Abraham Lincoln gazed down from his marble monument at the old couple walking silently past without speaking. They were the first visitors on this cold November morning. A misty fog hovered just above the Reflecting Pool. It was early and the morning crowd hadn’t arrived yet.
They paused for a moment at the Korean Memorial. Through the mist, the gray ash soldiers frozen in time looked lifelike. The old man’s wife thought perhaps her husband may have changed his mind this time and would not continue. But he moved on and she followed. The old man stopped again when The Wall came into view. Reluctantly, he approached the black granite with a heavy heart. His wife stood at a respectful distance. This was a private meeting.
The old man removed his Blackhawk cap and held it close to his chest. He reached out to touch the wall, but couldn’t. His hand hovered an inch away by some unknown force like two opposing magnets pushing each other away. He wasn’t surprised. It had always been this way. He knelt down, bowed his head and said a silent prayer. When he stood up, his wife stepped forward to escort him home. But this time the old man didn’t turn away. Putting his cap back on, he raised his head to the heavens with tears in his eyes, and began to speak:
“You remember me, I’m Sam. I’ve been here before on several occasions. I’m sorry I don’t know your name but it’s written somewhere on this wall. I hope you can hear me. I don’t know where you were born or raised. I don’t know your family. I don’t know if you had brothers or sisters or a wife. Perhaps you were a father. I don’t know. But you were a good man and you shouldn’t be here. I’m sorry I killed you.
“My burden is heavy. I’ve prayed for you many times and asked for forgiveness. I’m nor sure if you have forgiven me or not. Perhaps if I explain the circumstances of your death, you will.”
The old man paused for a moment, took a deep breath and continued: “I’m not sure where to start. It has been so many years and I’ve tried to block it out of my memory. But that has proven impossible. I think about you all the time. I have come to the conclusion that a man can’t get over something like that. I just have to learn how to live with it. I guess that is why I am here.”
The old man paused as his memory drifted back in time. When he was ready, he began speaking in a loud and clear voice: “It was 1968. That was a long time ago and my memory isn’t very good anymore. I’m not sure of the exact date but I think it was May, a clear day with no clouds. I remember that. My unit, the 7th Squadron 1st Air Calvary flying out of Vinh Long, was operating deep in the Delta of South Vietnam when we received the call for help. You and I had never personally met, but you knew who we were because we had assisted you on other encounters with the enemy.
“It wasn’t you who made that frantic call for help. I’m not sure who he was. I thought he was a Special Forces Officer like you while talking to him over the radio. But perhaps he wasn’t. During the inquiry I overheard someone say something about a civilian, possible CIA. I’m sorry, but can’t remember. I don’t know his name either, but I’m sure you know who he is. I hope you have forgiven him. His burden must be as heavy-if not heavier-than mine. I pray he’s all right.
“When I arrived on the scene, the battle was already in progress. The man on the radio said he and his men were pinned down by enemy fire coming from a line of trees on the other side of a rice patty. He asked me to put some rockets into the tree line. I thought I knew which tree line he was talking about, but something inside me told me to hold my fire. I asked him to mark his position and direct me in from there. He popped smoke and I confirmed his smoke was green. He said the tree line was to the east across the rice patty from the smoke. I knew exactly where he wanted those rockets. But a voice inside me kept saying, ‘Don’t do it.’ I now believe God was talking to me. I’m not sure.
“I radioed that I would put a rocket into the rice patty to confirm I was at the correct spot before deploying my rockets. I could tell by his voice that he was annoyed and getting impatient. My marker rocked fell harmlessly in the center of the rice patty. The man confirmed this was the correct spot and instructed me to put some rockets in the tree line on the other side of the patty. Again a little voice inside of me told me something wasn’t right. I asked him if all his men were accounted for. He assured me all of his men were with him.
“As I lined my Cobra up for my dive, I saw men running in the tree line and thick under brush. I fired two pairs of rockets. A moment later a frantic voice came over my radio, ‘Cease fire! Cease fire! Those are our men down there!’
“I pulled out of the dive and climbed to altitude. I prayed, ‘God please don’t let this be true.’ The radio came alive with many voices. It was very confusing. My mind was racing. I didn’t know what had happened. Then I heard my Commander radio for the slick helicopters to respond to pick up the casualties. At that moment I knew my biggest nightmare had come true. I had wounded or killed some of our own soldiers.
“The radio traffic stopped and there was nothing but total silence. I felt sick to my stomach. I wanted to go back to base. But I knew I couldn’t. I had to protect the helicopters as they picked up the injured. My wounded. I had to be mentally prepared to put more rockets into the same general area if our helicopters came under fire.
“I stayed high above the battle zone as they picked up the casualties. As soon as they were airborne, my Commander’s voice came over the radio ordering me to return to base.
“When I landed at Vinh Long, there were several officers and MP’s waiting for me. As soon as I shut down the Cobra and exited, they separated my co-pilot and me. We were not allowed to speak to each other or anyone else. They took us to different locations. They put me in a room by myself for a long time. My mind was still racing. I was confused as to what had occurred. I didn’t know if anyone had been killed or not, or if I had killed them. But I was almost sure that I had.
“A little while later a Colonel came into the room and introduced himself. He placed a tape recorder on the table and pushed the record button. He said his name, the date and time and that he was interviewing me in a formal investigation of the death of an American soldier. Then he read off some numbers. I guess those were the case numbers. I wasn’t sure. He advised me that an official investigation into today’s incident was being conducted. Then, he advised me of my rights and asked if I wanted a lawyer.
“This scared the hell of out of me. I thought I might be going to prison. I asked him how many people had been killed. He said one American Special Forces Officer had died. I felt absolutely devastated. I can’t remember if he told me if anyone else had been wounded or not. For the life of me, I can’t remember that Colonel’s name.
“Anyway, I told him I didn’t want a lawyer and would answer his questions. If I screwed up, I wanted to face the consequences. After the interview was over, he handed me some paper and a pen and told me to write down everything I had said for the official report. When I finished, he had me sign the paper and he left.
“Apparently there was no recording of the radio traffic at the battle zone. Everyone in the air and on the ground during the battle had to be interviewed. Of course I had no idea what they were saying.
“I was kept isolated for several days while the inquiry was being conducted. I wasn’t under arrest but I was restricted to my room, the latrine, the showers and the mess hall. The Colonel ordered me not to speak to anyone about the incident. It was a lonely time for me. I went over the battle again and again in my head to make sure everything I had told them was the truth and that I hadn’t left anything out. I had a difficult time sleeping and when I did, nightmares haunted me. I kept reliving the battle over and over in my dreams. I didn’t know what my future held for me, or even if I had a future. I kept dreaming I was on a plane headed back to the states to be court-martialed. It was a time of uncertainties and isolation.
“A few days passed before the Colonel returned. He told me the investigation was completed and that I had been completely exonerated of any wrongdoing. He said I had put my rockets right where I had been instructed to and had taken more precautions than most pilots would have. He said the death of the soldier was deemed an accident. I was off restrictions and free to return to duty. The Colonel shook my hand and told me he appreciated my cooperation and honesty during the investigation, and then asked if I had any questions. I asked him why was I told to fire on our own troops? He said the man who told me to fire the rockets into the tree line did not know some of the soldiers that accompanied him had left to pursue the enemy.
“What happened to him?” I asked. “The Colonel didn’t answer at first. He closed his briefcase and walked to the door. Then turned to face me. ‘As I said, it was an accident, a very tragic accident.”
“I didn’t know what to say. It was over, but then again it wasn’t. How could it be? An innocent man had died at my hands. I kept wondering what had happened and how it happened. The Colonel knew all the details but he wasn’t going to share them with me. He asked if I wanted to know the name of the man who had been killed. I asked him not to tell me. I didn’t want to know. He left and closed the door behind him. Now I wish I knew your name.
“After the war, I came home and tried to live my life as honorable as possible. I was a loving and faithful husband to my wife, a good father to my kids and a good grandfather to my grandchildren. It was important that I lived a respectful life so you would know that I am not a bad person.”
The old man took a handkerchief out of his back pocket and blew his nose. Then he reached up and gently placed his hands on the wall. “Please forgive me.”
He stood for a few moments until he felt his wife’s hand on his shoulder. “It’s time to go home, dear.”
As he turned to leave, he noticed other visitors had come to pay their respect at The Wall. They too had kept their distances, silently listening to him speak, waiting for an old soldier’s private vigil to end. Everyone had tears in their eyes except his wife. She was smiling believing that perhaps now her husband could find the peace he has sought for so long.
Real Soldiers Don’t Cry
The jungles below looked inviting from a thousand feet in the air. But that was an illusion. Tigers, cobras, bamboo vipers and the Viet Cong made them a dangerous place to venture. We were somewhere between Saigon and Cam Ronh Bay in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam in 1969. A wounded American solider was down there somewhere and it was our job to go get him out.
So much blood covered the floor of our UH-1H Dustoff Helicopter that my boots were sticking to it. I’d lost count of how many extractions we’d made that day. Hopefully this would be our last. We hadn’t shut the engine down in the last sixteen hours and I could barely keep my eyes open. I wondered how the pilots were able to keep flying.
The river below ran westward in a deep valley. It was the only river I had ever seen in Vietnam with clear water. All the rest were a murky brown color and smelled like sewage.
The sun had already set in the western sky. We wanted to make the evacuation quickly before it was too dark to see. Spotting smoke on the south bank of the river, the pilot confirmed the smoke thrown was yellow. The jungle was so thick we couldn’t see the ground. The only place to put the helicopter down was in the river. We couldn’t tell how deep the swift water was. Soldiers lay in the prone position on the bank pointing their rifles toward the opposite side of the river in case we started taking fire.
The pilot pointed the nose upstream and put the skids in the water. He maneuvered the helicopter as close to the bank as possible without the rotor blades hitting the overhanging trees. Several men carried a stretcher out to the waters edge. Other troops locked arms, forming a human chain and started wading out into the swift water. It took about a dozen men to reach the helicopter. The first guy to reach us wrapped his arm around the skid to keep from being washed away. The pilot struggled to keep the helicopter steady in the current as the belly of the chopper slowly filled with water.
Four men lifted the stretcher onto their shoulders and waded into the swift current. The only thing keeping them from being washed downstream was the human chain of men already in the cold water. They had to be careful to keep from slipping on the rocks and dumping the patient into the river. Harvey and I grabbed the stretcher as soon as we could reach it. If we lifted it too high, the wounded soldier would slide off the back of the litter. The pilot lowered the helicopter deeper into the river and we pulled him safely inside.
As soon as we had our patient secured, another soldier was brought to the helicopter. Two soldiers held him by his arms and walked him into the water. I couldn’t see any wounds or blood on him but he looked like he could hardly stand up. When he got to the helicopter, they helped him inside the jump seat on the side of the chopper. This is where we put patients with minor injuries so they wouldn’t be in our way while we’re treating the seriously wounded.
When the second soldier was secure, I shut the door and we lifted out of the water. The pilot hovered for a few moments letting the water drain out of the bottom of the helicopter. It was almost completely dark by the time we were airborne.
As we rose into the night sky, I felt sorry for the soldiers we left behind. They would have a very cold night ahead of them. As soon as we gained altitude, the medic turned on the overhead red light so he could treat our patients.
One look and we both knew the man at our feet was already dead. He had a small hole in the center of his forehead and there was brain matter on the litter behind him. Harvey spoke into the intercom. “This guy’s dead and has been dead for a long time.”
The pilot glanced back at us. “Why in the hell would they have us risk our lives for a dead guy?”
“Hell if I know, Sir. He’s shot right between the eyes and died instantly,” Harvey said.
The pilot shook his head and turned back towards the front of the cockpit.
Harvey looked ay me. “See what’s wrong with the other guy.”
I went to the side compartment to check on him. He was staring straight out into the darkness. “Are you all right?” I yelled.
He didn’t answer me. I yelled a little louder, “Hey buddy, are you okay?” He still didn’t answer me. I moved closer and reached out and touched his arm. He jerked his head around and stared straight through me. It was the strangest look I had ever seen in anyone’s eyes. Dark, blank, cold and empty. He just stared at me as if he were looking right into my soul. We stared at each other for a few moments. I asked again, “Are you wounded?” He held the stare for a few more moments and then slowly shook his head no. He never blinked. Turning his head, he stared into the darkness.
I moved back into the center area of the helicopter. “He’s not wounded.”
Harvey scooted over to the center of the helicopter and looked back at the guy and then at me. “What the hell’s going on here? We risk our ass for a dead man and some jerk that’s not even wounded.”
Harvey was right. It didn’t make sense. We would never risk four men and helicopter to evacuate a dead man. We would normally wait until we had a secured landing zone. The pilot and co-pilot glanced back at us. Everyone was pissed.
I studied the face of the dead soldier for a long time. He looked to be about nineteen years old and in good shape. He could easily have been one of my football teammates. The small round hole in his forehead and the scrambled eggs on the litter next to him was the only sign of injury. It looked as if he were sleeping peacefully. Keeling down, I closed his eyes.
His family was going about their daily business unaware that their son or brother or husband had been killed. I wondered how long it would take before someone showed up on their front porch with the bad news. I felt sorry for them whoever they were. A recurring thought crept into my mind. I had thought of it many times during the year and a half I’d spent in Vietnam. Once again blood stained these eyes of war. I was tired and saddened.
The guy sitting in the jump seat hadn’t moved. He just sat there staring out into the night. He too was about my age and he could have been one of my football teammates as well. I couldn’t help wondering what the hell he was doing in my helicopter. Anger swelled up inside me. For a moment, I thought about going back there and throwing his ass out. But we didn’t do those things. The more I thought about him the madder I got. I couldn’t believe we had risked our helicopter and our lives for that piece of shit. I was too tired to think about him any longer. I laid back and closed my eyes.
We landed at the field hospital at Camp Betty on the outskirts of Phan Theit. Doctors and nurses rushed out to unload the patients. We slid the litter towards them. They grabbed it and carried the dead man away. The black guy in the jump seat just sat there. A nurse offered him her hand but he didn’t act as if he even saw her. I started moving to get off to throw him out. By the time I got there, a doctor had grabbed his arm and was helping him down. The last I saw of him, he was being guided into the hospital. I spat on the ground and closed the door.
After fueling the helicopter, we flew to our landing pad and the pilot shut the helicopter down. As soon as I had the blades tied, I went to my bunk. The rest of the crew was already asleep. We were too tired to eat.
It was mid morning before I woke. I still had blood on my clothes and boots. Thankful we hadn’t been called out again last night. I’d never been so tired in my life. I went to the mess hall, grabbed some breakfast and drank a gallon of coffee.
Sufficiently caffeinated, I went to the helicopter where Harvey was pouring bottles of hydrogen peroxide on the floor of the helicopter. Six inches of pink foam leaked out of the chopper. “Can you believe this shit, Bray?”
I shook my head. “We’ve never had that much blood before. I’m going to have to pull the panels and clean them.”
I retrieved several buckets of water and flushed the foam out of the helicopter. A pink river ran off the landing pad onto the dirt and down the flight line. Harvey went to the hospital to get more medical supplies.
I checked the helicopter and found a small hole in the tail-boom and another one in a rotor blade. I hadn’t even known we’d been hit.
When Harvey returned, I told him about the bullet holes. He didn’t act surprised or concerned.
“Did you ever find out what was wrong with that black guy we brought in last night? I asked.
“Hell no. Probably had jungle rot or something. I didn’t see anything wrong with the bastard.”
We were still pissed from the night before. “They already knew the other guy was dead before they called us in.”
“Yeah, that was bullshit.”
“I’m going to the hospital and find out why we risked our ass for that prick.”
“I’ll go with you and kick his ass,” I said.
“He better have a good reason for being here or we might just do that.”
We were both, hot, tired and hell-bent looking for answers. We checked the infirmary and couldn’t find the guy. We went into the emergency room. The doctor who had helped the guy off the chopper was just finishing wrapping up some guy’s foot.
“Hey Doc. What was the deal with that asshole we brought in last night?” I asked.
“Which guy are you talking about?”
“That black guy who came in with the dead guy on our last load.” “The guy without any injuries,” Harvey said.
I could tell by the expression on the Doc’s face, he didn’t appreciate our comments. He poured himself a cup of coffee. “He was wounded alright. You just couldn’t see the wounds.”
“What are talking about, Doc? He didn’t have a scratch on him,” Harvey said.
The doctor took a deep breath. “The two guys you brought in last night were best friends from high school. They played football together. When the white guy got his draft notice, his friend joined up with him on the buddy plan so they could look after one another.”
Doc rubbed his chin and took a drink. “Those men had been out in the field for three weeks. They camped by the river last night so no one could sneak up behind them. They’d dug their foxholes and were trying to get a bite to eat when they started taking sniper fire. They both ran to their foxhole and jumped in. When they landed, the black guy’s M-16 discharged hitting his buddy in the forehead. They were only a foot apart at the time.”
It took a few moments for the information to sink in. “So, he was in shock,” said Harvey. Shaking his head, he walked away without saying another word.
“Where is he, Doc?” I asked.
“He tried to kill himself last night. I sedated him and we shipped him out this morning. He’s on suicide watch.”
I now knew why they had called us in. It wasn’t for the dead guy but for his best friend. We just couldn’t see the injuries to his soul. I felt terrible for misjudging the man and the situation. “Once again blood stained these eyes of war.”
“What?” The Doctor asked.
“Oh, nothing, Doc.” I walked away forcing back tears. Real soldiers don’t cry.