I’ve got a war in my mind I would like to tell you about it. In my thoughts, it’s hard to separate history from the present. My history goes back fifty years, but in my way of thinking, time is irrelevant. The trauma I experienced in Vietnam is as clear to me today as it was in 1966.
I have written many stories of my time in Vietnam. Some of these stories were hard to write, many bought on uncontrolable tears, but in the end it was a healing mechanism. I remember reading a quote years ago, “Face your fear, accept your war, it is what it is.” I witnessed killing daily. The Marines were good at it. They were told that it’s natural to kill. Then how come young boys have to go into training to learn how?
One of the stories I wrote about was, “Battle Field Emotions.” It is amazing how many emotions are brought to surface during one battle. Emotions are hard to handle. They just happen. This story is going to be one of those stories that is hard for me to write. It’s about fear, the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind. This emotion can literally kill a person. There is perhaps nothing so bad and as dangerous in life as fear.
I am talking about fear you experience when your very life is in danger such as being in battle during war. There is fear and than there is real fear. There is a difference. I don’t mean frightened by seeing a scary movie, hearing a scary story around a campfire or waliking through a spook-house.
During my thirteen-month tour I constantly felt fear. Every day we ran scared. That’s the only way we stayed ahead. Killing was the name of the game. However, war is much more than killing the enemy. There is the human factor. People’s perception of war is much different than reality. Movies and books tend to glorify war, but there is nothing glorious about it. It is not a place where you want to go.
We were on another patrol and our situation went from bad to worse, we walked into a well planned trap by the vietcong, they were waiting for us, chaos is everywhere. We are all fighting for our lives. I am constantly looking for wounded Marines and watching for the enemy. They too are everywhere. While I’m treating a Marine for a gut wound, I look up and see a Vietcong looking at me. He is about twenty feet from me with a rifle in his hand. The shock is so great that the boy I was dies of fright and fear. At this moment the world around me seems to be suspended in time. The noise of the battle ceases and everything is at a standstill. I am in a twilight zone where it is hard for me to digest the events taking place.
The Vietcong is holding his rifle in one hand, the barrel pointing slightly downward. My hands are busy treating the Marine. My .45 caliber pistol is in my holster, and my rifle is lying on the ground next to me. I have no doubt that the VC is contemplating whether to kill me or move on. He’s about my age with black shorts, black shirt, and sandals. His hair is dark black, thick, and unkempt. The dark eyes stare at me with a haunting glaze. It’s as if he is looking through me.
During my previous time in Vietnam, I was scared but not to the extent at this moment. My life is at his discretion. All he has to do is tilt the rifle up and fire. So many things are going through my mind. Is this the last day of my life? Will I ever see my family again? What will happen to the Marine I am treating and the rest of our casualties? These are all split second thoughts.” There is much more to this story but I wanted you to know of my fear at that moment.
The fear of dying is beyond description. It is finality. Life as we know it has come to a close. However, I have always taken comfort from the words of our apostle Paul, when he said, “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” Being a Christian and saved at a very young age helped pave my path through Vietnam. I can’t tell you how many times I could have been killed but was saved through his grace.
During my tour I treated over 200 Marines in battle, and many died while I was treating them. You never forget the look of fear on the face of a Marine who is about to die, the pitch of his voice, and the content of his language. Some would say, “Please write to my mom” or “my family” or “my girlfriend” or whoever and tell them I love them. These were heartfelt requests, and I am sorry to say I never carried out their requests. To this very day, I regret that decision; they deserved more than that. These were eighteen and nineteen year old kids, just out of high school; we were youngsters forced to grow up overnight.
We were on a two day search and destroy mission just south of Da Nang, we had intelligence that several Vietcong soldiers were in our area. We were on a two day operation; yesterday we had a short scrimmage without any casualties. It was a long night; we slept under the stars in our sleeping bags. We slept with our boots, flight jacket, helmet and weapons lying next to us. We had claymores positioned around our perimeter and security was set by the Marines for two hour intervals. The night was extremely dark as the clouds were hiding the light from the moon. A couple of times we used illumination to lighten up the area, it was as bright as a football field at a night football game. If the enemy was close by we could see them. A short time later the Vietcong started banging on their gongs with sticks, the sound was frightening. They did this for two reasons, to send messages and for harassment and psychological fear, their plan worked, I was scared to death!
The next morning we were on patrol once again, every now and then we received a single sniper round but no contact was made. All of a sudden we heard several weapons exploding and then I heard that all too familiar cry, “corpsman up” my fear once again spiked. When I got close to his position he was about thirty yards from us in a rice paddy. Even though he was in open space, I was forced to run to his aid and treat the wound. Once again I was exhibiting fear that was almost uncontrollable. I was perspiring profusely and my nerves were a wreck. Deep inside I wanted to turn around and run from the battle, it was a fight or flight response. It’s not easy to enter the lion’s den. I stepped off the dike into the water and started running as low as I could toward the Marine; it was a long run through the rice paddy water and mud, which slowed me down. My adrenalin was running so fast that I was worn out within the first few steps. I could hear bullets whizzing by me, and I don’t mind saying I was feeling fear. When I got to the Marine, I positioned myself on the back side of where the VC was shooting from. The Marine was in a lot of pain and losing blood. Gun fire exploded in quick bursts, and the high pitched sound of bullets flying through the air preceded the sound of muffled bullets landing in the water of the rice paddies. Cries of the injured Marine pierced the battle sounds, and officers were yelling out commands in the confusion.
I immediately applied a battle dressing over the wound and started dragging him to the dike. I was crawling in the mud pulling him a small distance at a time, and the Marines were giving me fire support. Bullets were splashing near us, and then it happened. The Marine received another bullet. His name is written on the Vietnam Wall. Once again, I feared for my life. Do I get up and run or do I finish my job? I knew what the answer was before the thought occurred to me. The Marines have a saying: never leave a soldier behind. I grabbed the Marine by his shirt collar and flight jacket and drug him to the dike. At this point the Marines grabbed me and the dead Marine and pulled us to safety. I was exhausted and trembling so much I had trouble writing on the battle card.
This is the type of fear I am talking about. My life was spared yet another day, but I could have been that Marine who was killed lying next to me. I have asked this question many times: “Why not me Lord?”
I was put in harm’s way many times during my tour. Most of the Marines who were wounded or killed were hit while in the rice paddies. Here we had no cover and were silhouettes for the Vietcong shooting gailery.
Most front line grunts have experienced this kind of fear. We all knew we were expendable. It was an inevitable fact. Each day we lived was a day closer to rotating back to the world. Each day we fought the enemy, we did so not to win the war, but to stay alive. It was a fight for survival.
At the beginning of this story I mentioned that I have lived Vietnam over and over for fifty years. For twenty years I have attended the VA mental health program for PTSD. Many of the warriors in our sessions mentally are still in Vietnam. Their war is not over. We all suffer from flashbacks, nightmares, depression, anxiety attacks and the list goes on. Many nights I have woken up in a cold sweat from a violent nightmare I have just experienced once again. It’s a nightmare of fear.
COMES A TIME
HAVE TO CHOOSE