WHAT IS A SOLDIER?
A long read...but certainly worth it......
A guy pinned me
right to the wall the other day. I
was giving a talk to some basic and advance course officers out at Fort Ben.
I'd just finished raising all sorts of hell about the pernicious nature
of the "civilian equivalency" theme, and about the uniqueness of the
soldier. The question period began.
This young 2d lieutenant stood up, and, sort of slow and careful like, he
said, "Sir, would you please give us your definition of a 'soldier'?"
Well, at first, I
thought he was a smart ass, but then I looked more carefully at his eyes, and I
saw that he was sincere, and concerned, and serious . . and it was really me
who was the smart ass for thinking that he was.
At any rate, I tried to wing it and define "soldier" then and
there. I didn't do worth a damn.
I know. I watched his eyes.
Some days later,
back at the War College, there came a letter from the lieutenant-- his name is
Tom-- and he said, "Sir, when I asked you what is a soldier, I didn't mean
to stump you or embarrass you. The
thought and response you gave to the question was good, and yet you still
weren't able to put your finger on what is a soldier.
This is the same way I feel, but I'm just starting out (like you once
were) and I need to learn what a 'soldier' is."
Well, young Tom, many people, many times
have tried to define "soldier". General
C.T. Lanham did a real fine job with a short, beautiful poem called
"Soldier" in Infantry Journal, way back in 1936.
You got to read that. Another
guy, named Herbert, I think, did a sorry job with a long, sick book called
Soldier, just a few years ago. Some
people define a soldier as a "summer chimney".
And here lately, various Congresspersons have been defining a soldier as
simply a "civilian equivalent".
I suppose only a
fool would try to sit down and actually write out a definition of
"soldier", so, I'm going to have at it-- in one, sometimes-dated,
often-maudlin, sentimental sentence. Here
we go. A soldier is . . ..
. . . a boy now a
man, telling his ma, and his father, and his brothers and sisters, and his girl,
and his friends that he's "going in" . . . a line of silent young men
sitting on benches in the recruiting station . . . promises of a boundless
future, of stripes and bars, and education, and retirement, and medical care,
and PXs and commissaries . . . many forms, of many shapes and several colors,
signed (right by the recruiter's "x") with little comprehension and a
world of faith . . . the long ride on the Greyhound, and the loud, boastful,
hollow, pitiful tales of touchdowns scored, and money made, and women conquered
. . . a long and sleepless night in a strange hotel, in a strange town, with six
men to a room, and a government-paid breakfast, and more dieselly Greyhound . .
. . . the initial
silence and uneasy jokes when the MP waves the bus through the gates of the
first Army post . . . loud sergeants with clipboards and lists of names
("You people git over there!")
. . . young men with special
problems, trying to get an audience with authority . . . the first, shattering
look in the mirror after the barbers, smirking, have done their deed . . . the
fast flight of the "Flying $20" . . . uniforms that will
"shrink", or "you'll grow into" . . . the consolidated mess
and a new buddy on detail, scraping trays . . . the first, clumsy attempts to
spit-shine a boot . . . the impossibility of carrying a duffle bag with the
shoulder strap . . . the break-up of newly-established, desperately-needed
friendships . . . the first ride in a covered "deuce-and-a-half", with
dust rolling in over the tailgate . . . .
. . . the company
area, and "The Man", the first awkward and ragged formation, the
countless and incomprehensible rules, and the fear, and the insignificance . . .
long rooms with posts down the center, and lined-up rows of lockers, and
lined-up double-decked steel bunks with bare webs of wire springs, and lined-up,
side-by-side commodes . . . the schemes, arguments, threats and bargains about
the relative merits of upper and lower bunks . . . the cold, impersonability of
supply corporals . . . the haughtiness of cooks behind serving tables in the
mess hall . . . chronic,
unadmitted, and unmanly constipation . . . sad, lonely, aching, hot and wet-eyed
homesickness, and the probing flashlight of the CQ, searching for the white
towels on the bed foots of the KP detail . . . the quick flicker of time between
Lights Out and Reveille . . . the pre-dawn formation, dimly lit by 40-watt
firelights, and dark shapes of men numbly silent except for shuffling feet, and
sniffles, and coughs, and the hard, flat, unquestionable barks of the First
Sergeant ("Not so fast there, Rodriguez!"), clipboard at the chest and
pencil making checks . . . .
. . . thighs sore
from "High Jumper" . . . heels and tendons aching from new boots,
shoulders black and blue from the KD range . . .lickin' and stickin', and
Maggie's Drawers and cold, sour, smelly target paste, and constant threats, and
break time pushups, and the strange, new sound-- snap!-- of rifle rounds passing
close by overhead . . . exploring the first intriguing mysteries of C-rations .
. . lips burnt on a hot canteen cup, sweetened with sugar dipped from a torn
paper sack with a great, sticky spoon . . . the search for brass in the grass,
and the droning voice in the tower, and the sergeants' shiny boots, and the
shiny helmets, and cleaning rods . . . and raking sand, and painting rocks, and
signs: "FIGHTING FIRST", "SECOND TO NONE", "DIRTY
THIRD", "FEARLESS FOURTH" . . . .
. . . the wonder,
magic, and confusion of Army weapons and equipment ("Good morning, men.
GOOD MORNING, SERGEANT! Today we
will cover the nomenclature of the M1A1.") . . . huge mock-ups, and great
charts, and scratchy movies of frostbite horrors and things venereal, and
sergeant's names on podiums, and officers standing in the rear by Herman Nelson
. . . .the downright haunting beauty of Jody, sung by unseen troopers moving
somewhere out in the dawn . . . (Jody's got your gal and gone") . . .the
joy and strength and oneness of boots pounding the pavement at a steady 180 per
. . . a young recruit with all his teeth pulled, and the tears in his eyes not
from the pain . . . sleeping on the springs with the mattress rolled, late on a
Friday night . . . empty boots standing side-by-side, laces tied . . . unneeded
razors and toothbrushes and bars of soap, all alike, lined up with a string . .
. stenciled names put on clothing, backwards, with too much ink . . . the clink
and rattle of dog tags as a thin youngster tosses in his sleep . . . the thunk
of a major's polished "tanker" boot striking the tailbone of a
terrified trainee, crying and crawling under barbed wire and bullets . . . the
clenched fist and gritted teeth and animal urge to smash a fist into the face of
authority . . .cold, grey, November wind whipping coal smoke around the mess
hall . . .cold, grey fingers cleaning cold, grey grease from the mess hall sump
late at night . . . a box of stale and tasteless Cornflakes stolen from the mess
hall, smuggled under a field jacket, and devoured, symbolically, by buddies
after Taps . . . .
. . . the PX and milkshakes, and cokes,
and Snicker bars . . . thin stationary with black and gold Army eagles, ad air
mail envelopes . . . . long lines of young troopers by the pay phones outside
. . . the sissies at the Service Club . . . proficiency tests, and M-1
pencils, and parades, and the silliness and impotence of pistol belts and .45's
hung under too-fat officer bellies . . . pictures for the family with uniform,
and American flag, and a too-big hat . . . the company photo with cadre in the
front row, CO in the center, and the guidon . . . the yearbook, the dufflebag,
the AWOL bag, the spit-shined shoes, and the first leave form -- signed . . . .
. . . the
strength of a mother's hug . . . the wide-eyed and unashamed admiration of
little brothers and sisters . . . the dog, excited, peeing on the rug . . . Dad,
a fellow man . . . home-cooking, too-much, and force-fed . . . a contrived
meaning for "SOS" . . . outrageous lies, and war stories of mean
sergeants, and physical agony, and special buddies. . . . the smooth escape of
an errant four-letter adjective . . . the strange feel of driving a car again .
. . excitement and anticipation at the sweetheart's front door . . . the warmth,
the wonder, the fragrance, and the dizzy feeling of the first kiss. . . .
. . . pride in
the uniform, and visits to the recruiter, and favorite teachers, and coaches,
and buddies, and old hangouts, and the main street . . . the careful nonchalance
in response to friends ("How you've changed!") . . . the inexorable,
too-fast passage of squares on the kitchen calendar
. . . the last supper, the manila envelope with records, and orders, and
last name first . . . that goddamn unmanageable, awkward, sonofabitchin'
dufflebag . . . the late-night and last possible Greyhound . . . the darkness,
the sadness, the loneliness . . . and the Big Dog movin' thru a rainy night . .
. . . sergeants
with clipboards . . . classrooms and more equipment, and more charts, and
officer instructors ("Remember the life you save may be your own!")
and more tests . . . a pay-day night on the Neon Strip, and country music, and
tough women with hard eyes, and sateen skirts, and tiny,
tattooed butterflies . . . a fight with civilians in a parking lot ("Man, I
ran away from home when I found out my mother was a civilian!") . . .
stompin', and kicking and slashing with antennas torn off cars, and not being
able to hit a guy hard enough . . . a broken nose, a black eye, a cracked tooth,
scraped knuckles, and a morning hangover, and a headache, and braggin' and
lying, and the melancholy of Sunday night horse cuts and beans . . . .
. . . bulletin
boards with three sections, and little lettered label signs, done by the company
"artist", found by the First Sergeant . . . papers posted in perfect
alignment, and lined-up lists of names, and "by orders of", and fancy,
affected, unreadable signatures . . . and the strange mathematics of detail
rosters...morning agonies at the urinal, and disbelief, and a pre-reveille
formation in raincoats only, and arms inspections and "non-specific
urethritis" . . . the company commander, and the First Sergeant, and the
section NCO . . . and the curious, ambivalent mixture of personal shame and
manly pride . . . loud talk, feigned unconcern, and penicillin . . . .
. . . a Post
theater graduation ceremony, with flags and "chairs, steel, folding,
OD" on the stage . . . a colonel reading a "speech"...the pumping
adrenaline and thundering heart of standing in line to shake hands with a
general . . . the agony of trying to remember: shake with the right above (or
below?); take with the left (or right?) below (or above?) . . . . the smile and
glittering stars coming closer . . . a little diploma . . . . an MOS, another
stripe, another set of orders, and the unfathomable, omnipotent mysteries of
EDCSA, and TDN, and WPOA and RPTNLT-NET, and 2172020 57-1021 P810000-2190 S36004
(812783.12001) . . . .
. . . and again,
the damnable dufflebag . . . and home, and sweetheart, and time passing, and
good-byes and a new Army post . . .the loss of identity and significance and
personal worth at the replacement depot . . . the insecurity, the boredom, the
telephone bargaining for "good deals" by NCOs and officers . . . the
new unit, and the company sign with a smaller sign beneath ("NO AWOLS IN 43
DAYS") and a brass-tip-brassoed guidon . . . and outside the Orderly Room,
the full length mirror with a sign on the glass ("SOLDIER, CHECK
YOURSELF!") which gives the soldier personal significance and a gift of
trust and confidence . . . and inside the Orderly Room, another sign which takes
it all away ("A UNIT DOES WELL ONLYTHOSE THINGS THE BOSS CHECKS!") . .
. . . reveilles,
and classes, and details . . . guard mounts, and guard posts, and guard paddles,
and trying to surprise the OD on his 0300 inspection tour . . . "bitch
sessions" with the C.O., who calls them something else . . . IG
inspections, and pre-IG’s, and pre-pre IG’s . . . . officers and NCOs with
endless checklists . . . paint, paint, paint ... . and clean, new paperwork . .
. and the trading value of acetate, green tape, and sheets of plywood . . .
long, weary hours of cleaning and shining, and extra equipment hidden in
ventilator shafts . . . a last-minute, high speed, tip-toe trip to a
stringed-off latrine reeking with pine oil, and a quick swipe with a
handkerchief at a wet dab of overlooked scouring powder...the disappointing,
anti-climatic, one simple-assed question ("Where are you from, son?")
and cursory glance of the inspector . . . the critique in the dayroom, and
numbers, and decimals, and adjectives, and rationalizations . . . and the wet
handkerchief mixing company in the pocket with the broom straw, the piece of
lint, the burnt match, and the tiny paper balls of field-stripped cigarettes . .
. . . convoys rolling out past the Motor
Pool gates, past NCOs with clipboards, past officer jeeps with long antennae . .
. steady speeds, and equal distances, and lieutenants with strip maps and
compasses and march tables, and hesitancy, and "route conferences"
with their NCOs . . . dispersed vehicles and camouflaged nets, and eyes and lips
burning from grease sticks, green/brown, M1A2 . . . the smell of the inside of a
tent on a hot afternoon . . . the whoosh and thump of immersion heaters lit off
wrong by scared KPs . . . lister bags and iodine water and tactical feeding
(" Spread out, goddamit!") . . . mermite cans with containers empty
except for the yellow-green juice of now-departed peas and spinach . . . the
rattle of mess kits sluiced in boiling water . . . NCOs checking for grease and
the "hot clean" rinse . . . .
. . . man-holes
in the ground (" . . . two by two by you") . . . and grenade sumps,
and firing steps of sand, and the strange, secret smell of deep earth . . . and
little, wiggly, inch-long things with a thousand legs and pinchers . . . the
artful camouflage of yesterday wilted by the hot sun of today . . . the
difference between a straddle trench and a slit trench . . . long marches at
night, and red flashlights, and the unbelievable bite of shoulder straps, and
feet up on packs at breaks . . . and foot powder, and NCOs checking, and dark
platoon leaders whispering encouragement . . . the mystery, authority, and
unseen strength of a jeep approaching quietly with cat-eyes . . . tense,
last-minute checks, and green star-clusters, and leaders shouting and cursing in
the fog and half-light of dawn . . .the acrid, gagging smoke of smoke grenades,
the crack of M-80s . . . and the whistle and boom of artillery simulators . . .
strange "enemy" with crests on their helmets and green uniforms with
no buttons on the shirtsleeves, running from the hill . . . and
"victory", and critiques, and camouflage, and range cards and marches,
and rain, and wet holes . . . .
. . . more of the same, and the passage
of time, and more schools, and more promotions . . . and the sweetheart now a
wife, and kids, and a puppy, and furniture from "Sears and Rawbutt",
on time . . . more orders, more posts, and long moves across the land in
middle-aged, middle-priced Fords and Chevy’s with loaded roof racks, wrapped
in torn plastic, whipped by the wind .
. . economy motels, and hamburgers, and sticky, face-down, grape-red jelly
bread, and wet, smelly diapers and awful fusses, and smacked kids, and threats
of divorce neither meant nor believed . . . rents too high, and quarters too
small, and sofa legs broken, and treasures lost, and movers
anxious to leave and full of assurances ("Just sign right there") . .
. . .
orders to a combat zone, a move to "home", and a leave filled
with sadness, and seriousness, and love . . . good-byes at the airport, the
sweet-heart wife trying to smile . . . the dad, now grey, with eyes cast down,
and breaking voice, and a little tremble in his chin . . . the Delta bird,
winging west in the late afternoon . . . the sadness, the loneliness, the
thoughts of little children . . . and a certain thing they once said, and a
certain way they once looked . . . final
processing at the POE, and shot records, and dog tags, and equipment checks, and
the awful agony of the last stateside
phone call, collect, to the kids and the sweetheart-wife ("I love you,
darlin'") . . . .
. . . the mighty
surge of the Starlifter, nose-up and tail-down from California and west toward
the sun . . . a familiar face in a nearby seat, and the old, often-played games
of "where in the hell did we serve together?" and "did you ever
know 'ole whatsisname'?" . . . box lunches with boiled eggs and apples and
Milky Ways, the steady drone of the big jet engines . . . watch hands changed
forward (or backward?) . . .callous, callused stewardesses . . . and the gift
shop and snack bar and men's room at Midway . . . .. . . a bright green land
with great V-shaped fish nets in the river mouths, the blazing white of salt
pans, and the curving contours of tiny rice paddies stepping down the sides of
the hills . . . shell craters, and bomb craters, and tracks of tracked vehicles,
and grass huts, and villages, and dirt roads, and ears popping, and paved roads,
and jeeps, and a helicopter, and an airfield, and the skronk! of wheels down on
the Pleiku strip . . . .. . . the heat and the dazzle and the newness of an
alien land as the door opens . . . the long line of home-bound troops waiting to
fill the still-warm and still-littered seats of the still-whining Starlifter ...
. a waiting truck, and another replacement center, and more of those phone calls
(" . . . but General So-and-so
told me I would be assigned to . . ."), and cold, impersonal briefings, and
insignificance . . . a long, long letter home, telling of the newness of this
land, and of the loneliness, and of the love of a husband and father . . . a
morning formation, a list of names, a check on a roster, and a dusty road to an
infantry division's base . ... .
. . . orientations ("Don't ever pat one on the head!"), and classes, and confusion, and bewilderment, and war stories (" . . . and the damned NVA cut off the lieutenants head!"), and anticipation, and clothing and equipment issued and stored, and moves by truck, jeep, and helicopter to the forward bases of the combat units . . . the battalion fire base, and the battalion commander, and the company commanders tanned, tough, and thin . . . apple-cheeked lieutenants with little blond moustaches, and grizzly NCOs, and scruffy troopers laughing, joking, competent . . . barbed wire, and sand bags, and artillery pieces, and radio antennae, and holes, and trenches, and bunkers . . . and great, gaunt, mahogany trees torn and blasted and chain-sawed . . . rucksacks, and rifles, and steel helmets and troopers reading pocket books, poorly printed . . . the awe, and bewilderment, and confusion, and frustrating inability to rapidly assimilate and adapt ... . .
. . . the chopper
with no doors and no seats, on the battalion pad . . . door gunners and black
machine guns . . . frightening speed across the roof of the jungle canopy, with
tree tops blurring by . . .tight, canted circles, and the whop! whop! whop! of
rotor blades as the bird eases down an open shaft in the jungle . . . troops on
the ground, looking up, serious, busy, with longer hair, and beard stubble, and
fatigue trousers split open at the rear, and no drawers . . . a company
commander with old-man eyes, and maturity, and authority, and strength . . .
a radio operator with the quick, alert look of a "college kid"
. . . .
. . . Claymore
mines, and machetes chopping brush, and troopers digging, and fresh holes in the
ground, covered over with saplings and sandbags . . . C-ration beans, with
C-ration cheese and "Loosiana" hot sauce, warmed with heat tabs . . .
a coffee cup made from a partially opened can, lid bent back for a handle . . .
nighttime, and animal sounds, and whispers, and distant artillery, and the cold
of the Central Highlands pouring down unseen into the bunkers . . . fitful
sleep, and soft-grey light, and dawn, and sore muscles, and cleared throats, and
broken wind, and wry commentary ("Salute! Awake! Arise! And behold the
birthing of a bright new day, you scroungy rat-bastards!")
. . and cigarettes, and malaria pills, and hot coffee, and yawning, and
scratching, and bitching . . . short briefings, and Claymores packed, and
sandbags emptied, and weapons checked, and a dirty column of dirty men moving
out through the jungle along a mountain ridge, bent over under heavy rucksacks,
eyes peering forward under the rim of steel helmets, green towel around the neck
to wipe the sweat and ease the bite of shoulder straps . . . fingernails black
and split, sleeves rolled up, and old, nasty, dirty bandages put on by
"Doc", and patches of swollen, red-brown jungle rot . . . and around
the trooper's neck, things hanging and swinging: dog tags and rosaries, beads
and can openers, crosses and bandoleers . . . and on his head, the steel, with
its camouflage cover the billboard whereon he proclaims his individuality, with
names and words of wisdom and wit, and fear, and hope, and love . . . JESUS . .
.JANET . .. MOM AND POP . . . FTA . . . HO CHI MIN IS A ROTTEN BASTARD . . .
SHORTIMER. . . COLOR ME GONE . . . GOD MUST LOVE ENLISTED MEN 'CAUSE HE MADE SO
MANY OF 'EM . . . .
. . . the column
moving forward along the ridge . . near the rear, a short timer, afraid to be up
where contacts are made, afraid to be back where folks get left, and lost . . .
near the center, the CO and his shadow and bunker mate, the radio operator, both
mindful of the stories of snipers in trees, and COs shot square between the
eyes, falling, staring, without a word . . . and up front and out alone, all by
himself, the point man, moving down the ridge with raw courage, and the sure
knowledge that sooner or later some point man would be in the sights of an NVA
weapon . . and the young, lanky,
flat-nosed, white-eyed black whose skill and courage as point was legendary
("Man, 'day calls 'dat cat 'de 'Cat'!"), and who time and again
volunteered to walk in other men's boots . . . .
. . . and late
afternoon with a final halt, and bunkers dug, and trip flares out, and trees
blown down to let choppers in . . . the distant throb of a gas-turbined Huey,
the vulnerable belly now overhead, and the whop! whop! whop! and the whap! whap!
whap! of careful descent as the bird settles and squats among the holes and
splintered stumps . . . dirt, and paper, and maps, and leaves, and ponchos, and
green t-shirts whirling everywhere, and the angry, nervous voice of the pilot
("6, this is Ghost rider . . . will you clean that goddamn crap off the
pad?") . . .a trooper with all his gear jumping from the skids and running
to the edge of the pad, bent low with one hand on his steel . . . boxes of
banded C's with half-moons on the side, and demolitions, and chain saws, and
rope, and a case of beer, and a box of grenades, and great, big, orange bags of
... . mail! . . . and letters, and longing, and a little boy in an Easter suit .
. . .
. . . and another
night, and another day, and many more just the same--curious blends of monotony
and tension and physical exertion and a special sort of discipline marked not by
shined shoes and short hair and salutes, but by proficiency and dependability
and automatic habits of combat never learned in school . . . .
. . . the moving
column, and the noonday break, the cold C's lunch, and the CO with his boots off
and his feet in the sun . . . the powerful, pungent, scrungy, skanky smell of
feet and socks too long together . ... and rucks up once again on bent, young
backs, and jungle boots and jungle fatigues down a jungle trail . . . and way up
front, the sounds of contact . . . at first, tentative, like firecrackers on the
4th . . . and then the staccato bursts, and the thumps of grenades, and the
building crescendo . . . excited voices on the radio ("John, get the hell
up here!") . . .men dropping to their knees, rolling out of their
rucksacks, and moving forward behind NCOs . . . a helicopter overhead, suddenly
on the scene, whopping and circling . . . the gradual fade of the fire to the
front, and troops squatted down, looking around, alert and afraid and big-eyed
and ready.. . . the CO on the radio ("Ranger, this is 6 . . . 3 NVA in a
bunker . . . killed 2 . . . we got one KIA . . . request Dust-off to take him
out.") . . ...
. . . dead little
men in khaki clothes, and entrenching tools with whittled handles, and short
black hair, and too-big helmets and too-long belts . . . troopers searching for
pistols, and papers, and insignia, and souvenirs . . . splotches of fresh red
blood on the ground, and on the bushes, leading down the hill . . . a Dust-off
bird hovering up above the jungle canopy, with its winch cable hanging down to
the ground . . .the lifeless body of the young black point man, lifting and
turning slowly up into the bird, web straps under arms, head hanging down, feet
together.. . . .
. . . a spooky
night, and deeper holes, and more flares, and more alertness, and the deafening,
splitting crack of protective artillery registering nearby . . . and briefings,
and patrols, and excited reports of fresh tracks, and new commo wire, and
recently-emptied enemy holes, and seven NVA seen running down a trail . . .
another company comin' in, and more trip flares, and Claymores and concertina,
and artillery pieces slung under big, fat, bug-eyed Hookbirds, and helicopters,
and colonels, and conferences on stumps and ammo boxes . . . and all night long,
thunder of the great Arclights out across the valley, ripping life and limbs and
sap from trees and men . . . .
. . . a huge,
jolting explosion close by, then more, then the firecracker sounds, and flashes
everywhere in the pre-dawn dark . . . all around, the snap! snap! snapsnapsnap!
and the whir and whack of frags.. . . men running, and yelling, and some already
groaning, and flares popping up above . . . the blue fireballs of NVA tracers,
moving slowly at first, then zipping by . . . small dark figures coming forward,
in ones and twos, up the hill, outside the wire . . . and into the wire, and
through the wire, and into the bunkers . . . and fire, and explosions, and the
trembling earth, and dust, and great geysers of dirt, and boards, and boxes, and
bodies, flying through the air . . . .
. . . and on the
radios, the fear and the fire and the fury ("Ranger! Ranger! My eyes . . .
I'm hit . . . I can't see! . . .please . . . somebody help . . . I can't
see") . . . ("This is 6 . . . the little sonofabitches are up on the
artillery bunkers . . . beehive the bastards!") . . . ("Grenadier, we
got an awful fight going . . . I need all available air strikes . . . right now
. . . get me nape and CBU") . . . ("81, 6, get that damn company
moving and get up here . . . we got 'em in our bunkers!")
. . .
("Jesus Christ! They're coming up behind us! . . . they're goin' to cut us
off!") . . . ("John, the CO's hit bad . . . send a medic and ammo . .
. over by my bunker") . . . ("Where in the hell is that rocket fire
coming from?") . . . ("Ranger . . . we got to pull back from our
bunkers . ... I've still got some wounded there, but the little bastards are all
over us.. . . I can't hold on here.") . . . ("81, 6, goddamnit, where
are you?") . ... ("Ranger . . . whop! whop! whop! . . . this is Big
Daddy . . . whop! whop! whop! . . . what
is your present situation?") . . . ("3, I know we've got wounded in
there--now put the goddamn Redleg right on the goddamn bunker line!
VT . . . Now, goddamnit!") . . . ("This is Tonto . . . I can't
see your fire base . . . it's all fire and smoke and dust….Jesus!") . . .
("82, 6! 82, 6!") . . . ("Hummingbird, can you run that air right
across the end of the gun-target line? . . . that's where the little bastards
are.") . . . ("This is Grenadier . . . we've got two companies
airborne and proceeding to your location . . . were can we put them in?") .
. . ("26 Alpha, we got to have ammo! ASAP!") . . . ("Pete, see if
you can move those wounded up behind the CP") . . . ("Jesus Christ!
They got a flame thrower!") . . . ("81, 6, I moved the Redleg
. . . now work your way down the bunker line . . . lot of 'em in there .
. . be careful!") . . . ("6! 6!They're right in the next bunker! . . .
they killed Jackson!") . . . ("3, Alpha's hit in the belly, but he's
still sitting there running air strikes . ...") . . . ("Ghostrider,
goddamn you got guts . . . if you can't see the pad, can you see our flag? . . .
drop the ammo right on it!") . . . ("Well, kill the little
bastard if he's in there!") . . . ("Ranger, they're pullin'
back!") . . . .
. . . and on and
on through the grim hours, with the noise, and the snaps, and the whirs, and the
whacks, and the yelling, and the thunder, and the fire, and the smoke, and the
dust, and the troopers darting and crawling, and throwing; the shooting, and
cussing, and dying, and bleeding . .
. and the big Phantom birds screaming down behind the hill to lay their nape . .
. and the artillery pounding steady . . . and the fingers of a dead trooper
slowly growing stiff as his hoping, hoping buddy holds his hand . . . .
. . . and dawn at
last, and exhaustion, and relief, and "victory" . . . and the
grotesque, everywhere clusters of ragged dead enemy outside and inside the wire
. . . and big Tiny crushed under fallen timbers in a bunker . . . and 'ole
Smitty, who honestly enlisted to fight a second time for his country, lying
there trembling, with one eye gone and his hand reaching out . . . and the
handsome recon platoon leader, "Steve the Stud", blown to hell by a
rocket . . . him and his Doc, too, when the final reserve of medics and radio
operators and the headquarters guys had gone, without question, to help Company
D . . . and the strange smell of belly wounds, and all the bloody bandages . . .
and all the dead troopers silent and still under ponchos, lined up --for the
last time-- on a ragged line of litters by the pad . . . .
. . . and shot-up
companies dragging their weary, wore-out asses aboard the birds . . . and the
rear area, the rest and refit . . . and more of the same . . . jungle and rain,
and mines, and ambushed convoys, and the red dust and tall bamboo of Pleiku, and
Dak Pek, and Dak To . . . assault helicopters on short final, the artillery
shifted, the firecracker sounds down below on a hot LZ, the gunships making
their staccato runs, and scared, grim troopers, weapons ready, beads dangling,
sitting in the open doors of another chopper flying right alongside . . . .
. . . and still
more, day after day with time growing short, and odds running out, and buddies
dead or med-evacked . . . and night patrols, and fire bases, and combat
assaults, and the always-dreaded shout ("Incoming!") . . . and
captured NVA with Time magazine articles . . . and the splendid victory of Tet,
with hundreds of NVA lying scattered in heaps and wide rows outside Kontum,
where the deadly gunships had caught them coming, uncharacteristically, across
open rice paddies in broad daylight (" . . . they was all doped up and goin'
to a party . . . must a been
. ... crazy little bastards . . .") . . . and the victory strangely,
puzzlingly, lost, somehow, somewhere, up in the air waves of the ten thousand
miles between Kontum and home . . . .
. . . and
"the Day", suddenly here, and the quick good-byes, and shucked
equipment, and that 'ole steel helmet, and the beat-up, never failing submachine
gun . . . the relief, the peace, the sense of completion . . . the fire base,
the base camp, the strange feel of pavement . . . and the hot, hot shower with
gallons and gallons and gallons of water . ... and great, long, deep hours of
untroubled, buck naked, spread-eagled, flat-backed, mouth-a goggled sleep . . .
. . . a dusty,
mildewed, khaki uniform, unworn for a year and still starched, drawers, white
ones, and a too-big belt . . . a handful of treasures from the PX, a black-faced
Seiko, a footlocker, that damned dufflebag, and a set of orders . . . .
. . . Nha Trang,
and the Starlifter once more, and blue water down below, and great thunderheads
up above, and a hundred quiet sleeping men, and Midway, and Stateside, and cars,
and neon lights . . . the worry about not enough seats on the eastbound plane,
the ticket, the lift-off, the shunting aside of attempted conversations, the
building anticipation and excitement, the ache in the loins, the pictures and
thoughts running thru a dozing mind, trained to stay half-awake . . . .
. . . Kansas
City, and St. Louis, and Atlanta ("Man, if you die and go to hell, you
gotta change in Atlanta!") . . . and the skronk, and the bags, and the cab,
and the street, and the house. . . .
. . . shrieking,
flying, socks-down children, and screen doors banging, and khaki knees in the
grass, and somehow, four little, precious people held close and tight and
fiercely and long . . . and a tired head, with a little grey, pressed into soft
tummies, and filled with nothing but boundless joy . . . and big brown eyes,
with tears . . . and once again, as years ago, the warmth, the wonder, the
softness, the fragrance, the dizzy feeling of the first kiss. . . .
. . .
unintelligible, excited, simultaneously-jabbered stories of school, and scouts,
and drum majorettes, and the neighbor's dog . . . the treasures from the distant
PX . . . a supper of who knows who cares what, and more talk, and bedtime, and
kids asleep, and an endless night of soft talk, and moonlight, and touches, and
sweet tears of thankfulness, and the pent-up love of a thousand thoughts and
dreams . . . .
. . . a clear
blue morning, and a bright yellow school bus, and an apple-green housecoat, and
hot black coffee . . . elbows up on the kitchen table, and the first, tentative
plans for the next duty station and the next move . . . and . . . and if all
these wondrous things, which thousands of us share in whole or in part, can-- by
some mindless "logic" of a soul-less computer programmed by a witless
pissant ignorant of affect—be called "just another job," then I'm a
sorry, suck-egg mule.
Tom, my friend,
that's the best I can do . . . .