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The VVA Veteran Reviews Prelude

Prelude was recently reviewed by David Wilson, a reviewer from the site “Books in Review II.” Wilson's review eloquently chronicles his reaction to the novel alongside his own experience in Vietnam. "I highly recommend this novel, both as a good read and as a glimpse into the lives of...

SD Sawyer

Excerpt Honoring Veterans Day

EXCERPT from Part II,  Off Post, Vietnam and Washington, D.C. area, 1968-1969

* * * * * *

Monsoon season started this week, Babe. Rains most of the time, at least once in the morning, then when you’ve almost dried out, afternoon rains come. We never feel completely dry. It’s muggy and humid too. This brings out such fun diseases as jungle rot (I told you there really is such a thing), and interesting, odd infections. The Army gives us medicated tape to put on this weird stuff, so we look really strange. All of us have rashes of different sorts and degrees on every part of our bodies. We tape up everything. I’ve had enough of the great outdoors. Never going camping again. If I get out early, I have 100 days left. Then I become a two-digit-midget!

I’m close to six months in the field. Doesn’t look like a rear job’s breaking for me. Myers hopes to take over as XO next week when Slug leaves. He has 14 days left in Nam. Lt. Johnson was our 3rd platoon leader, but he got wounded when all those other guys from my old platoon, 14 of them, got hit. Near as I can figure, if he doesn’t come back, I’m next on the list. In 20 days I’ll have been here 6 months. I’ll quit speculating as I probably have you totally confused. I’ll get out of the field when the time comes. I can’t wait to hop on that Freedom Bird to The World.

Before Tom finished the letter, blasts pierced the silence. He leaped up. The tablet and pen flew. “What the hell?” he yelled.

“Oh, fuck, we’re gettin’ mortared again!” shouted Moose. “What’re they hittin’ us with?”

“Sounds like 82mm, 60mm, and whoooa. . .” Tom yelled over to him, “that was definitely a 107mm rocket!”

“Shit, look over there! They’re launchin a fuckin’ ground attack! Fuckin’ gooks!”

Tom’s company fired back at the NVA , but then something strange happened. The NVA began mortaring their own troops who were attacking the Americans.

“What the fuck! You seein’ what I see?”

“Yeah. Might as well save our ammo,” ordered Tom. “See how many are left after they finish killing their own men!”

“Shit! I ain’t waitin’. I’m firin’ with the NVA mortar guys! Oh, yeah, baby! Gonna help the NVA finish off their men! Stupid gooks! Helpin’ gooks kill gooks don’t make me part gook, right?” laughed Corporal Hayes.

“I don’t know what the hell it makes you,” Tom laughed.

Explosions and firing lasted an hour, then all was quiet. Tom’s men were exhausted, so took turns at watch duty and dozed off and on the rest of the night. At first light, Tom took his patrol out. There
were 14 bodies and four prisoners. One was the executive officer (XO) of the company that had attacked. He was furious his troops had run off and left him.

On May 22, they hit us hard, Meg. We called in Puff, as in Puff the Magic Dragon, to give us air support. Puff’s a C-47 gunship with rapid-firing mini-guns. By the time things settled down again, we had four casualties. We captured four NVA. I took the gun off their XO. It’s a Chi Com (Chinese Communist) pistol K-54. Don’t know if I’ll be able to keep it for a souvenir or not, but I know officers who have. I’ve heard security doesn’t check officers’ stuff when they return, so we shall see!

After 29 days in the field, Tom’s platoon went to a new landing zone, LZ Lori. There was much to do to secure it. They put up barbed wire and set out trip flares and claymore mines. Then the rains started up again, which gave Tom free time to write Meg.

Five inches of water filled my bunker yesterday. It was gross because of all the muck. It’s this real gooey crap that sticks to everything. All my stuff was soaked. I got my letter of acceptance and have all the paperwork here set to go. It goes through BN, then Division. I can be back either Aug 24 or 25, and out of the Army Aug 26. My recommendation for general’s aide came through, but now I probably won’t get it because I’ll be leaving soon. Not worth training me. Otherwise, no sign of a rear job. With 79 days left, they should be getting me the hell out of the boonies. What’s new back in The World? Can’t wait for my first cold Coca-Cola!

Getting shaky, Babe. If I don’t get out of the field soon I’ll go crazy. Six months is long enough for anyone out here. I’ve done my time. They make all these promises about getting us out after six months, but far as I can see, it’s a lot of BS. Now I hear I’m supposed to be next in line as XO. Being back at Rocket City (Quan Loi) beats running trails and ambushes.

One of our few remaining lieutenants got wounded, making me the current senior First Lt. in the field for the whole battalion. A job I don’t want! Could diminish my chances for an early out. We’ve lost too many junior officers. Troop strength of the 5/7 is low. We’re working along the Saigon River, about 20 kilometers south of the Cambodian border. Orders are to head back toward my old stomping ground, LZ Jake. Charlies all over that area again. At least I am familiar with the turf.

Meg knew from Waiting Wives to be concerned when soldiers said they were feeling shaky. Tom’s last few letters showed battlefield jitters were strumming songs in his head.

I’ve spent way too damn much time in the field, scared every minute. I want to get out of here and come back to The World where all I have to worry about are crazy drivers or choking on a chicken bone. Wonder what I’ll think about being around kids on campus just out of high school. Over here, 18 and 19-year-olds have been through a hell of a lot. They’re so damn mature it’s unreal. Wonder how I’ll feel about college kids who I gather from the news are a bunch of jerks. We’ll see.

* * * * * *

It was a humid afternoon when Tom and his platoon were ordered to the area they’d cleared of VC months before. Intelligence reports indicated the NVA had rebuilt a bunker complex there. Tom’s company was to destroy it and secure the area. His was lead platoon. A Light Observation Helicopter (LOH) was scouting for enemy. It patrolled in front of them, then swooped around back before continuing to lead.

“How many patrols you figure we’ve gone on?” Tom asked his platoon sergeant.

“A bunch, and then some, I’m guessin’.”

“The shorter I get, Sarge, the more I hate doin’ this. I’ve been settin’ out ambushes damn near every day since I got here. Should’ve heard about going in by now. Don’t care if it’s a general or a private, six months is about all a man can take for this day-in, dayout crazy ass job. More than that you can go nuts.”

“They’re lining somethin’ up for you. Why else would they have you training these two FNG’s (Fucking New Guys)? One’s your replacement, right?” Sarge asked, pointing his M-16 at their backs.

“Supposedly. But look at ’em! Walkin’ way too close together. Should have learned in basic how to patrol. Instructors always yelled at us, ‘You don’t learn this shit, you’re gonna die in Vietnam! You wanna
die in Vietnam?’ One way or another, FNG’s learn to spread out when walkin’ trails.”

“Be interesting to see their first contact.”

“Nothing scarier than FNG’s. Never know how they’ll react when we stumble onto Charles. Tell ya’, I hate havin’ a FNG watchin’ my back.”

Before Sarge could answer, Tom saw the point man stoop over and stare at something. He motioned the others to stay put, then pushed through shrubs and branches to where the point man was studying the trail. Tom bent down and examined what he’d discovered.

“Fresh tire tracks,” he whispered to Tom.

Tom nodded, agreeing. The dirt was still wet from the drenching shower that passed through earlier. NVA made sandals out of old tires, so their tracks were easy to identify. He alerted the platoon, then motioned his FNG replacement officers over to show them the muddy tire tracks. Tom looked toward the helicopter scouting out in front. Occasionally it fired into the brush, but that didn’t mean much. It was hard seeing into the dense jungle from a ’copter, so at times, the gunner just shot off rounds. Tom’s platoon had moved forward a few hundred feet when all hell broke loose.

“We’ve probably found the bunker complex,” the new 1-6, Tom’s replacement, called over the radio, “We’ve got contact.”

He ordered his men to return fire, work their way closer to where the shots were coming from. Then the CO radioed back. “Six says he wants to talk to the real 1-6,” the Radio Telephone Operator (RTO) said, handing the phone to Tom.

“Yeah, 1-6 here. We’re under constant, heavy fire. LOH needs to hit harder.”

“He’s just called in, they’ll give you support. Listen,1-6, I want you to take over. FNG’s not ready yet. Tell new 1-6 I don’t want him taking charge.”

“Christ’s sake, Sir! I’m supposed to get out of the field in eight days! You don’t think the FNG can handle a little baptism by fire?”

“Don’t want him to. Have him move in with the others. Eliminate enemy fire from those bunkers. Our platoons are right behind you. Be there shortly. Meanwhile, you’re back in charge.”

“OK, 6. Hell of a lot of firepower coming out of that section. Ah Shit! Fuck it! A mine just blew! Get the rest of the damn company up here fast!”

The helicopter continued circling, firing unceasingly into the jungle just ahead of Tom’s platoon. Situated between the ’copter and his men, an NVA company lay in wait, occupying the bunkers Tom was ordered to clear. The NVA discharged round after round. Approaching G.I.’s returned fire. Bullets chipped off tree bark and tops of shrubs, splintering downpours through the steamy air. Tom’s platoon pushed forward in the direction of the bunkers, firing back with equal conviction.

“Keep moving in! Get closer!” Tom yelled at his squad leaders. The men struggled through the jungle undergrowth as ordered, shooting at the unseen enemy.

Sergeant Miller screamed, “Got men down up here! Squad leaders hit.”

Before Tom could respond, an explosion knocked him off his feet. He wasn’t sure how long he lay there, but he came to hearing shells exploding. He tried to get up, then realized he’d been hit. His shoulder ached, and his back felt like a grass fire. He grabbed the phone from the RTO and called the CO.

“This is 1-6. 6?

“Yeah this is 6. What’s happening?”

“Got 4 men hit, squad leaders hit. I’m hit.”

“What do you want me to do, 1-6 ? Call it!”

“Exchange my platoon. Help me get my wounded outta here.”

Tom slowly moved to where his platoon sergeant was firing into the jungle.

“Sarge? Over here.”

The sergeant swung his M-16 behind him, rushed over, and together he and Tom pulled to safety all four of the wounded, including one of the FNG’s.

“Poor son of a bitch! First day out!” Tom said as he carried the unconscious lieutenant away from the firing.

“I’m movin’ back in. Gonna keep with the others till the rest of our platoons get here,” Sarge yelled over to Tom.

Tom nodded, “Right with you!”

He struggled through pain, firing his way past his RTO and the other FNG, Tom’s replacement, who sat paralyzed behind a tree. Tom continued giving orders, until the third platoon arrived, the rest of the company not far behind. That was the last Tom saw of his men, Sarge, or the others before blacking out.

* * * * * *

Tom came to when he heard a horrific shriek. It took a few seconds to realize it came from him, from somewhere so deep inside he didn’t know it existed. An excruciating pain soared from his left shoulder all the
way down his leg, a knife unseaming him. As quickly as it came, it deserted him, leaving him tumbling down a dark abyss.

The thick stench of jungle air, firearms smoke, and blood jostled Tom awake. He looked up into the black face of Henry Alabama from the 3rd platoon. A tall, lanky man from Georgia, Henry had a big stride and steady foot. Rushing through the jungle carrying Tom, the sergeant tripped over roots and dangling branches, never losing footing. Henry could have done that with an egg on the end of a spoon and not dropped it. He was that controlled.

Tom looked up into the jet black eyes. Back in March, Henry had gotten hit on ambush. Tom had scooped him up and carried him as fast as he could to the aid station. Henry, a soft-spoken man, usually very in control of himself, unleashed a litany of obscenities.

“What the fuck you think you’re doin’? Put me the hell down! SIR! Don’t want no damn honkey officer carrying me nowhere! Son of a bitch! Don’t you carry me no fuckin’ where! Put me the fuck down now, SIR!” he had screamed at Tom, drowning out the blast of nearby firearms.

“Shut up, Sergeant,” was all Tom said. Sarge didn’t say another word. Tom checked on him weeks later and found out that Sergeant Alabama was recovering and would be returning to the field, to the 3rd platoon.

Tom was in too much pain to banter, but when he saw sweat dripping off Sergeant Alabama’s forehead, he managed to whisper, “Put me down. Don’t want no damn non-com carryin’ me nowhere!”

“Shut up, SIR!” Henry laughed, leaping through tangled vines and over roots. He hurried to where a medivac ’copter and several other wounded soldiers were waiting.

They placed Tom in the ’copter next to one of his men, a nineteen year old from Texas. Every time the kid’s heart beat, blood squirted out of his neck. The ’copter took the wounded to the 15th Evac at Quan Loi, then to the 93rd Evac Hospital at Lai Kai. Tom and some of the more seriously injured soldiers were then transported on a C-141 Air Force Hospital Plane to Camp Zama, Japan, to undergo more extensive
surgeries.

* * * * * *

Mid-June was unseasonably warm back in Virginia. Maple trees were full and dark green from the spring showers. Lawns needed to be mowed every week. On one of their walks, Meg showed Tommy a jenny wren who was building a nest under an eave. Meg was excited watching this evidence of renewal, of life being good.

Another sign of spring Meg loved was when her mother brought out the tall iced tea glasses. More than the tea, it was the stalks of fresh mint clipped from her dad’s garden sitting in each glass that were the real harbingers of summer. Most evenings, Meg and her mother sat at the table after dinner, having a second glass of mint tea, while her father carried Tommy around the yard to see which flowers had opened since morning. A warm breeze carried the sweet scent of crape myrtle and newly mowed grass through the open windows. Soon it would be time for Tommy’s bath.

Meg helped clear the table then peeked out the kitchen window.
“We’re going to miss you and Dad when we move out. You’ve been so great this year.”

“Oh Honey, of course. I don’t know what I’ll do all day after you two move.”

Meg leaned over, kissed her mother’s cheek, grabbed an arm load of freshly laundered clothes and went upstairs. She started to put them in the bureau drawer when something made her glance out the window. That’s when she spied it, the black DC cab circling the cul-de-sac across the street like a buzzard. She watched it pull into her driveway, then stop. She saw the driver’s hand reach for the stack of yellow envelopes on the dashboard, and knew they were telegrams. Barely breathing, Meg watched his fingers flip through the pile. Before he pulled it out, she was halfway down the stairs. “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God,” Meg chanted, praying more than yelling.

“What? her mother shouted, “Meg? What’s happened?” She chased after her daughter out the kitchen door onto the driveway.

The cab was already backing out. In its place stood Meg’s father, one arm hugging Tommy next to his chest, his other extending the unopened telegram toward her. He couldn’t speak. His face was ashen. And in his eyes Meg saw panic so strong she could feel its pulse. She grabbed the envelope from him, her hands trembling.

“Dad, it’s OK,” Meg yelled, hoping to calm him. “It’s OK!” But the yell, tainted with fear, rang too loud to comfort. She panted, ripped open the envelope, convincing herself of what she hoped was true. “If he were dead, they’d have sent the chaplain.” She gasped for air, her eyes pleading into her father’s. “Tom can’t be dead! It’s a telegram! See, it’s only a telegram!”

On June 17, 1969, Thomas Alden Barrington was listed as an 
American casualty. That month, the government reported the 
following statistics from the Vietnam Conflict:

 US Killed in Action 539
 Combat Related Deaths 1,100
 Hospitalized 3,851
 Non-hospitalized injuries 3,780

Meg read the telegram aloud, then again, and so many times during the following weeks that its phrases lodged in her memory.

Your husband . . . slightly wounded in action . ..Vietnam . . . 17 June 1969 . . . fragments. . . combat operation . . .hostile force encountered not repeat not serious . . .no further reports . ..

* * * * * *

 

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One Response to Excerpt Honoring Veterans Day

  1. Susie Q says:

    Oh, thank you, S. D. Sawyer for sharing this poignant, moving tribute to your heroic husband … and to our combat veterans. What a debt of gratitude we Americans owe to those who have served our country. Please accept my deepest appreciation.

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