Smoke, Lightning and Thunder

      My platoon moved in single file, ten feet apart, coming down off the mountain to join the weapons platoon, and fanned out on a “search and destroy” sweep. We had no sooner started through a dry riverbank up toward some thatched hooches, than the pop pop pop pop pop of automatic weapons fire raked the right flank. Clifford Reagan, the 1st Platoon's point man, was killed instantly. After a rapid firefight the shooting from the hooches silenced, and we lined out in assault formation, on our knees behind the cover of the ridge line.

     A myriad of taunting insults drifted from the hooches. "GI numbah ten, GI numbah ten...VC number one. We kill you two times, GI."

     "I'll show them who's number ten,” Sergeant Morgan said. A tight, grim-lipped smile creased his face, covered in sweat, as he signaled Dejesus “Gutcheck” Gutirez, who had just started humping the platoon radio on this mission. Lying on his back like a turtle, Morgan looked over his shoulder toward the hooches, calling the firebase at Regimental Headquarters for an artillery strike on Gutcheck's radio, crisply reciting target coordinates from a map. Twenty-five seconds later the beautifully awful sound of impending devastation could be heard cutting the air just overhead, making a horrible sound like hissing Buicks hurtling through air.

     "Incoming," Jonathan yelled, and we all hit the dirt, cowering from fire and brimstone raining from the skies like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Whomp, whomp, whomp, they came with a frightening noise, soldiers praying they weren't short rounds that'd fall on their heads, relieved when they exploded right on target.

     “Yo, mothah’s," Nigel yelled, "this one’s for Cliff!" Then all was again silent. The sounds of powerful, finite destruction loomed incredible. In the deathly quiet that followed, an almost reverent atmosphere left the platoon speechlessly in awe of the surreal moment.

     O’Neal broke the quiet. “We done ruined Charlie's whole day,” he snickered grimly with a low-throated chuckle. He seemed to intensely enjoy the thoughts of annihilation of the villagers.

     "Secure the area," Morgan called out, as the line of troops moved back into the ville. "You men...push out to that yonder tree," he gestured to a group standing nearby. "And watch the incoming trail." He kicked at a large charred basket with his boot and scorched rice poured out.

     “Looks like French fried maggots,” chortled O’Neal.

     Sergeant Mulenburg cocked his head, wrinkled his nose at the thought, and took a second look.

     "It's only rice, Muley," Morgan said dryly. "Charlie won't be eatin' this no time soon."

     "Don't know...gooks'll eat 'bout any ol' thing, Sarge," Mulenburg said. "By the by, ya looked at your helmet lately?"


     "Y'know, that cuss'd iron stewpot ya jest luv'ta wear...look at't."

     Morgan took off his helmet with a dubious look at Mulenburg, like he was in for some kind of joke, but when he looked at it his eyes got wide. He stuck his finger in three ugly ragged holes in the steel pot he had sworn at because it was heavy and made him sweat, and so often had buried to the rim to keep water cool on a hot LZ, or had heated shaving water, or had used to cook soups, eggs, or other spoils of war. Right there on the green camouflage cover between the black smeared words, "First Team," bullets from an automatic weapon had ripped into the steel.

     "God-a-mighty," Mulenburg said, taking the helmet into his hands. "Them AK-47 rounds must'a done a fanciful little jig in there. They done bore right through it like a fist plungin' through water, do-si-doin' round yur haid, circl'n three quarters way betwixt theat thar helmet and harness riggin'. They must'a tore out here, where y'all scrawled them words, 'Short timer.' Like I tell't troops," Mulenburg grinned, "Yur steel pot may seem heavy's a son-bitch. Y'all girls may rightly cuss'n carry-on 'bout theat pot to high heaven...and I know'at when y'alls wearisome, it do be a burden. But 'pears't me...this'n done saved y'all's sorry life..."

     "Holy bejeesus, Morgan said fingering the hole. "This is something like you read in comic books. I'm lucky to be alive."

     "Too mean't die, y'all mean," Mulenburg chuckled.

     “I reckon that’s what’t was meant to do all along. Surely, that proves somebody is watching out for me.”

     “I reckon,” Mulenburg drawled.

     O’Neal scowled. “No offense, Sarge,” he said, “but that only proves you’re lucky. There's nobody up there guidin' those bullets.”

     An explosion rocked three men who had been turning over another three-foot basket of rice. All three bent back like petals from a flower from the blast, grotesquely comical in some lunatic dance. They seemed like characters moving jerkily, in slow motion under the black lights at some dance club back in "the world."

     But war's no joke. A soldier named Johnson's left shoulder and arm were blown off by the booby trap. Two others, Benton and Hodges, had shrapnel wounds in their legs, and their guts were bubbling blood. Hodges also had a hole in his cheek. Jonathan called in the medevac dustoff chopper as rice and bits of basket floated down like falling snow from the explosion, and ten minutes later it descended into a clearing where a purple smoke grenade had been popped to mark the way. Its crew scurried to load the cargo of wounded and dead, and quick as that they were gone, leaving behind only eerie silence.

     I didn’t know the three men very well, and now I likely never would. Something strange ached in me. I don't know what it was. I felt bad for the fact I didn't know them, that maybe, somehow, I should have. The aching was a new sensation, a void, an anger! A somber mood hung over the patrol while the three wounded men were loaded, but as soon as the medevac lifted off, the mood became brighter.

     My brow furrowed, pensive, frustrated and disillusioned, as I wondered how the grunts could so soon seem to forget their own with the smell of gunpowder still so strong in the air. But then I knew there would come a day when all these buried memories would be tallied. Out of nightmare and shadow, the sight of them would be brought into my mind, trooping before my eyes, this very moment relived, again and again and again. If we gave the horribly deadly moment the thought it properly deserved, we might realize how close death had come to us. Who knows, it might be me the medevacs took away next time. Fact is, I thought with a pain still fomenting in my gut, it might be better I didn’t know them, because if I knew them, I would have to care more. I would have a harder time dealing with it. If I knew them, their faces would join the others haunting me for a long time to come. A tear formed in my eye, but I hardly felt it. I wondered why it didn’t hurt more, and wondered that I was already becoming so numb.

     "You can't afford to feel,” Ottel said, as if he was reading my mind. "You can't afford to dwell on war here. You do, you'll go crazy."

     “How can we be so insensitive? Have we lost the ability to care?”

     “Sure we care,” Ottel said. “We all care...but caring won’t do any good. We can’t allow ourselves to care too much or we’ll go off the deep end. Jacob, if we go dwelling on every horror like it's the end of the world, we'll lose it sure, because there’s so damned many horrors we’ll go bananas. None of us want to think it easily could've been us on that dustoff chopper, starting the long and weary road back home. We don't want to face it, so we file our feelings away...way back at the back of our minds, where they’re shoved down deep."

     “We don't really forget," O'Neal scowled. "We just file impossibly bad memories away. Maybe someday we'll take out those dusty old memories. Hell, I don't know, we just don't face it now. What's done's done. Frettin' 'bout it won't bring 'em back.”

     “I’m halfway crazy already,” I said. “I mean, I can’t help it...I just feel like shooting somebody. I'm not usually an angry person, but Vietnam's doing something to me.”

     Jonathan heard. “Everybody feels crazy a little bit at first,” he said. “Then the mayhem becomes ordinary and dying becomes all too commonplace. Constant anger comes with the territory, I'm afraid, and there isn't much you can do about it. You’ve got to be careful you don’t stonewall your feelings, Jacob. You let that happen, you’ll forget how to feel. If that happens, something precious inside will die.”

     “I don’t know,” Ottel said. “Thinking about what’s happening exposes a fear that lurks around every bend in the trail, bringing a terrible guilt that no one likes to think about, so you just don't do it. But not thinking too much about it doesn't make what happened any less real. It so easily could've been any one of us caught that explosion, and now hovering between life and death on that chopper. I can't help wondering why it wasn't me."

      “We all do,” Jonathan nodded. "That’s natural! It was only blind luck and the grace of God that we were saved from a similar fate.”

     “Fate maybe,” snarled O’Neal, taking aim sighting in on a tree, putting on airs pretending to blow its brains out, “but not God. I can’t believe in a God that’s so, so..."

     "Arbitrarily capricious,” Ottel deadpanned.

     "Yes, arbi...uh, what he said."

     “God didn’t fire the bullets that put Reagan down,” I said, “and He didn’t set off that explosion. So don’t go taking it out on that innocent tree, O'Neal,” I said sourly.

     “It hadn’t been a good day,” I thought, as O’Neal cocked his head off his rifle stock and looked grimly at me. The cold, dark, calculating murder in his eyes made me shiver despite myself.

     “There ain’t no one else to shoot at, twink, or I surely would,” O'Neal said through lips tight as barbed wire, his words snapping out like bullets shot from a rifle.

     “Sarge is right,” Ottel said, ignoring O’Neal. “Life goes on, and if you mourn every time someone buys the farm, there won’t be any time left for anything but grieving. Guilt is an earthbound phenomenon that goes hand-in-hand with war. If you believe in God and Christ then you should find peace in the knowledge that the dead have only passed from our presence but a fleeting moment in the continuum of eternal time. They've simply taken another step in the plan of progression leading them closer to the Father of us all."

     "Actually the dead are better off than we are," I said, "because they have gone on to a far better place...a place where there is no longer any war."

     "Plato said, 'Only the dead have seen the end of war.'" Ottel said, nodding. "Any guilt or mourning we feel as men, is for the living relatives and friends of the deceased who no longer have this person that they loved and cherished nearby interacting with them. Our building guilt and sorrow is maintained for ourselves alone."

     "There should be no guilt, none at all," I said, none too sure of myself. "Those that pass from this mortal existence are in the arms of God and their loved ones who preceded them in death. The only way to eradicate guilt is to forget it."

     "Sure, that's easy for you to say, twink," O'Neal scoffed. "Just wait till ya've been here awhile, then ya won't talk like that."

     "O'Neal, I have been here awhile...long enough to know we have to put guilt behind us as quick as we can. Guilt is far too emaciating an emotion to have in front of you when paying attention to all around you is of such consequential importance to staying alive. Put guilt down with the fear of meeting the bullet with your name on it. Bury it down deep, where you can maybe take it out later and deal with the feeling when you have more time, and there's not someone in the shadows trying to kill you. Guilt is a destructive force. Guilt eats at the souls of the living and, like the Bible says, 'For every thing there is an appointed time; And there is a time for every purpose under the heavens. A time to laugh, a time to weep; A time for peace, and a time for war.’ Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.” \

     "Jacob, do me a favor, just shut the fuck up..." O'Neal said wearily. "Bible talk like that just shows how green you still are...he said, mocking me in a singsong falsetto, 'Just put guilt behind us quick as we can.' Hell, this here weapon might just go off accidental just might blow off your fool head, and I won't feel one damned bit guilty...not for you, not for your relatives and friends...not for nobody! 'It don't mean nuthin',' or haven't you heard? Nothing can make me feel guilty 'bout shooting you, or watching you just shut up!"

     Jonathan ignored O'Neal's profanities. "I think the least we could do is pray for them," he said, lowering his head.

     “Might as well bay at the moon for all the good your praying does,” O’Neal said, scowling. A dark shadow hung under the hard ridge above his eyes. Anger seethed in his voice. “What's done is done! All the parsimonious sermons and fretting and pleading prayers in the world won't bring them back. Hell, it won't even light the way on their journey into the pits of hell and desolation where all soldiers go when they die. If God was going to save Reagan, and them other dead I walked with, He's a little late, that's all I gotta say.”

     Ottel watched him go stalking heavily away. “Sarge, there’s something I don’t understand. Earlier you said something about us being saved by the grace of God. Why were we saved, and, and...”

     “And Reagan and the others weren’t?” Jonathan said, finishing the sentence. “I knew you were going to ask that. That's a difficult one! Well, what can I tell you? God feels unimaginably intense pain when each man falls. It is said He knows when every sparrow falls. He loves each and every one of us, and feels immense sorrow that His children are embroiled in this petty squabble.”

     “Why doesn’t God step in and stop it?”

     “He would if He could.”

     “Why can’t He? I mean, He is God, isn't He?”

     “God has the ability to reach down and save us all. He could make us melt down our instruments of hate, bloodshed and warfare into pruning hooks for tending our orchards and...”

     Ottel thought for a moment. “Why doesn’t God just come down out of the heavens and stop all this hatred and killing once and for all, or at least tell somebody He thinks it's wrong?"

     “God could tell us what to do, no doubt about it, and the angels could enforce His bidding,” Jonathan said. “But if God enforced His will it would be unrighteous dominion that would break eternal laws and change the course of eternal history."

     I agreed. "What would we learn from this mortal existence if we were policed and guided and compelled to do His will every step of the way?"

     "Exactly," Jonathan said smiling. "We would lose our freedoms in the bargain then, and that God cannot abide. It was Satan’s plan to force compliance of God’s laws. Satan wanted to make everyone toe the line so that all might be brought back to God’s glorious presence, unscarred and unscathed, but for Satan's glory. God rejected Satan’s plan, and when hateful words ensued, Satan fell from heaven and grace.”

     "But what's so wrong with letting us know the score?" Ottel asked.

     "That's a difficult question," Jonathan said. “Satan’s plan would not allow us to make decisions for ourselves, don’t you see? We would not have the opportunity to choose right from wrong if God told us what to do all the time."

     "If we knew everything," I said, "there would be no refiner's fire to harden us into more capable instruments of righteousness in the Kingdom of God. Our very perfection would be sacrificed."

     "That's right," Jonathan said. "The bottom line is, God couldn't trust us so fully as He would if we made it through the gauntlet of this mortal life into everlasting life on our own merits. If He was there watching us every step of the way, directing us in all we do, He could not say to us, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant,’ because we wouldn’t have done anything that wasn't expected."

     "To force us to do His will would be eternal robbery of our very immortality," I added, as if answering a question by the teacher in Sunday School.

     "As it is," Jonathan continued, "we may suffer slings and arrows of the oppressor, maybe even undergoing the pangs of physical death. But take away our free agency, and our very souls are at risk of a death far more dire.” < p>     “Say, we got a tunnel here, people,” Sergeant Morgan interrupted. “Fire in the hole! he yelled, as he tossed a grenade into the hole, turning away as the underground passage reverberated with the explosion, belching smoke and dust. “We need a tunnel rat,” he said, gesturing to a group of soldiers clustered on the perimeter. "Rafael Asuzi, front and center! Go to it. Do your duty, son."

     Asuzi, a five foot, five inch soldier from the mortar squad, seemed like little more than a boy in oversized, baggy fatigues, little more than a clump of dirty laundry. He glanced up with a "Who, me?" look. He was dwarfed by the saddle-pack he threw down by the tunnel opening, as Jonathan handed him a blunt nose machine pistol for rapid fire in close quarters. His eyes stood out, white and wide in his swarthy, grimy, sweating face as he dropped into the void without a word.

     For an agonizingly long five minutes the platoon silently watched the hole. Their rifles trained on its opening, as they listened for the awful sound of gunfire, hoping Asuzi would make contact, but fearing it too. Rafael's black mop finally pushed its way out. "There's a maze of tunnels and sleeping holes in there, Sarge, but no Charlies. They could be miles away by now."

     "Well, we'll give them some work to do," Jonathan said. He handed Asuzi two bundles of dynamite, one for the tunnel going south and one for the one going north, and the little man again disappeared into the black hole. A few minutes later a hand reached out with the ends of the two cords, and Rafael climbed out after it.

     "Fire in the hole!" Jonathan called out after everyone was away, and lit the fuse. A sound like distant thunder shook and rippled the ground. I could feel the shock wave pulsing through the ground even over where I was, crouching behind a six-foot anthill. As the hole burped a thick, dusty haze, Jonathan said calmly, "A few klicks more and we'll rendezvous with the choppers. We’ll eat a hot meal tonight at LZ Virginia boys...move’m out, Sarge."

     Mulenburg raised his fist above his head and pumped it up and down, "Show's over girls, saddle'm’m out. Let's go."

     Morgan pointed to O'Neal who had been trying to keep hidden, slouched down behind Riley so he wouldn't be called on to go where Rafael had gone, then gestured to point. O'Neal went, but grumbling all the way. "Might take them gooks a day or two of rat sweat to get that tunnel up and running, thass all, two damned days," he hissed as he slung his pack straps over his shoulder and moved into point. "What's the use?"

     "What's the use?" Riley echoed as he fell in behind.

     “Still, I like the idea of makin' ‘em sweat though,” O'Neal said. "I only wish it were blood they were sweating. I'd like to help those devil's sweat run red, but you can’t have everything. Cliff Reagan and me was pals. Went on R and R in Thailand together...bought us some saloon girls for the duration...had us a three-day party we did. Damn...Cliff would have been home with his wife and babies in six weeks."

     Ottel and Snyder lined out behind me as I walked in back of Riley, and I looked back for one last glimpse of Charlie's blasted hooches, wondering why the helicopters couldn't just pick us up here like the medevac chopper had done for Reagan and the other wounded. But when I saw Mulenburg, I quit wondering, recalling what he'd say. "The gov'ment issued y'all an infantry brain, young troop. Now if'n the Army wanted y'all to think, they'd of issued you all a thinkin' brain...but grunts ain't got thinkin' brains, so jest you keep swingin' an walkin'."

     We were about played out after four hours of humping through an area burned away by fire. It was still wet and sticky with some kind of residue. "Defoliated," Ottel said. "We’re fighting a modernized war here, Jacob. We have the miracles of napalm and chemical defoliants right at our fingertips. You know what they say, 'Better ways through science.'"

     When we passed out of the burn area and into a natural clearing, Gutirez's radio buzzed with static behind us. Word came down to spread out and form a perimeter of defense.

     "Make it tight 'n sharp, girls," Mulenburg said, suddenly blabbering with an anxiety I had never seen in him before, running back and forth telling us where to go.

     “Hold onto your helmets,” Ottel said as the platoon spread out. “Something big is coming down. You feel it, Jacob?”

     We waited for fifteen minutes, and soon began getting antsy, but before long the dust from the powerful rotors of a whirlybird that dropped from the sky was sandblasting us all. p>     Captain Trenery was the first out of the chopper, holding his steel pot and bending low as he ran under the whirling rotors. He was followed by another captain, a bird colonel, and a two-star general.

     I looked at Ottel, but Ottel only shrugged his shoulders. "Don't know them, but they must be brass. Line troops don’t have starched and pressed tailor-made fatigues with spit-shined boots like those jokers."

     "They’re obviously trying to pretend they're fighting men just like us," O'Neal said, "but can't resist spiffing up their fatigues..."

     "...and that ruins the whole concept," Ottel nodded. "They probably got tailor-made fatigues by Armani.”

     "Look at the shining silver bars on Trenery, and the silver eagle catching the sun on that one," Riley said.

     "Doesn't Trenery usually wear black embroidered rank, you know, to avoid catching the sunlight and becoming a target?"

     "Yeah, but he's put on airs for the rear echelon big brass," O’Neal said with a sneer, "Would you look at the shiny stars on the collar and cap of the general."

     "Jeeze,” Ottel said, “the jungle hasn’t seen that much glitter since Carter made Little Liver Pills.”

     “I’ll bet Charlie’s wetting his pants somewhere out there, aching for the chance to get that shining bunch in his sights,” O’Neal said with a smirk.

     “Betcha he’d trade his tire-tread sandals for the chance to give that lot new assholes," Riley said, grinning.

     The four officers wheeled after they had deplaned, and stood smartly at attention facing the chopper. They all snapped precision salutes, holding them until a shadowy figure in the doorway returned their salute. The grunts counted five stars on his lapel.

     "Men," Captain Trenery said, signaling Sergeants Wright, Mulenburg, and Morgan, "I want every soldier brought to the center. Leave only one guard every ten yards on the perimeter, but tell them to watch sharp," he said, smiling nervously at the other officers as the sergeants hurried to obey his command. "We are graced with distinguished company indeed. Hurumph...leave the machine guns in place. We want firepower on the line."

     When everyone was assembled, he smiled broadly and began pointing right to left toward the seated officers on the olive green-camouflage platform that was quickly assembled by a crew from the chopper. "It gives me great pleasure to introduce our battalion commander, Colonel Fred C. Thackery; the First Cavalry Division Commander, General Howard Q. Stetson; his Executive Officer, Captain Frank LeGuard; and let’s hear it for, General William C. Westmoreland, Commander of Allied Forces in Vietnam!"

     "One round here could definitely put the whole war in a world of hurt," O'Neal whispered, stopping short when Morgan gave him a dark look.

     But oblivious to danger, or perhaps unafraid of it, General Westmoreland stood with feet apart and hands on his hips, his eyes like a hawk's, surveying the troops. "Men, General Stetson here tells me that the Second Battalion has the best damned body count record in the First Cavalry,” he said, pausing a moment for effect. “And Colonel Thackery tells me that Bravo Company is his top unit in the battalion; and Captain Trenery says you boys in this platoon are the best damn fighting soldiers in the company...hell, in the whole damn army...what do you say about that?"

     He may have expected applause, or cheering, who knows? But he was mistaken. He got only a smattering of obligatory, less-than-enthusiastic clapping. What he got a whole lot of was blank looks from war-weary, hollow-eyed men wanting nothing more than hot chow and a sandbag bunker to call home.

     The sergeants looked disturbed. Captain Trenery looked disturbed. General Westmoreland though, wasn't even flustered. The man had obviously made a lot of drop-in visits, and knew combat line troops weren’t the "rah-rah" type. This was a confused war. It was declared a police action, without any kind of well-defined front lines, which made goals and objectives less than clear.

     "You men are a cross section of our country, representing almost every state in the union. Your country is justifiably proud of you as soldiers," he said with a granite face and plastered smile. "I recall when the battalion was moved into the area for 'Operation Byrd,' in August of sixty-six. The Vietcong controlled the area, with the support of the majority of the people. At this time, the province chief had a very worried look on his face, but as I see him now, he is smiling, and optimistic."

     "Ever heard of Operation Byrd?" Ottel said, speaking softly under his breath. We all looked at each other, and shrugged. “I guess it’s true…information is given on a need-to-know basis, and gunts just don’t need to know.”

     "Byrd...I know where that is," O'Neal said quietly, looking amused, "but you can't get there from here."

     "You men are involved in a 'test mission,' to bring about what we call 'Revolutionary Development.' The Vietcong rule with terror and subterfuge...the people oppressed with the fear that we are here only for the short term. They think that when the going gets rough, we will abandon them in their plight, and when we are gone they will have to answer to the Vietcong for any cooperation they've given us. Well, we’re here to tell them they’re wrong."

     "Somebody tell me what do damned sub-ta-fuge mean?" Nigel growled.

     “I would, but I'm still working on 'Revolutionary Development,'” O’Neal said with a chuckle.

     "We want to show the Vietnamese people democracy in action. We want them to know that we are here to stay. We’re here for the long haul, and we… will… NOT… desert them in the face of danger, without first building up their local forces to the extent that they can take over where we leave off. They can, and will, hold off the communist tide. They have my word on it. Every day the people in this area are cooperating with us more readily."

     O'Neal smirked. "Yeah? Them VC we blew up awhile back cooperated real good," he said softly.

     "Home boys know better than to mess with the 1st Cav," Nigel clapped, drawing a reprimanding look from Captain Trenery.

     Westmoreland's combat-steeled eyes looked over the infantryman intensely, as he again struck the pose he must have practised in front of the mirror, standing with feet apart, hands on his hips. "In the government's 'Chien Hoy...Open Arms,' program for 1966, 352 Vietcong in the area volunteered themselves for rehabilitation into a more useful and productive life..."

     “Like hell they volunteered," Snyder whispered to Ottel.

     “Sure they volunteered," Ottel whispered. "They volunteered, kicking and screaming, with bayonets at their backs. Sure, they were given a this, or die."

     "It was probably like when I volunteered to be a truck driver back in basic training," I said in a low voice, "but found myself trucking a wheelbarrow to the shitter -- so don't tell me volunteer -- wake up!"

     “I like the ‘Chien Hoy’ program myself,” O'Neal said with a surly grin. "Them that don't volunteer to get rehabilitated, they get to race bullets from my M-16 to the end of its damned trajectory. M-16's fire 2300 feet per second, and Charley can’t hardly run that fast, so it really cuts down on complaints."

     The general pounded his camouflage podium for emphasis. "Thus far in 1967 over four hundred VC have defected from the communist ranks. The local Vietcong forces, weakened by combat and a growing loss of support of the people, have exfiltrated into the heavily vegetated mountains where detection is difficult, and are avoiding contact with allied forces."

     "Exfiltrated?” Snyder said, speaking mostly with his eyes. “What in the hell’s that?”

     “More Army double-speak," Ottel whispered, chuckling. "Talk like that makes him sound tougher, and in the know about the 'big picture.'"

     "Don't know why," Nigel said. "Whitey's got my vote. I ain't going nowhere, nohow."

     O'Neal motioned to a "Stars and Stripes" staffer with a camera on his shoulder. "Look there boys, Westy don’t care diddly about us. He's talking for the cameras."

     "Propaganda," Ottel mused. "Looks like we're going to be in the movies for the folks back home, boys."

     "Look gung-ho and in awe," O'Neal said, "and likely your mug will be on the front page of your hometown paper."

     “Look like you're buying what he's selling," I said, “and you’ll likely be a movie star.”

     “I know the majority of you men will return to civilian life when you recycle back to the states. But this experience will stand you in good stead long after your mission here is complete. Employers like tougher, more mature individuals, capable of assuming their place in the world. They like the leadership qualities you men will learn here."

     “Leadership,” Ottel said, “did he say leadership? The only leadership traits I’m learning here are to duck lower, dig deeper, and run faster.”

     "Employers like leadership qualities learned here, eh?” O'Neal said. “That must mean they need more hit men back in ‘the world!’"

     Westmoreland began pacing back and forth on the camo-shrouded dais, raising his fist indignantly over his head. "You have seen a young nation struggling for principles of freedom...principles that the majority of Americans received as a legacy from patriot forefathers. These principles are not lightly taken when you witness the Vietcong insurgency at work burning hamlets, schools and churches, and subjugating the population with terrorism and murder. Principles of freedom and liberty can bring new hope to a depressed people."

     "I'm depressed," Nigel griped, "and I ain't had no freedom in a long time -- since I joined this man's Army."

     "And I ain’t had no hope no way," Riley said, as he wiped his sleeve across his grimy forehead. "Sure could use some o' that hope my-own-self. I hope I can drive up to the Drive-in back in 'the world,' and order up a juicy cheeseburger and fries...and a thick, creamy, double chocolate malt."

     "This has been an unpopular war..." someone said.

     "You got that right," someone in the back mumbled.

     "Sure is unpopular with me," a soldier the men called "Buzo" whispered. "But I'm going home in ten days. Sarge says that soon as we get back to the LZ he'll ship me back to headquarters to wait it off."

     I liked the dark-haired kid with the crooked smile from Kentucky. We were hitting it off, just starting to be buddies. Too bad he was about to recycle out. He reminded me of my older cousin...too bad Buzo was a short-timer.

     "This has been a war subject to much faultfinding and unjust criticism," Westmoreland conceded, spreading his palms as if he were appealing to the grunts. "But we were asked to come here by a desperate government about to be overrun with communism, and by damn, we're morally committed in such a way, that if we backed out now we would lose the faith of the many countries depending on us. Make no mistake, they are watching us here! And we are winning the war for the hearts and minds of this people."

     "You got that right," Nigel whispered. "They don't give us their hearts, we put a neat little bullet hole in it."

     "Screw the minds," Riley snickered under his breath, “just so they hupp-to."

     Westmoreland gave a half-smile, hands again on hips in 'the pose,' feet apart. "I am proud of you men...damn proud! And your country is proud of you too. You have put your lives on the line for what you believe in. You are here when it would be so easy not to be. You are submitting to much suffering and privation, in order that others might live comfortably in our affluent society in the USA. I am proud, because I know that the communist threat is being thwarted by you brave men. I'm proud to be one of you. We are in a 'Nation-Building' campaign here!" the general said, pounding his fist. "And we are committed to stay the course. We WILL stay...right here...until we see this thing through, by damn."

     "He's one of us," O'Neal quipped. "That's good, that's real good...we can use an extra watch out on the right flank on the trail goin' outta here."

     "We can sure use Westy in my foxhole," Ottel quipped. "I can always use another hand feeding my gun ammunition."

     "See it through," Riley said, "If he believes that, then he's more naïve than a twink fresh from across the pond."

     "Balderdash!" Ottel mimicked behind his hand where the generals couldn't see. "Hurumph! We're here to help you Vietnamese, build a strong nation and resist communism. Hurumph!! Either help us build this nation, or we'll build it on top of your decaying, rotting bodies...your choice."

     But the officers didn't hear. They were already wheeling smartly with an air of pomp and circumstance, "stirring military medleys playing over a speaker on the helicopter that soon hovered at ten feet and rising. Then poof, it was gone.

     "Is he for real?" Buzo said with a crooked smile, as we watched the copter like a pinpoint in the sky until it was gone. "Come with us, Westy. You'll see things a whole lot different in a foxhole than in some posh Saigon hotel behind four rows of tripled concertina and a division of palace guards."

     "We WILL stay," Riley said, squinting his hawkish nose in mockery, then paused, looking at O’Neal. "He said 'We.' Does that mean he'll be lugging an M-16 alongside us?"

     "Don't mortgage the house on that bet," Buzo said.

     “I wouldn't think the war was so bad either if I had a chauffeured fly-by to the war every day," I nodded.

     "Jacob, you're getting so jaded," O'Neal said, his mustache quivering. "I like it!"

     "I have to agree," nodded Ottel. "What was it, only awhile back that you landed like a green twink in our midst? Now you're a changed man."

     "Bet Westmoreland's never even tasted C-rations," Riley said.

     "Maybe when the cameras were rolling," Ottel said. "He has to show the folks back home how good their sons have it."

     The wind started to blow, and the skies became dark and threatening as we heard the call “Saddle up girls,” and headed over a ridgeback. We made a "search and destroy" sweep through some tall elephant grass, and searched a couple of hooches, but they looked as if they had been abandoned and nobody was home.

     "Somebody know where we're going?” Riley groaned. “Anybody?"

     "Why, you got something else planned?" O'Neal said, curling his lips into what he must have thought was a smile.

     "Riley must have a late date," I said laughing.

     "Only 'The Shadow' knows where we're going," Ottel said with an evil-sounding laugh. "He's alive and well in the Pentagon, throwing darts at some map...round and round it goes, wherever it sticks, that's where we go."

     Second Platoon pushed ahead of Fourth Platoon at the end of a valley. Kit "Buzo" Eliason, walking point, saw a silhouette on a hill and fired his M-16 at it in the dark. The Victor Charlie saw the yellow-red heart of Buzo's muzzle flash, and his comeback round twirled Buzo around.

     Buzo had a pulse when I felt his neck, but when I picked him up in a fireman’s carry to drag him to cover I saw that the back of his head was gone. There was nothing to do but cuss at the hill, and wait while Buzo died in my arms.