After a day of humping, Jonathan finally raised his hand and circled it in the air, which we knew meant move up, deploy, and form a defensive perimeter.
"Beddy-by-time," Ottel bantered. "Let's see now, which boudoir do we want, that one behind the rock, or over there by the tree? Shall we bed down in that elephant grass? Sure would make for a comfy mattress...too bad there would be no cover...most likely crawling with Charlies who will slit your throat, silent and quick-like in the dead of night."
We didn't have much to choose from, despite the colorful descriptions, opting for a sandy spot that looked like it would be easy digging...one that offered a good fire zone where we could set out our trip flare and claymore mine. "Ah, home sweet home," Ottel whispered, as he took the M-60 off his shoulders and flung down his pack, reaching for his entrenching tool for the foxhole.
But our homestead was not to be.
Instructing each squad where to dig their foxholes to establish a good, tight perimeter, and checking fire zone responsibilities, Jonathan finally worked his way round to us, taking a map out of his back pocket when he got to where we’d started to dig in. "O’Neal, You, Snyder, Ottel, and uh...Jacob, set up a goat one klick north across that trail coming up to our present position. O'Neal, you're the veteran man here, so you're the squad leader. Set up at the bottom of that little knoll." He pointed to a hill we could barely see above the trees. "If shit happens, keep your heads low. I've got the coordinates and I'll call in artillery...or if it hits the fan around camp here, I’ll call in fire wherever we need it."
"Ah, Sarge, we were just about to put up the curtains," Ottel mumbled as he took up behind O'Neal, and I fell in as rear guard.
About a klick out we found the perfect spot for an ambush. Ottel and Snyder began scraping out a shallow foot-deep trench for a prone ambush foxhole, piling a mound of dirt in front for breastworks, while O'Neal and I set about putting up our early warning system trip-flare. We strung thin piano wire across the trail from one clump of elephant grass to another. Ten feet on our side of the wire we set the half-moon shaped claymore mine to kill anything moving down the trail unlucky enough to set off the trip-flare, playing out the wire from the claymore so it could be detonated from our prone foxhole. This was to be our soul fortification and security defense.
"It's a good spot," O'Neal said, twisting at the corner of his mustache, nodding as he surveyed the trail. We could see tire tread foot prints all over in the bricky red trail. "Looks like there's been heavy traffic, so could be this place'll be like a superhighway tonight...gonna get us some kills when the VC start to move," he said, smiling with anticipation. Then as darkness softly blanketed us, it was time to sit quiet and wait for Charlie. Darkness fell quickly, like the curtains Ottel had wished for, a veil of gloom blotted out everything in the moonless jungle until several hours into the night, when the moon peeked over the eastern hills.
All was still as death. Each man lay prone on half-security, half-asleep and half-awake, peering anxiously down the trail, alternating the degree of readiness through the night...but as usual, nobody slept very good. Everything was silent, too silent, as each man lay deep in his own thoughts. Each man, still as the night, feared to move a betraying muscle, straining eyes to part the darkness, to see Charlie before he saw us. It was a hot night. I kept rubbing sweat out of my eyes, fighting the drowsiness, working out kinks from stiff, complaining joints where the hard earthen bed and a few rocks and rootwads cut off circulation, uncomfortable at having to make a telltale move. Each time I moved ever-so-slightly, the others would glare, as if I was making too much noise, or moving too much, fearing I would attract so much attention it would get us all killed...but then they would roll and toss to relieve their own protesting muscles.
About two o' clock it was my turn to go to sleep, but sleeping was a chore. In the hot sticky night the jungle had become alive with nocturnal sounds, as we painstakingly analyzed each sound to determine if it was normal jungle creature noises, nature sounds of wind blowing gently through the trees, or approaching VC. Through the night there were varying dgrees of alarm, and adrenaline pumping fright.
Dreams mixed with reality, blended into heartburn. Or maybe it was that c-ration chicken loaf I gulped down before night set in. I hallucinated more than dreamed of a large pair of unrelenting, unyielding eyes that followed me everywhere I went...yellow, cat-like eyes. I ran till I was gasping out of breath, but the eyes were ahead of me. And when I turned, they looked at me over a stand of elephant grass. They were everywhere, stalking me, closer...closer. I couldn't escape. I felt cold claws scraping down my neck. My shirt was wet, warm and sticky...it was blood! I was filled with anguish, scrambling and thrashing myself awake, tearing at fibrous cobwebs preventing me from escaping. But when I awoke, the movement had been in my mind only. Looking around me or the tell-tale shadows, everything was still as death. Nobody had noticed my panic.
"Not going to let me get any sleep tonight are you?" I whispered to the demons, as I still lay shoulder-to-shoulder with Snyder...too close. I could feel his elbow poking me in the ribs. I could feel him rumbling and chuckling under his breath. When I rolled over on my back to stretch, I looked at him, I saw him too, clearly bathed in the July moon, almost like daylight. I stared for a moment, as his face now and then distorted in his own entertainments.
"Just thinking," Snyder whispered in a low sonorous voice much like the faint scraping of the locusts singing all around us. "I wonder what it would be like if General Westmoreland was out here sitting in this hole, waiting'n watching for Mr. Charles with us. Westmoreland wants some pomp and circumstance, he'd get a bellyful of reality here. This is as good as it gets!"
"A general in a foxhole...that'll be the day," I whispered back. "Can't find this kind of luxury in Saigon. Say Snyder, tell me the truth...you scared?"
"Hell no," he drawled after only a second's hesitation, but in a low monotone I could barely hear.
I didn't believe him, but didn't say anything more. After we both had looked out into the dreary night for what seemed a long time, but in truth was only a few moments, he said with deep conviction and assuredness, turning to look me in the eyes, "I'm only scared every fucking second of every fucking day. I don't eat. I can't sleep. My mind's running a thousand miles an hour out here, just tryin' to survive...and if I do, you know, get back to "the world," I know I'll never be the same. I don't think I'll ever laugh again! I'm just goin' through the motions here, kinda numb. But you can't let it get to you, Jacob. Think about things too much and it's overpowering...you go dinky-dau. You have to keep saying, 'It don't mean shit.' You gotta feel that way too. You have to, in order to keep going."
"It don't mean shit," I whispered slowly.
"Yeah, that's it. "It don't mean nuthin'."
"It don't mean nuthin'," I repeated.
As Ottel crawled over to join us, Snyder smiled wryly in grim approval, "But it's hard to do that when you see this shit, and know it's just the opposite of everything you're taught growing up."
"That's why they say war is hell, "Ottel quipped. "Most guys that come over here think they're bad asses. They think they couldn't be readier for it...to do their duty...but that's where they're wrong. Dead wrong! Nothing can prepare you for war...nothing you've heard or seen. Doesn't matter the training. No matter the weapons. That's what makes war so hard...and fuckin' new guys that come over here aren't ready for it. I mean, it's a whole other ball game, and there's nothing can prepare you for war's reality. Nam turns values upside down, man, and you've just got to shove it to the back to survive...and how quick they learn that determines whether or not they survive. You can't dwell on it."
"I just hope I can be brave," I whispered.
Ottel leaned back. "Yeah, well you can't be brave without being scared. The two go together like..."
O'Neal glared, his eyes shooting knives. "Quiet! You fools draw the gooks' fire and get us killed, I'll slit your throat, so help me God I will." We were all pensive and on edge for a long minute, till we saw his mustache shudder. "Would be a sight though, wouldn't it...almost make dying worth while to give Westmoreland the honor and glory he deserves, sitting here waiting for Charles with us misfits. Hell...the brass at I Corps might even give him a big parade into the boonies."
"That'd be the way to end all wars," I said, "put the big boys on the firing line. Let the generals slug it out, and to the victor goes the spoils. Make those old farts earn their medals."
"Put the chairmen of the boards...and the politicians out there too," O'Neal snickered. "We'll see a quick turnaround in the negotiations then, let me tell you."
Ottel nodded, "Make them put their high-browed ideals in a foxhole nose-to-nose with Charlie...they'd come up with something quick enough."
"I'm thinking they'd sure as hell moderate quick," Snyder shrugged, "if it was their necks felt the cold steel."
“Hell, if it was them had to face the night demons, we wouldn’t even be here in the first place," O’Neal drawled. “If it was them had to sit out here wondering if they would be alive or dead when mornin’ comes...”
"Those senators and the big Pentagon brass would learn to work things out without bloodletting our country's future every few years if they were the ones whose lives were on the line," I said. "That's for damned sure!"
"We can learn a lesson from this," Ottel opined, "if we will, for when it’s our time to take over the reins of leadership of our country. Just because some politician wants to make a few points in the polls, or take peoples' minds off his failed policies, there's no reason to kill a generation."
“Hell,” O’Neal laughed, "Nobody learns! Anyway, what makes you think you’re gonna survive this here war, boy? Don't you know war has no fuckin' survivors?”
Snyder chuckled. "My father says the last good war was World War II, when he fought. 'Nobody never said they regretted doing their duty to give their lives for their country then,' he said. 'We were all willing to give all our tomorrows for our family's happiness.'"
“Well now,” O’Neal sniffled, “Ain’t that swell...ain’t that just too cotton-pickin’ swell.”
"It seems every generation has to go to war to fight for freedom," Ottel scoffed. "Looks like they'd learn."
"World war II was supposed to be the war to end all wars, wasn't it,” I said, “or was that World War I? I can't seem to keep my wars straight.”
“SNAFU.” O’Neal said, “that's what this is, 'Situation Normal...All Fucked Up.'"
"Everybody supported the war back in your daddy's day," Ottel whispered. "That was the difference. They felt Hitler breathing down their necks, they really did. But he was just the latest tyrant to come along...then there were the dudes in North Korea causing such a fuss, and now Ho Chi Minh."
"Bet there weren't no people going to Canada back then," muttered O'Neal. "The streets weren't filled with protest demonstrators or conscientious objectors then, by damn. Not like now."
We all paused a moment, sitting quietly, listening to the night, listening for someone moving out there. I finally spoke softly. “And when we get Daddy Ho, that won’t be the end of the bad guys. There’ll be a whole new set of bad guys needing a war, that'll pop up every few years.”
Ottel sighed, “That’s sad. Or some politician will feel moved to ferret one out, even if he has to invent one, just because his stock is getting lower in the polls.”
“There’s nothing like a good war to put some zip back in the numbers,” I said.
Ottel nodded. "Got a letter from Johnny Perkins couple weeks ago. Said when he got back across the pond, there were no parades. There were no victory marches for the boys who'd put their lives on the line for our country. There was no honor in being a returned vet just come from Vietnam. Made Johnny wonder what the hell he had been fighting for, when everybody acted embarrassed that he was there reminding them of our involvement over here. There wasn't anybody patted him on the back to say, 'Job well done soldier, welcome home.'"
"Hell, O'Neal said between tight lips, "who needs 'em?" He rubbed his M-16’s belly fondly. "Jenkins wrote the same thing. He felt like people wanted him to stay over here and die, or somethin’. He'd see long haired, hippie-type freaks protesting the war...said they'd spit in his face and call him 'baby killer.'"
"I don't understand it," I whispered. "I really don’t. I mean, I’d a whole lot rather not be here, but we're here to fight communism. Vietnam want us here...asked us here...the domino theory, you know?"
"Hell Jacob, you really think that's what we're doing, ferreting commies? Shit! What turnip truck you fall off of anyway?" Ottel jabbed me in the ribs. "The domino theory...that's balderdash."
"You buy that propaganda?" Snyder chuckled. "I took you for smarter'n that."
"I've got some prime land in the Okeechobee Swamp I'd like to talk to you about," O'Neal sputtered.
"God, it's hot," Ottel compained, rolling over so he could get a better look, picking at his stained fatigues white, crusty circles of sweat, where a new days worth of salt had been added to the stiff and stinky fabric. "We're nothing but an arm of the commercial conglomerates back home. They're octopuses, withtheir arms into everything we do over here. It's them run the war. They figure certain losses are an acceptable investment to make, as long as they make a lot of money from the big business of selling millions of uniforms, boots, guns, ammunition, tanks, C-rations, underwear, mosquito repellent. We're fuckin' expendable, don't you know that?”
O’Neal sunk his face into the dirt barricade in front of us, and made a show of pretending to cry. “Hell, boy, they won’t even miss you when we’re dead and gone. Just send over another green twink, slap a rifle into his hands, and plug 'im into the war.”
Ottel peered into my eyes through the darkness. “Domino theory, hell, it's just a catalyst, a catch phrase to convince the masses to send their boys off to die."
After another long quiet minute, O'Neal peered into the darkness as if he didn't know we were there, talking to himself as if alone. "That's why I'm afraid to go home. I don't know how to do anything else. The Army took me right out of high school. I lied about my age, y'know, go for the glory. Them damned recruitors made me feel big. They gave me a uniform that made me stand taller, so when I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw a hero looking back. Can you imagine how that made me feel? I was ten feet tall. All the girls looked up to me too...girls that wouldn't even give me the time of day before...now they looked up to me. The guys all gave me respect. When I was in uniform, I was special...I was the man...but that was so far away. It was in another world," he said, suddenly feigning a fake sigh. "Now, I don't know how to do anything, but one thing," he said with a phony, exaggerated sob, "kill! But I’m bloody good at that. I'm the master!"
I tried to picture what the people who were so glad to send O'Neal off to war would think of what the war had made him...what the war was making of us all. I was suddenly angry at the propaganda, "See the world! The Army will make you leaders!" and then the topper, "Businesses need aggressive men who know how to be leaders. Bullhockey!"
"All I know how to do is kill folks...and lead killers," O'Neal continued talking to himself. "I like it." He paused, looking into the night, then continued as if talking to himself. "I like it...maybe too much. It's the only thing that keeps me sane in this stinking country, living with the hate and, and...I know that's not right. I know I've got to change, but I don't know how to change. I don't know how. God, I don't even know for sure I want to anymore. Every night I dream of my buddies, Ryan, Poke, Gentry, Harris...only it's no smiling picture I see. I see their faces shot away, brain pulp oozing out of their heads, the blood...on my hands, on my clothes...everywhere! I see the empty eyes...my God, those empty eyes. Every time I see it everything goes red...everything! I hate 'em! I hate them gooks. I hate dumb officers playing their stupid war games...calling for bigger body counts...shoving us where they know what will happen...or maybe they're too stupid to know. I hate the authorities that sent us here to do their killing...I hate 'em..." Suddenly O'Neal remembered we were there. He felt real tears streaming down his cheek, and looked away, embarrassed. Immediately he rose to his knees, and crouching went off into the darkness. Ottel tried to pull him back, but O'Neal shook him off as he rustled into the night.
"Shit," Snyder said. "Now what we gonna do?"
"Nothing," Ottel whispered. "There's nothing we can do. He's taken these night walks before...says he needs to be alone."
I held my breath. We looked to the front, and off to the side where O'Neal had gone. None of us could sleep. We should have been sleeping, all but one guard, but none of us could do sleep.
Long about midnight, after O'Neal had returned, and was sitting there in the uncomfortable gloomy shadows of the moon where no word was spoken, we heard voices coming down the trail.
There were at least four or five of them from the sound of it. I heard the squeaking wheels of a cart just before the trip flare erupted in a shower of sparks. I saw the shadowy figures suddenly frozen in panic as statues in the night. O'Neal squeezed the claymore's detonation button, and we lowered our heads as the thunder roared, the pulsing backdraft that could also kill rushed over our heads. Automatic rifle fire tore through the air whistling like bees buzzing over our heads.
O'Neal and I opened up with our M-16's, and Ottel's M-60 chattered as it swept the trail back and forth in withering fire. I listened to the relentless, angry flat pings of the M-16's, interspersed with the more urgent, hollow popping of an AK-47, and the rhythmical staccato of the M-60 bursts, and some unknown weapon, then all was silent. There were no night birds singing. No crickets chirping. Nothing! It was as though all living things had evaporated...and we were alone. We worried more now than before. Now they knew where we were. Now they must be mad. Ha, that's a joke. We had to have hit somebody. Sure, somebody’s mad! Somebody's mad as hell! Unless they’re all dead.
I heard someone muttering, "What am I doing here...what the hell am I doing here?” Suddenly I recognized that the voice was coming from me.
With the morning we heard a wary call, "Blue chip," from the rear, and recognized the password. "Full house," O'Neal called out the counter-sign. It was a ten-man patrol from the palace guard sent out to check on us. We looked in front of where the claymore had been, and a hundred feet in front, its killing zone, but no Charlies...only one tire-tread sandal lying ragged, bloody and torn in the dust.
A young bespectacled second lieutenant, green from the states, had flown in to assume the Second Platoon's command with the first light. "You said you heard five or six voices that set off your trip flare?"
"Four or five."
"Four or five," he pushed his glasses back up his nose where they had slipped. He looked like that kid you always had in your math class that everybody liked to pick on, with scrambled, dull brown hair and no chin. His uniform didn't fit, it just kind of hung there. His Army-green baseball cap's bill was the same way it was when he was issued it, without a crease. "We'll say five KIA's...everybody okay with that?"
He walked nonchalantly thirty paces out on the trail by himself, then suddenly, realizing where he was, double-timed back to the security of the troops. He finally noticed us looking like something was out of place. "Oh yeah, you men weren't there for the change of command ceremony this morning. Captain Trenery said I would be...name's Winchester," then remembering the military way, "Lieutenant Jeffrey Reginald Winchester. I'm your new platoon leader."
"Oh golly gee, looks like a nerd to me," O'Neal mocked behind his hand as we pushed to join the main body of the platoon.
"Did you see Reggie strutting his officer butt out there like a little omnipotent God, only a 45 strapped to his belt," Ottel shook his head. "He feels no fear..."
"He has no idea..." O'Neal said morosely.
"Even worse," I said, "he doesn't even know that he doesn't know."
“But he’ll learn,” O'Neal said, shaking his head. "Just hope you don’t hafta be the one payin' for his education. And we're supposed to take orders from him? Not this grunt. He's likely to get us all killed. Is this a joke? Somebody tell me, is this a joke? Who's he think he is...a damned Marine?" O'Neal laughed, "God's gift to war?"
"I'll give Reggie two weeks," grinned Riley, joining them from the group with the lieutenant.
"I'll take some'a that action," Nigel said as he saw Reggie swaggering up front with a walking stick he'd picked up, like he was on a stroll through the park, "but make that one week."
"You're both wrong," O'Neal smiled knowingly. "Reggie'll be lucky to make it through the end of the day, never mind a week."
"Commands me to charge a machine gun...I'll tell him where to stick it," I shrugged as we passed through some lush banana trees and flowering hedges with the inevitable wait-a-minute bushes.
"He's gonna die sure 'nuff," Snyder deadpanned. "Only sad thing is, he's likely to take some of us with him..."
“I’m not about to let that gung-ho geek get me killed,” O'Neal growled.
Riley was working his way around a large, thorny bamboo wait-a-minute bush that stood in our way, when he spied an old M-1 carbine with a broken stock wrapped up in a dirty blue cloth.
"Radio the old man that we got a kill," O'Neal said, grinning, as he took the rusty rifle out of Riley's hands.
"But it doesn't even look like it could fire...and there's no body," I said.
"Details, details," O'Neal sneered. "It'll make the sergeants happy. It'll make Reggie happy! And the old man's always pushing for a bigger and better body count he can brag on to his seniors...he'll be delighted. Phone it in!" he ordered with a mock bark.
I was dumbfounded by the mockery of facts...the sheer magnitude of lies as the travesty of battlefield finds and body counts were reported in ways to find favorable light. Troops tried to please their platoon officers, seeking the good graces of higher-ups who sought higher counts, and quite naturally reached all the way up the chain-of-command to Westmoreland.
Hundreds of little square papers gently tumbled in the breeze, or snagged on bushes. I picked one up, then another. I couldn't read Vietnamese, but didn't need to with the comic book figures. The papers were obviously demonstrating the proper "hands up" way to surrender to friendly, smiling captors that looked oh so happy to see you, their long lost VC brother. Others showed the "good guys" teaching and instructing the peasant VC. I waved a handful of pamphlets at Ottel.
"Part of that 'Revolutionary Development Program' Westmoreland was talking about?" Ottel said. "I Corps has some choppers that all they do all day is litterbug. It's the Psychological Operations branch of the Army. You'll see'm, flying low, blasting away with giant speakers, prodding the VC to give themselves up, to come home to the right way. I haven't seen anything come from it yet, but 'Stars and Stripes' says it's having an impact."
“They would,” growled O’Neal.
"The Army'll say anything," Riley spit a wad of chewing tobacco, and I cocked my head wondering where he got it.
"Just more propaganda," O'Neal said. "You can't believe anything you read..."
"Or hear...'specially if the Army's doing the talking," Ottel said, then hesitated at some brush as we rounded a bend, bringing his machine gun down to his hip, looking suspiciously down it.
I saw the man too, at about the same time, and brought up my M-16 to bear on him. It was a skinny little man in a ragged blue uniform, waving his arms. I almost shot the beggar, until I noticed he wasn't carrying a weapon...and wasn't running.
That didn't stop O’Neal. He'd sighted in his M-16 and fired a quick burst. He would have found his mark too, only Lieutenant Reggie called out, "O'Neal, hold your fire," pushing up O’Neal's barrel just as he cut loose on rock-and-roll. The raggedy eighty-pound body in olive-green sneakers and blue PJ’s hit the dirt just in the nick of time, as bullets whistled over his head. "That's enough, soldier...he's unarmed."
"American GI numbah one," the man grinned, raising his hands again, looking warily towards O'Neal..."VC numbah 10. This happy day." But it would seem that well-prepared phrase was the only English he knew. He smiled and nodded, repeating "American GI numbah one," at every question, or at anyone who would look.
That he was a North Vietnamese Regular was obvious from the simple, blue clothing he wore, and from the documents Reggie took from his pockets. But he was smiling, and so happy that it was impossible to hate him. It was difficult to even conceive of him as the enemy, he looked so small, so utterly harmless. I gave him a C-rations can of franks'n beans, and Ottel gave him some C-rations crackers, and he went down on them like he hadn’t eaten in a month.
Everything came to a full stop as Sergeant Mulenburg called out, "Take five...smoke'm if y’all got'm," circling his hand above his head to signal disperse and form a defensive perimeter.
Ottel, Snyder and I found some shade behind a six-foot termite mound, while Reggie talked to someone on the horn. The Vietnamese squatted on his heels in the blazing sun in the middle of the ring, smiling at anyone who'd look his way. He looked like he had worked all his life in a garage without a change of clothes or a bath; his clothes clinging to his withered body looked many sizes too large.
Twenty minutes later, a Huey dropped into our center, and a major stepped out, followed by two small, black-haired Vietnamese in green Army fatigues carrying M-1 carbines. I noticed they looked angry.
Reggie snapped the major a salute, and got a dirty look.
"Name's Major Thomas Forbush, Lieutenant. We don't salute in the field, Lieutenant. If Vietcong are going to shoot, they'll shoot the person getting the salute."
“Sorry don’t cut the mustard, Lieutenant.”
The two Vietnamese talked to the man in what sounded to us like singsong, quietly translating now and then to the major. The words got angrier as they pointed around, and the man's smile dropped as he followed their movements, obviously confused as he looked around. His tone became more pleading as the two Vietnamese stood suddenly, each grabbing an arm and wrestling them behind him, tied them with a cord, and pushed him towards the waiting helicopter.
"The man's VC," Major Forbush reported, "no doubt about it. Says his name is Quong Tri...from a suburb of Hanoi. Says he was drafted into the North Vietnamese Army at the age of sixteen, trained to use the 57 millimeter recoilless rifle, but somehow lost it during a firefight...been trying to find out where he left it, where his buddies are. Says his NVA unit began moving south three years ago, and since then he's been moving from place to place. Why he's here, we're trying to find out...shouldn't be long now. These boys really know their stuff."
"What happens to him now?" Reggie asked, sounding like he had a dirt clod in his throat. “Isn’t there an ‘Open Arms’ program, or something?”
"Gotta understand," the Major watched the little man being manhandled aboard the chopper. "If he wants help, he's gotta help us."
"Thought it'd be something like that," Ottel mumbled. "The government doesn't give anything away for free...not even freedom."
"What'd you expect?" Snyder asked. "Look at us...drafted over here a million miles from home, fighting for freedom. I was free, I sure as hell wouldn’t be here."
"Or coerced into it by glory stories," O'Neal growled. "Screw it."
"Smoke and mirrors," Ottel nodded, "Screw 'Open Arms.'"
The major chomped on a cigar almost as big as his mouth. "Gave us that old line about starting to miss his family," the major smirked. "Ain't that too bad. Little commie says he's thinking about them more than ever before. He couldn't send or receive mail, and wondered what was happening to them. Says the last time he saw them was at the commie recruitment station."
"Told us he fought the Americans in Pleiku province. Said he saw fellow soldiers die in battle and from disease. He's been in an NVA hospital in southern Phu Yen with malaria...like to get the coordinates for that one...have Arty send them a care package," he laughed. "He didn't see he was any better, but the doctors released him and told him to be with his unit by Tet, and sent him on his way, alone and weaponless."
"Don't it make your little 'ol heart bleed?" The major clenched his cigar between his teeth as he lighted it, collapsing his cheeks as he tried to draw the smoke in, then exhaled a smoke plume. He looked pleased with himself.
"Says he's been working his way around for months without a weapon, sponging food from local Vietcong, and spending a lonely holiday in the hills and valleys south of here hiding from soldiers from both sides. Said he'd often read the Psychological Operations pamphlets, and thought about joining the southern forces, and was reading them again when you tromped up, so flagged you down. But you know, you can’t believe a thing they say. Expected you to embrace him like a brother, the cocky little piece of NVA horse crap. No tellin' how many GI's that little bastard's zapped."
"So much for amnesty," Ottel shrugged. “Screw him!”
"Peace with honor," I echoed.
"Just another foreigner without friends in the right places," Snyder muttered.
"Don't it make you proud to be an American?" Ottel whispered.
"Don't you worry though," the major chortled as he grinned through clenched teeth holding his stogie. "We'll re-educate the little bastard...give him to the ARVN's. They know what to do with that kind. We had seventy-two Montagnards turn themselves in not too long ago because of them Psy Op leaflets 'n' broadcasts. Looking for the free meal you ask me, but never mind. Said they were disillusioned with the Vietcong and the treatment they got."
"Probably gave them a re-education in the real meaning of disillusionment," Ottel joked a little too loudly, for Major Forbush looked sternly in his direction. “Did you want to say something, soldier?”
"Well now, if you did, I could arrange for you to accompany us." The major glared for a minute until he thought his point was well made. "Now where was I? Oh yes, the village chief complained the VC taxed them exxx-cessively," the major puffed up the word with exaggeration. "He said they stole their food and used the men, women and children for slave labor. He said four VC were always in the village, two of them armed. They would fire on US aircraft, forcing the villagers to take the effects of artillery and air strikes from US forces. Well sir, we put'm to good use," the major smiled, puffing away at his cigar like he was sending smoke signals, "set'm to filling up sandbags to build more bunkers at An Khe."
"From one slave master to another," I said sadly, looking at Ottel.
"Probably moved a few klicks, that's all," Ottel said, looking back.
"At least they get free chow regular," O'Neal said. "That's more than they get from the VC."
As the major clambered aboard the waiting chopper and it rose skyward, I saw Quong Tri’s appealing eyes. He looked so pitifully alone. I resolved to write a letter to I Corps detailing Quong Tri’s situation, and appealing he receive merciful treatment.