Vol. 1, Issue 1
The Veteran Chronicles
The English Department at Western Washington University has supported Stories Deployed: The Veteran Chronicles since it began as a reading series in 2012, and this year in print form. We are deeply grateful for this ongoing support. This project was also funded by the Dean’s Fund for Excellence in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Thanks to Dean Paqui Paredes Mendez for understanding how much this means to Western veterans, alumni veterans, and veterans in the larger community. We are also grateful to the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs for deeming this project worthy of a grant. We’d also like to thank the WWU Veterans Services Office, because everyone there has always been willing to pitch in and lend a hand. Lastly, thanks to the Red Badge Project of Seattle for sponsoring many of the workshops in which this writing was produced.
by Kathryn Trueblood, writer and professor of English at Western Washington University
Jesse Atkins aptly named this storytelling performance by veterans. When we met, we were two people with similar feelings about the disconnect between Main Street and the military. Because my father was a captain in the Army, I understood what was happening in my classrooms after 9/11 when my students who were National Guard or Military Reservists disappeared, while many in their cohort didn’t seem to be aware of what was going on. As a teacher of writing, I was attending conferences where I learned about a movement among writers to share storytelling techniques with veterans so that they could give voice to their experiences. Operation Homecoming was the first and largest, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, but then came The Veterans Writing Project, Warrior Writers, and the Red Badge Project. So I went to find Jesse Atkins, who was then the Veterans Outreach Coordinator, and I learned that he had a love of writing that had started when he was a submariner, or “bubblehead,” as he would say. We decided to hold free writing workshops in the late afternoon on campus to see if we could get a group going. Only one person came: the enthusiastic Tsonsera Rhoades, God bless her. Jesse was undeterred, optimistic even. I asked him, “Where do campus veterans hang out?”
He told me, “Folks like to gather at the VFW on Friday nights to eat pizza and drink beer.”
“So, let’s go there,” I said. He agreed and we made up flyers. I also reached out to the writing group at the Bellingham Veterans Center, and they came down to share some of their work. Most of them were Vietnam Vets, and they wrote stories that could curl your hair, stories that emboldened the younger people who were mostly veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were some intense exchanges, and I learned not to get in the way when tough things needed to surface. I also learned I could trust vets to show up for each other powerfully, unfailingly. And that nobody has a darker sense of humor than a vet. Eventually, we moved to Saturday workshops, and I actually got some formal training from the Red Badge Project, though the vets themselves were my best teachers and never seemed to mind when I was flying by the seat of my pants.
Mostly, I am humbled by the quality of the writing they produced over the eight years we did this. The essays, poems, and stories in this book defy expectation. When you read this collection, you will learn what it’s like to volunteer in an Iraqi hospital after a bombing; what it’s like to guard the border between Egypt and Israel as part of a multi-national peacekeeping force; what’s it like to be a gay female soldier in a strip club in the Philippines; what it’s like to lose more of your company stateside than in Afghanistan; what’s it like to survive a firefight, be it in Vietnam or Afghanistan; and what’s it like to come home and attend college after combat. Many veterans will tell you that returning is the hardest part. Native American cultures understand the importance of ceremony as a way of helping the warrior to return. In some cultures, the soldier isn’t considered truly home until the community has heard his or her stories. Stories Deployed: The Veteran Chronicles was founded to recognize this need. Given that only 1% of the population makes up our volunteer army, most of us don’t know what we mean when we say, “Thank you for your service.” We are just not aware of what that might entail. And that’s a shame. I hope your respect is deepened by reading the stories herein. It has been an honor to publish them.
The Gettysburg Address: A Walk in the Park
by Stephen Allison
She had red hair, long red hair with the smallest of curls at the ends. And she had this feather, like from a peacock or something, and she was moving it ever so lightly across my forehead and around and down my neck. She’d follow a path down around to my lower back and work her way toward my feet, go in between my toes and swirl this feather back up my legs. She knew exactly what she was doing. God, please let this last all night!
One knows long before sunrise what kind of day it’s going to be in the desert of northern Africa. The Sinai mornings come slow and deliberate like a string of camels creeping over the mountains through the fog a hundred miles away. Like a flunky doing mail call for those unknown to him, morning is indifferent. Laden with parcels that can make or break someone’s day, it is passionate only about its mission of heralding the new day. With each morning come these parcels that contain both the predicted and the unexpected.
There are the biting flies that come relentlessly in search of moisture in order to sustain their life. Mercilessly, they target the inside of the nostrils, wriggling and absorbing as they go. They seek soaked armpits, sweatbands, and dozens will cover a canteen when even a few drops of water are spilled. Best described as ruthless are the tactics employed by these black, buzzing, and biting monsters. They heed no clock, ignore all weather, and are ever present. They are skilled searchers and rarely give up until moisture is found. And there is the second largest arachnid on the continent, the camel spider, who, while the victim sleeps, will nibble and gnaw unobtrusively and create a necrotic hole bigger than a half-dollar in minutes. Wandering bands of nomadic Bedouins, while native to this land for thousands of years, still fall prey to these silent, agile, hairy beasts who weigh as much as an ounce. And so will all who fail to obey the first law of this land: Keep Your Head on a Swivel, Stay alert, Stay Alive.
Some would ask which is more draining on a person whose goal is to stay alert and alive in this the harshest of environments on earth: the physical, emotional, or psychological aspects of survival? Which, if any, has precedence? There is no correct answer unless one responds with “It depends.” One’s head must be on that swivel and one must be constantly aware. Biting flies and spiders the size of a baseball are one thing, but there are other issues with which to contend.
There are pitfalls that are even worse waiting for the uninitiated or careless who don’t realize their lives hang by a hair. The desert environment, while truly indifferent, is capable of being kind as well as wicked. It can sustain and nourish certain lives while it disables and exterminates others. It possesses no conscious desire to acquiesce, to give in, or to favor. Then there are man-made dangers as well, and unlike creatures that inhabit the desert these dangers are unpredictable.
“MOFO”, “Wally World”, and “The World’s Biggest Ashtray” are a few of the pet names given to a particular geographic location in the northern Sinai. It is, in area, one mile by one mile and home to small components of military personnel from eleven different nations. The firebase is bounded by a perimeter of steel reinforced fencing, has manned guard towers with 50-caliber machine guns every 300 yards, and there is only one way in or out. The primary mission of soldiers at Wally World is to patrol and maintain security of the border between Egypt and Israel. Each national contingent has a unique mission, whether it be within the walls or out, that supports the primary mission. There are French pilots, British administrators, and Canadian and Dutch communication specialists and military police. The job of the infantry falls to Colombia, the United States, Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia. Uruguay and Norway provide sailors to sweep the Red Sea of ancient and not so ancient mines. The true name of this elite force is the Multi-National Peace-Keeping Force and Observers, called MFO for short, and the proper name for its location is El Gorah, Sinai, Egypt.
From June 1988 until June 1989 I was assigned to the MFO. The idea that one can take time to learn about the predictable and unexpected in this barren tan wasteland remains questionable at best. On July 17, 1988 after being on the ground for only a month and a half, I was chosen by fate to participate in a life-changing experience along with four other soldiers that made biting flies and spiders pale by comparison.
Our five-man patrol had been in operation for some seven days. We were 75 kilometers from any support and were on a well established patrol route that allowed reconnaissance to either side of the border. As senior man I had the responsibility of making sure everyone was up and ready to move at the first hint of daylight, so I was usually awake before anyone else. I clearly remember on this particular morning fighting with the creeping heat, arguing and losing the fight about waking, and how disappointed I was when I realized that the girl with the feather was not a girl with a feather. Shit!
It had been a dream. The feather turned out to be sweat. I should have known. As the sweat pooled in my eye sockets, it created miniature lakes for biting flies to swim in. It ran down the middle of my back and it dripped off my ear lobes, and when I finally realized that she and her feather were gone I started feeling sorry for myself. Then I had to laugh. I should have known. I wanted to spend more time with this woman with red hair who seemed so real. But our morning had come, and there was business to take care of. I remember thinking, hoping, that she’d be back.
My head had been on a swivel for many years by the time I got to the Sinai, and I had learned many lessons on how to function in different environments. To sleep, we would place cotton gauze in our ears and nose then cover our mouths with a surgical mask. This was a nice little trick and it worked to keep the biting flies from entering our noses, mouths, or ears but it did not keep them from drinking. It was a small victory but a victory of a psychological sense is just as worthy of praise like any other. On this morning I removed the sweat soaked cotton gauze from my ears and nose and untied the surgical mask that covered my mouth. Then I scraped the bodies of flies that had gotten under the mask and had passed from this life to another sometime during the night. There would be plenty of time later to change the sweat soaked socks of the evening for drier and more comfy ones. We would tie the wet socks on our ammunition pouches to dry during the day. This was all just part of being in this barren hot and dry wasteland.
One can only experience, tolerate, and berate the environment when it’s 125 so early in the morning. With the heat, the ever present flies, and the spiders that you know are creeping along your arms and legs when sleeping, it becomes easy to get distracted and stressed. Gotta laugh because if you start crying you may never be able to stop. The Godsend was that the patrol was only ten days long and then you got to take a shower and sit on a real shitter. And we had only three days to go. But still, this environment and the job that needed to be done all worked like a system of gears and pulleys as it pulled, cranked, screeched, and devoured one’s energy and will.
Chow was done and our team of five was awaiting the helicopter that would bring us fresh water and more food. Chow or grub, who knows where these pet names for food came from, consisted of three year old MREs (meals, ready to eat), which were the latest in Army rations. Guaranteed to last forever, and I can attest to that fact, they were usually the focal point of morning bitching and griping by anyone and everyone. They were always FUBAR, a military acronym that stands for “fucked up beyond all reason”, and served only to fill an empty belly. We were also waiting for new batteries for our radio, the only link back to our fire base and the command center. We had three days to go on this patrol and had only several kilometers to cover during the remaining time so we were sitting sweet. We was cruisin’ on the downhill slope, we was next to go home to the showers!!!! And we were all ready to call the States when we got back to the fire base. We were happy little campers. I should have known.
No one person heard it first, that dull thud, but we all saw the brown dust in the dawn light of early morning. Screams. Pitiful, high-pitched and frightening screams came from the cloud of brown dust less than twenty-five meters away. Specialist Billy McCarthy, while returning from relieving himself, had found a land mine and now portions of his twenty-three-year old body were lying about coloring the dawn brown sand with splashes of red.
I got there first as the team medic placed a tourniquet on his left leg below his crotch and fired him up with two quarter grain amps of morphine. The pulsating flow of red blood ceased as it turned into a trickle. The blood curdling screams turned into whimpers after a third hit of morphine. The minutes that passed seemed to drag on endlessly. He knew he was dying. We all knew he dying.
“Sarge, can you do me a small favor?” said Billy, blood oozing from his mouth, his face blackened from the explosion and smoke coming from his uniform.
“Hooah,” says I. “Whatever you ask.”
“Sarge, can you say the Gettysburg Address for me? Come on man, it should be a walk in the park for a guy like you.”
Like thunder exploding and resounding throughout the Grand Canyon, his death rattle, that gurgling, drowning sound that you hear about in movies, escaped. I don’t know why he asked me to do that, maybe it was the morphine.
I often look forward to the girl with red hair visiting me again. The truth is that I would trade what does show up in my dreams sometimes for any girl. Feather or not. In my dreams now instead I’m given a chance to relive that morning, that day, with Billy and the team. And again I hear that dull thud and see brown sand settling. And again I fail. And again he dies. And again I don’t know a fucking thing about the Gettysburg Address. And again I feel feelings of such intense inadequacy and guilt that I pray to never sleep again, or to sleep forever, maybe in place of Billy.
There is a prayer that is prayed by all who have failed at a personal or significant task. The prayer is for another chance. But time travels in only one direction. Time does not offer absolution nor does it provide consideration for extenuating circumstances. The awful reality is that there is no chance to redo anything once it is done. For whatever good it does me, I now know the Gettysburg Address by heart. I swear at times I think I’ve awakened in the middle of the night mumbling it aloud. I won’t read it and I won’t even talk about it. I know that if I really want to hear or feel it I can just fall asleep.
Stephen Allison grew up in a military home; his father was a career soldier and veteran of WWII. Steve joined the army in 1974, and after a career of over twenty years he retired, attending college at New Mexico State University and Eastern Washington University. Following graduation with a Master’s in Social Work, he served as a counselor at the Bellingham Vet Center for almost nineteen years, retiring in December of 2019.
by Jesse Atkins
Dead Reckoning (noun):
The determination without aid of celestial observations of the position of a ship or aircraft from the record of the courses sailed or flown, the distance made, and the known estimated drift.
The act of dead reckoning is to dead reckon.
Control, nav center
Days and hours play out like the penis drawn on the BPS-15. Cylinders of trash dotting the marks of fathoms. Day is night and night is day. Clock to Zulu, controlled, rigged for black. Life laid out in 30 minute dots, adjusted for drift, unaware of change.
Routine this, routine that. Clean, sleep, plot, shit, piss and do it all again. Only this time the BPS is a tree, the most ironic imagining you can imagine in the deep.
No green, no air, no sky, no dirt. Only salt, water, and grease; industrialized, sterile, void.
My history, my time, passes through space like the radiation through my bones.
Void, desolate, dead reckon…
Red, right, returning
M16, M9, 500
Charts arranged, changed, primed
Nav party called
Mooring lines a cast
Ship to sea
Dive, dive, dive
Time passes in the void seconds deeper than the last
Emptiness, foreign, new
All aback, planes level
Pitch, roll, rise, plummet
Vent, head valve
Pop, whoosh, boom
Family gram blank
Lullaby of whales
10 degrees port
Plot, line, measure
Jesse Atkins served in the U.S. Navy on board the USS Alabama (SSBN 731) from 2002-2005 as an Electronics Technician Navigation 3rd Class. He is currently very active within the Veterans of Foreign Wars and has served the past five years as the Post Commander of William Matthews Post 1585. Jesse is a third generation veteran with his grandfathers serving in WWII and Korea, his father serving in Guam post Vietnam War, and his sister serving in South Korea and Iraq. He earned a Master of Education in Adult Education and a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics at Western Washington University.
I’m Not Broken
by Jesse Babcock
I’m not broken, I’m just struggling
I’m not broken, just nobody understands me
I’m not broken, I have just had different life experiences than everyone else.
I’m not broken, I am too strong to be broken
I’m not broken, I am a soldier, and soldiers cannot be broken.
I am a soldier, and I am broken, because we are made to be broken.
I am broken, because breaking me made me strong
I am broken, no matter how much I trained, nothing could prepare me for this
I am broken, and I have to understand why
I am struggling, not to be broken.
Spc Babcock Jesse D 671st En Co. Operation Iraqi Freedom March - October 2003. Fourteen Bridging operations. Multiple river patrol, convoy ops, foot patrol and tip of the spear support for the 3rd ID initial advance. Motto: “we probably won’t die.” Assigned weapon, M249 SAW. Vehicle BN: B114, “fat bastard.” Currently working for the Concrete public works department. If I had it all to do again, I’d bring more smokes and toilet paper.
22 a Day
by Andrew Englund
Browning killed himself. Blade Runner killed himself. Powell’s family won’t tell us what happened, but judging from what we learned about the circumstances in which he was found dead, he probably killed himself too. And those are just the ones I knew best. It’s bad, man. Almost every infantryman I know has already passed the point where suicide’s taken more friends than the Taliban. It doesn’t always come out of nowhere, but sometimes it does, and since I don’t fuck with Facebook, I’m usually one of the last to know.
‘Hey killer, have you heard from Ginge lately? His ol lady messaged Me. Nobody can find him for a couple days now. Copy?’
I called immediately. When it went straight to voicemail, I knew. He’d been prone to drinking benders in the past and I wanted to pretend it was that. But I knew.
Still, if I’d been anywhere within a thousand miles, I might’ve taken off that night to go look for him. Instead, I resigned to the facts and resorted to going home and staring blankly at the ceiling, praying. When my phone went off at 2:00 am, it broke my heart, and I just lay there for a while, preparing myself before reaching over to see what it said.
‘Ginge is down man. Don’t know what happened yet. Still waiting on word.’
I couldn’t accept it. He’d been one of my best friends. The best man at my first wedding. There really isn’t another way to interpret what I’d read, but fuck if I didn’t look for one. Hoping on hope, I asked Froggy to lay it out as plainly as possible.
‘What exactly do you know?’
‘His ol lady messaged me and told me he died.’
‘Thanks for telling me’
‘No problem, brother. I was supposed to keep it on the DL until his family made the announcement but I feel like he would’ve wanted us to know.’
I didn’t cry, then. I didn’t do anything. According to my phone, I just sat there staring blankly at the closet, or whatever was in front of me, for the next six minutes.
‘Suicide. Shot to the chest. Left a note. Don’t know what it says yet.’
It was a beautiful funeral. Weapons Platoon showed up in force, plus a few of the other Kilo guys who’d been lucky enough to know him well. We all got to meet Klaus, the Green Beret that Ginge had idolized and told us so much about, and talk with his parents and uncles and sister and girlfriend and a lot of really great people who traded stories with us, confirming from different angles what we’d all come to learn about him over the years. In the chapel, the family’s pastor gave a heartfelt and comforting sermon to his mom and stepmom, and I guess the rest of us too, and his brothers and cousin had some really funny things to say about him. Apparently, Ginge had always been a terrible driver.
When the ceremony at the cemetery was concluded, after the words had been said and we’d done our best to choke out the Marine Corps Hymn, Kilo Company had a little assembly, and the bottles and flasks started coming out of everywhere. It was like being back at the barracks, except everyone had a suit, a beard, and some of us even had a career.
Among them: McLovin was getting looked at by the FBI. For recruitment, that is. Grizz had been the West Coast Director of a major cannabis corporation but broke off with them to start a business of his own. Bizzo was up in Montana working in a mine and raising kids, and Tom ran a business where he went around cleaning up crime scenes. His first day back from the funeral was a gunshot suicide. No bullshit. And fucking Voshell. That fucker was living in a van and bouncing between a bunch of different marinas to make a shit load of money doing underwater welding.
“Wow, man. That’s badass.”
“It’s alright. Nothing like throwing those rounds downrange though. But hey, you gotta give up on the wild life if you’re gonna have a real one. You know?”
“Logan never gave up. Last I heard, that motherfucker’s getting paid to jump out of planes.”
Things got quiet.
“Bro. Logan killed himself.”
Andrew Englund is a writer and nomad who currently lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. A veteran of the Marine Corps Infantry, he writes fiction and poetry about war and other veterans’ subjects. Englund is a father, a musician, and an MFA candidate at Northern Arizona University. He graduated from Western Washington University with a BA in creative writing.
by Keith Fletcher
One soldier shot the dog; another shot the wife. They’d just hit Karim’s compound. After the shooting, the soldiers scurried about gathering evidence, avoiding the dead wife on the floor, her head canoed and oozing red, an AK just out of reach of her pulseless palm. They ziptied the detainees and placed spray-painted goggles over their eyes. Scharff cut the fingers off the dead ones to run through biometrics later.
The soldiers stepped off the objective, detainees in tow. The valley shown viridian in the monochromatic green moonlight of the night vision goggles. They slithered up the mountain in a staggered line of green optoelectronic dots, into the darkness above. When they got to the top of the ridge, they established a security perimeter around the HLZ.
Scharff pulled out the ziplocked baggy of fingers. He had his interpreter, Atiq, run the digits over the biometrics device while he logged the entries.
“This is bad juju, man,” Atiq said, sighing.
“It’s just a job.”
“Bro. It’s dead fingers, man. You get cursed for doing this kind of shit. The bad kind of curse, one that follows you to the grave man.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in that ‘superstitious shit’.”
They finished, placed the fingers back in the bag and packed up the biometrics system. Captain Bert walked up to them. “Birds down in five mikes. You still got them fingers?”
“Let me see them.” Scharff pulled them out. Bert grabbed them out of his hand and looked them over. “That’s some sick shit.” He had a big grin on his face. “Good work.”
“He’s a sick fuck, bro,” Atiq said, after Bert was out of earshot. The Captain was a real meat head, at five foot eight, with a swollen neck and arms that prohibited him from touching his back. As the sound of the approaching rotors echoed through the mountains, Scharff thought back to before the raid, when Bert had gathered the soldiers and launched into his pre-mission pep talk: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…” He thought the Shakespeare gave him that warrior poet edge, but for the most part, it only reified the soldiers’ belief that he was a real class-A douchebag. Throughout the battalion, his name had taken on the verb form of the grosser bodily functions. For instance: a soldier retiring to their jack shack might say “I’m going to go rub out a Bert.” A soldier going take a shit might say “I’m going to go drop a Bert.” There was an arched 12-inch-penis over the plywood doorway of a pisser, with BERT carved across the shaft, etching his name into the annals of FOB history.
The helicopters touched down, the soldiers and detainees loaded up, and they lifted off. As they rose into the crisp mountain air, the dawn light slowly crept across the easterly peaks. Scharff peered out the window. The valley floors below were scattered with glacial till and ancient river rock over which flowed braided white capped streams. Across the valley, mountain peak after mountain peak thrust into the air like the exposed bone shards of a heap of amputated limbs, the torn flesh flopping down into jagged draws and ravines.
They touched down at the FOB, offloaded, and took the detainees to the DHA. “Get a couple hours of shut eye. We’ll start Karim’s interrogation at ten. We only have 48 hours with him, before the Task Force picks him up.”
“Sounds good man.” Atiq took off in the direction of his hooch.
Scharff made his way to the office. Jones was passed out over her keyboard. She woke when he shut the door. Scharff dropped his assault pack and removed his body armor and helmet. Jones was a SIGINT collector from Scharff’s unit. They’d established a mutual rapport over combining their intelligence to action targets. After a Reaper had dropped 500lb bomb on the first target they developed together, Jones had entered Scharff’s hooch and pushed him down into his bed. Now, they celebrated in such a manner each time they scratched a target off the JPEL list.
“How was it?” Jones asked.
“Good. We got him. You want to get some chow?”
“Sure.” They went to the chow hall and grabbed a table in the corner.
“You alright?” Scharff asked.
“Yeah. I’m just exhausted. I’m tired of this shit.”
“I either have to be a bitch or a slut, and I’m not a slut so I guess I’m just a stupid bitch.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yeah, not to you. You don’t get it.”
“Get what?” Scharff leaned in as Jones drank her coffee.
“That dipshit in Ops was drooling all over me again, and I tore into his ass, and now everyone in Ops is pissed at me, like I’m a big, fat, snarling bitch and I’m sick and fucking tired of it.”
“You want to get out of here? I’m not even hungry. I just came for the coffee.”
“Fuck it. Yeah. Let’s go celebrate. I’m sorry—I’m just tired.”
They went back to the office and into the shura room. They lay on their backs on the wool Afghan rug. Jones rolled over on top of Scharff. Her thighs pressed down on top of his, locking him to the floor. He reached up to unzip her jacket and she slapped his hand off and punched him in the side of his face. “Hmph,” she almost laughed, when he winced. She unbuttoned his trousers.
When they were done, they went out and lit up a smoke, and sat on the stoop.
“Do you like it, what we do?” Scharff asked.
“Yeah. Of course. I’m just tired of the Army.”
“I think I’m addicted.”
“Addicted to what?”
“I know it’s fucked up, but what we do, tracking people, hunting them. I’m addicted. There’s no replacement and—like, I know that we’re up to our necks in a river of blood,” Scharff let out a stream of smoke, “—but I’ve found my purpose and it’s this and sometimes I want to suck start my M9 and other times I want to dance naked and howl at the empty moon. It’s all fucked up in here,” Scharff said, jabbing his head. He and Jones had friends who’d tried to find alternatives—heroin, bank heists, serial killing, etcetera, etc.—and most were in prison, or dead. The ones who pretended like the addiction wasn’t there, like it was some switch they could just shut off, they weren’t any better off: two-parts booze, one-part broken marriage, and sprinkle with suicide to flavor. There was no replacement.
“Jesus Christ, man. I’m checking you in to behavioral health when we get back stateside.”
“You and me both.” Past the wall of the base, they could see the tan, rammed earth walls and roofs of the neighboring village. Poplar and olive trees grew between the buildings. The sweet smell of wood smoke wafted over the base walls. Beyond the earthen village, green terraces worked their way up the valley wall. They finished their cigarettes in silence.
A couple of soldiers brought Karim into the interrogation booth. Atiq and Scharff were waiting for him. “Tsenge. Zama num Scharff de.”
Karim stared at Scharff and Atiq.
“I’m going to ask you questions about the insurgency. I don’t care who you are or what you’ve done. I’m not here to get a confession out of you,” Scharff said. Atiq translated. Scharff explained that he was Karim’s advocate, that he was there to defend him and in order for him to do that well, he needed to get to know him. They discussed Karim’s childhood on a small pistachio farm outside the provincial capital, his wives, Muska and Reshmina, and his children. They discussed the woes that faced Karim’s people. Karim was the provincial insurgent commander and Scharff had been developing his target packet for months. Karim was a family man and a folk hero, a real robin hood of the Hindu Kush sonofabitch, so Scharff had decided on a love of family/pride-and-ego-down interrogation approach. “Tell me about the insurgency, Karim. That’s something I can take to my boss. Help me prove that you want to cooperate. Meet me halfway. Do it for your people. Do it for your tribe. Do it for your family.” They’d been at it for hours.
“Where is my family? Where are my children? Where are my wives? Why won’t you tell me how they are?” Atiq glanced at Scharff.
Scharff pulled out a piece of paper from his folder and slid it face down across the table. Keeping his hand over the top and looking into Karim’s eyes, he said: “It isn’t pretty. I’m sorry.”
Karim turned over the piece of paper. He shuddered. It was Reshmina’s dead body, head hollowed out, lying on the floor of his house from the raid the night before. He grabbed a handful of his hair with each hand.
“This is your fault, Karim. Help me stop this from happening again.” Scharff grabbed the photo, then he and Atiq left the room.
“Damn, bro,” Atiq said. “That was heavy.”
Scharff lit a cigarette. The guard came in. “Well?”
“We’re done for now. Take him outside the wall for the night and put him on his knees in front of a battle position, so they can keep an eye on him. Strip him down to his underwear. I want to leave him out there overnight—let his thoughts ferment.”
Scharff turned in and fell into a deep, dreamful slumber. He was standing over the silhouette of a man sleeping in bed. The sheets were blue. He was envious of this man and his blue Egyptian threads and his down pillows. Towering over the body, Scharff slid his hand down and clasped his neck, gently first, then firmer and the sleeping man’s body jerked alive. The cartilage, tendon, and muscle squirmed under Scharff’s grip. Scharff started to slug away at the man’s face with his off hand, angry that he still couldn’t identify his victim. The sleeper started spitting and spraying blood and phlegm through his thin blue lips, into Scharff’s face. Then the sleeper relaxed, and his mouth opened gently, exposing his neat white teeth. Scharff looked closer and realized the sleeper’s face was his face.
Scharff jolted awake, threw on his body armor, and grabbed his rifle. The plywood door to his hooch was splintered across the floor and dark smoke shrouded the air. A 6-by-6 timber was on fire on the stoop. The battle positions were talking their guns back and forth, call and response, like Beethoven’s Fifth, the antiphony of war—
—it wasn’t right. They never got hit with small arms. It was the occasional stray rocket or mortar or recoilless rifle—never small arms. The 155 Howitzers were silent. Smoking sandbags were shredded, were littered everywhere, as if they’d been dropped from the sky like confetti. Scharff stepped over the burning timber. A soldier ran past: “The gun line’s down! They hit the AHA! Red Bayonet! Red Bayonet.” Scharff bolted through the alleyway outside his hooch, towards Jones’ sleeping quarters. He rounded the corner. A group of insurgents were pouring through a smoldering hole in the base wall. Karim stood in the midst of them, barking orders. Bert and a platoon of soldiers rounded the adjacent corner: “Once more, into the breach!” They had fixed their bayonets. The insurgents opened on them with a volley of RPG and PKM fire. The soldiers closed the distance and started to stab and shoot their way towards the hole in the wall. Scharff was too dumbfounded to look away.
“Hey.” It was Jones. A bullet blew fragments of her cranium across the stucco wall next to Scharff. Scharff dropped to his knees next to her. He rubbed his hands across her body as if the friction might revive her. He dropped his armor and unclipped his helmet. He ran his fingers through her hair. Behind her, an insurgent with an SVEST ran into the TOC: Allahu Akbar! Dust and blood and bone fragments ripped out the doorway. He stripped off his clothes and rubbed her blood over his body. Across the way, Karim was slicing into Bert’s fat neck with a dull blade. A soldier next to Bert screamed Fuck You! as an insurgent stabbed into him with a bayonet.
Scharff reached up and held his head between his palms. He could smell Jone’s blood and taste her iron on his lips. It was still warm. He slid his hands over his lids and massaged his fingers over the pink fleshy part where the nose meets the eye. He gouged his fingers into each socket and clawed out his eyeballs.
A hand gripped his shoulder. “Bro—we’ve got to get out of here.” Atiq helped him stand. They walked towards the insurgents, Scharff naked and eyeless. The insurgents lowered their weapons. Atiq and Scharff walked through the hole in the wall.
Four men sat huddled, talking in a hushed tone near a fire pit. “He’s part lizard, part human. He dips his tail in village water and the children turn to stone,” one said. “No, you stupid donkey fucker. He’s a British soldier trying to find his way back to Kashmir,” said another. “Neishta,” said the third. “He’s a German Nazi looking for the source of the sun in the eastern slopes.” “You’re all wrong,” said the fourth man. “I’ve heard his howl. He’s a djinn looking for his eyeballs.”
Keith Fletcher did three combat tours in Afghanistan where he served as an intelligence collector and fell in love with writing. He lives in rural eastern Washington, where he teaches Middle and High School English. He graduated from Western with a BA in Secondary Education.
by Lynne Graham
I am quick to volunteer. I am desperate to find a way to feel more productive. That’s how I end up standing in the Iraqi ICU ward while deployed. It is merely a tent with hospital beds lining each side of it and people rushing around. Every bed is occupied but the patients in each one appear a little different. I had volunteered to help the staff, but with no real medical experience, I could only do a few things. So, I help bathe patients and change the bandages on their wounds. At the first bed, I can’t shake the need to hold the hand of its occupant. They, the staff, tell me that’s she’s five years old, but she’s so tiny that she barely looks to be two years old. She’s unconscious but I hold her hand anyway and intently watch the machine that’s helping her to breathe. There is a man in the next bed who appears to be in much better condition. They tell me he’s her father. Immediately, they answer the question they know I’m thinking. “He used her as a shield during an attack,” they say and continue with their work. I sit there stoking her small hand for a few more minutes before I can continue with my task of bathing her frail body. Lost in sadness as I work to complete my task, I suddenly realize I’m being called to a different bed. I look up and a woman with an Australian accent is asking me for help. I quickly move to the bed where she is standing. Before I can even focus on what is happening, I am holding the man in the bed’s intestines in my hands so they can clean the area around the massive wound in his stomach. I know from my basic first aid class that the organs cannot be put back inside of him in this environment. Instead, I help to hold his intestines securely on the cleaned area and a bandage is placed over the entire stomach to keep it from infection until he can be moved and treated properly. Just then, I hear a groaning sound from the bed behind me. I bring water over to the man who made the sound. He grabs my hand in what feels like desperation. He speaks very quickly in a language I don’t understand. He doesn’t appear to be in pain, but he seems desperate to tell me something. I try explaining that I don’t understand. A staff member comes over and explains to me that UN forces haven’t been able to find an interpreter that speaks his dialect. So, no one knows exactly what he needs. My heart breaks that he is unable to communicate with anyone. He must feel so lonely and scared. I notice a bed at the other end of the room. There is a sheet drawn around it for privacy. They anticipate my question and patiently explain that he is an Iraqi General. They continue by explaining who is in the bed next to the sheeted one and tell me that he is the bomber that caused the chaos that brought all the patients here. His bed is exposed unlike the General’s, but his eyes are covered with a blindfold. I’m not sure what to think about all of this. All I can do is watch the staff in awe as the continue their work. I try to stay out of the way and help in any way I can. The time goes by quickly, and before I know it, my first volunteer shift is over. I know I will volunteer to come back.
Lynne Graham served in the United States Air Force for 20 years with over 1500 days deployed overseas in support of multiple combat campaigns. After retiring from active duty, she returned to Washington with her partner and young daughter to be closer to family. She recently received her Master’s in Social Work from the University of Washington and is currently a counselor for the local Vet Center.
Writing Resources for Veterans
Writing Resources for Veterans
- Veterans Writing Project
- 0-Dark-30, the Literary Journal of the Veterans Writing Project
- The Red Badge Project, Seattle
- War, Literature, and the Arts Journal
- The Warrior Writers Project
- The United States Veterans’ Artists Alliance
- The Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans, The Iowa Review
- The Deadly Writers Patrol, literary journal
- The Line: Veterans Literary Review
Why It is Important for Veterans to Give Voice to their Experiences
- Because their stories provide the historical record of our times. American literature has a long and distinguished tradition of writers rendering the wartime experience.
- Because Americans ought to have some understanding of what it means to serve their country.
- Because hearing veterans’ stories helps to close the gap between Main Street and the military.
- Because it eases the transition of veterans into the community.
- Because those who served deserve to be welcomed home.
- Because we need to make informed decisions about foreign policy in the future.
- Because a writing practice may become a lasting form of self-care that improves emotional and physical health.
by Russ Kapp
Following my high school graduation with the senior class of 1965, I enrolled for the fall semester at the Kansas State Teachers College of Pittsburg. I was looking for a smaller and less expensive college to begin my freshman year rather than diving into a more intimidating university setting with larger classes and campus terrain. I arrived prepared to enter the school of liberal arts virtually clueless as to the difference between degree program requirements and the additional requirements necessary to successfully graduate from a land-grant state school. The distinguishing factor that was soon to burst my euphoric bubble of college freshman bliss pivoted on the fact that this type of school’s federal funding mandated that all males take a two-year course in military science in order to successfully graduate. Rack this up to sticker shock or carelessly skipping through a land-grant minefield, since my initial strategy was to somehow avoid the draft after high school. In short, this amounted to a clandestine version of the military draft commonly referred to as the US Army’s ROTC college program.
As is often said, the devil is in the fine print. I ask you, how many small-town, soon-to-be college freshmen, fully topped-off with piss and vinegar, are likely to bother reading such micro-font size material, much less, deeply comprehending the meaning of it? Another often quoted nugget of wisdom, which readily applied to my military draft aversion simply goes, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” I had been cornered, and I was fresh out of options by that point. Thus, I turned in my registration (more accurately, resignation) and came out from my mental barricade with both hands held up high, waving my white flag. It would be safe to say that I did not come down from the higher education mountain laughing at any point during my freshman year.
Call me simply spoiled or wise, but I called it quits after the spring semester ended. And onward I went to a plan B during the following summer of 1966, exploring and mulling over alternatives to being halfway across the world and a holiday platter turkey by Thanksgiving Day courtesy of a surprise direct-hit mortar attack. Later, as the fall season fast approached, the dreaded clouds of war and blinding dust parted long enough for the descending angels of yore to announce a divine compromise in my fight with this fire-breathing draft dragon. I heard them singing, “For unto you this day, a U.S. Navy recruiter is awaiting your call in the little town of Kansas City. You will find him wrapped in a dress uniform and arriving at your home’s front door.” I henceforth, wasted no time in getting shipshape my plan of action. For the record, military recruiters are the epitome of driven salespersons since they are propelled by the intangible, a quota, instead of the easier sale of material items and money. Meeting the qualifications must be exhaustively rigorous.
Being of sharp mind and an impeccable dresser with a sterling silver tongue is just the beginning. Having a quick wit, anticipating questions with nearly instantaneous mind-reading solutions, and possessing the reassurance of a high school guidance counselor who can visualize glamorous future success stories are nearly guaranteed shoo-ins for the ideal military recruiter. After submitting to a regimen of induction testing and screening, I was provisionally selected for a six-year nuclear power technician “career” and designated program. I was immediately zapped into a sleep-walking trance, totally oblivious to another nugget of wisdom: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Sparing the details of what might have been construed as a bait-and-switch operation, I was suddenly presented with being disqualified from the “Nuke” program due to having corrected vision. Say what? Nevertheless, with no time to reconsider options (I was on my way to boot camp shortly), I gave my body and mind over to a different six-year enlistment program: Electronics Intel and Communications Technician. So be it. With boot camp and several months of introductory electronics schooling under my brass-buckled belt, I arrived at the Bay Area’s Naval Electronics Training Center on Treasure Island during the summer of 1967.
As luck would have it and totally unbeknownst to me, this was also the epicenter of the hippies’ Summer of Love with its central headquarters located in the San Francisco Haight-Ashbury District. Having been informed of this happening by a fellow classmate, my eventual first weekend foray offbase was to check out this curious hippie scene. I stepped off the city bus with an astonished look on my face, no doubt. Was I still on planet Earth? I had never witnessed the likes of a massive gathering of freaky young adults and kids. We were encouraged by our naval superiors on base to wear “civies” while on liberty downtown. However, as I surveyed the current scene there at the junction of Haight and Ashbury, I realized I was, in fact, still wearing a uniform of sorts. I was the only one among the throng of beautiful people with a close haircut, a close shave and sporting a pair of men’s slacks and a dress shirt. I was clearly outnumbered, and among the throng of hippies I was, in effect, the only genuinely authentic freak. Nevertheless, this scene became somewhat of a regular weekend destination. Somehow, I knew at the core of my being that I had finally found my tribe and the promised land. It would seem I was becoming a multiple personality disorder case; Clark Kent by day and Superman by night, a sailor in training weekdays and a counterculture warrior on weekends. During my entire stint of classroom training, I was never interrogated as to my whereabouts while on liberty off base. And yet, being aware that my designated military occupation required a full-blown background investigation to obtain the necessary top secret crypto security clearance, I was careful not to participate in any illegal activities while I was out and about. Who knew? Was I being subjected to an undercover watch, basically being shamelessly stalked? Whether that was possible or was merely an over-inflated sense of self-importance, my efforts at staying clean was the best policy given the next level of weekend off-base tribal participation I eventually pursued.
The weekend that became a major game-changer during my training stint began in failure. The one time I crossed the line attempting to gain entrance into a pole-dancing bar in California as a minor gave the door bouncers an opportunity to relieve their boredom by flexing some muscle groups. While attempting to fully embrace my disappointment and move on to a potentially bleak weekend, I happened upon on old-style indoor movie theater that had the words, “Avalon Ballroom” on the majestic overhead marquee. I politely asked the ticket booth hippie gal what was currently showing, and she quickly replied in one short breath, “Three bands, three dollars,” with a seemingly take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Clueless as to what I was about to discover, I replied, “Alright by me— here goes.” Once again, I was confronted with my off-base uniform, close haircut, close shave and proper attire, this time in the presence of a New Age audience seated on a bare floor where cinema seating had been previously. A lighthearted festive “vibe” permeated this live music venue with its moving psychedelic light show as a backdrop. I seated myself in a makeshift row close to the stage where a rock band was playing a top-40 song I recognized. As a large woven basket of fresh fruit was passing around and a smoldering joint followed as a chaser, I leaned over to a hippie chick seated next to me and shouted over the din of the loud music, “Dang! Those guys sound just like the Youngbloods.” She turned her pretty face my way and with a look of utter incredulity flatly stated those guys were the Youngbloods! And from then on, the Avalon Ballroom and its cousin, the Winterland Auditorium became weekend alternative duty stations while I was in training to become military spy support.
Russ Capp is a front yard Baby Boomer, a product of the heartland from a preacher’s family with a born affinity for dark comedy. He enlisted in the U. S. Navy and served six years of active duty during the Cold War aboard a secret surveillance vessel and on the coast of Vietnam aboard vintage diesel-electric submarines as an electronics technician.
by Malcolm Kenyon
And here’s the question: what advice would I give to potential future veterans? Be very careful about what you think that you believe, and make sure that you really know why you believe it. Don’t accept other people’s beliefs without independent confirmation. Study epistemology: know where your so-called information really comes from. Refuse to be used: that’s your right, so fight on your own behalf.
Let others do their own dirty work: you owe this to yourself. Or better, mess with them— the war-mongers who advocate slaughtering millions of common-clay, like you are, to feed their ravenous factories, their bank accounts, to buy themselves Teslas to tailgate you with, to provide the rich and powerful with whores and members-only golf courses.
War is how “The Owners” divert this country’s attention from what really needs doing for the common good throughout the world, to what’s personally most-profitable to themselves, disguised in the name of Allah, Yahweh, or Jesus— that guy most-frequently voted for the past two millennia as the religious figure most-left-out-of Christianity— like, didn’t he purportedly say in Matthew 5:9, “Blessed be the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God?”
Glory is a na ve chimerical illusion for mere mortals— a tragic self-deceit, a conceited self-aggrandizing lie— “glory” is the work of gods alone— the rest is sham, smoke-and-mirrors, and manipulation by the rich and powerful in their own economic self-interests.
The USA needs to revisit the issue of “national service”— should it be compulsory or voluntary? Why? Why should we ever have a draft? What should be the rewards for serving? Should the right-tovote be made contingent on an interval of mandatory public service? For two years maybe, like many European nations require of their citizens? Service is proof of an individual’s personal investment in the common good. Should this be only war service, or also peace service? It seems to me that there’s room for both. No one should be required to kill another human being against his/her will. If voting and other privileges of active citizenship are not ultimately made contingent on national service (which requires a constitutional amendment, of course) of necessity it’s already readily-apparent that cowards, shirkers, and the mentally-defective (viz Donald Trump and his family) will totally dominate U.S. politics— just see how it is now!
Corporations are not people, and the Founders could not have possibly anticipated that absurd assertion. Corporations emphatically do not have the same rights as individual humans— legal arguments to the contrary are self-serving hogwash and sophistry. Only “vested citizens” should be eligible for public office. There should in every case be term-limitations in the interest that the maximum number of citizens are able to hold some office-of-trust during their lifetimes. Consider Iceland, a direct democracy in which one out of every two citizens holds an office of some sort in their lifetimes— fifty percent— they also have the oldest constitution on the planet, by the way— almost a thousand years old.
So what has become of the Peace Corps? VISTA? Americorps? Do these entities still even exist? Who goes into these agencies and where are they sent? What are the rewards and incentives? Do we perhaps have need of a GI Bill for our peace-workers as well? Is peace somehow less-important than killing people? We veterans do not have a separate fate from that of the rest of our nation: our destiny is bound-up in the ultimate fate of all of us, just like everybody else— we are not an exception! The trick is to bend our nation to the service of the many and not to the few— this is a classic unsolved dilemma of all human society down through recorded time.
History’s lesson seems to be that, in the interest of “power to the people,” SMALL is definitely better— great size and great power only favor the rich and the ruthless in matters of war and economic domination. Count one-by-one the geographic sizes and populations of the world’s nations, versus their system of governance— do you get the picture? Is there a detectable, consistent socio-political rule at play here?
Perhaps this issue/conundrum is unsolvable, and ultimate justice will be administered by the blundering strike of some clueless wayward asteroid. Or, if you prefer, some pompous anthropomorphous know-it-all deity with a likewise anthropomorphous winged-retinue will descend In Glory from the ceiling of life’s theater at the end of Act-Three to set things right, like Euripides always had to end things because he made such a bloody mess of his plots.
But by-and-large, things will never be set right in the finite lives of nameless billions. Is our fate like that of mayflies? And what vanity makes us feel that we’re somehow better than insects, save that we’ve written our lies into our theology? “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” the Psalmist tells us, with perhaps more honesty (Psalm 8:4). The answer to that rhetorical question is theological and not political, and perhaps we’d best not pick sides?
As individuals, what exactly were our personal motives to go to war? Adventure? Glory? Escape from boredom, or our families, or seemingly-impossible economic circumstances? Escape from an insurmountable socio-economic log-jam? From out of perceived patriotic duty? Fear of the draft? Orders? Sadistic personal impulses, a thirst for glorious homicide and pillage? An opportunity to bully others, especially our perceived racial inferiors— with impunity? I’ve seen all of these things.
“He who taketh up the sword shall perish by the sword,” Jesus is said to have observed (Matthew 26:52). But on what scale or timetable? Those of us who are still alive and writing about this subject, obviously apparently escaped that particular fate. Or was this said mainly to predict the long-term fates of nations? Are we not all ultimately protein in a chain-succession of future predators much like ourselves? Or will we ultimately be consumed in flames? Heaped on a hecatomb of human sacrifice— the living flesh of our great democracy piled high to honor our proprietary self-intoxicated bloody-minded anthropomorphic gods— incinerated as it were on an altar of our own making? But that’s not the entire quotation— the first part is often left out. Jesus is said to have said first, “Put up thy sword into his place”— in other words, “put that damned thing away before you cut somebody with it.”
Can I say all this? Or is religion taboo, unless of course you’re an evangelical? Is this a fair fight, or are my enemies entitled to hold my arms behind my back while their henchmen punch-me-out? Religion and a blind-belief in the invisible is at the philosophical roots of our American political intransigence— we seem to learn our intransigence in church. Who dares to argue with fanatics? The Shiites and the Sunnis are beating each other’s brains out over fewer differences than exist between Baptists and Presbyterians. Hindus persecute Muslims in India. In Myanmar, Buddhists persecute Muslims. The Chinese Communists persecute all non-indigenous religions. The Muslims have historically persecuted the Baha’is and the Zoroastrians. The only true god of mankind appears to be Mars.
Our national fertility-rate has dropped below the replacement level. I can easily see this when I count the children of my friends who are still in their thirties and forties— most of them are childless. Where then are we going to get our warriors? Particularly if we pursue our anti-immigrant proclivities? From among those of our population who are willing-enough to call themselves “militia” and run around in public with AR-15s dangling around their necks, stirring-up trouble with people who progressives keep insisting on calling “people of color”? These self-appointed “militias” somehow don’t look to me to be good potential troops, unless soldiers no longer need to be able to read or shave or count past ten.
I’m not under any delusion that the USA is a “democracy” in any way, nor even a “representative republic,” given gerrymandering by both political parties. Therefore, I’m not really concerned with changing national policies— I, and probably you, have no meaningful control over that, nor even input. I’m only specifically addressing the matter of potential soldiers here. If you’re a potential soldier, I say to you: don’t go! Look at those among us who have come back from Korea, Nam, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan— talk to us, ask us. Shut up and listen to our answers. Don’t let yourself be used— don’t go. Let the Trump family get out of their condos and their Teslas and go down to the recruiters— those who benefit should pay the check.
Malcolm Kenyon served as a commissioned officer in the United States Navy and fought in Vietnam, where he was Chief Engineer of a 2250-ton destroyer. He has since been a marine mechanical technician, technical writer, machinist, toolmaker, structural weldor, assistant professor of technology and an ESL teacher. His writing has appeared in Noisy Water: Poetry from Whatcom County; Poetry Walk: the Second Five Years; and Padilla Bay Poets Anthology, among others.
The Long and Winding Road
by Michael Novotny
The 1st Cavalry Division had arrived in I Corps in time to play a major part in defeating the Tet Offensive in 1968. That is when I joined my unit. After that task, it chased after the remnants of North Vietnamese units in pockets of resistance. Some of those pockets, well, resisted. I was used as an occasional aerial observer. I was assigned to Headquarters Company of the 2nd Battalion 19th Artillery, a direct support unit with three batteries of 105mm artillery. I was still recovering from knee surgeries at Fort Bragg and couldn’t be used as a forward observer, the typical initial assignment for new lieutenants, so Second Lieutenant Mike Novotny was doing odd jobs. I was the ammo officer. The batteries called in their needs and we broke down pallets of ammunition and put them in cargo nets and when the “Hooks”, CH-47 Chinook Helicopters, came in to sling them out we hooked them up. The ammo section hadn’t had an officer for quite a while, and the staff sergeant running it had been doing a fine job without one. The ammo section left LZ Sharon every day and went to the ammo dump at Quang Tri to prepare the loads. I stayed at LZ Sharon and took the orders and told them what they could or couldn’t have. What they could have depended on what was available and what helicopters were available to haul it. Sometimes they just wanted the ammo in the cardboard tubes it came in. Other times they wanted it in the wooden boxes that contained two rounds each. They would use the boxes filled with dirt to build bunkers. You could fit less rounds when you sent it in boxes.
Another job I had was Property Book Officer. Every battalion has a property book officer, a senior warrant officer that did the technical job of keeping track of equipment, ordering more, and writing off things that had been damaged or sometimes lost. Our Property Book Officer was killed or wounded during a rocket attack, it was never clear to me which, just that he was gone, and we wouldn’t get a new one for a while. There were cabinets of forms and records that seemed to be a cross between fairly logical and foreign language. I had no training at all in these tasks. I saw a senior warrant at our little club drinking apart from all the pilot types. He was drinking Johnnie Walker Red. The next day I took a jeep and went in with the ammo section. After things got organized, the Sergeant and I headed for the Base Exchange at Quang Tri. They didn’t want to sell anything to Army types. Somewhat disheartened, we drove past the MACV compound in Quang Tri City. They had a club, and a drink would lift our spirits. We stopped and found their little club. There were bullet holes all over the place, but they shared that they had withstood the Tet Offensive, in part because of the Cav and would only be too happy to sell us a couple drinks. While imbibing, the subject of purchasing came up and the bartender got the sergeant in charge of the club. He could spare some for a small markup, what did we need? A couple bottles of Johnnie Walker Red and three or four bottles of whiskey. He gave me Johnnie Walker Black, all that he carried and Old Granddad 100 proof. He asked me to keep it a secret. He couldn’t supply much. When I returned to LZ Sharon at the end of the duty day, I sought out the property book officer, who was assigned to 2/20th Aerial Rocket Artillery. I found him in his little wood floored tent; it looked just like my PBO tent, but better organized with no stacks of papers laying around. At first, the crusty warrant wasn’t very excited about helping, but when I produced the bottle of scotch, he was much more willing. It turns out he preferred Black Label, but the club couldn’t get it. He came over the next day and got to work. In two days, he got everything in order, gave me a stack of completed forms to sign and said that was all he could do this month, but he’d be back next month do it again.
West of us at the Khe Sahn Combat Base a regiment of Marines along with Army, Air Force, and ARVN units defended the base against a North Vietnamese force that included three infantry divisions and numerous supporting units. The road was cut, and all supply came through the air. The base regularly took over a thousand rounds of artillery a day. They sent thousands more back from their own artillery in the base.
A brigade of the Cav had defeated the regiment that was maintaining a supply line between Hue City and the A Shau Valley, long an enemy stronghold. Major General Tolson wanted to go into the A Shau and clean it out. But even two-star generals must follow orders, and he was ordered to develop a plan to open Highway 9 to Khe Sanh and break the siege of the beleaguered base. He did as he was ordered, and Operation Pegasus was born. It wasn’t all that clever of a plan. It called for Marine and ARVN units to drive towards Khe Sanh on the ground opening the road while the Cav air assaulted on both sides killing who they could and driving the rest away from the advancing troops. He would also start encircling the enemy units so he could whack them. He would establish temporary firebases to provide covering fires and he would chase any surviving North Vietnamese out of the area.
On the micro level, the 2/19th headquarters prepared to move west to Ca Lu along with the batteries of artillery. They would leave most of headquarters in place at LZ’s Sharon and Betty. They wouldn’t need me. What they needed were truck drivers. Most of the able-bodied enlisted men had gone out to the guns to replace losses. So, I volunteered to drive a truck. The supply sergeant wasn’t convinced.
“Well, Looo-ten-ant, maybe you could show me your Army driver’s license to drive a five-ton truck,” knowing most soldiers didn’t have Army driver’s licenses, especially officers.
Surprise, surprise. I had an Army driver’s license. In Armor AIT, I was licensed to drive a quarter ton truck, the venerable jeep, and the 60-ton main battle tank M48/ M60. I showed him my license. He was a bit taken back but was desperate for drivers so he handed it back to me and said, “Yes Sir, I guess if you can drive a tank, you can probably drive a truck.” He assigned me a vehicle and bright and early the next morning I fired it up and headed out to join the convoy. I had a load of timbers and steel planking and was in charge of the advance party for the battalion.
I would like to tell you how I cleverly maneuvered myself to the front of the convoy so I wouldn’t have to eat so much dust, but the truth is I just went where they told me to go. I was about fifth in line of a hundred or so trucks, just behind a couple gun trucks. While we were waiting to start out, a First Lieutenant, infantry type, with two grunts asked if they could ride along. Their unit was out there somewhere, and they had just gotten back from R & R and were looking to join them. I readily agreed since it is tough to fire a machinegun while driving a truck.
Around March 30th, 1968 and at the appointed hour, off we went headed east towards Quang Tri then north on Highway 1 to Dong Ha, finally west on Highway 9. We proceeded without incident through Cam Lo, the turnoff for Con Thien along the DMZ. As we approached the turnoff to Camp Carrol, two Blue Max gunships of the 2nd Battalion 20th Artillery (Arial Rocket Artillery) joined us. It was comfortable to have them overhead, but it was a reminder that if we weren’t in the danger zone before, we definitely were now. The gunships shadowed the convoy and we drove past the Rockpile. The next base would be Ca Lu, our destination. And after that was Khe Sanh.
We were only a couple miles past the Rockpile when I heard some loud pops from both sides of the road. Sounded just like mortars. We didn’t have to wait long for the rounds to impact. Yep, they were mortars, 82 mm it seemed like from the explosions. It seemed like maybe half a dozen tubes, all spread out. They poured their fire on the front of the convoy, probably hoping to stop us. Sitting targets are so much easier to hit. Hmm, I thought, maybe it would have been better to eat a little dust in the rear.
Since the correct thing to do is power through, naturally we stopped. The gunships peeled off to start taking out the mortars. I could see the tracers coming up to greet them. I was sure that help was on the way but knew that this was going to take a while, and the mortar rounds were coming hot and heavy right now. I could hear shrapnel rattling off my truck. I was not comfortable sitting there, and though the trucks in front of me were in the middle of the road the ditches along the side were not so deep and were dry. I engaged the front wheel drive, told the lieutenant to hang on, and pulled around the left side. The truck felt a little tippy but with ten wheels turning we managed to get around. At the front of the column was a jeep with a lieutenant colonel sitting in it bleeding from the neck. Steam was coming out of the hood, so I assumed his vehicle was disabled. The truck behind it seemed to have some damage too.
When I got back completely on the road, I high tailed it. I went maybe half a mile and stopped to take it out of low range. I glanced behind me, sure that I would see vehicles following me, but there weren’t any, at least not yet. Thinking back, I suppose I could have sat there while things sorted themselves out. After all who would engage a single truck when there was a nice juicy convoy available. But alas, I was a second lieutenant and that didn’t occur to me at the time, so I shifted into high range and took off for Ca Lu. I drove that truck about as fast as it would go.
It was pretty country, mountainous and covered with jungle so green on this sunny day. The road got worse and worse, but still never got too bad. We drove past a hundred spots that would have been ideal for an ambush. The lieutenant screamed at me to slow down but I was a former flat track motorcycle racer and was comfortable sliding a little, even if he wasn’t. I drove the hell out of that truck and it never faltered. Maybe two hours later we pulled off the road and into Ca Lu. We had not seen a living soul, friend or foe.
I stopped at the entrance and asked directions. My passengers took this opportunity to bid me fond farewell. They seemed a little shaky when they got off. I noticed that I was a little shaky too. All’s well that ends well. An engineer directed me to the designated spot for the battalion headquarters. I asked about getting some help with digging bunkers, and he assured me that the engineer commander would just tell a second lieutenant to get in line. When he was gone, I dug through my scant belongings. There were some extra clothes, lots of ammo for the machinegun, poncho liners, a cot, and two bottles of Old Granddad, 100 proof. Sadly, I put one in a backpack and went off in search of an engineer sergeant in charge of backhoes. I found him and a deal was struck. When the Chinook’s started arriving with the Conex containers that made up the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) there were nice deep holes to put them in. The timbers and steel planking would connect them and the whole thing would be buried deep enough to be rocket proof.
The Cav often flew two gunships over their major bases, the anti-mortar patrol. My first night there you could hear them circling at different altitudes with no lights on. No collisions that way. Shortly after dusk I heard the first mortar rounds drop. The gunship had fire on the tube before the first round landed. Other gunships joined them and fired on the position until there was nothing left but burned dirt. It was the last time we got mortared while I was there. After two days on April 1st, Operation Pegasus began. The Seabees and Army Engineers had focused on expanding the runway and it needed it. The Cav had over four hundred organic helicopters and they arrived en masse. One Marine wondered if everyone in the Cav had their own helicopter. I wasn’t needed at headquarters battery anymore, I so got to go observing more, but that is another story.
It seemed to me and the folks who outranked me that the enemy was withdrawing. There were lots of fortifications, trenches, etc., but not large troop concentrations. The troops we did find were not equipped to fight against the Skytroopers and were caught in the open a lot. The Division killed 1,259 against light casualties by the time Operation Pegasus was officially ended two weeks later on April 15, 1968. The Cav went back to their respective bases, mostly to Camp Evans, me to LZ Sharon. We prepared for our next adventure…the A Shau Valley was still waiting. It would not disappoint.
Michael Novotny served four tours in Viet Nam starting as an air observer in the First Air Cavalry Division and proceeding to advisor for Vietnamese Regional Forces and Popular Forces. Following an early promotion to Captain, Mike served as senior advisor to indigenous troops, Vietnamese and especially Montagnard (Hre and Rhade) primarily at Ha Tay CIDG Camp and Hoai An District. After leaving Vietnam, Mike taught irregular warfare at the career college before leaving the Army in 1971. He later returned to college graduating from Arizona State University with a BSW and New Mexico Highlands University with an MSW. Mike worked as a counselor and Acting Team Leader of the Phoenix Vet Center before moving to his current position as Bellingham Vet Center Director. Mike and his wife Pam have served as foster parents and do volunteer work in the area.
I Want to Make You Proud
by Thomas Renteria
My maternal grandfather was named Kenton Waymire. He and his brother Keith were raised on a small farm in Indiana by their grandfather. He served in the Airforce during WWII, the Korean War, and almost went to Vietnam while serving in the Reserves. He retired at the rank of Chief Master Sergeant, and now I know why he was always so particular about everything. In my experience, most senior leaders have the uncanny knack of finding the most microscopic of details in everything that they do. I remember him telling me as a child to make sure and use only two squares of toilet paper when going to the bathroom. He wasn’t joking and somehow always knew when I hadn’t followed his instructions.
He never talked about his time overseas and once told me that people who’ve seen real war typically won’t want to tell you about it. I’d read in newspaper clippings that his plane was shot down and that he had to parachute in behind enemy lines. This man was the epitome of everything that I wanted to be, and I loved him dearly. He had penned me a few letters when I was in Basic Training, and that was our last correspondence together—before he died just a few months later.
It was October 27th of 2007, and I remember the initial blast. It felt like someone took a Louisville Slugger and teed off on my forehead. That’s the last thing I remember before waking up and walking out of the vehicle on my own. Everything was bright and disoriented. I remember my eyes having a hard time adjusting to the light outside of the vehicle, but I stumbled out and up the stairs into the field hospital. I do partially remember being in the vehicle that day in Baghdad. Seeing weird lights and moving in and out of consciousness. Parts of it felt real and other parts felt like a dream. I had a flashback in Texas one time while driving, and it may have been the best glimpse of the day that I got blown up. I had been prescribed Ambien to help with sleep and had driven “unconsciously” to a nearby bowling alley in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, it took me totaling my car and two other vehicles for me to have that flashback. It felt very real. All I can remember is desperately trying to get out of the “kill zone.”
I left the U.S. Army in 2011, after what in total amounted to over fourteen-years of my adult life. Completely lost and wondering what the fuck was going on from one day to the next. Battling the voices in my head for control of an unexplained hypothetical conscious and subconscious environment. It literally felt like I was a zombie character on “The Walking Dead”. I wasn’t sure if I was coming or going at any given time.
In this weird state-of-mind.
Not feeling alive but knowing that I was.
Not exactly sure what I was supposed to do or where I was supposed to go.
For months after getting out, there was this emptiness inside of me, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I was pretty sure of certain things about myself, but this was different and it just didn’t make sense. Once I started connecting with friends from the Military, it was obvious what was missing from my life. It was weird, when I was in the Army— I couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of there, and right after I left—I couldn’t handle being gone.
I read something the other day that stated: “Real change happens when a person is able to see through their own bullshit.” My post-traumatic stress created obsessive behaviors that manifested in the form of negative thoughts, severe substance-abuse, major depression, and crippling anxiety. I was existing in my own mental torture chamber and holding myself back from doing all of the positive things that I was capable of doing. Looking at the countless people that I’ve known in my life who have allowed mental anguish to control everything they do, and sadly disrupt other people’s lives in the process, I wonder. Such a selfish condition of the mind, and yet—can the person even see it? Do they even know what they’re doing? I can say, I absolutely did not.
In 2013, I decided to eat some magic mushrooms while camping in the Rocky Mountains. Everything was fine and calm for a while. Once everyone went to bed is when the real fun began. I made the mistake of thinking I hadn’t eaten enough, and eating a few more caps would invoke just the right amount of chaos. By the time the trees and bushes started turning into ghoulish ghostly figures that were “without a doubt” moving towards my location with full intentions of ending my existence on this planet, it was obvious that I may have over-indulged just a wee bit. Nonetheless, my shirt was off. Dull camping hatchet in hand, I had every intention of ending these motherfuckers lives. I went into full-on fight or flight mode and was obsessively scanning the woods around me. Thoroughly convinced that if I let my guard down for one second, one of these things was going to end my life. I was breathing really hard and after some time started to calm down ever so slightly.
It felt like a voice, but to be honest, I’m not exactly sure how the message was delivered. It was showing me that everything I saw in the woods that night was created by my mind. That I had created all of the black ghoulish creatures in the woods. That I had created all of the drama invoked by my fighting these imaginary beings. It was one-hundred percent created in my mind. And with that same mind, I can also delete these things as well. Like magic, I can remember it clearly to this day. My muscles relaxed. My mind relaxed. I drank a beer and went to bed.
In 2017, my son Dalton came to live with me for the first time in his life. I was excited and terrified all wrapped into one. We’d spent time together through the years, but never anything over a few weeks. This felt very surreal to me and almost as if a prayer had been answered. The questions running through my mind:
Would I be able to hold myself together and be a solid influence for him?
Was it too late in the game for us to really connect?
There were some rough waters for us in the beginning, but it was obvious that his being here was helping both of us immensely. I had been practicing Qigong at a local monastery and thought that it might be a way for us to spend time together. We would go and do mindful chores together during the week, and he would surprisingly want to go back each and every time. We’d talk about how the chores translated to mindfulness, and we were learning how to focus on our breath and ground our energy. I didn’t know what type of role model I was supposed to be for him, but I wanted him to learn a skill that would help him the most. The skill that had helped me the most. This was not only allowing me to conquer my demons every day, but had also allowed me to conquer them to the point where my son was here with me, and I had dreamed of this time for the majority of his life. This last year has been one of the best years of my waking life, and it was because my family finally felt complete.
You see, a big part of why I joined the Military was to fight and serve my country just as my Grandpa Kenton had done. At an early age, this was all my mind could see. What I didn’t see was how his demons from combat ravaged him and his family. What I couldn’t see was how much those demons had affected my mother and her life as well. What I couldn’t see was how far the cycle of trauma and pain really went back.
But one day, after trying to take my own life, I did see the cycle. I saw how not getting help for the things that torture and torment our mind can have a massive effect on our life and livelihood, but most importantly the life and livelihoods of those around us. Usually the ones closest to us and the people that love us the most. My grandfather had flown many combat missions over Japan. The same country that founded Reiki as a form of healing the mind and body. The same lineage that I am now a Shinpiden or Master Teacher of. The same lineage that taught me how to send Reiki to the past, present, and future. The same lineage that has transformed my entire life.
Sitting down, sitting still, and learning to focus on my breath has shown me an indescribable calm. An escape from the monsters and obtrusive thoughts that my mind frequently plays over and over again. A clarity knowing that they absolutely ARE. NOT. REAL. Sustained hope knowing that when they are at their worst, all I have to do is flip the switch and tune them out.
Almost every day, I would get stuck on things that have no value. My mind would give them value and firmly believed that they should be focused on. A good counselor once taught me to envision myself playing tug-of-war with my thoughts. In a split second, I knew that I simply needed to “drop the rope.” Not just drop it, but throw that mother fucker against the ground with violent force and walk away like a Boss.
When I sit perfectly still and meditate, these things melt away like snowflakes gently landing on a fire’s ember. I see the precise movement of the flake as it descends to meet its earthly demise. Only to be reborn and repeatedly sent back into the dust. Back into the space holding that which cannot be destroyed. As I sit and meditate, thoughts and ideas float through my head like clouds through the air. As I focus on my breath, I blow on the thoughts ever so gently and watch them disappear into the mind-sky.
Thomas Renteria served in the U.S. Army from 1997-2011 as an Infantryman and deployed twice to Iraq for a total of twenty-seven months. He received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Phoenix. Thomas practiced Tao Fawu Qigong and is a certified Komyo ReikiDo Shinpiden/ Master Teacher. He currently lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma with his wife and daughter.
Hands and Eyes
by Tsonsera Rhoades
I learned that nobody really goes away when they die. And I have had a hand in the death and destruction of many, albeit behind the scenes and with the help of many needles. Walk with me through a few frozen moments in time and all mysteries will be revealed.
Thirteen years ago I raised my right hand and said “I do.” Little did I know how far-reaching that promise would be. I hoped it would take me down dangerous pathways and glorious parade fields. I dreamed of the life and legacy I would build through my blood, sweat, and tears, and the anticipated camaraderie of battle buddies yet to be. The Army taught me all sorts of lessons—how to walk with strangers as a giant rectangle, how to wake up and fall asleep on command, how to truly enjoy doing pushups in summer clothes on German winter mornings. Despite all of the armed fun, stylish outfits, and cool toys, marrying the Army was not always for better. Mostly, it was for worse. And it transcends “till death do us part.” I began my Army career as a Psychological Operations Specialist. We fondly refer to ourselves as “mindfuckers are us.” After two years of training for deployment, and not going anywhere, my eighteen year old self became restless and disgruntled. I wanted to die heroically on a battlefield and have a chow hall named after me. Instead I went active, fractured my legs in Airborne school, and crossed over into the Regular Army, promptly shoved into a 68W slot because the Army needed medics more than they did broken PsyOp soldiers. Elation is not the word that comes to mind when I reflect on this moment. Rather, I was lost, confused, and terrified of the idea that I would have to comfort and care for soldiers after the Army trained me so well to do quite the opposite. I lost my hope and my dream.
I tried to fail every single test in medic school. I failed at failing. For some reason I understood this medical world and pulled my bootstraps up enough to pass my National Registry, earning my Emergency Management Technician-Basic license. In a moment of extreme lucidity (aka I was drunk), I recalled my Airborne Operations Sergeant telling me that being a medic was an honorable role and that I’d better be the best damn medic I could be or I would shame him and his Army. He was my favorite mentor in my months of injury recovery. Because of him I hoped and considered a new dream. I started trying again.
After medic school I found myself in Germany and pregnant, not knowing I would face my first distilled lesson in life and death. I was stationed on a tiny air base in Wiesbaden where I quickly learned that the only other English-speaking people available were my fellow Americans stationed with me. Whether we liked each other or not, we were all we had in the way of familiar language and culture. We became a rather lovely and dysfunctional family. As my skill and practice grew, so did my patient load. I became known as “Doc” and “Zoe’s mom.” Sometimes children and grown men ran away from me because they remembered my presence during their required immunizations. Sometimes they remembered I was the medic who assisted with their vasectomy or son’s circumcision. At one point I had assisted with or performed the pap smears for all of the women who lived on my street. This does not actually make for pleasant dinner conversation. Trust me, it gets bloody. Besides my neighbors, I made fast friends with my fellow soldiers, most of whom were military police and military intelligence under the umbrella of 1st Armored Division.
My friends all came up for deployment and my clinic felt the first tremor of fear and responsibility as Operation Iraqi Freedom descended upon our young, uniformed shoulders. We medics and ancillary medical staff mechanically prepared deployment medical records and processed hundreds of our compadres through their various medical preparedness stations, performing our roles so they could perform theirs. On the battlefield. They didn’t all come back. While my sisters and brothers in arms labored and fought, guarded and battled, listened and observed, my fellow medics and I carried on with regularly scheduled appointments, triage, and a slew of supportive measures to provide the best possible care for those soldiers and family members left behind in garrison. My birthday battle buddy, Francesca, deployed that round. She was an MP and terrified. It was her first deployment. We rode the bus together from the Frankfurt airport to our airbase and bonded over a shared birthday and coast. We ate, danced, ventured out together in the German landscape. We looked out for each other and I applied my Special Operations knowledge in helping her properly pack her gear hours before she got on the bus that motored her to Deployment Number One. Then I helped them all gear up and gave the best pep talk I will never remember. I hoped and prayed for their safe return, but Francesca wrote me one letter asking me to not write back and just go on living and enjoying my life as if she were still there. She didn’t want to jinx her deployment or homecoming by worrying about friends or family. She didn’t come back.
When the first round of my 1AD friends redeployed, I couldn’t recognize them. Their bodies returned but their souls and essences were caught elsewhere. Francesca and I called each other on our birthday to wish each other well, but she retreated to her room and I went out with our other friends. A year or so later her number came up again and this time she told me not to see her off. I waved from my clinic at her parting bus and hoped and prayed again for her and her unit’s safe return. I returned to my patients, and began constructing my new dream of becoming a pediatrician. I built my family and started hoping for greater adventures in life. No more battlefields or chow halls. No glorious death. I wanted to sustain life.
Another year passed and I was recovering from another injury and headed out of Germany to Audiology, Ears, Nose, and Throat Specialist school in Texas. This was a grueling four months of death by Powerpoint, broken air conditioners, cowboy boots, and memorizing more surgical instruments and anatomy than I believed to actually exist. I still suspect my instructors made up half of the material just to stress us out and keep us on our toes. It worked. The second half of my training involved hands-on application of our Powerpoint lectures. At this point I was hoping to work in fast food or retail-anything but this torture. I was paired with the senior head & neck surgeon, a man known for his lightning fast arm and quick-to-boil temper. He expected his surgical scrub techs to anticipate his every thought and move, promptly and accurately pressing the correct instrument to his palm with psychic accuracy. I spent hours reviewing my instrument sets and surgery suite procedures so that I would not end up with a scalpel or Army-Navy elevator in my forehead from close range. It paid off. He threw an instrument at me and I caught it, which earned me a place at his left elbow and an upfront view of the inside of a person’s face. One such face belonged to a thirteen year old boy, in for a routine septo-rhinoplasty. He had a deviated septum and difficulty breathing so our job was to carve out his nasal cavity so that he could grow up without being chained to an inhaler.
The surgery went fine. Everything proceeded according to norms and medical customs. We recovered all of our suture material and 2x2’s, but something went wrong with the patient’s anesthesia. As he was slowly brought back to consciousness he began to thrash and gurgle, ripping out his IV. My heart vised and I went into battle mode as my mind registered that this kid was dying in front of me. We saved him. I never saw him again. Somewhere in my body I stored the stress of that experience... for a rainy day. Some days later, my classmates and I were playing in the cadaver lab. I mean, we were handling various preserved and dissected body parts in order to understand the inner workings of the human experience. I picked up a man’s head, he was old and had donated his body to science. I will never forget my shock seeing his facial expression frozen in place forever. It was the moment before he died and his life flashed before his eyes. He seemed still so alive that I cried out and tried to start CPR. But there was only his head. And then the lights went out and I was stuck in a pitch dark room holding a human cranium in my gloved hands. To this day I cannot smell wintergreen without crying and seeing his face. I still dream of his eyes.
Not too long after being locked in a room with tubs of body parts, I was locked in a small hearing booth with six other soldiers, administering and observing their routine hearing test as the second part of my clinicals. It was there that I saw Francesca again. The only part of her body I recognized was her beautiful face because the rest of her skin was bubbled and mangled, as if her body was a BMX course and all the tires left permanent marks. We laughed, cried, and I couldn’t hug her. She couldn’t bear the weight of anything beyond her clothing touching her. She had been blown up in her last deployment. Only she and two other soldiers survived. We promised to stay in touch and I returned to my patients. My hopes and prayers had been answered. Two minutes later what looked like most of a human body walked into my booth and stared at me through black eyes. He was a Marine Lieutenant Colonel (I could tell only by his uniform) and there for his final hearing test before being released from his commitment to country and arms. His head and face were covered with the underside of flesh, like an avulsed peach after it has been submerged in boiling water. I shook his hand, showed him to his chair, and spent the most grueling fifteen minutes of my life hovering his earphones over two holes on either side of his head where his ears once sat.
After all of my muscular failure PT sessions and heartbreaking experiences thus far, this day was the most painful and brutal I had experienced in my Army career. I watched this Marine cry silently while he rigidly held his seat and pushed that hearing button with all his might, facing himself and his injuries with honor and bravery. All my prior hopes and dreams paled and withered in that moment. I vowed to be the best damn medic I could be and dedicated my final Army years to those patients and friends that never came home. But not everybody goes away when they die. Some come back, unrecognizable as their former selves. I carry their ghosts with me, though they live and breathe and carry on with life. And I hope they live well, finding a new dream to live for.
Tsonsera Rhoades is an eight-year Army veteran who goes by many names. She is Mom, friend, teacher, doc, counselor, dog mom, cat mom, T-Rex, daughter, sister, cousin, wordsmith, medicine woman, warrior, and many more. She is working on her alternative teaching license and currently calls Colorado Springs her home. Where there is mischief, laughter, coffee, kayaks, and green places, you can find Tsonsera. She graduated from Western Washington University with a BA in Communication and Spanish.
by Jan Richards
I saw them in the bars, barely teenagers, pubic hair still faint, scarcely noticeable on the mound above their skinny legs. They danced for soldiers, olive skin slicked with oil, their round eyes dark and fearful. They went to school in the mornings, played games with their friends in the afternoon heat, then came out like black cats in the night to roam amongst the men.
I saw their bodies.
“What do you mean?” I asked the man. I had stumbled into yet another bar, thirsty for one more pitcher of Red Horse, and my friend Liz and I winked at each other, grinning at his prospect.
He spoke in broken English rapidly, stumbling past his native Tagalog tongue, “You want girl? Ten pesos. Twenty-five. Take two! They spend night. Do what you want. Next day, laundry. Clean room for you. Good bargain. You want girl?”
I was about to cuss him out, but the men in the room started whistling and chanting sexual innuendos. Liz and I watched as young girls sauntered across the stage. They were really just children. Soldiers, pushed together in drunken swarms near the platform, held money over their heads, shouted and reached for flesh. The young girls parted, and an older woman slinked forward. She expertly danced her way across the stage. I watched her gyrate between the girls, teasing the men to frenzy. Then, they called for her to eat.
Someone threw a banana on stage. The woman picked it up and pushed it in and out of her mouth lasciviously, aiming straight for a young soldier boy standing quietly in front of the other men. She grabbed him by the back of his neck, far below where a grunt gets shaved, and his friends threw him onto the stage. The woman split back the ripe skin of the fruit and jammed it between his lips, keeping the young boy on his back with the pad of her small foot.
We watched as she squatted over his mouth and took the whole banana inside her. She stood up and walked across the stage, tiptoeing through the tender girls dancing around her, and then made her way back to the young Marine, squatting a few inches above his face. The men chanted, “Feed! Feed! Feed!” and she squeezed out bite-sized portions of the banana into his mouth.
We were drunk. We were at that point where everything seemed surreal and slow and sinister. We wanted to leave but could not. We wanted to close our eyes but kept watching.
Now the woman’s body was bending over other men, not filled with fruit, but coins. They yelled, “Change! Change! Change!” and we stared as the soldiers put stacks of quarters on their tongues and held them out for the woman – to come and consume, to come and entertain. She lowered herself over every one of them, taking their money inside her and then they waited. She came back and moved over their faces, dropping one quarter at a time into their mouths, and the crowd shrieked with delight.
I closed my eyes and remembered touching a woman’s body the first time. I was 19 and in love and still believed in decency. Her body, unlike the girls’ on stage, had been linen white in winter, a glorious bronze in Tennessee summers, and trembled when I touched it. Her skin was fruit—apricots drowned in honey, figs off the vine. Her impossibly long legs. And the way she trusted me, the way she trusted me. I sat in the bar and tried to fill my mind with that memory – when I first knew what I wanted.
Liz and I said nothing.
I blinked through patches of cigarette smoke that hung in the air, as if they, too, were waiting to escape. Liz looked so out of place here, not because she was in a man’s world, but because she stood out. Even her military uniform could not hide or diminish her body.
Liz had once danced for men. She swirled past their gazes, her thick mane trailing just above her long legs. She said she made more money giving private lap dances in a couple of nights than she did wearing fatigues an entire year. There were coke parties and dope deals and money flowing. She hated the life but loved the drugs more. The dancing made Liz hard, and she was only herself when she was with me. Most people in our squadron thought we were lovers, but it wasn’t true. She let them think what they wanted.
One night we were playing pool together at the Airman’s Club. A group of Royal Canadian Navy sailors showed up, their frigate docked in the Okinawan port at White Beach. They had been at sea for six months and looking for a piece of anything that breathed. One of them could not believe what he found: Liz was straddling a corner pocket to make a shot, knee pulled high, leg dangling. When the sailor came up behind her, sliding his hand between her legs, she brought the end of the cue swiftly around her side. It cracked when it found his ribs.
“The only thing you got I need, I can buy and put batteries in. Piss off!”
When we received temporary duty orders (TDY) to the Philippines, I knew Liz would drink more. Before we found the “coin” bar, she had already consumed close to a fifth of gin. We made our way down Fields Avenue, which was filled with dozens of clubs. She danced on their tabletops and I could see in her eyes the men she left on the Vegas Strip. She found me watching her and turned sideways, inquisitive like an animal. Then she leaned across half-empty glasses and cupped her hand around her mouth, “Sometimes we have to keep our secrets, don’t we?”
Under my breath, I whispered back, “Sometimes we lie to make things bearable.”
Our attention returned to the stage: A flame appeared beside us as a bald-headed soldier flicked his lighter, dipping a handful of quarters in and out of the fire until he could not stand the heat. He gingerly stacked them into a pile, laid them onto a crisp dollar bill and made his way to the front of the crowd. Drunk, I could not move; Liz started yelling and tried to push her way to the stage – but the Marine was too far ahead. I watched helpless as the woman squatted over the quarters and took them in.
Her screams rose over the din as she convulsed on stage, digging furiously to remove the burning coins. The Marines beside us started to laugh, and before I could open my mouth, Liz was standing on their table, whiskey bottle in hand. She brought it down hard across a jarhead’s face.
Fists flew, young girls screamed, and my temple caught the leg of a bar stool that was meant for Liz. For a few seconds, I knew nothing but kicking and bodies and screams. Deep in a drunken frenzy, the men turned on each other and the bar melded into fists and combat boots and glass and splintered wood. I momentarily lost Liz in the chaos, though I could still hear her swearing at the grunts.
“Fucking bastards! You goddamn fucking bastards!”
I tried to lift my head up, past the entangled legs around me and find her. “Liz! Let’s get out of here. Leave the fuckers – let them kill each other – come on! Let’s go!” I found her pounding on a man who was bleeding from his scalp. I dragged her out of the bar, still fighting, cussing, drunk, angry, alive.
“What the hell were you thinking?” I screamed.
“Fuck you! You didn’t do a goddamn thing! You just stood there and watched her burn.”
I stopped and let Liz stumble on alone through the mixed throngs of natives and military. I could never explain what kept me frozen in my seat. Instead, I stood in the middle of Friendship Gate, the entryway between Clarke Air Base and Angeles City in the Philippines, stuck in my childhood and trapped beneath other grown men. I opened my mouth, but could not speak.
I was too drunk to catch her in the crowd. She became lost among the street vendors selling baskets, sunglasses and hats, and the man pushing food to foreigners while waving a fan of feathers to keep the flies away from the chickens hanging on his cart. I wanted to tell my friend why I became stone but got sidetracked by a group of little boys. They surrounded me and held out sticks of gum, “Peso, please?” I bought 10 packs, as many as my pockets would hold, and kept looking. Eventually, I gave up and turned toward our billet, suddenly anxious for sleep.
The peddling man had followed me from the bar.
“You want girl? Ten pesos.”
I thought of my first lover. She was as exquisite as crystals refracting in light, expectant, chaste. Her body smelled of a spring that I had always known. She cradled me, rocked me hard and long, and I wept from the pain of too much tenderness. Her voice kept violent men at bay, made them leave so I could rest.
The man was still following, shadowed by the moon. “You want girl? You crave her like men? Ten pesos.” I never knew what it was that made him haunt me into the night. Female military were known to frequent the same tired bars as their male counterparts, sporting the same short haircuts and drunk like all the rest. I wondered what was etched onto my face. How did he know?
I recalled all the times I was tortured in school – kids shouting dyke! across the aisles and making crude tongue-lapping gestures behind my back. I remembered getting hammered by a baseball bat behind the only gay bar in town, caught by local frat boys after a drag show. I was terrified someone would finally show me what I was missing in a good fuck. The familiar fear ran down my legs as I heard the belligerent man continue to call me out, an echo of my adolescence, a truth for all to hear.
I began to walk faster – past a crowd of the enlisted, prostitutes, children, and sick people lying in the streets. I kept walking, detesting the taste of fear in my throat, sobering myself with every footstep. I was livid that I had been found out in such a dirty country. “You want girl, crave her like men? Ten pesos.”
I turned to him abruptly, jarring his mouth into silence.
“Twenty pesos for two,” I said and held up matching fingers in front of his face. When he clapped his hands together twice, two young girls appeared out of nowhere. He stood with his hand outstretched. I produced his money and then he tilted back his head and laughed.
They did not say a word as we made our way back to my room. By the time I found the hotel several blocks away, I was completely sober. I turned the key in the lock and stepped back to let the girls in first. They smiled shyly at me, no words still. I emptied my pockets and then pushed back the mosquito netting that hovered over the bed like a ghost. They sat down and began to take off their clothes. When they were naked and uncomfortable, I extended my hand and took them to the bathroom. They stood silent and shivering as the water warmed the tub and steam rolled between us.
I bathed them from the side of the tub in oil and lavender until their silence became familiar. They no longer avoided my eyes. I ran my hands over the girls’ backs, olive and dark and thick with promise. I gently dried their bodies and then took them to the bed. Tucked a thin sheet and blanket under their chins. Kissed their foreheads.
I wept as they closed their eyes.
I watched them sleep.
Jan Richards is a tenured English instructor in the Pacific Northwest currently working on a memoir, “Outside the Realm of Tangible Things”. She is an avid blogger on grief work and served five years in the U.S. Air Force (1985-1990). She earned her MA in English from WWU.
by Indira Tapias
We’re sitting in this Airbnb house we rented in Australia, drinking and hanging. As I looked through my messages, people were freaking the fuck out about getting recalled to the ship. No fucking way. I had not seen anything official from my squadron, so I decided: until I did, I was not moving anywhere, nor was I about to take these drunk ass people back to a ship that was NOT sitting on the pier, which meant we had to travel through rough waters in a small boat to reach it. Fuck that.
An incoming message from a corpsman friend of mine told me to get back to the ship as soon as possible. I explained I was not under instruction from the ship, but from my squadron. He warned I’d get in trouble. FUCK. THAT. SHIT. That may have been the alcohol speaking through me. I later came to find out the details of the special occasion that caused the recall: A young sailor and his boat boo.
Okay, so a boat boo is a significant (or insignificant) other that you meet on the ship and establish a SOMETHING with for the duration of the time on the ship. So, these two had gotten a hotel room for an overnight stay in Australia. They had gotten very drunk, and she (the boat boo) had allegedly threatened to tell his wife about their relationship. That apparently made him angry. He, allegedly, began to hit her until he came to his senses and realized what he had done. Still in his drunken state, he (or the alcohol) decided that jumping out the window into the pool before anyone found out what happened was the best idea. Oh yeah, did I mention his drunk ass was on the 10th floor of the hotel?
Well, he jumped anyway. He managed to land in the pool, but also managed to break many a-bone. The commotion led to the arrival of the EMTs who attempted to remove him from the pool, as he tried to fight them off. After being taken to the hospital and treated, he was then ordered by the captain of the ship, who had to show up to the hospital (I will admit I personally wouldn’t have engaged in so much dumb shit if I knew the skipper of the ship was my emergency contact), to call his wife and tell her everything. Yikes. He was later flown back to the ship after recovery and sent to the brig. Only to then get court martialed and kicked out of the Navy. I also heard he was sent to jail, but I wasn’t sure if that was actually the case.
Indira Tapias served in the U.S. Navy as an electronics technician from February 2012 to February 2016. She graduated from Western Washington University with a Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Neuroscience, after which she was a program assistant in the Veterans Services Office at WWU. She has been an aircraft mechanic at DynCorp International in Greensboro, North Carolina and is currently a podcast host at The Veteran Network. She is finishing post bac work at University of North Carolina, Greensboro in preparation for medical school.
Just Back from R & R
by Jerry Wade
It was Thursday when Whiz returned to Hoi An from R&R. Not that it mattered much what day of the week it was. Most guys, if you asked, would have to stop to look at their watch or count their fingers to answer, anyway. He’d been away for ten days. He’d been seven days in Tokyo. In addition to his travel duffel, he carried a WP bag with the mail he’d brought from the Company office in Da Nang. The guys were glad to see him.
The talk in Da Nang had been that the Hoi An compound Second Platoon shared with the Korean Blue Dragon Brigade was expected to be hit by the enemy any day. They were on the receiving end of incoming, usually mortars, regularly, but it had been months since the VC had mustered the wherewith- all, and enough men, to attempt an attack with foot soldiers. Long enough, in fact, that Whiz found it hard to believe it would actually happen.
The Hoi An compound was a sprawling sand lot surrounded on all sides by complex interconnecting aprons of concertina wire. The nearly white sand was the consistency of sugar. Using a bulldozer, the Koreans had pushed up a substantial berm on all sides of the perimeter, leaving only one well-guarded opening for the main gate. Built into the berm at regular intervals was a network of guard bunkers. Tall watchtowers were located roughly at the four corners.
The Blue Dragon Brigade FDC bunker was located near the center of the compound. Built in a rough half circle around it were three platoons of 105MM Split Trail howitzers, the crew’s living spaces, mess hall, ammo storage bunkers etc. At their backs, after the berm and an extra heavy spread of concertina wire, was a sparse stand of thin trees, then beach and the South China Sea.
“Welcome back,” said Hicks. He propped his feet on a sandbag and lit a cigarette. “What’d ya bring me?”
“A case ‘a the clap,” grinned McDaniels.
“You wish,” said Whiz. He tossed his bag onto his rack.
“Who’s been usin’ my bunk?”
“Russo. You know how he is. He’s like a dog. He’ll curl up anywhere. Speakin’ a dogs, you better have some primo pussy stories. I’m horny as a three-peckered dog.”
“Jezzus! Let the man set his shit down and get settled,” said Festus in mock disgust.
“So...” he said, turning on Whiz, “you do have stories, don’t you? Got any pictures?”
“Aww! He so shy! He’s still cherry boy, ya know,” said McDaniels in a nasal, Mama-san voice.
“Cherry boy, my ass,” grinned Whiz. He held up three fingers. “Three. Count ‘em.
An’ one was American. A real round-eyed girl from San Francisco.”
“In Tokyo? Never happen,” said Hicks.
“Sit down. Let me tell you all about it,” Whiz grinned.
“Mr. Weasel was one happy guy.” “Mr. Weasel,” snorted Sweets. “What kinda guy names his dick? He calls it that ‘cause it’s this skinny little sneaky white thing, ‘bout this big.” He held up two fingers an inch apart.
Whiz waved him off. “He’s that way because I told him all about her on the way down from Da Nang. He could barely keep the truck on the road.”
Sweets was black. He was from Detroit. He looked like he might have played linebacker for the Lions. He wasn’t a regular, that is, his bunk was at the company headquarters at Da Nang. As a truck driver, though, he made frequent trips to Hoi An with supplies, mail, and guys like Whiz who went on R&R or were rotating home. Today, the trip was late in the day so he would spend the night. He’d get together later with Ward and Charles down at the guns and they’d sing Smokey Robinson and Temptations songs. They weren’t half bad.
“I gotta go check in with the Liz,” said Whiz.
“The Liz” was Lieutenant Lawrence, the Fire Direction Officer. He was a small man, almost too small to be mistaken for a Marine. His face wore the constant expression of a five-year-old who hasn’t gotten his way. He lived in a tiny room built into one side of the FDC bunker. Except to use the showers and the head, he almost never ventured outside. The result was a pale complexion that matched his short cropped blond hair. He had two nicknames; L. G., for Light Green, and Lizard (Liz), presumably because of his white belly. He was not well liked. His FDC operators were well trained and sharp as tacks, though, and the number of fire missions they were called on to perform said a lot about customer satisfaction. His professional skills were appreciated in the field.
“We might get hit tonight, you know,” said the Lieutenant. “If we do, I want you down with the guns, in case the gun loop goes down again.”
The gun loop was a hard-wired communication system that connected the guns, the command vehicle and the FDC, utilizing field phones, for direct fire command and control.
“Yes sir,” replied Whiz. He pulled a PRC-25 and a spare battery from the equipment shelf and returned to the hooch. It would be his backup. He quickly changed out of his green utility clothes and exchanged them for a set of Korean camouflage utilities. They fit better and weren’t as uncomfortable if they got wet.
Wind driven rain slanted into the compound. The first mortar rounds detonated a few minutes after 2:00 AM. The rounds landed in the wire south of the ALVT position. Moments later the second volley began landing in the same area. The third volley landed twenty yards closer. The mortars were meant to open holes in the wire for the attackers. It was apparent that an attack was imminent.
Spotters in the towers got a fix on where the mortars were coming from and ALVT’s guns were given coordinates to return fire.
Three 122 rockets streaked into the compound from a different direction, launched from somewhere much further away. They were aimed, apparently, at the Korean FDC bunker and their 105 MM guns. Within moments, the Koreans had a fix on the launch sight and were returning fire. Three more rockets came crashing in almost immediately. They had the range, but they failed to hit anything vital. They did little harm when they detonated. The sugar sand absorbed much of their fury.
Everyone was tense. They were all expecting a ground assault, but so far no VC had been spotted. Illumination flares were shot into the dark night. They drifted pathetically in the wind and rain and did little good.
Another volley of mortars, more than a dozen this time, began falling in the wire and along the berm. At the same time, at the opposite end of the compound where the Korean grunts and their 155 gun units were located, mortar rounds began falling, confirming that an attack at some point was almost certain.
The darkness and the rain made the enemy almost impossible to see. Most of them wore black shorts and black, loose fitting jackets. Low crawling slowly and carefully through the wire, they were nearly invisible against the sand. Everyone knew they were out there. They didn’t know, yet how many there were, but the VC were getting closer. Most were armed with AK 47 rifles. Several also carried RPGs strapped to their backs. Others dragged or pushed ahead of them, canvas satchel charge bags. No one doubted their intention. It was obvious.
The ALVT guns kept firing into the distance, to silence the persistent mortars. Whiz paced from one vehicle to the next behind the berm, checking and rechecking the gun loop. When the small arms fire increased, he hurried to one of the bunkers occupied by two “off duty” gun crewmen, Banks and Wickwire. They all peered out into the darkness, taking shots at whatever they saw, or thought they saw, never knowing for sure if they’d hit anything.
Another round of mortars fell, this time along the berm and behind it. Whiz heard someone yell, “Gun loop is down!” He slipped out of the bunker and began quickly tracking the gun loop wires again. He found a break in the wire right in front of gun number three where a mortar round had barely missed hitting the bunker. One end of the wire was easy to find, but the other end of the broken wire was buried in the soft sand. Whiz dug in the sand and, with the unreliable help of an illumination flare drifting above, eventually found it. Lying on his back against the slope of the berm, under the muzzle of the big 105 cannon, he held two wires in his teeth while he used wire cutters to trim and strip the ends of the matching wires. Then he twisted the ends together in tight splices and quickly wrapped tape around the bare wires. He stood up just as the guns got a command to fire again. The roar of the gun firing over his head knocked him down. He wasn’t injured, unless you counted the clanging in his head that caused a few moments of deafness, but he felt as if he’d been punched.
The small arms fire from the other side of the berm had increased considerably. The VC out in the wire were getting very close, and very aggressive. Whiz put a fresh magazine in his weapon as he made his way back to the bunker. As he pushed through the poncho hung over the bunker entrance, Banks gestured frantically for him to get down. Whiz crouched and an explosion roared just yards away, in front of the bunker. Wickwire stood and peered out into the darkness at the wire.
“Damn!” he said. “Well, now we know what a claymore sounds like.” He aimed his M-16 out into the night but did not fire.
At some point in the night the Korean grunts captured one of the attackers. They brought him to the ALVT side of the compound and equipped him with a microphone. From on top of the command vehicle, they “encouraged” him to talk to his comrades and persuade them to surrender. His nasal voice was plaintive, and pointless. The crackle of gunfire and explosions continued until nearly daybreak.
The rain persisted, too. By daylight those VC who survived the assault, had slipped away. They left behind twenty-three dead comrades. Also left behind were five VC who had penetrated the wire so far that escape had become impossible. They struggled individually with the notion of surrendering to the Koreans. Three of them surrendered. The other two stood defiantly and fired their weapons, inviting certain, sudden death.
Whiz had read Dante and Norman Mailer. He had a passing familiarity with the many types of hell each had described. He’d spent hours looking at the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Goya and the Civil War photos of Matthew Brady. He thought he knew what to expect. He was curious and assumed he was prepared for this reality. It was nothing like that.
He climbed out of the bunker onto the berm and there, not far in front of him, was the victim of Wickwire’s claymore. What Whiz had thought was a piece of torn plastic or cloth, caught in the wire, was actually all that was left of the body of an attacker. He had apparently stood up just as the claymore detonated. The damage to his body was unbelievable. His hips and spine were still connected. Part of his skull hung loose on a thread of tattered skin still connected to the spine. Shreds of loose skin hung from the back of shattered ribs. There was so little weight left to the body that it barely pressed down on the roll of concertina it was draped over. Making the scene even more unbelievable, the persistent rain had rinsed away any trace of blood. There was almost no color, just the grays of a poorly exposed black and white photograph.
Out in the wire Whiz moved among the dead. He was mesmerized. His mind had accepted some form of shock that allowed him to look at them with curiosity. One man lay face down with his hand extended above his head. The back of his head was gone. His slick black hair folded neatly into the resultant crater. His gray, nearly intact brain was on the sand beside him. There was no evidence available that might answer the question, how did this happen? Near him, another dead man lay flat on is back. His body was intact, but it looked as if a giant had stepped out of the night and squashed him into the sand. His teeth formed an angry grimace, and his eyes were open. One man had obviously given up some time in the night. His right hand, and his head were gone, surrendered to a suicide grenade. Another man had dug a fighting hole and curled himself into it. He was larger than most Vietnamese. There was no weapon near him. He seemed to be unharmed, except for a large divot of flesh missing from his naked thigh. He had apparently bled to death. The rain-heavy sky subtracted the element of color and washed away any trace of life’s blood from the scene, leaving them all cold and gray, a shade or two lighter than the lead colored clouds.
Jerry Wade was born in Spokane, Washington, a long time ago. He graduated from high school in Seattle. From 1967 to 1971 he served in the United States Marine Corps. In Vietnam, he was a field radio operator. He currently lives in La Conner, Washington.
by Jim Wheeler
I was sent to Vietnam along with several other corpsmen, on a fall day towards the end of October 1967. We boarded a commercial aircraft in San Francisco and after a stop-over stay on Okinawa were transported on to Da Nang on the mainland Vietnam coast. It was here after a short staging period that I was assigned to “H” company of the 3rd Division, 2/26 Marines, on their way to the further northern cities of Hue and Phu Bai. Having been assigned to a “grunt” unit going out on patrols and ambushes on a regular basis around these two cities and attached to the Marines, I became one, with radio-watch duty along with my corpsman duties while on patrols. This put me in close proximity to those in charge of the patrols, usually a sergeant on the ground, but on this one particular night’s ambush a “mustanger” captain who had the men’s respect and admiration, took us “out.” The following is what I remember of that night.
The company, I’ll call it (even though it was not formed at the time and so consisted of relatively few men compared to a full company), had been divided into platoons (16 men each comes to mind). I was to stay with the captain’s group, and the other corpsman, Huey, went off with the other’s. Huey was a short-timer with only weeks to go “in country,” as were most of the men on this ambush. I think one of the only reasons Huey was included on this ambush of so few men was to provide support for the new corpsman, me.
The captain setup the ambush on a rise above a plain where NVA soldiers had been sighted in the past and would be sighted again this night. The first figures emerged from the darkness onto the trail below us and many more after them before the captain reported the enemy’s numbers and was commanded to “open fire on them.” I don’t remember at what count the order “open fire” was given, but at 200 enemy sighted the captain stood and uttered, “Fuck this shit, we’re outta here!” We all rose and started running for our lives.
We had been doing so for what seemed like a very long time in the darkness. We then broke into a rapid march as we came upon a road, walking alongside it as usual, so as not to be detected. This is when the explosions came. We hadn’t known then that it was our people’s armament coming at us. It was being shot-off into the night from guarded bridge positions, so as to keep it from enemy hands should the bridges be overrun. We listened to the rockets, mortars, and whatever as they landed closer and closer, witnessing the flashes of light. The rounds alternated from one side of the road to the other like some giant’s footsteps shaking the ground beneath us.
I jumped to the side of the road, only to find no “side” and tumbled through space and dirt to the base of a twenty-foot drop. It was shortly after the bombardment had stopped and I had climbed up onto the road that the screaming reached my still ringing ears. (I’ve failed to mention that the one radio was with our group and the other platoon had none, therefore no communication between us...) Anyway, the screams were coming from our guys who had separated from us before our setting-up of the unsuccessful ambush. They had stopped by the roadside in an old graveyard before reaching us and had taken the brunt of the fire from the heavy gun assault. Still not knowing that it was our own people doing the shooting, or our own men screaming, we approached the casualties cautiously. I remember thinking (after it was established that it was our people who were down and screaming) that those screams and any light used to observe what was happening would be noticed by the enemy, and the shelling would begin again. Or worse, we’d be picked off by enemy soldiers on the ground. As it turned out, none of my fears came to be, but instead I was to witness something as horrific. Because the graveyard was flat and the shells were landing in such proximity to the tombstones and our men (or for whatever other reason), there were multiple head wounds from the flying shrapnel. This was the case with the first body I reached.
I don’t know if I’d abandoned the idea of being detected by this time or not. I would like to think that I’d covered both our bodies with my poncho, before shining a light on his wound. I do remember the blinding white of skull fragment shards mixed with brain matter, and my feeling of helplessness as I applied the compress bandage to the entire mess. I’ve since repeated that action in conscious thought and recurring nightmares often. Did I know the guy? Probably so. However, I would like to believe his eyes were closed to avoid the horror he would have seen in mine. I just wrapped the bandage in place, wondering if he would survive and why! How many others had I treated? What number of the many casualties were medivaced, and how? What had happened until dawn of the new day and what continued horrors had taken place? After that first casualty I came upon, all was and remains so today, a great void in my remembrance of the experience. Once brain tissue has slipped between your fingers, it’s difficult to remember anything, especially the meaning of humanity.
Born in 1945 in a small town in Washington, Jim Wheeler grew up, schooled, and graduated in an even smaller town. After high school, he believed his life would take two main directions: either he would enter college or join the labor force. Neither took place, as after a year, he joined the Navy. He served with the Marine Corps as a naval corpsman in Vietnam, including the three-month Siege of Khe Sanh in 1968. On returning to the States and after a stint in a VA hospital, he led an idyllic time of many years in the resort town of Laguna Beach along the shore of the beautiful Pacific, studying art. He returned in 2009 to his home state of Washington.
by Leland Woodson
On the trip home across the South China Sea and across the North Pacific, I remember the flight as absolutely quiet. It was an uncanny state of affairs as hardly anyone said anything. We either slept or sat quietly lost in thought. This was very different than the plane trip to Vietnam a year earlier in Sept of ‘67 which had been loud and boisterous the entire time.
The plane landed in Seattle and I caught a flight to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada where my wife and little daughter had lived near her parents’ home, while I was in Vietnam. I was returning home with an AK 44 rifle that I had acquired as a war trophy. I had the paperwork to bring it into Canada. I carried it in a soft rifle case. I deplaned and carried the rifle and my bag to the customs counter and when it was my turn placed them in front of the customs officer.
I was in uniform. He looked at me and pushed the weapon and bag back to me and said, “Welcome home, Sir!” He did not look into the bag or the rifle case, and he did not ask for any paperwork for the weapon. I thanked him although with a very surprised look on my face I am sure, and I walked into an open area of the airport where I could see my wife and daughter waiting for me.
As I carried my gear towards them, my daughter, broke free from her mother and ran to me. I set my gear down and lay the rifle on the floor as I picked her up. She was saying “Daddy, Daddy!” I tried to hold back my tears, but I lost that one as my heart broke and I began to cry as I held her and hugged her. My wife put her arms around the two of us and we simply stood there for the longest time.
By the time my eyes seemed to clear I could see a large group of people encircling us, smiling at us. We whispered our thoughts to one another and shortly I picked up my bags and we left the airport with my little girl walking beside me holding my hand as we went. I seemed oblivious to what was said and to the people around us as we found the car to drive to my wife’s parent’s home where the family was having a get together for my arrival home from Nam.
A year plus later, I left the military and returned to university and graduate school. I had been on campus for a few weeks. It was an odd kind of feeling walking around in civilian clothes the same as everyone else. You had no idea what work other people did or their status among one another. That was one of the valuable things in the military. You knew where people belonged, who might work for whom; rank and duty affiliation was evident from people’s clothes. But, here on campus, well you might think that clothes made a difference. Expensive looking clothes or shabby appearances, but that was not so. People wore clothes from all walks of life. Levis were for men and women. Shirts and blouses sometimes gave a hint as to what the person might value, but not always. Book bags were to carry books and snacks. But food was not really necessary as there was a cafe or restaurant close by where you could buy what ever you wanted. I was somewhat uneasy with people moving about as I didn’t know any of them, yet I felt like I had returned to a place from my past. It was a place that I felt that I knew, a place where there was safety. No incoming rockets or mortars to make you run for a bunker. No snipers when driving to and from the campus. Yes, a chopper passing overhead would give me pause. I would look around; maybe even feel transported for a moment or two when the sound of a chopper was near. The surroundings were familiar and mostly comfortable.
Sometime in the first few weeks as I walked across the campus a familiar face, a young woman from the past appeared walking towards me, an acquaintance from my time at the university several years before. She was an old friend. We made eye contact and both greeted each other almost at the same time. You know, “Oh wow, you’re still here and wow you’re back, great to see you. How have you been?” Well, instead of standing there on the sidewalk we decided to have lunch. So off we went. We had a table by the front window and could see the passersby.
As we sat waiting for our meals to be prepared my friend looked me in the eye and said, “I simply do not understand why you would go to Vietnam, knowing that you might kill someone. I have heard about all of the atrocities that the US soldiers have committed in Vietnam. Why did you go? Didn’t you know it was wrong?”
I told her that I had to excuse myself as if going off to the rest room. Instead, I went to the cash register, paid for the lunch and walked out the front door. I left. I have never seen her nor heard from her again. I was angry, I felt attacked, no concern for me as a person or as a soldier to start off our conversation. I just wasn’t going to put up with it, nor explain myself in any way to her or anyone else for that matter. She was not a friend when it would have been nice to have found an old friend. I have never forgotten this encounter. She had an effect on me lasting a lifetime. But, there would be others.
Several weeks later, maybe even a couple of months as I once again traversed the campus I noticed a woman walking ahead of me. I didn’t know what it was, but I just knew that I knew her. I followed for awhile thinking I should catch up with her and say something. What if she was actually a stranger and she might find me rather forward. Just as I was about to convince myself to simply go on my way she suddenly stopped, turned around and we made instant eye contact.
She smiled as she rushed towards me saying, “Lee, Lee, it’s you. You’re here! You are back from Vietnam! Oh thank goodness.” She rushed up to me and we hugged each another. Wow, did that ever feel nice. Yes, we quickly decided to go somewhere and have a cup of coffee. Now that did make me a little nervous, but well she had always been more than just a friend, she had been special. I had liked her a great deal and I think she also found me to be more than just a passing friend. These things you just never know about, but I remembered her eyes were really beautiful and they still were. She later told me she did not know why she had suddenly stopped and turned around, but that she just had an impulse to turn around. We found a coffee shop and grabbed our coffee as we chatted about this or that. You know things like what was happening with our studies, why we were still there after so many years, etc. Our conversation was friendly and shortly some hot muffins we had ordered arrived as we carried on chatted. We shared that we were both married and had children.
But, at some point during the conversation she leaned forward and said “I must tell you something that is very personal for me and you are the only person I have shared this with. I knew that you were in the military and that you had gone to Vietnam. Each and every day, I looked in the newspaper at the lists of wounded and killed. It brought happiness to me each day that I did not find your name there. I am so glad that you are home safe and sound.”
I was taken aback by this revelation. But I managed to thank her for her caring enough to have done that. She could not possibly know how much I appreciated her sharing this with me. We chatted for awhile, but we both had classes to attend so that ended the coffee get-together. Outside the coffee shop, we hugged each other in a goodbye embrace. She turned and walked away. I did also, both of us walking in different directions and going on with our lives. No regrets, just a truly special person to have known. I never saw her again.
Leland Woodson served in the US military, 1966-69, in the 3rd Special Forces Group Airborne, Ft. Bragg, NC, the 196th Light Infantry Brigade and the Americal Division in Chu Lai, S. Vietnam 1967-68. He was the XO of the 14th MP Group, Ft. Meade, MD. Upon leaving the military he became a Registered Psychologist and an instructor in the Department of Psychology at a University College in Vancouver, Canada for 35 years.