A guy pinned me right to the wall the other day. I was giving a talk to some basic and advance course officers out at Fort Ben. I'd just finished raising all sorts of hell about the pernicious nature of the "civilian equivalency" theme, and about the uniqueness of the soldier. The question period began. This young 2d Lieutenant stood up, and, sort of slow and careful like, he said, "Sir, would you please give us your definition of a 'soldier'?"
Well, at first, I thought he was a smart ass, but then I looked more carefully at his eyes, and I saw that he was sincere, and concerned, and serious . . . and it was really me who was the smart ass for thinking that he was. At any rate, I tried to wing it and define "soldier" then and there. I didn't do worth a damn. I know. I watched his eyes.
Some days later, back at the War College, there came a letter from the lieutenant-- his name is Tom-- and he said, "Sir, when I asked you what is a soldier, I didn't mean to stump you or embarrass you. The thought and response you gave to the question was good, and yet you still weren't able to put your finger on what is a soldier. This is the same way I feel, but I'm just starting out (like you once were) and I need to learn what a 'soldier' is."
Well, young Tom, many people, many times have tried to define "soldier". General C.T. Lanham did a real fine job with a short, beautiful poem called "Soldier" in Infantry Journal, way back in 1936. You got to read that. Another guy, named Herbert, I think, did a sorry job with a long, sick book called Soldier, just a few years ago. Some people define a soldier as a "summer chimney". And here lately, various Congresspersons have been defining a soldier as simply a "civilian equivalent".
I suppose only a fool would try to sit down and actually write out a definition of "soldier", so, I'm going to have at it-- in one, sometimes-dated, often-maudlin, sentimental sentence. Here we go. A soldier is . . .
. . . a boy now a man, telling his ma, and his father, and his brothers and sisters, and his girl, and his friends that he's "going in" . . . a line of silent young men sitting on benches in the recruiting station . . . promises of a boundless future, of stripes and bars, and education, and retirement, and medical care, and PXs and commissaries . . . many forms, of many shapes and several colors, signed (right by the recruiter's "x") with little comprehension and a world of faith . . . the long ride on the hound, and the loud, boastful, hollow, pitiful tales of touchdowns scored, and money made, and women conquered . . . a long and sleepless night in a strange hotel, in a strange town, with six men to a room, and a government-paid breakfast, and more dieselly hound . . .
. . . the initial silence and uneasy jokes when the MP waves the bus through the gates of the first Army post . . . loud sergeants with clipboards and lists of names ("You people git over there!") . . . young men with special problems, trying to get an audience with authority . . . the first, shattering look in the mirror after the barbers, smirking, have done their deed . . . the fast flight of the "Flying $20" . . . uniforms that will "shrink", or "you'll grow into" . . . the consolidated mess and a new buddy on detail, scraping trays . . . the first, clumsy attempts to spit-shine a boot . . . the impossibility of carrying a duffle bag with the shoulder strap . . . the break-up of newly-established, desperately-needed friendships . . . the first ride in a covered "deuce-and-a-half", with dust rolling in over the tailgate
. . . the company area, and "The Man", the first awkward and ragged formation, the countless and incomprehensible rules, and the fear, and the insignificance . . . long rooms with posts down the center, and lined-up rows of lockers, and lined-up double-decked steel bunks with bare webs of wire springs, and lined-up, side-by-side commodes . . . the schemes, arguments, threats and bargains about the relative merits of upper and lower bunks . . . the cold, impersonability of supply corporals . . . the haughtiness of cooks behind serving tables in the mess hall . . . chronic, epidemic, unadmitted, and unmanly constipation . . . sad, lonely, aching, hot and wet-eyed homesickness, and the probing flashlight of the CQ, searching for the white towels on the bed foots of the KP detail . . . the quick flicker of time between Lights Out and Reveille . . . the pre-dawn formation, dimly lit by 40-watt firelights, and dark shapes of men numbly silent except for shuffling feet, and sniffles, and coughs, and the hard, flat, unquestionable barks of the First Sergeant ("Not so fast there, Rodriguez!"), clipboard at the chest and pencil making checks . . .
. . . thighs sore from "High Jumper" . . . heels and tendons aching from new boots, shoulders black and blue from the KD range . . . lickin' and stickin', and Maggie's Drawers and cold, sour, smelly target paste, and constant threats, and break time pushups, and the strange, new sound-- snap!-- of rifle rounds passing close by overhead . . . exploring the first intriguing mysteries of C-rations . . . lips burnt on a hot canteen cup, sweetened with sugar dipped from a torn paper sack with a great, sticky spoon . . . the search for brass in the grass, and the droning voice in the tower, and the sergeants' shiny boots, and the shiny helmets, and cleaning rods . . . and raking sand, and painting rocks, and signs: "FIGHTING FIRST", "SECOND TO NONE", "DIRTY THIRD", "FEARLESS FOURTH" . . .
. . . the wonder, magic,and confusion of Army weapons and equipment ("Good morning, men. GOOD MORNING, SERGEANT! Today we will cover the nomenclature of the M1A1.") . . . huge mock-ups, and great charts, and scratchy movies of frostbite horrors and things venereal, and sergeant's names on podiums, and officers standing in the rear by Herman Nelson . . . the downright haunting beauty of Jody, sung by unseen troopers moving somewhere out in the dawn . . . (Jody's got your gal and gone") . . . the joy and strength and oneness of boots pounding the pavement at a steady 180 per . . . a young recruit with all his teeth pulled, and the tears in his eyes not from the pain . . . sleeping on the springs with the mattress rolled, late on a Friday night . . . empty boots standing side-by-side, laces tied . . . unneeded razors and toothbrushes and bars of soap, all alike, lined up with a string . . . stenciled names put on clothing, backwards, with too much ink . . . the clink and rattle of dog tags as a thin youngster tosses in his sleep . . . the thunk of a major's polished "tanker" boot striking the tailbone of a terrified trainee, crying and crawling under barbed wire and bullets . . . the clenched fist and gritted teeth and animal urge to smash a fist into the face of authority . . . cold, gray, November wind whipping coal smoke around the mess hall . . . cold, gray fingers cleaning cold, gray grease from the mess hall sump late at night . . . a box of stale and tasteless Cornflakes stolen from the mess hall, smuggled under a field jacket, and devoured, symbolically, by buddies after Taps . . .
. . . the PX and milkshakes, and cokes, and Snicker bars . . . thin stationary with black and gold Army eagles, and air mail envelopes . . . long lines of young troopers by the pay phones outside . . . the sissies at the Service Club . . . proficiency tests, and M-1 pencils, and parades, and the silliness and impotence of pistol belts and .45's hung under too-fat officer bellies . . . pictures for the family with uniform and American flag, and a too-big hat . . . the company photo with cadre in the front row, CO in the center, and the guidon . . . the yearbook, the dufflebag, the AWOL bag, the spit-shined shoes, and the first leave form -- signed . . .
. . . the strength of a mother's hug . . . the wide-eyed and unashamed admiration of little brothers and sisters . . . the dog, excited, peeing on the rug . . . Dad, a fellow man . . . home-cooking, too-much, and force-fed . . . a contrived meaning for "S.O.S." . . . outrageous lies, and war stories of mean sergeants, and physical agony, and special buddies . . . the smooth escape of an errant four-letter adjective . . . the strange feel of driving a car again . . . excitement and anticipation at the sweetheart's front door . . . the warmth, the wonder, the fragrance, and the dizzy feeling of the first kiss. . .
. . . pride in the uniform, and visits to the recruiter, and favorite teachers, and coaches, and buddies, and old hangouts, and the main street . . . the careful nonchalance in response to friends ("How you've changed!") . . . the inexorable, too-fast passage of squares on the kitchen calendar . . . the last supper, the manila envelope with records, and orders, and last name first . . . that goddamn unmanageable, awkward, sonofabitchin' dufflebag . . . the late-night and last possible hound . . . the darkness, the sadness, the loneliness . . . and the Big Dog movin' thru a rainy night . . .
. . . sergeants with clipboards . . . classrooms and more equipment, and more charts, and officer instructors ("Remember the life you save may be your own!") and more tests . . . a pay-day night on the Neon Strip, and country music, and tough women with hard eyes, and sateen skirts, and tiny, tattooed butterflies . . . a fight with civilians in a parking lot ("Man, I ran away from home when I found out my mother was a civilian!") . . . stompin', and kicking and slashing with antennas torn off cars, and not being able to hit a guy hard enough . . . a broken nose, a black eye, a cracked tooth, scraped knuckles, and a morning hangover, and a headache, and braggin' and lying, and the melancholy of Sunday night horse cuts and beans . . .
. . . bulletin boards with three sections, and little lettered label signs, done by the company "artist", found by the First Sergeant . . . papers posted in perfect alignment, and lined-up lists of names, and "by orders of", and fancy, affected, unreadable signatures . . . and the strange mathematics of detail rosters...morning agonies at the urinal, and disbelief, and a pre-reveille formation in raincoats only, and arms inspections and "non-specific urethritis" . . . the company commander, and the First Sergeant, and the section NCO . . . and the curious, ambivalent mixture of personal shame and manly pride . . . loud talk, feigned unconcern, and penicillin . . .
. . . a Post theater graduation ceremony, with flags and "chairs, steel, folding, OD" on the stage . . . a colonel reading a "speech"...the pumping adrenaline and thundering heart of standing in line to shake hands with a general . . . the agony of trying to remember: shake with the right above (or below?); take with the left (or right?) below (or above?) . . . the smile and glittering stars coming closer . . . a little diploma . . . an MOS, another stripe, another set of orders, and the unfathomable, omnipotent mysteries of EDCSA, and TDN, and WPOA and RPTNLT-NET, and 2172020 57-1021 P810000-2190 S36004 (812783.12001) . . .
. . . and again, the damnable dufflebag . . . and home, and sweetheart, and time passing, and good-byes and a new Army post . . . the loss of identity and significance and personal worth at the replacement depot . . . the insecurity, the boredom, the telephone bargaining for "good deals" by NCOs and officers . . . the new unit, and the company sign with a smaller sign beneath ("NO AWOLS IN 43 DAYS") and a brass-tip-brassoed guidon . . . and outside the Orderly Room, the full length mirror with a sign on the glass ("SOLDIER, CHECK YOURSELF!") which gives the soldier personal significance and a gift of trust and confidence . . . and inside the Orderly Room, another sign which takes it all away ("A UNIT DOES WELL ONLY THOSE THINGS THE BOSS CHECKS!") . . .
. . . reveilles, and classes, and details . . . guard mounts, and guard posts, and guard paddles, and trying to surprise the O.D. on his 0300 inspection tour . . . "bitch sessions" with the C.O., who calls them something else . . . IG inspections, and pre-IGs, and pre-pre IGs . . . officers and NCOs with endless checklists . . . paint, paint, paint . . . and clean, new paperwork . . . and the trading value of acetate, green tape, and sheets of plywood . . . long, weary hours of cleaning and shining, and extra equipment hidden in ventilator shafts . . . a last-minute, high speed, tip-toe trip to a stringed-off latrine reeking with pine oil, and a quick swipe with a handkerchief at a wet dab of overlooked scouring powder...the disappointing, anti-climatic, one simple-assed question ("Where are you from, son?") and cursory glance of the inspector . . . the critique in the dayroom, and numbers, and decimals, and adjectives, and rationalizations . . . and the wet handkerchief mixing company in the pocket with the broomstraw, the piece of lint, the burnt match, and the tiny paper balls of field-stripped cigarettes . . .
. . . convoys rolling out past the Motor Pool gates, past NCOs with clipboards, past officer jeeps with long antennae . . . steady speeds, and equal distances, and lieutenants with strip maps and compasses and march tables, and hesitancy, and "route conferences" with their NCOs . . . dispersed vehicles and camouflaged nets, and eyes and lips burning from grease sticks, green/brown, M1A2 . . . the smell of the inside of a tent on a hot afternoon . . . the whoosh and thump of immersion heaters lit off wrong by scared KPs . . . Lister bags and iodine water and tactical feeding (" Spread out, goddamit!") . . . Mermite cans with containers empty except for the yellow-green juice of now-departed peas and spinach . . . the rattle of mess kits sluiced in boiling water . . . NCOs checking for grease and the "hot clean" rinse . . .
. . . man-holes in the ground (" . . . two by two by you") . . . and grenade sumps, and firing steps of sand, and the strange, secret smell of deep earth . . . and little, wiggly, inch-long things with a thousand legs and pinchers . . . the artful camouflage of yesterday wilted by the hot sun of today . . . the difference between a straddle trench and a slit trench . . . long marches at night, and red flashlights, and the unrelievable bite of shoulder straps, and feet up on packs at breaks . . . and foot powder, and NCOs checking, and dark platoon leaders whispering encouragement . . . the mystery, authority, and unseen strength of a jeep approaching quietly with cat-eyes . . . tense, last-minute checks, and green star-clusters, and leaders shouting and cursing in the fog and half-light of dawn . . . the acrid, gagging smoke of smoke grenades, the crack of M-80s . . . and the whistle and boom of artillery simulators . . . strange "enemy" with crests on their helmets and green uniforms with no buttons on the shirtsleeves, running from the hill . . . and "victory", and critiques, and camouflage, and range cards and marches, and rain, and wet holes . . . .
. . . more of the same, and the passage of time, and more schools, and more promotions . . . and the sweetheart now a wife, and kids, and a puppy, and furniture from "Sears and Rawbutt", on time . . . more orders, more posts, and long moves across the land in middle-aged, middle-priced Fords and Chevys with loaded roof racks, wrapped in torn plastic, whipped by the wind . . . economy motels, and hamburgers, and sticky, face-down, grape-red jelly bread, and wet, smelly diapers and awful fusses, and smacked kids, and threats of divorce neither meant nor believed . . . rents too high, and quarters too small, and sofa legs broken, and treasures lost, and movers anxious to leave and full of assurances ("Just sign right here") . . .
. . . orders to a combat zone, a move to "home", and a leave filled with sadness, and seriousness, and love . . . good-byes at the airport, the sweet-heart wife trying to smile . . . the dad, now gray, with eyes cast down, and breaking voice, and a little tremble in his chin . . . the Delta bird, winging west in the late afternoon . . . the sadness, the loneliness, the thoughts of little children . . . and a certain thing they once said, and a certain way they once looked . . . final processing at the POE, and shot records, and dog tags, and equipment checks, and the awful agony of the last stateside phone call, collect, to the kids and the sweetheart-wife ("I love you, darlin'") . . .
. . . the mighty surge of the Starlifter, nose-up and tail-down from California and west toward the sun . . . a familiar face in a nearby seat, and the old, often-played games of "where in the hell did we serve together?" and "did you ever know 'ole whatsisname'?" . . . box lunches with boiled eggs and apples and Milky Ways, the steady drone of the big jet engines . . . watch hands changed forward (or backward?) . . . callous, callused stewardesses . . . and the gift shop and snack bar and men's room at Midway . . .
. . . a bright green land with great V-shaped fish nets in the river mouths, the blazing white of salt pans, and the curving contours of tiny rice paddies stepping down the sides of the hills . . . shell craters, and bomb craters, and tracks of tracked vehicles, and grass huts, and villages, and dirt roads, and ears popping, and paved roads, and jeeps, and a helicopter, and an airfield, and the skronk! of wheels down on the Pleiku strip . . .
. . . the heat and the dazzle and the newness of an alien land as the door opens . . . the long line of home-bound troops waiting to fill the still-warm and still-littered seats of the still-whining Starlifter . . . a waiting truck, and another replacement center, and more of those phone calls (" . . . but General So-and-so told me I would be assigned to . . . "), and cold, impersonal briefings, and insignificance . . . a long, long letter home, telling of the newness of this land, and of the loneliness, and of the love of a husband and father . . . a morning formation, a list of names, a check on a roster, and a dusty road to an infantry division's base . . .
. . . orientations ("Don't ever pat one on the head!"), and classes, and confusion, and bewilderment, and war stories (" . . . and the damned NVA cut off the lieutenants head!"), and anticipation, and clothing and equipment issued and stored, and moves by truck, jeep, and helicopter to the forward bases of the combat units . . . the battalion fire base, and the battalion commander, and the company commanders tanned, tough, and thin . . . apple-cheeked lieutenants with little blond moustaches, and grizzly NCOs, and scruffy troopers laughing, joking, competent . . . barbed wire, and sand bags, and artillery pieces, and radio antennae, and holes, and trenches, and bunkers . . . and great, gaunt, mahogany trees torn and blasted and chain-sawed . . . rucksacks, and rifles, and steel helmets and troopers reading pocket books, poorly printed . . . the awe, and bewilderment, and confusion, and frustrating inability to rapidly assimilate and adapt . . .
. . . the chopper with no doors and no seats, on the battalion pad . . . door gunners and black machine guns . . . frightening speed across the roof of the jungle canopy, with tree tops blurring by . . . tight, canted circles, and the whop! whop! whop! of rotor blades as the bird eases down an open shaft in the jungle . . . troops on the ground, looking up, serious, busy, with longer hair, and beard stubble, and fatigue trousers split open at the rear, and no drawers . . . a company commander with old-man eyes, and maturity, and authority, and strength . . . a radio operator with the quick, alert look of a "college kid" . . .
. . . Claymore mines, and machetes chopping brush, and troopers digging, and fresh holes in the ground, covered over with saplings and sandbags . . . C-ration beans, with C-ration cheese and "Loosiana" hot sauce, warmed with heat tabs . . . a coffee cup made from a partially opened can, lid bent back for a handle . . . nighttime, and animal sounds, and whispers, and distant artillery, and the cold of the Central Highlands pouring down unseen into the bunkers . . . fitful sleep, and soft-gray light, and dawn, and sore muscles, and cleared throats, and broken wind, and wry commentary ("Salute! Awake! Arise! And behold the birthing of a bright new day, you scroungy rat-bastards!") . . . and cigarettes, and malaria pills, and hot coffee, and yawning, and scratching, and bitching . . . short briefings, and Claymores packed, and sandbags emptied, and weapons checked, and a dirty column of dirty men moving out through the jungle along a mountain ridge, bent over under heavy rucksacks, eyes peering forward under the rim of steel helmets, green towel around the neck to wipe the sweat and ease the bite of shoulder straps . . . fingernails black and split, sleeves rolled up, and old, nasty, dirty bandages put on by "Doc", and patches of swollen, red-brown jungle rot . . . and around the trooper's neck, things hanging and swinging: dog tags and rosaries, beads and can openers, crosses and bandoleers . . . and on his head, the steel, with its camouflage cover the billboard whereon he proclaims his individuality, with names and words of wisdom and wit, and fear, and hope, and love . . . JESUS . . . JANET . . . MOM AND POP . . . FTA . . . HO CHI MIN IS A ROTTEN BASTARD . . . SHORTIMER . . . COLOR ME GONE . . . GOD MUST LOVE ENLISTED MEN 'CAUSE HE MADE SO MANY OF 'EM . . .
. . . the column moving forward along the ridge . . near the rear, a short timer, afraid to be up where contacts are made, afraid to be back where folks get left, and lost . . . near the center, the CO and his shadow and bunkermate, the radio operator, both mindful of the stories of snipers in trees, and COs shot square between the eyes, falling, staring, without a word . . . and up front and out alone, all by himself, the pointman, moving down the ridge with raw courage, and the sure knowledge that sooner or later some pointman would be in the sights of an NVA weapon . . . and the young, lanky, flat-nosed, white-eyed black whose skill and courage as point was legendary ("Man, 'day calls 'dat cat 'de 'Cat'!"), and who time and again volunteered to walk in other men's boots . . .
. . . and late afternoon with a final halt, and bunkers dug, and trip flares out, and trees blown down to let choppers in . . . the distant throb of a gas-turbined Huey, the vulnerable belly now overhead, and the whop! whop! whop! and the whap! whap! whap! of careful descent as the bird settles and squats among the holes and splintered stumps . . . dirt, and paper, and maps, and leaves, and ponchos, and green t-shirts whirling everywhere, and the angry, nervous voice of the pilot ("6, this is Ghostrider . . . will you clean that goddamn crap off the pad?") . . . a trooper with all his gear jumping from the skids and running to the edge of the pad, bent low with one hand on his steel . . . boxes of banded C's with half-moons on the side, and demolitions, and chain saws, and rope, and a case of beer, and a box of grenades, and great, big, orange bags of . . . mail! . . . and letters, and longing, and a little boy in an Easter suit
. . . and another night, and another day, and many more just the same--curious blends of monotony and tension and physical exertion and a special sort of discipline marked not by shined shoes and short hair and salutes, but by proficiency and dependability and automatic habits of combat never learned in school . . .
. . . the moving column, and the noonday break, the cold C's lunch, and the CO with his boots off and his feet in the sun . . . the powerful, pungent, scrungy, skanky smell of feet and socks too long together . . . and rucks up once again on bent, young backs, and jungle boots and jungle fatigues down a jungle trail . . . and way up front, the sounds of contact . . . at first, tentative, like firecrackers on the 4th . . . and then the staccato bursts, and the thumps of grenades, and the building crescendo . . . excited voices on the radio ("John, get the hell up here!") . . . men dropping to their knees, rolling out of their rucksacks, and moving forward behind NCOs . . . a helicopter overhead, suddenly on the scene, whopping and circling . . . the gradual fade of the fire to the front, and troops squatted down, looking around, alert and afraid and big-eyed and ready . . . the CO on the radio ("Ranger, this is 6 . . . 3 NVA in a bunker . . . killed 2 . . . we got one KIA . . . request Dust-off to take him out.") . . .
. . . dead little men in khaki clothes, and entrenching tools with whittled handles, and short black hair, and too-big helmets and too-long belts . . . troopers searching for pistols, and papers, and insignia, and souvenirs . . . splotches of fresh red blood on the ground, and on the bushes, leading down the hill . . . a Dust-off bird hovering up above the jungle canopy, with its winch cable hanging down to the ground . . . the lifeless body of the young black pointman, lifting and turning slowly up into the bird, web straps under arms, head hanging down, feet together . . .
. . . a spooky night, and deeper holes, and more flares, and more alertness, and the deafening, splitting crack of protective artillery registering nearby . . . and briefings, and patrols, and excited reports of fresh tracks, and new commo wire, and recently-emptied enemy holes, and seven NVA seen running down a trail . . . another company comin' in, and more trip flares, and Claymores and concertina, and artillery pieces slung under big, fat, bug-eyed Hookbirds, and helicopters, and colonels, and conferences on stumps and ammo boxes . . . and all night long, the rumbling thunder of the great Arc lights out across the valley, ripping life and limbs and sap from trees and men . . .
. . . a huge, jolting explosion close by, then more, then the firecracker sounds, and flashes everywhere in the pre-dawn dark . . . all around, the snap! snap! snapsnapsnap! and the whir and whack of frags . . . men running, and yelling, and some already groaning, and flares popping up above . . . the green fireballs of NVA tracers, moving slowly at first, then zipping by . . . small dark figures coming forward, in ones and twos, up the hill, outside the wire . . . and into the wire, and through the wire, and into the bunkers . . . and fire, and explosions, and the trembling earth, and dust, and great geysers of dirt, and boards, and boxes, and bodies, flying through the air . .
. . . and on the radios, the fear and the fire and the fury ("Ranger! Ranger! My eyes . . . I'm hit . . . I can't see! . . . please . . . somebody help . . . I can't see") . . . ("This is 6 . . . the little sonofabitches are up on the artillery bunkers . . . beehive the bastards!") . . . ("Grenadier, we got an awful fight going . . . I need all available air strikes . . . right now . . . get me nape and CBU") . . . ("81, 6, get that damn company moving and get up here . . . we got 'em in our bunkers!") . . . ("Jesus Christ! They're coming up behind us! . . . they're goin' to cut us off!") . . . ("John, the CO's hit bad . . . send a medic and ammo . . . over by my bunker") . . . ("Where in the hell is that rocket fire coming from?") . . . ("Ranger . . . we got to pull back from our bunkers . . . I've still got some wounded there, but the little bastards are all over us . . . I can't hold on here.") . . . ("81, 6, goddamnit, where are you?") . . . ("Ranger . . . whop! whop! whop! . . . this is Big Daddy . . . whop! whop! whop! . . . what is your present situation?") . . . ("3, I know we've got wounded in there--now put the goddamn Redleg right on the goddamn bunkerline! VT . . . Now, goddamnit!") . . . ("This is Tonto . . . I can't see your firebase . . . it's all fire and smoke and dust . . . Jesus!") . . . ("82, 6! 82, 6!") . . . ("Hummingbird, can you run that air right across the end of the gun-target line? . . . that's where the little bastards are.") . . . ("This is Grenadier . . . we've got two companies airborne and proceeding to your location . . . were can we put them in?") . . . ("26 Alpha, we got to have ammo! ASAP!") . . . ("Pete, see if you can move those wounded up behind the CP") . . . ("Jesus Christ! They got a flame thrower!") . . . ("81, 6, I moved the Redleg . . . now work your way down the bunker line . . . lot of 'em in there . . . be careful!") . . . ("6! 6! They're right in the next bunker! . . . they killed Jackson!") . . . ("3, Alpha's hit in the belly, but he's still sitting there running air strikes . . . ") . . . ("Ghostrider, goddamn you got guts . . . if you can't see the pad, can you see our flag? . . . drop the ammo right on it!") . . . ("Well, kill the little bastard if he's in there!") . . . ("Ranger, they're pullin' back!") . . .
. . . and on and on through the grim hours, with the noise, and the snaps, and the whirs, and the whacks, and the yelling, and the thunder, and the fire, and the smoke, and the dust, and the troopers darting and crawling, and throwing; the shooting, and cussing, and dying, and bleeding . . . and the big Phantom birds screaming down behind the hill to lay their nape . . . and the artillery pounding steady . . . and the fingers of a dead trooper slowly growing stiff as his hoping, hoping buddy holds his hand . . .
. . . and dawn at last, and exhaustion, and relief, and "victory" . . . and the grotesque, everywhere clusters of ragged dead enemy outside and inside the wire . . . and big Tiny crushed under fallen timbers in a bunker . . . and 'ole Smitty, who honestly enlisted to fight a second time for his country, lying there trembling, with one eye gone and his hand reaching out . . . and the handsome recon platoon leader, "Steve the Stud", blown to hell by a rocket . . . him and his Doc, too, when the final reserve of medics and radio operators and the headquarters guys had gone, without question, to help Company D . . . and the strange smell of belly wounds, and all the bloody bandages . . . and all the dead troopers silent and still under ponchos, lined up --for the last time-- on a ragged line of litters by the pad . . .
. . . and shot-up companies dragging their weary, wore-out asses aboard the birds . . . and the rear area, the rest and refit . . . and more of the same . . . jungle and rain, and mines, and ambushed convoys, and the red dust and tall bamboo of Pleiku, and Dak Pek, and Dak To . . . assault helicopters on short final, the artillery shifted, the firecracker sounds down below on a hot LZ, the gunships making their staccato runs, and scared, grim troopers, weapons ready, beads dangling, sitting in the open doors of another chopper flying right alongside . . .
. . . and still more, day after day with time growing short, and odds running out, and buddies dead or med-evaced . . . and night patrols, and fire bases, and combat assaults, and the always-dreaded shout ("Incoming!") . . . and captured NVA with Time magazine articles . . . and the splendid victory of Tet, with hundreds of NVA lying scattered in heaps and wide rows outside Kontum, where the deadly gunships had caught them coming, uncharacteristically, across open rice paddies in broad daylight (" . . . they was all doped up and goin' to a party . . . musta been . . . crazy little bastards . . .") . . . and the victory strangely, puzzlingly, lost, somehow, somewhere, up in the air waves of the ten thousand miles between Kontum and home . . .
. . . and "the Day", suddenly here, and the quick goodbyes, and shucked equipment, and that 'ole steel helmet, and the beat-up, never failing submachine gun . . . the relief, the peace, the sense of completion . . . the fire base, the base camp, the strange feel of pavement . . . and the hot, hot shower with gallons and gallons and gallons of water . . . and great, long, deep hours of untroubled, buck naked, spread-eagled, flat-backed, mouth-agoggled sleep .
. . . a dusty, mildewed, khaki uniform, unworn for a year and still starched, drawers, white ones, and a too-big belt . . . a handful of treasures from the PX, a black-faced Seiko, a footlocker, that damned dufflebag, and a set of orders . . .
. . . Nha Trang, and the Starlifter once more, and blue water down below, and great thunderheads up above, and a hundred quiet sleeping men, and Midway, and Stateside, and cars, and neon lights . . . the worry about not enough seats on the eastbound plane, the ticket, the lift-off, the shunting aside of attempted conversations, the building anticipation and excitement, the ache in the loins, the pictures and thoughts running thru a dozing mind, trained to stay half-awake . . .
. . . Kansas City, and St. Louis, and Atlanta ("Man, if you die and go to hell, you gotta change in Atlanta!") . . . and the skronk, and the bags, and the cab, and the street, and the house. . .
. . . shrieking, flying, socks-down children, and screen doors banging, and khaki knees in the grass, and somehow, four little, precious people held close and tight and fiercely and long . . and a tired head, with a little , pressed into soft tummies, and filled with nothing but boundless joy . . . and big brown eyes, with tears . . and once again, as years ago, the warmth, the wonder, the softness, the fragrance, the dizzy feeling of the first kiss . .
. . . unintelligible, excited, simultaneously-jabbered stories of school, and scouts, and drum majorettes, and the neighbor's dog . . . the treasures from the distant PX . . . a supper of who knows who cares what, and more talk, and bedtime, and kids asleep, and an endless night of soft talk, and moonlight, and touches, and sweet tears of thankfulness, and the pent-up love of a thousand thoughts and dreams . . .
. . . a clear blue morning, and a bright yellow school bus, and an apple-green housecoat, and hot black coffee . . . elbows up on the kitchen table, and the first, tentative plans for the next duty station and the next move . . . and . . . and if all these wondrous things, which thousands of us share in whole or in part, can-- by some mindless "logic" of a soul-less computer programmed by a witless pissant ignorant of affect-- be called "just another job," then I'm a sorry, suck-egg mule.
Tom, my friend, that's the best I can do . . . .
[RETURN TO T'NAILS]