Steve Jaeger, with a chilling work of fiction about a forgotten way to go MIA in a war.
Rockman walked past the large red sign that read “Off Limits To All U.S. Personnel” without a glance. Even if there had been MP’s around they wouldn’t have paid him a second’s notice unless he was carrying a sign that said “Here to buy dope, BUST ME!” Even then they wouldn’t have put much effort into it. Every few months some general would get a hard-on over “rampant drug abuse” and everyone would pull in their heads. Even the stone junkies would be a little more careful. Then everything would get back to normal where no one gave a fuck.
He walked between rows of makeshift buildings constructed of every type of castoff material the locals could scrounge from the U.S. military. Ammo crates, corrugated tin and truck tarps made up blocks of squat shops hawking food, gook sandals, helicopters made from coke cans and dope, which was the big seller even though none of the shops put up signs advertising their wares. The rainy season was over and the air was so heavy with humidity you could see it. The yellow dust kicked up by trucks, jeeps and helicopters coming and going out of the combat base hung in the air and left a permanent piss colored haze hanging over everything. Every breath Rockman took felt like he was sucking air through a wet towel. He came to a building that looked sturdier than most that had a tin awning shading the front door. A hand painted sign with a decent facsimile of the Playboy Bunny read “Key Club” and in smaller neat script, “Servicemen Welcome!” They were welcome alright, thought Rockman. Without G.I.’s sneaking into the place there would be no Key Club.
Rockman pushed open the door and ducked inside. Seated at a table next to the plywood bar was the proprietor, an older gook woman everyone called Rosie. She always wore a white pantsuit with platform sandals and had the garish makeup that many older gook women favored. Rockman often remarked to his buddies that the young girls were as beautiful as any women he had ever seen but when they hit the fucking wall they hit at 100 mph. One of the other medics in the squad, Strap, was from Baltimore and had christened the place Skaggsville because of the trade they did there and the ugly old whore who ran the place. Strap had pulled Rockman aside and said, “Rock, you’re as good a medic as I’ve ever seen. When it fucking matters you are there, you are without fear and every dude in the company feels better when you go out with them. But you keep messin’ with that garbage and you are gonna end up like them piles a shit that lay around Skaggsville all fucking day and night.” Rockman patted Strap on the shoulder and said, “Strap man, don’t mean nothin’. I can handle myself, it just helps pass the time.”
The real truth was that Rockman had lost his nerve. He had gone out on an emergency Dust Off mission and the bird had gone down in deep jungle. The co-pilot and two evacs had died and the pilot had taken a round in his right ass cheek. Rockman had only minor injuries and had half carried the pilot for two days and nights until they’d finally been picked up. The pilot was whisked off to Tokyo and Rockman spent a week in Da Nang before being sent back to the company with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. He’d been a casual dope smoker before but soon after returning he’d started visiting Skaggsville every time he was back in the rear. He was still what he considered a chipper, not like some of the stone junkies who lay on the filthy cots whacked out of their minds all day and night but he was a pretty serious fucking chipper.
As he stepped inside he nodded to Rosie and said, “Chow Ba” in his pigeon Viet and gave a nod to the old gook behind the bar. He got himself a “33” and said to Rosie, “Hey mama, anyone working in the back?” Rosie looked up at him with her painted dragon eyes and said, “You know it, honey, you go now.” Rockman walked through a beaded curtain into a dimly lit room lined with canvas army cots, two of them occupied by a couple of seriously zonked soul brothers and he made his way to an empty cot in the corner. A tiny woman, not much more than a girl made her way to him with a small metal hospital tray. Rockman sat on the cot and rolled up his fatigue shirt sleeve. The girl handed him a length of rubber tube as he handed her $10 American. He looped the tube around his arm and the girl said softly, “you do, I do?” Rockman picked up the loaded spike and said, “I do”. He gave his are a swab with the alcohol soaked cotton ball from the tray and slid the needle into his purple red vein. As he loosed the tourniquet a warm wave washed over him and he thought to himself as he sank back on the cot, “Blue.”
Hands reached down into the dense fog and began shaking him. Rockman didn’t know where he was, who he was or what the fuck was going on. A small face hovered above him and seemed to speak to him from very far away but he couldn’t understand what was being said. Hands slapped his face but they seemed to come at him in slow motion and he didn’t feel the slap as much as he heard the crack of palm on skin also from very far away. He was pulled upright and another face drifted in front of him. He was pulled to his feet and seemed to drift above the ground. He still heard voices coming at him from both sides of his head and see caught a glimpse of Rosie, standing in a corner staring at him with her dragon eyes and her shrill voice was drifting in and out of his brain and the little girl who gave him his shot was there but she was huddled down by Rosie’s feet. Then he was outside and it was dark and Rockman was walking but he wasn’t and he wasn’t on the street that he came on. There were leaves and branches brushing his face and his arms but he was still deep in his nod and it could be the weirdest fucking dream he’d ever had, but this was real. He tried to stop walking so he could wake up, but he realized he was being pulled along on either side and someone said something to him and he also realized that they didn’t say it in English, they were speaking gook.
As he became more lucid, Rockman took notice of the two people dragging him along the trail. They were both typical Viets, small, wiry yet strong enough to hold a six foot tall round eye erect and drag him stumbling along for God knows how many klicks. One of them was dressed like any gook Rockman saw working around the perimeter of the base or in the off limits zone. Shorts, loose shirt and gook sandals. The other was dressed more like an NVA gook, light green uniform shirt and trousers and canvas deck shoes. Rockman immediately identified one as “Goodyear” and the other as “Keds.” As they dragged him along Rockman could sense light breaking through the jungle canopy high above him. He tried to speak but realized his mouth was cotton dry and that he was horribly thirsty. “Hey, please I’m thirsty, need water. Nuoc, nuoc” he croaked. Keds wheeled around and cracked Rockman across the face with his open palm, “Im lang” he hissed, Rockman knew enough Viet to know that meant “shut up”. They continued to drag him, stumbling along the trail until they came to a small break in the jungle wall off the trail that Rockman hadn’t noticed until they were pulling him into it. They broke into a small cleared space, cave like in the dense foliage. Goodyear roughly pushed Rockman to the ground where he collapsed almost into a fetal position. He lay there for a time until his thirst forced him to lift his head, “Please water, lam oeh, nuoc.” Keds appeared and gave Rockman a kick in the small of his back. He said something to Goodyear who moved over and pour a small splash of water onto Rockman’s lips out of a plastic bottle and then moved away. Rockman.tried to push himself up and both men were suddenly on him punching and kicking him back to the ground. Keds pulled out an American Colt .45 pistol and jammed it into Rockman’s face just under his eye. He spoke in rapid be bop Vietnamese and Rockman had absolutely no idea what he was saying but he got the idea, stay down and shut the fuck up. He crumpled back to the fetid jungle floor and eventually drifted back into a semi state of sleep.
He was pulled awake again and noticed that the weak light was fading. Goodyear pulled his arms behind him and roughly bound up his wrists and elbows with wire cutting through his skin in the process. Rockman was stiff and cold despite the steamy heat and noticed he had pissed himself. Keds had his pistol out again. He gave Rockman a sharp poke in the back and said, “Mau!” They exited the small clearing and began walking up the trail again in the gathering darkness. Rockman was now not only horribly thirsty, his stomach was cramped in both hunger and with the aftermath of the smack high. His two captors never spoke to him or each other, they just kept walking, stopping briefly every couple of hours and taking a sip of water but never offering any to Rockman. The trail seemed to be marked with some sort of phosphorus smeared on the trees that Rockman could barely make out. After hours of walking his body finally gave out and he collapsed in the middle of the trail. Both of his guards set upon him with punches and kicks but he was so weak he could not even fend them off. He weakly begged for water which they finally relented and gave him a few sips. He then asked for food, “Chop-chop” Goodyear dug into his roll and came out with a handful of yeasty smelling boiled rice that Rockman gobbled down. They gave him another few sips of water and then yanked him to his feet and pulled him on up the trail.
They walked until light had begun to show again and after a time came to another break in the trail. As they veered off and entered another small clearing Rockman’s heart sank when he spied a bamboo tiger cage. There were several men already in the clearing including one who stood a head above the others. Rockman was taken aback to see that he was a black man, medium height with a goatee and a short afro bound up with a red headband. He looked like many of the black G.I.’s Rockman saw every day except that he was wearing the uniform of an NVA officer. He turned and gave Rockman a cursory glance and then went back to speaking with his comrades. Keds pushed Rockman to the cage and grabbed him by the neck to force him into the low opening. “Alright motherfucker” Rockman said speaking in a loud voice for the first time in days, “I get the fucking picture” He dropped down and crabbed into the cage. The black man broke away from his group and walked over. “You’ll do well to watch your tongue, you’re no longer in the white man’s domain here. These are courageous freedom fighters who have all lost many friends and family members. One more dead American pig won’t cause them to lose a minute’s rest.” Rockman stared out through the bamboo bars and said, “Listen bro, please, I need water, I’m dying of thirst. Please man, help me!” The man looked contemptuously down his nose and said, “I’m not your bro, your friend or anything else. I’m Duc Van Cong, a free black man and a member of the People’s Liberation Army. I left your world behind and threw off the bullshit shackles of Jim Crow American democracy and have joined the real struggle for equality for all peoples.” Rockman said, “Well how about a little compassion for a fellow human being who’s dying of thirst?” Duc Van Cong said something to the others in Vietnamese which made them all laugh but one of them came over to the cage a few minutes later with a tin can half filled with water and some rice.
The next day another two men showed up at the clearing dragging a blindfolded US serviceman between them. He looked like he’d been severely beaten and when he was thrown into the cage Rockman could only coax a few whimpers and moans out of him. Rockman was given a little more rice and a couple more cans of water and when he tried to help the new guy eat and drink the guy would only roll away and stare out of the bars with eyes nearly swollen shut. Duc Van Cong had left the clearing while Rockman was sleeping and had not reappeared and only Goodyear and another gook who’d been there when they first arrive were left to watch the two Americans. Rockman wondered what purpose their capture served, why hadn’t they just been killed? He’d attempted to ask Duc Van Cong at one point but his question was met with a contemptuous sneer.
As light was beginning to fade one evening, Duc Van Cong reappeared and was followed by four other gooks dressed in the black pajamas of the VC. They were pushing two bicycles loaded down with supplies and all were strapped with AK-47’s and bandoliers of ammunition. Some orders were barked and one of the gooks came over and threw open the door of the cage. He began chattering in Vietnamese and Duc Van Cong came over and said, “Out! Out quickly, you are moving on now!” Rockman did his best to help the new guy out but he was weak and seemed almost in a trance. He got him out of the cage where he collapsed into a puddle. Rockman, weak as he was crouched down and began trying to pull the guy to his feet. “Come on man, you don’t want to die here do you. Show these fuckers you’re still a fucking soldier.” The man began to weakly cry and small bubble of spit formed on his dry, cracked lips. Rockman gave a mighty heave and managed to get the man to his knees. One of the VC guards came over and made to slam the butt of his AK into the guy’s head when Duc Van Cong said something and stopped the man. He spoke a couple of words and two of the black clad men rushed over, yanked the man to his feet and looped a length of wire around his neck. They ran the same wire and looped it around Rockman’s neck and then the four VC formed a line with Rockman and the new guy and one of the VC yanked hard on the wire as they set off up the trail. Duc Van Cong said to Rockman as they were leaving, “You are going north and you will aid our cause.” Rockman stared impassively at the black man as they headed off up the trail.
A green Army sedan pulls up outside of a small two story house in Hazelton, Pennsylvania. There is an American flag flying from a pole mounted to the side of the front door. Two men get out of the sedan and mount the steps to the front porch. One is an Army Captain, he displays many rows of ribbons on his uniform jacket including a Purple Heart with cluster, a Vietnam service ribbon with two stars as well as a Combat Infantry Badge. The other man is wearing a nondescript black suit. They knock on the door and a heavy set woman in a house coat opens the door, when she sees the man in uniform she clutches at her chest and staggers back a few steps and says, “Oh my God!” The Captain says, “Mrs. Donovan? You are the mother of Specialist Patrick J Donovan?” The woman once again says, “Oh my God” and begins to weep. The captain says, “Ma’am, your son has been reported as AWOL for more than three weeks, last seen outside the combat base at Phu Bai, Republic of Vietnam. Mrs. Donovan, have you have any contact from your son?” The woman first seems to not comprehend what has been said and then says, “You mean he’s not dead, my Pat’s alive?” The captain says, “Mrs. Donovan we don’t know where your son is. He was last seen entering a restricted area and has not been seen since. He is at present AWOL but will presently be considered a deserter.” With those words the woman seemed to snap out of her fog, “My son is not a deserter! He’s a hero! He was just given a medal! When he was in high school his wrist was broken in a football game and he just taped it up and finished the game. Coach Hedleski said Pat was the bravest boy he had ever known!” The man in the black suit spoke for the first time, “We’re not talking about a football game, Mrs. Donovan. Your son was seen entering a known drug den and has not been seen since. We know that the communists use drugs to lure young people to their cause.” The woman stood up her face red with rage, “My Pat was no commie, he was a hero, he was a patriot, he was an Altar Boy when he was young! You two get out of my house now!” The men stood up and the captain said, “Ma’am, please if you hear from your son contact us, it will go much easier on him if he turns himself in.” He handed her a card. As the sedan drove away the woman lowered all the shades in the house, sank down into her chair and began to weep.
In 1997 a joint taskforce of American and Vietnamese searchers acting on information supplied by local farmers came upon the remains of a bamboo cage in Quang Binh Province. A single dog tag was found, the serial number US 50 228 746 still visible. The Army records center in St. Louis, Missouri, confirmed the number to Donovan, Patrick Joseph. His status was changed officially from AWOL to MIA.