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Death’s Messenger

by Newt Ronan

He knows nothing.

When he arrives in country, he’s raw, scared – afraid he’ll panic the first time he’s shot at, and afraid his fear will show.

He knows one thing: he has 365 days to go.

He learns to deal with the heat, the rain, the smells, the darkness.

His fears — mortar strikes/rockets/snipers/punji pits/ambushes/booby traps/bad water/amputation/capture/getting shot in the balls/jammed weapon/running out of ammo/friendly fire — turn into a fear of choking. When the shit starts, how will he react? Will his knees lock and will he bury his face in the dirt? Or will he return fire, move the platoon and direct fire support?

At first, they live in plywood hooches lined up in neat rows inside a fence topped with coils of concertina wire. Mortar attacks interrupt their nightly poker games. The first time he hears the mortars, he runs barefoot from the hooch across a rough gravel path to a sandbagged bunker and sits inside, in the dark, terrified of the explosions, terrified of giving away his fear, embarrassed by his bare feet. He learns never to leave his boots behind.He learns how to gauge the distance between himself and the impact of the incoming mortar, waiting in the hooch, counting the time between the pop and the bang, the launch and the impact, getting the direction and distance between him and the explosion.

He knows how long it takes for his own artillery batteries to target the mortar and begin firing for effect. So does Charlie: he can’t fire all night, just enough time to set up, lob in a few rounds and didi mao – skedaddle. So, he learns when to keep playing poker and when to run for the bunker.

He starts out with practice runs – local patrols, truck convoy escorts, nighttime ambushes. His first patrols are clusterfucks. No one really knows what’s over the ridge, behind the line of trees, or buried in the mud, waiting to blow off a grunt’s foot, leg or balls, or rip apart his belly. His patrol discipline gets better each time out.

He’s fearful in his hooch. Fearful before starting a patrol. Fearful on patrol. Fearful lying in ambush. Fearful about the next patrol, and the one after that.

He learns to live with his fear. Just set it aside. There’s work to do. He needs to learn how to survive, keep his men alive, lead a patrol, set up an ambush, place flares and claymores, keep the weapons clean, carry enough ammo.

He gets busy learning and doing, and he controls the fear by ignoring it. But the fear always lies in wait, ready to strike.

He’s a fanatic about intervals – keeping the grunts far enough apart so one round or booby trap won’t kill more than one GI; close enough so they can keep a clear line of sight to the grunt in front, behind, on both sides.

And he’s fanatic about silence – keeping mouths shut; tying flares and grenades to bandoliers and webbing so they don’t clink; securing dog tags neatly to boot laces, which also makes it easier to identify the grunt if his head or torso are blown apart. He keeps the radio volume low and tells his radio operator — the RTO – to respond with clicks on the handset. Don’t talk unless you’re in the shit.

He practices map reading and land navigation skills, setting up patrol routes, check points, rally points. He learns to walk in artillery, so the first round doesn’t come crashing down on his own troops.

He learns that in his platoon, on his patrol, he is the law. His word is absolute. He knows who to trust – his RTO, the platoon sergeant and the squad leaders. All the other grunts are beasts of war, armed to the teeth, scared to death, thumbs on safety, ready to fire at the first sign or sound of the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese, known to them simply as Charlie.

Ambushed, some grunts flatten, hug the ground, faces buried, nails digging.  Some stand up and yell, as if looking to get shot. Pull them forward. Get them down, suppress fire, call in support, close in, mop up, count bodies. Repeat the exercise.

He becomes a master at setting up night-time ambushes. Prep likely approach lanes with marking rounds during the day. Move in silently, just after dark. Set up overlapping zones of fire. Lay out trip flares and claymores mines in interlocking pairs, triples. If Charlie disables one flare, he’ll set off another.

In the blinding flash and smoke of a burning flare, he’ll be profiled — lying, squatting, standing inside the cone of light – a perfect target for a scared GI with the claymore trigger in hand. Reflex squeezes the trigger, and a full pound of C4 high explosive blows hundreds of deadly little iron balls outward at twice the speed of sound, shredding the bushes, the ground, the body. At daylight they’ll find the dead VC, and plunder him of weapon and ammo, wallet, pictures of wife or children or mother or father, and a few Dong, the local currency. They’ll strip the man of brass insignia, leather belt and bandolier, and leave his corpse where it dropped.

He begins to think he’s got it all under control. This ain’t so bad; he can do it. On a routine patrol around the fire base perimeter, his troops spread out nicely, moving quietly, making routine map checks against known landmarks – the LZ control tower, the steeples of a Catholic cathedral, the radio antennae on top of Hill 953. Garza, his sharpest squad leader – quiet, and strong with his men, always on time, always checking for clean weapons and magazines, counting each grunt’s grenades, testing the claymore triggers — he steps on an old French blackpowder mine that blows off his leg. Garza dies in the medevac chopper.

That’s the first.

He learns to move on.

A replacement will arrive shortly. He’ll fit in quickly. The first of many. Move on.

Move on past VC squashed under tank treads, burned alive with napalm, obliterated by 250- and 500-pound bombs dropped by F4C’s and A1’s.  Move on past jungle canopy and everything under shredded by gunships,  and acres furrowed  by B-52s,  each plane dropping scores of 250 pounders in long sticks,

Move on past whole valleys chemically burned clean by Agent Orange, leaving nothing but dried sticks of poison, burrowing deep into bodies, laying in wait for decades, then breaking out through the walls of arteries, organs and skin.

Move on past GI’s killed by booby traps, small arms fire and ambushes, snipers and friendly fire. Move on past GIs wounded, missing limbs, dazed by dope, falling apart.

He learns to carry death and dismemberment with him.

Three-hundred days to go.

 

After a year, he gets back to the world, and still he carries death with him.

He chooses Niagara Falls for his next assignment, expecting something cool and clean and fresh. And so it is. And the Army needs someone to drive around the green hills, rolling rivers, valleys, towns and cities of Western NY delivering the news that some GI — a son, brother, father — has been killed In Country  and will be coming home in a box.

It’s called Notification Duty. Two officers alternate notifying and assisting.

One time, he is the Notification Officer: “on behalf of the President and a grateful nation, I regret to inform you…” Next time, he is the Survivor Assistance Officer.

The first is told to get in and out quickly, with little fuss and no emotion. The second stays with the family daily through the funeral; walking them through insurance forms and funeral arrangements – distracting details that make time pass until the coffin is lowered, the flag is presented and taps has ended.

So, having learned to carry death with him, he can now share death with others.

One mother asks why she can’t open the coffin. She’ll finally see her son strong and whole in her dementia, forty years later.

A pregnant eighteen-year-old newlywed asks who will pay to deliver her baby. A drunken father doesn’t even know his son was in Vietnam.

A choir at an old-time, small-town church sings hymns of praise to the Lord. An Hispanic mother asks her surviving son to translate the notification message.

A biker KIA is greeted by a hundred Harleys, a 21-gun salute and a bugler playing Taps.

A wary mother peers through her screen door, sees his green army sedan parked at her curb, watches him walk up her long, curved sidewalk to her front door and closes the door just before he can speak.

He moves on, carrying death and dismemberment with him.