The lieutenant put Chan and me back together. I was thankful for that, almost as thankful as Rodgers was to get away from the gun.
“Saddle up!” The gruff voice sounded far away. I felt numb over Jack’s death. Not sad. I was too tired of it all to be sad. I felt anger, too. Anger at our incompetent corpsman who didn’t find a stomach wound. Anger at the Army for darkening the sky with helicopters bringing hot meals to Army units that were already too soft while my friend bled to death for lack of a single medevac chopper. But most of all, anger at the gooks.
“Here’s your pack,” Chan said. I watched the medevac chopper fade into the hot morning sun. “You knew him better than I did, but that was one decent man.” Chan nudged me with my pack. “You all right?”
I felt myself sighing. “I wonder if I’ll be sane when I get home.” Chan didn’t answer. I put my pack on. The straps dug into my sore shoulders. It felt heavier than usual, or maybe I was just weaker. I threw the M60 over my shoulder and nestled the hot metal into the little saddle of callus and muscle between my neck and shoulder bone. The never-ending hump started again. I kept hearing Jack ask for his baby. Push it out. Think clear. I wonder how far I’ll walk before it’s over? Fifteen miles a day times thirteen months equals three-ninety-five times fifteen equals…“Chan?”
“What’s three-ninety-five times fifteen?”
“Five thousand, nine hundred, and twenty-five.”
“What? How could you figure that so fast?”
“You’re trying to figure how many miles we’ll hump at fifteen klicks a day for thirteen months, right?”
“How you feel?” Chan asked quietly so no one else in the column would hear. I knew he really cared. I was lucky to have such a friend. Mom always said I made friends easily. I used to think that was good. I wasn’t sure anymore. Maybe I shouldn’t make any more friends.
“I’m okay,” I said, though I wasn’t. Nothing felt right. I liked Jack. I liked his wife and I liked his fat baby. I wanted to see that fat baby. I wanted him to know his dad died like a hero. He should have. He didn’t. He died walking along in a war, a war that our leaders didn’t care about winning but that I still did, and I still didn’t know why I felt alone.
“What happened to the rest of the battalion?” I asked.
“They kept going when Jack got hit. Alpha stayed put.”
By noon the treeless, rolling hills turned into a thick jungle. First Platoon dove into the dense bush while Second and Third continued on, just skirting around it. The captain pointed at a narrow path leading into the jungle. Lieutenant Campbell motioned Second Platoon toward the path. Striker took the point and Second Platoon filed down, leaving Third Platoon alone.
The jungle felt so vibrant, so noisy compared to the rocky, rolling terrain we’d just left. Screeching birds filled the tops of each tree. The temperature dropped twenty degrees almost immediately. Bright sun rays danced off thousands of plants in a million shades of green. Strangling vines spiraled up a million branches tangled together forever in a struggle to see the sun.
The column stopped. No one spoke as each man dropped instinctively to one knee. A whisper started at the front of the column. Each helmet turned, repeating the call.
I stood and struggled past the first two men in front of me. Then the others moved away, and I ran forward. Adrenaline started pumping. I kept hearing Jack’s voice. “Let me see my baby!” I could feel Chan behind me. The path veered right around a huge red thornbush.
“Get down!” The whisper was enough. I dropped quickly to the left side of the path, landing next to Lieutenant Campbell. He pointed to a hootch of bamboo and dried brown leaves twenty meters up the path. Fifteen feet to the left of the hootch was a large mound of dirt ten feet long and four feet high. Striker lay to the right of the path ten meters closer, flat on his stomach and aiming at the hootch. The hootch sat in a tiny clearing, engulfed by a bright circle of shimmering sunlight that shone through the thick canopy of overhanging branches.
Lieutenant Campbell rose to a crouch, ran forward to Striker, dropped to one knee just behind him, and motioned Chan and me forward. I started to stand. Chan grabbed my pack and pulled me back down. Then I saw why. Two helmetless, khaki-clad NVA soldiers, each carrying a small bowl of rice, came out of the hootch with AKs slung over their shoulders. One stuffed rice into his mouth with his hands as he spoke. The other started laughing. They walked toward the dirt mound. The laughing NVA reached it first. He lifted a bamboo trapdoor and propped it open with a stick. They both crouched over, then stepped down and in. Lieutenant Campbell looked back and motioned us forward with his right hand as he silently mouthed the words “Guns up.”
We stood to a crouch and ran forward. My gear felt clumsy. Chan’s rifle butt collided with his bandolier of magazines. We made too much noise. How could they not hear us? I dropped to my stomach beside Lieutenant Campbell to the right of the path. Chan knelt on one knee just beside me. He broke a belt of ammo from around his shoulder and linked it to the fifty-round strip belt already in the gun.
“Okay, that’s three,” Lieutenant Campbell whispered. “Right?” Striker turned his head to answer. His big face flushed red around the huge black mole between his bushy eyebrows.
“Yeah, I count three, Lieutenant,” he said, his eyes darting as he spoke. He turned back to the bunker with a jerk of his neck.
Lieutenant Campbell looked back at Chan. “Swift Eagle up!”
Chan turned and whispered the word back to Sudsy. “Swift Eagle up!”
Sudsy turned and repeated the order. A few seconds later Swift Eagle peeked around the giant red thornbush where the path veered right. He ran forward without a sound, like a cat on soft paws. He knelt down beside the lieutenant.
“Take your squad and flank that hootch on the left,” Lieutenant Campbell said quickly. “Tell Murphy’s squad to flank the right. Hurry. There’s at least three in the bunker. Send Corporal James’s squad up. We’ll assault the bunker in five minutes, along with the gun team. Striker will go in with us.”
Swift Eagle didn’t say a word. He turned and ran back down the path. Ten seconds later Corporal James’s squad of six men moved up behind Chan and me. To the right and left of the hootch thin shafts of the hot noon sun broke through the overhanging canopy like a thousand brilliant golden threads. The damp jungle was drying out. The faint odor of fish broke through the musty air.
The five-minute wait stretched into a dream about a trip home and lying on the beach in Saint Petersburg then building a tri-level tree house in Charleston. Jack’s baby. A sudden chill shook me. I wiped away the stinging drops of salt from my eyes. A drink of grape Kool-Aid, that’s what I needed. Absentmindedly I reached for my canteen.
“Let’s leapfrog up!” Lieutenant Campbell said. I stared into his wide-open dark brown eyes. He stared at my hand as I fidgeted with the snap on my canvas canteen pouch. What am I doing? I thought. I put both hands on the gun.
“Let’s go, Chan,” I heard myself saying. My heart started pounding.
My feet moved forward as I crouched with the gun on my right hip. I heard Chan’s boots behind me. I jogged past Striker, who was prone and aiming at the bunker. The screeching birds stopped. I flattened out to the right side of the path just before it entered the circle of sunlight, twenty yards from the hootch. I tried to bury myself in a thick bush. I crawled under and partially through it until the barrel of the M60 protruded through. The flash suppressor touched the circle of sunlight.
Suddenly something clammy dropped heavily around my neck. I froze. One of the NVA came out of the bunker. I could see his face, wrinkled around the eyes, not the usual kid in uniform. I aimed. Something cool touched my right ear, followed by a soft, paralyzing hiss.
Snake! God! It slithered slowly around my shoulder until one tiny eye stared into mine. Then it stretched itself away from my face as if to get an overall view, his tongue shooting out almost rhythmically. I stopped breathing. Through the leaves of the bush a blurred image of the NVA soldier moved toward the hootch just behind the scaly, gray, flat head waving back and forth hypnotically five inches from my nose. The NVA entered the bamboo hootch. The snake began to entwine itself around my neck. Huge drops of sweat rolled from under my helmet and down my face. The snake’s eye seemed to follow the drops to my chin. Suddenly the weight of another snake fell on my back. It started squirming down my left leg to the back of my knee. It stopped. It began hissing.
A second NVA came out of the bunker. At the same moment the snake in front of my chin followed the drops of sweat from my chin to the ground as they splashed into the beginnings of a tiny puddle. I felt my eyes darting back and forth from the slow-walking NVA soldier to the flat hissing head of the gray snake. The NVA stopped. He turned his head, slightly cocking his right ear, in search of the sound. He looked my way. Oh God! He hears the hissing, I thought. He took a step, then leaned toward me, his slanted eyes squinting to see what the hissing sounds were. I tightened my grip on the gun, slipped my finger around the trigger, and tried aiming without moving. The snake tightened its grip on my neck. The NVA unshouldered his AK47.
“Nguyen,” a voice from the hootch called. “Nguyen!” The NVA soldier turned. He shouldered his weapon, gave one last look, and walked into the hootch. I heard movement behind me. Something pushed my leg. The weight of the snake on the back of my knee disappeared, followed by the clump of something landing in the brush to my right. Chan! Thank God! Took him long enough! The snake around my neck loosened its grip. It slithered slowly away from my face. Finally I felt the tail end drop from my neck and I breathed. A hand touched my calf.
“You okay?” Chan whispered. I gave him a thumbs up. The rustle of men moving forward sounded too loud. Suddenly two NVA ran from the hootch firing. M16s erupted all around me. The khaki-clad North Vietnamese dove for cover behind the bunker. I opened up with a twenty-round burst. No return fire. Chan threw a grenade.
“Frag!” he shouted. “Outgoing!” The apple-shaped grenade bounced off the bunker, landing between the hootch and the bunker. I closed my eyes. Two seconds … three. Four. Five! Dud! A dud!
I crawled back out of the bush, stood to a crouch, and walked forward, firing from the hip, first at the bunker, then sweeping tracers through the bamboo hootch. The hootch caught fire. Flames spread quickly. A moment later the entire hootch burned out of control. I moved into the small clearing of sunlight, running to the right until I had a straight shot into the bunker door. A muzzle flash spit from the darkness inside the bunker. I hit the ground. Chan opened up semi-automatic. I shot a long stream of tracers through the door. The flash ceased. Suddenly a ChiCom grenade flew from the bunker, landing ten feet to my right.
“Frag! Incoming!” I screamed as I shot another twenty-round burst into the bunker. I covered my helmet with my arms and nosed my face into the damp earth. No explosion. I started firing again.
“Cease fire!” Lieutenant Campbell shouted. A jungle breeze shifted smoke pouring from the flaming hootch into my face.
Chan grabbed my arm. “Let’s move!”
We stood, ran right, and flattened to the ground again. Short, stocky Corporal James ran up to the dirt bunker, being careful to stay out of the line of fire. He leaned against a wall, put his rifle between his legs, and pulled the pin on a grenade. He let the spoon fly, held for a count of two, stepped out, tossed the frag through the door, then jumped back. I opened fire on the bunker door to keep anyone from throwing the grenade back out. Out of the bunker the grenade flew anyway. James hit the dirt just as the frag exploded, sending shrapnel slapping through the leafy jungle.
“James!” Lieutenant Campbell shouted. “Catch!”
James looked up from the dirt. Lieutenant Campbell threw him another grenade. James pulled the pin, let the spoon fly, and held for another count of two. He threw the frag in. Harder this time, like an angry pitcher. He dove back against the bunker. I opened up again. Orange tracers streamed into the dark hole. An explosion shook dirt from the outside of the bunker. A cloud of smoke poured from the open door. The bamboo door fell shut as the stick holding it collapsed from the explosion. James moved forward. He cautiously lifted the bamboo hatch and started to prop it up with a stick. A ChiCom grenade flew out the open door, glancing off Corporal James’s shoulder and bouncing to eight feet in front of Chan and me. James dove back, letting the bunker door slam. We buried our faces in the dirt. I tried to crawl under my helmet with my hands and waited. Nothing.
“James!” Lieutenant Campbell called again. “Catch!” He tossed him another grenade.
James caught it, then dropped it. He picked it up, pulled the pin, moved back to the bamboo door, grabbed it with his left hand, let the spoon fly, counted two, lifted the door, and threw in the frag. He jumped back away from the door. An explosion rocked the bunker again. The door blew open in a cloud of smoke, then slammed shut.
Lieutenant Campbell moved forward, with Sudsy right behind him. Sudsy reached over his shoulder and pulled the antenna higher as he ran. The squad circled the bunker. I still couldn’t see the chief’s squad or Murphy’s squad. I stood up. Chan got to his feet and quickly linked up another belt of ammo. We moved forward cautiously.
Lieutenant Campbell looked around at the squad, then shouted, “Fire in the hole!” He pulled the pin on another frag. James lifted the hatch out and up. Lieutenant Campbell threw in the frag. James let the door fall shut as they both stepped to the side. The bunker shook from the muffled explosion. The door flew open again in a cloud of smoke, then fell shut.
“Let’s get a body count.” The lieutenant spoke quickly as he pointed a thumb at the door of the bunker. James opened the hatch, propped it up with the stick, crouched over, and stepped down and in. A moment later he dragged the tattered body of an NVA out. His left arm and leg dangled loosely, only held on by a couple of tendons. James pulled him a few feet from the bunker. The smell of gunpowder filled the air.
James stepped into the bunker again. A moment later he dragged another bloody corpse out by the feet. The body was riddled with shrapnel holes, and the head was cracked open from the concussion. James laid him beside the other. “That’s it,” James said with obvious disappointment.
“Can’t be!” Striker blurted out. “I saw three of ’em go in there!”
“Are you sure?” the lieutenant asked.
“Positive!” Striker looked mad that they doubted him. He moved forward, leaned his rifle against the bunker, and stepped down into the hole. “Here he is!” Striker shouted from inside. “They hid him under the floorboards!” Striker came out rear end first, dragging the body of another NVA.
“Hey! It’s a woman!” James said.
“She’s still alive!” Sudsy said.
“How could anyone live through that?” James said in disbelief.
“She ain’t very alive,” Striker said, bending over her, checking the wounds.
“Oh, bad! Look,” Lieutenant Campbell said as he pulled away her tattered shirt. “Her whole stomach’s gone.”
“Yeah, no chance,” Doc said from behind me.
“Come here and get a closer look, Doc,” Lieutenant Campbell said.
Doc moved forward. He bent over her and shook his head. “She’ll never make it. I don’t know why she’s alive now. Look at all the blood coming out of her ears.”
“Did you hear that?” Striker said. “Her stomach just made an awful sound, like a drain opening. She’s really suffering!”
Someone stepped forward with an M16, pointed it at her chest, and fired a single shot. The body jumped from impact. No one spoke. We stared. Her nostrils moved, sucking in to get oxygen. “Good God.”
The word struck something in me. I wondered if she believed in God.
He fired a second shot. Again the body jumped from impact. We waited. Her nostrils flared again. Then her mouth came open.
“She’s still alive!” Doc shouted. He removed his glasses and wiped sweat from his face. “Somebody shoot her with a .45.”
I wondered if she’d ever heard the name of the Lord, even as my hand reached down to my side.
Chan looked concerned. I wasn’t sure why. He handed me a C-ration can full of smoking hot chocolate. “How you feeling?” he asked.
“Fine. How ’bout you?”
“No complaints anyone cares about.”
I looked around the perimeter. It didn’t look right. The rise of the small rocky hill hid the other side of the perimeter from view. I couldn’t remember coming here. “I must be turning into a real space-cadet!”
“I don’t know, really. I don’t even remember setting up in this place.”
“You remember the mercy killing?”
“What mercy killing?” I asked. Chan looked puzzled. I thought for a minute without speaking. “Oh, yeah. The woman in the bunker.”
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah. Other than being in the Corps, I’m just fine.” The dying yellow face of the woman in front of the bunker flashed vividly through my mind. “No. I’m not all that good right now. How do you talk to God when you just murdered someone?”
Chan looked down for a moment. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his little black Gideon. He held it and closed his eyes for a silent prayer, then started thumbing through it. Suddenly he stopped and laid his Bible on his lap, then looked me in the eyes. “Johnnie, God has used war to judge the nations from the very beginning. He will use war to judge the world even in the last days. David wasn’t condemned for killing Goliath and then cutting off his head. He was used by God to fight evil as a witness to Israel and the world.”
“Chan, I killed that girl. For all I know she might have lived long enough to have accepted Christ before she died.” I’d finally said it. That thought hadn’t left my mind since I’d pulled the trigger.
“Doesn’t hold up, Johnnie. I mean you can feel that way if you choose, but it’s just not true. It’s not Biblical. He’s a just God. He doesn’t let anyone die without the opportunity to accept Christ. And I don’t mean just through missionaries. She chose either to accept, reject, or ignore the truth during her life. The Holy Spirit was a witness to her. The world around her was witness of good and evil. And nature is obvious evidence of God’s existence. She had a choice just like everyone on this planet. If she wanted to know God, he would never have allowed her to die without finding him.”
“It all sounds real good, Chan, but I just can’t buy it all that easy. I mean, what about little babies that die? That crap sure isn’t true for them.”
“God tells us in the Book of David that babies would be with him. They’re under the age of accountability. When David’s baby boy died, we’re told that David would be with his baby in heaven.”
“What about crazy people? You know, mental retards and stuff like that? They can’t accept Christ, they get screwed right from the start.”
“Don’t be ignorant. There’s a purpose to everything and everyone. Besides, we’re told that they are taken care of too, in the Book of Job.”
I was ticked off. I didn’t say anything else for a while, and he didn’t either. A couple of minutes later I realized I didn’t feel so sick inside anymore. After a couple more minutes I couldn’t help seeing that he was right again. I hated always losing arguments to this little turd, even if it was for my own good. I decided to talk.
“You know our discussions can become a real pain sometimes.”
He gave me his “I told you so” closed mouth and Snoopy grin before he answered, “Well, I told your mother—”
“Oh, God! Not again!”
“—that I would take care—”
“Why in the world did I ever let my folks come to Parris Island graduation?”