A Viet Cong sniper was trying to kill me. Some motherfucker hiding in the trees, the bushes, the triple-canopy jungle had just shot at my platoon. I thought he was shooting randomly, despite the debris from the ground, grassland and other tiny bits of rock that struck me from a bullet’s ricochets.
No. he was aiming at no one but me! It’s taken me more than forty years to figure that out.
Now I must try to answer the question, “Why I was spared?” and, what will I do now with my life after seeing I got a second chance to live it toward a more purposeful ending?
Christ Almighty! How could I not detect this assassination attempt on my life in 1970? We had heard all the stories about the life expectancy of lieutenants — especially the second lieutenants, the lowest of what are called “junior” officers.
Yeah, you read that right. Some “urban legend,” gave the new-in-country officer no more than the time it might take for a helicopter to touch down in a “Hot LZ,” a landing zone where guns were blazing. Sixteen minutes was all the time it took for an enemy sharpshooter — a gifted sniper — to beam onto the newbie leaving the chopper to get his first salute in a combat zone. The lieutenant would end up dead before he’d finish returning that salute.
Who knows where that story originated? But there was some truth to it.
A sniper killed First Lieutenant Vic Ellinger, the leader of the Third Platoon, in my outfit, C Company. By all standards, he was a veteran, having been in the bush some three months before he was hit. The enemy killed no one else during the brief firefight. When he went down, the platoon sergeant called the company commander, who ordered me to help Vic’s troops only to learn he had died while I force-marched my platoon. We had to medevac out two soldiers who suffered heat exhaustion during the long, hard, fast slug I put them through. A forced march is a journey in “quick time,” a fast walk just slightly below a jog. Throw in a 20-pound backpack in sweltering heat over a distance of half a click (500 meters or half a kilometer) and it could be quite grueling to breathe, let alone march quickly.
I didn’t bargain for this shit! Growing up in the city, I’d gotten into my share of fights, but no one ever shot at me.
But there I was the man in charge. I never thought of the chaos a sniper could cause by shooting at the leader. He was out to get me and he had me in his sights. I did not know that then. (I thank God for temporary stupidity. It’s kind of like temporary insanity, but that won’t get you off in a court of law.) I never put the shooting together with the target of the shooter. I thought the sniper was simply pinning down the squad I was leading, not shooting directly at its leader, me.
* * *
I moved forward but fell back when another round of fire rang out. Again, I felt some dirt and whatnot spray over me. But I still thought it was us as a group that he was shooting at.
The entire time I served in Vietnam, I never saw the enemy up close, and only got glimpses of him in a distance as we’d approach one of his encampments. I’d shoot in the direction of that glimpsed object, hoping I’d hit something or somebody. But I never knew whether it was me or someone else in my platoon who’d end up killing someone. We’d come across a body and that would be the only time I’d come face-to-face with “Charlie,” the nickname we gave the enemy.
No one I knew in Vietnam ever engaged in hand-to-hand combat. We used no fixed bayonets, and I threw only two hand grenades the time I was in the field, because we hardly ever got close enough to heave ‘em. We’d probably end up hitting a branch and have the explosion backfire had I tossed any more.
Had I known then that a real person was “gunning” for me, I think I would have acted differently. It would have shaken me, instilled more fear in me. I’d be more cautious and more tentative in my actions, following orders, and passing on orders.
Oh, I’d still go a little “berserk” when someone got shot, and revenge sparked a fury that made one’s actions foolishly heroic. I’d charge like a madman when going to help a fallen soldier, as I did when learning that the third platoon had walked into an ambush and needed help from our platoon.
To hell with my safety; there were others worse off, and I believe I speak for every man I ever fought with by saying that any bravery we might have displayed arose from the love and compassion we had for the other guy.
What’s keeping this vet alive all these years?
I survived the war in Vietnam. I was never wounded, although I developed a hearing loss from artillery fire and claim it as a disability with the Veterans Administration. There are lots of psychological scars that flare up when stress triggers a traumatic memory. It’s called Post Traumatic Stress. But I am pretty much intact.
Today, however, I have a question that only a higher command can answer. Why was I spared? Why was another killed and not me? Is this just survivor guilt? I could have, perhaps I should have been shot. But why was I not?
More importantly, what have I done with a life that was given me by Fate or whatever power in the universe you want to name? What am I to do with me now?
The following is a conversation about this Blog post shared elsewhere:
Holy crap Michael, I just got the message here and I have to reflect on the story some… what I feel though, and the perspective I take now on “why life” is that it was your choice to live, to survive, and yet only to realize this so many years later. You helped those souls in you charge survive … it all has meaning, it is a free will universe, yet so many abdicate their natural rights … Do you ever speak to the men in your platoon?