By MICK HOLIEN of the Missoulian

Former scout-sniper in Vietnam says 'getting it out' has made all the difference

Big Arm resident Ed Kugler didn't write a book about his experiences as a U.S. Marine Corps sniper to glorify the Vietnam War.

He wrote "Dead Center" so that people could read about the realities of war, so as to better understand what young people endured when they fought in the forlorn Vietnamese countryside more than 30 years ago.

"Twenty-five percent of my readers are women, which was one of my goals," said Kugler, who moved to Montana a little more than a year ago. "I wanted to tell not a hero's story, but … what it was really like, at least from my perspective."

"I've got the good, the bad and the ugly," he said.

The book is laden with obscenity. Kugler said his purpose was to communicate in the speech of the bush.

"I wanted people to touch and feel what it's like inside the mind of a young man asked to play war. It changes you in ways you don't understand," he wrote in the epilogue. "I'm not proud of the language I used, or some of the things I did, and I am ashamed today of the attitude I had toward the Vietnamese, but at the time it was truly how we dealt with the business of killing. I shared the raw and true stories of events that actually took place."

Kugler also makes no bones about the leadership in relation to Vietnam.

"Was everything right about 'Nam? Heavens no. But the truth is the military never lost any battles," he said. "I didn't have any problem with the leadership on the ground. I had problems with (Gen. William) Westmoreland," American commander of U.S. forces during most of the Vietnam War.

He also was critical of former President Johnson and then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

"It's wild and weird and sick sometimes," he said about war. "And it's all made worse when our leaders pretend it's not so or have no idea what their decisions are doing to the people carrying out their strategy. That's why it is so important to go to war only with a clear purpose."

Kugler joined the military at 17, right after high school. He decided to become a Marine after doing a book report in fifth grade about the history of the Corps.

He said he almost washed out of the Marines in boot camp because of disciplinary problems, but persevered. After infantry training in North Carolina in early 1966, he headed for Santo Domingo where, during the Dominican Crisis, he was hit in the hands by shrapnel.

He returned to duty after hospitalization and volunteered to go to Vietnam.

"I just needed to be there," he writes, having no idea where "there" was.

After four weeks of training at Camp Pendleton in California, it was off to Southeast Asia, where he volunteered to become a scout-sniper with the 4th Marines in I Corps of northern South Vietnam.

"Man, this was a chance to do something few have done. Hell, no one's done it since World War II," he writes. "It was my chance to do something special and maybe even make a difference."

Not only did Kugler spend the usual 13-month stint in Vietnam, he extended his tour and served a total of two years.

The last third of the book recounts the exploits of his special sniper team, the Rogues.

"My team fired and dropped the first seven in their tracks," he writes about one ambush. "The four remaining bad guys took to the bush. They didn't return a shot. I got one of them on the run and Z got another. Nine kills in one setting … what a beautiful day."

After Vietnam, Kugler said he came home to a world he didn't know and couldn't relate to. He had a serious drinking problem that he said was exacerbated but not caused by Vietnam.

He said his wife, whom he met shortly after returning, ultimately made the difference in his life.

"She, for whatever reason, loved to hear about it and was never shocked," said Kugler, now married to Gloria Caroline Patterson Kugler for 32 years. "I think what separated me from a lot of people was getting it out."

"It took me about five years after I got back to settle down," Kugler said. "I kind of worked hard for about 10 years. Then I felt an urge to tell a unique story."

Although he's never had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or nightmares about his war experiences, he said he's always had flashbacks. But, he said, he had a successful business career before moving to Montana, where he serves as a management consultant and continues to write.

"My problem was, I wanted to go back," said Kugler. "It used to be if I sat like this and talked about it, it would buzz me all day."

Kugler continues to talk about Vietnam, most recently in Missoula at high school classes.

"I want to walk them through the experiences," he said.

"Dead Center" is a brisk seller at Amazon.com, where's it's been in the top 1 percent for the past 18 months, and at Barnes and Noble. It's sold some 50,000 copies, according to Kugler.

Published by Ballantine Publishing Group, the book is available locally in softcover. The Military Book Club holds the hardback rights.

Reporter Mick Holien can be reached at 523-5262 or at mholien@missoulian.com.

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