April 8, 1969
He limps like a deuce-and-a-half truck’s flat tire rolling through the door at Buckeye Donuts.
The counter woman coos her greeting, a mourning dove with powdered sugar lips,
just moved up from Mingo County last week.
“Just need a coffee, on my way to the VA clinic.”
The vet never wanted the Bronze Star, certainly never wished for his Purple Heart, a half-century passed now.
Third Platoon circled for the night,
two clicks west of Rach Kien, Long An Province.
Been quiet the last week or so, no warnings from ops of any bad guys. Calmest it had been since Tet. No ambush patrols going out, a rare respite.
He was pulling his guard shift in the gun-hatch of the APC, about midnight, when he felt the distant whoosh of the mortar tube in his ears.
His skin tightened cold. Another whoosh, followed by the concussion of pieces of steel that splashed from the first round, then the cracks of AK-47s and impacts on the armor echoing their attack. They were trying to kill him, to kill all of them.
Grab helmet…flak jacket…get down.
Larson, an ROTC lieutenant from Texas who sported a bone-handled Bowie knife with an eleven-inch blade, radio’d the CO in the ville, then ordered all three tracks on line to face the trouble. The entire platoon was up now, forming behind the spear head of mobilized steel, M-16s, grenade launchers, the mortar crew preparing 60-mm loads.
Drivers aimed the tracks into the darkness as they raced over dry rice paddies towards a couple lightless huts, pointing the direction with tracer rounds from the .50 caliber barrels. All three gunners increased their firing, until the steel tubes glowed in redness.
The vehicles reached the shelter to confront no Viet Cong, but women wailing, crying children wandering without purpose. No guerillas, no NVA regulars.
The tracks stopped by the open passage to the hut. The gunner jumped down from his mounted weapon, still smoking. He approached the prone figure blocking the entrance and rolled the body over, face up. The cries multiplied loudly. An old man, a grandfather, a great-grandfather, the body still warm, but no longer breathing. Gunner examined the bloodstain on the once white tunic, where the thick copper missile entered, wondering, did this death begin from his own firing?
He continued rolling the lifeless man over as blood puddled from the exit wound to the ground. He saw the destruction a half-inch speeding bullet delivers to human flesh. Then he spied the bunker inside the doorway, the packed mud den of safety in huts like this all over the Mekong Delta. This old man had only been feet away from safety.
The soldier sat on the baked mud and cried.
Why didn’t the old man flee into the bunker with the kids, with their mama?
Why did he catch the bullet instead?
Who fired the fifty caliber death sentence?
Why does every grey-goateed old Vietnamese living in the rice paddies look like Ho Chi Minh?
The next month the platoon stood, parade rest, as the brigade colonel pinned the medal on the gunner’s sweat-stained fatigue jacket,
“for heroism in connection with military operations against a hostile force.”
Weeks later, walking point through a grenade-mined clearing, another concussion sent his flesh tearing into the sky. Another medal would follow. The Huey dust-off rescued this trooper from the wails of wives, the cries of children, the wounds of his buddies so scared they vomited as they listened to approaching Vietnamese voices in the night.
The counselor at the clinic listened to the ancient veteran’s confession once again.