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Philadelphia Inquirer - front cover story

by: David Lieber

09/20/90

Talk about lack of respect for authority. It was 1968, and baby-faced Second Lt. David A. Christian was tired of doing a man's job in the Army and being treated like an unreliable son. Christian was just 19, but already he was leading small groups of troops into the torrid battle zones of South Vietnam on search-and-destroy Missions that increasingly ended in armed conflicts with the enemy. 

Back at headquarters, however, the ranking officers had a difficult time believing the word of this fuzzy chinned kid from Levittown with the shaved head. Christian said he was killing an unusually high number of enemy troops, but some of the officers thought he was lying. 

The matter came to a head one day when a Christian-led patrol radioed another typically Christian message: The squad killed three more enemy soldiers. "Oh, sure," the radio officer responded. 

He never took any guff back home in Levittown, Christian thought, so why should he take it here? 

He ordered his men to take three dead soldiers back to base camp, where Christian backed a truck carrying the bodies up to the door of headquarters.

Quickly, he scribbled a note - "Next time you won't question my body count" - and stuffed it into the mouth of one of the corpses. Then he rolled all three bodies down onto the front steps.

Not long after, a stunned colonel noted, "Lieutenant, you seem to have a way of making your presence known." 

In a way, it is the story of David A. Christian's life. He would go on to become one of the most decorated veterans of the Vietnam War. He received so many medals and honors that his uniform was almost not big enough to carry them. 

Included were the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star, seven Purple Hearts, the Air Medal, the Combat Infantryman's Badge and two Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry, to name just the most important.

In addition, Christian had become the youngest second lieutenant in Army history, then the youngest first lieutenant and, finally, the youngest captain. 

Twice, he received the last rites. He had been shot in the chest, stabbed in the arm, suffered stomach and crotch injuries from an exploding anti-tank weapon, watched as his feet were ripped up and received napalm burns over 40 percent of his body. 

Christian's life and times, both good and bad, are chronicled in his book titled Victor Six (1990) - his code name during the war. The book, written by Christian and co-author William Hoffer, was published last month by McCraw-Hill. It is a main selection of the Military Book Club, and an auction for film rights is scheduled for next month. 

Christian, who lives in Washington Crossing, is also known for his unsuccessful attempts in 1984 and 1986 to defeat U.S. Rep. Peter H. Kostmayer, a Bucks County Democrat whose own combat techniques - albeit in the political arena - are nearly as well-known. The book discusses the two campaigns in the same no-nonsense style used to describe Christian's war exploits. 

Sad that he never won an election, Christian is also realistic about it. "If I were elected to Congress," he said in the recent interview in his Oxford Valley Road office, "I wouldn't have had the opportunity to write the book. It took me two and a half years to write it." Perhaps it was better that voters never got to see the maverick side of Christian revealed in this book. 

David Christian, the handsome, charismatic war hero with the ego to think he could end the Vietnam War by leading a secret CIA-based mission to kill Ho Chi Minh, is more complex than his two campaigns revealed him to be. 

For example, Christian writes, after one particularly difficult battle, he and several of his men boiled and then drank the blood of a slain enemy soldier in an attempt to "gain the enemy's wisdom". 

In the interview, he said he had done it because "after months and months of combat, I did things that I never thought I'd do. I developed this warrior's mentality. Even a person who had objectivity and levity - that person can be swept up in the insanity of war." "But then I was punished afterward, because I was burned with napalm. There was an unwritten code that was broken." 

If war is hell, Christian did his best to make it fun and exciting. He warmed his coffee with C-4 explosives. He sometimes wore a dead boa constrictor around his neck like a scarf. And most of all, he never met an authority figure - and there were many in the Army - whom he didn't challenge.

"I made a life out of challenging authority," he said. That anti-authority streak gives the book a Dirty Dozen feel to it. He took a bunch of army misfits... men with no respect, little fighting ability and no real sense of purpose - and molded them into the one of the Army's best reconnaissance platoons. Its nickname was "Christian's Butchers." 

"Look at the team I took on, " he said. "They became a crack outfit. I loved them and nurtured them into a fighting machine." Because he was younger than most of his men, Christian lied about his age. He used bravado, cockiness and his ability to never blink in staring matches to earn the respect of the tough guys in his unit. 

He also developed management techniques that were not taught to him at Officers Candidate School. Often, he ended his orders with "OK?"

"Christian had a very different style, a strange way of 'asking' an order," the book states. "He would tell you what to do, then add that little 'OK' so that you had at least an illusion that you participated in the decision. It made a big difference." 

Christian also became known for his calm in the face of enemy fire. His men were especially enthralled by his easygoing voice on the combat radio as he called for backup artillery fire. 

But by far, his greatest strength was his version of jungle warfare. Christian applied techniques he developed while growing up on the streets of Levittown as a young boy, his family on welfare because his father, an alcoholic, had run out when Christian was just 7. 

When attacked, Victor Six told his Recon unit: make a quick assessment, and then, no matter what the odds, run like hell toward the enemy's strongest point. "It startles the opponent, " he told them. "It catches the enemy off balance and scares the ... out of them." 

"If attacked and surrounded," he told them, "you will die. So if you are going to die, you might as well go out in a blaze of glory. Challenge them! You still might die, and if so, what's the difference? But you might also throw the enemy into disarray." 

Part of his technique, he said, was to make as much noise as possible. "It's not natural, when someone is shooting at you, to jump up, scream and start blazing away, but that's what I want you to do. I want you to whoop, holler and scream like crazed banshees. If you don't manage to shoot the enemy, you might as well scare them to death." 

It helped turn Christian into a war hero, but when he tried to move into politics, the "attack now, think later" technique did not serve him as well.

In 1978, when he worked for the federal government as a special assistant for the Labor Department and a spokesman for veterans, he was asked to lead the Pledge of Allegiance at Arlington National Cemetery on Veteran's Day.

As President Carter stood behind him on the platform, Christian instead launched into a three-minute, 49-second speech outlining the woes of the Vietnam veteran. Nearby, the Joint Chiefs of Staff glowered in anger, and Carter's face froze. But Christian continued. His federal career ended shortly afterward. 

Six years later, when Christian made his first congressional race against Kostmayer, Christian attended a meeting in Washington of several chairmen of influential political action committees (PACs). He hoped to raise money for his GOP campaign. 

Asked to give a brief resume, Christian responded: "I was the youngest military officer in Vietnam. I was hailed as one of the most decorated soldiers in that war. After the war, I served as a special assistant to the Labor Department under President Carter. President Reagan considered me for the post of V.A. Director, but I turned it down. I'm the founder of the United Vietnam Veterans Organization."

----

As Christian finished, one of the PAC men warned, "You better not be lying... Don't say it unless it's the truth." Christian exploded in anger. "Sir! You call me a liar, I'll rip your heart out."

"I carry a gun," the man responded.

"I don't care," Christian replied.

On page 210 of his book, Christian writes of Kostmayer: "By law, he was a draft dodger, and he could have been prosecuted as such if President Carter had not extended amnesty." 

Christian, in the interview, contended that Kostmayer repeatedly failed to show up for draft physicals until his draft lottery number, based on his birthday, was so high there was little chance of his being inducted. Christian said he had learned that from information he had received under the Federal Freedom of Information Act. 

Kostmayer spokesman John Seager said in a recent interview: "Dave has no facts to support this. It's just another one of his stories that he makes up. It casts into judgment everything else in the book. You kind of wonder about all the other facts." 

Seager said Selective Service records showed that Kostmayer had taken his draft physical as required. He said Kostmayer had never ducked a physical.

Kostmayer has a copy of Christian's new book, Seager said. "He glanced through it. He said it didn't really hold his interest."

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These days, Christian, 58, owns his own company, D.A.C. Inc.  He has helped market a variety of things, including auto-repair kits, insurance and real estate, he said. "I'm a broker of deals," he said. "I have the chutzpah to call the chairman of the board of a company and say, "Hi, I'd like to talk to you.'"

Times are good, he said. He drives a Mercedes, and his wife, Peggy, drives a Jaguar, he said. Next month, he intends to depart on a book tour of Boston, New York, Washington, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. 

Christian said he was luckier than most Vietnam combat vets in that he did not have flashbacks, nightmares or other examples of delayed stress syndrome. But his body still gives him great pain, he said. 

Nevertheless, his children like to sneak up from behind and surprise him, he said. "I jump," he admitted. "And sometimes I take a martial arts stance if they really catch me off guard. But for the most part, I don't have a lot of problems."

 

© 2007-2010 David A. Christian