The Homecoming

Somehow one more day and night managed to slip away and mark its moment in timelessness. Jimmy Taylor let his dream of home linger behind his closed eyes a little while longer. He struggled to keep the outside world away, but it was proving to be a losing battle as the clamor of the day pried its way into his ears, and shadowy light slipped through his closed eyelids. It was another shit day in-country.
The hooch came slowly into focus as he reluctantly let go of his reverie and willed his eyes to open, leaving the comforting images of home and family to slip into a safe harbor for another time.
Jimmy shared the hooch with nine other enlisted men of the 174th Assault Helicopter Company. It wasn’t exactly designed for comfort, but it offered a comparative luxuriousness not available in the sand bagged bunkers on LZ Sue that he called home before coming down to LZ Mustang. He wasn’t sure at first if transferring to an AHC was a smart move, but he was tired of the rats and filth, and days on end without ample water to clean himself. His arms and legs tingled and burned from the numerous yellow pustules that covered them; the only little relief coming from rainfall showers, or a quick dip in a river while on a walk in the boonies.
His bed was one of ten Army cots lined five to a side in the dusty, oblong, screened building. A scrounged sleeping bag and poncho liner served as mattress and blanket. Wooden ammo boxes served as cabinets and drawers for personal items; a scant attempt at order and sanity in this hell-hole existence. And, as it might be mistaken for, there was a shower room which was nothing more than a wooden box with an open water tank perched high on one side that collected rain water heated by the sun and gravity fed to six shower heads. It was the only thing close to heaven, and his sores, properly treated, eventually healed and disappeared.
Jimmy brought his hands to his head and rubbed gently. His head ached sharply and felt as though it were going to burst. The headaches had become a daily ordeal over the last few weeks. He had been x-rayed by the docs, soothed by the chaplain, and probed by the shrinks, but nothing of medical, spiritual or psychological concern was found. Yet the headaches persisted.
The incessant slapping clatter of choppers hammered into his aching head and rattled the hootches as they ferried men and material to the bush. The olive drab Hueys rose slowly, but gracefully in spite of their loads, and drifted quickly towards the jungle and waiting troops on the hunt for an elusive enemy.
The morning sun sliced its way through the rows of wooden buildings and onto Jimmy’s gaunt and unshaven face. It had been a long time since he slept that hard, the last interruption coming in the middle of the night forty-eight hours earlier when eight mortar rounds slammed into the compound; missing anything of importance. No one had been killed…this time.
Jimmy was exhausted and felt old beyond his years. Having turned nineteen four days out of Qui Nhon in September, 1967, he spent that morning in the galley of the USS Gordon nursing a cup of coffee; watching mesmerized as the horizon rose and fell through the rain streaked porthole, contemplating what fate might have in store for him. He wasn’t anywhere near old enough to vote or buy a beer, but he was old enough to kill…or be killed.
Jimmy was a door gunner on a slick, a Huey designed to carry men and supplies to battle. Since the TET offensive, their missions had been frequent and fierce as they sought and made contact with Viet Cong and NVA units. The war was definitely building up, and more times than he cared to count, all hell broke loose as they dropped into hot LZ after hot LZ.
His crew had flown missions day after day for…for God knows how long. “Too goddam long”, he thought to himself. Three weeks earlier the unit lost two ships and all crew with the exception of one badly wounded Pilot, Warrant Officer Dave “Pops” Fuller.
Squad sized elements of Task Force Cooper, separated into patrols, had been on the ground in a week long operation to surround and flush out a suspected VC and NVA enclave on the Batangan Peninsula in Quang Ngai Province. For several days they had encountered small arms fire and lost several men to bullets and mines as they approached the hamlets, only to be told by the very young and old occupants, “No VC. No VC.” Was it truth? Or was it fear of reprisal?
Two days later the word came from division to pull back to the LZ for pick-up. Frustrated and bloodied, the grunts moved out; eager for the end of the hump and a ride back to Mustang. The platoon was about one-hundred and fifty meters from the hamlet, when a command detonated 155-milimeter artillery shell ripped through the middle of the column, sending body parts and dirt in all directions. Pitiful cries and screams of wounded men were quickly muffled by the frantic crackle of AK-47’s and M-16’s. The ground shook as grenades flew back and forth and the air was filled with guttural howls and terror filled curses as men on either side fell. They had walked into an ambush.
The choppers were redirected to a secondary landing site while gun-ships raced to the site of the melee. One slick was on the ground and Pops bird was settling in for landing when the secondary site exploded into mayhem. Charlie had anticipated and planned on this move.
The first bird had taken an RPG directly into the cockpit and burst into flames. Pops, acting on instincts, began to reverse his landing when his ship was riddled by small arms fire and an RPG slammed into the rotor housing, nearly snapping the bird in two, sending it crashing hard into the ground. Jimmy’s bird was third in line. Hutch and Ketch pulled the Huey away while Jimmy and Cousins sent death into the tree line. In a matter of minutes both ambushes went silent.
Their Huey now on the ground, Jimmy ran to Pops shattered slick, found him to be barely alive and pulled his mangled and bloody body from the wreckage. He should have died that day three weeks ago, but somehow he hung on and was med-evaced to Chu Lai.

But for today, Jimmy was bone-weary tired. Sleep was what he wanted, but it was not his to have. He slowly rolled over on his side, sat upright, set his feet on the floor and rubbed the burning fatigue in his eyes and the explosive pounding hell in his temples. He sat quietly for a long moment, tempted to lie back down and retreat into his dream once more, but other necessities beckoned him.
He stuffed his feet into his boots and reached for his cigarettes. Lighting his smoke, he inhaled deeply, held it for a moment, and exhaled slowly, letting the gray vaporous cloud escape his lips while his eyes roamed the room.
Door gunner Henry Cousins was still sleeping two cots down. A relaxed, slow talking twenty year old from the South Side of Chicago, Henry was a fast witted joker with a permanent smile and infectious laugh. He was a replacement, joining the 174th in mid-December. Assigned to the same bird, Henry and Jimmy had become friends and flew with pilots Ketchum and Hutchins. Henry had been home on leave before shipping to Nam and had married his high school sweetheart on Thanksgiving Day.
“Ketch” was from Montana and “Hutch” from Wyoming. Both were raised on a cattle ranch and of course were known as “The Cowboys.” Under fire they flew their Huey with a wild grace and finesse that only bronco riding cowboys could manage. They were good, real good.
Jimmy grabbed toilet paper from the ammo box cupboard and ambled out the hooch door.
Shuffling towards the latrines, laces trailing behind, he spotted Riffenbach and Hart, two medics with the 3rd Infantry, running and lugging their gear towards the helipad and their Dust Off chopper. Riffenbach called back to Jimmy as he ran past. “Alpha walked into a two hundred-fifty pounder up a goddam tree. The whole platoon is down. Jee-zus!” They turned the corner at the last hooch in a full run and disappeared as Jimmy approached the latrine.
The latrines were being cleaned and the shit burners were busy down wind. This job usually fell to the villagers who worked every day inside the compound. Jimmy thought this was not a good idea as it was common knowledge that several of the workers were either VC or VC sympathizers. Since coming from the boonies, it always made Jimmy uncomfortable to see the compound busy with villagers. He knew that more than one would be taking notes, counting paces and drawing mental maps. No matter, the compound “city folk” did not want to do the labor, so the villagers came every day, and mortars and rockets fell somewhere on the compound every night.
Jet fuel cocktails burned like giant wickless candles in halved fifty-five gallon drums filled with human waste, sending black putrid smoke into the air. Doc Richards, who was tagged to supervise the Vietnamese crew, sat with Peanuts, an older and crippled farmer in his late sixties who wound up the “foreman” on most details. Doc and Peanuts were leaning against a jeep exchanging English words for Vietnamese, Peanuts barking out intermittentent singsong instructions towards his charges. Jimmy waved as he passed.
Entering the screened wooden box that was the latrine, he peered down the first hole to see if the drum was in place, dropped his shorts and sat gazing out towards the village. The locals were up and working in the fields. He could make out movement in the village through the trees. A young boy of about ten, in black shorts and tan shirt, rode placidly on the back of a water buffalo across the open field to his left. How odd it all seemed. The day was unfolding as easily if it were in his home town, belying the reality of the war torn landscape.
Sitting there, staring out into the early morning, his thoughts drifted to his Illinois home, and to Marci. They were engaged with no date set for a wedding, and now the Army set the date further back. Jimmy smiled as he recalled their last night together. His parents not objecting, she had spent the night with him. It had been a gentle and passionate night filled with loving… and unspoken fear. She nestled up against him and he softly kissed her while they both let their tears fall silently.
A muzzle flash winked a cruel reminder in the tree line and a split instant later the whizz of its savage messenger passed nearby. A shift in the wind stung his nostrils with the pungent fetor of flambéed excrement. Yep, another shit day in Vietnam.

By the time Jimmy reached the mess tent, Staff Sgt.Willie Thomas had already served breakfast and all that was left were a few pieces of bacon, the clumped cold remains of powdered eggs, and coffee. The rest had either been thrown away or was being added to whatever was to be the next meal. It didn’t matter, coffee was what Jimmy wanted and most needed. He sipped the thick brew and watched the cooks clean and prepare for the next meal.
Willie walked up to his table, sat across from him and they made small talk for a while over their coffee. Willie told Jimmy that he heard “Pops” had died at the Army hospital in Yokohama, Japan two days ago. Both men sat silent for a few moments then renewed their chatting.
Their conversation was abruptly interrupted by a loud tlang! A bullet struck the bumper of a passing deuce-and-a-half which was quickly followed by a sudden burst of laughter as the vehicle sped off. Willie shook his head, “Someone needs to find that son-of-a-bitch.”
Finishing his coffee, he picked himself up and left the mess tent and headed for the aid station. He was curious to know what had happened with Alpha Company. He passed the burning half-drums and saw that Doc Richards was gone and had left Peanuts to mind the store; his spindly and twisted arm, the result of a WWII wound, meandered wildly as he pointed, emphasizing his prattled instructions.
Mike “Doc” Richards had come down from LZ Sue the week before. He had been Bravo Company’s second platoon medic since the brigade arrived, but had come down to Mustang before being sent to serve as battalion casualty reporter in Chu Lai. It would be his duty to assess and evaluate the WIA and KIA and report to S-2.
Doc had no idea what was to come. He soon would see hundreds in the battalion, many of them friends, come to the hospitals bloodied and dazed, or delivered to Graves Registration, their still warm lifeless bodies stuffed into olive drab body bags. His ears will ring from the frantic, desperate screams and cries of torn and dying men. His lungs will fill with a foul slaughter house stench and his throat will burn from the acrid taste of death.
Jimmy and Doc did their basic training together at Fort Knox, Kentucky. They had become good friends, and then went separate ways for AIT, Doc to Fort Sam Houston, Texas and Jimmy to Fort Benning, Georgia. They bumped into one another again when Doc climbed into Jimmy’s chopper at Mustang on the way up to LZ Sue. It was a reunion of old friends.
The Aid Station at Mustang was well sandbagged. Everyone called it “The Castle” as it stood impressively and nearly impregnable with its triple rows of sandbags neatly stacked around the hootch. Everyone may have joked at its immensity, but it was all in jest. They knew this could be their one hope should they need medical aid. The medics were determined to protect themselves and their patients.
Jimmy passed the “Old Guard” sign, pulled the screen door open and walked in. Doc was sitting with a few other medics on the left who were watching while he wrapped Lt. McKay’s swollen ankle; twisted while on ambush the night before.
Jimmy sat on an ammo box, propped his arms on the table and listened as LT talked softly about his wife and newborn child. “We named him Roy McKay the third.” His eyes closed and his hand went up to his face to wipe a tear. “I can’t wait to see him. My wife says he’s beautiful” Doc finished his wrap and gently tapped LT.’s calf. “Okay here…you’ll be fine, Sir.”
Lt. McKay stood and smiled. “Thanks, Doc,” he whispered and limped out the door. He would die in a firefight six days later.
“What’s up, Jim? How’s that headache?” Doc said putting supplies away.
“Hurts like a bitch” he said rubbing his temples and forehead.
“You should talk with Bennett” Doc suggested, filling his aid bag.
Paul Bennett had been majoring in psychology at the University of Indiana. With one year left to graduation, and suffering from burn out, he dropped out and was drafted soon after. The army of course did not want to waste any part of his education and stuck him into a four-deuce mortar platoon while the brigade was still stateside. The battalion doctor pulled some strings and had him transferred into the medical platoon.
“Is Paul here? I thought he was in Chu Lai?”
“He’s over at the 6th Support Hospital right now. You should talk to him, Jim.”
“I might do that, Mike” Jimmy replied. “I just might do that. “What’s up with Alpha? I ran into Riffenbach and Hart”
“First platoon. They were on the beach, I think, and headed for a tree. Charlie set off a big fucker. The last we heard was nine KIA. Everyone else is wounded, four pretty bad.
“No shit?”
“Yeah, the whole platoon is down.”
Jimmy grabbed a cigarette from an opened pack on the table, lit it and let out a long sigh.
“What the hell where they doing going to a tree?” Jimmy asked in disbelief.
Doc shrugged his shoulders and shook his head slowly. “I don’t know.”
A long pause in conversation was finally broken when Jimmy asked, “Have you heard anything about Holmes?”
“Not yet. I would guess he’s stateside somewhere. He might even be home by now.” Doc answered.
Just days before TET, while on patrol with Delta Company, medic Eric Holmes stepped on one of Charlie’s home made toe-poppers. He was fortunate that it was a small device; he only lost part of his foot, if you want to call that fortunate. I’m sure he’d say it was…he went home
The talk went on for a little while longer. It was the usual chatter about home, wives and girlfriends. Mason and Miller from 6th Support car talked. Parker was cutting Lt. Tanaka’s hair and passing gas. Both men were laughing hysterically. The quick flutter of a lone projectile hissed overhead.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” Will someone cap that asshole already,” Miller barked.

Jimmy made his way back to the hooch, lay back down on his cot, and thought about anything but the events of the day. The remnants of his earlier dream and thoughts replayed behind his closed eyes. Cousins was gone and all was strangely, but gratefully quiet. He drifted into that ether world where reality and dream almost become one. All things there are serene; clear and still. He could almost see it, feel it. If only he could drift a little further he was convinced he could really be home.
His silent reflection was shattered by the frantic stomp of boots running towards him. His eyes flew open as Henry crashed through the door.
“Jimmy,” Henry struggled, nearly out of breath, “Reef and Hart went down!”
Jimmy bolted upright. “What! Henry, what!?”
“Deef and Hart…their bird went down. I think they’re all dead”
“Did they get to Alpha?”
I don’t know…I don’t think so. We’re sending another chopper. Ketch wants us on the 60’s.”
Jimmy had his flak jacket half on and was reaching for his helmet as Cousins was talking. Both men sprinted out of the hooch and toward the helipad.
The bird was already fired up and six grunts were already on board. Ketchum and Hutchins were hastily doing a flight check. Ketchum waved them on board. Jimmy jumped in and pulled Cousins inside just as the bird lifted and swooped across the helipad.
They were flying full speed at tree top level. Everything below them was nothing but a maddening blur while they readied themselves for the coming melee. So much for the day off, Jimmy said aloud as the ground, trees and village sped by below them.
Fifteen minutes out they banked to the left and Hutchins pointed downward. Jimmy was on the port sixty and spotted the downed Dust-Off chopper. He stared into the thick tree line below. Nothing. The bird suddenly slipped tail out and nosed up as they banked right and changed directions for an approach. Dropping in from the Southwest they took ground fire. Ketchum leveled out, banked right and began to climb. Henry opened up sending burst after burst into the shadows. On the return pass, Jimmy did the same.
The tell tale tic-tic-tic of VC ground fire hitting the chopper sent the bird into wild gyrations as Ketchum manipulated the controls and pedals. The big slick screamed and shrieked as it yielded to the pilots’ evasive commands.
Jimmy fought to keep his rounds headed into the tree line. He could see the muzzle flashes blink in the dark foliage as they sent their hellish death towards them. Turning his head to check on the pilots, he felt a hot searing pain tear into his thigh. “Shit! I’m hit. I’m hit!”
Henry Cousins, secured by his harness, sat slumped, his sixty now silent. A bullet had ripped through the last thoughts of his new bride, his dead body flailing with the convulsive motions of the Huey.
Tic-tic-tic.
Jimmy shifted to check on the pilots again. CW2 Sam “Smiley” Hutchins had turned to check on his door-gunners and smiled when he saw Jimmy. He suddenly grimaced in surprise, and then pain as a round hit his elbow, throwing his arm wildly up and into the back of Ketchum’s head. His face went blank as a second round passed through his chin and out his headgear.
Ketchum glanced quickly at his co-pilot and hit the mic switch with his foot and breathlessly called out, “Henhouse six, this is Red Tail…over”
“Go Red, six Oscar, over”
“We hit a hornet’s nest. Two down. One wounded”
Tic-tic. Tic-tic-tic.
Ketchum continued to yell status into his headset as he coaxed the green ship into wild twists, dives, and turns. Jimmy felt the sting of another deadly intruder, then another. “God, Please, God. No.” He slumped back into his seat, his body useless. The pain was hard and brutal and he felt himself slipping away. He managed a last fading glance towards Ketchum as round after round now struck the bird. Tic-tic-tic. She was going down. Ketchum fought the controls, but it was useless…it was done. Jimmy passed out.

Jimmy stood for a long quiet moment at the end of the street. It had been a long while since he was home. It was almost too good to be true. He tensed for a moment, but now as he walked down the familiar street leading to his boyhood home, he let himself feel safe. The early morning was clear and beautiful; the late summer air sweet and cool. Serene, clear and still. The mayhem and madness of Vietnam was finally over. It was just an experience waiting to become a memory.
Nothing appeared to have changed much in the time that he was gone. It all looked the same as it did on the day he left. A small gentle breeze washed over him. His gait was slow as he made his way up the street. His heart beat with the anticipation of being with his family again.
Passing the empty lot where as a young boy he played ball with his friends he noticed that the Porter’s living room window was broken again. How many times had he and his friends sent a ball through that window? Countless times, he thought to himself. Jimmy smiled at the thought of the next generation stepping up to the plate. The Porter’s must be on vacation and in for a surprise when they returned. He was just three houses from home.
Jimmy walked onto the driveway, stopped, set his duffel bag down, and stood in grateful silence and let his eyes consume the womb of his youth, the safe haven of his boyhood. That boy was different now…forever changed. There is no way for the innocence of youth to remain unspoiled by the irreparable realities of war. Every combat veteran who makes it out alive is wounded, wounded in ways that are not visible to the civilian, and in many ways that are not immediately recognized by the veteran himself. The beast burrows deep inside the folds of memory, hiding, waiting to ambush and devour sanity. No one…not one walks away without a wounded spirit.
He was overcome with a warm and emotional peace as the familiar comfort of home welcomed him. He slid his hand back and forth over his thigh. Nothing, he thought to himself. He was surprised that he felt no pain. He shook his head in an attempt to dispel the thought. His wounds were spirit deep. “God”,…he silently prayed, … “Thank you.”
Grabbing his duffel bag, Jimmy made his way up the driveway, onto the walk and up the stairs. He peered through the screen door and saw his mother at the table. He stood watching her for a long silent moment, a warm smile on his face; his eyes taking in the familiar surroundings. It was good to be home.
“Ma”, he called softly.
She did not move.
“Ma,” he quietly called once more, “I’m home.” But again she did not move.
Only now did he see that she was weeping, her head resting in her left hand, her sobbing deep and mournful. Her right arm hung limply at her side clutching a photograph. It was his.
“Ma,” he cried out. “Ma? Ma!”
She slowly looked in his direction but her eyes did not see him. Tears fell slowly down her cheeks as she softly wept.

The gunship circled above the two downed choppers while the Medevac chopper held back. Drawing no fire, they descended rapidly and set down in the tall grass. Half the team set up a perimeter, the other half headed towards the smoking wrecks. Several bodies had been thrown from the Hueys on impact and it appeared that all had been killed.
An eerie silence entombed them as they warily approached the wreckage. It was the perfect set up for an ambush, but it appeared that Charlie had gone.
“We have one here, sir!” an excited grunt called out. “I think he’s alive!”
The wounded man was barely alive, his eyes locked on an inner vision, his mouth trying to speak. Leaning closer, the grunt heard the barely audible last words of Jimmy Taylor.
“I believe he’s calling for his mother, Sir… he’s calling for his ‘ma.’

© 2006 Richard Raitano

RIP – David W. Powell

David W. Powell (1941 - 2011)

David Powell was one of the first Viet Nam veterans diagnosed with PTDS to benefit from Traumatic Incident Reduction (TIR). Out of this experience came his book, My Tour in Hell, A Marine’s Battle with Combat Trauma, published in 2006. David was a tireless advocate for veterans and for Traumatic Incident Reduction, giving live talks and interviews as well as appearing on radio and TV programs.  An excerpt from David’s book, “An Office in Hell”, appeared in the anthology More Than A Memory: Reflections of Viet Nam published by Modern History Press.

In recent years he trained as a TIR facilitator, wrote a workbook for people dealing with post traumatic stress disorder, and was planning on attending and presenting at the 2011 annual Technical Symposium in Ann Arbor. To our great sorrow, we lost David this year to a sudden illness, shortly before the publication of Reboot! Confronting PTSD on Your Own Terms (Forward by John Durkin, PhD). He will be missed by all who knew him.
Ragnhild Malnati writes:

“David Powell did the TIR workshop with me as his Trainer about 2 years ago. In the workshop the other students loved hearing David’s stories about how TIR had helped him with horrendous war experiences. After the Vietnam war, David suffered from PTSD and after trying all kinds of other helping methods in the VA to no avail, he came across TIR and he was cured of PTSD. What was most remarkable about David was his compassion and genuine interest in others. We deeply mourn him and wish his family the best.”

On Sunday morning of this year’s Symposium in Ann Arbor, MI on October 2nd, 2011 at 9:00am there will be a brief memorial service for David for all who wish to attend.

REBOOT! Confronting PTSD on Your Terms: A Workbook
REBOOT! Confronting PTSD on Your Terms: A Workbook

David’s final work, Reboot! Confronting PTSD on Your Own Terms (Loving Healing Press) a 38-page workbook is available through www.TIRbook.com and other fine online retailers.

Burgers and Southern Belles

Burgers and Southern Belles

September 15, 1968 / Cam Ranh Bay RVN

Stepping off the C-130 that carried us from Chu Lai, we were herded onto a waiting deuce-and-a-half and made our way through the compound. Cam Rahn was another large military installation filled with “rear area” activity. It was a bustling city filled with officers and EM in clean, starched fatigues and polished boots…and the always present Vietnamese locals. Those of us who were here to make our way back home stood out like folks from across the tracks; our fatigues and boots bore the wear and tear of red dirt and lack of spit and polish from places other than the rear. It was like the war was somewhere else or maybe hadn’t existed at all.
The deuce-and-a-half delivered us to the holdover quarters where we would wait until our flight left. We were met by a spit and polish staff sergeant whose last assignment must have been one that had him greet new recruits into army life. He barked out orders like an eager DI and directed us toward the building that would house us until it was time to leave. No one paid attention to him, and he seemed to pay no notice to us. He was content to pretend he was important. Once inside, he informed us that our flight was due to leave around eight p.m. that night, and that he’d return in a half hour to put us on a police detail. Police detail!?
Our jaws dropped as we watched this REMF NCO swagger out the door. We stared in disbelief at one another. You gotta be kidding me! Did we hear that right…police the goddam area? Bullshit…there was no way in hell we were we going to clean this guys area of paper and cigarette butts. We didn’t expect, or want, preferential treatment. Maybe a little respect for having spent time outside the wire-we just wanted to leave Vietnam-and the sooner the better. And no police detail.
We took a quick vote and six of us decided to take off to go find something to eat. It was after 10:00 in the morning and most of us hadn’t eaten since the night before. So, with orders in hand we walked out the door and headed in the direction of the PX.
We found a Burger Bar. I mean an actual Burger Bar! All that was missing were sweet teenaged girls behind the counter flashing their sweet teenaged smiles. What we got instead were the grumpy, unsmiling privates in green fatigues. But, we did get a good hamburger…with fries and a Coke, or maybe it was a Pepsi. No matter, it had been a long time since our last journey to a burger joint. For all we knew, the meal was the worst ever.
After wandering around for a couple of hours and assuming that the “detail” was done, we made our way back to the holdover hooch. It seems that after we left a few others decided to escape the detail also, and those that remained confirmed that the NCO did return and have them police the area. Our stomachs satisfied, we stretched out on the cots and waited for our ride to the airstrip later that evening. We might have caught some Z’s. Don’t recall. When the long-awaited ride did come, it was another NCO, just as spit and shine, but much more cheerful, who gathered us up, loaded us up, and wished us well. Nice.
We were giddy with restrained excitement and disbelief as the deuce rumbled through the compound and made its way to the airstrip. We were that much closer to going home…but we weren’t out of Vietnam yet.
The deuce stopped and we were guided into a small Quonset hut where others were waiting for their trip home. What came next was our “debriefing.” An officer entered, smiled, and welcomed us. He then began to tell us that once we get home we would find things “different.” Different!? God, I hope so. Although, with the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations just a few months earlier, the joke was we’d be allowed to take our weapons with us so that we could fight our way home if necessary. However, those killings did leave so many of us with doubts of what “home” really was. Violent and deliberate death is an everyday event in a war zone. You accept that. You live with that reality moment to moment and you find a way to deal with it. Home was supposed to be the refuge away from that reality. Home was the safe zone. Home was the “world” where our lives would resume; pick up where we left off.
The debriefing lasted around thirty minutes of which maybe five were heard. Our thoughts and attention were not on the officer lecturing us. Blah-blah-blah…good luck men. Dismissed. That was it. Thirty minutes and we were ready to live our normal lives again. It was that easy. So they thought. And, so we thought as we marched to the hut that served as terminal, show your orders, receive a flight voucher and head out to the flight line and the waiting Freedom Bird.

We made our way up the portable passenger stairs and boarded the plane that had come to take us home. It was a civilian plane, Central Airlines I think. The image of that plane sitting on the runway is stuck in my memory like an old rumpled photograph I carry around in my wallet and I just can’t find the heart to toss it.
It was around nine p.m. The stewardesses were all young, beautiful southern belles with soft, lacey “y’all” accents. They looked so good to us and smelled just as nice. Other than the nurses and the occasional visits from the Red Cross “donut dollies,” these lovely and graceful ladies were the first non-military American women we had seen in a very long time.
You would think that being in the presence of those lovely ladies would have turned us into drooling, silly seventh grade boys. But that was not the case. We shared a common, ever present thought that stayed with us our entire tour: would we live to see this day? We were more concerned about getting off the ground and into the air.
We knew we weren’t safe yet. There were many incidences of mortar or rocket rounds killing troops who were homeward bound. To have survived your tour only to be killed on the way out was the final insane absurdity delivered by the beast. Working hurriedly, but gently, they got us seated; they didn’t want to hang around any longer than we did. We were just as anxious as they to leave that goddamned place with all its death and misery.
With everyone belted in, the plane taxied into position. Given final clearance for take off, the plane lurched forward pushing us back into our seats. I had a window seat and watched as the runway lights raced past, faster and faster. The plane rotated upwards and we left the ground…Vietnam was now rapidly slipping away under us.
I’ve heard stories of flights that erupted into roaring cheers when the plane left the ground, but not this one…not this time. It was stone quiet as we climbed higher and higher into the black night.
Through the window I saw explosive flashes and lines of tracers arcing through the void. Down there the war still raged. Down there someone was still dying. And we were on our way home. The plane banked and we headed out to sea. We had survived our tours and were headed back to the world. I leaned back into my seat and let silent tears fall as Vietnam disappeared.

Doc Rich R

Richard Boes Memorial Award-Winning Book 2010

Richard Boes (R.I.P.)
Richard Boes (R.I.P.)

The 2010 Richard Boes Memorial Award goes to Charles Joseph Fickey for his book Sworn to Secrecy for Life: A Young American Spy’s Odyssey through War-torn Germany and Russia (ISBN 9781432761189)

The award is a $200 cash prize for best debut book by a veteran (fiction or memoir) and is sponsored by Modern History Press. The contest is administered by Reader Views Inc., which includes a general book award contest as well.

Richard enlisted into the US Army and served in Vietnam in 1969 – 1970 with the First Air Cav. He is the author of two books, The Last Dead Soldier Left Alive (2007) a firsthand inquiry into why thousands of Vietnam veterans have committed suicide and Last Train Out (2008). Right up to his death Richard was writing a third, In the Valley of Dry Bones. He passed away on Feb 21st, 2009 at the VA Hospital in Albany, NY.

I am a soldier

I am a soldier

I am a soldier,
One of America’s own.
Child of the father’s before me
Whose sacrifice I owe a debt
Which can never be repaid.

I stand ready to honor that debt
When called upon. I will take arms
Against those who would seek to
Cage liberty and set fire to peace.
My life for these I do pledge.

All that I ask…
Do not deceive me. Do not send
Me to distant places to stand
In harms way for falsehoods and
Riches earned by the letting
Of my blood.

Do not dishonor my sacrifice
For the gains of your purse.
Let not my life be your reward.
I am a soldier,
One of America’s own.
Father to those to come after me.

Rich Raitano
2010

The Watch

The Watch

 I saw them come in numbers,

More than anyone

Should ever have to see.

Fresh from the battlefields

Of slaughter;

Their bodies torn, shattered,

Ripped apart and mangled,

Eyes, wild with fear

Or empty dead stares,

Told their story of raw horror.

Frantic strangled cries gurgle

From their blood filled throats;

Calling for wives or mothers…

Or God.

But they have come to face the beast

With its fetid smell of death

On its angry dragons’ breath.

There comes no mercy…

No peace…

Nor holy, saintly knighted savior

With sword of life in hand

Riding nigh.

This…

…And only this…

To stand a silent vigil

And to watch them slowly die.

Richard Boes Memorial Award Winning Book 2009

Richard Boes (R.I.P.)
Richard Boes (R.I.P.)

The 2010 Richard Boes Memorial Award goes to Charles M. Grist for his book My Last War: A Vietnam Veteran’s Tour in Iraq (ISBN 9781440152689)

The award is a $100 cash prize for best debut book by a veteran (fiction or memoir) and is sponsored by Modern History Press. The contest is administered by Reader Views Inc., which includes a general book award contest as well.

Richard enlisted into the US Army and served in Vietnam in 1969 – 1970 with the First Air Cav. He is the author of two books, The Last Dead Soldier Left Alive (2007) a firsthand inquiry into why thousands of Vietnam veterans have committed suicide and Last Train Out (2008). Right up to his death Richard was writing a third, In the Valley of Dry Bones. He passed away on Feb 21st, 2009 at the VA Hospital in Albany, NY.

Leaving Da Nang

Leaving Da Nang 

 

 

It was one of those moments when sound collapses into an eerie silence and time somehow ceases to move and deposits you into an altered, yet clear reality. I had been plucked from the moment and set down in the space between time. But I was not alone. I turned my head and our eyes met as if guided by some mysterious contrivance of fate. In a bustling, chaotic crowd of many, only he stood out; a slight smile on his lips.

I had recently returned to Chu Lai from an assignment at the NSAH (Naval Support Activity Hospital) in Da Nang. Our unit was working an AO in the area and the battalion commander wanted a casualty reporter nearby. It was a quiet three weeks and an opportunity for me to use it as an in-country R & R; one that I badly needed. It may have been why I was sent to Da Nang. Activity was constant down south, and I clearly was showing the signs of sensory overload.

I was back in familiar territory and working the ER, GR, and wards when I received a call from Percy that Captain Rice (not his real name) wanted me to accompany him to visit wounded at the hospital in Da Nang. He arrived mid-day in his jeep, and we made the 60 mile trip north. Captain Rice drove and I held his Thompson in my lap. My M-16 was in storage in the 2nd Surg. armory.

The trip was uneventful as we raced passed villages and sandbagged outposts. Farmers bent over in their fields and young children standing on the roadside with outstretched hand, babies on their hips, greeted us along the way. A column of thick black smoke rose in the distance on my left as we neared Da Nang. I kept my eyes fixed in that direction until I was satisfied there was nothing of consequence in progress. Captain Rice sped on, his eyes fixed on the road.

Once we arrived, Captain Rice told me to meet him at the hospital in two hours. I made my way to the hospital barracks to find Walt and others I had met while in Da Nang.  I found Walt and we sat and BS’d until the two hours had passed. I said my goodbyes and made my way back to the hospital only to find that Captain Rice planned on visiting for another two hours and was not ready to go. It was nearly 1400 hours (2:00 p.m.). Curfew was four hours away at 1800.

Walt was surprised to see me stroll back into the barracks. When I told him that we weren’t going to leave for another two hours or so, he suggested I should tell the captain that I refuse to leave, spend the night, and leave in the morning. It sounded like a good plan to me; I did not want to be on the road so close to curfew. Two lightly armed American soldiers would present an easy target.

The time passed and I walked back to the hospital only to find that Captain Rice was not where we had planned to meet. Nervously glancing at my watch, I sat and waited for him to show. It was after 4:30 when he strolled into the reception area, Thompson in hand, and signaled for me to follow him. He jumped into the drivers seat, handed his weapon to me, started the jeep, and we began our return journey south to Chu Lai.

The Thompson rested, barrel out, across my lap; my left hand resting on the trigger guard as we made our way out of Da Nang. The village on the outskirts of town was busy with U.S and ARVN military traffic and locals on foot making their way in from the fields. Curfew was a little over an hour away and they did not want to get caught in the open. After 1800 hours, anyone beyond the last guard post would be considered an enemy combatant in a free fire zone and subject to be killed.

We crawled to a stop as we approached a narrow one lane bridge filled with lumbering vehicles, horns honking, and nervous villagers rushing back from the fields, dōn gánh (bamboo carrying bar with woven baskets hanging on each end) filled with produce, swaying on their shoulders. The sooner they were in from the fields the better off they were. It was not uncommon for a late straggler to be gunned down before 1800 hours.

I watched these villagers closely as they raced across the bridge, snarling angrily  and shouting at the passing vehicles forcing them to walk an even narrower path against the steel girders of the bridge; their loads bumped and spilling on the road. I was growing nervous as it became obvious we would not beat the curfew before reaching Chu Lai. I asked Captain Rice if he thought it best to return and stay at the hospital for the night. He shook his head and frustrated, laid on the horn. I continued my watch.

It was in that moment, stopped at the foot of the bridge amidst all the noise and erratic commotion, when the forward flow of time ceased. I was on high alert and being drawn to something. I scanned the blurred faces of the villagers as they raced past me, my eyes searching for what beckoned me. Nothing. I looked past the parade of humanity and into a crowd standing at the entrance of a market and saw only him standing there; his arms folded across his chest.

            He was wearing a black shirt, purple shorts and Ho Chi Minh sandals; dark black hair sat atop his weathered face; old for a young man. Our eyes locked. Safety off, my finger moved imperceptibly towards the trigger. He slowly moved his left arm away from his body to reveal a pistol in his right hand, tucked under his armpit. With a feint, non-threatening smile on his lips, he nodded lightly. Eyes still locked, I returned his nod. The jeep lurched forward suddenly and caused me to lose eye contact. Time had restarted and we were moving. I quickly turned to look back toward the market. He was gone.

Something unexplainable happened at the foot of that bridge that day. I did not feel threatened or frightened. We both had somehow found ourselves in the same space and time apart from the chaos that whirled around us and acknowledged that it was not the place or time for death.

Captain Rice sped across the bridge; a basket hit our windshield and a shrill litany of Vietnamese curses followed us as we passed the last guard post and headed for the open road and Chu Lai.  

~

 

Nothing was said as we sped down the road at full speed in a race to get somewhere-anywhere-before curfew and darkness set in. Nothing was visible. Animals, people, birds…nothing. It was as if 1800 hours had become such a way of life that all living things made themselves scarce and dared not be seen in the open. I thought about what Walt had said and wished I had stayed behind. I was not comfortable, and I could see by the tension on his face, neither was Captain Rice.

            Coming out of a turn we heard a pop and the jeep began to shimmy and swerve. We had blown a rear tire and we had no spare. Never slowing, Captain Rice said “Fuck it” and we continued to race down the road. Even if we did have a spare, stopping to change a tire in the middle of nowhere after curfew was not a good idea.

            Conversation now began to flow between the captain and me. He kept repeating “Fuck!” over and over, “We need to find a place to stop…soon. Keep an eye out for a friendly place. Fuck!” 

 

“No shit, sir.”

 

As dusk cleared daylight for dark we spotted a Marine outpost and pulled up to the gate. The sentries exited their sandbagged guardhouse and approached us. They were surprised to see two G.I’s cruising the road after curfew. Captain Rice explained our situation and pointed to the now shredded remains of a tire and battered rim. Letting us in and directing us to the command post I could see the laughter in their looks…“Army…figures”

            Captain Rice stopped the vehicle and entered the command bunker. I waited in the jeep feeling a hell of a lot better about my circumstances, no matter what the sentries thought. Captain Rice exited the bunker minutes later with a Marine captain who was taking us to a location where we could grab some C’s and sleep for the night.

Leaving the jeep behind for their mechanics to repair, we followed our Marine savior to our sanctuary for the night. As we walked away, I heard the two sentries talking in low voices and giggling. They might have been laughing about something else, but I was sure we had to be object of their delight.

            After chatting a while with a couple of Marine grunts, I settled down on a borrowed sleeping bag and drifted off to sleep. Morning came; our jeep was delivered with a replaced rim and tire, and we set off to finish our journey. Captain Rice let me off at 2nd Surg. and went on his way. Two weeks later a couple of friends, battalion medics, stopped by to visit. In our conversations I told them of the journey from Da Nang. They laughed and let me know that Captain Rice had been reprimanded by the battalion CO for placing me in danger. Hell, the government did that.

 

Rich Raitano

GOD LAUGHS IN COLORS

God Laughs In Colors
By Tom Skiens
Nov. 12, 2009

I was a tree vet again this year at the local Veterans Day ceremony. Just like the Nam vets in D.C. who hang out in the tree line on the ridge above the bowl that hosts The Wall. I used to occupy a spot in the trees on the southwest corner of the pond. A brown water sailor vet buddy joined me sometimes and things were good. I walked from my house and timed it so I arrived at my spot when the crowd was still moving around. Civilians don’t have their heads on a swivel scanning the tree line both high and low. They are content to look straight ahead or at their shoes or at the person beside them. I would move into position and no one noticed.

Later a civilian wannabe asked if we minded if he joined us. We minded, but let him join anyway. The civilian asked stupid questions and made way too much noise as if to yell, “I am in the trees with the vets, I must be cool.” He moved around too much which gave away our location. He wanted attention and we were in the trees to avoid same. The next year the ceremony organizers plugged in a loud speaker so the tree vets could hear. I stopped attending the Veterans Day ceremony.

I visit the Veterans memorial at the parks and recreation’s Seventh Street Complex in John Day Oregon often. I do it in the dark of night or before daylight in the early morning hours. Several years ago I volunteered to spend many days and hours on my knees laying pavers or screeding sand or chasing a compactor in the construction of this memorial. I learned to mix mortar while helping to build a granite podium that would support the marble engraved centerpiece to the monument.

And now things have come full circle. The memorial was falling apart, in September of 2009 the flag pole broke off. In October of 2009 I saw activity at the memorial and again volunteered. Just like I volunteered for the draft, the infantry, Vietnam, and as a Forward Observer, to go on patrols and ambushes, and to walk through the mine field more than once. I volunteered because someone had to. I volunteered because
God laughs in colors.
It is April 19, 1968. I am the fourth person back in the left column. The other column is less than 10 yards to my right. We should not be this bunched up. God knows we have hit enough booby traps to learn. I see and hear an explosion to my right front less than 15 yards away. I drop to the ground but before my stomach touches I am on my way back up.
I know what this is. It is the same thing as January 13, 1968. A Bouncing Betty leaves us with two dead and eight wounded. Zimmerman and I are the next two unwounded in the column and we must walk the line. Today is not much different.
I move to the right column, drop my rucksack and get the PRC 25 radio from my radio telephone operator. 0900, “grid square BS 533853 Company C request dust off for two KHA, two WHA result bouncing Betty.” I move into the zone making sure the path is clear for the medics. A fucking new guy walking point in the left column has hot steel in his stomach.
The F.N.G. came in on the resupply chopper the night before and has been with the company less than 14 hours. The company put him in first Platoon and first Platoon put him on the point in the left column. First day in the bush and the F.N.G. gets hot steel in his stomach which may result in him going home. The guy at my feet is dead. The next guy is dead. The next guy, Platoon leader, LT. his right foot is blown off and his right hand does not look good, he will probably lose it. He is moaning from shock and pain. His weapon has been thrown to the right, it is destroyed, useless.
I yell at the F.N.G. to stop running around because he may set off another mine. Sgt. Don Fox, who will assume command of 1st platoon because the LT. is down, and Zimmerman talk the F.N.G. to safety. In three days Zimmerman and I will be on our bellies crawling over to Sgt.Fox who will have a bullet in his gut that penetrated through his weapon before entering his body. Higher/higher said it was Automatic weapons fire, but, I was standing four feet away and only remember 1 round. Three days after the Sgt. Fox dust off, Zimmerman, who has gone from PFC to platoon leader in the course of seven days, will be involved in another Bouncing Betty and I will on the radio calling in another dust off for him and three others. Charlie Company’s first platoon, first squad is getting beat up for the second time in our first four months in country.
A medic asks me to help put one of the dead guys on a poncho so we can drag him to the approaching chopper.
I rifle through the guys rucksack to get a poncho while the medic rolls him onto his back. I find pieces of bone and blood on the inside of the grunts rucksack. For the first time I look at the dead guys face. It is my friend John-John.
I am stunned, shocked. This is the day, the hour, the minute and the grid coordinates where the American dream dies for me. Dark clouds invade my mind; a deep numbing pain penetrates my soul. The medic wants me to lift the right side of the body. John-John is pulverized flesh from head to toe, like the Gook on the receiving end of a B-52 package. Concussion and shrapnel have transformed his body into the consistency of firm Jelly. I can’t find anything solid enough to lift.
A year passes, then two, finally I see the middle finger of his right hand, I test it to see if it will stay attached to his body when I lift him. I grab a hand full of bloody pants leg with my right hand and lift the lower part of his body off the ground. I pray that pieces of his body do not come off in my hands as I lift my dark, broken friend high enough to set him on the poncho.
April 19, 1968, 0900 hours, grid BS533853, I died, the dream ends, no preparation, I be zombie. I died because it was the easiest and fastest way to deal with my problem. I could not move forward while packing the weight of the dead and I could not leave them behind. I must sacrifice a part of my soul so my body can move on. I don’t have time to mourn, only to tuck the memory of the mangled bodies into the corners of my mind and keep on humping.
The corners of my mind will meld over time
The visions of the dead come more often.
I’ve recorded their names and absolved them of chains
While I’m busy constructing my own coffin.
God laughs at my notions in green, red and blue. He decided I wouldn’t die. I assure you I went out of my way to prove God wrong. On July 3, 1968 I returned from my Singapore R & R with a 4X4 Orange tarp I planned to use as ground cover in the bush. I sometimes carried this Orange tarp on the outside of my Rucksack. I would have a radio antenna sticking above my head and I would walk point. Laughter is full of colors.

God laughs in colors
I see in black and white.
My fears dark and hidden;
The laughter filled with light

Forty-one years after Gods watercolor wash I have conducted 50 critical incident debriefings, organized 4 interventions, talked three suicides down, provided substance abuse information to hundreds, published the contents of 11,000 pages of documents for my Old Guard battalion, taught my grand children to laugh in colors, built the 7th street memorial a second time and found a fresh site to be a tree vet. I did these things and never accepted a dime, not even for gas. Money would detract from the real reason for doing these things. Money screws things up.

I attended this year’s ceremony and no one saw me. I watched the honor guard fumble with their weapons and get off two of the planned three shots. They never saw me. My hide is secure.

Life is good.