An explosion jerked me back to the real world.
I’d been sitting in the sun, smoking and daydreaming, when it happened. I grabbed my rifle, jumped up, and ran in the direction of the shouting and the drifting smoke.
It was Second Platoon. Tâm, the former Viet Cong soldier assigned to our Company, was on the ground. Knowing, but not exactly comprehending, that he was dead, I watched the medic tenderly wipe blood off his face.
“What the hell happened?” I asked.
“We halted near this hootch,” Rivera said. He pointed to the smoldering remains of a bamboo house. “He went inside to look around and tripped a booby trap.”
Tâm had only been with us a couple of months. Despite our initial doubts, everyone liked him. He’d told us where to look in villages for stashes of rice or weapons, and a couple of weeks earlier, he’d spotted a booby trap. Now he was dead. Because of a fucking booby trap.
After the medevac helicopter left for Chu Lai with Tâm’s body, our Platoon walked toward a small village seven or eight hundred meters away. Our mission that day was to look for hidden stores of rice, but I don’t think we were sure what we were doing any more, or why. We were just tired and dirty.
Then, as if Tâm’s death wasn’t enough, as if the whole grinding, endless thing wasn’t enough, a sniper with an AK-47 fired at us from a treeline nearby. We returned fire, then searched the village. The people had all left, and the sniper got away. It didn’t matter. Getting home alive was the only thing that really mattered.
I stood in the shade of one of the houses and lit a cigarette. The smoke drifted up, hanging beneath the roof, languid as a snake. Someone had laid plastic sheeting over the roof frame, beneath the palm thatch. I took out my lighter and lit a low, dangling corner of the plastic. Fiery, melting drips hissed like little rockets as they fell to the ground. Then tangled fingers of red and blue and yellow climbed across the roof and walls, destroying everything they touched. I stepped back into the sunlight. Black smoke rolled up into the silent sky as I watched the house burn and smoked my cigarette.
The rest of the Platoon was searching the other houses in the village. I looked off to my right and saw another house starting to burn. Soon, a third was shrouded in fire and smoke, and then the whole village was in flames, collapsing and dying. The fires created twisting waves of heat that distorted the day, and did nothing to burn away the silent anger no one ever talked about.
Death was always close by during that year of my life, waiting and watching. Every time I stood up in the wide open, which I did day after day, I knew someone with a rifle could take me out. Wherever we walked – through the rice paddies, crossing a tree line, up in the mountains – an awareness of death circled around just at the edge of conscious thought. We could walk into an ambush, or in the next place I stepped there could be a booby-trapped artillery round or hand grenade, or maybe a Bouncing Betty (a ball-bearing-filled container that shot a few feet in the air before exploding). I knew people who were killed by each of those things, and others who died of gunshot wounds.
I’m not sure which would be worse: A Bouncing Betty, an AK-47 round, or a booby-trapped artillery round. You’re probably thinking, “What difference does it make? If you’re dead, you’re dead.” True, but I’d prefer something fast. So fast, I’d be dead before I had time to know it. That’s wishful thinking, of course. If something explodes beneath your feet, you’d know it, if only for two or three seconds. You have no idea how long two seconds can be.
The sky was clear and moonless. As I fell asleep, I could see thousands of stars.
A little before 1 a.m., Viet Cong soldiers cut the barbed wire and came in shooting, throwing hand grenades, and setting fire to the village while their mortars fired at us from a treeline off to the west. Explosions and gunfire rolled over us like waves falling on jagged rocks, my body shook, everything was stripped away only a visceral need to survive the next moment of life and then the next conscious thought was blasted terrified but no time for that just react shoot decide don’t shoot I was ready to kill and a shadow fell inside the wire not far I saw but didn’t see the grenade explode hot metal tore my face sand in my eyes and mouth blood ran down my neck pushed back by the force of it my shirt soaked blood sticky now the smell of gunpowder and smoke and fear all ran together and then … the staccato pounding of death all around me was silenced by the shock of being wounded.
I wiped my face, stared in disbelief at blood glittering in the light of a burning house and a mortar round slammed the top of the bunker. A tremendous explosion. Inches above my head.
I don’t know how long I laid there, stunned and disoriented, before a primal need to prove I was still alive drove me to crawl back to the front of the bunker, pick up my weapon, and begin firing out into the night. The noise and the recoil made me feel like I was on top of the situation, instead of the other way around.
Fires, explosions and gunfire raged for over an hour. Around 2 a.m. the Company medic told me to get on a medevac that would take me and others to an Army hospital. I walked around the perimeter through a scene that was surreal and ominous. Gunfire continued in the background, drowned out now and then by the sound of a gun ship circling overhead. The thin yellow light of burning houses lurched around, obscuring more than it revealed.
The medevac took off and I watched the village recede into the wide darkness below. Sixteen men died that night – two of ours and fourteen of theirs – and several were wounded. Amid the confusion that filled my head as we flew north were two thoughts: I was lucky to be alive, and I had nine months left in Viet Nam.
I have issues. Anyone who’s lived with me can attest to that. I’ve tried to overcome my issues, but it feels like we’ve just fought to a draw. The struggle hasn’t been even. The issues – depression, hyper-vigilance, suicidal ideation – have advantages over me. The element of surprise, mostly. They’re among the conditions or behaviors that are indicators of something I’ve come to know well over the years, long before I knew it was called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Despite our long acquaintance, we’ve not become friends; just constant companions, if a companion can also be an adversary.
Thirty years after I returned from Viet Nam, I was diagnosed with depression. It would be another few years before anyone talked with me about PTSD; its prevalence, and its silent corrosive effects.
Medication helps. Nevertheless, even on the best of days I can be caught unawares as depression begins to fill me with its heaviness, suffocating whatever strength and optimism I might have.
On days that aren’t the best, memories of failures and regrets, real or perceived, crowd in on me. Relationships that died, or were starved to death. Drinking, getting high; disconnected and rootless, not quite by choice, but close. Nothing seems attainable on days like that, or even worth doing, for that matter.
Depression stands there, holding the door open, so his less savory friends can come in. When they do, darkness wraps itself around me like a shroud. Sometimes, alone in that darkness, I tell myself, Well, if things get too bad, I can always kill myself. Then I say that I’m not serious, that I’m only joking. I’d never do something like that, I say.
Still, there are days when despair whispers so convincingly in my ear that knowing I can do it, if I really need to, is almost a comfort to me; like an insurance policy, or a contract with an escape clause.