Summary: Twenty-three years after the day in battle that changed Kid’s life, he faces the decisions he made that day, with a little help from his friends and a Wall known for its healing touch.
Author’s note: This is something in the way of a gapfiller to JennaLynn’s opus magnum, Livin’ for the City. Some things will only make sense if you’ve been following that story. If you haven’t, you should. It’s really good.
Walk the city lonely, Memories that haunt are passing by. A murderer walks your street tonight, Forgive me for my crimes; don't forget that I was so young, Fought so scared in the name of God and country. --MIA by Avenged Sevenfold
I watched as Jimmy deftly shuffled the cards before holding them out to Joanie to cut. Joanie took the top half of the deck and set it next to the bottom half with a small smile, her fingers drifting over his in the process. I grinned. Those two were as in love today as they had been the day they met. The thought had me turning my head to the woman who sat at my side, even as I reached out to grab the cards Jimmy slid across the table to me. My own high school sweetheart remained the love of my life. She’d gotten a few wrinkles and a lot of grey hairs from the stress of life, but remained as beautiful as ever to me.
“Did you see that piece on the news last night?” Jimmy asked nonchalantly as he set the remaining cards, the kitty, on the table between us.
I looked back at him, startled. Since when did he pay attention to the evening news? Sure, Lou watched regular as clockwork, stayed up late to catch the 11 o’clock newscast, too. Me? I could care less. I was usually too busy tinkering out in the garage when the evening news came on and asleep before the late news started. I’d naturally assumed Jimmy was the same. Maybe not.
“Which one was that?” Lou asked, reaching out to turn the top card of the kitty face up so we could all see it.
“That traveling exhibit that’s coming to town,” Joanie explained. “You know, the miniature version of the Wall?”
I stiffened at the mention of the Wall. Suddenly I looked from one apparently bland face to another, and found the clues that told me this wasn’t the innocuous conversation they wanted me to believe it was. I’d been set up.
I suppose I should explain. The Wall, as most of us vets call it, is the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. It’s made of polished black granite with the names of the more than 58,000 men who died in that useless, damned killing zone. I refuse to call it a war. That would mean there’d been a purpose to it and, so far as I could see, there’d been none. It was finally completed about ten years ago and sits on the National Mall, near the Lincoln Memorial.
I knew some vets who swore by it. Even called it a Healing Wall and went to visit it regularly. Me? I didn’t want anything to do with it. I couldn’t even understand my fellow veterans who joined those groups, like the VFW and American Legion, and spent every Sunday sitting around, eating chicken or fish dinners, and talking about their glory days in battle.
But they hadn’t been glorious for me. More like painful, torturous, lonely. Why would I want to bring back anything from those awful years? They’d practically destroyed my family, nearly destroyed me, had destroyed my relationship with my two eldest sons. I could never get that time back. I certainly didn’t want to spend any more of my time reopening all those old wounds, remembering what I’d lost. Just didn’t see the sense in it.
But Jimmy’d been after me for years to talk about things. Said it’d make it easier for me to deal, help me get closer to Lou and the kids, live a more normal life. But my life is perfectly normal, thank you ever so much. Sometimes I think that college education of his went to his head. Thinks he knows the best for everybody. He doesn’t understand that sometimes it’s best to just leave the past in the past.
“Oh,” Lou said, with a bright note in her voice I immediately detected as being fake. “You mean that story about the Traveling Wall coming to Birch Run? Yeah, I saw that. Wonder how it’ll go over. There are a lot of vets in this area.”
“I think it’ll be real popular,” Jimmy said, shooting a sidelong glance my way. “Maybe we’ll even talk Kid here into going.”
That did it. I could feel the controlled fury that bubbled just beneath the surface practically every minute of every day suddenly boiling over. I slapped my cards down on the table and struggled to stand, forgetting for a moment my need for the crutches leaning against the table next to me. When I almost fell over, I managed to grab them and shove my arms through the braces.
Glaring at my so-called family, I spat out, “I’ve told you before, I won’t have talk of that place in this house! Now, either shut-up or get out and stay out!”
Then I turned and began levering myself down the hall to the den, my crutches thumping angrily on the parquet floors, my useless leg a dead weight I dragged along with ruthless fury.
In the den I slumped into the big, soft chair Lou’d bought me for my last birthday, a genuine La Z Boy, and sat there, glaring into the fireplace, cold and empty as my soul. Didn’t they know it was all I could do to pretend there was even a shred of humanity left in me every day? If they knew half the things I’d been through, done to survive, they’d all turn away in disgust. And I couldn’t handle that. Why couldn’t they accept my wishes and just leave it alone? Why? I clenched my fist in my lap, longing to pound something, break something, anything to relieve the rage coursing through my veins.
I don’t know how long I sat there, but eventually I heard Lou talking to Jimmy and Joanie as they moved down the hall past the den, toward the front door.
“I hope we didn’t push him too hard,” Joanie said quietly. I could just imagine Lou shaking her head, whether in agreement or disagreement I couldn’t be sure.
“He needed to hear about it now, darlin’,” Jimmy said, a certainty in his voice that grated on my already raw nerves. “The exhibit won’t get here until September. But he needs the next couple of months to get used to the idea.”
“What if he doesn’t?” Lou asked tentatively.
“He will,” Jimmy said reassuringly. “He will.”
No. I won’t. I never will. That Wall is for those who need to put the war behind them. I can’t do that. For me the war isn’t over. It never will be.
Lou and Jimmy, even Joanie, made occasional mentions of the coming exhibit over the next couple of weeks, but I always shut them down. Eventually they gave up. Or so I thought. I should’ve known better, but apparently I didn’t.
So, when Jimmy came around saying a client of Joanie’s had given them four tickets to the Tiger’s game, I didn’t suspect a thing.
I sat in the car, watching as Jimmy wrangled my chair into the trunk. I could get around the house and even at work fine with the crutches, but if I was going to have to move any distance I needed that infernal torture device. I hated it almost as much as my useless leg. It was a constant reminder of things I could never get back.
To distract myself, I asked the girls, “So, do you think he’ll manage it?”
“Sparky?” Lou said. “I dunno. He’s good, but it’s not been a great season. Then again, he’s got to do it sooner or later. We can’t lose all the remaining games this year!”
“What’s so funny?” Jimmy asked, as he climbed into the driver’s seat next to Joanie.
“Lou thinks there’s no way the Tigers can lose every single one of the remaining games this season, my love,” Joanie smiled, reaching out to catch Jimmy’s hand in hers. They were constantly touching like that. I wished Lou and I had that sort of closeness. But how could we? It was just another casualty of war. I was lucky she’d been faithful enough not to break my heart and leave me years ago. I don’t think I could’ve survived this long if she had!
“Oh, I bet ol’ Sparky’ll take the record today,” Jimmy smiled at me in the rearview mirror as he pulled out of the driveway. “I’ve got a good feeling about it.”
The hope that the Tigers’ manager Sparky Anderson would take the record as winningest manager in the franchise’s history was all we fans had left that season. The previous year, we’d actually pulled out a winning season, although we ended up finishing second to the damned Toronto Blue Jays. But in ’92 we were on track for a dismal year, sitting at the bottom of the division. We’d end up winning only 75 games. We didn’t even have Ernie Harwell to call the play by play anymore. He’d been… well, they said they simply didn’t renew his contract… but to us working folk that was just a fancy way of saying he’d been fired. So we looked elsewhere for things to celebrate.
We’d left early so we could go out to eat before the game, spend some time downtown, something we rarely did. You know, just make a day of it, hanging with good friends, like in the old days. And I was so caught up in the baseball chatter I didn’t even realize at first we were driving in the wrong direction. Like I said, I really wasn’t paying much attention, I was trying to distract myself.
But when Jimmy pulled off the highway at the Birch Run Outlet Mall exit I started to smell something fishy. Then, I saw the sign. One of those flashing, light up signs they write messages on and set up on the side of the road. It said, Vietnam Memorial Wall this exit.
“Where the hell are we goin’, Jimmy?” I growled. I didn’t realize it, but my hands were clenching into fists as my entire body tensed up.
“We’ve just got a little stop to make before lunch,” he answered me, his voice calm, but his eyes avoiding mine.
I turned to look at Lou. She sat there, a look half of hope, half of fear on her face. It was the hope there that got to me. She really did think this might change something. I knew she’d suffered too. I hated it. I just didn’t know how to break through the wall of pain and anger to reach out to her.
“Please, Kid,” she whispered, reaching out to grasp my clenched fist between her hands. They were shaking so hard I was surprised she’d managed to lift them out of her own lap. “You need this. I need you to do this. We need this.”
Her begging practically destroyed me. But I was an old hand at escaping emotions that were too intense to deal with. It was almost like flipping a switch and, blam, the emotions were gone. Or so I thought. What I didn’t realize then was that all I did was replace the emotions causing me trouble with another one, a more dangerous one, one that could hurt those around me as much as I had been hurt.
“I love you, Kid,” she continued. “But, you can’t love me back. Not like you used to. And Jimmy says….”
“Oh, so you go runnin’ to Jimmy now when we got a problem?” I struck back. “Just how long has this been goin’ on? You two sneakin’ around behind my back?” I made it sound much worse than even I’d ever thought or considered. But I was so mad, I would’ve done or said just about anything to get them to turn that car around.
Unfortunately for me, Jimmy was on to my tricks and didn’t rise to the bait. He just kept driving quietly toward the Birch Run Expo Center. Lou, though, she didn’t have his tough outer shell, at least not where I was concerned. She gasped and pulled away from me, turning her face quickly to the window so I wouldn’t see the tears that were already leaking out of her eyes. She tried to surreptitiously wipe them away. But I saw. And if I hadn’t flipped that switch I might have apologized. But I had and I didn’t.
The car, so filled with happy, nonsensical chatter just moments before, descended into a heavy silence, punctuated only by the sounds of the road as we pulled through town and into the parking lot.
There were a lot of cars there. I couldn’t believe how many people would willingly show up and put themselves through this sort of torture. I had absolutely no intention of getting out of this car. If they all wanted to see that damned wall, they could do it without me. I even mentally took away the capitalized W most folks gave it.
When Jimmy kept driving right up to the edge of the parking lot along the park where the wall was set up, I turned my head the other direction to avoid seeing even the back of that monstrosity.
Putting the vehicle in park, Jimmy sighed. “Ladies, do me a favor,” he said quietly. “Why don’t you two go on out and get the lay of the land, find the best route for his chair. Kid and I need to talk.”
Joanie nodded, resting a hand on his arm, and said softly, gently, “Alright, my love.” Turning toward the door, she added with a little more energy in her voice, “C’mon, Lou. Let’s go see what we can find out.”
Lou didn’t answer, simply opened her door and slipped out of the vehicle without looking back.
The sound of their doors shutting firmly behind them was a sharp exclamation in my ears.
Jimmy sighed, then spoke, still refusing to look at me. “You don’t want to see it? Fine. Close your eyes and think of England, or whatever suits your fancy,” he said sternly, almost harshly, through gritted teeth. “But you will not, will not!, ruin this for Lou and me. We suffered through that war just as much as you did. We may not have the physical scars, but we’re scarred all the same. You will let us help you out of the car and into the chair and you will keep your damned mouth shut. And, cripple or no, you ever talk to Lou like that again and I’ll lay you out. Do we have an understanding?”
I tried to glare holes into the back of my best friend’s head, but it wasn’t working. Thing is, we’d been through too much together. We were fellow veterans of a different war, almost as devastating as the one this monument represented. One no one else but we two could truly understand. Finally, I gave up and just nodded, certain he was watching me in the mirror for my reaction. His response told me I’d been right.
“I can’t hear your head rattle, Kid,” he said in an exasperated teacher’s voice. “Say it!”
“Fine,” I gritted out. “I won’t fuss.” Too much, I amended silently to myself.
Nodding his acceptance, Jimmy opened his door and ran around to the trunk for my chair. Long before I’d had the time to pull myself together, to really calm down and try to digest what it was I was about to do, he was opening my door, the wheelchair sitting just outside it waiting for me.
Despite his angry words and harsh tones, he was gentle as he helped me crawl out of the car and hobble my way into the chair. Once I was seated, he began to push me across the uneven grass field, toward the nearest end of the wall.
“This isn’t necessary,” I muttered. “I’d be just fine if you guys would just let sleeping dogs lie.”
“We’ve tried that, Kid,” Lou said softly, putting her hand on my shoulder “Problem is, it just hasn’t worked.”
Startled, I looked up at her wondering where she’d come from. Her eyes were still reddened from her earlier tears and I felt a small measure of guilt seeping through the wall of anger I’d put up earlier.
“Thing is, Kid,” Jimmy added from behind me, “sometimes you need to wake the dogs up and get them to move over before someone steps on one of them and gets seriously hurt.”
We fell into silence as we passed a sign reading, Quiet Please. Looking around, everywhere but at the wall, I noticed a lot of things. There was a silence here, but it was a calming silence, almost restful, unlike the heavy, pained silence of the car earlier.
Despite the quiet, there were hundreds of people milling around. But what really stuck out to me was all the veterans there, and their various reactions and attitudes. Some were talking quietly, almost reverently. Others were laughing. Some sat quietly, alone or with loved ones, wiping away tears. Mentally I scoffed, even as I wished it could be that easy for me.
Finally, despite all my efforts to avoid seeing it, I caught my first glimpse of the wall. The first thing I saw was how shiny it was. The black granite gleamed in the morning sunshine, reflecting the images of all those who’d come to see it back at us. There were young children, so young they could barely toddle along, school kids, young adults, veterans and civilians, men and women, black, white, Hispanic, Asian… even a few Vietnamese wandering around.
I looked down at the ground to avoid seeing anymore as Jimmy reached the near end of the wall. So I noticed how they’d just used particle board to lay down a walk for folks. At least it made my ride smoother. I was starting to get a little seasick from all the jostling as we’d bumped across the grassy lawn. The bottom edge of the display was wrapped in a jungle camouflage material. Somehow I doubted the real wall in D.C. was like that, I thought.
But even with my eyes downcast, I couldn’t avoid the mementos people had left strewn along the base. Pictures of soldiers, sailors, marines… men I could have, possibly even had, served with. Suddenly, I could feel the emotions bursting through, my heart stuttering from beat to beat as it tried to continue doing its job while my world was fracturing around me. I didn’t notice the tears tracking down first one cheek, then the other.
“Stop.” I didn’t recognize my own voice, strained and barely there.
“What?” Lou asked, leaning closer.
“Stop,” I said, louder this time. “Please. Stop.”
She looked back at Jimmy in question, but I could tell he was already slowing the chair to a stop and then felt the jerk as he engaged the brake.
Finally, at long last, I looked up. My breath shuddered in and out of my lungs in jerky starts and stops, a rhythm reminiscent of the way my M-16 had jerked me around as I fired it in the humid jungles of a land far from home, a land I’d tried to lose in the mists of time, but that had never really left me.
The sight of all those names, beginning with just one… the first man killed that first day in that bloody war… and building slowly, in increments, until entire panels were covered from top to bottom with name after name after name… eventually, tapering off at the other end of the wall to just one name again, the last man killed. What if the war had ended a day sooner, an hour earlier, a minute? Would he be here today thanking his lucky stars he’d made it out? Would he have died anyway, some other way?
Suddenly, I had to know. Where were they? The men who’d died so I could sit here, a ruined wreck. Would they have still done it if they’d known what would happen? Would they still have protected me like they did? Still have laid down their lives for my worthless, ungrateful hide?
“Please, find them,” I begged hoarsely, barely able to force the words past the lump lodged somewhere between my heart and my mouth.
“Who, Kid?” Lou asked, squatting down next to me. “Who do you want us to find?”
“My men!” I demanded, unable to explain myself more fully.
“Jimmy?” she asked tenatively.
“Kid, do you mean the men in your squad, who died when you were captured?” he asked.
I nodded my head jerkily. Yes, those men. The ones who should’ve gotten out, would have gotten out if only I’d done my job better. The ones who should’ve been standing here instead of me, looking for my name on that wall. I was their leader. I was supposed to protect them, lead them out of danger, bring them home safe to their wives and mothers. Not the other way around!
“Alright,” Joanie said looking at a brochure in her hand. “Looks like the names are arranged by date of…. death, then alphabetically.”
“That means we need to look for November 15th, 1965,” Lou said quietly, resting a hand on my shoulder again.
Jimmy disengaged the brake on my chair and slowly we began to move forward, searching for the year and day that had changed my life forever. That ride seemed to stretch on endlessly, getting longer with every inch we travelled, as we moved forward through what felt like a mud pit trying to suck me back into the past, a past I never was supposed to have escaped.
“There,” Jimmy said quietly. “November 15th.”
“Who are we looking for, Kid?” Lou asked.
And the names began spilling out of my mouth. I hadn’t spoken them, or even allowed myself to think them, for decades. But I knew them better than I knew my own. “Bernard Birenbaum. Elias Alvarez, Wilbur Curry, Dominic DeAngelis, Henry Herrick, John Michel, Charles McManus, Carl Palmer, Donald Roddy, Robert Lee Stokes.* Second squad, first platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry.”
In my darkest hours I could not foresee, That the tide could turn so fast to this degree, Can't believe my eyes, How can you be so blind? Is the heart of stone, no empathy inside? Time keeps on slipping away and we haven't learned, So in the end now what have we gained? – Our Solemn Hour by Within Temptation
“Here!” Lou exclaimed excitedly, pointing to a spot about halfway down one of the panels. “I’ve got one…. Birenbaum.”
Joanie rushed to her side and began scanning the rest of the panel. “The rest are here, too,” she called back to us.
I didn’t have to say a word. Jimmy quickly began to push my chair over to where the ladies were standing, their fingers tracing across the names engraved in the polished granite. But even in their excitement, they noticed our arrival and moved out of the way so I could see the wall.
My heart stopped. My breathing stopped. Everything just… stopped… as I stared at those names, reaching out to reverently touch each one in turn. The picture of our little group could be seen clear as day, reflected in the wall. But that’s not who I saw when I sat there looking at it. I saw my buddies, my men, clustered around a much younger me, just like they had been that day on the Huey as we all tried to get a first look at the landing zone in the Ia Drang* Valley.
November 14, 1965
Ia Drang Valley, LZ X-Ray, Vietnam
I leaned over the shoulder of the gunner, who was firing rapidly into the treeline surrounding the landing zone, or LZ as we called it. While all of us had been searching carefully, there’d been no sign of the enemy so far. But we weren’t taking any chances, being the first troops into the area. The two Hogs, or Huey gunships specially outfitted by their men with rockets, led the assault force. The rest of the Hueys were Slicks, which meant they had only a single door gunner to make room for more cargo. That was us. The cargo.
Thing was, we were all on edge after the last few weeks. I’d been in Vietnam for awhile now. Up ‘til this month it really hadn’t been all that bad. Oh, the occasional man got shot, but nothing serious. Just meant a week or two extra R and R, oh, that’s Rest and Relaxation in Army parlance, civvies call it vacation, at the Army Hospital in Saigon. It was the SAVN, the South Vietnamese Army, that’d really been taking all the casualties. Up until this month, that was.
The damned commies, excuse me, the People’s Army of North Vietnam, PAVN, had decided to join the Viet Cong guerrillas out here in the hill country near the border with Cambodia and Laos. The fighting near our company camp at Plei Me* had been fierce. We’d lost men, really lost them, for the first time. It was something many of us were still struggling to deal with.
I looked around at the men crowded behind me as the Huey began to sink down into the LZ clearing. LZ X-Ray they called it. Never could figure out how the Powers That Be came up with names for ops and LZs. ‘Cause they never had anything to do with what was actually going on. But then again, that was sort of the point, wasn’t it?
Where was I? Oh, yeah. My men. See, I’d just recently been promoted to Staff Sergeant. That put me third in command of our platoon, after the L-T, um, Lieutenant, that is and the Platoon Sergeant, another staff sergeant by the name of Carl Lee Palmer. It also put me in charge of my squad, Second Squad. So they were my men in all the ways that mattered. It was my job to make sure they were well trained, ready for combat, in good health and good spirits, and had everything they needed to do their jobs. Right now I could tell they all held the same sort of nervous excitement I was feeling.
The platoon was divided into two squads, first and second, real clever that, but it worked. Palmer, was in charge of First Squad, as well as being overall second in command of the platoon. We both reported to the L-T, Henry Herrick.
I flicked a glance back his way. He was standing at the back of the chopper, on the radio with HQ, I assumed. He was a good guy. A lot of LT’s tended to be know-it-alls. Thought they were better than the rest of us ‘cause they was all commissioned and stuff. Not Toro. That was Herrick’s nickname. And that just goes to show how much the men respected him. Instead of trying to frag* his ass they gave him a nickname. Anyway, he come in, his first day in ‘Nam, and started asking questions. And he had no problem deferring to one of us sergeants what had been here longer. He was actually willing to learn a thing or two from us non-coms. He was one of the good ones and was going to go far in this man’s army, that’s for sure!
I looked back at the men with me. My squad was actually understrength. But that wasn’t too unusual. The entire platoon was understrength. Heck, the entire Company was. It was fairly normal, between sick call, R and R, guard duty back at base camp and a multitude of other things that could pull a man out of his normal rotation. We were supposed to have nine men, but were down to six, which explained why I was toting around one of the fire unit’s M-16 automatic rifles. It wasn’t my job, officially, but our rifleman was in the hospital with malaria and somebody had to do it. The other fire unit’s rifleman was also doubling as its fire leader, as theirs was on R and R in Saigon. Lucky bastard!
I was jolted out of my reverie by the thump of the Slick landing in the middle of an apparently barren field. The noise of the door gunner and the rockets and guns from the two Hogs, still circling overhead, was so constant we’d almost totally tuned it out.
“Let’s go,” I yelled over the rat-a-tat-tat of the machine gun and the thwump-thwump-thwump of the chopper’s blades circling furiously overhead. The pilot wasn’t taking any chances either, keeping his Slick ready to take off again at a moment’s notice. “With me!”
I was a leader, but unlike a commissioned officer, as a non-com it was my job to lead from the front and that’s what I did, being the first to take that two foot leap from the chopper floor to the dusty ground of the LZ. The trees and elephant grass had been chopped down and burned out of the area, which meant while we had a clear view all the way to the treeline several hundred yards away. There was also nothing to keep the dust on the ground in the wind stirred up by the chopper’s blades.
I reached down and pulled a handkerchief I’d tied around my neck for just this purpose up over my mouth and nose as I continued to urge my men off the Slick and into position. The first ones on the ground, it was our job to reconnoiter and make sure there was no one hiding in the trees and elephant grass at the edge of the clearing to ambush us.
We were good, LT said the best, which is why we kept getting tabbed for some of the most dangerous jobs, like being the first into the LZ and being the platoon ordered to do reconnaissance. I took pride in that. But it was a little scary too, I thought, as I felt the most recent letters from Jimmy and Lou crinkling in my chest pocket as I moved to join my men heading out into the trees, the Huey taking off even before we were fully clear. Being the best meant being in the most danger. What if something happened to me? What would happen to my family? I shook it off. As I told my men, there’s a time to think about home and a time to think about the here and now. And let me tell you, in the middle of an LZ in hostile territory is not the time to think of home.
Heads down, we scurried for the treeline, even as the rest of Company B circled up in the middle of the LZ, hiding in a clump of tall elephant grass, some of it as tall as a man, on a giant ant hill, taller than a man. They were impossible to see when we reached our assigned positions.
Despite the early tenseness and readiness for battle, the next couple of hours were actually fairly boring. We wandered around the edge of the treeline, pointing our guns at anything that seemed remotely human, but found precisely no one. At one point, we heard rumors another squad had found a PAVN regular and that he’d been hustled back to HQ at Plei Me for questioning, but you couldn’t prove it by me. It was almost as if our little squad was off in its own world, a world of jungle grass that came up to your neck and could slice you open if you weren’t careful, a world of scrub trees that stood as much as 100 feet high. That’s not to mention those giant anthills. They were as big as a VW van! And covered in thick brush and that same, tall, razor sharp elephant grass.
I turned sharply at the crackling sound of the radio behind me. Holding up my hand in a signal to the men to stay in place, I made my way back to the platoon radio op. Reb, um, Sergeant Palmer, a tall, slender Georgian with a heavy southern accent and salt and pepper black hair had been nicknamed Rebel, Reb for short, by the men because he was related, somehow, to General Robert E. Lee. Thus his middle name. Anyway, Reb was already there, listening intently, asking the occasional question.
“What’s up, Reb?” I asked. We tried not to salute or use ranks, or anything else that might show rank, while in the field. The Viet Cong liked to pick off the leadership first, thinking the rest of the men would flee if they didn’t have any leaders left. Hadn’t worked, but they kept trying.
“Looks like Company C’s landed and Company A’s on its way in. They’re moving us further out. Some of the units have already run into small pockets of resistance.”
I nodded. It was only what we’d been expecting.
“Where to?” I asked.
Reb pulled out a map and began pointing with his finger. “We’re supposed to move further up this finger here, into the mountains. There’s already been some contact there with what look to be PAVN regulars. We’ll move northwest. That puts us out on the Company’s right flank for this manuever.”
I nodded. “Any special dangers I need to be aware of?”
“There’s armed men out there that want to kill us,” Reb joked, patting me on the back jovially as he slipped the folded map back into a waterproof pouch.
“Hmph. I’ll be sure and let the men in on that little secret.”
Sometimes, the best way to deal with fear is to laugh it away and we were old hands at that. But there was something about this op that filled my heart with a sense of foreboding I’d never felt before. Something was about to happen and I wasn’t going to like it.
Well I been deep down in that darkness, I been down to my last match, Felt a hundred different demons, Breathing fire down my back, And I knew that if I stumbled, I'd fall right into the trap that they were laying. – If You’re Going Through Hell by Rodney Atkins
We moved up into the mountains for about an hour, getting cut up on the jungle grass as we went, but found nothing. That is, until they found us.
The first clue that anyone was out there was the quick pop of a rifle followed by Sergeant Elias Alvarez-Buzo, Boozer most of the time, grunting in pain and dropping out of sight as he fell to the ground some twenty feet to my left.
Boozer was about my age. A short guy, maybe 5’5”, tops, with a thick Spanish accent. He’d been born and raised in Puerto Rico. He had this thick ‘bigote’ he called it, a mustache that looked almost like a blacker than black caterpillar over his upper lip. Wouldn’t shave that thing off to save his life. Said the Army was a family tradition. His abuelo, that’s what he called his grandpa, his papí and all his brothers joined up right out of high school. He planned on going career. Had a cute little filipina bride back home with a baby girl he’d yet to meet.
“Medic!” Reb yelled out and the private, Donald Roddy, a negro kid from Ann Arbor who’d joined up for much the same reason as me, to help support his family, came running up to see what he could do to help Boozer. Judging from the lack of noise coming from where he’d fallen I didn’t guess there was much of anything poor Roddy could do. Boozer was a talker, with or without the alcohol he loved to drink with every meal he possibly could. There was only one thing that could shut him up so well and so fast.
Even as Roddy jogged up to Boozer’s position, a sudden hail of gunfire erupted from all sides.
“Down,” the LT yelled, suiting action to words. “Get down!”
“Take cover,” I added my own voice to the melee. As good as the LT was, and he’d been on the ball this time around, my men were used to hearing and responding to my voice, much more so than his.
Flopping down on the ground, I crawled forward on my elbows, keeping my butt out of the air, trying to get to a spot where I could set up the M-16 I’d been humping along all day. It didn’t take me long and I soon was reaching back for my first spare ammo clip, having already run through the one in the gun. I didn’t have to look. My squad and I had practiced this maneuver so many times we could do it blindfolded. In fact, I’d made them practice that way a time or two. Hey! You never know. What if we got attacked in the middle of a moonless night, or something?
“Tank, get your ass up here! ASAP!” I shouted over the staccato bursts of gunfire.
Tank was Private Bernard Birenbaum. He was a native New Yorker and was built like, well.. like a tank. Almost as big around as he was tall, but all muscle. He came trotting up with our fire team’s M-60 machine gun, another private struggling along behind him, trying to keep up while loaded down with spare ammo belts for the giant gun. The rest of us all had at least one spare belt with us, too. The last thing we wanted to do was run out of food for the Pig. That’s what we called the M-60 which weighed in at nearly 25 pounds. But Tank slung it around as if it only weighed 25 ounces.
Even as Tank’s ammo man, an ‘Up-Stater’ as Tank liked to tease the 19 year old Dominic DeAngelis from Cambria Heights, New York, helped him set up the machine gun, our other rifleman, 19 year old John Michel from Minnesota, and I laid down a thick covering fire with our M-16s.
The incoming fire was intense. The last thing those Viet Cong wanted was for us to get our machine guns up and running. Another shout from across the field indicated that one of the machine gunners from First Squadron had taken a hit. I risked a glance in that direction, but all I could see was the LT, hunkered down behind a tree with the unit’s radio operator, trying to get ahold of headquarters.
I prayed that meant we’d get some aerial support soon, because by the sound of things, we were surrounded.
“Got it,” Tank grunted as the last piece was shoved into place. The next thing we knew, the heavier, faster sounds of the M-60 firing rang through the jungle. Michel and I dropped our extra ammo belts at Tank’s feet, then began digging in. It was obvious we were going to be here for awhile and the terrain didn’t offer much in the way of natural shelters. So we used these little collapsible shovels, sometimes our helmets, coffee cups, even our hands, anything to move the dirt until we’d built up a little berm for the squad to hunker down behind.
By the time the first aerial support came, in the form of Skyraiders loaded down with bombs and rockets they delighted at throwing in the teeth of the North Vietnamese, we were about as securely dug in as we could get.
That was a good thing, because the PAVN were determined to take us and had us pretty much cut off from the rest of our Company by then. They’d brought in some heavy artillery and started lobbing the big stuff at us. If we hadn’t been dug in, I don’t know if we’d have made it to night fall. Luckily, they still respected our superior air power and backed off a bit when the bombers started making runs.
Our relief was short-lived though, as we started taking hits from our own guys.
“Get me H-Q!” I could hear the L-T demanding at the top of his lungs, as we all hunkered down, praying none of our own bombs would actually kill any of us. “To the east, you idiots! To the east! You’re hitting us right now!”
Yep, he’d about summed it up, I figured. Couldn’t have said it better. Though I thought calling them idiots might’ve been soft-pedaling it a bit.
That’s the way things went the rest of the day, off and on furious fighting, getting a short break when the air attacks would drive the enemy back, only to resume when we had to order the bombers away because they were getting too close to us. Frustrating isn’t the word I’d use, but there’re ladies listening, so I’ll just stick with that one.
At a signal from the L-T, all the squad leaders headed his direction, carefully. “We’re ordered to try to move south,” he said urgently, pointing to a nearby mountain on the map. “Try to re-connect with the rest of the Company.”
“Sir,” we acknowledged. Wasn’t much else to say. We was nearly trapped and any plan was better than sitting here letting them take potshots at us.
“Kid,” he said, looking straight at me. “First Squad lost their M-60. I want your men to take all their extra ammo. Tank’s our best bet with an M-60 in a running firefight. Give them your M-16s, and any ammo you’ve got left. Do you have a man who can hump the radio?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Michel can carry the radio, I’ll take the extra ammo.”
“Good.” Looking around our little group, he added, “Any questions?”
We all shook our heads ‘no’ and began returning to our groups to pass on his orders. Within a matter of minutes we were headed out, firing as we went.
That’s how it went through the rest of the day. We didn’t lose anyone else, though the Viet Cong kept trying. They just wouldn’t let up and we were never able to get any closer to the rest of B Company that day.
It didn’t take us long though to realize there was no ‘nearly’ about it. We were completely surrounded and cut off by the PAVN. And they were determined not to let us through.
“Michel,” the L-T called, motioning to the kid walking at Tank’s side for extra protection. The Viet Cong had been specifically targeting radiomen and leadership all day we’d been informed. “Get up here.”
“On my way, Toro,” Michel called, looking around nervously before beginning to half speed walk, half jog over to the L-T. He only ever made it about halfway. A potato grenade exploded at his feet. He never even noticed. Just kept walking several more steps before falling over dead.
“Michel!” We’d lost a lot of men that day, but he was the first who’d been truly one of mine. But the moment I realized he was hit, was a moment too late. He was already dead on his feet. Bowing my head, I gave myself to the count of three to mourn the boy who’d been quiet, but eager to please. He had a grandmother and great-aunt waiting for him back on the farm in Minnesota, along with his parents. Now, all they’d get would be a pine box draped in a flag.
Finishing my count, I shoved his memory into a closet in the back of my brain, slamming the door closed on it, and got on with fighting a war.
“Cassidy,” the LT called, getting my attention. I ran toward him bent in half in an effort to hide my movements as much as possible in the elephant grass. “You’ll have to take Michel,” he said sadly. He meant I’d have to carry Michel’s body as we kept moving. We didn’t leave anyone behind. I could see the weight of the day’s losses gathering in the back of his eyes. He was so naturally good at his job I sometimes forgot he was actually two years younger than me. “We’re headed over there,” he pointed toward a slight rise in the ground toward our right that offered a place where we could dig in for the night. “They’re not going to reach us today, Kid,” he added more quietly. “We’ve got to set up to get through the night. Hope they have better luck tomorrow.”
I nodded somberly. There wasn’t anything else to be said. We were Army and we had a job to do. Trying not to let my own reluctance show in front of the rest of our men, I moved over to where Michel had fallen. Pulling the radio off his back, I slipped my arms into the carry straps first. Once I had it firmly settled in place, I took a look at what had been one of my men less than an hour ago. It was hard to imagine he was real. His features were already pale, ashen with death, almost waxy looking, like those mannequins in a museum or something. And even in the 100 plus degree heat, his body was cooling down. Forcing myself not to grimace, I leaned down and pulled his upper body over my shoulder, into what they call a fireman’s carry.
It didn’t take long before I was back in my place behind Tank, who kept looking back at me and my gruesome burden nervously, as we made our way to the indicated, hopefully, safe zone. At one point he started to open his mouth to ask me something, but I just shook my head and pointed toward the front with my chin. He had a job to do, too.
There’s this saying I heard once, don’t know where, but it fit the situation. Ours was not to reason why. Ours was but to do and die.
And I've tried so hard to hold on, But I keep on falling, And no matter how hard I run, I just keep returning, And I'm back to where I started from. – I Don’t Wanna by Within Temptation.
I sighed. Tired. I could remember not so long ago being proud of the responsibility the Army had given me as a Staff Sergeant. I hadn’t counted on suddenly finding myself in charge of the entire platoon. You heard me. The LT and Reb, the Platoon Sergeant, both bought it on the short trek here. And I had to use my voice to make my orders heard across the entire camp we’d set up. It wasn’t big, but it was big enough, and I think the PAVN had a sniper in the trees somewhere, ‘cause any time I’d even try to cross the camp to get to the man I’d handed the radio off to what seemed like hours ago, a ‘Buck’ Sergeant named Savage from Third Squadron, they’d start shooting the ground between us but good.
“Make sure to get some sleep,” I warned my men. It was tempting to try to stay awake and alert at all times under conditions like these, but the body and brain need rest on a regular basis. If you don’t get it, you start getting sloppy and then people start dying. And not the ones you want dead, if you catch my drift. I’d already set up a watch schedule, so everyone could rest easy that someone had their back while they snoozed. “And don’t forget to change your socks before you turn in,” I added for good measure. “Last thing you want is to survive this only to come down with the jungle rot!”
The men all laughed at that, but I noted several of the newbies suddenly scrambling in their rucksacks for fresh, dry pairs of socks. Sometimes I think being a leader in the Army is about like being a dad to a bunch of roughneck boys. Can’t be all that different. Makes me wonder if this is how Al used to feel, trying to keep the lot of us out of too much trouble. Notice I don’t say out of trouble entirely. He subscribed to the theory that a boy learns best when he gets himself into a little bit of trouble, better than if you try to protect him from the consequences of real life all the time.
I looked around our small group. The dead were gently laid out in the center of our small, 25 meter, circle. We’d put up earthenwork dikes about 18 inches high around the edges of the top of our little rise. It was about as protected as we were going to get.
One last reminder, I thought, “Don’t forget, once that sun goes down, no, and I mean no!, lights. No flashlights, no fires… and especially no cigarettes. Don’t give the damned commies something to aim at. It could be the last danged thing you do.”
So, we made it through the night with little harassment. Once the sun set, you couldn’t see as far as the hand in front of your face. Add to that the constant artillery bombardment raining down on the PAVN and they didn’t have much time to deal with us, other than to make sure we didn’t make a break for it. Which we didn’t. Honestly, the day of running firefights, the heavy losses we’d taken and the heat had taken a heavier toll on us, mentally and physically, than anyone would admit out loud. We slept soundly.
Come morning, we got news from HQ. They were going to try to break through to us, again. Luckily, we still had plenty of ammo, between being careful about using it only when we thought it would do some good, having brought more than we thought we could carry to begin with, and having re-distributed what the dead and wounded had on them.
Breakfast was just MCIs, a new name for what really wasn’t an improvement over the old C-rations of WWII and Korea, according to the oldsters. We’d been issues random boxes when we’d deployed and this was really the first most of the men had even looked to see what they’d gotten. There were mostly groans of dismay, but playfully offered up. Complaining about the food was an old Army past-time that helped keep the mind off more serious matters.
“Aw, man, I pulled Ham and MoFo,” Tank groaned, refusing, as did most men to even say the name of the most dreaded of C-rations, Ham and Lima Beans.
“It’s better than this,” bounced back his ammo carrier, Dominic DeAngelis, holding up a tin of apricot halves. Most of the men considered it bad luck to even open such a tin in the middle of combat. Bad luck was something we most definitely did not need. “Hey,” he said, brightening up. “Maybe it’ll make better target practice than breakfast.”
Before I could say a word to stop him, he’d raised himself up and tossed that tin over the perimeter barrier like it was a grenade. Straight at a bush where we knew a Viet Cong gun crew was hidden. A trail of gunfire followed the can’s bouncing path, exploding it in mid-air, then continued straight across the clearing, up the side of the hill and through DeAngelis’ chest.
He fell to his knees, then his back without ever uttering a single sound. Guess it was bad luck to even carry those apricot halves in your pack, now.
“Stay down,” I hissed at the rest of them, sitting there staring at the remains of their friend in shock. “Unless you want to get your fool head shot off!”
I’d been about to make a joke about offering up my own peanut butter rats to anyone who might be feeling a little under the weather. The only good known use for the peanut butter was to put a cold stop to a case of the runs, or as a candle which you could heat coffee over. It burned real nice. As a food? It was worse than the Ham and MoFo.
Yes, I know. The language gets pretty foul in the field. I’m trying to keep things cleaned up here, but can only go so far without telling you all pretty lies.
DeAngelis’ death brought us to a total of eight KIA, killed in action, for the platoon so far. We also had 13 more who were wounded. We were down to just seven men who were hale and hearty. I hoped the relief force got here soon. Without being able to talk directly to HQ and having to relay orders through a dozen men, like a school yard game of telephone, I wasn’t willing to do anything more than sit tight and try to keep the remaining men under my command alive as we waited for rescue.
That was one of the longest days of my life. Not the longest, not by a far shot. But most of those are a story for a different day. A story I’m not sure, even now, that I’m willing to tell. Suffice to say, this ranked pretty high. There was some light, sporadic fighting, but for the most part, if we didn’t try to leave, they didn’t try to come in. We still had plenty of ammo and were starting to feel pretty good about holding the Viet Cong off. Mostly we tried to ignore the constant reminder of how close death was to us in the form of our buddies’ bodies nearby.
Most of the noise that day, the machine gunfire, the artillery rounds and aerial bombardments were further down the mountains, where C and D Companies were supposed to be posted. According to Savage, relief troops were on their way, so we generally tried to find ways to pass the time.
Birenbaum, Tank, developed this game he’d play with the Viet Cong. He’d do something, like have someone hold his helmet up on a stick over the top of the earthworks we’d set up, until the commies started shooting, giving him a direction to shoot in. Then he’d mow the area down with his M-60. He wouldn’t talk to me, other than to acknowledge when I gave him an order. I figured, if this was his way of avenging DeAngelis’ death, the two had gotten pretty close, why not? Sure didn’t hurt our cause any, and he was being careful, so I let him keep it up. Plus, it gave the others something to talk about, bet on.
“Incoming!” I looked over at Savage when he called out the warning. He pointed in the direction of the artillery fire we’d been listening to most of the day. That’s when I saw it first. A big rocket, from one of our Skyraiders, was headed straight for us. Suddenly, I could also hear the distinctive sound of M-16s moving our direction as well.
“Take cover,” I shouted. “The cavalry’s coming and we’d damned well better be alive when it gets here.”
They followed my orders with the rapid reaction of a force that’s learned who it can trust in a life or death situation. The fighting between the incoming units and the Viet Cong was getting fiercer. And I knew the commies were going to be taking it out on us soon.
“Get ready to cover them,” I ordered. “As soon as you can see where they’re at, start covering their tails.”
The first sounds from one of our M-16s came from the other side of the circle, facing away from where I expected the relief forces to arrive. Frustrated by my inability to figure out what was going on, I started to stand up, breaking my own rules. Not completely, just a little bit. Just enough to figure out what to say next. But even that little bit was too much. I’d given my position away.
I felt the first bullet hit my leg, just above the knee. The second hit lower down, nearer the ankle. I felt the leg start to crumple under me. But apparently my fall wasn’t fast enough, because as I looked up I saw Tank and Roddy, the platoon’s sole surviving medic, come running toward me. Tank tackled me like the NFL linebacker he could have been in another life.
I hit the ground with a thud, the breath knocked out of me. Looking up, I gasped for breath as I tried to ask Tank what the hell he thought he was doing. That’s when I realized he’d been shot, too. He’d taken the third bullet meant for me. And while he might be built like a tank, he didn’t have a tank’s armor.
“You alright, sarge?” he asked.
“I’ll… live,” I struggled to say, trying to get my breath back with his enormous weight pressing me into the earth. “Roddy,” I called. “Roddy… help… Tank.”
Turning my head I searched for the young medic. He lay just a few feet away from me. Another bullet had made a clean pass, straight through his head.
And it's One step forward, two steps back, This is all who are marching, One step forward, two steps back, This is young and old, One step forward, two steps back, Through the void of the silence, You are not alone -- The War at Home by Josh Groban
Birch Run, MI, September 1992
“Would you like a rubbing, sir?”
“Wha?” I asked, jolted out of my memories. One hand was massaging the scars that marked where that first bullet had entered my leg, shattering the bone just above the knee. The second one had done less damage immediately, but poor medical care and an infection had almost cost me the leg entirely. When I’d gotten home, I’d had a bad limp, but had been able to walk, almost by pure force of will. Now, I had to rely on crutches for short trips, this damned chair if I was going to go any distance. They were a daily reminder of how I’d failed. I’d failed to get my men back. I’d failed to lead by example, breaking my own orders, even if I’d had the best of intentions in doing so, and getting my men killed in the process.
My other hand was tracing the names of those lost from our platoon that day. Eight names, eight lives, eight futures, gone in the blink of an eye. How many of them would still be here if they’d had a better sergeant? A better leader? If I’d been killed instead of Reb? So many if’s and none of them had an answer. Because they’d had me, no one else. And Reb had died.
“I can show you how to make a rubbing of their names, sir,” the young man asked. He was tall, looked like he played sports that involved a lot of running, maybe basketball, and he was respectful in a way that so few were. I think even worse than the horrors I’d experienced in SouthEast Asia had been the horrors I’d returned to in my own country. He continued, “It’s a way you can take a permanent piece of the Memorial with you.”
“Sh….” My throat caught on the words, as if rusty from disuse. I wondered how long I’d been sitting there, staring at those names on that Wall. Clearing my throat, I tried again. “Show me.”
He took out a piece of paper, specially cut to fit the name precisely, then reached out and laid the paper over Tank’s name. Pulling out one of those extra thick crayons, a black one, he began to rub it back and forth across the engraved letters, until there was a copy of the name on the paper. Stepping back, he handed me the slip. “Here you go, sir.”
“How… how many can we make?” I asked. I didn’t see her, but I felt Lou step up beside me, placing her hand on my shoulder. I reached up and covered it with mine. I’d touched her many times since I’d been back. Heck, more than just touched her. We’d had more kids, after all. But, this was the closest, most intimate I’d felt with her in years. Maybe… maybe there was some hope left for me yet.
“Oh, as many as you want.”
“Eight,” I breathed. “I need eight more.”
He counted out the slips of paper, handing them to me, then gave me the crayon. “Here,” he said. “I’ll just leave this with you. Take your time. When you’re finished, you can give the crayon to any of us volunteers. We’re the ones wearing the orange shirts.”
I nodded and turned to start the next rubbing, reaching out toward Boozer’s name. I heard the young man gasp slightly.
“Are you alright,” Joanie asked quietly.
“Yeah,” he said. “I.. uh… think so.”
I finished placing the paper against the wall and began to make my first rubbing.
“I.. I thought he was going to make a rubbing of my Papí’s name,” he said. “It’s the one right below that. Hilario de La Paz. Did you know him?”
I turned and shook my head. “Nope. Never heard of him. But I’d be willing to bet he died at Ia Drang, too, given when he died.”
The boy slowly nodded, shuddering as if trying to hold back his own tears. Jimmy stepped up to his side and put an arm around his shoulders.
“Tell me about your Papí,” Jimmy said, guiding the young man away from us.
It didn’t take long to finish making rubbings of the last six names. Lou and Joanie helped me stand to reach some of them. That’s when I noticed just how shaky Lou was. I looked at her, really looked at her, for the first time that day. Heck, probably for the first time in years.
There were the obvious, expected changes from the young girl I’d married. Her hair had gone almost completely white, probably from dealing with me, her skin was thinning and wrinkling in the corners. But there was more, too. She was pale, and slightly shaky. Suddenly, it hit me. She hadn’t eaten that morning. At the time I’d assumed she was just saving her appetite for when we went to the restaurant before the game. Now, I realized it had been nerves.
“Lou,” I asked, concerned. “How long has it been since you’ve eaten anything?”
She shrugged. “I dunno.”
I looked at Joanie, helplessly. “We need to feed her.”
“I’ve already got it taken care of,” Joanie said softly. “There’s a picnic lunch in the trunk. Lou, why don’t you come with me and get it. We can sit out here on this beautiful lawn and have a nice bite.”
Before I knew it, I was alone. I don’t know if they planned it, but that’s how it happened. And I was glad. I just sat there, next to that panel, 3E, staring alternately at the rubbings in my hands and the names on the Wall. I could feel the occasional pat on the shoulder of a fellow soldier as he, and sometimes she, passed me by, looking for their own names. They were easy to pick out by their jackets and vests, covered in unit and battle patches. But they respected my need for silence, for introspection.
I don’t know how long I sat there, thinking about everything the men whose names I held in my hands had done for me and everything I had now because of them. I saw my life from a whole new perspective now and it was a perspective with a purpose, a reason to live, a chance for happiness. Not to mention not a little shame for how I’d treated some of the people in it.
“Are those the names of friends of yours?”
I looked up, startled at the question. A pretty young woman, maybe late 20s or early 30s, with short black hair stood in front of me, a notepad in one hand. She wore a bright red polo shirt with the logo WWJ CBS 62 emblazoned on it. A man with a giant video camera stood a few paces behind her. It was obvious she was a reporter, here to do a story. But none of that mattered. The only thing that mattered was the question she’d asked, and the answer I had for her.
“Yes, they were,” I said softly, looking back down at the slips of paper in my hand, shuffling through them yet again. “They saved my life. Once in ‘Nam and, I think, again today.”
Author’s Note: This story is dedicated to all those who’ve served our country, in time of war or peace. Your sacrifices helped make, and keep, us free. A special thanks goes out to JennaLynn for letting me ‘borrow’ her characters and build on her story. Also, thank you to Ed Silverthorn, a high school classmate of mine and veteran of multiple tours of duty in Iraq, and my husband, a German Air Force vet. Any accuracies in the military aspect of this story are theirs. Any errors are purely mine.
*These are men who actually died on November 15th, 1965, at the Battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam. Their names are all inscribed on the wall. They ranged in age from 19 to 39, in rank from Private to 2nd Lieutenant. They came from Puerto Rico, New York, California, Alabama, Georgia, Michigan and Utah. Their actions as depicted in this story are entirely fictionalized, although the general story of the Battle of Ia Drang is based on the official After Action Report. No disrespect is intended. While they were all members of B Company, 7th Cavalry, they were not all members of the same platoon or squadron. To learn more about their true stories, go to http://www.virtualwall.org/iPanels/ipan03e.html , http://www.lzxray.com or read the book We Were Soldiers Once, And Young that tells the story of Ia Drang.
*Ia Drang is pronounced Ya D-rang.
*Plei Me is pronounced Play May.
*Frag is a military slang term for when enlisted men deliberately shoot to kill their own commanding officer because he is incompetent at his job. It wasn’t overly common at the beginning of the Vietnam War, but by the end had become a fairly regular thing.