by Jim Hasse
The burn barrel behind my house in Godfrey, Illinois spit sparks and belched smoke that traveled over fences and across lawns. A neighbor two doors down had walked out earlier to see where the smoke was coming from. I expected to hear a fire truck screaming toward my house at any moment, but I didn’t stop. I was busy destroying my past. In my hung-over state, it was the only worthwhile project I could complete that day.
After two years, I was fed up with the nightmares, the survivor’s guilt, and the strong desire to re-enlist and keep fighting. I just wanted it all to stop — forever. On that winter day in 1970, the burning barrel was fueled with every tangible memory I had kept of my two tours in Vietnam. For two years, they were packed inside a large cardboard box that I had shipped to my parents’ home as I was leaving Vietnam. That box of yesterday sat ignored and unopened in the back corner of their garage, hidden from view just like the searing pain inside of me. Time had come to deal with the box and its memories. Blazing destruction seemed like the best option.
I tossed everything into the inferno — photo albums, military records, jungle fatigues, jungle boots, a North Vietnamese flag, a Montagnard crossbow with a pouch of arrows, and a few medals. I wondered if this would help me let go of all the horrors. I had to try. When the box was emptied, I let it drop onto the snow-covered ground. I pulled out my pocket knife ready to cut apart and destroy the last remnant of my past. But, as I glanced down, hidden words in broken English jumped out at me from the inside bottom of the box. Bending over for a closer look I saw the signature – “Nga.” I caught my breath; my heart almost stopped!
Oh, my God! Nga! As I read the words, I could hear Nga’s sweet voice in my head and picture the way she covered her mouth with her left hand when she laughed.
“Sgt. Jim – my heart breaks. You leave us now. You my hero. You helped me too much. When the big man grabbed me you stop that. You saved me. You saved the Cun Yeu pupy! Not to eat. You get hurt no more. Not to die here. I will never forgit you any time. Nga.”
Touching the red heart drawn after her name, my eyes filled with tears. Nga had sealed the box, before I carried it to the mail center at camp headquarters, never realizing she had written something inside.
Knocking the snow off the bottom of the now precious box, I carried it into the living room. I opened a bottle of beer and thought about “the big man who grabbed her” and about the “pupy not to eat.”
I met Nga in early January 1967, when I arrived in-country. She was assigned to wash our clothes and clean our living quarters at Project Delta. She spoke passable English, and I was trying to learn Vietnamese; we practiced our language skills as we became better acquainted. Nga worked hard and paid attention to detail. More than once I discovered where she had mended a torn garment, something she was not required to do. Although shy and quiet, she had an easy going, friendly way about her. She was shorter than my mother, who was exactly five feet tall. Her jet-black hair fell to the middle of her back. I loved her pixie nose and delicate features. She sure wasn’t built for the hard work she did.
Her husband, Dong, had been a sergeant in the Vietnamese Special Forces, known as Luc Luong Dac Biet. In August the previous year he was killed in action. His commander promised the grieving Nga that she would receive six months of his back pay (the equivalent of $360 US), but five months later she had yet to receive anything. As a cleaning woman at Special Forces Headquarters, she was paid $5 US a week. Some of us “tipped” her, as we knew how difficult her situation was financially. She was the sole support and caregiver of her three children ranging in ages of ten months to five years, with no family to help. As I got to know her, we became friends. I knew she trusted me, and I trusted her. She often spoke of her children, and when she did, her dark brown eyes glowed.
In October 1967, I returned from a two-month operation west of Da Nang. When I got back to my quarters, I found that another bunk had been moved into my room. Sergeant Dylan Preston, a communications specialist, assigned as support at our communications headquarters, needed a place to stay. He had not been Special Forces or airborne trained. He wouldn’t be participating in any combat operations.
Preston, a big talker, and I, a loner, had little to say to each other. He wanted to go drink and party, which had no appeal to me. My unit was busy getting ready for our next operation. He worked the night shift and had plenty of time to fool around during the day.
He asked what I thought about “pot” and I minced no words telling him that the men in Special Forces didn’t think highly of drugs or the people who used them. Snickering, he sauntered away.
On another occasion he announced, “I just plan to drink and screw my way through this miserable war. After all, these slant-eyed girls are all whores anyway.” I gave him a look of disgust, shook my head and turned away. I was so glad this asshole wasn’t a Green Beret and that we didn’t normally have guys like him around.
On my third day back, I had been at the firing range all afternoon doing live-fire exercises with my reconnaissance team. As I walked into my billet, I heard Nga begging. “No! No! Please no! I no do that! You stop now! Stop! Stop!”
I dashed into my room to find Preston straddling Nga, trying to pull her pants down. Her blouse was torn open, and she was struggling against him. He jerked his head toward me, his mouth dropped open, his eyes bugged out, and stammered, “She uh – wants to have sex.”
“No!” I snarled. “Let me show you what she wants!” Grabbing him by the back of his fatigue shirt, I pulled him up off the bed. He wore only that and no pants. I punched him a couple of times in the face and then gave him a hard backhand.
Blood poured from Preston’s nose as I dragged him down the hall and out the back door. I threw him head-first down the back steps. Following him as he landed on the hard ground I yelled, “This is what she wants!” I kicked him hard in the butt. “Now get your ass up and move. I’m marching you to the commander’s office,” I screamed. He walked stiffly ahead, not looking back. Only once did he start to say something. “Shut up and keep walking,” I angrily snapped at him. When we arrived, I shoved him through the front door. He landed, splayed out on the floor, right in front of Colonel Jacobs’s desk, buck naked from the waist down.
Colonel Aaron Jacobs looked up. “I didn’t think giving you a roommate would turn out like this,” he said with a smile.
“Sergeant dumbass here thinks he can have his way with Nga,” I explained. “Caught him trying to rape her. He’s real lucky I didn’t shoot him. And I mean it. I hope he will be made to pay for this. I don’t want to ever see him again! Someone else can pick up his stuff. If he makes contact with Nga in any way, I will shoot him.”
Colonel Jacobs looked at me. “I think you’ve made your position clear. We’ll take care of this idiot.” He turned to Preston. “You have no idea how lucky you are. You don’t know who you are messing with.”
I returned to the barracks and told Nga she had permission to go home early that afternoon and be with her children. The colonel had authorized her to receive a week off with a month’s extra pay to help put this frightening matter behind her. She thanked me, her eyes glistening with tears.
I felt sick to my stomach with rage bubbling over it. I avoided the Special Forces headquarters area for some time and remained in our Project Delta camp so there was no chance I would run into this son-of-a-bitch. I knew if I did, I would hurt him.
I would never see Preston again. Days later, the colonel told me he had been sent off to an infantry unit as a private. I was glad to see him removed from his cushy job. Maybe combat as a grunt radio operator would result in some humility.
The next incident occurred seven months later. Nga had spotted a South Vietnamese soldier walking by holding a furry brown puppy, about six months old. She was out hanging clothes and stopped to admire the puppy. The soldier told her it would make a tasty dinner. Aghast, she tried to talk him into giving it to her. He agreed to sell it to her, and she paid him seven hundred Vietnamese piasters which was equivalent to about than $3 US, or more than half of her weekly salary.
I arrived as she was about to leave, and she told me what had happened. I pulled $5 out of my pocket and said I wanted to buy the puppy. She took the money reluctantly, silently looking at me for a long moment. She finally confessed, “I want to give to my boy. He is lonely without father.”
“Okay, give it to your boy. I make you a gift. You must let me see the puppy someday when it grows up.” She smiled, her eyes shining with gratitude.
As Nga was about to leave, I held the puppy, which she named Cun Yeu, which is Vietnamese for puppy. It wiggled and playfully nipped at my fingers. When I handed him back, she tied a short strand of twine around his neck and led him away.
About five minutes later, she came running back, hysterical that the gate guards had seized Cun Yeu from her saying it would make a nice dinner. Her normally serene face was contorted and red from crying.
Taking Nga by the arm I calmly escorted her to the guard shack. Both guards were talking and laughing. One of the guards, a private, saw us coming and started to hustle away with the puppy. I loudly ordered him to halt, “Dung lai!” He obeyed and slowly retreated back.
When I determined that the sergeant spoke English, I asked him, “Why would you allow him to steal my puppy?” He didn’t know what to say. The private handed the puppy back to the sergeant. “I paid for that puppy and gave this woman the puppy as a gift. Do you really want him to steal my gift?”
“No, no,” he stammered. “We thought she was stealing the puppy. We take it away.”
“Well, are we clear now?” I demanded looking straight into his eyes.
“Yes, we are clear,” he agreed, handing CunYeu back to Nga.
“We are clear, but we are not finished,” I said. Looking uncomfortable, the soldiers just stared at me. “You need to say you are sorry,” I continued, but they kept looking at me, saying nothing. “Well, you must say this before we leave,” I insisted, staring at both of them until they broke eye contact.
Hesitating a little longer, they finally acquiesced by saying, “Xin loi” and quickly looked away.
Nga beamed and waved to me as she and Cun Yeu trotted down the dirt road.
Six months later, December 1968, my second tour was ending. It was time to say goodbye. I had saved a lot of money while in Vietnam and felt flush with cash. As the end approached, I had managed to put together $450 US, a month’s pay which included jump pay, hostile fire, and an overseas bonus. I knew this would be equivalent to almost two years of salary for Nga.
I put the money into an envelope and wrote: “To my dear friend, Nga. We will be separated by an ocean, but you will always be in my heart. I pray to the Buddha of love for your good health and happiness. May you and your children always be well and out of danger.”
As I placed my gift into Nga’s tiny hands, she teared up, hugged me, and began to sob in my arms. When we broke away, she handed me a small photo of a rather large brown dog. “Cun Yeu gets big!” she declared. “My boy loves him too much.”
My eyes filled with tears. I smiled at Nga one last time and quickly turned and walked away. I couldn’t look back; it was too painful. I had never felt such deep abiding protective love. My heart swelled in my chest; I didn’t want to go.
Now, almost exactly two years from the last time I saw Nga, I sat holding the empty box containing her words, sparing it from the flames. Overwhelming gratitude for having known her swept over me. I prayed that she was well and that she and her children were safe.
My future was here, with a meaningful life before me. I wasn’t going to waste it. My anger faded and I knew I could succeed. But first, I needed to go to the local animal shelter and adopt a furry brown puppy. I already had a name picked out.