The Long Walk Home
by JP Miller
The day after I arrived in the Nam, I was immediately choppered out to Camp Radcliffe in An Khe where we were tasked to run operations in the central highlands as support for infantry units. I was green, a newbie, or a boot, and I took a ton of shit from the veterans. But soon the tides of war took over and as I flew mission after mission with those guys, the magical mystery tour began. We flew insertions, extractions, dust-offs, close in fire support and limousine service for VIPs. It was in that hazy soup that lay just above and around the various hills that we scurried back and forth with supplies, the wounded and the dead. I was one of them—a killer and a prospective casualty. Nothing can make you a member of a group faster than being a potential dead man or a member of a gang faster than being a killer.
Even so, they continued to dog me about my picture of Marion, my celluloid girl and me standing together on the dock with the Shrimp boat in the background. They were like “damn surfer dude”, you got a gook girlfriend in the world and you’re here in the middle of this shit, fighting gooks. Dude is crazy, man”. Yeah, Marion was half Vietnamese and we ran a shrimp boat together on the island where I was born. They started calling my girl “Charlie”.
The 7th Cavalry regiment, 1st Cavalry Division was an eclectic group of Huey pilots, AH-1 Gun-ship jockeys, CH-47 crew chiefs, door gunners, stoners and adrenaline addicts that flew around Nam looking for the shit. We were fucking scared, lonesome, and out of our minds. We drank ourselves to sleep and took amphetamines to wake-up. We were mama’s boys, husbands, cousins, in-laws and little brothers. We were bus drivers, house painters, street hustlers, and poor. We were black and white and then some. Some of us were even soldiers, forced into a fight that we would never get up from. We were riding the sky right next to the grim reaper and we were his favorite death machine. The Army had traded in their horses for helicopters and we called ourselves the Air Cav—“death from above”. It was Custer’s old unit. The story of Little Big Horn should have told me something.
We ferried pimply faced infantrymen with one foot in the grave into hot LZs and ferried their bodies out. We rode Huey gunships fitted with rocket pods and mounted smoking hot 30 cals into storms of AK and mortar fire to provide cover for dust-offs that came to retrieve the dead and the wounded. I was a door gunner, a lamentable profession, who lit up the enemy with 7.62 mm fire from an M-60 machine gun mounted at the open door. I fired into the tree line, pouring big fat rounds of copper colored slugs into the bodies of the Viet Cong or the NVA. It was an endless exercise in sending the Vietnamese to nirvana. My arms and shoulders ached like hell after a mission.
And, they just kept coming at us, dropping on their dead faces or pulling out Chi-comms which would likely explode at their feet as they ran towards the LZ. Most of the time it was a turkey shoot but at other hot LZs, the AKs pinged and holed the bird all around me. I never had a chance to duck or jive but my luck held out. I had ridden shotgun with three different crews. Two of the six pilots were killed trying to pick up wounded infantry. Two of the crew chiefs died from AK-47 fire or glancing RPG attacks. The gunner before I came along was killed after falling out of the Huey when the chopper clipped a palm tree and his safety strap ripped. No one ever saw him or his body again.
The fog in the central highlands was like a blanket of wet cotton. The formations laid low and the peaks of the hills would poke out, reminding us to keep altitude in order to avoid a hill top or mountain wall. So, when we were tasked with a mission to run security for a general and a congressman, we could see the fog roll in and the stench of death whiff by our hooch—a kind of half tent and half sandbag hovel that was home. We knew it was a shit mission, too risky regardless of what the VIP’s wanted. The brass, on a fact finding tour merely wanted to get back to Nha Trang Airport after only two stinking, mud-covered days at the OP. The General was a rotund three-star with a habit for cigars while the congressman was a slight and sweaty man in a polyester suit that drank Jim Beam and had a foul mouth, always trying to joke with us about Vietnamese women. We gave the General the one finger salute and simply ignored the congressman as he stank of sweet death and alcoholism.
When we left the tarmac and ascended, the congressman saluted towards the base and promptly vomited all over himself. The air was dense and bumpy as the squadron of Hueys and Cobras climbed into and above the clouds. We, the crew, just looked at each other and said nothing. On this mission, WO2 Roberts was our pilot. He was from San Diego where he flew in circles for a television station reporting on the traffic until he was drafted. Tex was a new WO1 and our co-pilot. He was from Wyoming and had flown a crop-duster. He wore the Air Cav cowboy hat and had never been to Texas. D.C. was our crew chief and soul brother. He was from some Washington D.C. shithole where he left all his soul brothers behind and escaped the mean streets for another kind of war. They called me Matt at first then ‘surfer dude’ after I told them I was from a beach surrounded island. No matter that I had never been on a surf board. I was the 60 gunner and didn’t realize exactly what I left behind. But it had to be better than this clusterfuck.
The hop over the highlands into Nha Trang was a long run to the beach. We had made this trip a few times and knew what we could encounter. We stopped at an Artillery FOB near Ta Hoy to pick up fuel and booze and were off again within 45 minutes. But VIPs are always bad luck. They yucked it up while we knew that the area to Nha Trang was Charlie’s turf and flying over it and through the valleys was almost sure to draw fire. We had always avoided this area and hoped that our mojo would carry us through.
We all carried something. D.C. brought along his peace signs around his neck and pictures of his ugly family. Roberts, a blond, blue-eyed son of California, carried his surfboard in case we could get down-time at the beach. Made me wonder why I was ‘surfer dude’. Tex, well, he mounted a set of long horns to the chopper above where we had painted “Death from Above” which made it look like some giant green cow with a death wish. Me, I carried only three small but essential things, a bottle of Jack Daniels, a .45 caliber pistol and my picture of ‘Charlie’. The pistol was strapped to my side and the bottle was hidden above in the asbestos insulation. Then D.C. worked his magic and cut on the music as loud as possible. It came to us over the radio chatter from these old speakers he had mounted inside and outside the bird. We began dancing and hopping. Roberts and Tex started to sing and we all joined in the party.
Oh, a storm is threat’ning my very life today.
If I don’t get some shelter, Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away.
War, children, it’s just a shot away.
War, children, it’s just a shot away…
D.C. was yelling out the Stones and rolling a joint out of the view of the VIPs.
“Yeah, man. It’s good, man. Gimme shelter, baby. Gimme shelter.”
We all took a hit off the joint while the VIP idiots screamed through the noise.
D.C. put on Along the Watch Tower by Jimi Hendrix and we were quiet, just enjoying the ride.
There must be some kind of way out of here, said the joker to the thief.
There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief…”
After we began the descent to Nha Trang, the VIPs relaxed and chattered over the intercom about the titty bars around the city and the beach bunnies at Cam Ranh Bay. The fog had long disappeared and we opened up into a sun worshiper's paradise. We followed the declining valley floor and the chill from the high altitudes relented and we were again sweating in the penetrating heat that only Vietnam can provide. I unstrapped and left the M-60 swinging to make plans with the crew when we started taking light weapons fire. A crack appeared in the canopy and Roberts banked left pulling enough Gs to kick me down to the fuselage flooring. I stared straight down at the ground during the turn and saw the winks of AK-47s staring right at me. Roberts climbed as hard as he could and the winks put holes in the floor and one in the general through the chin and out the top of his head. By the time I started firing my 60 at the ground, the VC had disappeared. The general was dead, slumped over in his jump-seat while the congressman screamed. His face was pimpled with the general’s blood and he kept trying to get out of the seat although he was belted into the thing. Then the VC again opened up on us as we made our approach through a valley of rice paddies.
Our ship began to smoke and I knew we were losing hydraulics. There was no more altitude to gain. We drifted with just enough power to clear the tree line and then they opened up on us again with the distinct sound of a DS.51 machine gun. It must have been the NVA. RPG’s flew by and I could hear it’s swooshing through the air as we passed through its field of fire. I fired wildly but had no effect. Roberts fired off all rockets, yawing back and forth. I heard a popping like a fuselage rivet giving way and then D.C. took one in the gut. He simply sat down as we fell from the sky and stared at us one at a time. I called out to him over the din of the crumbling bird.
“D.C.! No, man. No way brother. Hold on. We’ll make it. I promise. Don’t close your eyes D.C. Don’t do it soul brother.”
Then we saw the beach over the palms and the light off the water filled our eyes with hope. It was close enough, just close enough to ditch in the water. As the water came closer we dropped to 70 meters and passed over part of the hospital. The REMFs came out to see us dropping. They waved at us and toward the beach. When we reached ten meters the nose dipped and pushed us down into the shallows. We hit softly because we had no air speed but the bird flipped over Tex’s longhorns and we sank into about fifteen meters of water. I caught my breath just before the flip and swam out the door way to the surface. Roberts popped out—choking but alive. After some time diving and searching, the bodies of Tex and D.C. floated up and we pulled them to shore. Tex had broken his neck and his head lay at an odd angle. We dived to look for the congressman but he was still strapped in tightly upside-down beside the general, both with a white fish-face long past help.
We pulled D.C. and Tex to shore and lay beside their bodies looking at the sky. I rolled over to D.C. and searched his uniform for his letters. I knew they would be there in his upper left pocket. They were soaked and streaked with blood. On the one decent envelope it said “For Mama” and I took it. Then I just couldn’t hang on any longer. I cradled D.C.’s head and talked to him. I told him I would get the letter to his Mom. I told his cold eyes that when I got back to the world, I would look her up and tell her how it was. I would lie just a little. I would tell her how D.C. was a great soldier, a hero, and everybody loved him. Tex looked like he had never been alive. His head lolled on the sand and I brushed away the grit from his face.
Looking at DC and Tex put me totally out of my mind for a few minutes. I ripped off my fatigues from top to bottom, shook off my boots, and went swimming with nothing on but my dog-tags. I floated on the beach water, the waves pounding my body and I looked out at the South China Sea. I saw an old, filthy and rusty shrimp boat pass before my eyes. They were calmly pulling in the nets without even a glance at the smoke from our overturned chopper. It was just another day for them and they were focused on their own survival. I noticed that I was screaming and choking in the surf and Roberts came by to pull me out.
I was in country for a mere eight months and they already called me the “old guy”—simply because I was twenty and had survived the longest. As time crawled, soldiers came in shiny airplanes and went in shiny aluminum caskets. The boots, or rather the young scared draftees came to us in ones and twos, sometimes threes. They were dumb as rocks, never having enough sense to take cover from mortar attacks or forever forgetting ammo, flak vests, chow times and guard duty. Often the brass would form crews from boots and send them up together, never having a chance and never to return. The turnover was a hated exercise in complicity. Orders were given to integrate them into the unit and we ignored them. They came expecting a welcome and we hated them for being here. Dumb fucks. They replaced a dead friend or at least someone we had gotten used to having around even if that was for a mere two or three months. So, when Klingensmith, the Huey pilot arrived, he was treated no different. He was ignored, picked on, hated and already dead to us. He was a WO1straight out of Ft. Rucker, Alabama. In Nam, there is nothing more hated than a newbie officer even if he’s technically a Warrant Officer.
Yet, after some time and unlike most recruits, he became a running buddy. We renamed him Hippy because he refused to cut his hair and painted a peace sign on his flight helmet. I can’t say exactly when this happened. Maybe it was when I was assigned to his crew but maybe not. Perhaps it was when he went to Pleiku City with us and got so drunk we had to pull him out of Mama-san’s clutches and drag him back to base. I like to think it was when we went to Saigon on a three-day pass and he cried over a party girl who he said looked just like his girl at home back in the world. He lost all his saved piasters at that Saigon night club. Maybe that’s why he was crying.
The war went on and tried to kill us every day. I hated my job from the start and do not want to imagine the numbers of men and women and children who fell into my gun sights. But I did everything I could to protect the boys on the ground and to get myself back to the rear. Nam continued on and on and I became angry. I was angry at the government. I was angry at the Vietnamese for killing each other. I was angry at my buddies and myself, who despite arriving in this beautiful country in an innocent passivity began to change into giant green monsters roaming the mountains and valleys ripping anything good apart and killing everything else. But, mostly I was angry at Marion. She hadn’t written one stinking letter to me. After a while and after too many dead, I stopped writing her and my mother. I burned the letters and figured that if anything happened to me then it would be easier on them if they didn’t receive anything posthumously. I kept the pictures and put them in a plastic, waterproof sleeve along with a letter that after reading it 100 times, still sounded insane.
Eventually Charlie figured out our strategies and set up ambushes deep into the valleys around Pleiku and along the hills of An Khe. So many infantry scrambled into our chopper after an operation, fighting for space and hanging to the skids, that many dropped back to the ground and just burst. The fighting was fierce and confusing. Many soldiers simply vanished into that canopy of jungle and we left them behind, never mentioning their names if we ever knew them.
Toward the latter part of my year-long tour and not far from our base in An Khe, the NVA made a push to reclaim the central highlands by cutting off highway 19 and attacking the sad remnants of the infantry on their way to Pleiku City. We were in support mode but the fog around the mountains kept us down. I was playing cards and drinking beer in my hooch when the rockets started raining down and mortars walked up from the tree line to the air field. The sun was not quite up and a dark purple, blood-red sky covered us. Not all of us got into our ships and into the air. The NVA had completely surprised us and pressed the attack with waves of screaming infantry.
Hippy, Roberts and I got aloft only because we had prepped our ship the day before and parked it close by expecting to support elements of the South Vietnamese Army on its way to Pleiku by highway 19. We banked left and right, digging for more altitude. On the ground, I saw the ARVN units simply fold and run. The ensuing traffic jam was a massacre as the NVA and Viet Cong poured on the fire, especially meant for their brothers. We dipped down to help and I went through five belts of ammo before I saw my barrel steaming. I changed the barrel and Hippy fired the rockets from their pods into the melee. After what seemed forever, we got some altitude and went back to provide cover for the base. There were burning hulks along the tarmac and we saw that someone had called Arty but they were missing. Round after round of friendly 105s landed directly on the base catching the soldiers left on the ground between the darkness and the daylight.
I was about to resume firing at the tree line when an RPG landed in our lap. It put a man-sized hole through the canopy and Roberts simply disappeared in a red haze. Hippy worked hard to auto-rotate that bird down but we were a little too high. We came down into a stand of palm trees just outside the wire, not big enough for a tennis court but it broke our fall somewhat. We fell from the sky bouncing off trees and I saw the tail rotor spin off into the jungle. When we hit, I could feel a bounce and then it settled over on its side. It didn’t take much time for me to see that Hippy was alive and so was I. Robert’s right boot was sitting upright in the cockpit with part of his white leg showing.
We quickly crawled over and out of the open door. Hippy’s face was bleeding and there was a big crack through the peace sign on his helmet. My arm was twisted and my head lightly bleeding. I pulled a piece of glass out of the top of my head and saw that it was the remnants of my last good bottle of booze. They killed my Jack Daniels but my arm was fine. . I had the .45 but knew I couldn’t hit a damn thing with it. Before scooting off into the jungle to try and get a sense of where we were, Hippy ran back to the ship crawled back in and began rooting around for what I thought would be a weapon or radio. But, he came stumbling back, holding a bag of weed, smiling through all that blood “They didn’t get my weed, man.” He said that as if it was the most natural thing.
“That’s great man.”
We fumbled our way through some dense jungle away from the base and found a stream. We thought better of it and went further on away from the beautiful sounds of battle. After some time, the heat and sweat began to cover us. We smoked some weed and lay on the ground in the tree line across from a giant, stinking rice paddy. We figured no one else would come through this wet, smelly mess, especially as the battle was about ten or more klicks away. The weed worked its magic and both of us passed out from tension exhaustion.
It was just becoming dark when I woke. The jungle blocked out the rest of the sun. It was still and dark where we lay below a berm with our backs to the creek. Something had startled me out of a nightmare and I woke up Hippy. I could make out the sounds of someone trying to be quiet. The canteen rattled, then stopped and sloshed. The sucking sound of muck put an adrenaline-laced fear into me that you don’t get being up in the birds. That’s a different kind of fear. The fear of falling.
As the night came full on, Hippy and I hugged the earth and waited while the sucking sounds came more often. We knew that a squad of soldiers was making their way through a rice paddy. Were they gooks or friendlies? We couldn’t see them so we lay there until the sounds disappeared and waited some more.
We scuttled backwards toward the creek. Hippy and I never said a word until we reached the creek and the sound of the water masked our voices somewhat.
“Damn Hippy, what was that shit?”
“Goddamn Gooks, man. They are headed to An Khe just like the rest of the gook army.”
“Could have been friendlies, Hippy.”
“That’s just as fucking bad, man. They would have lit us up for sure.”
We slipped into the cool water of the creek and lay on our backs after getting our fill of water. We had no canteens, no maps, no weapons and only a faint idea of where we were.
Hippy kept quiet for a longer time than usual and when he spoke he had a serious ring to his voice.
“Dude’, I’m getting outta here, man.”
“Give me a couple more minutes, Hippy.”
“No, Dude’. I mean I’m getting outta here. Nam.”
I still didn’t catch his meaning.
“Look Dude’…how much shit do we have to take…how many times do we have to fall out of the fucking sky till we are bagged and tagged. I’m through, Dude’. I’m leaving Vietnam. I’m walking to the ocean at Quy Nhon which is almost due east and I am getting on a boat outta here to Thailand maybe. I don’t care where I go, so long as there ain’t no war. There it is.”
“You can’t just walk away from the war, Hippy. How the hell you gonna do this? They will get you for desertion, man. We have to hook up with our unit. They are probably looking for us.”
Hippy laughed, got out of the water and started rolling a joint.
“Shit, Surf Dude, they ain’t gonna look for us, man. We are KIA or POW. They will never waste their precious shit on finding us. Goddamn all of An Khe is wasted. We are free.”
I stared at Hippy while he fumbled for a dry match in his waterproof pouch. He cupped the match and his joint to maintain light disciple. Although the smell was like horse dung and probably spread through the heavy air like a cloud of vaporous shit.
“So what is your plan, Hippy?”
That was all he said as he hit the joint and looked at me squinting through the smoke and fading light.
“That’s your plan, man? Walk?”
Hippy held his breath and then said “Yeah, you gotta better idea. It’s only about 50 or 60 klicks to the beach from here, Dude”
I thought about going back to the crash site but that would be covered with VC by now, probably tracking us. I looked at the stream and shook my head.
“Fuck, Hippy. Alright man. I’m going with you. What else am I gonna do? Let’s dee dee, mao.”
It was as dark as only the Nam could get. The double canopy left no hints of light except a little reflection on the stream. Hippy took point as we humped beside the stream on firmer ground. I could hear no noises except a few M-16s and AK-47s trading rounds from the battle at An Khe. I just hoped that this stream was going east or better ESE away from the noise.
We humped all night through mud, some elephant grass and around bamboo stands keeping contact with the stream. My fatigues were slashed all over where the razor sharp grass had cut through and sliced my arms, legs and face. I could feel the blood oozing out and my uniform stuck to me like mud. We came to a bend in the stream where it widened and stopped to drink some water. Then I heard trucks going past us, one after another, the opposite way. I knew we were right beside highway 19 and we hit the ground. I pulled out my .45, fumbling it into the water.
“What the fuck, Hippy?” I whispered.
“Just means we are going the right way, Dude. This stream parallels 19 until we cross 19 up ahead and then it’s straight to the beach. No problem.”
“Are you high, Hippy…cross the 19…fuck, man.”
“Yeah.” Hippy whispered to me.
“Yeah, I’m high. Come on, Dude. We can make it by daylight if we don’t run across anymore bamboo.”
We got up slowly and came to the place where the stream had to cross 19. It was dark and deserted now. We lay there for about half an hour below the road in a mass of mud and crossed as fast as we could. We came to the right side of the stream and it opened up into a loud rushing roar that would mask our sounds. But then again it would cover Charlie just as well. My uniform was falling off of me. The elephant grass cut long grooves across the knees and sleeves. But the chill of the night air was gone and the lower we went with the stream, the warmer and thicker the air became. The stream became sandier. I was emboldened with this development. We were getting close to the coast. I could just make out the briny smell.
By this time, I could almost make out a lighter purplish sky about to emerge from the South China Sea. When we came to an opening in the canopy, the stream ran out just before the beach at a small tropical village. It felt like a tropical resort with all that white sand and palm trees swaying back from the morning offshore breeze.
“We made it Hippy.” I said.
Hippy just said, “Well, yeah Dude.”
He was confident all along and just knew his salvation lay along the endless strip of sand. When we reached the beach, I was as tired as a person could get. All the tension in me was released as we waded into the surf. I pulled off my fatigues, threw them on the sand and discovered that I had leeches covering my skinny body. I picked them off in the surf where the salt water curled them and made them easier to remove. The blood trickled down into the waves from where they had a death grip on my legs, arms, crotch, and neck.
Hippy and I looked up and down the beach and saw no US military presence, which amazed me. I had been nowhere in country where the US military didn’t have a some kind of presence. The village proper was a set of 15 or more primitive fishing hooches made from bamboo and military cast-offs of plastic sheets and corrugated tin coverings, probably pulled from the sea. The fishing nets hung about in the emerging sun waiting for the day.
“I’ll be damned, Hippy. You brought us straight to a goddamn resort.”
That was all Hippy said as we got back into our ragged uniforms and lay exhausted on the beach staring ahead at the most beautiful dawn I had ever seen. I fell asleep like never before, feeling my body go slack after hours of humping through dense foliage. The fear of ambush, mines, punji pits, and the VC melted from my heart. I felt happy and thought about my home on that island back in the world. I wondered if I would ever see that small island beach again. Hippy was right beside me but we didn’t say a word to each other as the tide went out and took our hopes and fears with it.
When I woke, the sun was burning my face. The village was a bustle of chores and the boats were barely visible on the horizon. Some children, naked and shoving at each other, threw sand and shells at me. I laughed and scared them off by standing up and yelling “boo”. I was a white-faced giant ghost in the village. When I looked over to where Hippy had slept, no one was there. All that was left was his rotting uniform, some jungle boots and a set of disowned dog tags. Even before I could search the village for Hippy, I knew he was gone. For good. I gathered up his military remains and took them to the village to burn. I gathered some driftwood, borrowed some fire from their cooking stoves, and incinerated any remains of John Klingensmith, also known as Hippy. It was a bittersweet act. I had lost Hippy to the war but in a positive way. No body bags were needed. No last rites. No crying and telling stories. Somehow I knew he would make it to Thailand and live a good life. He was MIA as far as I was concerned and I hadn’t laid eyes on him since our Huey went down. That was my story and I would stick to it.
Before I could really get into the groove of the village, the Air Cav caught up with me. I was walking south towards Qoy Nhon along the beach looking out at the boats haul in their catch and a squadron of Hueys flew over my head, dipping down to take a look at the white guy wearing only the fatigue pants. I didn’t wave or cause any kind of recognition. I just turned around and walked back to the village that harbored me. I knew it was only a matter of time before HQ had a Jolly Green out to get me. I was made.
At the An Khe HQ, after a couple of days of sleep and decent food my crucible began when a butter-bar lieutenant approached me and ordered me to the Colonels large, sandbagged hooch. I didn’t bother to salute the butter-bar but promptly appeared in front of the Colonel and saluted his silver oak leafs. I had never met the man before and he looked like a poag—one of those rear area fat guys that never strayed off the reservation.
“So, you’re Sergeant Matt O’Brien?”
I was still at attention.
“Ok. At ease, Sergeant.”
I relaxed a bit and crossed my arms behind my back. Then I noticed a Major and First Lieutenant sitting at a desk with pen and paper. They were staring at me and the hooch was becoming warm. Sweat dropped from my brow.
“Your statement here says that you were ‘shot down in the An Khe AO while attacking the NVA troops beyond the wire and into the tree line and continued to engage the enemy as they attacked the ARVN retreat’…fucking ARVN. That’s all they do is retreat.”
“Uh, Yes Sir.”
I looked at the major as he wrote down some fucking details which I had no idea about.
The Colonel continued.
“Says here that you, WO2 Roberts and WO1 Klingensmith escaped from the air field under mortar attack. It goes on to state that your bird crashed about 10 klicks out of the An Khe AO.” All that shit true?”
“Yes, Sir. Absolutely sir.”
“And…WO2 Roberts was killed by RPG attack while there was no sign of WO1 Klingensmith after the crash.”
“Yes Sir. I searched the immediate area and left after I heard AK fire moving towards me. I figured he fell out or was captured, sir.
“All right, all right. Enough of that. We searched the crash site and found a shoe with a foot still in it…a shit load of blood and guts and a flight helmet with a peace sign on it. Do you have knowledge of this, Sergeant?”
“Yes Sir. It was WO1 Hip…I mean Klingensmith’s helmet, sir.”
“Did you make your way east along a stream to the coast without any compass or weapon at your disposal?”
“Yes Sir. Well, I had my side arm but dropped it in the stream and couldn’t find it in the dark.”
“Is this statement a true account of what happened on that day as far as you know?”
The Colonel looked at the Major and sucked his teeth. He walked out the door towards the officers chow hall.
The Major spoke calmly and directly. He looked at me, piercing my lies. I just knew they had me.
“Sergeant O’Brien, you are hereby promoted to Staff Sergeant, awarded the Bronze star and Purple Heart for your actions and wounds on and about…blah, blah, blah, exemplifying the highest standards of …well you know the drill. It only remains for division to rubber stamp this paperwork.”
The Major looked uncomfortable. I imagined it was because as a staff officer he was unlikely to get any medal. I could tell he was burning inside for one and I would have given him mine if I could.
“Sergeant, you may want to know that WO2 Roberts will be awarded the Purple Heart posthumously.
“You’re excused.” I did an about face and went to exit the hooch.
“Oh one more detail, Sergeant.”
I did another about face and the major looked down at his paperwork trying to find the right page.
“Also, WO1 Klingensmith will be awarded the Army Commendation medal based on the statements you have supplied.”
The Major looked perplexed as if I had called him a hippy—not a thing you would call a career officer.
“What did you just say, Sergeant?”
I clinched my fists and stood at attention, staring straight ahead.
“Hippy. His name was Hippy, sir.”
Glossary of Military Jargon and Acronyms
Insertions: Flights ferrying infantry or artillery personnel from a base or outpost into the bush or possible combat situations.
Extractions: Just the opposite of the above. Flying out troops from the bush or combat areas.
Dust-off: The extraction of dead and wounded personnel from combat areas by “slicks”—stripped down and lighter helicopters that could accommodate more dead and wounded.
Gook: Derogatory term used to refer to Vietnamese people both north and south.
Charlie: Viet Cong guerilla soldiers. It comes from brevity radio code “Victor Charlie” meaning VC.
Huey: Bell UH-1 Iroquois utility helicopter. There were many variations from slicks to Gun-ships
AH-1: The Cobra attack helicopter based on the UH-1 body and engine.
CH-47: The Boeing “Chinook” helicopter, twin rotor, which could accommodate heavier loads and lift more personnel than the UH-1. Also known as the “shithook”, referring to its Chinook name and its ability to lift heavy artillery pieces and supplies to the field.
LZ: Landing Zone: Usually an area natural or created by removing impedimets like small trees and bushes that would prevent landing of a helicopter. There were many “hot” LZs where the helicopters would land while taking fire from small-arms and mortars.
30. Cal: Older and larger caliber machine guns that could be mounted to the Huey helicopter for increased firepower. Used for close in support for infantry on the ground.
M-60: Standard NATO caliber (7.62mm) machine gun used by infantry and cavalry both. Usually mounted in door of Huey helicopter and operated by one door-gunner.
NVA: The regular North Vietnamese Army.
AK-47: Standard Assault weapon (7.62mm) of choice by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. Because of its reliability, large round and modest cost it remains the most popular assault weapon in the world.
Chi-comms: Chinese designed and manufactured grenades used by both Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. It had a wooden throwing stick topped with a canister of small deadly ball bearings.
RPG: Rocket Propelled Grenade. A single soldier operated, shoulder mounted rocket, with reusable gas propelled shaped charge.
OP: Operations Post, Operation (specifically planned military action); also Observation Post.
WO1: Warrant Officer First Class; WO2: Warrant Officer Second Class.
Mikes: Brevity Radio code for letter M. Usually used to designate minutes or millimeters.
FOB: Forward Operating Base is any secured forward military position, commonly a military base that is used to support tactical operations. It may or may not contain an airfield, hospital, or other facilities. The base may be used for an extended period of time.
DS. 51. DShK 1938. A Russian built machine gun that fires the large .51 caliber rounds. Used as anti-aircraft fire and by large unit ground troops.
REMF: Rear Echelon Mother Fucker. Referring to the rear area safe zone military personnel.
105s: The M-101, 105 millimeter Howitzer.
Klick: One kilometer or .62 miles.
“There it is.”: Term used by military personnel to denote acquiescence to a situation.
KIA: Killed in Action; POW: Prisoner of War.
“Dee Dee, Mao” or didi mao. Vietnamese term meaning to get going, get moving, or to get out of here.
Punji Pits: Pits dug by Viet Cong with sharpened wooden sticks under a camouflaged covering. They were commonly smeared with dung to cause infection.
MIA: Missing in Action.
Jolly Green. Jolly Green Giant: Sikorsky MH-53 Pave Low series is a long-range combat search and rescue helicopter used by the United States Air Force.
Butter Bar: A Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Armed Forces.
AO: Area of Operations.
ARVN: Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
Bronze Star: The fourth-highest individual military award and the ninth-highest by order of precedence in the US Military. It may be awarded for acts of heroism, acts of merit, or meritorious service in a combat zone.
Purple Heart: United States military decoration awarded in the name of the President to those wounded or killed, while serving, on or after April 5, 1917, with the U.S. military.
JP Miller is a disabled veteran, writer and journalist. His stories and essays have appeared in SouthernCrossReview, The Literary Yard, PIF Magazine, The Greanville Post, Pravda, Cyrano's journal and Countercurrents among others. He lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina beside the Atlantic Ocean.