“I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, and more desolation. Some of these young men think that war is all glory but let me say . . . war is all hell.”
American Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman
Recalling Vietnam War Days & Nights
I had a premonition that something bad was going to happen on the morning that would become the worst day of my life.
It was hot. We had walked through densely covered forestland until we came to the river and followed its banks to a secluded area with fewer trees, but with much larger bushes. I ordered the platoon to set up a site to sleep in that night. I would generally let the more experienced fellows—those from the Deep South and the West—choose a spot to rest. They knew the lay of the land back home and in this place we called “the bush,” the forests where we spent fourteen days at a time patrolling and looking for any sign of the Viet Cong. If the farm and “country” boys felt it was a secure place to ward off an attack and remain out of sight of the enemy, then it was good enough for me. As a city boy, the only outdoor encampments I had ever set up were with the Boy Scouts of America, at overnight jamborees in Valley Forge National Historic Park, about twenty miles outside my Philadelphia home. We settled in where one of the Southern boys suggested we stay.
We had been shelled earlier that day. We couldn’t even fight back as the rounds of artillery exploded around us, forcing each and every one of us to hit the ground looking for cover. There was no cover. There was no entrance to any caves, any type of a hollow in the ground, or even a roadside culvert. We were in South Vietnam, some one hundred miles from Saigon, embedded with the 25th Army Division.
Our own troops—artillery specialists with the U.S. Army—had been shelling the area and missed their target, their rounds falling short and smashing into the earth where we had just walked during a routine mission. How do you fight such an attack? You cannot, and you quickly remember how you used to pray when you were a lot more connected to a Source above you, around you, and most importantly, within you.
I felt helpless. Me, the first lieutenant, whom I believed my “troops” looked up to for guidance and leadership. I could do nothing but cover my head with both hands and get into a near fetal position, rolling myself into a ball to give the blast effect less of a target to cause its damage.
I wanted a shovel so badly. I would have dug into the ground. I’d have dug the earth beneath me with all the strength my impotent joints would have allowed me to dig. Let me do something! Anything is better than just waiting for the next blast to hit closer. I realized then that the only digging device I had was shoved deep in my backpack. It was a spoon. A spoon I prayed would enable me to dig and dig and dig. I’d dig so deep I’d create a foxhole and climb in it for cover.
The bombing stopped after what seemed like one of the longest moments of my life. It was during those moments that I was certain the Angel of Death would march me out of the woods and into a different world. I wasn’t ready for that. I don’t know anyone who ever is, except for some saints or lamas I’d meet years later.
I thought I’d died for sure in that final moment, only to realize that I never did leave my body. My consciousness remained open and acutely aware of everything around me. My body grew still, as still as my breath, which seemed to finally return to normal. For a brief time, my heart and breathing seemed to stop.
(Well, this will be the start of my new venture, writing a memoir about the Vietnam War for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) over the next 30 days. It will include the war and how a kid from North Philadelphia was raised before going into battle and some “looking back” by an older — and hopefully a more “wiser” man — reflecting on how PTSD shaped his life following such a misadventure. Wish me luck!)
(I did it! I finished NaNoWroMo writing more than 50,000 words for a book in less than 30 days during this month of November. It’s the third time I did this, but it may be the last. I don’t think I’ll have the stamina or the subject matter to try this again in 2016.)