Wayward Son, Chapter 8

Crimson and Clover

dead jeep 2As I watched the pink soap bubbles floating on the dirt, grass, and clover, I couldn’t get over how pretty they were.

“Shit,” I said, staring at the ever widening pink puddle.

TJ, Captain Brown’s driver and whose jeep we were scrubbing, nodded.

“Nobody back home will believe this,” he said.

TJ deftly scooped up bits of white bone, grey brain tissue, and black hair that kept clogging the drain hole in the back of the jeep. He threw them over his shoulder into the tall grass unceremoniously. Once the pink soapy water was drained, we poured clean water on the floor and started working our brushes again. Occasionally we banged our brushes on the side of the jeep to get rid of the debris they had accumulated.

The Vietnamese boy was probably 9 or 10. He had tried to cross the street while a convoy was roaring through his village, banking, no doubt, on the good heartedness of the GI truck drivers. But, one driver thought it great sport to see how close he could get to civilians who were foolish enough to get in his way. The bumper of the five ton truck cut the top of the boy’s head off as smoothly as peeling the skin off of a tangerine. Captain Brown and his jeep were the first on the scene after the convey was gone. He tried to call in for a dust off, but the choppers wouldn’t come and pick up a civilian. The boy died in the back of Capt. Brown’s jeep on the way to a local hospital.

Now we were cleaning up. The boy’s parents would get a check for $450.00, the current rate of exchange for a civilian death caused by GIs. TJ was right about people not understanding. Many years later, I got drunk and told the story to a teacher at a party. She freaked. Never talked to me again. She couldn’t understand why I wasn’t a complete section 8. If you spend any time in the field, and sometimes even if you didn’t, death was always close by in a combat zone. Rockets, mortars, booby traps, and snipers struck without warning. One minute, things are normal, the next, you are scraping three kids off of a sandbag wall after they accidently detonate a grenade they find in a GI’s locker. War is never fair. Especially to civilians.

The conventional wisdom is that the Asians placed a different value on life than we did. I don’t think that’s true. I do think that they took their religion more seriously than we do. We claim heaven is such a wonderful place but, many so-called Christians are in no hurry to get there. The Vietnamese grieved as strongly as we did over their dead. But, reincarnation gives you a different perspective. White was the color of mourning in Southeast Asia. Black was the color of celebration. Women were usually attired in both black and white at all times. It was fitting. My first direct encounter with death was with one of our own troops. Jake Carver was Lt. Johnson’s driver. He had been raised in the south, and was a strict Southern Baptist. The bible was true word for word, comma for comma. He believed that God intervened in people’s lives every day. He would pray for a letter from home and when it came he sang the praises of Jesus. But day after day, he read the situation reports. Every day he saw the truth, not what the media reported. It wore him down. He couldn’t find the justice in a God who made innocent people suffer so much. To say he lost his faith in God does not begin to capture his angst. For him there could no longer be a God. And without this religious construct, he didn’t see the point in life. And he certainly could not go back to the world and be with his born again family. So, one Sunday afternoon, he put an M-16 in his mouth and pulled the trigger. I wasn’t the first one there. But, I helped to carry him to the ambulance in his poncho liner. As we put him on the stretcher I got a good look at him and the fist sized hole in the top of his head. The 5.56 mm round had done the job it was designed to do. I didn’t even recognize him.  He was alive, face swollen and purple, mouthing what looked like the word “No”. He lived for 30 more minutes. People do not let go of life easily.

When I first saw NVA bodies hanging in a market square, I thought the Vietnamese were cruel and uncaring. The soldiers’ bodies had ballooned and turned black in the sun. Their halo of flies and crown of maggots sickened me. It was only later that I realized that we could be just as bad. That, under the right circumstances, most of us could be quite callous and cruel. A ferocious attack on an infantry firebase left NVA stacked like matchsticks knocked from a shelf.  The GI’s left them there for days before the smell forced them to bury the bodies. I wanted to cry over Jake’s death, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t even be angry at him. Only at his parents and church for being so stupidly successful in their indoctrination.

The first KIA I had to personally take care of was another story. I don’t know his name. That hurts a lot even though I never heard it more than once or twice. He was Alpha Battery’s courier. I was one of the last people to see him alive. He came by to pick up a radio and new code books. He joked about only having three weeks left in country. He was eager to see his wife back “in the world” and get on with his life. He was supposed to take me back with him to Fire Base Nancy, but he wanted to get back early because he had a new movie for the troops to watch. I would have to hitch a ride the next day he told me.

The NVA used one of our own claymore mines in the ambush. The courier was killed instantly. His two passengers were more fortunate. One blind, the other missing an arm, they managed to escape into the jungle while the NVA searched for the scattered pages of the code books. The road was closed while the battery, with the help of the 1st Cav., swept the area without success. I took the BC’s helicopter, a Kiowa, to the base a few days later. I fixed their computer so they could pursue their fire missions with a vengeance. Then we stopped at 1st Cav. Camp for fuel and to pick up the courier’s body. As I carried his black, plastic covered remains to the chopper, I was stunned that he had not been taken to the rear already. His stiff  body would not bend to fit into the bird as its blades whirled overhead in a dizzying rhythm. There was a brief discussion about tying his body to the skids, but I vetoed it. It was too disrespectful.

“Get a Dustoff to take him back,” I said.

“We tried that. They won’t take KIAs, only wounded,” they said.

We carried him back to the bunker.

“Don’t worry, we’ll get him back on a supply truck in a week or two,” they said.

I nodded and got back in the chopper. I fumed all the way back to Camp Jones. He wasn’t my friend. I hardly knew him. And, he was dead. What did it matter how long it took to get him home?  My logical brain wrestled with a small ember of feeling buried deep inside. I didn’t have the feeling of sorrow that would reconnect me to my humanity. But I could, by god, show some righteous anger. The fact that it wasn’t from the heart didn’t matter. Somewhere, back in “the world,” there were family members anticipating his return home, who would be angry if they were here. It could have been me lying in that horrible, black, zippered body bag. I called our S-3, a newbie major.

“Why in the hell isn’t that body on its way home?” I demanded.

“I don’t know,” he answered.

“Twenty days left and he’s dead and no one will even get his body home. Thanks a fucking lot.”

I slammed the phone down. It wasn’t real anger, but it was the best I could do. Twenty minutes later, the major came to see me. He had raised hell with the nearest Dustoff commander and they promised to pick the body up immediately. He assured me that he would personally escort the body to Bien Hoa and get it on a plane home. The conversation became awkward. He thought I was really hurting and he wanted to help. I felt like a fraud. I convinced him to leave. I was uncomfortable being viewed as a buddy looking out for his fallen comrade. It wasn’t that way at all. It was simply an obligation. And it was tinged with selfishness. In trying to raise indignant anger, I discovered just how much of my humanity I had lost. The emotional barriers to the pain, fear, and death that I had built to protect myself had become impenetrable. I had closed myself off to hurt. But, in the process, I had cut myself off from the joy of being alive as well. I was no better off than the dopers and the juicers. I wanted to grieve my loss, but I couldn’t. There was also the guilt that I should have been in that jeep. That I could have forced him to stick around and wait for me. I didn’t sleep much that night. And not because of the mosquitoes.