by Donald Miller
Mac shouldn’t have been shot. His good shoulder is now ripped to shit. The bandage I wrapped on is holding but soaked with blood. It’s bad.
Mac’s a good guy and takes great care to protect us. Hell, like most of the rest of us, he shouldn’t be in sunny Southeast Asia in the first damn place. Mac’s wife, kid and mother need him in South Carolina much more than the U.S. Army needs him in this hell hole.
Mac carries Sweetness. Sweetness pulls Mac’s shoulder down, and it dislocates. Mac groans and then mutters shit under his breath. Then he simply finds a rock or tree and bangs the offending joint back into place.
I say, “Damn, Mac, let me help you with the gun.” Mac looks like he could use a break.
Mac says, “I got Sweetness.” Sweetness is the M-60 and badass. Mac could carry a lighter weapon, but our six-man team needs the gun. She is the core of our survival plan, our deal-maker. Sweetness spits seven-point-six-two mike-mike NATO rounds like Tom and Huck fire watermelon seeds, and she can hold off a large NVA force most of the day. Even hard-ass NVA stay hunkered down or flat out di-di if Sweetness is having a good day.
Carrying Sweetness gives Mac great respect. I like Mac. I respect him and Sweetness. Together they are uncommonly quiet. Perhaps Mac is shy. However, I think not. He lets action speak for him and Sweetness. Mac never brags about his ability to mow down dinks with bursts from Sweetness. He is very friendly outside of the bush. I drink with Mac and Jimmy. Jimmy and Mac stay together when we are in base camp. Jimmy is a sharecropper’s son. Black skin, alert eyes, good at checkers and always with Mac. One time Jimmy is beating the pants off of Sarge playing checkers. Mac is watching and says, “Sarge, I thought you went to college?” Sarge gives Mac an OK smart-ass stare. Mac rubbed Sarge the wrong way that day. Mac is a cracker by birth. His close ties with Jimmy cannot be explained by normal attitudes. There it is; a very black man blood brother with Mac. They are a team within our team. On patrol Jimmy walks point and Mac stays in the middle of our team. That formation puts Sweetness in the middle where she and Mac can protect us all. Jimmy uses his alert eyes to detect danger. Mac uses Sweetness to wipe out danger.
We hump our asses off carrying all kinds of shit plus anxiety, boredom, and despair. We hump the weight of an average Vietnamese adult male on our backs in weapons, ammo, claymores, frags, smoke grenades, flares, Kabar knives, lurp rats, c-rations, John Wayne bars, water, and fuck books. We hump in tropical heat and monsoon rain, and then shiver our asses off at night when the temp drops thirty. Carrying all this shit, we ford the Song Dong Nai back-and-forth so many times I think we will catch trench foot; and we climb mountains so steep when we slept at night we latch ourselves to tree trunks with our war-belts. On flat ground we sleep in a circle: our heads the wagon wheel axle, bodies the spokes, feet the rim. No blankets, no cover, your ruck your pillow. Weapons always point rim-ward.
Sleeping this way we are able to point the weapon away from Rangers not awake. As we sit up we point our rifles away from our bodies towards anyone sneaking up to slit our throats. We pass a watch around to the next person on duty. Someone is always awake just in case. I remember – one patrol the watch was passed to me. Insect repellent is all over the face of the watch. I rub it but that makes it worse. I can barely see the luminous hands. At the same time I feel something slither across my boots. My ass puckered tight. I am no friend of snakes, and this was a big mother. The seconds of slithering across my legs felt like an hour.
We hump out in the morning, I say to Stillmen, “Why we doing this?”
Stillmen grins and says, “Why? Well, for the fucking pay, that’s why.” Pay is $300 a month so Stillmen is full of shit. I have no idea why I asked Stillmen. He has no idea why anything; nor does he give a shit. Stillmen loves walking rear guard. It is hard to know Stillmen. When we stop and rest he is always last to sit. He is also last when we move out. He is different and distant.
Writing to girls gives me a connection to the United States. Their return letters are from another world. I just don’t give a shit about which girl is dating who. Reading letters makes me home sick but I also feel like I do not want to be back in that dullness. This place is shit but sometimes it is exciting and home is not like that. Pals at home know nothing about this hell hole. My letters probably remind them how lucky they are to be in college or 4-F. One of my friends is allergic to cut grass and he is classified 4-F. No cut grass in Nam! I bet parents hover around the six o’clock news and pray that their family name did not pop up. Higher-ups give us a map, and say, “Go get ‘em!” When they drop us off, chopper pilots gave us that “better you than us” look, and we hope to see you again in a few days, fellas. Really, why are we here?
“How the hell did we get here?” is another trendy subject among our team. None of us knew Vietnam from Venezuela before we were drafted or enlisted. Our point man, Jimmy, had a cushy gig in Germany before he re-upped. Now his sorry ass is leading patrols in the fucking jungle, scared of snakes and tigers more than he is of Mr. Charles. I often asked myself what kind of day he had to make him re-enlist so he could come to this shit hole. I replaced Garcia. Garcia had been a hippie in Haight-Ashbury before he got the “Greeting” from the Trickster. Greetings, you are invited to fight in a war against communism. Show up at the local intake center and kiss your ass goodbye. That is what the greeting letter should say. I kept my “greetings” letter. I’m pretty sure I will never see a letter signed by the president of the United States ever again. Garcia’s life’s career path pre-Nam included picking up and selling pop bottles, aluminum, and copper from construction sites. He lived in a house with fifteen, and sometimes thirty other social climbers. I have not heard from him since he went back to the world. Steve is a Mississippi squirrel hunter. He is a red-necked bigot. He is also a very good shot, having been to sniper school he is even more deadly now than when he is shooting squirrels for dinner. Outside of the Army his prospects are limited to none at all. Maybe that is why he re-upped.
At least we have a ‘grown-up’ in the group. Sarge, or “Dad,” as we like to call him to really piss him off. He will not tell us his age, but we figured him for about twenty-three or -four, since he has a college degree and prefaces his stories with: “A short time ago, while on campus, I and my lady friends, et cetera, et cetera.” Sarge is an E-6, which for our unit, might as well be a bird colonel. Few of our senior non-coms and fewer still officers make it to the bush. So Dad is our leader. Miller is his name, and we consider him strack. No one gives him shit about which trail to take or not take; or where we ought to ambush; or what makes for the best Lima Zulu (Landing zone). He is the man but never pulls rank on us. Probably knows we will give him shit. Actually the only time I saw him mad at one of us was when Mac teased him about losing to Jimmy in checkers.
Actually I wonder how any of us ended up here. Out of our entire team Mac is the most obvious for exemption from this shit. His family really needs his support. Mac does not see it that way but I do. It just isn’t fair that so many frat boys are drinking beer and getting laid while Mac is out in this shit hole humping the boonies. Being a college graduate the Sarge told me he thought his business degree would get him a job in payroll or something. Sarge is smart but that idea of working in payroll was pure dreaming. I mean the guy has a Ranger patch and E-6 stripes. The Army invested in him and that means combat duty. Everybody but Sarge knows that during a war the job openings are always in the infantry or maybe combat engineers. Sarge even tried to get out of the jungle by saying he could type really fast. The story is that when Sarge arrived in country the First Sgt. of the Brigade needed a clerk. He asked Sarge if he could type. Sarge said “I can type 75 words a minute,” which was a bald faced lie. The First Sarge went over to pick up a Smith Corona and sat it down in front of Sarge. He handed Sarge a letter and said type this up right here and now. Sarge said “I typed as fast as I could. I typed 65 words in a minute but made 23 mistakes.” All hopes of a rear job were shattered by those 23 typing mistakes.
Stillmen was a forward observer in the Air Force and transferred into the Army. Now he is at the end of our file as the rear guard. He carries a Thompson submachine gun that he purchased on the black market. When I asked Stillmen how he got the Thompson he said, “What the fuck do you think those cartons of cigarettes and other shit are for, dummy?” Evidently, Stillmen doesn’t worry about trading Army issue stuff for a great weapon. That Thompson lays out some firepower. More importantly, it shot 45 caliber rounds. Those rounds could knock down an NVA even if it only hit the tip of a finger. I never saw that happen but it made sense. Some of the old timers said, “When a 45 round hit some dink’s hand it just spun him around so hard that he would fall down.”
So this bunch represents putting boots on the ground in Vietnam. Our one common goal: survive one fucking year in the jungle of Vietnam. We live among yellow pythons, elephants, monkeys and mosquitoes for one full year or less. You can get a ticket home because of malaria, wounds or death. To increase our chances of survival we have Sweetness.
We walk single file. Our protection is walking quietly and smelling like jungle. The first day or two on the ground Sarge said, no smoking. Dinks smell cigarette smoke from fifty yards away. Sarge says, “The little bastards will know we are coming if you smoke.” After a couple days in the bush and no signs of the enemy, Sarge says “light’em up.”
We really call patrolling “humping”. Our packs weigh 70 to 90 pounds. Ammo and water are more weight on our belts. It’s humid, hot and the jungle is triple canopy, meaning thick with vegetation. The vegetation is really thick on this patrol. Some parts of the jungle are defoliated with Agent Orange. I get really upset in the defoliated areas. Mr. Charles can see us as well as we can see him. Some rear echelon genius probably thought defoliation is helpful. I don’t agree. We hump about half a click and then sit down. I lean over with the heavy pack close to the ground then sort of roll down onto the jungle floor. Stillmen stands on guard until the rest of us are resting.
Mac has the most weight from Sweetness. Sarge carries the radio. We are called Rangers or LRRPs and on patrol we carry everything on our backs. We do not get re-supply like the regular infantry. If you want to eat and drink you carry your rations. If you want to live you carry some heavy ammo.
Eventually we all wake up at dawn and begin to hump. This day we find a trail and set up an ambush. Sarge always has me set up the claymores. He half kidded that I am the one grunt that will place the business end of the claymore facing the enemy. Christ! The back blast will kill you, so I put the claymore against a tree or hump of ground. Sarge sends Mac and Sweetness to a spot that takes advantage of their fire power. Sweetness does a lot of damage during an ambush. Sometimes the best spot for shooting is not the best spot for defense. This time Mac and Sweetness are positioned behind a small tree.
Five Rangers are positioned near the trail. We are all pressed into the ground with dirt mounds or trees for cover. Each of us knows that an ambush favors us. But shrapnel has no guidance system and will burn and tear American flesh as easily as Vietnamese. I worried about Mac because he is perfect for inflicting pain and death on the enemy but his head and shoulders are not behind anything. Sweetness will definitely draw fire from any conscious dinks. My claymores will blow them to hell but I know that often it is not that simple. Stillmen is alone towards our rear. Sarge knows that the dinks might sense an ambush and sneak up behind our team. Stillmen and his Thompson will put a surprise into their sandals if they try.
The team needs patience while on ambush. Patience and quiet, patience and quiet. We’re good at patience and quiet. No noise, no complaints if ants bite your ass. After about two hours we see three dinks round the bend. They are moving fast and coming into the kill zone. Sarge nods and I click the claymores. Trees tops snap; dirt, ball bearings and bullets fly at the dinks and then rounds come our way. The noise is deafening. In seconds it’s over except for the moaning. There are three almost dead dinks and Mac screams for help. I run over while Sarge finishes off the dinks. Mac’s good shoulder is ripped open. I pull a bandage off my webbing and press hard on the wound. During our training we are taught to stop the bleeding as fast as possible. Mac’s pissed and hurt bad. He holds in a scream because who knows what is back down the trail. I wrap up the wound and tie off the bandage. Sarge comes over with morphine and shoots it into Mac’s shoulder. Immediately Sarge calls up a medevac and then motions all of us to move out. Mac lets me carry Sweetness as we move behind Sarge towards an LZ.
Mac is badly wounded. The bullet ripped flesh and shattered his shoulder. He is hard to support and is losing strength in his legs. Jimmy keeps looking back at Mac. His eyes show confusion; his best friend in this shit hole needs help. Sarge pushes Jimmy to keep eyes front. Sarge says, “Jimmy, you can help get Mac to the LZ, eyes front, do your job.” I start to drag most of Mac’s weight when Carr comes up to help. We say, “Hang in Mac; you’ll be out of here soon.”
Within a half hour we get to the LZ just before the medevac. Sarge says pop smoke and the copter acknowledges the color purple. As the copter descends the purple smoke moves deep into the grass. The smoke engulfs us as “Purple Haze” weirdly drums in my ears. The chopper moves in and we move out Mac. He slumps into the helicopter and a medic takes over. We’re hoping Mac makes it. The bandage is totally soaked. Mac groans; again I think he should not be in this shit hole. We back off the chopper. Sweetness stays with me as the five of us return to the jungle.
Donald Glen Miller served as a team leader, 75th Rangers/LRRPs, M Company attached to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, Vietnam 1969 – 70. Glen was drafted into the Army immediately after graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia. He writes poetry about his struggles with memories of combat and his quest for a joyful living. Glen and his wife Mary started Veterans Community Network to support best practices regarding transition from combat into a productive and joyful life.