They had been sent in to locate a downed chopper carrying two Brass and three crew, but there had been no sign of the wreckage...no pieces, no burns. Lieutenant Morris found this disturbing. Intelligence usually wasn't off by much. Especially when they were accounting for two of their own people. His Team of six fanned out in three pairs and covered a two square kilometers grid. They moved slowly through the thickly jungled area, expecting to encounter VC every inch of the way. They saw nothing. Something just didn't feel right.
Now they were back together, moving toward the river where they had been brought in by that kid, Jason. Rendezvous was scheduled for 1630 hours. Plenty of time. In fact, they might be a little ahead of schedule. But their ride home would be there, waiting for them at the river.
They were approaching their landing site from a different direction, having worked to the far corner of the search grid, then coming back in opposite their exit trail. Lieutenant Morris had a habit of never retracing his steps. Constantly moving through new territory introduced new dangers, but it always left him feeling like he wasn't walking back into an area where the familiarity might cause him drop his guard. It also broke the travel pattern just in case they had been noticed. It had worked so far. And like so many quirky habits you develop in this line of business, if it works, you keep doing it.
From the lieutenant's reckoning, they were about 45 meters from the river. He and Townsend and Bradley were out front. Clark, the Doc and Harley were in a second line, eight or ten paces behind...two staggered lines, moving as one unit. He held up his arm with a clinched fist. Everyone froze, even Bradley, who was a bit out front with his back to the lieutenant. Morris did that periodically just to "let the jungle settle out", as he called it. Just to take a quick read on the surroundings. No point in walking into something you could avoid just by taking a listen.
It was hot and muggy as the mid-afternoon sun joined forces with the high humidity. Not quite as bad as down in the Delta, but bad enough. It would be good to get back into their "get away car", as that hot-shot Boatswain had called the river boat. The breeze would feel great as they skimmed back down river and along the coast. It would be an overall relief to get the hell away from this creepy feeling of being in the wrong place. In a few minutes they'd be coming up to where Jason Orr and the boat waited for them.
He waved the barrel of his M-16 and the Team started moving again. A good bunch of guys. All in synch. All well-tuned. Like that Bradley. He has eyes in the back of his head, I swear it. It's a good group. Morris was genuinely proud of each and every one of them. They didn't leave much of a trail and they were all as quiet as Indians. He liked to picture them as Indians in the Northeast along the Canadian border during the War of 1812 as they moved through the bush. Different weapons, same drill.
A single weapon almost directly in front of him, 20 meters out, fired a short burst; 5 or 6 rounds. He heard a grunt and a dull thump behind him as Clark went down. The sharp report startled him. He and Townsend were already returning fire into the thicket just ahead when the right flank opened fire on them. Two grenades were lobbed in from that direction and he heard Harley behind him bark out "Oh, shit!" as he emptied his 30-round banana clip into the new target area. The dirt and leaves were falling back into place where Bradley had just been standing.
They had walked into an ambush. He had led his men into a set-up. There were two casualties already, Clark and Bradley, and Harley was probably hit. The only thing to do was fight their way past these gooks and move on toward the river as fast as they could. There couldn't be any doubt about what had happened, just based on the sound. That would bring the river boat support into action. Orr ought to be starting up that .50 caliber right now, clearing out some of these bushes.
Bradley had been carrying the grenade launcher and a duck-billed shot gun. Those would be nice to have right now, Morris thought as he sprayed the treeline with his automatic. He stopped only long enough to load in another tandem clip.
That's one good thing, at least. We've all still got plenty of ammo. We'll just have to go over the top of these fucking gooks and get to the river. Where the hell is that boat support?
Everyone was returning fire. But the surrounding bushes had suddenly become quiet. What the hell? There must have been two gooks. One in front and one on the right flank. Each got lucky, but it looks like our return fire took them out.
"Townsend. Where are they?" It was a loud whisper. Maybe it was more of a soft shout.
"Don't know. We might have creamed them. Or they're running."
The lieutenant threw a quick glance to the rear. He could see Clark's bloody body lying still, face up, right foot under left thigh. Doc was crawling toward the body, rolling to his left and staying low. Back to the Doc's right, Harley was pulling himself upright by the thin trunk of a scrawny, broad-leafed tree. What the hell. Get down, you fool. What, has the guy gone crazy? Nobody stands up in a firefight, even when things did.....he stopped himself short. Harley, the motorcycle madman, didn't have a right leg from the mid-thigh down. He was a mess of blood and favored his left arm as he groped his way up the tree, like a drowning man desperately swimming to the surface. Blood streamed from the corner of his mouth, which moved as if he were talking. But no sound came out.
Oh, God!! He's got to be tackled and tied!! Lt. Morris started to crouch, ready for a short sprint in that direction. Another short burst, catching Harley square in the chest, fired from ground level dead ahead. Both Morris' and Townsend's grenades landed simultaneously, clearing a 15-foot hole in the bush.
The son of a bitch must have been underground. Spider hole!! Damn!! I've got to get these men out of here!!
No sooner did the lieutenant start to roll toward Townsend than at least three new rifles began firing from directly behind them, from the bushes they had just moved through.
What the fuck? We've got to get to the river, and fast. The boat will be there, and that Jason Orr fellow will be sweeping the trees with the .50 caliber and the grenade launcher. I just wish he'd hurry it up and get those shells coming in.
Shots were now coming from the front again. What the hell? We're set up in a crossfire. Those stupid fucking gooks are shooting up each other just to get at us. This is fucking crazy!
Doc grabbed the lieutenant's right boot as he pulled himself forward. Doc had taken several rounds in his right leg. Maybe higher.
"Shit, lieutenant. We gotta get out of here. These guys don't seem to like us. We're only about 30 yards from the river. Let's get Townsend and get the fuck outa here! We can call in air support and evac from the boat." The grass, the branches, the dirt, tree limbs, bark from the tree trunks; all bounced around as he spoke, driven by the unceasing pops of automatic rifle fire and flying pieces of hot lead.
"Where's the fucking boat?" It was Townsend, half shouting, half moaning, his voice full of pain and terror.
"Let's clear us a trail towards that river!", shouted the lieutenant. He pulled a grenade off his vest. "Doc, can you make it?"
"Let's get moving, Boss." Everything around them was being ripped to pieces. The surface of every object in sight was throwing pieces of itself up into the air at random, as if little chunks of everything solid were jumping up to dance to the deafening clatter of percussion.
The lieutenant and Doc were nearly touching as they rolled to the right toward the river. They could hear Townsend in the bushes just ahead, cursing, groaning, thrashing forward with the progress of a turtle on its back.
The blast was directly behind the lieutenant, who was on his left side, pushing himself along with the butt of his rifle, hand grasping the barrel. A rifle made a good crutch when there wasn't time to stop and shoot at anything. The concussion arched him forward, pushing his chest into Doc's face. As the lieutenant moaned and sank onto the dirt, Doc grabbed the stump that used to be the lieutenant's right arm and crammed it into his own chest to stop the spurting blood flow. He looked into the fading eyes of the lieutenant.
"Where's Orr? Where the hell is Orr and our boat?"
"He went home, Sir. He said he was going home for the day and he'd be back again tomorrow, after he got some rest."
The concussion of the grenade that landed on the duo was drowned out by the shout of "NOOOOOO!!!!" that blasted from the pit of Jason's stomach as he bolted straight upright in bed, eyes wide, sweat soaking the sheets and covers. "NO!! I'm on my way!! I wouldn't ever leave you!!! I'm coming!!" The sound of his pleading cry faded away to a dying echo in an empty room.
But there was no way back to help the Team. Jason stared at the wall in terror, his heart pounding out of control, adrenaline ripping and tearing its way through his blood stream. There was nothing he could do to save the men who didn't exist. It was Saturday morning, more than twenty years later.
His bed was a mess of tangled sheets and scattered, rumpled papers. Jason stared at the bare wall of his bedroom. **This shit's going to stop. I'm tired of waking up like this. I can't take it anymore! It's just not worth it!** He fell back onto his pillow, sweating, exhausted. His hand reached out automatically, groping for his morning medication, needed now more than ever. He already considered increasing the dosage slightly to take this new, sharp edge off. If he didn't, he'd be edgy and uncomfortable all day, or longer. His hands shook as he fumbled with the pills and the glass of water that had been his bedside companions for more than six years.
The pills seemed to stick in his throat. The extra gulps of water he had to take started a fit of coughing after he swallowed the wrong way. Shit, it would be just like me to choke to death on the way to my own funeral, Jason chided himself once he caught his breath. If this is a sign of what the day's going to be like, I think I'll just stay in bed. Shit! He lay back with an exhausted sigh of frustration.
It was time to put an end to all this personal agony, petty and otherwise. His plans for the future drifted through his mind like morning mist as he toyed with putting the details more firmly into place. But only in the right place. The illusive pieces of his plan fit together only in a special way. The pieces were there somewhere, still drifting around in his mind, not yet completely together.
This was the last weekend before his long-planned, two-week vacation. Two full weeks. He couldn't remember the last time he had planned to block out that much time away from work...away from structured activity of any type. This was the first time in a long time he had a goal. There were still a few last minute details he had to take care of. He would sort them all out this weekend as they became clearer in his mind.
Jason stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom as if in a trance. He still felt a little weak and a lot shaky. He let the lingering memory of his dream wash away in the shower, carrying his guilt with it as the soapy water swirled down the drain. He replaced it with more immediate thoughts of the current matter at hand.
Along with the memories of war, a special sense of ethics had been burned into Jason's mind. The outline was clear. It was Bushido in the truest sense, the Way of the warrior. It put great demands on him and few demands on others. It held groups of disparate individuals together in the most unusual circumstances, yet it demanded that they each remain an isolated, self-sufficient individual for the good of the whole. He first encountered this way of being as a rarely spoken, never broken pact among the Teams. It was more official and more powerful than military rank or discipline. It had kept him alive and in good company while serving in Viet Nam. For the last twenty years he had continued to live his life that way.
The Team left no one behind. That seemed to be such a straightforward concept, but it was insidiously ambiguous. No one was ever abandoned. They were either brought back in whatever shape they were in, or some pre-arranged plan was carried out. If a Team member was maimed and didn't want to live the life of a cripple, that individual had prepared ahead of time to take himself out. Generally this was possible to do very inconspicuously, where he might prop himself into position to provide cover fire for departing Team mates, a last useful act. The official report was then missing in action. "Last we saw of him, Sir, he was covering our backs. He must have been overrun before he had a chance to follow." Another MIA. No one knew for sure where their last bullet landed.
If a fallen comrade was not capable of taking care of business for himself, a fall-back arrangement with another Team mate would provide the necessary results, still in a manner the Team could use to its immediate advantage. But in all cases, things were done swiftly and kindly, and with great respect. Everyone would corroborate "Last we saw of him, Sir, he was covering our backs. He must have been overrun before he had a chance to follow." There was no more indelible tattoo on any man's soul than the Team motto: "We take care of our own."
Every man's wishes were respected without the slightest hesitation. It had to feel good and it had to be done right, because there could never be evidence of the pact to the outside world. The pact embodied delicate, personal decisions. They were matters of life and death that relied upon an individual's ability to put himself on the line for the Team and required that the Team put itself on the line for the individual. The two were indistinguishable at that level, in that final moment. The details of the pact would have been made previously, in full consciousness, in full consensus, never on the spot in the pressure and heat of battle. The honor and reputation of both the Team and the individual rested on the security and secrecy of the pact. Jason and those like him understood the reason for the high number of MIA's reported in Viet Nam.
There were no groups that Jason now belonged to that provided any sense of shared identity. No clubs or churches or other organizations. As close as he came to being associated with anything was perhaps an ideology....to this mind set of military community and camaraderie.
A friend had once asked him to provide some written materials to use with her activities in the VA hospitals. He jumped at the chance to help his fellow Vets. She asked if he would help her do something for the veterans who were wrestling with the ghosts of their past, with memories that wouldn't let them sleep. He found it all too easy to put himself in their predicament. He let a lot of pent-up feelings flow through his pen that day, and sent her this short piece:
"ONCE UPON A TIME, I was part of a very special group - an elite force that ate, slept, thought, drank, laughed and cried together. We were well-trained and represented a lot of time and money invested in each and every one of us. We were gung-ho - the energy and strength of youth bubbling through us, specifically channeled to the task at hand. I was proud to be part of such a special group.
I look back from 20 years later, and several things seem clearer now as I've worked through time. Those other guys were good. Much better than me. I was surrounded by the supermen of the sixties - the real "Rambos". But the best of the good seemed to be the ones that never made it back. There's still a little guilt in me that says if only I could have been a little bit better; if only I could have done a little bit more; then just maybe I could have kept one of those good ones alive. Or maybe I could have traded places with one of the Team who bought it. I sometimes think I would still do that if given the chance. They may have had much more to offer the world than I have. But I'll never know that for sure.
I remember coming home feeling certain I'd walk into a society that had very obvious holes in it because of all the good men we left behind. And I remember the surprise and disillusionment when I realized those spots were covered over....and the places were filled in with men not nearly so big or strong or fast or dangerous or useful. And except in a very small family unit, these supermen weren't really missed at all, and were actually forgotten as time went by. Sometimes I'm still stunned by that realization.
But I've never forgotten. I still see the blank spots. I still feel the spirit of the Team and remember marking out a chunk of my own soul every time one of the Team left us. Those places are still marked out. They're not really holes any more. But they're spaces that are filled with the best of each of their traits I can remember.
I've crossed paths with others whose souls are truly filled with holes, and who feel incomplete because of it. And even after twenty years, they live their lives with pieces missing. I've somehow integrated those empty spots and accepted them, and feel fortunate I can still function, even with the realization that the world is less than it was or could have been. But that's the reality I have to live with.
Maybe I could have done more, or done something different. And then maybe I'd be a hole in somebody else's soul. But that's not the reality of it, and it will never do me any good not to accept that.
I'll let the supermen live on in how I view the world. They were all just men-gross, dirty, sweaty. They each had their faults and they each had their virtues. I won't let them haunt me, because as gross and dirty as they were, that was never their intention. But I won't let them totally disappear either. Because even if no one else sees the holes, I still see the empty spaces they left in the world. That's neither good nor bad. That's what's real. They'll always be part of me and the things I think and do.
They were the best we had. I don't know what the world would be like right now if they were all still here. I'd like to think it would be a better place. But they helped me get to where I am now, and I owe. And at some time and place, I'll get a chance for pay-back."
When his friend got a positive response from reading it to some of the more depressed patients, she wanted more. She asked him to write something to dissuade the more serious cases from committing suicide. And Jason found he couldn't do it. He couldn't say anything to convince someone not to choose suicide. He could not interfere with another person's right to decide when they had reached their own saturation point, and that it was time for them to check out. It was their own game, not his. And it was his role to honor and support their requirements.
He could have put together a manual about the things they should do to put their financial and spiritual affairs in order so they could exit without leaving a mess behind. But he couldn't find any reason to talk someone out of suicide. If that was their decision, he respected it. His friend couldn't understand his failure to support her in something so important. After he explained why he couldn't help her, he never heard from her again.
Jason never questioned the applicability of this code of ethics to every facet of his life. There was no alternative perspective from which to view the world. And now he was a cripple. He was psychically and spiritually wounded. He leaned too heavily on the cursed crutch of medication. He had no intention of continuing his life with an unacceptable handicap. It was time to display his own sense of duty. He was a one-man Team and he would honor himself.
Today was Saturday and it was time to start fitting the pieces together. Today he would start getting his shit together. The plan was underway.
Saturday turned out to be a productive day for Jason, despite its rough start. He was able to shake off the oppressive feelings that woke him and got more done than he expected.
Besides the standard weekend chores of mowing the lawn, doing laundry and straightening a few things up around the house, he managed to finish reading a major portion of the documentation from work. He started making his cardboard carrying case and had verified a few travel schedules. And during it all, his mind sorted through more details of his plan.
Late in the afternoon, as he sat reading, Susan had called, asking -
practically begging - to come over and spend the night with him. It was almost
two weeks since they had been together. It seemed to fit right in with the
smooth flowing day. After a quiet dinner, they sat on the couch, each reading
their own materials. There had been very little talking, but the feeling of
being together was comfortable.
To be continued...
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