11 November 2008


(note: as background, please read my entry for Memorial Day, 26 may 2008.)

what follows isn't pretty. then again, neither is war. war is rarely what one is shown at a movie, or on tv. it is personal, and the experience is different for each participant. what i want to share has nothing to do with sweeping battles or calculated strategies or clashing armies. at its foundation, war isn't about patriotism or noble ideology. it is about you, and those few who are near to you in moments of violence, or tedium, or terror far from home.

my war was vietnam. these are only a few of the vivid memory snapshots i carry with me every day. they represent the randomness, the absurdity, the waste which jar any expectation of glory or patriotism. small moments. important moments. i share them as a way of recognizing, honoring those whom i knew in country, especially those who didn't make it back.

~ it is midday. after leaving travis AFB in california, with stops in hawaii, guam and the philippines, the airliner transporting me has touched down at Bien Hoa airbase. i reach the door at the top of the ramp, and am smacked senseless by a wall of heat. wherever there isn't pavement, there is fine red dust, six inches thick. i'm instantly dehydrated. how am i going to survive an entire year here?

~ it is sunset. after only a few weeks of OJT in country, at my base camp in Phu Loi, i've been sent to the field. we are at a fire support base somewhere in the mekong delta, occupied by the troops of a 155mm artillery battery, and guarded by a company of infantry. the perimeter is a scant enclosure of barbed wire and too few bunkers. all around lie jungle, and heat, and humidity. the hush of twilight is shattered by the unexpected sound of M16 fire being sprayed across the camp, from one of the perimeter bunkers. friendly fire, intentional fire. everyone hits the dirt or finds something to hide behind. the shooter is screaming words, but they make no sense. his firing pauses as he runs out of ammo, reloads. the dusk deepens, concealing a handful of MPs as they take up positions surrounding the bunker. CRACK CRACK CRACK. silence. we learn later that the shooter was a grunt who'd apparently seen too much, and lost it. he had shot his buddy in the bunker before opening up on the camp. his reward: assassination.

~ it is afternoon. we are setting up a temporary fire support base in a paddy near a temple in Cholon, the Chinese district of Saigon. a miniature settlement of camp followers materializes along the road -- a barber, a souvenir shop, a whorehouse. the resident vietnamese mingle with curious GIs. a blind boy walks across our compound, led by a smaller boy. we learn later that the blind boy was counting his paces, measuring distances and vectors to our artillery pieces, command post and my communications truck for targetting by VC mortars. children at war.

~ it is night. we are camped next to a highway and an ARVN (south vietnamese army, our allies) compound, back in the delta. we arrived late in the afternoon, and while crews prepare the 155s for fire missions, the rest of us are told to fill sandbags for individual bunkers in the event of mortar or rocket attack. my fellow radioteletype (RTT) operator and i are the only ones who do. for an hour or so after sunset, a searchlight from the ARVN has illuminated us, and (what a coincidence) during that time, every ten minutes or so a harrassing mortar round has landed in our camp from somewhere in the dark jungle all around. eventually a round gets lucky, exploding amid four foolish GIs who have been standing around talking. two are killed instantly. one has both legs blown off. the fourth is peppered with shrapnel. a medevac chopper is called in. this is what the VC have been waiting for. when the chopper arrives, mortar rounds start raining in on us. impossible noise and confusion, lit from all sides by explosions. the VC want that chopper, and the cluster of soldiers who are trying to onload the wounded. i am among those who ran to become stretcher-bearers, ducking and weaving in the mud and chaos. the man i'm carrying is our medic, a black dude from detroit who had only three weeks left in country, and a wife and two kids waiting for him at home. everyone likes him. amid the confusion the first sergeant running around like a headless chicken, looking for the medical files of the injured soldiers, getting in the way (a feat for which he is later awarded the Silver Star). finally the wounded are aboard, and the chopper (miraculously unhit) lifts off into the night sky. we later hear that Doc -- all medics are called Doc -- didn't survive the flight to the hospital. we mourn.

~ it is morning. we are set up on the western perimeter of a base camp west of Tay Ninh, near the Cambodian border. the perimeter is manned by ARVN soldiers, not Gis. my RTT rig, looking like a pickup camper with a thyroid condition, sits near a small, one-man perimeter bunker. the ARVN occupying it has a puppy. yesterday he became furious with the animal, and started to beat it. i was furious and intervened. he couldn't understand English, but he knew from my voice and gestures what i meant, and assumed a placating attitude. this morning, the same performance, only this time he is throwing the puppy down hard on the ground, like a football. i literally see red. against all reason, since he had an M16 handy and i only had my bayonet in its belt sheath, i stormed over and seized the dog from him, then returned with it to my rig. he in turn was incensed, picked up his rifle, then put it down again and followed me, yelling at me. my commo sergeant was visiting and backed me up, and the ARVN had to retreat, losing face. i kept the dog, named it Sooner, and brought it back to my own base camp at Phu Loi when i returned from the field. Sooner became our commo mascot, and was still there when i left the country months later.

~ it is twilight. same base camp. near my tent a small group of GIs has set up a crude table, and a rowdy poker game is going on. i'm trying to catch a nap on a cot, miserable in the heat and dust. last shower was thirty days ago. i'm snapped awake by the crack of a single shot, very close by. i jump up to a crouch and peek outside. the poker table is deserted, everyone has scattered. leaving the tent, i walk past the table, noticing a wet gray mass on the ground. nearby a small group has gathered on the porch of a hootch. one GI is raving, being restrained by others. turns out that he was one of those standing around watching the card game, next to his best friend who was one of the card players. holding his M16, which for some absurd reason went off, six inches from his friend's head. the entry wound was as big around as your finger. the exit wound was as big as your fist, and as the player's body slumped to the side, his brains fell out onto the ground. the accidental shooter is taken out by medevac chopper, senseless with grief and horror and guilt. he's sent to a psych hospital in japan the next day, a casualty of a landscape where everyone carries a gun.

~ it is night. we are back in the delta. some enterprising souls have erected a shoulder-high sleeping bunker made from dirt-filled wooden ammo crates, roofed over with PSP and sandbags. inside are a dozen wall-to-wall cots. you have to crawl over bodies to find an empty cot, if you want to sleep in that protected space. we are all awakened in the same instant by the distinctive sound of incoming rockets -- pssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhBOOM. the first one impacts some distance away, but each one gets a little closer. they are being walked in our direction. somehow, by some sleight-of-hand, every single bunker occupant has managed to rotate his cot sideways to burrow closer to mother earth. an amazing feat that could not be duplicated in daylight. all the rockets explode harmlessly, hurting no one, destroying nothing. in the surreal silence which follows, a lizard scoots across my legs, and i barely notice.

~ it is morning. DEROS. date eligible for return from overseas. i'm returning to the World (as we call home). two of my commo mates escort me on the jeep drive from Phu Loi to Bien Hoa. joking around, roiling mixed feelings. i spend the night at the 90th replacement battalion, pretending to be hardcore for all the green troops arriving for their year in paradise. i leave vietnam at 11 p.m. on 8 march 1968, and 24 hours later, after fueling stops in japan and alaska, arrive at travis air force base in california at 11 p.m. on 8 march 1968 -- a beam-me-up trick caused by crossing the international dateline eastbound. a few hours of out-processing and i'm set loose from oakland army base, honorable discharge papers in hand. no decompression, no counseling, no preparation for the jolting culture shock to come.

but that's another story.

epilogue: here's a link to a NYTimes article on Veterans Day, as it is observed both here and in other countries. (i've carried a buddy poppy attached to the rear view mirror of any vehicle i've owned, all my adult life.)


if you know a veteran, please tell him/her "thank you". many of us never heard the words.

No comments:

Post a Comment