If I just sit down who would care? Looking up… the marines, sitting in the Chinook, stare back like they are watching a wild animal at the zoo: curious, detached, except my straggling behind them is delaying their exit from the top of this God forsaken hilltop. Their lips are drawn thin with exhaustion. Their mouths are agape, their bodies pale from lack of sun, and C-ration thin. To a man, their heads cocked sideways, straining through the roar of swirling helicopter blades, and the twin mounted jet engines on the back of the chopper, to hear the thump of enemy mortars—waiting for the impact. For an explosion that will turn them all K.I.A.: Killed In Action.
But I do not care. I have never been more tired, more dehydrated, weak from lack of food, in my life. The hand that is grabbing my shoulder feels like it weighs a hundred pounds. “Throw it off, fool!” It is another inner voice, a different one that the one that tells me to simply sit down, refuse to play this absurd game any longer. “After all, there are more unpleasant things in life than death,” one of the voices says convincingly—such as my present circumstances.
But my feet are not part of this inner discourse. They simply move, one foot in front of the other. The distance slowly closes, but not fast enough. The tail gunner, manning an M-60 waves frantically for me to hurry up. That is when it registers that we—me and the marine with a bloody bandage awkwardly wrapped abound his combat boot—might be in jeopardy of being left behind. I find it disturbing that they did not even take the time to remove his boot and apply the bandage properly, this way it does little good, if any at all. “Maybe they didn’t have any time!” my inner voice screams at me. “Dumb shit!”
“Just sit down! Thrown your backpack off. Discard your M-16!” Another voice hollers.
But then I remember that the word had come down that an ‘Arc Light’ strike, with B-52s, was already on its way to drop tens of thousands of pounds of explosives on this mountaintop, within minutes of the last chopper leaving this forward base, deep in the A Shau Valley, which hugs the Laotian border. There will not be a living soul here soon, but like I said, death no longer scares me. I am too tired to really care.
One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other. The mindless mantra of my feet continues.
“Throw his hand off. Sprint for the chopper fool! You see anyone else helping? Did anyone else reach out when everyone was huddled together, waiting for the second to the last chopper to evacuate Marines from this hideous valley? No. Because the slow will die this day.”
Then guilt slams me. John Wayne would have thrown the wounded marine’s arm over his shoulder and helped the limping man to the chopper, undoubtedly being the first on board. All I could do, when I looked into his eyes as the chopper landed, and saw the hopeless despair in them while all the other marines rushed the chopper, was a weak, “put your hand on my shoulder.” I did not wait to see his answer, I no longer looked him in the face. Even then shame slammed me. When he put his hand on my shoulder my knees buckled. “This is a terrible mistake,” I heard a voice reprimand me. Somehow my legs strengthened and we began the longest journey in my life.
We were soon all alone. All other marines were on board—staring. We had yards to go. That is when the voices really kicked in. The internal debate growing savage “Throw his hand off and run for the chopper, or simply sit down and wait for death.” Like I said, death no longer held the power of fear over me.
The noise of battle grew in intensity. Mortars were exploding, automatic rifle fire raining down from all directions. The staccato of machine guns, stitching the landing zone with a hail of bullets, was growing more pronounced. Faintly, the sound of anti-aircraft weapons of the NVA could be heard—or maybe this last was simply an illusion. Battles are too noisy, there is no single source of sound, no one direction. Sound comes at you from all angles—disorientating, offering no clarification—a disjointed symphony that pounds away helping chaos to engulf you.
My feet continued to ignore the debating voices. Putting one foot in front of the other was never part of the equation for the voices. Finally we were close, close enough to hear the engines being revved by the pilots, close enough to meet one final obstacle: the blistering heat of the jet exhaust from the engines that are mounted on the rear of the chopper. The super-heated air blowing at, what felt like, hurricane force, jacked the already high temperature higher. It was like hitting a wall of heat. It felt like what little moisture that remained in my body, in the high heat and humidity of the jungle-mountains, instantaneously evaporated. My legs weakened dangerously.
If it was even possible, the door gunner waved more frantically. The engines screamed in protest as the chopper wished not to die by a mortar hit. I lunged for the platform, my companion holding on for dear life. In a split second the ramp began to come up, the chopper shot skywards throwing me past the gunner just as he opened up. The noise of that gun going off in my ear temporarily deafened me. I landed with a thud amongst marines. None would look at me, instead watching the NVA breaking from the jungle, where we had been standing moments before.
The lessons learned in Vietnam by grunts, were as harsh as they were in Iraq and Afghanistan. Glory comes at too high a price, humility even more so. The thing about humility was that permission was not asked, it was grounded into bleeding souls like the mud beneath our boots. Death could be both a terrifying and a comforting presence at the same time. It was a companion that was sought out years, even decades, later by too many veterans when we returned to the ‘world’—our homes that were no longer welcoming homes.
—Photo Credit: Flickr/manhhai