It's not easy trying to explain what is was like to face fear and uncertainty associated with war. In part, my recent motivation for writing emerged because my children wanted to know what it was like for their dad to be in Vietnam. Both are at an age (an age not too far from when I entered the military) where they've begun to ask questions.
A more basic need, than answering my children's questions, however, is answering my own; and, more importantly, writing works to help me control the goddamn demons associated with buried war memories. One of the bros is fond of saying "write or die, mutherfucker - write or die." I'm not ready to die.
While the language used may offend some who read it, I make no apologies. This is the way it was, and the way it should be. War is, above all else, brutally harsh. To couch it in any other terms or to sugarcoat it in some way would be a lie.
Something else, which has kept me from relating this story and others like it, is that I cannot remember many of the names of the men involved. That I would ever forget names (or that I never knew them to begin with) seems implausible. However, the nature of my missions often times saw me as a transient, rarely working with the same infantry unit twice.
I remember faces, though. And emotions or quirks about someone's character. Hell, if I didn't have copies of my old military records about my own Scout Dog unit, I'd be hard pressed to recall any names at all. I'm truly sorry for that, but I've learned it's not at all uncommon for many vets to suffer the same problem.
But I don't forget the faces. Laughing, crying, stunned and dying. I remember their faces....
Hell. Gotta get my shit together. Checklist, checklist, don't forget the checklist. Three days again. Magic number three. Three times this, three times that. Three times two cans of Kal Can, three times two packets of dry food equals three days food for Royal. Can't come up short. He doesn't understand that kinda thing. Lots of weight, though.
Weight. More ammo? Just how much can I carry? Well, how about enough not to run out. Run out and die. Hump it and die. Lose either way. Less food, more ammo. More ammo, less food.
Shit. Food. Three times one for me. Ought to be three times three but no way can I hump all that shit. Need to eat. Been sheddin' weight like it's goin' outta style.
Great weight-loss diet I'm on. Exercise and plenty of sun. People pay big bucks for hot tropical places back in the World. Hell, they can have my spot for fuckin' free.
Ok. Ok. Concentrate. Food, ammo, canteens, water tabs, heat tabs, towel, poncho, poncho liner, string, socks. Endless list.
Knife? Check. .45? Check. CAR-15? Check. Oh, yeah. Camera. Need more shots from the chopper. I'll just....no I won't. Shit. No goddamn film.
No time to get it either. That's the way it fuckin' goes. Plenty of time for nothin', never enough time for things that count. Hey, maybe on my next tour. Yeah. Right. Next fuckin' tour. Where do I sign up? Yer ass...
Shit. I hate afternoon hops. Drop into a spot I gotta do a quick take on before nightfall. One thing to see it on a map - another to be there....feel it, smell it, live it.
Better to go first thing in the a.m. Chuck is usually less of a problem then. More important, there's time to get familiar with surroundings before dark.
But this is the Que Son. Ain't no good time to be in there. And it all looks alike. Fuck it. Doan mean nuthin'.
Looks like it's maybe 4/31 again. Crazy buncha fuckers. Wonder if they'll remember us? Been too long.
Hate to think. Fuck it. Concentrate. Checklist. Damn it. I hate these afternoon hops.
OK. Got my shit in a pile. Maybe a quick letter home. What the fuck am I gonna say this time? Same old shit.
Yep, just saddlin' up for another mission, folks. Gonna go out and fuck Chuck before he fucks me and a bunch of other mother's sons. So, don't worry, Mom, I'm fine. Just have to load up a b-zillion bullets and go kill bad guys. Not to worry. They only use blanks.
Right. That's not what I really want to tell 'em. But not what they need to hear, so I lie. Again.
Life is boring. All we do is sit around, play volleyball, exercise the dogs and talk the talk.
Right. But that's what they gotta hear. Keep a lid on it. Worried? Yeah, scared shitless.
Some days I get so mad I could kill 'em all. Most days I'm bored to tears. And homesick.
Wonder how sis's doin'? She's too young to be pregnant. Still in high school. Said she'll have the baby and give it up. Bet Mom is really on her case. Shit. Wish I could be there for her. All I want is for this to be fuckin' over.
Screw the letter. Won't do any good. Who gives a fuck. They're so far away...
Get off it, dip shit. Concentrate. Checklist. Stay focused. Nearly 1630 hours. Time to roust Royal
Sling my ruck onto my shoulder. Mental note: I'll never go camping again when I get back to the World. CAR-15 in one hand, leash and harness in the other. Fuck, this is heavy.
Puddin' sees me comin' and goes nuts. He's been in-country for over a year. He knows the routine. Straining at his chain, feet digging in the sand he leaps in the air, barking and growling for the next great adventure to begin. He knows the routine as I slip his harness on.
Calm down, goddamn it! Shit, you'd think he'd never done this before. But then he'd do this every day he could. Ridin' choppers, runnin' the bush. A dog's life in the 'Nam. Fuckin' outstandin'.
Harness in place, I clip the leash to the back of it. Slide his collar off. Already he's bounding towards the jeep. Ho-boy, a jeep ride. Nothin' finer.... 'cept a chopper ride. Oh, how he loves the slicks....
Five minutes of bouncin' in the jeep and we're on the edge of the Turn-Around- Pad. Chopper is just warming up. Resupply run. Lots of C-rats. Ammo boxes. Somebody's been runnin' out of ammo. Good thinkin', asshole....the extra ammo I packed.
Shit, I hope it's not a hot LZ. Resupply beats the shit outta a CA anyday. Routine. But what's really routine? Anyway, Crew Chief woulda said somethin'.
His face doesn't reveal anything as we load up. Faces tell a lotta shit about what people think. More than what they say.
Royal jumps onboard, finds his favorite spot, plops down - feet hangin' over the side. Best seat in the house. First class. Everyone gets a window seat. Me? I'll take the breeze closer to the center of the ship. Less chance of taking a stray round. For a while I'm actually sitting on something level - there ain't a level spot in the whole of the 'Nam. Won't last but for now. The metal floor feels solid, comfortable.
Turbine whines, up and up. Pilot concentrates. He's got his checklist, too. Slowly, deliberately, the ship starts to lift off. Twisting slowly to the right, it begins gliding forward, tail up, nose down, quickly gathering speed. Up out over the perimeter wire, over no-man's-land. Charlie country. What a rush...God how I love these things. I want one when I get back to the World.
Royal barks his approval and settles in for the flight to a yet unknown destination. Have to try and remember to keep him reeled in. Anywhere near the ground and he's eager to jump. Twenty feet up isn't the most ideal time to leave a ship. Gravity sucks. Big time.
For now he's content to feel the cool air as we finally level off. Wind buffets his saliva back onto the door gunner's legs. Shit. Sorry 'bout that. Send me the bill. DG turns and laughs. Gotta have a sense of humor in the 'Nam.
From so high up everything appears surreal. Except for an occasional bomb crater scaring the landscape, everything's so peaceful and serene. Hardly know there's a war on. Thick green carpet of lowland rice fields, marked by crisscrossing dikes, give way to mountain foothills. In the hazy distance, somewhere out ahead, is Laos.
Sure is different from looking at a map....no clean lines marking boundaries. No highways, towns or visible means of location. Not like the time I was 14, and Mom put me on a plane to go visit my relatives in Grand Rapids, MI.
Landmarks like streams, valleys, mountain peaks, an occasional rubber tree plantation. A few burned out French plantation buildings nearly swallowed up by jungle. It all runs together. Just like the war.
Up here, the air is cool and refreshing. For a short while I leave Vietnam. One day, if I'm lucky, I'll be on a Freedom Bird leaving this shithole for the last time. Hopefully alive. Down there, all too soon, the heat will continue. Close, dark jungle awaits. In it, Mr. Charles is waiting, watching.
Eventually, the ship starts a slow descent. Circling, spiraling, steeper downward. Within a few minutes, yellow smoke curls up from a tiny clearing far below. Shapes of men start to appear, circling the perimeter of a hastily cut LZ. This is the jumping off point. My pulse quickens as I tug my ruck closer, rein in on Royal's leash. He's already up and eager to go.
Reality check. The bird's on it's final approach; door gunners are locked and loaded as I slam home a clip. Eyes on the jungle, eyes on the chopper.
Grunts approach the spot the ship will touch down. Closer and closer, nose up, tail down; and in a moment, the skids barely touch, and Royal leaps. His 85lbs pulls me forward. Shit, the pack feels heavy, the air is thick, the heat is back.
Boonierats are at the doors off-loading supplies. Chopper whump-whump-whumps as we head for the cover of the jungle's edge. Gotta find the CO. Head down, watch the blades. Quick thumbs up to the crew. Thanks guys - you're fuckin' incredible you know... Thumbs-up returned, the ship starts off again. Whole process takes less than two minutes. As the bird lifts off, I spot the CP and pull Royal along. HE wants to get back on the ship. Not a bad idea, Puddin'. That's where I'd like to be.
Heart rate starts to drop, sounds of the chopper drift off into nothingness. A cold LZ. Familiar smells of jungle and sweating men smack me in the face.
CO, his RTO and a squad leader are the first I encounter. A few hi-how-are-yas, a glance at a map and we're on the move. Got to get to the night laager before dark. Couple clicks away. No time for bullshit. Form up and head 'em out. Take the fuckin' point, Cage. Folks ain't too happy by the looks on their faces. But in the 'Nam ya cover your buddy's ass. Grin and hump it.
They're glad to see the dog handler. Nobody has to walk point. No rush, no worry. Take it as it comes. Jesus but it's hot. Hasn't been but five minutes, and already I'm soaked with sweat. No worries. Right. Concentrate. Concentrate.
Lookit the dog. Royal's happier than a pig in shit. He's gonna pull my sorry-ass arm outta its socket one of these days. I counterweight to his pull. Get the rhythm. Have to get him calmed down, steady the pace and make sure he's on the job. "Atta boy, Puddin'....whatcha got, whatcha got! Watch'em boy, watch'em".
Shit, no wind. Eyes up and down, left-right-left. Look but don't stare. Ready for the slightest movement. Any suspicious sound. Intent watching, listening. Read Royal. Body language. It's all body language just he and I share.
Jesus, this trail is tight to the bush. This is gonna be a long three days. Wonder where we're headin' tomorrow? Screw that. For now, concentrate.
Everyone's ass is my responsibility. They live or die if I don't concentrate. They're my whole world. Gotta get them back to their own world. If they're gonna get fucked, it ain't gonna be because I let 'em down. Let's just get to the laager so I can dump this fuckin' shit and feed Royal. Two cans wet, two packs of dry off my back.
Shit....lookit him work. Fuckin' lovin it. Ain't a better dog in the whole of the 'Nam. And ain't nobody gonna mess with us today. Fuckin' dog handler's here.
Tom Sykes 48th Scout Dog 196th LIB, Americal Div 68-69