And that wasn't our deal. We were out there to hunt and kill.”
The angry exchange in the village was the last between the two men. Mr. Bruner was injured a month later after stepping on a booby trap and immediately transferred from the platoon.
He was honorably discharged from the Army in November, 1975.
He moved with his wife and daughter to Michigan, where he worked for the U.S. Veterans Administration in several capacities, including assisting veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Family members say he was pained by his memories of Vietnam, often drinking to forget.
Before he died at age 59, Mr. Bruner recorded a tape about his tours in Vietnam for a Pearl Harbor commemoration in 1988, recalling the shooting of the farmer.
In the tape, he condemned the killing.
“To me, this is what you call murder - they flat out murdered the guy.”
(Story was published on Oct. 20, 2003)