|Photo from Politico|
A guest column by Mike Peters, Vietnam Veteran
Edited by William Boylan
Days on missions were spent searching for the enemy in what the army labeled, “Search and Destroy” missions; fairly basic terminology, really, and self-descriptive. There was no mistaking what the army expected of us. We were given an objective for the day and if in the process of reaching that objective we encountered the enemy, engaged them and got a body count, then it was a successful day. If we didn’t reach the objective because of engaging the enemy and in the process lost some of our own men as well, then that’s just the way it went.
The days were long, arduous, and full of angst as peril was always just a step away. Whether it was the rainy season or the dry season, the heat was oppressive and unrelenting in its design. We would sweat until it seemed like we could sweat no more. Water was the key to our survival and we had to caution ourselves not to drink too much at any one time. Although we were supposed to get re-supplied every two to three days, it didn’t always happen and we had to ration water until we did get re-supplied, adding additional stress to our already overly stressed bodies. Our fatigues, once olive drab in color, would turn to rags and transform to a sandy tan color from the sweat and dirt of our daily toil. Ultimately, they were destined for the fire pit on our return to the firebase. At the end of each day, we would set up in an ambush perimeter, putting out trip flares and claymore mines around our position and wait for the enemy to come to us. Each flank of the four sides of the perimeter had a guard on duty all night long and we would all share in the guard in two-hour increments throughout the night. If we were lucky, we might get 4 to 5 hours sleep per night.
Most nights on guard were uneventful and welcomed breaks from the discord of the day. However, guard duty could be an intensely lonely time, as well, since almost everyone was asleep. There was no one to talk to except for God and I must admit I talked to him many a night. The only other being about was Death, lurking in the jungle, sprawling before us. He was there; he was always there.
Many times, I thought about home. On clear nights, looking up through the jungle canopy I could see the stars. There was no right or wrong to them, no life or death, no doubt, just truth. Their sapphire blue aura shimmering in the ebony sky, above reflected times past, the beauty of the moment, and hope for a future.
I wondered if my loved ones at home were peering at the same stars and thinking of me. I could see their faces in my mind - my parents, my brothers, and especially my girlfriend. I could see the gleam in her azure eyes as she smiled, her saline tears dripping from those same eyes when she cried. And I wanted to kick myself in the ass for the times I made her do just that. But there was no going back, those were times past, glimpses of moments spent prior to war, prior to the chaos of my current life. I only had the moment I was in and mere memories of those moments that preceded it.
Some nights it seemed like God didn’t even show up, almost as if he himself needed a rest from the everyday tumult that ravaged the earth. Those were desolate hours and time could not pass quick enough.
One such night happened a few months after I was in the field. That day we had traveled quite a distance following what appeared to be a well-trodden trail deep in the jungle in which we were operating. Obviously, the gooks were using the trail on a regular basis and the LT’s (lieutenant) hope was to engage them in combat and kill as many as possible. After all, that’s what we were there for, that’s what an infantryman does; kill people.
Infantryman, the root word, infantry, is derived from the Latin word, infantem, which means youth, so in essence, an infantryman is a young man. How ironic. I have always found it interesting how the old men in power in the world are more than willing to send the young men to fight and die for whatever the cause of the day might be. Maybe, if the old men would have to fight the battles themselves, there would be fewer battles to fight because God knows they sure as hell don’t want to fight them. At any rate, the LT would get his wish late in the afternoon.
We followed the trail for quite awhile that day and eventually we came upon a small knoll that the trail traversed. A squad was sent up the hill to recon the area to make sure there were no gooks already entrenched at the top. Many times gooks used such hills as base camps because they provided such ideal ambush sites. There were no gooks on top of the hill. The LT decided to set up on the apex of the hill for the night and wait for the gooks to come to us. It was a brilliant move because we would have the high ground and a good field of fire below us from both ends of the trail.
As soon as we reached the summit word spread to get down. In the silence of the moment, I could hear the gooks approaching from the trail we had just vacated at the bottom of the hill. They seemed to be talking and laughing, oblivious to the danger that lay just ahead. I was on the opposite side of the hill facing down the other end of the trail. My good friend Jose was in a prone position facing the trail where the gooks would emerge. As they rounded the bend to head up the hill, Jose sighted his M-16 on the lead man and opened up on automatic. He would later speak of how their eyes met that mini-second before he pulled the trigger.
“Jim, I shot him, I think I shot his face off,” Jose screamed to his squad leader. From the inflection in his voice, I could tell he was still trying to grasp what he had just done. It was almost like he was pleading with Jim to commend him for his actions, like a child asking for praise from his father. Child, infantem, youth, call it what you will but it was taken from Jose that afternoon on that hill. Eventually, we would all lose that state of innocence known as youth, in fact, many of us already had. War does not permit it to exist. The loss of youth is a tough transition to deal with in the first place but especially hard when it happens at the doorstep of Death.
The rest of the gooks fled after the initial burst from Jose’s M-16 leaving their comrade’s dead body behind. As a rule the gooks would never leave a body when they retreated but under the circumstances they had no choice. Body count was the name of the game in Vietnam and was tallied each evening on the nightly news back in the U.S. as a way to justify our progress toward winning the war. The gook’s knew this and always tried to take the bodies with them. After we set up, the LT sent a squad down to bottom of the hill to check the body.
As it turned out, Jose was true of aim, as the dead gook’s face and most of his skull had been obliterated. Just a scant year before Jose was a happy young man, kid really, living a good life in the small South Texas town known as McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley, just across the river from Reymosa, Mexico. He had attended Pan American College in McAllen prior to his being drafted, due to a paper glitch in his student deferment. The events of that day would forever change him. He would return to McAllen after his stint in the army and become a fireman, saving lives for a living. He is my good friend to this day.
As I sat there on guard that night, I reflected on the events of the day. I thought about my friend Jose and prayed for him. I knew it was traumatic for him, as it would be for any one of us. I thought about the gook he shot and wondered what his last thoughts were as he saw the muzzle flash from the M-16 but never heard the burst from the rifle as the rounds traveled faster than the sound. True “heat lightening,” in every sense of the term, lightening without thunder. I thought about the rounds tearing through the gook’s face and skull creating a vapor trail of a fine crimson vanilla mist in the air as shards of the man’s skull and scalp hurled into the surrounding jungle side behind him. And I thought about how in all likelihood he was dead before he hit the ground, beneath.
The body would lie there, rot and begin to reek with the smell of death in the next few days. We had come across dead bodies a number of times since I had been in Vietnam and there is no odor quite as distinct as that of death. It smells like shit, literally, but a multitude of times more pungent and maybe that’s what it truly is; shit. Maybe it’s the final bowel movement as the soul extricates itself from the body in order to return to the pristine state it was in prior to birth.
There would be many more nights such as that one for me in the next several months I would serve in the field. They were hard nights and to say I ever got used to them would be a stretch. Suffice it to say I endured them and marked them off my calendar the next morning as one less night to spend in Vietnam.
There is no cure for loss of youth, no panacea for its effects. When it’s gone, it’s gone. The jungles, rice paddies and mountains of Vietnam are strewn with its remnants.
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