Military history

PAY BACK

The Fifth Marines had moved to An Hoa Valley on April 1, 1968. We’d been there for two weeks now. It was like getting used to a new neighborhood. After being up around the DMZ, I thought we would catch some slack, but every day was the same, humping all day in one hundred or more degrees of heat and setting up ambushes at night.

An Hoa Valley made a natural supply route for the NVA coming off the Ho Chi Minh Trail and across the Laotian border. The Laos-Vietnam border region consisted of mountains and jungle as rugged as any in the world. The thick jungle canopy blacked out the sky in some areas. The valley was just as miserable or worse. Knee-deep mud, leech-infested rice paddies, fields of waist-level elephant grass, and small rolling hills. Every inch of it dangerous.

The enemy’s main target in I Corps Tactical Zone was Da Nang. An Hoa Valley happened to be the most accessible attack route. The enemy had taken a pretty good beating up north around the DMZ, and they were shifting their main effort to the central provinces, with Da Nang as the ultimate target.

The valley was a maze of booby traps. My paranoia of going home without legs grew more intense each day. Dying seemed almost easier. Rarely did forty-eight hours go by without someone tripping a grenade. Even worse were the booby-trapped artillery rounds. Every artillery barrage has some rounds that don’t detonate. The Viet Cong would find them and booby trap them.

We changed the point man regularly so no one would have to play human mine sweeper too often. The best point man was Jackson. A keener sense of direction didn’t exist.

Lieutenant Campbell stood up in the center of the perimeter and spit out some coffee. It started raining. Two bad signs, I thought. I wanted to eat something before we started out again, but my stomach wasn’t up to lima beans. I settled for water; nothing like the taste of Halazone water to start off a day. Halazone tablets were supposed to purify the water. If I put a couple in my canteen, I didn’t get dysentery, but I remained very close to sick. Sometimes dysentery ignored the Halazone. There’s no feeling that compares with crapping your way through a fifteen-mile hike in the bush. My cramping stomach told me it was going to be one of those days.

“Saddle up! Take the point, Jackson.” The lieutenant’s command was echoed around the perimeter by Corporal Swift Eagle.

Jackson stood up, gave me a mischievous wink and a nod toward a new boot replacement named Buford Unerstute. A chopper had dropped Unerstute off a week before, but I hadn’t met the guy yet. Sudsy said he was totally spooked and a real hick. Jackson stretched and yawned and called for the lieutenant, making sure that Private Unerstute could hear him clearly. I nudged Chan so he wouldn’t miss anything.

“ ’bout how long does a man live after a bamboo viper gets him?” Jackson asked sincerely.

“How long would you say, Gunny?” Lieutenant Campbell asked, rubbing the four-day growth on his chin.

“I’ve seen ’em go awful quick.” The gunny stuffed in a mouthful of chew. “Staff Sergeant Morey saw a Marine in China die in ten minutes. I’ve seen ’em chase a man fifty yards through the bush.”

“How about that gunner in Third Platoon?” Sudsy added. “They couldn’t pry that snake off after it bit him.”

A moment later a green flash shot across the perimeter and then back again. On the second pass I spotted the reason for Private Unerstute’s amazing speed. Jackson’s pet green rubber snake was clamped by its fake bloody teeth to the seat of Unerstute’s trousers, which were two sizes too big. Unerstute was doing his best to run right out of them. He started running in circles with his stomach pressed forward and shoulders bent backward to keep the snake’s bite from reaching skin. He high-stepped in circles like a drum major, with his mouth open but no sounds coming out. Finally Jackson caught up with him and yanked the snake off. I laughed until my eyes filled with tears. I looked at Chan. Huge happy tears ran down his face too. It felt so good I wanted to thank all the participants individually, but there wasn’t time, and now the laugh was over.

I turned my attention to the painful matters at hand. Getting my mind and body up for a morning romp through the mud was a chore. The Bataan death march was probably worse, but around the fifteenth mile I started having my doubts.

The night rain had me itching from head to toe. I moved around like the tin man in The Wizard of Oz. My back hurt, my feet were rotting away, and I had dysentery. In other words, it was a normal morning with the U.S. Marines in the armpit of the world, Vietnam.

We headed in the direction of the base camp at An Hoa. A thousand meters later the sharp explosion of a grenade at the head of the column brought us to a halt. I knew it was Jackson, but I hoped it wasn’t. I’d always liked him. He smiled so much he’d been accused of being my black twin. We’d been nicknamed the “White Teeth Brothers.”

Anger swept across the faces of the column. The gunny sent two men ahead to see what had happened. The rest of the column sat down, as silent as the jungle itself. Only the staccato sound of the rain bouncing off my helmet broke the dead silence. The ground vibrated with a second explosion.

The man in front of me turned. “Get into a perimeter. Pass the word.”

We spread into a hasty perimeter. Swift Eagle called for his squad. Seven men ran forward. I grabbed Chan.

“They need a gun team.”

Chan was already up and removing his pack.

“Let’s go,” he said.

I stood up. A friendly hand pushed me back down. Corporal James stood over me.

“Stay here, John. I already sent Paunchy’s team up.” Sanchez was the platoon’s only other gunner, known as Paunchy Villa because he was short, chunky, and Mexican-American. A huge black mustache that covered his mouth, and machine-gun ammo crisscrossing his chest, made the image complete.

We waited. Ten minutes passed. Still no sounds.

“Hold your fire! We’re comin’ in with wounded!”

Friendly helmets poked through the tangled brush. Two men carrying one wounded Marine by his feet and arms struggled through knee-deep mud. It started raining more heavily. I couldn’t see Jackson yet. Then more helmets came through the brush. Three men carried another wounded Marine, his face streaked red and white with blood and rain. Then Swift Eagle burst through the brush with Jackson over his shoulder.

“Corpsman!”

Doc rushed over to the chief and helped him lay Jackson down gently.

“How are the others, Doc? Cudar looked bad.” Swift Eagle’s expression never changed, but his tone was serious.

“Cudar’s dead,” the corpsman answered without looking away from bandaging Jackson.

I shouted at the chief, “How’s Jackson?”

Sudsy tossed a green smoke grenade into the center of the perimeter and started spitting coordinates into his radio faster than any mouth in the Corps.

“Hey, Doc,” I shouted. “How’s Jackson?”

“He’s okay.”

Twenty minutes later a rickety Korean War–era helicopter with a giant purple heart painted on both sides followed the swirling green smoke to the ground. It landed with a splash, throwing mud into the faces of the men who rushed toward it with the wounded. A boyish face peered hesitantly from the hatchway of the old chopper. The baby-faced replacement jumped out, sinking into mud up to his knees. From the far side of the perimeter someone started cursing. Sanchez ran at the chopper, screaming curses half in Spanish and half in English. “I told you I’d kick your butt!”

All eyes turned to the center of the perimeter. The chopper lifted off with the dead and the wounded as Sanchez reached the freckle-faced boot who was still stuck in the mud. Sanchez sloshed up to the replacement and started slapping him senseless with both hands. The freckle-faced replacement regained his balance from the assault and managed to wrestle Sanchez to the ground.

Two men from Sanchez’s gun team finally pulled them apart, only to have both men lunge at each other again. This time they hugged each other like lost brothers.

Sudsy got the scoop on the story and passed it on as we moved out again. The replacement’s name was Simmons. He and Sanchez were best friends from the same Indianapolis high school. Sanchez had told him to join anything but the Corps. Normally the whole scene would be worth a couple of laughs, but Jackson was the seventh casualty in ten days, and we hadn’t fired a shot. It was hard to smile. Out of the other six casualties, two were probably crippled for life and Cudar was dead.

My skin felt like cellophane holding in anger. I wanted revenge. I was beginning to hate. I forced any thoughts of God out of my mind. I didn’t want my hatred softened.

The rest of the day drifted into obscurity, like the day before and the day after. Each hour went by one step at a time: watching for trip wires with every movement, trying to put your foot exactly where the man in front of you put his. It felt like the kid’s game of avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk, the only difference being the penalty. Hitting the crack in this game might cost you a portion of your body.

Someone in Alpha took the fatal step every day or so. Sudsy picked up medevac calls over his radio and kept us posted on the bad news. The news never came easy. We all had friends in the other platoons. I felt helpless. Agonizingly helpless. The feeling was becoming too common. Morale bottomed out.

We had started out as individuals. We looked at things in different ways. Some feelings weren’t different; they were contagious. Feeling the wet, sticky debris of what was a friend a second earlier hit you in the face after he steps on a 155 round sends hatred through a man like very few things can. The hatred builds when there’s no fighting back.

After weeks of this we no longer looked at anything differently. We became a unit. An angry unit, with no exceptions. We had one intention. Find the little slimes and “take names.” I hadn’t heard that phrase so much since boot camp. It meant find the enemy, in this case the 308th NVA Regiment, and kill so many of them that they would no longer be considered a combat unit.

Craving for revenge infected us like a virus and built steadily with each new casualty. I wanted to kill as many as possible. I looked forward to it with lust. I felt older each day, eighteen going on forty.

April 30th. We started humping back toward An Hoa. I knew what was up. They brought us in to base camp every couple of months for new jungle utilities (clothes), weapon repairs, ammo, and one hot meal. We usually went back to the bush the same day. No sense spoiling us.

Three thousand meters later Private Jones fainted from heat exhaustion. It wasn’t unusual. If anyone forgot their salt tablets, the heat would get them. Doc rushed by me to tend to Jones, and from the look on his face I wasn’t sure if it was a mission of mercy or murder.

“Take your time, Doc. I need the rest,” I said as he stumbled over the M60 beside me.

“He didn’t forget his salt tabs!” fumed the young corpsman. “He just wants out of the bush!”

I looked at Chan as Doc stormed on to the front of the column.

“Boy, he’s ticked at the Corps today,” I said.

“I don’t blame him,” Chan said. “He joined the Navy to avoid combat. Did you get a chance to talk to that boot, Simmons?”

“Yeah, I did. He said the Beatles put out a new double album, and protesters and fags were holding hands in marches, and skirts were so short he couldn’t talk about it. I love legs!”

“He asked me why everyone was so angry,” said Chan. “I told him how many men we lost this month. Poor guy, I think I scared him to death.”

“We must really have picked up his spirits,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“ ‘Cause I told him if he didn’t get killed the first three months he’d make it.”

“Saddle up!” The eternal order sifted through the column.

The march to An Hoa felt like an angry funeral procession. The only thing missing was a casket. I tried not to think about the lost friends, but it was no use. Even my eyes felt violent. The faces near me looked about as unfriendly as I felt. It should have been a routine resupply march. It wasn’t. Except for the constant marching, nothing felt routine.

The timing was all wrong for a twenty-four-hour trip into civilization where typewriter pushers, rear-echelon pogues, and base camp artillerymen were having an interesting trip to the Far East. They drank cold beer, ate hot meals, slept out of the rain, smoked dope, played with village harlots, and wrote the folks back home more war stories than Ernie Pyle. I was jealous and bitter, and I knew it.

As we entered the village of An Hoa, we looked as if a giant rock ape had dragged the platoon through the swamp by its heels. Vietnam had its own unique way of ripping, rotting, and eating away your clothes, your body, and your sanity. There was constant rain, mud, blistering heat, and hungry insect life. There was the stink of the Vietnamese jungle and the sickening sweet smell of rotting dead. A touch of malaria was burning my body. The bottom of my left foot looked like raw hamburger from a rotting fungus infection. And of course there was the fatigue. Marching all day and fear of death at night induced utter weariness always.

Some of the men were half naked. I was one of them. I had torn the seat and crotch out of my trousers because of dysentery. No stopping for head calls. I drained as we marched. More than clothes got tattered; I was walking on my morale.

The men’s faces looked drawn with fatigue. Each had the same menacing stare—like drunks about to get nasty. Some had full beards. I envied them. I wanted to look as mean as I felt, but I couldn’t grow one yet. Others just looked hard. We hadn’t used soap and water for a couple of months. Toothbrushes cleaned and oiled your weapon. Your weapon was your life. As the old gunny so aptly put it, “Our breath could knock a buzzard off a crap wagon from twenty yards.”

Our appearance and odor were nothing new, but the tight, murderous faces had just been unwrapped. It went beyond the gung-ho Marine look. Revenge became personal. Each brow pinched as though straining under a heavy invisible burden. Anger clearly stamped into each face. Not one man smiling.

It was visible to the children of An Hoa. I’d never once seen them miss a chance to beg C-rations off returning Marines. Not this time. They ran at us as usual, some yelling, “You okay, GI?” others just yelling like any kids in a school yard. They stopped cold on the edge of the dirt road as if sensing danger, staring silently at our faces filing by.

A group of ARVN soldiers stood laughing together near the barbed-wire gate that separated the village from the camp. They spoke that language that has no pause, just a continuous chatter that grated on one’s nerves. It was like a scratch on a blackboard to my ears.

One of the ARVNs pointed at us and cackled with laughter, like we were clowns in a parade. His uniform was tailored and starched. A voice behind me yelled at Sam, “Hey Sam, what good’s an ARVN?”

Sam shouted from the rear of the column, “An ARVN ain’t worth a pimple on a Marine’s rear end!”

The ARVN stopped laughing and shouted, “Du-me, Marine. De-de mow, Marine!” I wasn’t sure of the exact translation, but it didn’t mean “Have a nice day.”

That lit an already short fuse. I hit the laugher with the butt of my M60. For a second I felt good. I watched as the rest of the ARVNs got clobbered by the men around me. By the time the lieutenant reached the scene, seven ARVNs lay in various positions of semi-unconsciousness. I was sorry for what I’d started.

The lieutenant stomped out his cigarette. He looked mad. He turned away from the battered ARVNs and scanned across the silent faces of the Marines.

“Swift Eagle! Are any of ’em dead?”

“No, sir.”

“What happened, Corporal?”

“They wondered what it was like to defend their own country, sir.”

“Are you saying, Corporal, that they requested a demonstration of Marine Corps hand-to-hand combat techniques in order to better defend themselves and their country?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Very well. Move out.”

For the first time in a week a smile stretched across the hard face of the platoon. I felt a little better, but not much. I liked Lieutenant Campbell more now than I ever had before.

An Hoa base camp consisted of one portable airstrip made of pierced steel planking. One artillery unit, one chow hall, one bar for officers, one bar for office pogues, and rows of large, dust-covered tents for troops coming and going. A few small, slightly more permanent structures dotted the camp for various supply purposes. The camp was hidden away behind three large rolls of concertina barbed wire, sandbag machine-gun bunkers, and an array of trip flares and claymore mines.

After a quick formation we got two free hours to sleep before the big event—hot food. The big, dusty tents were lined with cots. Not as soft as the mud I was used to, but a luxury I wasted no time in taking advantage of. I slipped into a lovely coma only to be slapped into consciousness by the roar of what was unmistakably an angry Indian.

“Pogues!”

My eyes opened like I’d been stabbed with a cattle prod. Men instinctively jumped from their cots to the ground while others with their eyes still closed groped for their weapons. Swift Eagle stood at the open end of the tent with clenched fists.

The chief rarely complained, but when he did it seemed intelligent to keep your distance and be agreeable. He had been wounded seven times and had a couple of medals for bravery, for what specific action I never knew. This was his fourth tour in Vietnam, all four as a grunt. He refused to stay in America.

Sam stood up, fidgeting with an unlit cigarette. “What’s wrong, Chief?” he asked hurriedly as he glanced outside the tent.

The Indian looked at Sam indifferently. “Those typewriter pushers are wearing camouflage utilities! Not a single grunt in Alpha has camouflage!”

“I noticed that too,” Sam said. “Maybe they’re hidin’ from all that ink. Let’s kick butt on a couple of pogues our size and go back to the bush in style.”

The chief just stared. He didn’t talk much, but when he did it was short and to the point. An Indian John Wayne if ever there was one. The blacks in the platoon put it best: “He’s the dude who keeps you out of the green plastic bag.”

Everyone in the tent looked ready to do anything he said. Just then two MPs and a frail-looking man wearing nothing but his boxer shorts and brand-new jungle boots burst into the tent in a rage. Boxer Shorts looked like he’d been mugged by a bear. He glared at every face in the tent, which wasn’t easy considering one eye was a throbbing purple plum and the other swollen shut, with the eyebrow covering the eyelid. He evidently didn’t see what he wanted and stormed out, cursing, raging in a frenzy toward the next tent, with the MPs glued to his rear end.

A grin tried its best to crack through the stonelike face of Swift Eagle. All eyes riveted to the chief. I personally had yet to see him actually smile, though some of his expressions seemed more pleased than others.

He took a quick glance outside the tent, then reached inside his shirt and proudly pulled out a brand-new set of camouflage utilities. The tent erupted in a gut-busting, sorely needed belly laugh. I laughed until I cried. Then I saw it. A confirmed, documented grin broke across the stone face of the Indian.

Twenty minutes later the company stood at attention in front of the top sergeant for full inspection. Beside the top stood the frail office pogue sporting another new set of starched camouflage utilities. A fine pair they made, camouflaged from head to toe, and with a Marine Corps shine glistening off their new jungle boots. Corporal Boxer Shorts now had eyes as black as his boots. I bit my lip to keep from laughing. The top sergeant breathed in heavily and stuck out his lower lip.

“No man will enter the chow line without a Marine Corps cover on his Marine Corps head. There will be another inspection before chow. Any man with unshined boots and improper Marine dress will not enter the chow line.” The top rambled on with his insanity. Men began shuffling their feet. Others started spitting and kicking at the dirt like angry children being scolded. It felt like any positive gains we may have acquired by getting a day’s rest had just been negated.

Chan looked at me with a blank stare. “Ghastly timing. He is obviously uninformed.” Chan sounded almost sad. He turned his stare back to the top sergeant, who was beginning to shout through his list of commands.

“Every man will have a haircut and shave.…”

By the end of the inspection the mood was complete. Completely hostile. We got one piece of good news. We’d be staying in An Hoa overnight.

At midnight I was awakened by the explosion of two grenades.

“Did that sound close?” Swift Eagle asked the question for me. No one answered.

Outgoing artillery serenaded us the rest of the night. The next morning in formation the lieutenant informed us that the top sergeant had been fragged. He wasn’t dead but had lost both legs. I knew there would be an investigation, but even Sherlock Holmes couldn’t find fingerprints on a grenade.

It sure wasn’t the first time a Marine got murdered by another Marine, but in this case it left a bad taste in my mouth. It would have been better if he had died. The whole incident had the smell of pettiness.

Talking was at a minimum on the way out of An Hoa. If anyone knew who fragged the top, they were keeping it to themselves. Whoever it was had to be worried. Justice could be swift and cruel in Vietnam. If the identity of the person or persons was discovered, their next firefight would probably be their last.

The top sergeant wasn’t exactly popular, but he was still a Marine. He had been through World War II and Korea.

Ten miles out we found ourselves sloshing through seemingly endless fields of rice paddies. It looked like a treeless desert of knee-deep mud and blood-sucking leeches. We tightroped along the paddy dikes of an especially wide paddy, trying hopelessly to keep our feet dry. Halfway across, a sniper started taking potshots at us. The distant sound of his AK47 told me he was too far away to hit anything. No one paid any attention except the new boot, Private Simmons. Simmons dove into the mud face first. I laughed until my eyes watered.

An eternity later we came upon a small oasis of solid ground with trees, bushes, and overgrown hedgerows.

Chan nudged me from behind with his M16. “This farmer must have truly appreciated his solitude,” he said.

“I don’t blame the little hermit. If I lived in this hole, I’d want to be as far away from people as possible.” I slung the M60 machine gun off my shoulder as we neared the oasis. “That shade sure looks good. It has to be a hundred twenty today.”

“At least that,” Chan said. “My brain feels like an overbaked potato. I hate this helmet. We should be wearing soft covers instead of these ten-pound pots.”

Chan rambled on, uncharacteristically, about the intense heat.

“My, my, PFC Chan,” I taunted. “Feeling a bit feisty today, are we? Maybe you thought you were joining the Navy.”

Chan gave a response that sounded Chinese, though he swore he couldn’t speak the language.

We acted like sailors who’d been at sea too long, each man stomping the firm ground of the oasis, shaking off the mud, and feeling for the weight of huge clinging leeches. I headed for the best shade I could find. Chan pointed to a small group of banana trees with giant, long green leaves just on the other side of what was once a well-kept hedgerow.

The hedgerow surrounded a narrow, overgrown graveyard. Creeping tentacles of brown and yellow vines seemed to be feeding off the oval grave mounds. It looked ghoulish, but it was a perfect position for covering the right flank.

Just as we reached an opening in the hedgerow someone shouted from behind us, “I want your gun team over here, John!” I knew the owner of the voice without looking.

“What possible difference can it make?”

“Just move it, Marine.”

Chan and I looked at each other in disbelief. I wanted to tell the lieutenant that he sounded like a ten-year-old but didn’t.

“Sanchez! I want your team over there with John.”

Sanchez gave the lieutenant a quick thumbs up and headed toward us, with Simmons and the rest of his gun team close behind.

Sanchez mumbled a tired “Semper fi” as we passed each other. Chan and Simmons exchanged the customary thumbs up.

“Now aren’t you glad you came over?” Chan said as Simmons shuffled along behind Sanchez.

“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” Simmons replied enthusiastically.

The rest of the gun team were too tired to take their eyes off their feet.

By the time Sanchez reached the opening in the hedgerow, Chan and I had gone twenty meters in the opposite direction. A popping explosion threw me to my stomach. I blinked my eyes clear and quickly looked behind me. Chan lay motionless, flattened to the ground. Blood trickled down the top of his camouflaged helmet, dripping over the greens and browns. I couldn’t speak. He looked dead.

The helmet moved. He pulled his face out of the dirt, spitting a healthy portion of it at me.

“You jerk! I thought you were dead!”

“You don’t have to sound so disappointed. I thought so too!”

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yes, how about you?”

“I’m fine, but somebody ain’t.” I motioned toward the hedgerow. Part of it was now a large crater.

Chan turned to look. Pieces of bloody flesh hung from the back of his flak jacket. I stood up, nudging Chan with my foot.

“You got blood all over you,” I said.

I do?” Chan retorted. “You should see your back. You look like you’ve been sprayed with red paint.”

I felt something on the back of my neck. I reached to slap it off, thinking it was a bug. It stuck to my hand. I held it out to see what it was. An unrecognizable fragment of a man dangled from my fingertips. Vomit came into my mouth. I spit it out quickly, hoping no one would see. No one did.

Chan stood up. We started slowly toward the hedgerow. I saw Sanchez lying ten feet from the crater. The crater was exactly where I had stopped to argue with the lieutenant. I felt cold. Goose bumps swarmed over me.

Chan looked down and shook his head. “Had to be a 155.”

I walked over to Sanchez. He lay face down. I rolled him over. His eyes opened; he looked fully conscious. I turned to Chan. “He’s alive!”

“Praise God,” Chan said quietly, then shouted, “Corpsman up!”

Doc reached us quickly, with the lieutenant close behind.

Sanchez looked up alertly. “I’m okay, Doc. Help the others. I’m okay. I’m okay. Simmons! Go check Simmons!”

Doc began sobbing uncontrollably. He tried to remove bandages from his pack. Chan took the pack from the shaking corpsman and removed bandages and morphine. As he leaned over Sanchez to administer the morphine, my heart fell into my stomach. His legs were gone. Severed six inches below the waist. I hadn’t even noticed. Strangely enough the bleeding didn’t look too bad.

Sanchez kept insisting he was okay. No one told him he wasn’t. He grabbed Chan’s arm with more strength than I thought possible from a man in his condition. “Find Simmons!”

I couldn’t hold back the tears. I turned and headed for the crater to find Simmons. Arms and legs lay about the crater. “Four men missing,” a voice behind me said. I found a hand hanging from the branch of a small tree by the threads of what was once a forearm. A flak jacket held the upper torso of one man together, but the legs, head, and dog tags were gone. No one could be identified.

We gathered the pieces together and placed them in a poncho. By the time the medevac chopper arrived, Sanchez was numbed with morphine. The rest of us were numb with hate.

The Doc and Chan lifted Sanchez into the chopper. He was pale but still awake and still asking for Simmons. The chopper lifted off grudgingly, its engine straining with the weight. As it floated out of sight Chan sat beside me and pressed the bridge of his nose with his forefinger and thumb. He slumped forward. He looked the way I felt. I handed him a canteen.

“No thank you,” he said without looking up.

“Go ahead. It’s that Kool-Aid sent in the last care package.”

“No thanks.”

“It’s grape.”

He peered at me with one frosty Chinese eye, then broke into his Snoopy-like grin. He dropped his chin to his chest and stuck out his hand palm up. “Give me the canteen.” He snatched it and took a big swig.

“Will he make it?” I asked.

“I think so. The hot shrapnel cauterized the vessels, causing minimal blood loss.” Chan looked up, his eyes fighting back tears. “I feel so frustrated I can’t stand it.”

“So do I, but we’ll catch ’em, Chan. When we do, it’ll be pay-back time.”

“Pay back is a medevac.” Chan’s tone was low and serious.

“That’s right, buddy, and they’re in a world of it when we find ’em.”

Chan held out his hand and gave the M60 two pats like it was a pet dog, then turned his hand palm up.

“Give me five on it, bro.”

I slapped his hand like a black man and it felt good. The threats gave us momentary relief, but not enough.

Corporal Swift Eagle walked by with harder steps than usual. He looked more Indian, more intense. His face was darker red than normal. He halted a few feet from us and shouted, “Saddle up!”

“Wonderful! Just wonderful. Let’s go see how many booby traps we can find today.”

I didn’t see who said it but found out by following the chief’s glare. It was Private Doyle. His M16 sat in front of him disassembled for cleaning.

“Shut up and get that rifle together! We’re moving out. Now!” Swift Eagle sounded like he looked—mad.

“This Marine—” Doyle tried to file one last complaint. It ended abruptly. The big Indian glided several feet and with one hand lifted Doyle by the lapel from a sitting to a standing position. Then he released him and walked away. There were no more comments.

I spent the next four hours enjoying the scenic beauty of the armpit of the world. No one talked. Every ounce of energy became vital as the day grew hotter. Just before I decided to faint, the column stopped. The man in front of me turned and said, “Five minutes,” then collapsed to the ground with the rest of the platoon.

I passed the word to Chan and stumbled forward to get some salt tablets from Doc. Sudsy sat next to the doc, fondling his radio as usual and listening to another platoon’s transmission.

“That’s a roger, Alpha One, single medevac, over.”

“Who got hit, Suds?” I asked.

He looked up with a frown. “Lieutenant Hawthorn, Third Platoon. He got ticked at the point man when he refused to go into an area that looked booby-trapped. Sounded like he took the point himself. Tripped a 155. Cut him clean in half.”

I took the salt tablets and the bad news back to Chan. A couple of swigs of water and someone said, “Saddle up!” I didn’t know where we were heading, but for the first time all day I started caring.

At dusk we set up an ambush in a dried-up area known as the Arizona Territory, four miles northwest of the An Hoa combat base. The night drifted by to the customary serenade of distant artillery fire, but still no contact with the enemy. The next day started like the day before.

“Saddle up! We got fifteen klicks to go today!” Swift Eagle’s command started my feet talking to me. Obscenity after obscenity.

Chan handed me the rest of his coffee. “You emit the odor of a rice paddy,” he snickered.

“You ain’t no bloody rose yourself,” I replied.

Chan gave my boot a nudge with his. “How’s the foot doing?”

“It’s killing me.”

“You’re going to lose that foot to jungle rot if you don’t stop the infection.”

“Why don’t you write me a prescription, young Dr. Chan, and I’ll drive on down to the drugstore and get it filled. Maybe I better call in sick today.”

Chan looked at me, rolled his eyes toward heaven, and raised one hand. “Lord, help me communicate with the mentally ill.”

On most days we could have had a good chuckle. Some said we laughed an inordinate amount. Others thought a Section 8 was in order. Laughing kept me from panicking. The mood was different this time. I couldn’t fake a laugh. A quiet storm raged inside the platoon, with no way out. The faces around me were slowly turning to granite.

We marched all day, stopping for one meal. I spent that time burning off leeches. The pace quickened in the afternoon. The Vietnamese called us elephants because we hacked through the bush making a lot of noise, but I thought we looked more like a caterpillar. Today the caterpillar shifted into fourth gear. No one talked. I felt an odd hint of excitement.

Boredom returned a few miles later. The sun felt closer. My helmet made an excellent frying pan, and my brain was reaching over-easy. The mind escapes boiling by fantasizing. We called it “world dreaming.” Sometimes it was air conditioning or driving a car again. Sometimes strawberry shortcake and ice cream. My fantasies usually had long legs; chocolate ice cream was always optional.

Fantasies had to be tempered with caution. It was wise to always be aware of where your foot was about to land or of the dark spot in the tree fifty meters ahead.

With dusk the mountains came closer and closer. They finally swallowed the sun from view. We stopped as we reached the last rice paddy at the foot of the ominous, haze-covered mountains. An arm up ahead motioned us forward and into a circle. A peculiar and dangerous procedure. We gathered around the lieutenant. It felt like a huddle. A rifle butt stuck me in the ribs as we crowded in closer to hear him.

“All right, listen up. Intelligence says we got a major group of VC and NVA comin’ between those two mountains and possibly across this coordinate tonight. I know these things are usually screwed up, but this one looks legit.”

The lieutenant’s tone induced enthusiasm. I went quickly from excited to scared and back to excited again.

Sam mumbled. “We’re takin’ names.” The old gunny joined in with a subdued “Semper fi.” Suddenly I felt a different kind of fear—the fear that they wouldn’t come our way.

“All right, listen up.” The lieutenant knelt on one knee and began drawing a primitive map in the dirt. “We’re going to use an L-shaped ambush, with the gun on the left flank.” He looked around the huddle of faces until he found the chief’s. “Swift Eagle, I want the gun team and two riflemen set up over there.” He pointed to a small tree and shrubs on the left of the rice paddy directly in front of us. “We can’t lose the gun. It’s the only heavy fire we got left, so let’s keep the heat off the gun. I want the rest of the men behind this tree line with five meters between each position, two men to a position. Any questions?” No one spoke.

We waited until the sun disappeared before moving into ambush position. The dark, menacing mountains, blanketed with lush jungle foliage thick enough to hide the entire North Vietnamese Army, watched every move we made. The riflemen positioned themselves behind the tree line two hundred meters from where the bottom of the mountains melted into the flat paddy fields. We set the gun up one hundred and fifty meters from the mountains and to the left of the riflemen.

It would be a textbook L-shaped ambush, just like we practiced in North Carolina. Looked great on paper. Just one small problem. If the gooks came from the wrong direction, we might get turned into fertilizer. I started saying my prayers. Explaining to God all the wonderful contributions to society I could make if I weren’t fertilizer took imagination and a lot of gall. My prayer had plenty of both. God must not have been impressed.

Swift Eagle appeared from somewhere, cutting the prayer short. “Murph and McQueen are gonna be on your left for cover fire. Don’t open up until we get ’em in the middle of the paddy.” The chief turned away, vanishing into the darkness as silently as he came.

Murph and McQueen acted nervous. It was considered a “crap detail” to get stuck near the gun. They moved a few feet away and settled in without a word. A few minutes later they moved a little farther away. We didn’t take it personally. It was common knowledge: The gun would be the first target, because its tracers would make it the only visible target.

“Chan,” I whispered. “I hate these tracers!”

He looked into my face and tilted his head. “But why, John?” He then proceeded comically with his memorized version of the Marine Corps handbook. “Tracer rounds are a necessary evil. They pinpoint enemy targets for riflemen and point out enemy positions to fighter pilots or helicopters viewing a battle from above.”

“Oh. I feel much better now. If only the tracers didn’t form a bright golden arrow pointing right at lovable little me.”

The night grew black. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. The air felt thick. I hated not being able to see.

A rare, pleasant breeze bounced off my sweaty face. Suddenly the moon popped out of a cloud, lighting the landscape. I could see all the way to the mountains. I’m ready, I thought.

Chan started linking up ammunition and stacking it on my pack to keep it out of the dirt. He gave his M16 the once-over, put his magazines within arm’s reach, and began straightening grenade pins. It reminded me to do the same.

The first two hours of the beautiful moonlit night went by as monotonously as always. Ants and mosquitoes were using me as a midnight snack. The quarter moon drifted through small transparent clouds, illuminating the vast flat paddy. The mountain peaks looked black, sinister against the dark blue sky.

Chan rolled toward me with his canteen out. “How about some Halazone Kool-Aid?” he whispered.

Before I managed a reply Chan stiffened like a dog ready to bite. His eyes opened wide. Tension sliced through the boredom like a silent alarm. The backache I was going to complain about dissolved. The mosquitoes that were sucking me dry vanished. My body tightened.

I strained to see what Chan was now aiming at in the direction of the mountains. A barely discernible piece of darkness began to move. Another shape appeared from the trees just behind the first. They looked to be one hundred twenty meters to our left and twenty to our front.

A third shadowy figure emerged. Then a fourth. My stomach churned. A muscle cramp hit me in the rear end. I rolled over to straighten my leg.

“Chan, check the ammo, quick.” He lowered his rifle and made sure there were no kinks in the ammo belts.

Drops of sweat trickled from my forehead to my chin faster than I could wipe them away. Chan’s face glittered with tiny moon balls of perspiration. He started piling the grenades in front of us. He covered his mouth and whispered.

“Still see ’em?”

“Yes. Hope those jerks beside us see ’em.” I shielded my mouth on the side facing the rice paddy, leaned toward the riflemen on our left, and called as quietly as possible, “Psst, you see ’em?” A few seconds passed. No reply. “Chan, those morons are asleep!”

A few more seconds passed. Silence. Not even a snore.

“Yeah, we see ’em now!”

I sighed. Chan looked at me, rolled his eyes, and exhaled heavily.

“No screaming-eagle crap.”

Sweat dripped off my palms. I tried unbuttoning the holster of my .45-caliber pistol. My hands felt shaky, almost spastic.

Chan nudged me and squinted. “You don’t think they’re getting that close?”

“I sure hope not. I don’t think this sucker works.”

We gave each other a quick hard look. The realization of what we just said sank in. I said a quick, open-eyed prayer.

The four shadows turned into four men fifty meters away and closing. I followed the lead man with my gun sights, making sure my finger stayed off the trigger. One early finger could get us all killed.

From the corner of my eye more movement. More shadows. Stinging salt sweat penetrated my eyes. The line of shadows grew longer. My bladder felt like exploding. The column of shadows grew longer and closer. Ain’t no way I’m wetting my pants, I thought.

Twenty meters in front, crouching and looking in all directions, the four gooks walking point crept by like they were stepping on unbroken eggs. The moon silhouetted their safari helmets. NVA regulars. As they crept by us I couldn’t breathe. I started gasping for air. I stuck my face into my arm to suffocate quietly. I’ve been holding my breath, God how stupid. Chan nudged me without speaking. I let him know I was all right with a thumbs up, but I wanted to admit being stupid.

More shadows. The moon bathed the landscape in an eerie blue light. I felt hot and cold and sweaty all at the same time. Chan held the first fifteen inches of the ammo belt in his left hand with his M16 rammed into his right shoulder. His forearm started twitching like a muscle spasm was getting him. I didn’t like it. An early round could get us overrun.

The four NVA walking point were within twenty meters of our line of riflemen, and the column was still filing out of the brush at the foot of the mountains. The usual chatter of the jungle insects vanished. I could hear my heart trying to push blood out of my ears.

Chan released his rifle and reached into one of his huge trouser pockets, producing a small can of oil. He began squeezing it onto the barrel of the M60 as he whispered so low I only heard two words: “…   whole company.”

I was afraid to answer, afraid the whisper wouldn’t work. A cough or a sneeze would get us all killed. Memories of being tortured in boot camp for slapping a sand flea fluttered through my mind. The DI had said the entire platoon was dead because of that noise. God, even Parris Island was beginning to make sense. I knew I was in trouble.

Shadows kept multiplying from the foot of the mountains. Every other man in the column was bent over to the waist, lumbering under the weight of huge packs. The men in between the carriers walked more upright, with smaller packs, and carried rifles. I had a human supply train in front of me. This would be pay back, long-awaited pay back.

My stomach still churned. In a few seconds I’d kill a lot of people. My stomach bellowed loudly, then rumbled with more than enough noise to carry to Hanoi. A brackish taste filled my mouth. I wanted to spit, but there wasn’t any saliva.

Doubt strangled me. Fifteen of us were about to ambush a column of gooks I couldn’t see the end of. A quick violent shiver shot from my neck to the base of my spine.

Bloop. Sam’s blooper gun! I pulled the trigger. Orange tracers spiraled away from me. My first target exploded backward, arms and legs flailing. I laid on the trigger for what seemed like eternity. Frantic screams screeched from the rice paddy, piercing even the explosions. I could feel the screams more than I could hear them. The NVA scrambled for cover that wasn’t there. Some ran from the machine-gun fire and directly into the row of M16s, while those at the front of the column retreated into a shower of lead from the M60. The crossfire was a human lawn mower.

I swept the machine gun from one end of the column to the bottom of the mountains. The phosphorous ends of the tracer rounds broke off the bullets and sizzled like miniature sparklers as they found their mark.

Chan changed clips in his rifle as fast as he could. The barrel of the M60 glowed red, then white. Adrenaline and fear pushed me, while my whole body vibrated to the rhythm of the gun; I became one with my weapon, and we were killing. The barrel became transparent from the heat of continuous fire as I poured another hundred rounds into the rice paddy.

A fluorescent lamp couldn’t have pinpointed my position any better than that glowing barrel. I knew the barrel might melt and jam, but I couldn’t stop. I felt like I did in my first fistfight, scared to stop swinging for fear of getting hit.

Chan dropped his rifle and started frantically feeding ammo into the gun with both hands. Sam’s M79 blooper-round explosions sounded consistent, almost automatic. His loading speed was phenomenal.

Louder, more powerful explosions of grenades and ChiComs sporadically thundered above the blooper rounds. The speedy bursts of M16 fire mingled with the slower, more powerful cracking of AK fire in a chorus of insane chaos.

Total confusion engulfed the rice paddy. A few NVA fired back. Others dragged dead and wounded toward the safety of the mountains. A flare sizzled into the dark sky, arcing over the paddy, then popping into a tiny sun and drifting down. The lights were on. The miniature red sun added a 3-D effect to an already bloody picture.

Chan screamed and reached for his rifle. Three gooks were running at us, bobbing and weaving in a suicidal charge to knock out the gun. They fired full automatic, spraying bullets all around us. They were screaming. I swept the stream of tracers from left to right, bearing down on them like a sputtering laser beam. A ChiCom blew up ten feet in front of us, stealing my night vision with a white explosion. Incoming bullets kicked dirt into my eyes and mouth. The barrel melted. The gun jammed. The sweeping laser stopped along with my breathing.

I fumbled for my pistol like a drunk in a shoot-out. My vision turned spotty. I heard Chan firing. The grunts on my left opened up full automatic. Blurred images of two men ten meters away came through the spots in my eyes. Their heads jerked back like poorly manned puppets, legs crumbling last, not knowing the upper half was lifeless.

Silence. The loudest silence of my life. My heart pounded the breath out of me faster than I could bring it in. The bloodlust evaporated into the gunpowder air. Pay back. The frustration turned into fatigue … Chan …“Are you hit?”

“No. Are you?” he asked.

“No. I’ll be okay when I see the sun.”

“Praise the Lord,” whispered Chan.

The night became deathly still. The moon slid behind thick, dark rain clouds. The sting of ants and mosquitoes returned. I felt like talking to Chan, but I knew better than to relax now. I leaned against my pack and stared into the rice paddy.

I felt tired and dull and years older than eighteen. My energy and emotion dripped out of me along with the sweat. My mind escaped to home for an instant. Soft images flowed peacefully through my mind with a harmony of happy scenes. My mom, my stepdad, Paul, and Christmas and Pass-a-Grille Beach and Nancy in a bikini. I’ll go to college, I thought. I’ll get an apartment with Sid or Ben or Joe. Maybe I could still play football at a little college somewhere. The happy images vanished as the last groans of a dying man drifted through the dank night air. I opened my eyes and waited for the sun and wondered if I would hate the night when I got home.

Dawn finally came, lifting pressure from me with each inch of the yellow sun peeking up behind us. The first movement came from the chief. He moved smoothly from position to position until he made his way to us. He looked to be always in perfect balance.

“We’re going out for a body count. Keep us covered.” He turned to the tree line and gave a wave. As the chief started into the paddy, Doyle and Striker came out of the tree line with their rifles on their hips. Swift Eagle stopped. He looked over his shoulder at Chan and me. He gave a nod and a thumbs up.

“You did good.” His stoic face showed the same expression it always did—none; but his piercing black eyes left no doubt. We had just gotten the seal of approval. We were salts. Old salts.

A body count was grim business. Each corpse told a different story. I wanted to look. I didn’t know why. I felt like a morbid tourist gawking hungrily for a glimpse of blood.

The three Marines approached each unmoving body with equal caution, kicking each one hard to get a groan. Doyle hustled around from body to body, picking up rifles and grenades. Swift Eagle waved nonchalantly toward the tree line. The lieutenant came out with Sudsy and his radio close behind. Once in the center of the paddy, Sudsy pulled the pin on a smoke grenade and dropped it. Chan mumbled something as the green smoke billowed into the pale blue sky.

“What?”

“Someone got hit.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know, but why else would they be spotting for a chopper?” he replied.

The lieutenant looked toward us and shouted, “Guns up!”

We gathered up our packs, grenades, and the little ammo that was left and ran into the rice paddy. As we reached the lieutenant, Swift Eagle pointed at a blood trail leading into the nearby bush.

“We count nineteen, Lieutenant, but we’ll find more if we follow some of these trails.”

“Take Striker”—he paused and looked around—”and the gun team and follow that trail, but don’t go more than a hundred meters away.”

A helicopter appeared overhead and began circling down toward the smoke. Chan beat me to the obvious question. “What’s the chopper for, Lieutenant?”

Just then Corporal James and Unerstute lumbered out of the tree line carrying a body wrapped in a camouflage poncho liner. The greens, browns, and black of the liner were stained dark with dried blood. The jungle boots of a dead Marine hung limply from one end of the liner. I should have been hardened to the sight of dead comrades by now, but I wasn’t. The dead enemy were frozen in a grotesque silence. Some clutched invisible weapons that comrades had pried from their dead hands. Some fought death with open mouths, screaming in silent anguish, while others conceded to it with serenity. They looked curiously black and white, like an old Civil War photograph, as if they had never really been alive. Dead Marines maintained the painful color of loss to me. Red freckles on a young white face and cold dead blue eyes. A letter not finished.

“Who was it?” I asked quietly.

“Billings,” the lieutenant said abstractedly.

“I never even met him,” I mumbled.

“Doesn’t matter now. I want you and Chan to go with the chief and Striker. If there’s nineteen here, we must have bagged a load of ’em last night.”

“My barrel melted last night,” I said.

The lieutenant looked at me angrily. His lower lip disappeared as if he wanted to bite it.

“I thought that was the longest twenty-round burst I’ve ever seen.” He looked away, shaking his head in disgust. “That’s the kind of fire discipline the Army employs, John.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I should send you over to the Seventh.” He smiled and looked at the chief. “Old Bill’s gunners don’t like firin’ in the dark.” He looked back at me. “Tough night.”

The old Korean war-era helicopter floated down to the smoke grenade that was spreading green vapors around like a fog. It looked like the last landing for the rattling, choking machine. Sam crouched over the dead man a few feet from the chopper’s giant rotors. He pulled an empty, bloody pocket inside out. He was going through his traditional last-minute search for anything from cigarettes to dry writing paper. It gave me the creeps, but Sam could defend his unwholesome practice by rattling off an endless list of invaluable items that he personally kept out of the hands of pogues in the rear.

“Hey, Sam!” I called as I stumbled over the stiff hand of a dead gook. “Hold that chopper!”

“Move it, Marine!” the chopper gunner shouted at Sam as I reached the chopper door.

“Hey!” I screamed over the noise of the rotors. “I need an M60 barrel real bad. You got a spare?”

The door gunner ignored me and yelled at Sam, “Hurry up, dude! Get that stiff on here. We’re not staying for tea!”

Feeling a bit insulted, I tried again. “I need an M60 barrel!”

The gunner leaned out of the door and replied with a nasal New Jersey accent, “This ain’t no supply train, girene.”

Sam and Doyle picked up the stiff, sidestepped up to the open hatch, coordinated the toss with a three-count, and heaved the body in. The door gunner struggled to drag the dead weight away from the hatchway, grabbing the end of the poncho and pulling. He turned to cover it with a large green canvas. I seized upon this moment to remove the barrel from his door gun. He turned, realized immediately what I’d done, and started to curse. His voice sank in mid-sentence when he noticed the barrel of Sam’s blooper gun pointing at his nose. Sam smiled through his rotted teeth like only Sam could.

“Don’t speak, jerk face. Just take off. We need the barrel a little bit more than you do.”

I guess the door gunner could sense that Sam was a bit strange. He said nothing, and motioned thumbs up to the pilot. The helicopter got away without being fired on.

I gave Sam a pat on the back and hustled back to the chief. We followed the bloody tracks of what was obviously someone being dragged into the bush. Fifty meters in, Swift Eagle held up his hand. He bent forward slightly. He looked like an Indian sneaking up on a settler. He motioned for us to come forward.

At the chief’s feet lay two bloody, khaki-clothed NVA soldiers. One was dead. Very dead. Bullet holes ran from his face to his ankles. He was being dragged by means of a hook jammed under his chin and through his mouth. The man doing the dragging wasn’t in much better shape. Both legs dangled from the thigh area by some skin and a few tendons. He was bleeding to death but still found the strength to reach out with his left hand, grab a handful of elephant grass, and pull himself a few inches forward. Then with his right hand on the hook, he pulled the dead man a few inches forward.

He didn’t know we were watching. We couldn’t speak. It didn’t seem real.

The chief broke the silence. “Okay. Pick the live one up and drag him back.”

Striker and Chan grabbed his arms, but his grip on the hook would not loosen. Swift Eagle finally pried it free, and we started back.

Striker was impressed. “Jesus Christ!” he said. “Did you believe that? Jesus Christ!”

Chan gave Striker a cold, haughty look.

“Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!” Striker repeated with more emphasis each time.

Chan stopped walking. I could feel his anger growing. “God already knows about it, Striker. If you like his name so much why don’t you try praying?” Having said his piece, Chan strengthened his grip on the wounded NVA and began walking again.

Striker looked puzzled. The big black mole between his eyes disappeared as his bushy eyebrows came together in a frown. “I didn’t know Jesus Christ was the same as God.” Striker’s muffled tone sounded like a little kid who had just been scolded.

Chan looked shocked, then almost sad.

“Why don’t you let me tell you about Jesus?”

“Tell me about this guy we’re carrying,” Striker sneered. “He believes in Buddha. Tell me why Jesus is any better than Buddha?”

“Buddha’s grave isn’t that far from here,” Chan replied quickly. “He’s dead. His body is still there. He was a schmuck just like you and me. Humanoid. Get it? Muhammad is the same story. He’s dead as a doornail. He was just a man.”

“Well, just how’s this poor sap gonna know who this Jesus is? And what about all your kinfolk in China?”

“Yeah, Chan,” I asked. “What about people in Africa or on some island in the middle of nowhere? I mean, I believe in Jesus, but I always wondered how they’re supposed to know about him.”

“There’s a God-shaped vacuum in every man, and men seek to fill that emptiness or reject it for the love of the world around them. You guys aren’t the first people to ask that question. I asked the same question myself. Jeremiah 29:13 says, ‘And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.’ But there is another passage in Romans that explains it better. I have it written down in the front of my Gideon, but it’s actually from the NIV.”

“What’s that?” Striker asked.

“It’s the Bible in today’s English instead of seventeenth-century English, and, yes, Striker, it says exactly the same thing minus a lot of thees and thous. You’re welcome to read it when we get back.”

“Let me have it,” Swift Eagle said. For a moment I thought I was hallucinating. The chief couldn’t have said that.

Chan held his M16 under his arm and reached into his breast pocket with his free hand. He handed the small black Gideon back to Swift Eagle, who opened it immediately. The wonderment on Chan’s face was matched by Striker’s.

“Romans 1 dash 19 dash 23?”

“That’s it. Romans, Chapter 1, verses 19 to 23.”

“ ‘Since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.’ “

I couldn’t believe my ears. He was actually reading out loud. No one will believe this. What am I thinking about? He’d scalp me if I said anything.

“ ‘For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.’ “

“That’s heavy stuff, man,” Striker mumbled.

“ ‘For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.’ “

“I see the lieutenant up ahead,” Striker blurted.

“Shut up! I ain’t finished!” Swift Eagle barked.

“Sorry, Chief.”

“ ‘Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal men and birds and animals and reptiles.’ “

No one spoke as we neared the open rice paddy. I peeked back to see the chief’s face. He stared straight ahead as he walked, seemingly in deep thought. Striker, struggling with the weight of the dying NVA, looked angry and confused. He didn’t ask any more questions. The new information scared him, I thought. As we reached the rice paddy, Striker and Chan laid the prisoner down gently. Chan tried to question him, but he was too weak and drugged up to know what was happening.

“He’s a lieutenant. That’s all I could get,” Chan said.

I felt a tap on the shoulder. I turned to see Sam’s pitted face. “I ran out of ace of spades cards. You got any?”

“No, sure don’t,” I said.

“Ah, crap! I wanted to get ’em all marked.” Sam turned and called to Doyle. “Doyle! Got any ace of spades cards?”

“Yeah,” Doyle answered.

Sam retrieved the cards and resumed tacking them into the foreheads of the dead NVA soldiers. I stopped him from tacking the dead lieutenant. I don’t know why. Final count: twenty-one confirmed. No prisoners.

“Saddle up!”

“Hey, Sudsy, where we going?”

“Dodge City.”

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