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A Year To Kill9564 Reads  Printer-friendly page

VietnamFrom an altitude of thirty thousand feet, it's hard to determine where the blue of the Pacific meets the blue of the sky. Consequently, my sense of direction had diminished greatly since leaving the military base at Oakland, more than twenty hours earlier. Not that I really cared which direction I was traveling, I knew the destination well enough, but the disorientation only added to the sick feeling in my gut.
It seemed the longer we were in the air, the more pale and silent the nearly three hundred GI's on their way to Vietnam became, as if a common virus had infected us simultaneously. No doubt, their thoughts, the real source of that sick feeling, were the same as mine. Would I ever see my wife, my parents, my home again? Would I come back with both arms and legs, or in a wheelchair, or worse, in a box? Even conversations with the stewardesses were infrequent and short as we neared our destination. Not like when we first departed. Everyone firing his best lines as if he was on his way to some tropical paradise, for the hottest date of his life. In several ways, I likened the trip to an all night date between the three of them and three hundred of us. Strange, how we had gotten to know each other so well, in so short a time. They learned quickly whom to avoid in the aisle, when not to bend over and to turn off the smile at the appropriate time. We just as quickly learned their tolerance levels for ribald conversation and pushed our fantasies just short of their limits, when one of them paused for a few moments to talk. While most of us had to content ourselves by undressing them with our eyes, as they walked down the aisle, a couple of the men did manage to spend some time in the aft compartment. That was I suppose, the girls' sleeping quarters. Most likely, any man on board would have given a month's pay to spend time in that compartment with any of the three, at the beginning of the trip. Now, the lack of interest indicated they were starting to look like "the morning after," to most of the men. Their infatuation with us had come to an end also. Wrinkled uniforms, unshaved faces and the prevalent odor of men who had not showered recently, had greatly reduced our collective sex appeal. My thoughts turned to the memory of Annie, my wife, waving to me from the terminal window. I recalled how I just wanted to get on the plane and go when I left Tulsa for Oakland, somehow thinking that the sooner I started, the sooner it would be finished. I let my own anger, fears and frustrations cause me to be short with her, as if it were her fault I had to leave. I have to realize she is just as afraid for our future as I am and more, she is going to have our baby while I am gone. How I wished I could hold her and tell her how much I love her. Raw emotions had been full time partners of mine since the day I received my greeting from the president, which effectively shattered my world. We had a mortgage, car payments and assorted other bills that I had no idea how we could pay on a soldier's salary. Why me? I thought. I had a good job as an estimator and project manager for a large mechanical contractor. Why not take those guys who are shown on television, burning draft cards and demonstrating on campus? They're a worthless lot anyway. They should be here and guys like me who are willing to work to accomplish something should be home. Who am I kidding? Uncle Sam does not want guys like them to defend our country. We probably would not have a country if we had to depend on their kind. I remembered thinking when drafted, I don't like it but I'll do my duty and when it's over I can hold my head up and be proud of our flag and myself. When I get home, I thought, I'll kick a lung out of any SOB I catch burning or spitting on our flag. If I get home! What chance does a PFC in an infantry unit have? They told us in training that our chances of being killed in a car wreck at home were greater than the chances of being killed in Vietnam. That may be, but cars do not shoot bullets or throw grenades, so don't tell me where I am going, beats driving. Maybe I should not have been so quick to mouth off to my OCS review board, but when the colonel asked me if I would take a commission as an Infantry Lieutenant, I could not help it. He knew I had applied for the Engineers and it just seemed like another in a long list of disappointments, in the army. When I responded that I would rather go to Vietnam as an enlisted man than as an infantry officer, he did everything he could to accommodate me. So, here you are smart mouth, I reasoned. A straight-legged infantryman on his way to combat. Oh well! I think privates live longer than officers, at least I hope so. The screech of rubber hitting the runway and the sudden jolt of contact, as the plane touched down, forced my attention back to the present. The apprehension among the troops that was so obvious a short time earlier, turned into cat-like curiosity as the plane rolled down the runway toward the terminal. Necks craned and men pulled against the restraining force of the seat belts, as they jockeyed for a vantage point to look out a window. Since I was in a window seat, I could see other planes, buildings and an assortment of military equipment as we rode by. Bien Hoa does not appear different from any other military base, I thought. I will just be glad to get off this plane, to stretch my legs and find a rest room. A portable ramp was pulled up to the plane and as the door was opened, a large group of cheering soldiers came running out of a building toward us. "Short," was the first cry I heard when I stepped out of the plane. "We're going home" and other remarks like, "so long sucker" and "have a nice war" were shouted from the crowd of jubilant GI's, impatiently waiting to board the plane and head for the States. Their jeers made it seem as if I were the personal replacement each of them had been waiting for, so he could go home and forget Vietnam. As I reached the bottom of the steps and moved into the chaotic mass of humanity, I heard a voice from the crowd shout, "Give me your wife's phone number and I'll call her when I get home, to let her know you made it." You sorry bastard, I mumbled to myself. Suddenly, the sky opened up with a monsoon rain. Even the heavens are against me, I thought, as I ran for the terminal building. At least no one could see the tears running down my cheeks in the rain. I needed that restroom badly. I really felt sick to my stomach. The ride from Bien Hoa to Long Bien on a military bus did nothing to ease the tension and stress I was feeling. Along the way, children made obscene gestures and shouted what I supposed were profanities in a mostly unintelligible dialect. Among the phrases I could understand were, "Go home Joe!" And "Charlie get you!" I thought we were here to help them win their war. Don't they realize we are on their side? The sound of an occasional object hitting the side of the bus made me want to close my window, but the heat and humidity were stifling and I decided to take my chances rather, than suffocate. I was beginning to realize that life for the next year would involve a series of calculated risks, compromises, and make do's, made bearable only by the knowledge that if I could last for a year, I could go home. Home never seemed farther away than it did then. The callous reception we received when we landed and the obvious contempt shown by the people on the streets, made me realize it was going to be a long year. Although it had only been ten days since I left Tulsa, it seemed like ten years, partly, because I had not received any mail. Throughout my training in the States, I learned to really look forward to mail call. Now, the thought that it would probably be close to a month before I would get my first letter was really working on my mind. I longed for the opportunity to communicate with my wife, to hold her, caress her, make love to her, even if it was imaginatively, through the mail. I did not know any of the men on the bus. All the guys with whom I had gone through training had shipped out long before me since I was an OCS candidate. I sure needed someone to talk to, and judging from the looks on their faces the other men felt alone and vulnerable, as I did. I suppose that's why we did not talk to each other. It's interesting how a person can sometimes feel alone in a crowd. When we reached Long Bien, the in-country processing was done in typical army fashion-Hurry up and wait! The lines seemed endless as we were issued clothing, briefed on what to expect when we shipped to our units, and assigned temporary sleeping quarters. Always, we had to contend with hecklers who were quick to let us know they were processing through to go home. They seemed ever able to incite feelings of homesickness, jealousy, and even hatred with their incessant crowing. To my addled brain it all seemed like a beehive of mindless activity, but finally it was finished. With what seemed a mountain of gear and paperwork we were led to the barracks and allowed to lie down for some much needed rest. The long trip and stress of the situation had exhausted me to the point where I no longer cared what happened and I dropped off to sleep. I woke to the recorded sound of reveille being played over a loud speaker system. Not fully aware of my whereabouts, I quickly sat up to survey my situation, only to find nothing had changed. I was still in Vietnam. I dug through my duffel bag to find and put on one of the new jungle uniforms before heading out the door to follow the crowd to what I hoped was the mess hall. It had been so long since I had eaten that not even the stench that permeated the air since I landed in this God-forsaken place could take the edge off my hunger. That smell, somewhere between raw sewage and burning rubber, coupled with fatigue and my mental state had effectively destroyed my desire to eat, the night before. However, this morning, because I was so hungry, the lines I came to abhor since being inducted, were not a deterrent to eating, as they had sometimes been in the States. What a surprise it was when I finally worked my way through the serving line and received my food. Practically everything served was reconstituted from powders or some other dried state. The water used to mix things tasted like quinine because of the additives to kill malaria or other diseases and the cooking was on motor fuel-fired stoves and ovens. Together, the processes of reconstituting and cooking gave everything a very bitter, fuel-smoked taste. I had been told by one of my sergeants in the States to take along Kool-aid to put in the water because it was so bitter. That was good advice. I wish I had followed it. When I get to my unit and have an address, I thought, Annie will send me a "care package" (she may never know how much I came to depend on those packages). In the meantime, I would tough it out. I quickly forced down a few bites of the disgusting fare and promised myself a candy bar later, if I could find one. Though the sun was just coming up when I walked back to the muddy road, all functions of the post were in full operation, as if unabated through the night. As I slogged through the mud toward the area where I was to report after breakfast, I curiously noticed the Vietnamese people working along the way. Most of them were dressed in black and wore a cone-shaped straw hat. The women were working alongside the men with no apparent distinction between the sexes as they filled sand bags, shoveled, or did other manual labor. The Vietnamese are small people and it took three or four of them to perform an operation that would require one GI. The constant chatter while they worked and their swarming, cooperative movements, captivated my attention and I stared at them for a long moment. They quickly grew tired of my scrutiny and started shouting and pointing at me, which prompted me to move along. But not before someone shouted, "Hey, New Troop! Ain't you seen a gook before." The permanent cadre at Long Bien took advantage of the captive labor pool, composed of those awaiting orders, like myself, to get every tough job accomplished. The construction of wooden barracks to replace the tents being used, was the current project. I was assigned to a concrete crew that was packed in the back of a truck and driven to the batch plant. We had to mix the concrete by hand-shoveling sand, gravel and cement into a large mixer, adding water and agitating. The dust from the gravel and cement was thick in the air and stuck to our perspiration soaked bodies as a ghoulish gray crust. Just breathing was difficult in the dust and stifling heat, not to mention the work we were expected to do. Before long, searing pain tore through my muscles with every lift of the shovel. Hell must be like this, I thought to myself. After mixing, we dumped the wet aggregate into the back of a flat bed truck and piled on for the seven mile trip to the building site. By the time we arrived the water had come to the surface of our mixture and drained off, leaving the concrete nearly hardened in the truck. This unwieldy cause of many aching muscles had to be shoveled into place by hand and leveled off to form a rough floor on which to erect the building. Finally, after many trips in what seemed like a day that would not end, we completed the floor and dutifully left our names inscribed in the fresh concrete. A good soldier never passes an opportunity to leave his mark or graffiti. I suppose, for the same reasons a dog feels obligated to "hike" on all the tires in his neighborhood. Sleeping was not a problem that night. I spent the next few days on the concrete detail while awaiting orders for assignment to a unit. Because I was trained as an infantryman, I had no doubt that I would be assigned to a combat unit. I wondered continually which one and the suspense bothered me emotionally. While the relative safety of the concrete detail was appealing, the hard work and twelve-hour days were not, and I was still without an address to receive mail from home. All the talk about "Jody" (the mythical character who wins wives' hearts), coming from those who were on their way home started to affect me and I thought if I did not hear from Annie soon, I would go crazy. Even a combat assignment beats that. The most frequently used word in the vocabulary of those close to rotation back to the States, was "short." It was written on helmets, books, bags, walls, on anything that moved or stood still. It seemed an opiate to those with less than sixty days left in country but, to new arrivals, it was a degrading reminder of how much time we had remaining to spend in that armpit of the world. I was beginning to hate that reminder every time I heard or read it. One evening, some of the guys I befriended on the concrete detail invited me to the "Malt Shop." That's what the EM Club was called. I was not much of a "drinker" but I went along. In fact, during my stateside duty, I wrote letters to Annie about the foolishness of those who spent all their money and free time drinking. Now, beer was more readily available than soft drinks. Besides, a few beers made the time go faster, dulled the homesickness and tasted a lot better than the water or anything else I found to drink. Also, I reasoned I knew where to draw the line with alcohol. My dad was an alcoholic. I had grown up with first-hand knowledge of how it destroys lives and families and I had too much going for me at home, to throw it away on booze. I did not realize I had just taken the first steps toward dependence on the mind numbing effects of alcohol. My first mortar attack came on a night after my buddies and I had closed the "Malt Shop." Though I did not know what to do or much care because of my condition, I managed to follow some other men to cover. While there was no immediate danger during that attack since it took place on the far edge of the base, the base Commander decided to send out night patrols to discourage any future attacks. The next morning I was issued the M-16 rifle I would carry for the rest of my tour and told to report in combat gear that evening after work. I was among the infantrymen selected for a night patrol to help secure the base. As we marched beyond the perimeter of the base, it felt no different from the dozens of other times I had "patrolled" during my training at Tigerland, Ft. Polk, Louisiana. The rifle had a familiar feel. I had fired its twin thousands of times in training, and so far, most of what we were doing was just as I had been taught. Actually, the feel of the "Mickey Mouse" rifle in my hands imparted a sense of power and confidence that I had not experienced since arriving in Nam. Also, it felt good to be away from the teasing of "short-timers" and the pointing and laughter of the gooks who also noticed the new uniforms I wore. I was at that moment, proud to be one of the best trained soldiers in the world and confident that I could handle any situation that arose. But, no amount of training can totally prepare a person's mind for what was going to happen. A couple of hours of daylight remained and our platoon leader had us take a position along a road that wound through a rubber plantation located about a mile outside the perimeter of the base. I supposed we were just killing time before we started our night patrol. All we seemed to do was harass the Vietnamese civilians, who for the most part were traveling to and from jobs on the military base. Because I was new to the field, my assignment was to simply stay out of the way and watch. Everyone who approached was detained and asked to show identification by soldiers in our platoon who were surprisingly fluent in the Vietnamese language. At least, coupled with the civilian's knowledge of English, they appeared to get their points across quite well. Occasionally though, some of the GI's would resort to "body language," when one of the civilians acted as if he did not understand. The Vietnamese were masters of the English language when it was convenient for them, and it was amazing how quickly a boot in the butt improved their comprehension. Those who had proper identification were allowed to move on, while those who had no ID were taken to a detention area we set up beside the road. There, they were questioned and physically searched. Those who met two conditions: female and pretty, were searched more than once. If the interrogators were satisfied, the detainees were given forms to apply for the government issued ID cards, necessary for unrestricted travel through their own country. It was on this patrol that I understood why the children had shouted and thrown things at the bus when I came in country. They no doubt had a difficult time determining who the enemy was. The Viet Cong were not the ones restricting their travel, harassing their fathers and brothers, or degrading their mothers and sisters. Those things were being taken care of by the Americans. I wondered how I would feel toward such an insensitive military force invading my country, even if they were supposed to be friends. As twilight closed in and we prepared to continue our patrol, news circulated that our roadblock had netted a few rounds of rifle ammunition, a detailed map of our base and three prisoners. Perhaps, we had done more than kill time and perhaps, the inconvenience and restrictions we inflicted on the civilians were necessary. The moon was not shining and the darkness of the night seemed like a shroud around my head, blinding my footsteps. The evening monsoon had drenched my clothing and the combination of fear and a wet uniform chilled me to the bone, though the temperature was probably still in the high nineties. As we poked our way through the jungle, we did so in standard military patrol formation. Each man walked five meters (the maximum effective range of a grenade) behind the one in front, so if a grenade exploded in our ranks the casualties would be minimal. We also used the standard five man point, which means the primary point man travels in advance of the main column and is flanked on the left and right by two men who maintain a certain lateral distance between themselves and the column of troops. The point men are generally the ones who make first contact with the enemy, so the newest members of the patrol or the guys who become known as "screwups" are generally given the point. When all things are equal, a system of rotation to the point is usually worked out. I wasn't a "screwup" but I was new, so I became a flanker in the point. Traveling through the jungle at night is a frightening experience, especially the first time and I wasn't quite sure if my teeth were chattering because I was cold or afraid. I tried to ignore the knowledge that I might step in a booby trap or that "Charlie" (the GI nickname for the Viet Cong) might suddenly appear and run a bayonet through my chest. Although we were told they wouldn't stop a bullet, I decided to zip up my flak jacket as I walked and increased my grip on the rifle that had now become my best friend. In my mind I prayed that if I had to "buy the farm" it would not be tonight, not before I started receiving mail, not before I could tell Annie, "I love you," or read that she loves me, once more. Each step into the unknown terror of the jungle further excited my emotions of fear, hatred and self pity until the back of my head and neck ached from the tension and my hands cramped from gripping the rifle. The mental toll had physically exhausted me to the point I wondered how much longer I could last when the platoon leader signaled for us to stop. I first dropped to one knee and then being too tired to care, flopped back on the ground, for a much needed rest. The platoon sergeant seemed to appear out of nowhere, which gave me quite a start. If he had been the enemy..... Stay alert, was the lesson I learned from that experience. He paired us off and said we would be spending the rest of the night at that location. One of us was to sleep while the other was to remain on watch. "Charlie" was thought to use the area we surrounded for a rendezvous point and might possibly appear at any time. He said Claymores and trip wires had been set up all around our position, and no matter what, we were to stay put so we would not be hit by our own weapons. A claymore is a directional mine primarily used to protect a perimeter or as an offensive weapon in areas of suspected enemy troop movement. It is detonated by pulling a wire and when exploded it propels shrapnel forward, in a fan shaped pattern. It is a very effective anti-personnel mine that can be easily concealed. The jungle floor is covered with a carpet of rotting vegetation, which during the monsoon time of year is constantly water soaked. As I lay in a prone position, the odor of decomposition wafted up around my nose and made me want to gag every time I laid down my head. I was too scared and nervous to sleep, but my shoulders ached from supporting the weight of my head and steel helmet as I propped myself on my elbows, and occasionally, I had to lay my head down for some relief. I noticed the jungle floor contains flecks that glow in the dark like a firefly's tail, when the top layers of humus are scraped back. I began to scratch around, fascinated by the discovery I made. I later learned the glowing particles were phosphorus, left behind by the decomposition process. This slight diversion took my mind off the constant itching and crawling feeling I had over my entire body. I really did not know if I felt that way because I was wet, or if insects were having lunch on me. I remembered the stories some of the vets told about vipers and adders that were capable of inflicting death in a matter of seconds and liked to crawl up next to warm blooded animals for warmth, at night. I slowly bent my knee and reached behind my back to feel if my pants were tucked in my boots. My mind was not the only one running wild, I felt the guy next to me check his legs also. Suddenly, the silence of the night erupted with the sounds of an explosion and the cries of human anguish, followed by the unmistakable sound of an M-16 on full automatic. The M-16 is a very lethal instrument. With a rate of fire in excess of six hundred rounds per minute, it will empty a twenty-round magazine in less than two seconds. It fires a nominal twenty-two caliber bullet at such tremendous velocity that the bullet explodes on impact giving it the capability of literally blowing off an arm or leg or producing a hole in a body, large enough for a man's fist. It is light, dependable, accurate and gives each soldier the advantages of a machine gun without the added weight or awkwardness. It is the finest, close-combat, assault rifle ever used in a military operation. And it has its own sound. The fear and apprehension I was experiencing only moments earlier suddenly disappeared and the instinct to survive overtook me. My partner and I both swung our rifles toward the noise of the explosion and screaming, to lay down a base of fire in short controlled bursts. I expended one magazine, reloaded, released my bolt and held ready to continue firing. The sound of rifle fire had ceased but the screams of human suffering continued to penetrate the night. The screaming sounded like that of a woman and continued in sporadic, uncontrolled cycles for at least a couple of hours. It was as if the person screaming was lapsing in and out of consciousness. However, not sure what had happened, nor to whom, and remembering what the sergeant said, I for one was not going to crawl out there and investigate. As the night wore on, the screaming was unnerving to me and apparently to some of the others, because an occasional burst of fire would sound, as if someone was trying to permanently silence the screamer. Finally an unmistakably American voice cried out, "shut up *****," followed by a three or four round burst of rifle fire and the silence of the unusually dark night again engulfed us. The morning's first light found me anxiously awaiting its arrival. Time to think had become a real nemesis to me, and I did plenty of thinking, during the remainder of the night. I imagined myself completely surrounded by VC with my entire platoon wiped out. Therefore, I was very relieved when the sergeant appeared, telling us to fall in for a sweep of the area. Even in the still dim light it was easy to see what had happened. A VC patrol hit a trip wire that detonated one of the Claymore mines our guys set up. Apparently, most of the patrol did an about face and headed back the way they came, not even bothering to help their fallen comrades. The man and two women, dressed in black pajamas and armed with AK-47 rifles, who were caught in the initial blast, had received their discharge. They would not participate in any more patrols-not in this war. My stomach was already queasy because of my nervousness, when, as the light of day grew brighter, I noticed large red ants trailing in and out of the wounds on the bodies, carrying pieces of flesh. My mind raced to the events of the night before and I wondered if the ants were the cause of the screaming the woman did. Was she being eaten alive, while we listened? The vomit was in my throat before I could stop it. I leaned against a tree and heaved. Breakfast that morning was a box of C-rations. Combat rations or C's as we called them, consisted of a supposedly balanced meal, packaged neatly in non-perishable form. Each pack contained a can of the main course, a can of fruit and a sealed plastic bag that was more fun to open than a Christmas present. Inside the plastic bag were personal hygiene items such as toilet paper, a chocolate candy bar and what I was wanting badly, cigarettes. I chain smoked the four cigarettes provided in rapid fashion, hoping to calm my shattered nerves, while I munched on the chocolate bar. I had drawn a can of scrambled eggs for my main course, which I did not bother to open. The mere thought of cold, canned, scrambled eggs again caused my stomach to want to rebel. Having received no satisfaction from trying to eat and being bone tired from the night's activity I leaned against a tree and closed my eyes hoping that sleep would give a few minutes release from my ordeal. How could this be happening, I wondered. Look at us, grown men wallowing around like animals on the ground, playing a game of cat and mouse with deadly consequences. Surely, this nightmare will be over when I awaken. "Wake up," he shouted, as he kicked my boot, causing me to immediately jump to my feet. "Time to move out," the sergeant said. I was wrong, the nightmare was not over, it was only starting and I had nearly a year of it left to live. The shower room was a concrete slab in the middle of the holding company's area, surrounded by a canvas curtain, suspended on a pipe rail. The top of the curtain was about seven feet off the floor and the bottom of the curtain was a foot short of reaching the floor. Above the makeshift room, bomb containers were mounted that were periodically filled with water from tank trucks. The shower heads were suspended from the bomb containers and had a length of chain attached that when pulled, delivered water--if the tanks were not empty. It was humorous to watch the legs and feet of men showering, I thought, as I approached the shower room. They looked as if they were without bodies, dancing around in some mindless ritual. One foot might lift and disappear above the curtain, then reappear so the other could take its place. Then, both would rise on their toes or rock back on their heels, followed by a circling shuffle, maybe a stomp or two and then finally exit the imaginary stage with very definite steps. I surprised myself that I was able to find something humorous in this sinkhole of the universe. The cold water sent chills down my spine and caused me to hunch up when I first pulled the chain. But after this initial reaction, I breathed a sigh of relief for the water to wash away the grime of the previous night's patrol. I had made the trip to the shower a time or two in days past, only to find the water tanks empty and once, after I had lathered with soap, the tanks went dry before I could rinse. Today, I was lucky. There was water. Not that it really mattered, no one cared how bad you smelled, they smelled just as bad. The cold shower rejuvenated my tired body and I decided to go to the malt shop for a while before I crashed. The patrol I had been on the night before was the hot topic of conversation. Apparently, the news had spread across the base like wildfire. It was unusual to make contact with the VC so close to a supposedly secure area and the garrison troops, or "Saigon Warriors" as the infantrymen called them, were rattled because enemy activity was so close. By the time I heard the stories that were circulating, the body count had tripled and rumors were flying that a whole division of Viet Cong had moved into the area. I casually mentioned that I had been on the patrol and immediately began receiving offers to buy me a drink. All right! I could tell war stories as long as they could buy. The unexpected attention and company felt good and I stayed far longer and drank far more than I should have. Reveille the next morning sounded as if I was getting a personal performance by the bugler, six inches from my ear. I rolled to a sitting position on the side of my cot, with my elbows on my knees and my hands holding my throbbing head. Except for my shirt, I still wore clothes from the night before and I felt as wrinkled as they looked. After a while, the other men started for the chow line, but even the thought of eating the reconstituted slop they called breakfast turned my stomach, so I decided to skip the trip to the mess hall. As I tried to clear the cobwebs, I determined to back off the booze a bit, though it did numb my sensitivity to my surroundings, the mornings after were hell to pay. I pulled on my shirt, lit a cigarette and stumbled outside, hoping I would feel better if I moved around. I did not. At the morning formation, I was given orders that assigned me to the 9th Infantry Division, home of The Old Reliables. While I expected assignment to an infantry unit, I hoped in the back of my mind, for something in a secure area. Therefore, I was mildly disappointed when I read my orders, but at least I was on my way to an address where I could receive mail from home. I had tried not to think of home the last few days and was getting good at changing the subject of my thoughts whenever home did come across my mind. However, the thought of an address and receiving mail quickly penetrated the fortress of my mind and I began to make up for lost time in my imagination. I was so homesick and had so much to tell my family about this strange war-torn land and its people. I did promise myself that I would not write in detail about my field experiences. My wife and parents had enough concerns for my safety without hearing war stories. Those of us assigned to the 9th Division were, in typical military fashion, packed like sardines into the back of a "deuce-and-a-half" truck, for the trip to camp "Bearcat," the home of the 9th. The 9th Infantry Division had deployed from Ft. Riley, Kansas, to the Republic of Vietnam about six months before, in late 1966. The 9th's area of responsibility was the Mekong Delta, the rich bottom land of the Mekong River. A fertile area where the majority of Vietnam's staple crop of rice is grown. It is a patchwork of inter-connected rice paddies and untamed jungle, laced with a system of tributaries and canals that provide water to the flooded fields. The Delta became a gridiron of misery for the foot soldier because of waist deep water and knee deep mud, not to mention the two inch leeches and mosquitoes that could lift a combat helmet. It was also the area of South Vietnam most desired by Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader of North Vietnam. He had expressed his desire for the area clearly when he said, "A grain of rice is worth a drop of blood." He had also stated his determination when he said, "You will kill one hundred of us and we will kill one of you, yet in the end, we will win." Again, my concerns about my destination were overshadowed by my curiosity as we rolled toward our new assignment. The road we traveled, though unpaved was obviously new. For a hundred yards on either side of the roadway, the vegetation was dead, no doubt the result of spraying with agent orange. Dead timber had been shoved together and occasionally we passed the smoking embers where one of these woodpiles had burned. Beyond this man-made sterile zone, the tropical jungle of strange plants looked impenetrable for man or beast. The canopy trees were well over a hundred feet tall and the undergrowth was a twisted mass of vines, branches, ferns and fronds. No wonder Charlie has such an advantage, I thought. One person who is familiar with that maze could confound a hundred strangers. Such was the plight of the American soldier in Vietnam. The farther the truck traveled, the more the jungle gave way to the flatland paddies of the Delta and the more my jostled kidneys ached for relief from the bouncing truck ride. Approaching Bearcat on the ground, it was impossible to see over the high earthen wall or berm that completely surrounded the newly built military city behind it. The vegetation had been cleared and the area dozed smooth for about a quarter mile in each direction. Rows of concertina wire, fences and land mines blocked any unauthorized approach to the wall and neat guard bunkers stood on top of the huge berm at regularly spaced intervals. The front gate was heavily fortified with artillery pieces and armored vehicles. I could not help thinking how formidable all this must look to the VC. To attack this place without heavy artillery or armor, to me, would seem like "mission impossible." Charlie apparently saw it differently. The Viet Cong seemed to thrive on impossible odds because they did attack on several occasions. Inside the berm was an olive drab microcosm. Men and equipment were moving in a seemingly endless procession much like a colony of ants. The sounds of construction were everywhere and rows of tents that were home to thousands of men stretched as far as I could see. The area inside the protective berm seemed at least a mile square and I was awe-stricken with the size and activity. This was the US Army at its finest, working to establish a stronghold in the heartland of the area Charlie wanted most. If Ho Chi wants this place, I thought, he had better pack a big lunch, because it looks as if the 9th plans to be here for a long time. Processing in the Division was an ordeal of paperwork and more waiting. Travel vouchers for transportation from my last Stateside duty station, a review of my pay and dependent status, and confirming my life insurance amounts, were some of the mundane activities involved. I was not impatient to complete the process. I figured the more time I spent processing, the less time I had to spend in the field. While some of the clerks were rather smart mouthed, they were not shooting at me and besides waiting in line paid just as much as waiting in an ambush. Finally though, the big moment arrived when I received my unit assignment. My mouth surely must have dropped open in disbelief, as I read and re-read my orders. Under the statement, "ASSIGNED TO 9TH ADMINISTRATION COMPANY," was my name. I felt like laughing aloud and jumping for joy at the same time and when someone shouted, "fall in for the 9th Administration Company," I was first in line. From the moment I arrived in Viet Nam I felt as if I was under the death penalty, but now the great weight of that feeling had been lifted. I could hardly wait to write to Annie and get a few beers, to celebrate. The seven new assignees, including myself, were elated at our good fortune and spates of conversation concerning such unexpected luck filtered through our ranks as we marched to our new home. These feelings were generated because we were trained as infantrymen and most, fully expected assignment to an infantry field unit. Two of the group had been in country for six months and had just been released from the hospital. They had been wounded in combat and were reassigned for the remainder of their tours. The 9th Division had a policy of rotating men out of the front lines to support areas after six months, if at all possible. This was to cut down on the combat fatigue that had been a real problem during WW II, and Korea. The rest were OCS dropouts who happened to process through at a time when men were needed to work in finance. The sergeant leading us to the company area explained that the finance department had been shorthanded since the Division arrived in Viet Nam. Finally, after months of waiting for replacements that never came, the colonel in charge insisted on selecting men for his command, from the ranks of the infantry. Officers' Candidate School qualifications and a lot of time left to serve, were his primary criteria for selection. For an instant, I was almost glad I had a lot of time left to serve. In fact, had I been asked this was one time I would have gladly volunteered. Most of the company street as it was called had a wooden sidewalk in the center that connected the orderly room (company headquarters), the supply room, the EM club (malt shop), the mess hall and rows of tents or hooches the men called home. Hand lettered signs hung on most of the tents bearing names such as "House of the Rising Sun," or the name of a city in the US with an arrow pointing toward home and the mileage. Some simply said "short" and listed the number of days the owner had left to serve, prominently displayed. That word was not so distasteful to me now that I had not been assigned to a line unit. After I settle in here, I thought, I will count the number of days I have left, if I can still count that high. We arrived at the end of the company street, just past where the wooden sidewalk ended and were told the newly erected canvas castle was our home. The olive-drab canvas was draped over a wooden platform that served as a floor. Four folding cots were aligned along each long wall of the enclosure and on each cot was a mosquito net, a camouflage poncho cover, and a plastic air mattress. The Spartan surroundings prompted someone to quip, "Why doesn't the sidewalk extend to the doorway of this hotel?" "You'll fix that right after you get the walls sandbagged," the sergeant answered smartly. I noticed as we approached that this was the only tent without sandbags stacked around the walls and I assumed that someone had not yet had time to finish the task. "When will they do it," I naively asked, realizing the necessity of the bags to protect us from flying shrapnel. "As soon as you have selected a rack put your gear on it and fall in outside," he barked to the small congregation, huddled together in the center of the wooden floor. "Haven't you heard?" One of the men who had been in the hospital asked. "The general has put everything outside this camp off limits and he doesn't believe in hiring nationals to do our work for us either. The only soldiers who go outside that wall are on patrols or official business and the only gooks that come in are the ones he's forced by a higher command to hire." I suddenly felt more like a prisoner than a soldier. In my twenty-two years, I had been told by my elders on several occasions that I did not have sense enough to shovel sand but this was the first time anyone ever gave me written instructions on how to do it. The sergeant gave each of us a copy of the Army Regulations covering the filling of sandbags, pointed out a pile of empty bags and said he would return later to check our progress. Someone has said, "There's a right way, a wrong way, and the army way, to do everything," and you can believe there's an AR to tell you the army way. However, I still think the term "sandbag" was a misnomer. During the wet season they were "mudbags" and during the dry season they were "dustbags." We worked on filling the bags and stacking them to build a wall around our tent until late in the day when we noticed the other men in the area heading for the mess hall. The day had been long, the work was hard, and we were hungry, so we did not wait for an invitation. We followed the crowd. Inside the mess hall I was surprised to see a carton of milk on each table and I was eager to get through the line before it was gone. After filling my tray, I headed for the nearest empty table, not caring about the food but wanting the milk. I haven't had a glass of milk since I left Tulsa, I thought, as I poured the white nectar into a cup and lifted it to my lips. I was barely able to control my instinct to spit when I tasted what I thought was surely the juice from a water buffalo. It was worse. It was reconstituted milk made with the bitter water that was unpalatable to me. Though I was really hungry, the food on the tray now smelled as bad as the milk tasted and I quickly left the mess hall for the malt shop. "Perhaps a beer or two will wash that rancid taste out of my mouth," I said to myself. When I returned to the tent that was now my home, the night was no longer young and the darkness inside was like that in a cavern. I did not notice that there were no light bulbs in the tent when we arrived earlier that day. The other hooches in the area had at least one light bulb dangling in the center of them, powered by generators I could hear in the distance. As I listened to the generators it irritated me that the sergeant was more concerned about the sandbags than light in our tent. I felt more threatened by injury from a fall than from shrapnel, especially since I was having a hard time walking in a straight line. I inched my way along the foot of the cots trying not to waken anyone, until I came to mine. In the darkness, it was impossible to hang the mosquito netting or do any arranging, so I scooped my duffel and other items on to the floor and flopped my tired body on the cot. In the distance, I could hear the explosions of war and I offered a prayer of thanks to the Lord for sparing me from that. He was watching out for me even though I did not deserve it, I thought. I was awakened before reveille by the sound of helicopters taking to the air. Our tent was about one-half block from the heliport but the noise and flying debris, caused by their rotors, made them seem as if they were directly on top of us. Those guys start early, I thought, as I groggily stumbled outside to find a place to relieve my swollen bladder. The urinals were small, three sided enclosures about four feet square built of barn tin that sat over a hole in the ground. The entrance was the open side and there was no door for privacy. A person merely stepped in and relieved himself in the hole. Because the stench rising from the hole filled with urine that constantly fermented in the blazing sun caused one's eyes to water and since I was fearful that I might fall in the hole if I staggered in there in the dark, I decided to water the tree next to our tent. We eventually started referring to it as the "pee tree," for obvious reasons. I located the water tank trailer, filled my combat helmet with water and carried it back to the tent. After securely placing my steel pot in a depression in the ground, I went back inside to rummage through my duffel bag for my shaving gear. The first light of dawn made shaving a lot easier, since I could then use my mirror. I had grown accustomed to shaving in the dark with cold water, but I had not become proficient at it and my face carried the razor nicks from my inexperienced efforts in previous days. Rinsing my face in the cold water had fully awakened me and as I pitched the water out of my helmet, I thought of my training, drill sergeant and chuckled to myself. He said he used his helmet for a cooking pot, bathtub and latrine. I wondered if he used it in that order to keep it sanitary. I skipped breakfast and used the time to hang my mosquito netting, arrange my gear and write a letter to Annie. The whelps on my face and arms persuaded me to give the proper priority to hanging my netting. Also, since I was caught without light the night before and could not write, I wanted to tell Annie the news about my unit assignment and give her my address, so she could write to me. After folding the letter, I placed it and the several books of postage stamps I brought with me in the envelope. I did not know until I arrived in Vietnam that the soldiers had free letter mailing privileges. Instead of using a stamp we wrote "free" in the upper right hand corner. Annie could use the stamps for her letters to me. Money was tight for us already and in a few weeks she would have to quit her job because she was so far along in her pregnancy. I was sending her nearly all of my monthly pay, but it was still less than $175.00. I did not know how she could make it if she could not work, especially after the birth of my "son." It was very hard on our collective pride when she had to move in with her parents after I was drafted, but we had no choice. We had to rent out our home to have money for the payments and it was taking all we made to pay for the car and keep up with the other bills we had accrued. If I work hard, I thought, maybe I'll get a promotion. After the morning formation and roll call the new men, including me, were taken to meet the Sergeant-major in Finance. Sergeant-major is the highest enlisted rank in the army. Sort of an enlisted general and I had never even seen one before much less had the opportunity to meet one. Frankly, I was a little awe struck and pleasantly surprised as he outlined our responsibilities because he was the first NCO to talk to me as if I were human since I had been in the army. He let us know that we were there on a trial basis and that the colonel stuck his neck out by selecting us. If we wanted to stay, he expected hard work; if not, then back to the infantry. We were expected to be in the finance records area from 7:00 AM until 7:00 PM to help where needed. If not on an errand we were to be learning how to handle the pay records, and when payrolls came in or went out, we would go along as guards. In addition, we were to keep up with our duties in the company, such as filling sandbags, guard duty and KP. That meant filling sand bags after dark every night to fortify our tent, but I had tasted the alternative and I knew those bags would not shoot at me, so I was happy with the arrangement. Considering where I was, I felt it was the best of a bad situation and I still counted myself lucky to have this assignment. The physical toll of the next two weeks was starting to tell on us when one of the guys decided to transfer to a line unit. He said he would rather take his chances with Charlie than fill sandbags and be someone's "nigger" for a year. Because I was the oldest man in our hooch, I tried to talk him out of his decision. The combat veterans also tried to tell him that it would not be any better in a line unit, but he would not listen to them either. I did the only thing left to do. I wished him good luck the day he left and asked him to keep in touch, but I never heard from him again. I knew something about how he felt since depression and homesickness were constant mental foes and physically, I had been losing weight from the time I arrived in country because I was unable to force myself to eat the food we were served. I was existing primarily on beer and the few snack foods I could scrounge up, so my body weight had dropped to under 115 pounds, which made me look like a POW. The late night sandbagging was becoming increasingly difficult as I battled fatigue both from lack of nourishment and lack of sleep. I often lay awake during the night longing for home, thinking about my wife and how much I loved her and missed her but I was determined to hang on to this assignment. I figured the only shortcut out of this nightmare world a combat unit offered was a trip home in a box. A light was finally installed in our tent and we began staying up late playing poker. I won nearly four hundred dollars in cash and had taken several markers before my reputation spread through the company, or everyone ran out of money. I didn't know which, but after a while I seemed to be the only one interested in playing cards. The money I won would have been a small fortune to me in the States, but in Nam it really had little value. We were not allowed to have US currency in our possession, so we were paid with Military Payment Certificates or MPC. Each denomination was a different color, which coupled with its size made it appear more like Monopoly money than legal tender. It was worthless outside Vietnam and each man could only convert $200.00 to greenbacks when leaving country. The purchase of "big ticket" items at the Post Exchange was limited by the use of personal ration cards that had to be shown when purchasing a camera, recorder, whiskey, or a number of other things. The item purchased was punched on the card and that was it, for that item. The result of these controls was that most men sent the lions' share of their monthly pay home as allotments to wives, or parents or to a savings account. The system was intended to control the "black market" but I'm not sure if it had any real effect. When it was announced that the USS New Jersey was being taken out of "moth balls" and prepared for action in Vietnam, the standard joke was that after 30 days in country, Uncle Sam could go to Saigon and buy it back. (I remember the sergeant-major requisitioned military padlocks for the payroll officers' money bags and after not receiving them for several weeks, he went to Saigon and bought them from a street vendor.) It was said that for a price, a person could get anything in Saigon, and some men who got more than they wanted had to take shots for what they got. Cass was one of those guys. He enlisted in the Army prior to being drafted and was trained as a finance clerk. His recruiter told him he would probably go to Germany for his overseas duty. Cass was foolish enough to believe him and enlist. Not only did he feel betrayed, which caused him to have a basic "don't care" attitude, but he was never able to accept being sequestered behind the earthen walls of our base camp. It seemed that every six weeks or so he would get his fill of confinement and have to leave for a recharge, or whatever. We became good buddies and I asked him how he managed to get outside the wall since the gates were constantly guarded by the MP's. "Simple" he said, "I just go to the heliport and wait for a chopper to land and unload passengers. After they unload and are preparing to take off, I run out and ask for a lift. No one expects that I'm fool enough to be going AWOL, so they generally say, 'hop in,' and away I go." During the portion of his tour that was common with mine, he was formally charged with AWOL three times. But no matter how much extra duty he was given, or how large his fine, when the wanderlust struck, he was gone. Consequently, he had to forfeit most of his pay each month and in rank he was a perpetual private, E-1. "So what?" He said. "What else are they going to do? Send me to Vietnam." I had a lot of respect for Cass because he could not be broken. He was like a wild mustang that if tied up short will accept the saddle, but give him his head and look out, he's gone. Once, when he was given extra duty at the motor pool, the sergeant in charge issued him a five-gallon bucket of olive-drab paint along with a brush and ordered him to paint the beds on the trucks. The sergeant's big mistake was telling Cass to hurry because he had a few other chores for him to do before Cass could go. When the sergeant checked on him a few minutes later, Cass had poured the paint in the beds of the trucks and was swishing it around with a broom. "I'm just trying to hurry like you wanted," he told the sergeant. Another time, he was given aluminum paint and told to paint the single strand barbed wire fence that surrounded the officers' quarters. Every time an officer would walk by, he would flip the brush across a strand of the wire, which would spatter paint on the officer's pants. He would keep his head down in diligent pursuit of his painting and never crack a smile if one of them upbraided him for being so careless. He would feign contriteness and offer to wipe the paint off, which normally resulted in making matters worse for the pants. His antics resulted in most of the NCO's thinking he was more trouble to watch than what he would accomplish was worth, and normally when he was assigned to one who had that opinion, he was asked to simply stay out of the way. Since he clearly did not respond to the disciplinary actions available and since they could not ship him home, no one knew what to do with him, or to him, or about him, or for him, except the medics. They knew to give him shots for whatever it was he sometimes had when he came back from one of his private sorties. The sandbagging of our hooch that had been a nightly ritual was finally over and I settled into the routine of a normal twelve-hour work day. My first military payday was behind me and it was quite an educational experience. I never realized what an enormous task it is to disburse over five million dollars in cash, to military personnel spread out over the entire Mekong Delta. It has been said that the American soldier is the best equipped, best fed, best paid, most complaining, finest fighting man, the world has ever known. Good morale is also vital in making him the finest and that depends in part, on timely paydays. 9th Division policy was to pay the troops on payday, the first day of the month, no matter what they were doing, or where. So, wherever they were, that's where we went to pay them. Around the twentieth of the month, a contingent of eight to ten men would go to Saigon to pick up the money for the division payroll. Normally, two of the men were officers and the rest were enlisted men who acted as bearers, counters and armed guards. The men with infantry backgrounds were normally selected for this task. However, since it was a break from the everyday routine the competition was keen for the assignment and it was often used as a reward for good behavior. Similar to the way a three day pass was used in the States. Saigon was known as the "Pearl of the Orient" during its occupation by France. Now, it looked like anything but a gem as we rode through the crowded streets. Thousands of people milled ceaselessly on foot, on bicycles and motor scooters, or in little cars that reminded me of those driven by Shriners in a Christmas parade. The traffic was like a massive living organism, snaking its way through the streets, ever growing as it devoured those who approached to enter its flow. The din of engine noise and honking horns was this creatures' roar and the thick, two-cycle engine, exhaust smoke was its overpowering breath. Entire families were riding on a single motor scooter or bicycle with the deftness of trained circus acrobats. Papa-san would drive and mama-san would ride on the seat behind him, holding a toddler and supporting an infant in a carrier on her back. The wire luggage rack over the back fender often carried two more children while the oldest son rode in his position of preference on the handlebars, and number-two son, normally occupied the front fender. In like fashion each vehicle was loaded to over capacity, as if there were some unofficial contest to see who could stuff the most passengers in or on a motor vehicle. I remembered in high school how we packed people in a VW "beetle," during one of the fads of the early Sixties. Our best efforts were "everyday" to the Vietnamese people. Soldiers from every free-world country involved in the conflict could be seen milling through the throngs of civilians. They moved in and out of the little shops along the street, huddled around street vendors or were surrounded by the kids who constantly circulated to beg or peddle contraband. Those carrying packages, going from shop to shop, were normally new in-country and only interested in souvenirs to send home to mom and dad, wife or girlfriend. The silk kimonos and pajamas that were standard, everyday, apparel in Nam were irresistible to send home, even though no American woman in her right mind would be caught dead in them. Surely, dad appreciated the silk smoking jacket with the forearm length sleeves, and embroidery dragon on the back, though no one remembers his wearing it. It is strange how quickly one's perspective is altered by his surroundings. Sending those articles home was the equivalent of those at home sending us another baggy, green uniform to wear, but I guess most of us wanted to share our experience with those at home in as pleasant a way as possible, and sending home kimonos filled that need. After all, it's the thought that counts and what else could we send? Hand grenades! The soldiers haggling with the street vendors were taking advantage of the black market to procure items that were unavailable through normal channels or to buy them at a reduced price. In a sense, the ration card system we were under promoted this black market. If a person's ration card was punched for a particular item, the black market was the only source of supply for additional items. Jewelry, watches and cameras were in high demand and the street market always had an unlimited supply. Strangely, choice cuts of beef packed in USDA boxes were always available even though soldiers in units like the 9th, were served beef on very few occasions. Chicken, turkey and lamb were the standard fare for combat units. I often wondered why we never had steaks while the black marketplace always seemed to have them. The rumor I heard was that the people who disbursed the rations held back the steaks to trade with the Vietnamese, for the pleasures of life they wanted. No matter how the civilians got them, we knew where we had to go to buy steaks when we wanted them. For special occasions, like holidays, when someone we could trust was going to town, we would take up a collection to have him buy a box of meat for us. We would roast it over an open fire, hustle up a few cases of beer and have a party to celebrate. Actually, it was just another excuse to get drunk; to numb the senses and pass the time. None of us really felt as if we had anything to celebrate. Holidays just gave us more time to think about home, that we were separated from our families and friends in the States, and how much we missed everything we were forced to leave. Next to Charlie, time to think, was our worst enemy and we saw a lot of that enemy during holiday periods. Piaster swapping was also among the activities of the black market, utilized to make a few extra dollars for personal expenses. The street vendors were often the contacts for these clandestine transactions that involved buying piasters on base with MPC and exchanging the piasters with the Vietnamese for MPC they had taken as payment for goods or services. The piaster was the unit of money in Vietnam and the official exchange rate was between 80 and 90 per US dollar. However, the US Government in an effort to bolster the local economy gave GI's around 120 piasters per dollar, which if traded to the Vietnamese, even at the official rate, netted a 33% profit. However, shrewd haggling normally resulted in exchanges of 50 piasters per dollar, which was a whopping 140% profit and to some soldiers worth the minimal risk of being caught. Drugs, particularly marijuana and some sort of opium derivative, were also readily available and in high demand. Pot was sold by the carton in regular cigarette packages and looked as if it had been packed by an American tobacco company. Regulars, kings and filter tips were available in any brand packaging for around ten dollars a carton. The Vietnamese would carefully open the packages in a carton of cigarettes, remove the tobacco from the cigarettes and replace it with marijuana. They were so skillful that it was impossible to tell with the naked eye that the package had been opened. Even if the military had been concerned, which it did not seem to be, it would have been very difficult to distinguish between the clever fakes and real cigarettes. The opiate was painted on the joints for an apparent knock out charge. One cigarette painted with the stuff was sufficient to send six or seven people into space for a couple of hours. However, the landing must have been rough. After watching the result in others, not too many tried it and those who did, rarely more than once. Those who did go back for seconds or thirds were unable to quit on their own and they became progressively more dependent on the stupefying effects until they were caught and "shipped out." I supposed the Army sent them to a hospital for drug treatment but I never knew for sure. Some said they were given a court-martial, imprisoned and dishonorably discharged. I hoped not, though their behavior was irresponsible and their wounds self inflicted, they were still casualties of a war they did not want to fight. Also, they were not too different from those who used alcohol for the same reasons and then went home to find the bottle was not easy to put away. True, no one was forced to drink or do drugs, and I have to agree it should not happen. However, not every young person in his late teens or early twenties has whatever it takes to face the threat of death from a faceless enemy in a foreign land, for reasons he does not understand, without the support of family and friends. Or, to watch his comrades die and to suffer the physical hardships of war without a crutch of some kind. They did not need pity. They did not need punishment. They needed help. As we pulled in front of the building where we would be staying while we received and counted the Division payroll money, I noticed that the buildings were built very wide with very little depth. They were only one room and a hallway deep so that each room in the building had a front street exposure. From the front, the buildings looked huge but from the side they looked tall and slender as if they would topple in a stiff wind. I wondered how long they would last in a VC mortar attack. "Nothing to worry about," I told myself. "This beehive doesn't look like it's ever been disturbed. If it weren't for all the olive green uniforms and equipment, no one could guess this is a combat zone." Inside the hotel it was less obvious that we were in a combat zone. Civilian clothes appeared to be the uniform of the day since only those of us who had just arrived had on military uniforms. American men lounged around the lobby conversing with each other or with under-dressed Vietnamese women, who looked at them as if longing for the next words out of the men's mouths. Almost everyone had a mixed drink or beer and an overall party atmosphere permeated the building with the strains of music coming from a bar and dance floor at the far end of the hotel. "Rough duty," I thought, as I looked around at the "Saigon Warriors" who were very obviously enjoying their tours in Nam. "Why aren't they slogging mud, building bunkers or otherwise suffering the hardships of this stinking place?" I wondered as I stared icily around the room. My glare caught the attention of two American men and a Vietnamese woman hanging on them. They nodded in my direction, chuckled to one another and walked to the far end of the room. They would not mind if this crazy war goes on forever I thought, they are not the ones sweating and dying. After three days of counting, we loaded thirteen footlockers with money and headed back to Bearcat. I had never seen so much money, even if it was MPC and piasters. On the trip back, I kept thinking that our cargo was a much better reason to attack than the grains of rice Ho Chi Minh had mentioned. When we arrived at the base, I was relieved to be behind the berm and feel the security of that friendly island in the sea of rice paddies. The next day, the money was disbursed to the various company pay officers throughout the division and I was assigned as a guard for one of those officers. This time we would travel in a helicopter, rather than by truck and with a much smaller amount of money to lug around, I was looking forward to the adventure as we boarded the chopper. The aircraft crew and other passengers were apparently comfortable flying in the open compartment, but since I was in the outside seat and it was my first time up, I was a little nervous with the open door and the wind whipping at me. During my stateside training, I was instructed to fasten my seat belt before the aircraft took off, but seat belts were little used accessories in a combat zone, I discovered. Since everyone else appeared content to sit on their seat belt, I did the same. I had contended with mild acrophobia for years. Consequently, as we climbed in altitude my palms began to sweat and I grasped the door post and seat edge with a death grip, wishing for the security of the seat belt around my waist. The door gunner noticed my obvious panic and was quick to point it out to the other crew members. He laughed and raised his arms over his head as if to say "look, no hands." I was more than a little embarrassed, so I quickly released my hand holds that were causing my knuckles to turn white and managed a slight shrug and grin to indicate that I was not bothered at all. Fortunately, we were then high enough that looking out the door had ceased to bother me and my stomach had removed itself from my throat to return to its rightful position. Just as I felt I was back in control of my situation the pilot banked hard in my direction. This threw the chopper on its side with me looking straight down at the ground. Both my stomach and heart were in my throat as I clawed for a handhold, to keep from being thrown out the open door. Then, almost as quickly as the craft had banked over on its side, it straightened. Even through my fear, I could hear the laughter of passengers and crew above the drone of the engine and the rushing wind noise. The crew knew that centrifugal force would hold me in and my reaction was just as they had expected. I had been initiated and thankfully I did not need a change of underwear, though it was close. The evening rain was over, the clouds were dissipating as rapidly as they had formed and the sun was a bright orange ball in the western sky as it headed for duty on the other side of the earth. I knew I could not, but still I wished that I was going with it as I sat inside the musty smelling bunker, awaiting my turn on perimeter guard duty. At least, the sunset signaled the end of one more day in this, the armpit of the world and meant I was one day closer to home. Three men were assigned to each of the bunkers that protruded from the earthen wall that surrounded the base camp. Constructed of sandbags, each bunker was approximately eight feet square and contained two crude benches, also made from sandbags, which served as multi-purpose replacements for chairs, tables and beds. A series of stair-stepped sandbags led to the roof of the bunker, where the lookout man would sit behind a sandbag wall and watch the cleared area from the berm to the jungle, for signs of activity. Each man would spend two hours on watch while the other two tried to sleep. However, the heat and humidity inside the bunker turned it into a reasonable facsimile of a sauna, making sleep impossible until well toward morning. Then, exhaustion wrought heavy eyelids and bodies too tired to care about surroundings, sought relief from the all-night vigil. This period of grogginess came during the last watch in the rotation and the man who drew it normally had a difficult time staying awake. Since I had drawn the last watch, I had four hours to stew inside the bunker before my shift and I used the remaining minutes of daylight to read the graffiti that covered the inside walls. Among the most humorous was a drawing of a combat helmet directly on top of a pair of combat boots, with the caption, "Short." The proclamation, "If God had wanted men to be soldiers, He would have given them green baggy skin," caused me to burst out with laughter and the soldier sharing my temporary quarters jumped as if a bomb had exploded. He was busily trying to finish a letter before the darkness encroached on us and I shrugged at him as if to apologize, before dropping down on the sandbag bench, to silently watch. I knew better than to bother a man while he was writing or reading his mail. Tempers are very short when a man is lost in thoughts of family and home and a bloody nose is often the reward for interruption. I did not have an opener, so I used my knife to work on the can of beer I brought along. I had learned to cut a neat V in the top that looked as if it had been done with an opener and this time was no exception, I thought to myself. I admired my work prior to turning up the can and gulping down the liquid contents. The hot beer burned slightly as it hit my otherwise empty stomach and I again broke the silence with a loud and obnoxious belch. My temporary roommate again raised his eyes to glare at me in disgust, but this time I ignored him as I again raised the can and finished it. Both knew that drinking while on guard duty was a court-martial offense, but I figured he would not tell and I really did not care if he did. I had reached the point where I did not care about much of anything except going home to my wife and our soon to arrive baby that I just knew would be a boy. My thoughts of home were interrupted by my partner who putting away his writing materials, and apparently believing I needed a dose of religion began telling me about his service as an alter boy and his plans to be a priest, someday. I figured he needed to talk as much as he figured I needed to listen, so I sat quietly in the darkness while he testified. Though I paid little attention to what he was saying, his words stirred memories of my childhood. My mother tried to raise me in a Christian environment, though my dad was not a Christian at the time and when I was eight years old I realized that Christ died for my sins and rose from the dead. In repentance and faith, I trusted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. During my early teens I considered becoming a pastor or missionary and was probably familiar with any sermon my bunker mate wanted to preach, but I was mad at God for allowing me to be sent to a hell-hole like Vietnam. Though I later realized just how gracious He was to watch over me during my tour of duty, I thought He had forgotten me and I really did not want to hear about Him. Besides, the crutch I found in alcohol, while at the time seeming more tangible, made me feel ashamed of myself, when I thought about the things of God. I was beginning to resent the sermon when the time to change shifts came and my personal preacher had to go topside. I did not even bother to speak to the man who took the preacher's place. I did not want to talk, or think, or anything, other than forget where I was and what I was doing. But forgetting was as impossible as sleep, so I stared into the darkness and alternately cursed and felt sorry for myself until it was my turn to go topside and watch. I inserted a full magazine in my rifle, put on my flak jacket and steel pot and climbed to the lookout perch on top of the bunker. The cool night air was at first a welcome relief from the stagnant atmosphere inside the bunker, but as I sat for a few minutes I began to feel chilled. The temperature was probably in the mid 80's but after a daytime high of 115 degrees, the air felt very cool and an occasional shiver traveled the length of my spine. The field telephone near my feet buzzed briefly, almost in harmony with the innumerable mosquitoes that incessantly gorged themselves on my life's blood. The concoction the army called mosquito repellent worked well to remove leeches but had little deterring effect on the bloodsuckers that constantly probed my skin in search of a meal. The big orange pills we took on Monday mornings were intended to keep us from getting malaria and I sure hoped they worked as I reached for the phone. It was unusual to receive a call from the command post unless a man failed to check in at the prescribed time, which sometimes happened if a guard dozed off for a few moments, or was caught up in his thoughts and lost track of time. However, neither was the case this time and the sergeant-of-the-guard quickly satisfied my curiosity by telling me that Viet Cong activity had been detected in the area around the base camp. He instructed me to be extra alert. The guard duty that started as a routine chore was now a more serious matter and I gripped my rifle tightly as I felt the tension growing in my neck and shoulders. The night seemed to get blacker as I stared at the wall of vegetation outside our perimeter and I began to imagine movement everywhere I looked, though in reality, I could only see the darkness. After a few minutes of trying to visually search the tree line, I reminded myself that mine fields, booby traps, barbed wire and assorted physical barriers including the berm itself, were between the base and a ground assault. Not even Charlie could get through that maze undetected, I thought, as I began to relax. Suddenly, a song by Jefferson Airplane began to play outside the berm and I felt myself jump because it was so unexpected. The music was almost deafening where I was and I had no doubt the whole camp would easily hear it and awaken. This was just what Charlie wanted. Using a World War II Japanese tactic, the Viet Cong set up loudspeakers to keep the GIís awake with their anti-war propaganda. The music was followed by a sexy-voiced woman we called Hanoi Hanna, who patiently petitioned us to lay down our arms and rebel against our commanders. After a few minutes of her droning venom, she introduced another song she said was popular in the States and the music started again. Her next appeal was for us to consider what our wives and girlfriends were doing for companionship in our absence. This was followed by the news that the USS Pueblo had been captured in North Korea and then, more music. So it continued while choppers with search lights flew overhead in search of their position. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the music and propaganda ended and dark silence again engulfed me. The next day, the "Stars and Stripes" (the official military newspaper) confirmed the capture of the Pueblo in North Korea. This was quite a blow to our morale. It seemed foolish to be fighting a war in Vietnam while doing nothing in retaliation to North Korea taking our ship. If our government would not go after the return of an entire ship and crew, it was clear that we as individual soldiers could forget home if we were captured by the VC. Most men in my company would have readily volunteered for an assault on North Korea. It made more sense to fight for our own Country's flag and honor than what we were doing, but wars never make sense to those who fight them, only to the politicians who pull the strings. Charlie poured on the harassment for several consecutive nights with mortar attacks and loudspeaker propaganda. The sirens would sound and we would fall out in full combat gear to take our defensive positions as backups to the perimeter guards. A few mortar rounds would explode inside our camp and although they did little physical damage, the psychological effect was great. It was nerve rending as they screamed overhead, prior to exploding. One could not help wondering if the next round would blow him into eternity. The VC knew sleep was impossible under the conditions they meted out and after a week most of us looked like zombies stumbling around, from lack of sleep. Base security was tightened and patrols constantly swept the area surrounding the base. In spite of these efforts, like a phantom in the night, Charlie would appear to pop a few rounds in our direction, or play a few records and then disappear until apparently, they grew tired of their sport and the nightly visits would cease for a while. During this period, the reports that circulated through the base concerning the attitude and actions of fellow Americans at home were as disconcerting as the VC efforts. Student demonstrations against the war, often directed toward returning GI's, made us feel betrayed and angry that we were being blamed for participating in a war we did not want. At the same time, our sense of patriotism was also inflamed by the reports and often we discussed how we would kick-ass, if, when we returned to the world, we caught someone burning a flag or spitting on a fellow vet. We did not like war but we did not like traitors more. I kept my head down and my elbows up and it paid off with a promotion. This meant more money to send home to Annie and also caught the attention of the division finance officer who sent through the chain of command, his verbal commendation for doing a good job. This of course, pleased the NCO's and officers who were in charge of me, because it reflected well on their leadership abilities. Life in the military is much more pleasant for a soldier whose performance reflects well on his superiors. Even the sergeant-major began to call me by name when we had occasion to meet. I had, without knowing it, established myself as a good soldier in the minds of several high ranking NCO's and officers. Apparently through the military records, the colonel was familiar with my civilian occupation when he asked me if I could connect a lavatory he had picked up in the Saigon market place. Unlike enlisted men and junior officers, the senior officers had private quarters and because "rank hath privileges," they were free to improve or renovate as they saw fit. Though private, the colonel's hooch was still a tent walled with sand bags. He did not have private bath facilities but used a shower and latrine similar to those the enlisted men used. Therefore, the addition of a personal lavatory inside his quarters was a status symbol deserving of his rank. I managed to scrounge around the base and "appropriate," by any means necessary, sufficient hoses, clamps and fittings to connect "running water" to the colonel's lavatory. Admittedly, it was a makeshift rig consisting of a GI can overhead, connected to the faucet with a length of rubber hose and the lavatory drained into a bucket. Though crude, it made the colonel very happy. He was so pleased with my work that he decided to give me a new job. I was put in charge of filling the water can and emptying the drain bucket, which I did twice a day. In addition, I cared for the few potted plants he kept and the two flower beds he had me plant next to his office entry. Though my rank did not increase with this new job, my status among the troops took a quantum leap. I quickly discovered that when told to do something by a ranking NCO or an officer, I could mention I should check with the colonel and they would tell me not to bother, they would get someone else. No one was willing to inconvenience the colonel by tying up his flunky, or saying "no," when I requested something. Life improved a lot for me as I learned to take full advantage of my new found position. The arrival of our baby was very near and I waited anxiously, expecting each day to hear from the Red Cross, the good news that I was a daddy. Since the lag time for mail was nearly three weeks, it did nothing to write letters of inquiry. Consequently, I was nearly consumed with worry on the tenth day after Annie's due date. Finally, a messenger arrived with the news that the Red Cross Representative wanted to talk to me. On the way to the Red Cross office, I felt as if I were ten feet tall while trying to decide a nickname for my new son. I planned to give him the name I inherited from my grandfather, but I knew that two men with the same name, in the same household, would be confusing, so it was important that he have a good nickname. The closer I came to my destination, the more proud I became, knowing I had fathered my dad's first grandchild and a son, to carry on the family name. By the time I reached the door, I thought I was going to explode with anticipation. I composed myself and regained my military bearing before I knocked on the door and entered smartly at attention when invited to enter. The Red Cross officer was all smiles as she began to read the telegram and I dared not look at her for fear I could not keep from laughing with joy, at the long awaited good news. "We are pleased to inform you of the birth of your daughter born this date." The telegram began. I was shocked at the birth of a daughter because I expected a son. My mouth dropped open, my eyes popped wide and I weakly exclaimed, "You're kidding!" The Red Cross woman, perhaps thinking I was unaware of my wife's pregnancy, immediately stopped reading and began to counsel me, saying, "These things sometimes happen when husbands are away." "But it's not possible" I blurted, still surprised and not realizing what she was thinking. My comment reinforced the woman's concerns and she stepped from behind her desk walking towards me while she tried to calm and console me. Just as she invited me to sit and talk about it, I realized what she was thinking and began chuckling. This caught her completely off guard and she looked at me as if I was crazy, until I explained why I was so surprised. We had a good laugh together and I left feeling very proud of my new role as father, even if my daughter was ten thousand miles away. Although it would be months before I could see her, I had a new daughter and I went straight to the malt shop to celebrate. I did not recognize Lee when I first noticed him sitting alone at the bar. He appeared considerably older than I knew him to be and he was wearing staff sergeant, E-6, stripes. I could not believe he would be an E-6 already, but the more I stared, the more the matured soldier looked like Lee, and I finally walked over for a closer look. As I approached, he looked my direction, quickly rose from his stool and rushed toward me with arms outstretched in greeting. I had not seen or heard from Lee since Tigerland and had no idea that he was in the 9th Division. I do not know which surprised me most, seeing someone from home, or his appearance that definitely showed the effects of his time in combat. After ordering another round, we sat at a table and I began to ask questions in rapid-fire fashion, barely giving him time to answer, before I fired another salvo. I was so curious about what he had been doing and how he, a draftee, became an E-6, that I forgot for a time why I was celebrating. Lee told me his platoon was on patrol in the north end of the Delta at the extreme edge of the 9th's area of operations, when they walked into a VC ambush. In the ensuing fire fight, every man in his platoon was hit, except Lee. The officers were killed and the NCO's were unable to function because of their wounds. The radio operator was able to call for a "dustoff" but when the choppers arrived, the LZ (landing zone) was too hot for them to land. Meanwhile, Lee, the last able-bodied man, assumed command, just as infantrymen are trained to do and single-handedly held the enemy at bay with an M-60 machine gun. He continued to lay down a base of fire to secure an area for the choppers to land and then began carrying his wounded comrades to the "OD angels" for evacuation, even though, he was wounded himself. Not concerned with his own welfare or safety, Lee continued to work until all the wounded were aboard before boarding himself. Lee's heroic actions earned him a purple heart, a silver star and a battlefield promotion to 2nd lieutenant. He modestly turned down the promotion to the officer ranks, so his company commander promoted him to staff sergeant, E-6. He deserved it. He earned it the hard way. As we visited, I asked Lee if he knew anything about Red, or his whereabouts. Red, Lee and I did not know each other before being drafted and were only casual acquaintances during basic training. We became friends during our training at Tigerland when our wives got together somehow, and made the trip to Ft. Polk, Louisiana, to see us, one weekend. On the way home, they ran into a blizzard, slid off the roadway, wrecking the car, forcing them to walk in the snow for help. Fortunately, no one was hurt seriously. After this we had a common experience on which to develop our friendship. Red, like Lee, had shipped out of Tigerland straight to the infantry in Nam. His was a bad luck tour from the beginning, according to Lee. During a routine march between outposts, his company was traveling single file, along both sides of a road, when a grenade came flying out of the bush and landed in the road. Someone shouted "grenade," and everyone dived for cover. Red kissed the dirt behind a tree and covered his ears in anticipation of the explosion. The grenade rolled off the road and landed against the tree Red was behind. The explosion knocked the tree over on Red, which put him in the hospital for several days. He was sore from bruises and cuts but not seriously injured. However, his pride took a real beating from the other guys in his unit wanting to know about the "attack tree" or making other similar remarks. Red's next encounter with the enemy had far more disastrous results. His unit was called on to bail out a recon patrol that was in a fire fight with a superior enemy force and about to be overrun. When a chopper hits a hot LZ to drop a fighting unit, the pilot keeps the craft four or five feet off the ground. The soldiers jump to the ground and return fire as quickly as possible, to protect the aircraft. The helicopter never stops moving, never touches the ground and immediately climbs toward the heavens, as soon as the last man jumps. Red was on the door and the first man out of the chopper when they hit the landing zone in a hail of bullets. He jumped from about six feet up and immediately disappeared as the ground gave way where he landed. After the area was secured, the medics found Red impaled on bamboo spears, in a punji pit. In typical fashion, Charlie had covered the insidious trap with a thin layer of vegetation, designed to give way under the weight of a man, causing him to fall on the bed of sharpened bamboo stakes protruding from the bottom. As an added touch, the points were coated with human excrement, so the victim was subject to severe infection if he survived the fall onto the piercing spikes. Red survived the fall, even though the spears had penetrated both legs, his buttocks and lower back. He had spent months in the hospital, endured fourteen surgical operations, was confined to a wheelchair, his wife had divorced him and he was perpetually drunk, when I last heard about him, years later. He, in reality, had given his life for his country. I did not ask about anyone else. I did not want to hear about any more misery, so I ordered another round and turned the conversation to the birth of my daughter. As I spoke of home and the expectation of seeing my wife and new baby, Lee's eyes filled with tears and he told me he had received a "Dear John" letter from his wife. "Damn," I thought, as the hot liquid began to trickle down my cheeks also, "doesn't this war ever stop taking?" We sat in silence for a long time, each of us swallowing hard, trying to regain our composure, until finally, I managed to blurt out that I had to go and stood to leave. "Me too," said Lee, and we started for the door together. Outside we shook hands, said good-by and headed in separate directions, He, back to his war and me, back to mine. Thanksgiving was the second in a row I had to spend away from my home and family, in the service of Uncle Sam. I began the day somewhat less than thankful, but we had the day off since a one-day cease fire had been worked out with the North Vietnamese Government and that I did appreciate. The highlight of the day was dinner. The mess hall crew really knocked themselves out preparing a special Thanksgiving Day meal, consisting of canned turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. They decorated with autumn colors, paper cutouts of turkeys and pumpkins. They even had a menu printed that listed the courses of the meal, along with a traditional Thanksgiving poem. The efforts of the mess crew really neutralized a lot of the resentment I felt about being separated from my wife and new baby during the holiday season. Their efforts appeared to have the same effect on the other men and a festive atmosphere quickly developed which carried through the rest of the day and late into the night. When the meal was finished, we shoved the tables to one side; broke out what looked to be a box car load of beer; turned on the music and began to party. Some men took advantage of the opportunity just to visit with each other. Some, after a few beers, decided to dance and still others, huddled to gamble with cards or dice and some were just there. After dark, we watched a beach movie that was popular at the time, though it was impossible to hear the sound track, because of all the whistling and shouting when a pretty girl came on screen, which was every frame. Finally, the movies were over, the beer was gone and I headed for my hooch to hit the rack. As I lay on the hard canvas cot, I at first started to complain to myself about my misfortune in not having an air mattress (I had sewn a button on my shirt and without thinking, stuck the needle in my air mattress), but then disciplined myself to think of some reasons to be thankful. I started with being alive and not wounded, not having to wade rice paddies, having a faithful wife and a new daughter. By the time I drifted off to sleep, the list was long. When the 9th Division deployed from Ft. Riley, Kansas, they did so in three stages, each troop movement following the previous one by a month. The men who were in the first shipment began to rotate back to the States, after I had been there about six months. As they left and their replacements arrived, I became one of the "short timers," at least to those who were just coming in-country. However, I had long ago quit worrying about the time I had left to do and started concentrating on getting through each day, as it came. To be sure, I could on a moment's notice tell someone the number of days until my rotation, as could any GI in Nam. But even at the half-way point of my tour, I had so many days left that it was depressing to think about it. Though I may have been "short" to those who had just arrived, I still felt as if I had a lifetime to go. It did not take the new arrivals long to realize that I had some sort of special status, since I never seemed to work and spent a lot of time in the colonel's quarters. I, of course, enjoyed their curiosity and was very secretive about what I did, which heightened the mystery. Unfortunately, our new company commander also began to notice me and it did not take him long to decide to try to change my whole military career. The captain was a professional football player who had run out of deferments and had to serve his time in the military. He spent the previous six months commanding an infantry line unit and had a real "attitude" problem with rear echelon troops. In his opinion, the only men who deserved to be called soldiers, were those in the line units. He thought, the rest of us were on a free ride and he was determined to work us long and hard to make up for our lack of combat duty. My first personal encounter with the captain came as I was making my way to the mess hall one morning for breakfast. As usual, I was late getting up and had missed the morning formation. On this particular morning, my absence was noticed by our new captain who startled me by shouting my name, just as I turned off the company street, walking toward the mess hall. I quickly snapped to attention as he approached and asked why I was not in the morning formation. I mumbled something about oversleeping, thinking he would be satisfied with any answer and go about his business. However, to my surprise he revealed he had taken a personal interest in me, found I worked for a colonel and assured me my days of special treatment were finished. He concluded by asking if my uniform had been altered and when I said "yes," he told me to go to the supply sergeant and get new regulation uniforms to wear. Since it was common practice to have our baggy pants and shirts cut to fit, when I requested new uniforms from the supply sergeant, he told me mine looked fine. Although I protested that the CO had ordered me to get new uniforms, he still sent me away empty handed. I shrugged it off and headed back toward the mess hall for breakfast. Again, the booming voice shouting my name brought me to a dead stop in my tracks. "I told you to change uniforms" the captain barked and I could feel the anger in his voice. Quickly, I blurted out that the supply sergeant said mine looked fine. I watched his teeth clench and his eyes narrow as he turned and said "follow me." I thought the door was coming off its hinges as he shoved it open with the full force of his six feet, six inch, two hundred forty pound frame and the walls shook as he shouted for the supply sergeant at the top of his lungs. The sergeant who was napping, jumped as if he had been shocked and quickly stood at attention. "Did this man request new uniforms?" Asked the captain. "Yes sir" came the sergeantís reply. "Then see that he gets them," said the captain, as he turned for the door, leaving me to face the obviously angry, supply sergeant. "So you need uniforms, well here they are," said the sergeant as he tossed me a bundle of olive drab. Without comment, I grasped the clothing and walked outside, feeling fortunate to have my body intact, not to mention the new uniforms. As I unfolded the uniforms, I realized the sergeant had his revenge for what he supposed was my snitching on him. The uniforms would have looked like a tent on a man as large as the captain and I was not close to his size. However, I had been given a direct order to change clothes, so I put on the uniform. The shoulder seams hung almost to my elbows and the ends of the sleeves were about even with my knees. The pant legs were a foot too long and the waist would have circled three bodies the size of mine. When I cinched my belt, the gathered material around my waist looked comparable to the top of a pleated drapery and the crotch of the pants was just above my knees. Determined to follow orders, I rolled up the excess sleeve and leg material, put on my headgear, and for the third time headed to the mess hall. When I entered the building a wave of silence swept over the room followed by a few audible snickers and finally uncontrolled laughter at my appearance. "Do you plan to eat enough to fill that uniform," someone shouted. "No one could stand that much of this crap," came a response from among the roar of laughter. Other remarks such as "Maybe daddy's uniform will fit after you grow up" and "that's his uniform someone just kicked all the BS out of him," fueled the uproar, making me wish I could somehow disappear. Suddenly, someone shouted "attention" and the laughter ended more quickly than it began. From across the room the CO shouted, "What have you got on?" "My new uniform sir," was my weak reply. Wagging his head in disbelief and trying hard to suppress his own chuckles, he ordered me to put on my old uniform and report to his office immediately. "We both realize you were just following orders," he said with a definite air of sarcasm, "but maybe a week on the "shit-burning" detail will improve your sense of duty." "Yes sir," I responded, at once thankful I had missed breakfast. I saluted and departed for the motor pool to start work on my new assignment. The rest of the unfortunates and I loaded into the back of a deuce-and-a-half that was numbered 007 and left the motor pool to start our appointed rounds. As the truck rumbled across the dirt roads toward the other end of the base, we were tossed about like rubber balls as we fought to maintain our balance and continue standing. Not one of us desired to sit in the bed that contained the leftovers from hundreds of previous details. The latrines were built similar to a rural outhouse except they were not placed over a hole in the ground. The receptor was a fifty-five gallon steel drum half, placed under the toilet seat, equipped with cut-out hand holes to facilitate removal and loading on the truck known as 007. In the course of a normal day, these containers would each accumulate about twenty gallons of human excrement that had to be emptied into a larger barrel soaked with fuel oil and ignited. Over the entire base literally hundreds of gallons of this raw sewage often containing vermin such as maggots and drowned rats, had to be collected and disposed. Two men would grab each barrel half and heave it into the back of the truck, where two other men would consolidate the contents, then throw the barrel to the ground for placement back under the latrine. The putrid gruel would slosh out during collection and transportation to the burning site and we, as well as the truck were covered with it in a very short time. The dayís monsoon rain provided a welcome washing of men and truck. At the burning site, the black smoke boiling from the burning human waste stuck to the skin and clothes like tar and had an indescribably horrible smell that attracted flies in great swarms. The men who kept the fires burning looked like blackened demons as they probed and fueled their respective infernos. The retching normally subsided after an hour or so, as one became accustomed to the odor and dedicated himself to finishing as soon as possible. One good thing about the detail was that when the job was done, the workday was finished. Another was that a man quickly learned not to bite his fingernails. The sirens normally preceded the sounds of exploding mortars by only a few seconds and this time was no different, but it was ample time to grab my combat gear and head for my assigned bunker. Within minutes after arriving at my duty station, a truck rolled up and my squad was ordered to load into the back. We joined a convoy of other trucks loaded with troops that parked along side the division heliport. Because the helicopters used in Vietnam were the pieces of equipment that "Charlie" feared most, he nearly always targeted the heliport during his mortar attacks and this one was no different. However, it did seem a little unusual to be sitting in the back of a truck parked next to the primary target of an enemy mortar assault. As the exploding rounds continued, the men became restless and started leaving the trucks for a safer location. In the midst of the confusion, the booming voice of our captain pierced the night, ordering us back to the trucks, where we sat, hunkered up as much as possible, until the end of the attack. All during this time, our captain was standing inside a bunker, watching out the door to see that we stayed on the trucks. As is the case, most of the time in the army, no one knew why we were in the trucks, just that we were ordered to do something and we did it. We were often told, "Ours was not to reason why, ours was but to do or die," and though as usual we did not like it, we were willing to do our duty and follow orders to the point of death, if necessary. However, it hung in my craw like the stench of the latrine detail that our captain would stay in the relative safety of a bunker while his men huddled unprotected in the backs of trucks. I decided a few days later, to write a letter to the editor in my hometown newspaper, documenting what had happened and questioning my commander's actions during the mortar attack. I really did not expect anything other than the opportunity to vent my anger, but the reaction of people back in the States was anything but minor. During the period of time between writing my letter to the editor and becoming aware of the results, my life was an endless cycle of extra duty provided by the CO. His harassment was noticed by the colonel and sergeant-major. Both questioned me about it, but made no effort to intercede on my behalf. However, their attitudes changed the day the captain ordered me to get my hair cut while I was on an errand for the colonel. Rather than go immediately to the barber shop, I finished the errand and went to the sergeant-major for permission to leave my duty station to get my hair cut. I left the barber shop and was on my way back to the colonel's office when the captain intercepted me. He told me to bring my supervisor and report to his office. I relayed to the colonel what the captain ordered me to do and he told the sergeant-major to go with me to see the captain. I was standing at attention in front of the CO's desk when he began by saying, "Sergeant-major, I told this man to get his hair cut." But before he could finish, the sergeant-major interrupted and asked that I be excused. The captain curtly ordered me to leave the room and I quickly moved outside but stood close to the door straining to hear their conversation. I could not understand what was said, but it was loud and I barely had time to move when the sergeant-major charged out the door. "Let's go," he snapped, without looking in my direction and I could tell from his body posture and stomping gait, that he was more than a little mad. "That shave tail has a lot to learn about this man's army," he muttered, on the way back to his office. "He may be an officer and the company commander, but he's not going to yank my men around without reason." I felt as if I had won a major victory. Maybe now, things would get back to the way they were and I could finish my tour and go home. A few days later, I was watering the colonel's flowers when a soldier walked up, asked my name and said the commanding general wanted to see me. "Sure," I replied, "I'll be right there." Confident that one of my buddies was trying to pull something, I continued my chores, smugly congratulating myself for not being foolish enough to believe the guy. After a short time, he reappeared. "The general wants to see you now, move it," he barked. I had no idea why the division's highest ranking officer wanted to see me, but I knew it was not a social visit. I was really nervous when I entered the headquarters building and a lieutenant told me, "Go on in, the general's expecting you." I knocked quietly on the door, hoping he would not hear and I could leave, but I was not so fortunate. "Come in," he growled and when I opened the door he was standing right in front of it, with his hands on his hips. I felt like a school boy on his first trip to the principal's office. "What are you trying to do, win the Pulitzer prize," he sneered, as he walked toward his desk that was covered with stacks of letters. "All of these are from folks back home who want to know what is going on," he said, as he pointed to a stack of papers on his desk. Motioning to another pile he voiced, "This stack is from senators and congressmen demanding an explanation." The top item in this stack was a blue folder with the words "Congressional Inquiry" written across it. It was immediately obvious that my hometown newspaper had printed my letter complaining about the captainís actions during the mortar attack. What I did not know is that several newspapers across the US had printed it and the public outcry was being heard in Washington. "Now, I realize you probably wrote your letter in the heat of anger and exaggerated the facts, so I want to give you the opportunity to recant your story," the general said, as he pushed a paper in front of me to read. "If you'll sign this paper that states you were mistaken in your account of the events occurring that night, we can all forget this whole sticky affair." "Otherwise," he continued, "you are going to cause me a lot of paperwork and jeopardize the career of a fine young officer." "I know you don't want to do that," he petitioned as he held a pen in my direction. I made no move to accept the pen, but swallowed hard and said, "I'm sorry, Sir, I can't sign that statement." "What I wrote is the truth," I nervously stuttered, realizing that I was probably making the biggest mistake of my military life. At the same time I was determined to stand on my convictions. He did not respond but glared at me for a long moment, staring deep into my eyes. I held his eye contact, though my insides were shaking. I feared his reaction, and yet, I sensed he knew I was telling the truth, but felt duty bound to protect his fellow officer. Finally, without emotion, he told me I was dismissed, so I saluted and left his office. I was outside the headquarters building before I allowed myself to exhale in sheer relief, but the emotional pressure left me drained and I needed a drink, so I headed to the "malt shop." Bolstered by the alcohol, I told the other men about my visit with the general and how I had finally gotten even with the captain for all the misery he dealt me. By the time the club closed I was, at least in my own pickled mind, a real local hero. He's learned not to mess with me I thought, as I staggered through the darkness to my hooch. Following my visit to the general's office, the CO ignored my existence and with him off my back I had a lot of free time again, so I devoted it to drinking. It numbed my senses and made time go by faster, I reasoned to myself, but in reality I was caught in the trap of alcoholism that would take control of my life for several years. My buddies began to caution me that I was drinking too much, but my downward spiral continued at ever increasing speed. Then something happened that revived the captainís interest in me. I failed to report for guard duty. I attempted to report but passed out in the doorway to my hooch. My roommates took me to the field hospital but the medics, thinking I was drunk, instructed them to take me to my bunk and let me sleep. The alcohol was certainly a contributing factor, but I was not drunk that day. My problem was uncontrolled blood sugar levels. Sometime that night, I was awakened from my stupor by someone shining a light in my eyes and telling me to get out of bed. Groggily, I tried to stand but was unable to do so without the aid of my tormentor, who grabbed me by the arm and drug me outside. In the moonlight I could see the silhouette of a giant of a man and knew it could only be one person, the captain. He drug, shoved, pushed and prodded me down the company street, dressed only in my skivvies, toward the orderly room. There, he guided me into his office, shut the door and I heard the action of a lock snapping into place. Too sick and wrung out to care what was happening, I sank to the floor and drifted off to sleep. The next morning I opened my eyes to unfamiliar surroundings and it took a few moments to remember where I was. My bladder felt as if it would burst and I had a condition common to young men who need to pee in the morning. I slowly pulled myself off the floor, hoping to find a urinal quickly, when I noticed the captain sitting behind his desk watching me. "Good morning, Sleeping Beauty," he chortled, and I quickly snapped to attention. Standing at attention, dressed only in my dog tags and undershorts, the need to relieve my bladder was very obvious and I could tell he was enjoying every moment of my indignity. "I've decided to do you a favor," he said. "It's clear that you're an alcoholic, so I'm going to keep you locked up and under guard until you dry out." With that statement he called for two armed guards and instructed them that I was to stay in his office at all times, unless I was in the latrine or mess hall. Also, they were to accompany me at all times and he told them to shoot me if I tried to escape. By the time he finished instructing them, I was in such pain from holding my bladder that I was rocking back and forth from one foot to the other and I wished they would go ahead and shoot me to end my misery. Finally, the captain realized I had reached the limit and instructed them to take me to the latrine. It was quite an embarrassing time, parading down the company street in my undershorts, with part of me at attention, being followed by two armed guards. I was smart enough to realize that if I would sign the document, recanting my letter to the newspaper, my confinement would end, but I was too hard headed to give in to that request. Legally, I could not be confined without a trial, but by telling me he was trying to help get me off the booze, the captain had covered himself just in case anyone asked about my unofficial imprisonment. Finally, after two weeks of living in his office, I guess the captain grew tired of seeing me constantly, and probably realized I was too pig headed to sign a recant, so he released me from my makeshift prison. Not willing to let it go, I immediately wrote a letter to my congressman explaining what had happened. I never received a reply to my letter, but neither did the captain bother me again. My R & R to Hawaii, to see Annie and our daughter who was now three months old was to begin in a couple of days. I waited until my tour was nearly over to take an R & R and it seemed the time would never come. Tet would also begin on the same day as my R & R and there had been rumors circulating that the VC had something big in store, but I didn't care, I was going to Hawaii. My bag was packed and I arranged for a chopper ride to Saigon the next day. Therefore, I figured a little celebrating was appropriate before leaving, so with one of my buddies, I stopped at a beer bust taking place down the road from our hooch. A lot of empties were on the ground and people were beginning to get a little rowdy, as they generally do under those conditions, when a guy who had been in-country only a few weeks began arguing with my friend. Now, Sut was a small man with a big mouth, who often became very sharp tongued when he was drinking. Most every one knew he was mouthy and generally ignored his remarks and mannerisms, especially me, since he talked so fast I could not understand half of what he said, even when we were sober. My standard response to nearly everything he said was, "Huh." The result was that every time he spoke to me he had to repeat himself. On the other hand, when I spoke to Sut, he acted as if he thought I would never finish a sentence because I spoke so slowly. Sut probably started it and probably deserved it when the guy punched him but because he was my buddy, I jumped in the middle of the big man who had him on the ground. Sut immediately scrambled for safety and left me to face the monster of a man, who at that moment had the demeanor of a mad Grizzly. Realizing I was outsized by a considerable margin, I quickly began firing my best punches, hoping to gain the advantage, in the early going. However, my best shots only had the effect of further infuriating him, as he repeatedly charged me in football tackle fashion. I knew as he did, if he ever managed to knock me down, his tremendous weight advantage would allow him to finish me. I had a lot of street fighting experience from my school days. Where I grew up, black leather jackets, duck tails, dog chains and the willingness to fight for any reason, were ways of life. Consequently, my experience and quickness allowed me to hold my own and though I lacked the knockout power to stop my opponent, I was stinging him with punches and kicks as he continued to try to tackle me. Though I had not taken any punches, I was tiring from throwing so many and dodging around. The sudden exertion had caused the alcohol to go to my head and I felt myself stagger occasionally. My opponent, though cut and bleeding was still charging as a raging bull and I stepped back to try to kick his lowered head. I missed and the momentum of the missed kick caused me to fall backward to the ground. He was on me instantly and though I kicked and squirmed I could not escape his vice-like grip. Shoving my hand in his face, I felt my fingers in his nostrils and I pulled upward on his nose with all my strength. As his nose tore from his face, he let out a scream of rage and began to pound me with his fists. His weight advantage soon wore me down and he sat with his knees on my shoulders, beating me senseless. When I came to, we were encircled by a group of GI's who had apparently pulled my opponent off me. He was sitting beside me, holding his nose in a handkerchief, trying to stop the flow of blood while he watched to see if I would awaken. He must have thought he had killed me and I caught his slight look of relief, as my eyes focused on his face. My head felt the effects of being used for a punching bag. My knees and elbows were raw, impregnated with gravel and dirt from scrubbing them on the ground. I doubt that I would have felt worse if a tank had run over me. We were helped to our feet after a few minutes and decided we both better go to the field hospital for repairs, so together, we staggered to the hospital. We knew we would be in serious trouble for fighting each other, so on the way we concocted a story about being jumped, by a truckload of Korean soldiers. I arrived at Ton Son Knut air base the next day, bruised and swollen, with my knees and elbows so tightly bandaged I could barely bend them. I really did not want to bend them though, since they hurt so much. The more people asked me about my injuries, the more foolish I felt and I wondered what I was going to tell Annie, when I arrived in Hawaii. I hoped my immobility would not ruin her vacation. My flight was scheduled to depart at 0500 hours the next morning, so I hit the rack early, both to try to rest and because I was in so much pain when I bent my knees and elbows. The holding billet for those awaiting flight departures was a large metal building containing rows of bunk beds barely 18 inches apart. Bunk numbers were assigned at the time of arrival and I had drawn an upper berth, which was extremely painful for me to climb into, so once there, I decided to stay. Shortly after midnight, the first rounds of combat, pierced the night and the metal building where I was sleeping. Instinctively, I rolled off the edge of my bunk and fell to the floor, screaming in pain at the added torment to my knees and elbows. Because the bunks were so close together, I landed on a black soldier who bunked beneath me and he immediately ordered, "Get off me, white boy." "Just move over, I'll be glad to get on bottom," I responded, as another blast of shrapnel tore through the metal siding on the building. "No way, man," he said, as we both scrambled to get closer to the floor. The attack on Ton Son Knut lasted five days, during which we were confined to the billet, unarmed, depending on the Saigon Warriors to defend us. I dreaded the possibility the VC would discover we were unarmed and charge the compound. The first two days were spent without food and when the C-rations finally arrived, even I was glad to get them. The confinement, not knowing how long it would last, whether or not we would get to go on our R & R's, and hundreds of other questions each man had, took a mental toll. Arguments and fights began to break out as tempers flared because of nerves worn thin. I, however, did my best to avoid everyone because my injuries were constant reminders to keep my mouth shut. Finally, the enemy offensive was sufficiently suppressed to allow flights to resume and as I boarded the airplane, I wondered if Annie would still be in Hawaii. My worst fear was that she had given up and gone home. As we readied to deplane in Honolulu, we were a motley group. We had not showered or changed clothes in over six days, our faces were unshaven and body odors rank but our loved ones did not care. For them, as well as the men on the plane, the suspense of war was over for a few days and a cheer rose up from the crowd as the door of the airplane was opened. The airplane captain's voice on the intercom, advising us that we were starting the descent to Ton Son Knut, awakened me from my light sleep and my thoughts immediately focused on the past week of R & R. Annie was in the crowd, just as she and others waiting for GI's did daily for a week. They were given no information other than our flight had been delayed indefinitely, but that first moment of greeting at the airport made the long wait worth it. As I walked down the ramp, people were pointing at my bandages and whispering to each other probably thinking I was wounded in combat. It was embarrassing to tell Annie what had happened. We had a great time in Hawaii and I was proud of my daughter, even if she did seem to cry a lot. However, the time had gone so quickly, and it was very hard to get back on the plane for Nam. Only the knowledge that I was nearly through with my tour, kept me from flying to the States with Annie. We were just about to touch down, when I saw an explosion along the edge of the runway. Suddenly I was slammed against the back of my seat by the G-force as the pilot goosed the plane and stuck its nose in the air. It was amazing how much thrust that airliner had when pushed to its limits. Nothing had changed while we were gone. "Charlie" was still trying to get an airliner. We circled for an hour or so and finally landed without incident, though everyone was apprehensive during the entire time. No one wants to be hit on his way back from R & R. As I stepped out of the airplane the sickening stench that was uniquely, Vietnam, hit my nose. Over the past week, I had forgotten how bad it was. As I approached the terminal building, a large rat ran along the edge of the building, looking for his point of entry. A fitting welcome back to the dung heap of the world, I thought, only in ninety days I'm leaving here for good. Cass was the first of my close buddies to rotate back to the States and several of his friends, including me, decided to send him off in style. The plan was to give him a going away party in Bien Hoa the night before his departure. Cass would have a pass, since he was leaving country, but because all non US Military facilities were off-limits, the rest of us had to do some serious scheming to arrange to be there. The division trash dump was a huge hole outside the berm filled with constantly smoldering refuse from inside the base camp. A detachment of guards surrounded the pit, both to provide security for soldiers who dumped the trash and to keep the Vietnamese from rummaging through it. Keeping the Vietnamese away was an impossible task. Although the guards were armed, pilfering trash is hardly an offense punishable by death, so the best they could do was chase them away, individually. However, while a guard was occupied with chasing one person away, three or four other Vietnamese would jump into the heap to select their treasures. Therefore, as a rule, the only time the guards tried to scatter the Vietnamese civilians who constantly milled around the area was when they were bored or when one of the division's high ranking officers made an inspection tour. The only things of interest, to most who shuffled through the trash, were food items, which made the guards reluctant to chase them away, since they realized the people were hungry. Whole families, mothers carrying children, fathers, young sons and daughters, could be seen pilfering through the heaps of refuse. They would occasionally find a whole piece of fruit, or bread, or some other edible, and joyfully shove it into a sack, to later share with other members of their family. It was a pitiful sight to see the dirt-streaked face of a young child break into a grin, when he found such a cast away item. How miserable life must be when one finds joy in a partially rotten apple or half-eaten banana. The area also abounded with prostitutes and dope peddlers who hoped to trade their misery for GI dollars. The guards generally tried to dissuade doing business with them but for a few bucks would turn their heads, while some GI walked behind the bushes with a girl on his arm or traded piasters for bags of white powder. The dump was undoubtedly the source for much of the "clapp" and drug addiction that infected the troops in the division base camp. Since Sut had a military driver's license, he checked out a deuce-and-a-half truck from the motor pool under the pretense of hauling a load of trash to the dump. The rest of us simply loaded a few trash barrels and climbed aboard with them. At the main gate the guards paid little attention to a load of trash since it was such a routine thing and common for soldiers to be hanging all over a truck going to the dump, taking advantage of an opportunity to get outside the berm. After a brief stop at the dump to empty the barrels, we removed our division shoulder patches, so as not to be readily identifiable as 9th Division Troops. We then turned toward Bien Hoa, boasting to each other about our great escape, from the security of "Bearcat." Bien Hoa was like every other town in Vietnam, a beehive of activity with cars, bikes and people running around with no apparent sense of direction. Our truck melded into the throng and we were just another Government Issue that no one paid particular attention to, in the endless moving mass. Not familiar with the town and not caring where we were, only that we wanted a place to party, we turned on a side street out of the main stream of traffic and parked the truck. As a group, the six of us sauntered down the street joking and laughing with each other, while we fended off the onslaught of begging kids who surrounded us. We were in high spirits. One of our group was going home tomorrow and the rest had for the moment, beaten the system. We entered the first bar we found. It was mid-morning and since we were the first customers of the day, we were greeted quickly by a group of "tea girls," who were eager to get their day's income started. "Tea girls" were Vietnamese women who would sit and listen to a GI tell war stories or reminisce about home or anything he wanted to talk about, as long as he bought her tea to drink, at highly inflated prices. They were masters at separating a soldier from his paycheck and many a novice awakened the next day wondering how he could have been fleeced so easily. We were not interested and when we spurned their advances, they sat across the bar with arms crossed, glaring at us with pursed lips as they pouted at their failures to cash in on their obvious charms. For me, and I suspect the others, the thrill of being outside the berm, away from the regimentation of the military, in fact, AWOL in a war zone, produced a high beyond anything the alcohol we drank could do. However, I drank my share to continue the euphoria and sense of not caring I had come to expect from alcohol. By the time we left that bar I was feeling very mellow and unconcerned with my situation. We next staggered into a supper club type of place, where we ordered steaks I am sure were intended for consumption by military personnel, but were diverted to the black market. After finishing our meal, a couple of the men took a greater interest in the "tea girls" and spent most of the evening on the dance floor paying for dances while they dreamed they were with their girl friends back home. A 2200 curfew was in effect for all military personnel and when the time came we were invited to a hotel next to the club, by the "tea girls" that danced with the men. This open solicitation was eagerly accepted by the guys whose hormones were racing from the night's activities. Cass and I, primarily because we had no other place to stay the night, reluctantly agreed to go along. Neither was interested in staying with a woman. He was going home the next day and I was just back from R & R with my wife. We sat down at the head of the stairs as the others paired off and went into rooms. The sounds of bedroom activity emitting from behind the closed doors were a source of humor to Cass and me, as we sat at the top of the stairs, laughing and nipping from the bottle of whiskey we brought with us. The guttural sounds soon subsided and we were left alone in silence to continue nursing our whiskey bottle and reminiscing. With no warning, an MP appeared on the landing below us, heading our direction. He did not notice us sitting at the top of the stairs until Cass leveled his rifle, which had been across his lap, and shouted, "Halt." The MP who was off duty and interested only in finding a girl, was so shocked at seeing a rifle barrel in his face that he stumbled backward and fell against the wall of the landing. At first, I thought Cass was just yanking the guy around a little, until I noticed the hardened glare in his eyes. "I'll kill you before I'll let you take me in," Cass muttered between clenched teeth. His alcohol numbed brain was convinced the MP was after him, even though the MP quickly realized the gravity of the situation, and was begging for his life. "Let him go Cass," I interceded, not nearly drunk enough to be a party to murder. For a long moment that surely seemed like hours to the wide-eyed MP, Cass stared at him over the top of his rifle and then slowly and deliberately, as if reserving the right to change his mind, lowered the rifle to his lap and picked up the whiskey bottle. As he leaned his head back to gulp from the bottle, the MP leaped down the stairs and ran out the door. I first breathed a sigh of relief as I watched him make his escape, then I realized the place would be crawling with MP's, looking for us in a very short time. I ran down the hallway knocking on doors and shouting, "let's get out of here," to the other men as they appeared in the doorways, in various stages of undress. No one questioned my orders to leave and within moments we were collectively staggering down the street as they buttoned shirts, hitched up belts and tied boots. It had been a long time and many drinks since we parked the truck and now we had no idea where to find the vehicle. In the darkness, all the streets looked alike and even if we had been sober, I doubt we could have found the truck. The burst of adrenaline we each felt as we broke from the hotel had faded and the reality that we were lost hit each of us about the same time. We instinctively walked single file down the dark street, gripping our rifles, eyeing each doorway and window of the buildings we passed. There was no activity, civilian or otherwise. It was as if all life had ceased to exist and we began to wish we had not left the hotel so hastily. For no reason, other than one direction is as good as another when you are lost we turned at the first intersection and proceeded cautiously through the silent darkness. We saw lights come around the corner at the intersection ahead of us and block the road. We froze in our tracks as spotlights from our rear bathed us in brilliance, casting our long shadows forward, adding to the eeriness of the moment. Frankly, I was relieved to hear an American voice pierce the stillness, instructing us to lay down our rifles and raise our hands. The trip to the Long Bihn Jail or LBJ as it was called by most soldiers, was short but uncomfortable, riding in the back of a jeep with my hands cuffed behind my back. When we arrived, the desk sergeant ordered us locked in the holding tank, where we joined several other men who had been picked up during the evening. I first leaned against the wall of the cell, not wanting to sit in the filth of the floor, but slowly slid down the wall to a sitting position with my head on my knees, too exhausted to care any more. One of the soldiers, who was still very drunk, kept shaking the bars on the cell door and complaining that he needed to use the toilet. The guard paid no attention to his request, but would whack the man's fingers with his night stick, when he grabbed the cell door to shake it. Finally, the soldier drained his bladder on the guard's walkway outside the cell, which provoked two of the guards to enter the cell and beat him until he was unconscious. They then dragged his limp body out of the cell and locked him in a conex container. The conex containers were originally used for items transported aboard ships. They were constructed of heavy gauge metal with a door for loading and were designed to pack neatly into the hold of a ship. They made excellent isolation pens for unruly prisoners, since they had no openings other than the door that when closed, let in very little light or air. Sitting in the tropical sun the container became an oven, sufficient to sweat the meanness out of a man. I sure hoped I did not have to pee anytime soon. The next morning we were released to our first sergeant, who had been called to retrieve us and the truck we had driven to town. Fortunately for Cass, the sergeant arrived early enough to get him to the airport in time for his flight home. We thought they might delay Cass for a court-martial or other punishment but I guess they were so glad to get rid of him, they decided to let him go on home. The four men, other than myself, who were involved, were each reduced in rank and fined by our CO, but I never heard anything about our escapade, even though I was the senior participant. At long last, the day of my departure was near. I was preparing to leave for Bien Hoa the next morning. My flight would be the day following and it seemed almost too good to be true that I was actually leaving, forever. All of my running buddies had already rotated and I was surrounded by new men whom I did not know, nor care to meet. I knew I would never write when I got home, no one ever did and that would only increase their feeling they had been forgotten. Watching them mope around with sick looks on their faces brought back painful memories of my first days in-country and my packing to leave was a grim reminder to them that they were staying so I could go. I did not intentionally plan to be offensive when I frequently yelled, "short," but I was so elated at the prospect of going home I failed to remember how much I hated that word when I first came to Vietnam. All I knew was that my war was nearly over and I was so happy I had to shout. As was the custom, I passed along items I had collected during my stay. Articles of clothing, equipment and personal items were all received with thanks, each recipient realizing my gifts would make life a little easier for him. I wondered as I watched men select things from the assortment on my bunk, if I could handle starting over with as much time as they had to do. I was both happy to be going and sad they were staying. The helicopter quickly rose above the heliport and veered to the left toward Bien Hoa. As we flew across the center of Camp Bearcat, I found myself staring at the sprawling military community that had been my home for most of the past year. I actually felt a twinge of homesickness as I realized I was seeing the base for the last time. Someone has said about his military experience, "I would not experience it again for a million dollars and I would not take a million dollars for my experience." That's how I felt as Bearcat became small in the distance. At Bien Hoa, I turned in my rifle and was issued a new khaki uniform for the trip home. I located the bunk that had been assigned to me, dropped off the few personal effects I was carrying and decided to go to the "malt shop." As I walked over the base, I realized not much had changed since my arrival a year earlier. The Vietnamese were still filling sandbags. Green troops waiting for assignment were still wandering around in new uniforms, with dazed looks on their faces and guys like me were still yelling "short." I had changed though, just as the many others who went before me and who would follow. I had aged. My emotions were desensitized. I had learned to live with death and the threat of death; to exist in primitive conditions without the support of family and longtime friends; to tolerate inconvenience on a daily basis and to use the bottle as a buffer between me and reality. I was a lot smarter and a lot tougher than when I arrived here a year ago, I thought. I entered the NCO club, never expecting to see anyone I knew, much less a relative, so I was really surprised to run into my cousin, Tom. We had not seen each other since our grandmother's funeral several years earlier. What a small world, I thought, as we reminisced about family and friends. Tom was on his way back to his unit from the hospital and was in Bien Hoa on layover, waiting for a ride. He severely damaged his finger in the breech of an artillery piece during a firing mission. Luckily, the doctors were able to sew it back and expected it to be good as new in a few weeks. Meeting Tom was really great. We talked and drank beer until I thought I would explode. Finally, the club closed and we had to leave. As we departed the club in separate directions, part of me wished I had not seen him. For some strange reason, I felt guilty about leaving him behind. Though I was physically and mentally exhausted, I could not sleep at all that night. The knowledge that I was leaving the following morning prompted me to stay awake, in case of an enemy attack, tornado, earthquake, or other disaster that would possibly keep me off the plane. I was even afraid of oversleeping. Morning came slowly and the hours until the bus ride to the airport passed even slower. Finally, we boarded the bus for the trip to Bien Hoa. The jeering from civilians had no effect on me at all. I was leaving their war. They were staying. As I watched the plane come in for a landing, I could feel the excitement in the crowd of men who pushed back and forth for a better look at the silver wings that would carry us out of this man-made hell. Our time left in Vietnam could now be measured in minutes, rather, than the days, weeks and months that had been ours when we first arrived. When the aircraft door opened and the first man stepped out, a cheer rose from the crowd as we greeted those on board in the same way we had been greeted a year earlier. Their drawn, white faces were in stark contrast to the suntanned, smiling countenances that cheered as they came down the ramp. I could not help it. I shouted, "Short" at the top of my lungs and shrugged off the looks of disgust given me by the new men. We could feel the plane leave the runway and as it did, again a cheer went up from the soldiers on their way home. The plane rose to cruising altitude and I was still afraid to go to sleep, afraid I would wake and find myself still in Vietnam. It was hard to believe all that was behind me. Now, I was a combat veteran, an old soldier, who at the ripe old age of twenty-three, was free to put his war behind him and devote himself to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. From an altitude of thirty thousand feet, it's hard to determine where the blue of the Pacific meets the blue of the sky...
Note: by James F. McColloch, 9th Infantry Division


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