by Louis Beam
Even after all this time there seems to be no way we can forget or let Vietnam descend into the past. I for one can not, nor would I---even if it were possible. Why should we?
When we came home they threw blood in our faces, and feces on our caskets. No excuses now will change that. It could have been prevented. But there was no desire to prevent it. It was allowed, encouraged, and even promoted by the very people who sent us over there. Now they think they can bury some poor soul in Arlington National Cemetery, and at the same time bury the guilt along with their conscience. Never! They can erect all the black marble slabs they want, have all of the fifteen year late parades they care to, but it will change nothing. Nothing at all.
There is no relief, and can be none. We are forever trapped in the rice paddies and skies of Vietnam. We can neither go back or go forward, but are suspended for eternity in the place that they put us.
Even now I see the sun shining down intensely upon us. So many thousands. In the distance men sweating in the sun, looking for shade, but unable to find it, never obtaining relief from the oppressive heat, which bakes all, like so many loaves of bread. The choppers drone overhead in their relentless search for Charlie, the sound of the blades mixing with our thoughts. Each of us is alone, yet seeking comfort in numbers.
Young, unknowing, asking few questions, and never the right ones. Going straight to our death with the single hope that the yawning grave will be for another, rather than one's self; thinking that, believing it, praying for it: "Now I lay me down to sleep--I pray my Lord, my buddy to keep." Helicopters, heat, hope, nothing else.
Night, pitch dark, darker than anything you have ever seen. Somewhere out in the blackness there are men. In the air over the jungle I am suspended in an ocean of darkness. A sense of desolation surrounds me, heightened by the fact that the helicopter is fifteen hundred feet in the air. Looking down into the darkness I pray the ship will hold together, somehow remaining in the air rather than fall into the blackness below.
Tracers streak through the sky. F-104's come racing by with their cargo of death. Suddenly we break hard to the right as a phantom jet nearly collides with us. The chopper shakes and bounces up down from the rush of air. What a spectacular night show that would have made for the grunts down below who we have come to help. They could have used it. Someone else's death always makes you feel safer---it means your still alive.
Those poor grunt bastards, all alone in the darkness of an impenetrable black jungle, with nothing but M-60 tracers to light their way. Going into the LZ my stomach begins to tighten. Food, ammunition, cigarettes, and toilet paper. What else can a nineteen year old ask for?
Here we come, and they can say a prayer of thanks that a pilot brave enough to fly us in is at the controls. Down into the mouth of darkness we descend. Receiving fire Sir! From the blackness green tracers streak toward the ship. Am I going to die? "Permission to fire!" Answer me! damnit. Answer! let me kill some of these murdering wretches before they kill me. "Fire at will!" comes the reply. I heat the barrel of my gun until I am afraid it will curl up.
A few seconds later the skids of the ship hit the ground hard, hands grope in the darkness, reaching for the ammo and supplies yanking them off the ship. Pitch dark, the only light is that of bullets and mortars exploding. One of the grunts yells "clear!" The pitch on the blade changes and they grab for hot air, slowly, ever so slowly, the ship rises above the trees. Finally, 1500 feet up and the trip back to the base begins. For the grunts, they now have all they need to live twenty-four hours more, or perhaps, more than they will need.
Later, still in darkness, but this time in the quietness of a hooch laying in a cot, I wonder at the fact I am alive. This is what it feels like to survive. I sense that somehow in the mist of all this I am growing up. Turning older, not in years, but in days.
I can't help but think about the sergeant. I never met him--at least not in whole. I don't even know his name, nor can remember if I ever did. Sergeant Teeth. That's all I know. Sergeant, with the white teeth. While I was flying today a new replacement came into the company. Fresh from the world on the other side of the earth. They dropped him off at the H.Q. building. He walked into the orderly room with his hat in his hand to report for duty. There he stood announcing his presence to the orderly when he ceased to exist. A mortar came crashing through the roof by the front door.
When I got in they told me about the new sergeant. Three days in country, five minutes in our company. I looked at the place where he had been standing. Blood, blood, and teeth. Sergeant Teeth. That's all I will ever know about him.
I flew out to the Fifth Mechanized Infantry, area of operations today. One hell off a battle going on. From the air it looked like we were winning. But when we landed a grunt said the C.O. cracked up, then the X.O. Hot, sweat, blood, always the blood.
There is Bill! My friend who used to gun on a chopper in our platoon and then decided to return to his old meck unit. He is atop his armored carrier staring into the distance. "Bill what are you doing?" Finally he answers "My buddy was sitting right there" he said, pointing to the front of his armored personnel carrier. They blew his head off and his brains splattered in my face, on my lips. Part of his head--the part that was left--landed in my lap. I've had it. I've got to get out of here. No more, please dear God, no more." "Bill can I help you?" "Help me get out of here." I look toward the hedge line where the RPG's and bullets are coming from, then back toward Bill wondering what to do. A few feet away a turbine engine begins to spin. "My ships taking off, Bill, I'll talk to you later Bill."
Years later, I discover that I, along with thousands of other soldiers, have been poisoned by the chemical defoliant "Agent Orange." The doctor at the V.A. hospital where "screening" is conducted (government gibberish for "your OK son, don't worry about a thing") wants to know if I have trouble sleeping at night. Is he joking? I haven't been to sleep in fifteen years. Post Viet Nam Stress Syndrome. Otherwise know as "PVSS." Sounds like the name of a boat. If it is, they should rename it the Titanic.
There seems to be no end to it all. I wonder if stress can be defined as wanting to machine gun all the people who sent us over there, along with the ones who spit on us when we returned. Or, is perhaps stress something more simple like crying out for justice in the name of the mangled dead, and not being heard? Or is stress more of a mathematical function, like trying to figure out how much blood 57,673 bodies can hold? Let's see: three gallons to the body, times fifty-seven thousand six-hundred and seventy-three equals...
It is not the death and destruction that makes one unsettled inside. It's the death and destruction for no reason. If these political whores who rule in Washington, think that by laying some mother's son to rest in Arlington, while mouthing a few empty words, that everything will be forgiven---or forgotten---then they have less brains in their head than Bill's friend. Forget? Not even if I could.