We were issued clean fatigues at LZ Betty, recycling our dirty ones to a laundry down at the beach beside the South China Sea. We took a quick dip in the beautiful sea, though the water was dirty, filmy and floating with soap suds from the laundry, and oil slicks from two ships moored just off shore. We ignored all that, playing like boys at summer camp for an hour. For that hour the war was very far away.
Outside the perimeter barbed wire near the beach area, several Phan Thiet villagers had set up lean-tos with Army surplus poncho liners and were selling Cokes and candy bars to the GI's. Cutt was already there. He lofted a Coke as Georgia and I walked up. The big Texan had stripped off his shirt to show a chest bronzed by the sun, and some young Vietnamese girls had teasingly lifted a conical straw hat over the wire to him, chattering and laughing nearby as he put it on.
"He's showing off for Tien," Georgia said, nodding toward a Vietnamese lovely handing a Coke through the barb wire concertina wire rolls to a GI, who passed Vietnamese piasters back in exchange. She was the prettiest thing I could remember seeing in a lifetime.
I had the picture of Brenda still in my wallet, but it was fading, and so were the memories. It was hard to call up her face in my mind anymore. It had been so long, and so much had happened. I was a different man now, and wondered, was she different too? I could hardly remember the special way her lilting voice sounded. I needed her so much -- needed her touch. She was so far away, so far. And Tien was so near.
Tien had dark, raven-black hair that shone lustrously in the afternoon sun hanging over the South China Sea. She laughed with the GI's as she handed them the Cokes, teasing and bantering with good English, tossing her head coyly, aware of the admiring glances from the Americans clustering around, but not displeased by the attention. Her shapely body was adorned in the customary white jacket and trousers of the unattached Vietnamese. Her booth was the most popular one on the beach, as her toothless grandfather clucking in appreciation of the attention, sat back and counted the piasters.
"Man," Georgia drooled and slapped my back, "she's a whole lot better than looking at you tunnel rats' mugs all day, and a whole lot better than scratching off the sand fleas back at the bunker."
"Tien's always here," I said. "She's as good as a leave without leaving the LZ."
Georgia looked unconvinced. "Almost...but you can barely touch her fingertips through the two yards of concertina-rolled barbed wire separating her side from ours...just enough to get the Cokes and pass the piasters. What good is that?"
"In some ways it's better than a leave, better than the boom-boom houses. It’s real love, if you close your eyes and forget the barbed wire between you...if you just let your imagination take you to wonderful places in your dreams."
Georgia flashed a skeptical look.
"Georgia, Tien is sometimes a soldier's only contact with a more civilized life that awaits him in the land of the big PX, hovering low on the horizon. Hers is a love that still dwells in his memory from before this barbaric war yanked us by the roots out of our comfortable life in 'the world.' Here you have to use your imagination to bring back the better times...remind you of the sweet times when the boys gathered in the local soda shop, and the most dangerous thing in life was the drag races on Saturday night. Tien is like a breath of that life."
"Don't know I fancy your meaning," Georgia said. "She provides an itch I can’t scratch, that's all. You can keep your dreams of a civilized world. I've got a girl waiting for me back home, but I'd a whole lot rather be on Tien's side of the wire right now."
"Georgia, an hour at the Vietnamese concessions on the beach can almost seem like home if you can forget...and imagine."
"Imagine...I'd have to imagine real hard to get what I want."
"Maybe it's not as good as the real love waiting for you back home, but it helps."
"It'd have to do more than help to make me feel better. Only reminds me of what I'm missing," Georgia said.
"The Cokes and candy bars Tien sells in her booth were originally meant to come through the Army mess," Cutt said as we joined him, "but some scrounger, some supply sergeant somewhere, made a few piasters on the side by detouring them to the black market, where Vietnamese hawkers sell the GI's Cokes back to the GI's."
"That's the way it is in this man's Vietnam," I snickered. “It’s the endless circle of life.”
Cutt smiled at Tien. "That's the way it is in the Army. Regardless, we still get them one way or the other, but I kind'a like getting them her way. Cokes Tien gives me just taste better somehow."
Georgia muttered, "You overgrown Texan! I'd still like to get it my way...back home!" His eyes went hard and marbled, as he was gone from us for a moment.
"Besides, seeing Tien gives me a chance to talk to the villagers," Cutt said, stretching his hand with money through the barbed wire, and receiving another Coke and a coquettish smile from Tien. Their hands lingered with the touch, holding on for a moment, as they traded the money for the Coke.
"Yeah sure," Oh, I seee, Georgia smiled knowingly, "you want to talk to the villagers...especially the pretty villagers. Uh huh…yeah, sure.”
"But I think it's more than talk you got on your mind," I laughed.
“At the very least,” Georgia agreed.
"C'mon guys, Tien's not like that," Cutt protested.
“Might as well be a mile though," I said, looking at the wire keeping them apart.
"Probably," Georgia agreed.
“You guys, c’mon!” Cutt acted mortified. "Tien's a nice girl. She's no boom-boom girl. She's more like the one you might think of taking home."
"Yeah, sure thing Cutt," I said.
“I can see it,” Georgia snickered. “Really…I can! Your parents will be real proud too, when you come waltzing through that front door with the Vietnamese girl that sold you Cokes through the concertina wire."
"Two more Cokes for my pards," Cutt said, smiling at Tien, ignoring the tittering behind him.
As Tien handed the Cokes through the barbed wire, a middle-aged Vietnamese walked up. Cutt introduced us, "This is Hyang Bin Thien, the village chief of Phan Thiet, Tien's father." Cutt whispered to us aside, "I went to his house a couple of times in Phan Thiet when I was on leave."
“A couple of times,” I said. “How did you swing that?”
"Well Top and I worked something out...and what am I going to do with extra piasters anyway?” he laughed. “I was hoping to see Tien, but she wasn't home. He offered me tea, and we had a good talk. He's a prime target of Vietcong terrorists...showed me where he'd been wounded three times.”
"Sure they weren't M-16 wounds?" Georgia sneered. “You know, you never can tell who’s friend, and who’s...”
"Georgia's right. You can't believe everything anybody tells you...specially the Vietnamese," I suggested.
"The gooks," Georgia nodded in the direction of the lean-tos, "Over seventy-five percent of them here in the highlands are VC sympathizers. They smile at whoever's near, glad to sell you a Coke and take your money...but don't trust anybody. The first chance they get, you ever turn your back on them, you'll feel what they really think of you shooting through your back."
"You can't trust anybody in Phan Thiet," I declared. "That's why they give us guns."
Cutt looked offended. "Thien is a patriot of a young nation struggling for democracy and freedom against the tyranny, oppression, and intimidation of those who would take power, liking nothing better than to be overseers of a communist satellite."
I traded Georgia one of those "He's got it bad" looks. "Thien tell you that, or is that something you read in the 'Stars and Stripes?' "
"Sounds like back-home Army PR bullshit," Georgia nodded. "Careful you don't buy a truckload of snake oil...I hear it’s goin’ cheap."
"You in the market?" I grinned, putting my arm around Cutt's shoulders, and doing a Groucho Marx interpretation with an imaginary cigar. "I've got some prime waterfront property to sell you in the south Florida swamps."
"Yeah, ten foot deep on the wet side of the waterfront," Georgia cackled, as we broke into a bout of shadow boxing with each other.
"Come on guys, give me a break," Cutt said. "Thien told me the story, but I heard it from others too."
"Don't doubt that," Georgia snickered.
Cutt looked disgusted that we weren't buying in. "Hyang Bin Thien and his family have been forced to move from Bao Loc to the comparative security here, because of several assassination attempts from terrorists targeting him."
"Assassination attempts?" Georgia said.
"Maybe he just moved here because the Cokes sell better here. You think of that?"
"Come on, give the guy a break," Cutt implored. "I know last November the bus Thien and his three daughters were riding near Phan Rang was stopped by a band of Vietcong. A grenade was tossed into the bus...everyone knew it was aimed at Thien. The blast killed three civilians and wounded Thien and his daughters. Tien's elder sister, Le, still bears shrapnel scars on her legs...I saw them."
"I’ll just bet you did,” Georgia grinned. “But you say, ‘Everybody knew it.’ What was there, a poll or something?"
"Probably just his imagination," I said. "The VC's at the bottom of a lot of random acts of violence."
Cutt was getting just a little heated. "Oh yeah, smart guys, Nguyo Mas is the Vietcong intelligence chief in the area, but once he was a very close friend of Hyang Bin Thien. In '65 Thien sided with the government on several issues while Mas joined the VC forces. Thien has only seen him one time since...outside the bus a second before the grenade went off."
Cutt looked over at Tien again, and I could see the stars in his eyes. "Though faced with constant danger, her father, Hyang Bin Thien faces his fears and works to bring about a stable form of government that will better enable his people to seek life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Georgia nodded. "I think somebody's been out in the sun too long, and now he's quoting from the Declaration of Independence."
"Or the Constitution,” I said. “Besides, there's no sun, Georgia. I think it’s the monsoons have waterlogged his brain, made him all mushy, like squash."
"Hell, Fredericks, he's been in Vietnam too long...or maybe not long enough to know a line when he hears one."
"Come on guys, don't be so cynical. Hyang Bin Thien is in the mold of men like Patrick Henry and Nathan Hale." Cutt's rage had passed and his voice took on more of a pleading quality. "Thien's efforts in the growing stages of the democracy are bringing peace and prosperity, despite the possible sacrifice of his own life."
"That's a might strong, Cutt," I said. "Patriots...that'll take some digesting. Don't see anybody around here like that."
"All I see around here are a bunch of gooks with their hands in my pocket," Georgia said as he reached through the fence to get another black market Coke, backing off when he saw Cutt's face go hard. "But some of them are mighty pretty."
"You must be pretty smitten with the girl," I said. "Let's see if I understand you, Cutt. Patriots seeking peace and prosperity...that what you call this? If they're so peaceful and prosperous, that must mean we can go home."
"Not hardly, Jacob," Cutt laughed. "You can't go home till the boss man says you can go home. Seriously though, there's still a lot to do here. Take Hyang Bin Thien, his actions speak clearly, 'Give me liberty or give me death.' Thien constantly is an example to other Vietnamese leaders who also bravely stand up for their beliefs in a democratic way of life."
"Don't tell me, where is he?" Georgia asked.
"Where’s who?" Cutt asked, looking bewildered.
"The general you're impressing with that patriotism stuff."
"Aw, c’mon guys, patriots like Thien let the VC know their threats of assassination, deceit, and other dirty tricks meant to intimidate and prevent others from joining won't work. This area is the breadbasket that supplies the bulk of the food for Vietnam. If the VC can create enough chaos here, he will get a toehold on Vietnam's villages and provinces, because the hand that controls the breadbasket controls the stomach, and thus the heart of a nation. As long as brave men like Hyang Bin Thien and hundreds like him accept the reins of leadership in Vietnam, the VC will find themselves in the red as these patriots rally support and confidence of the people to the government of Vietnam."
"Sounds like you been reading the leaflets littering the jungle," I said.
"Communist Reds in the red...I like that," Georgia sniggered.
"Now don't get so upset, Cutt," I said as I reached through the wire with some piasters and got another Coke from the ever-smiling Tien, and handed it to him. "We're just yanking your chain, Cutt. I think you need someone like Tien...you know, to fill the gap in your life between Vietnam and when you get home. It’s like a sonnet I had to memorize of William Shakespeare’s, “This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong, To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”
“Well, I do love her! So what do you think about that?”
“Don't take it personal, Cutt,” I said. “But if Hyang Bin Thien is so symbolic as a role model for his people to rally them to the democratic way; if he's a patriot that ranks up there with Patrick Henry and Nathan Hale...what's his family doing selling black market Cokes and candy bars?"
Georgia nodded agreeably, "Jacob's got a point. If he's an example, we're in trouble. Too many Vietnamese leaders are dealing in the black market, giving favors for support. They genuflect to both sides, smiling at whoever's nearest at the time, talking out of both sides of their mouth, bootlicking and buying votes. There’s just too much of that," Georgia said as he sipped his Coke. "Too many politicians from both sides are getting rich off this war."
When I reached through the wire again it was Thien who handed the Coke to me, and put up his palm when I tried to give him money. "On the house, GI. I hear what you say. You right! We use black market to make profit from war, what else we do?"
Tien was sitting back in the shade of the poncho liner tending to her nails, but her dark eyes were intent on her father -- intent on me. I was looking at him, but somehow I kept seeing her too.
"Forgive bad English, GI. I speak mostly French. All farms crumbled beneath wheels of war. Crops wither, die in fields. There no one tend them. Bombs, napalm, defoliants ruin much farmland for years, kill farm animals. There mines everywhere. Much misery! Too much dying! What we harvest taken by VC tax collector, and government tax collector. Industry, manufacture, all standstill. Please, not judge wanting stay alive. You Americans have saying, 'We do what we must do.' "
I heard Georgia and Cutt laughing behind me, ignorant to the serious conversation that was going on at the wire.
"Just motor in from Ham Tan...there young sixteen-year-old girl beaten to death in own village...while parents watch. Vietcong make usual noise with sixteen-year-old girl, but Vietnamese Army brigade sleeping near, not hear...or choose not hear. They often afraid come out into night. Vietcong control night in land. That girl, she most enthusiastic member of revolutionary development team VC target for lesson."
"Month ago at parents meeting Tung Nghia school, meeting to figure how keep teachers from getting kidnapped, killed by Vietcong. They short of teachers there. They much bothered by constant threat. Young men not volunteer teaching position in region. Government education representative told people in desperation, unless village people protect teachers, schools get no replacement teachers."
The village chief asked in bewilderment, 'We have no arms. Guerrillas kill us. What we do?' What you do, young American friend? Call police?"
"There few police, young soldier. Hard even tell which side people support. No Army can protect all teacher, hamlet, farmer co-operative, labor union official. Alla time candidate public office, youth association leaders kidnapped...tortured...killed by Vietcong terrorist today, tonight, for hundred tomorrows. Our days filled with despair. Our dark-eyed night is deathbed without calm rest. There thousand eyes watching. They always watch...some with us, some hate us. You have Army around you. You have artillery...air support. We have nothing but honor, belief. There two wars in Vietnam, one on battlefield...one comes from Vietnam people by passive resistance."
I couldn't speak. Thien turned to take some cash from a box, and I thought of this frustrating war without a front. We Americans could see no objective to drive for except killing VC. That was the only way of telling who was winning, which side killed the most of the other guys. The side which bagged the biggest body count won. But something wasn't right in the figures. Though "Stars and Stripes" was always reporting five or ten VC killed to every "Friendly," there were always more VC left to fill the vacancies. There seemed to be no shortage of them coming at us. We saw men do their tour, die or become casualties in skirmishes here or there without gaining any ground, get sent home in body bags or on a stretcher, replaced by a new cycle of twinks in a seemingly never-ending cycle. But VC seemed ever-present in the same places they had been before. There didn't seem to be any shortage of VC replacements. Our government didn't seem to want to win, which everybody I talked to in the infantry felt we could do in a week, maybe two, if the powers that be in Washington really wanted to. This hurt our pride, until it was finally beat down into nothing, leaving only the will to survive, and watch your buddy’s back, to get back to "the world." That was all there was left.
The VC were winning the waiting game. They seemed willing to wait us out, to win by attrition. That’s why the American combat veteran was becoming disillusioned with the war, disillusioned with our leaders' "No Win" policy, tasting blood and seeing buddies drop around us, all the time not knowing why. We came to resent authority. We read about South Vietnamese leaders and their cons, their corruption, their black marketeering, their political machines, and sometimes we wondered why we were sent to fight and die for them.
The VC seemed to know if they could just hold on long enough, we Americans would get tired, pack up and go home. They could see and read about the unrest back in America, and they knew it was just a waiting game. Popular Americans like Jane Fonda, were even given public relations tours to see honest and good working peoples of Hanoi... and this gave NVA soldiers in the field strength, knowing that America and Americans were turning their backs on the war, capitulating by resisting the war. In all wars before, you were always fighting for something that had meaning. You had a purpose; you had an objective; you were defending something valuable. Here, land you died for today would be abandoned tomorrow. Here, the VC had staying power, and we didn't, because we weren't allowed to, and the veteran GI's became bitter for fighting a war without a cause.
"Thien," I finally said, "we are fighting and dying in your land, and we don't know you. We came here to fight for your freedoms, yet no longer know who we can trust among you. We're in a bubble, walking through the boonies of your land, sweating, dying, killing, but there is no feeling of what we are fighting and dying for. Most of us don't see the real Vietnam, except from a biased, colored view, seeing only the bad and corrupt side of your countrymen. We never see the real Vietnam but we are surrounded by a hundred of our fellows. We fight, die, and go home, and still most of us don't know why we are here. We only know that our country called, and we didn't shrink from that duty; but duty gets thin after awhile, and we have to know why. We need more of a reason, and we aren't getting any."
The elder Vietnamese thought a moment before answering. "There much corruption here, American friend, on all side. All not perfume and roses. There many posing as supporters of government, while in truth support Hanoi rule. They smile when watched, but take off masks, cursing you when you past. They shoot at American back, or try to kill when with family on simple bus ride. They put booby traps in path to wound. VC much bad...infiltrate South Vietnamese Army, seek political appointments. Many leaders say stand for good of people, but only interested in getting goods for selves. There so few honest men. It very hard know who trust."
I was still thinking of Tien and her father two days later when we were airlifted to LZ Virginia and sent on patrol. I could feel her haunting eyes in my soul. Her father’s words still echoed in my ears as we passed through a break in the concertina wire perimeter. The beautiful-awful clicking of metal against metal sounded as sixty bolts were pulled back, and sixty rounds were chambered, locked and loaded, as my grunt platoon prepared to walk into the killing zone.
Out there, nobody spoke. It was as if the whole forest stopped to watch us pass, pausing in eerie silence to watch and wait for the killing moment. I had heard the sound of silence a thousand times, even heard it in my sleep. It haunted me. I longed for the day when I would no longer hear its seductively alarming sound filling my brain. Still, hearing it again sent cold shivers up my spine, every time. It was because of what the sound meant, the stark reality of awesome fire-power proclaiming loudly, "We're the First Cav...we're bad. You can run, but you can't hide." It was the sound of war that reminded us of death’s promise. Each time we went out I knew somebody could cash out today. The only question was, "Would it be Charlie who died? Would it be one of my buddies...or me?" That's a hard thought to live with, but it got easier when veterans, for sanity’s sake, learned to store it at the back of their head, and just didn't think of it anymore.
I subconsciously looked over for Ottel as we moved as one, but my eyes got hollow and empty in silent thought...realizing he wasn’t there. I saw Cutt walking in his place, carrying the M-60 machine-gun in silence enforced by the spacing, silence as each man scoured the tree line for the VC bullet with his name on it. We rarely really looked at each other as we passed through the concertina wire, seldom wondering if it would be Cutt, or Autrey, or Pathway...or me, who would not return. We looked for other things...things out of place.
These feelings go deep. Vietnam planted them deep. Every waking hour brought thoughts of war, of death, of killing. Though we tried to ignore it, it was always there, lurking on the border of subconscious, hiding in the shadows of my mind. Every night my dreams filled with the specter. Every night in dreams I die a horrible death, or kill a VC. Looking into his sightless eyes, I am standing there crying, with his blood on my hands...asking why? But there was never an answer.
Each time I went on patrol I thought of things like this. I tried to think of other things, my buddies, cold Coke, swimming in the South China Sea, Tien...funny how her image replaced Brenda, but always my thoughts returned to the root of life, or death. I often wondered as I walked, fighting off the weariness and the boredom, how I would shed thoughts of killing and dying when I returned home. Would it be easy to wash the blood from killing hands? It's not easy to stop thinking of something that's been so much a part of you for so long...but I knew I would have to, somehow...unless I was dead.
Lieutenant Riddick had briefed us before the patrol at a rallying point bunker on the perimeter, a sandbag-roofed foxhole. "Second and Third Platoons have been ordered to patrol fifteen klicks to the west mountains, where Charlie has been actively mortaring an allied unit, and check it out. I'm in command,” he smiled. “If Charlie exfiltrates, and we don't find anything, we return tomorrow within two klicks of Virginia to set up a goat...then the next day we'll be home, happy in our cozy beds with the soft dirt floors and sandbag canopies."
We filed into the tree line ten feet apart, but when we came to the open, a couple of klicks on the other side, we entered into an area of banana palms. We deployed into three columns, twenty-five meters apart, so no one round, or booby trap, would claim more than one of us. Again, this separation left us too far apart to talk, so we were each in our own world, alone with our own thoughts, always intently searching the tree line for VC snipers, probing the ground ahead with our eyes for booby traps, or for men waiting in hiding to kill us. Looking meant life. If you didn't learn to be intense in the search in Charlie country, learning to see everything, you didn't last long, period.
The center command group had Pathway at point, Cutt and his M-60 machine gun, Gutcheck, Sergeant Morgan, the point squad leader monitoring his compass to guide the patrol, a soldier named Owens with an M-79 grenade launcher, Autrey, and Georgia. At the center of the column walked Lieutenant Riddick, and his radioman, four men from the weapons squad mortar men, and six riflemen to watch our six...the back door.
I walked point on the right flank in Sergeant Mulenburg's squad, guiding on a horizontal line guided by Sergeant Morgan, a couple of riflemen and his machine gunner. On the left flank, Sergeant Clark had assumed leadership of the Third Platoon, following his pointman, riflemen and machine gunner.
Five klicks out we ran into sniper fire coming from just ahead of the right flank. It was coming at me, whistling around my ears, pocking the dirt at my feet. The fire was meant for anybody, but I happened to be in a direct line...lucky me! We all hit the dirt and searched the trees for telltale signs of movement, looking for flashes of the rifle discharge. It's scary at first when you're a twink knowing someone is trying to kill you, then you get mad, then after you've been over here awhile you lose all feeling except basic survival. It was nothing!
After raking the area with machine gun fire and numerous M-16 volleys, and lobbing a handful of M-79 grenades to the point of fire, to where the sniper fire came from, Riddick spread his arms. We spread into a search and destroy assault position, and moved on line onto the sniper position through a stand of elephant "eye-high" grasses, searching a thorny bamboo thicket, and assaulting, sprinting, between the palm trees, each runner covered by the man behind him. We overran the sniper’s position, but Charlie was long gone. He'd probably fired a few rounds then dee-dee-mau'd. There were only bombed-out hooches. I looked at them vacantly, once they had been cleared, briefly wondering what stories they could tell. Then we again assumed our marching columns.
We patrolled through acres of waist-high weeds, stepping over the punji stakes hidden in the grasses that would tear a bloody hole in your leg, sweating it out because we knew a whole company of VC could be kneeling only feet away, unseen and hidden in the tall grasses. They could take out half the patrol in the first barrage before we could even return fire.
"What a day for a walk in the park," Autrey murmured.
"Some park," Pathway growled.
"Heads up, girls," Sergeant Mulenburg warned. "Pay attention. Keep your eyes open. Don't be lettin' one round get ya all."
A flight of twenty Huey’s flew against a surreal blue sky like a swarm of gnats, noses down, flying someone somewhere. They were escorted by Huey gunships bristling with an armada of rocket clusters that it spit out at a hot LZ like a Gatling gun. I suddenly wished we were high above the rice paddies in those choppers. Charlie’s guns couldn't reach us there. That’s when all Hell hit.
Pathway's shotgun blast woke us up as he rounded a corner and saw twenty VC coming at him down the trail. He fired just before he hit cover, rolling into some elephant grass, a split second before the VC's automatic weapons drummed on my ears with their staccato rhythms.
Cutt hit the dirt and scrambled down in a dry riverbank for cover, spraying bursts of machine-gun fire at the chattering Charlies firing back at him. His helmet had been knocked off by a VC round. The very last thing I remember seeing, while he was still alive, was his blonde hair matted and wet, his head bobbing like a tetherball on the end of a rope, as round after round rippled through him.
A VC bullet crashed through the undergrowth and cut down Autrey as he attempted to drop into the riverbank to reach Cutt, and I shot the Charlie as I followed him.
It was over as quickly as it had begun. Five VC lay dead in the trail, the rest vanished into the grasses. Cutt lay dead in the riverbed, and Autrey's leg was shattered. Half the patrol formed a defensive perimeter; the other half spread out and assaulted the now silent VC position, but returned moments later with negative contact, while the medic rigged stretchers for Cutt and Autrey. Lieutenant Riddick rifled the Charlie’s pockets for documents.
I couldn't look at Cutt, already entombed in a body bag. I wondered where they got it. Who carried the body bags? And how many did they carry with them? Was it just one or two on a patrol like this, or more just in case? It was too painful to think of Cutt any more. I couldn’t afford it. I looked the other way.
I felt a hard tear at my heart. I don’t think I can stand this anymore. I felt a hundred hating eyes staring at me, aiming their rifles, ready to cut me down. I could feel myself losing it, my grip on reality boiling in my head, telling me no sane man would be out here. “It don’t mean nuthin’,” I said quietly. “It don’t mean nuthin’.” I had to tell myself that, and keep telling myself that…a grunts escape mechanism to keep him going when all about him is impossible. When he can’t go on because he’s seen more than he can possibly stand to see and still go on. But you’ve got to go on! You’ve got to! You’ve got to put down that fight or flight response when everything in your being is yelling at you at the top of their lungs, “Get the hell out of here!”
So, “It don’t mean nuthin’.”
I was holding Autrey's head, and watching the bushes for Charlies, when Doc Hazlett sprinted over and started putting a splint on his leg where the bullet had entered sideways, shattering the bone. It was one of those bullets that leave a small entrance hole, but are purposefully designed to twist and turn and tear on impact, so that the exit wound is twice the size of your fist.
"He gonna be okay Doc?" I asked.
"If I can get this bleeding stopped he will," he grimaced, as he pulled the tape tighter around the splints. "Probably just bought a one-way ticket back to "the world." ...might lose the leg."
A shriek came out of Autrey as he came conscious. "Where am I? Where am I? Oh God, it hurts. It hurts so bad."
"He's probably half-under, blinded by the shock and the pain," said Hazlett as he readied a hypodermic, talking soothingly to Autrey. "I'll just give him some morphine for the pain."
"God, I've never felt more pain in my life...Doc, where am I? What happened? Cutt...is Cutt all right?"
"Yes, he's fine," Doc lied. "He's just resting."
"Doc, I can see the VC supply depot burning...exploding, Doc ... Doc, did we get'm?"
"Yeah, we got'm Autrey," Doc said. "Just settle down now and try to keep quiet." His hands were covered with blood as he grabbed my hand and showed me where to apply pressure.
"I could see them burning all night, Doc. How many were there? Must have been at least two companies?"
Hazlett turned to me. "He's hallucinating, maybe something he's seen in the past...or dreamed about. Just go along with him."
"Coming at us from two directions...God, kill'm, kill'm, Oh God, kill'm! Oh it hurts. It hurts so bad, Doc?"
"I'm here, Autrey," Doc said, as he taped the leg to stop the bleeding.
"Doc, 'A' Company, two hundred and ten men...fifty percent annihilated. Doc, we don't have enough ammo, they keep coming. Oh Doc," he began to cry, sobbing and wailing. "Oh Doc, we've got to get reinforcements...we need more men, more ammo, Doc, will you tell 'em?"
My lips were hard and my eyes were dry. It was hard to stay still. I wanted so much to scramble, screaming into that brush to kill those damned Charlies...anyone! But there was something more. Something I was ashamed of. There was also a guilt in me I couldn't quite understand. A guilt, despite all I could do to put it down. I felt enormous guilt because I was glad it wasn't me there dying. And I didn't understand why...why it wasn't me?
When Autrey was stabilized, Doc Hazlett had gone over into the clearing to pop a green smoke to signal in the dustoff medevacs.
"Doc, we got into more trouble than we could handle this time, eh, Doc. Oh it hurts. What happened? Doc? Who else is there?"
"I'm here Autrey," I said. "Everything's gonna be okay. You just won the lottery Autrey, a Purple Heart and a ticket home. Hear that, you're going home, boy."
"I'm going home to ‘the world?’ A Purple Heart. My mother'll be so proud...but I'm no hero, Jacob. Tell them I'm no damned hero. Tell me about it...the Purple Heart...what's it like?"
"Don't know what to say," I shrugged. "It's purple, with a picture of George Washington..."
"George Washington...He was a bad mothah, Jacob."
"It's given to soldiers wounded in hostile action."
The thought of a cold, rainy day graduating from Advanced Infantry Training then imposed itself on my senses. Purple Hearts were awarded to two dudes who'd died in Vietnam, as I stood in the rain, not comprehending what it meant...not comprehending at all.
"Oh God, I'm dead," Autrey sobbed and wailed again.
"You're not dead, Autrey. You're not dead...you're gonna be all right."
"Am I dead, Jacob? Am I dead? Please Jacob, tell me if I'm dead."
"You're not dead, Autrey. You're gonna be all right."
"I don't wanna go back to 'the world,' Jacob. They won't like me when I get back. My mother won't like me. I'm scared as shit."
"She'll be glad to see you."
"She won't understand."
"You're her son. She'll understand!"
"She don't know I'm a killer...that I've killed. Christ, ev'ryones done that...but I'm a killer, in my heart. It's the only thing I know how to do good."
"You'll be all right, Autrey, just don't worry."
“Am I too hard, Jacob? She won’t like me bein’ too hard. In her letters she tol’ me her friends don't even like hearing about the war. She told me if I talk about it she won't write. Says my brother's friends are protesting the war. My brother's friends tell him his brother is a 'baby killer.' She writes stuff like that to me. It's like she can't handle thoughts of me dying, Jacob. She's convinced herself that I'm like off to college, or on a foreign vacation, or somethin’. Maybe it would be better for us all if I die. Oh God, it hurts!"
"Don't talk like that, Autrey. You're going to make it. You're one of the lucky ones."
"Jacob, I can't feel anything, is my leg still there? I don't wanna die, Jacob, please don't let me die. Is my leg all right, tell me Jacob."
"It's still there, Autrey. You're gonna be all right."
"I don't wanna die in no damned jungle. Don't let me die in no damned jungle, God."
When the choppers picked up Autrey and Cutt, I watched the blue sky for a long time after they were long gone, and I wondered. I was following them home. I imagined what it would be like in “the world” -- it would be a different world than the one I left behind, that’s for sure.
"Saddle up girls," Mulenburg's voice wafted over the elephant grass, and I sighed, knowing it was time to get back to the war. Hell yes, it was time!