The Company commander had dropped his map out of a helicopter while he was on a recon flight. My Platoon was sent to look for it. There were twenty-three of us and we were well spread out, as usual. The RTO – the radio man – was behind me, and the Platoon Sergeant was behind him. Because sometimes, more often than you’d think, war is 90% boredom and only 10% terror, I was in a state almost like solitude or meditation: walking along, kicking up a little dust; tired, alert, thirsty. The late afternoon heat was oppressive, but off to the west, trees were back-lit by the sun. Ocher light spread across the rice paddies, turning the water into polished gold, streaked with quicksilver. It was beautiful, but I didn’t have time to enjoy it.
In the next instant, I heard a bullet pass between me and the RTO. In the split second after that, another bullet passed 12 or 18 inches in front of me. It created a small wave of air that brushed against my face, like the wake of boat. I can still feel it, if I let myself go there. So soft, that air, to have been created by a small piece of lead traveling at seven hundred meters per second.
I own a 9mm Glock. It’s a semi-automatic pistol made in Austria. I bought it in 1995, after a shooting at a local up-scale shopping mall. I was out of the state when the shooting happened, so I wasn’t personally threatened at all. But I went out and bought the pistol anyway. Just to have it. To know it was there. For several years after that, I would take it with me on road trips.
Now, the pistol sits locked in its case at the back of a bottom drawer. Some days, alone in the house, days when I don’t completely trust myself, I wish I didn’t know where it is.
A background noise of concern or anxiety is always present in my life; as if a cataclysm of some sort – cancer, violence, a terrible accident – might overtake me. The noise is louder some days than others. That Glock in the bottom drawer has the power to make the anxiety and the noise stop.
Suicide is a type of cataclysm, and it spreads, like ripples in a pond from a rock thrown into it. I have daughters, loved ones, friends: they’re the main reason I wouldn’t off myself.
Perhaps you want to tell me that life itself is reason enough to forestall suicide; that tomorrow is another day, and hope springs eternal. But that’s not enough.
Tomorrow is another day when depression may catch up with me again. As for hope, sometimes, alone in the darkness, it’s too much effort to even think about hope.
We were in the mountains, looking for a North Vietnamese Army hospital that was supposed to be there. The trail had flattened out, but up ahead I could see that it bent to the left and started climbing again. I was tired of walking, tired of being in the mountains, and I was wondering, If I fall and break my leg, will they send me home? My thoughts were cut short by a burst of machine gun fire from above the bend in the trail, twenty meters ahead of our point man. Then AK-47’s opened up from the left. Gunfire reverberated like a terrible echo chamber. I returned fire at people I couldn’t see and tried to make myself very small. I remember the way the light fell through the trees; the oddly sweet smell of the earth; me thinking, I don’t want to die here, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die …
After three or four minutes, the shooting stopped. I sat up and lit a cigarette. In the profound silence that settled over us, I was certain everyone could hear the quick rhythmic pounding of my heart.
The Army called me an infantryman, but in reality, I was a hit man. We all were, except it was the United States government that hired us, not the Mafia.
It was the United States government that educated us in the ways of death. The education we received was, and still is, imperfect, with questionable results.
We couldn’t practice our trade in America, because almost everything we did would’ve been considered criminal. Instead, we were sent half way around the world, to a country that was alien in almost every way imaginable – except their humanity.
We want it both ways when war comes: destroy the enemy, but don’t be too messy. Or, if you are, don’t let it be seen on television, on the evening news, or on the internet. That’s why, in order to live with ourselves, we compress murder, looting, arson, theft, and assault into one short word: war. We don’t want to admit it – we don’t even want to talk about it – but those acts, if not exactly excused, are rationalized, while war itself is celebrated, in a perverse way, as selfless patriotism. A good deal of the celebrating seems to be done by people who know nothing of war.
I’d been home from Viet Nam about eighteen months, and was walking along a sidewalk in a small East Texas college town with the woman I would later marry. A car backfired nearby and I was flat on the concrete in an instant; not thinking at all, just reacting. It happened so quickly, I wasn’t aware of what I was doing. It’s a good thing I didn’t have a gun in my hands that afternoon. There’s no telling what I might’ve done, just out of instinct. Or fear.
At home, in the civilian world, hyper-vigilance is symptomatic of a disturbance or disorder. In war, though, it’s a necessary skill for survival. During my year of war, I had to constantly be aware of where I stepped, what I heard. I had to watch for anything that looked odd or out of place, any noise or sound that might warn me and my friends. I learned that skill so well in Viet Nam that it’s never left me.
Despite all the years that have passed, I don’t like to be surprised. Like an electric shock, for an instant I’m taken back to a mental terrain I don’t like to revisit: a place where surprise could mean death, if you weren’t careful enough. Sometimes, even if you were careful, it could still mean death.
Nights are difficult at times. There are few street lights where I live, so it’s quite dark at night. Things hide in the darkness. That’s what I know. Dangerous, threatening things hide there. I know that, and I know that I’m not there anymore. Viet Nam. Not physically, anyway. But some part of me can be transported there emotionally. When I take the trash out at night, or go to my car, I often feel wary. I don’t like not being able to see. I don’t like the idea that someone could see me before I see them. At times like that, I just have to make myself live with the feeling of exposure. I have to will myself to do it; just like I did in 1969 and 1970.
Forty-one years later, I have returned to Viet Nam – looking, questioning, hoping. Much has changed in the four decades since I was last here, yet the area in which I lived for a year is much the same: the rice paddies, the water buffalo, the impossibly laden bicycles, and the innocent-looking green mountains. I think about how fortunate I am. A lot of people, some of whom I knew – Tom, Richard, Hugh, and others – spent their last days and hours in those mountains and rice paddies.
I have returned, but I don’t know what I expect to find. Perhaps closure, whatever that means. You close up wounds to stop the bleeding, but my wounds, the ones I didn’t know I had suffered, continue to bleed.
How do I describe an empty place, or tell someone where it’s located, or what filled that emptiness, years ago; before I volunteered for the Army, before I went to Viet Nam the first time? Before life was changed forever.
The emptiness is not just within me. It surrounds me. It separates me. Perhaps you can’t see it when you look at me, but it’s there. Sometimes I see it in others: men and women whose lives will always be marked by the almost incomprehensible things they have seen and done. I see it, and want to help them, but I can’t. I’m not strong enough, not powerful enough, to erase the memories that come in the night when, deep in sleep and alone with our thoughts, we’re unable to defend ourselves.
Centuries ago, the danse macabre portrayed Death leading people to their graves.
We too danced with death. Our lives were difficult and dangerous, and tedious. We tried to act as though we were amused by it all: how close we came to death, how terrifyingly exciting it all was. Because we were young and naïve, and thought we were too young to die, we did things that sometimes were brave, and at others, just reckless.
We tried to be friends with death in those days, thinking that if we were on speaking terms, if we were on a first name basis, we would be safer. We thought that if we became Lesser Angels of Death – and we did become that – then the chief Angel of Death would leave us alone, since we were in the same line of work. And there was so much work to be done.
Some of us got on such good terms with death that we didn’t stop when we left the war and came home. We became so entangled with death that we drank, shot up, fought, lashed out, and fell down in the darkness. People we knew – friends, lovers, neighbors – became so comfortable with death, that they forgot how much they were loved. Then they forgot how much they loved life. When they had forgotten so completely that it seemed as though life meant nothing, that love had never really existed, and all of their light had been scattered by the darkness, then, long after they had met, in Viet Nam, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, long after they had parted company and thought they were safe, Death came for them.