In Country: Spirit, Two

copyright © 2008. Jerry Northington.  campaign website or on the campaign blog.

Originally penned November 10, 2006

The mind is a very personal part of each one of us.  We all carry our memories, our personality, and the very heart of our being in our mind.  Wartime touches that special piece of who and what we are in ways that are sometimes difficult to ascertain without the lens of history.  Every war affects those who fight in different ways and yet all share some similarities.  Every individual has a story of their personal stuff.  I have pondered this subject once before here.  This time at the risk of repeating what may have already been said I offer the following story.  Follow up the street, around the corner, and across the field for another rendering from the possum’s personal tales.

Recently I was reminded of some real differences between those who are involved in the action of war and those who only stand and watch.  In the course of time in Vietnam with an infantry company in the Central Highlands, I experienced so many different times and thoughts.  News reports one morning included pictures of a wounded Marine being aided by his comrades.  Even though wounded, the soldier held his rifle in both hands across his chest as he himself was being dragged across a road and out of further danger.  The attention paid to one’s weapon, no matter whether that item may be a pistol, rifle, or some other is peculiar to soldiers exposed to danger where the weapon may make the difference between life and death for the individual as well as for comrades.  Other soldiers in support positions and not exposed to the daily rigors of combat and civilians often handle weapons with careless regard, leaving hand prints on the exposed surfaces or holding a rifle by its barrel.  Never would a combat infantryman do any such.

When the company was on the move, we each carried our rifle at the ready.  Most weapons were  loaded with safeties off, but with a round in the chamber.  Only a few carried their weapons without a round already loaded.  Whether we were on the march or on patrol, danger lurked around every bend in the trail.  Every person had different ways of accomplishing the proper posture, but all remained prepared every moment for whatever the next moment had to offer.  The constant state of high alert wears on the mind over the course of time but such is the plight of the infantryman.  We knew we not only had to remain in a posture of readiness, but we had to be truly ready to perform our duties at any given moment.

All the men in my company were young with very few exceptions.  Even the NCO’s (non-commissioned officers, sergeants) were no more than about 30.  All the rest of us were much younger at the time.  We swaggered and talked bravely, but each of us feared the next moment.  Any given moment could be our last on this earth.  The pressure was ever present even though we were reluctant to make any mention of that fact.

We lived for the moment, planning only for our last day in country.  Every man knew exactly how many days remained in their tour.  In the final days, most knew the number of hours remaining in their assignment.  In those years, rotations were limited to a finite time, unlike the rotations of today where extensions are so common.  We knew exactly which day we would be headed home.  Not one of us ever admitted openly to any chance of not going home.  Such an admission would have been a psychological blow none of us was prepared to accept.

The pressures of war come not only danger, but in real boredom.  The bulk of any soldier’s time is spent waiting.  We waited for orders, for transportation, for food, for any news of current events, and mostly we waited for our turn to leave the field or to go home.  Waiting time was often occupied by idle chatter or card games.  The nature of the time spent depended as much on the individuals involved as the surrounding circumstance.  Waiting brought boredom and weighed heavily on every one’s mind.  Any diversion was always welcome relief.  Jokes and stories of life back home were common.  We called one another nicknames to lighten the atmosphere as well as to keep some measure of barrier between ourselves.  We used cigarettes and chewing tobacco as diversions.  

Very few of my company were destined to remain in the military.  I was unusual in that I had some years of college education prior to joining the Army.  Most members of the unit were draftees with a high school education at most.  We were from all parts of the country with no particular connection one to the other beyond our service of the time.  We came and went at odd intervals without allowance for any real connection in terms of service.  Most of us had only a few short weeks together-too little time for real unit camaraderie such as might have been seen in earlier wars.  Barely knowing each other left us alone in so many ways.  Even though we spent time together, we kept our own counsel in nearly every instance.  In effect, we remained almost as lonely as if we had indeed been all alone.

The words of Christian Stroud in IRON BRAVO tell it all

War is a nasty thing.  The people who start them are hardly ever the people who end them, and the people who end them are never what they were at the beginning.  No one gets out without being touched by fire, and that fire changes everything, changes it forever.

Some men get to enjoy the feelings of battle with a sense that approaches sexual lust.  That feeling was never mine to share.  I came home with a bitter hatred of all the war meant to the men on the ground.  Until this day, I have held those feelings inside.  Today I have returned to the active state of opposition.  If I have any opportunity in this life to keep any more from suffering the trauma of war, I will exercise that chance at any cost to myself.  

The effect of war on the mind of the troops is sometimes overlooked in our society today.  Soldiers themselves may suppress the memories and civilians are often unprepared for the stories.  Civilian populations not only stand and watch during times of war, but stand in support of the troops who ARE involved.  While each group has different obligations during the time of war, it becomes the duty of each and every one of us, veterans and civilians alike, to remain supportive of the returning troops.  Only by sharing our feelings and experiences on both sides (inside and outside) will any of us find the healing we all need so desperately.  This is one more in a series of my personal sharings.  More will come as time and energy allow.  As one of so many who were actively involved I am responsible for continuing to inform those who by virtue of choice or circumstance only stand and watch.  

Crossposted at Daily Kos.

In Country: Enemy Country

(Today as I stood at the Peace Corner, I learned more than I imagined.  An older man who crosses my path each week, and has, on occasion, questioned my efforts, admitted to me, were he told to fight for his country today, he would rather go to jail.  The World War II veteran said, during his time in battle he realized, combat is not righteous; it is political.   – promoted by Betsy L. Angert)

copyright © 2006. © Possum Tales.

copyright © 2008. Jerry Northington.  campaign website or on the campaign blog.

War stories are as many and as varied as the soldiers who had the experience.  Each person sees the events of the time in different ways and over the course of time we all come to interpret our experiences in various ways.  Today we follow one more day in my life with an infantry company in the highlands of central Vietnam.  So put on your boots, grab up your gear, and walk with me down  the trail for one more of the possum’s tales.

Most of my Vietnam experience was pretty calm even to the point of real boredom.  This particular day began just like so many others but the signs were truly foreboding.  This time we had been in base camp for 5 days already.  For us that was an unexpected and welcome relief from the fatigue and routine of the field as our usual breaks were only 2-3 days at most.  This time like so many before we were given orders for departure the next morning.  All was in readiness as we prepared to climb aboard large trucks (“deuce-and-a-halfs,” two and a half ton open back cargo trucks) for road transport to our area of operation.  In loading one man caught his wedding ring on the truck and injured a hand badly enough to need medical attention.  The rest of us crowded into the trucks with all our belongings and set off for another adventurous day.

Most times like this we were dropped either by truck or by helicopter with orders to move from our landing zone to a new spot somewhere in the mountains.  We mostly served reconnaissance missions and rarely faced any real enemy along the way.  The biggest enemies we had were heat, fatigue, and the food which came in the form of C-rations.  This day was said to be different.  Headquarters informed us we were moving into the area of operation of a very large contingent of VC (Vietcong, the enemy insurgents).  To that end we divided into platoons so that we had four lines of engagement instead of the more usual single file used for regular days’ troop movements.  As began our preparations the fear was palpable.  We chattered and joked and stomped about nervously as though all this was just another walk in the park, but underneath that facade of normalcy we were all very frightened.  Fear hung in the air like early morning fog over a swamp.  You could almost cut the fear with a machete.

We began our march about midday with a trek across a rice field and maintained our four lines of attack quite well until we reached a sizeable creek in the middle of the field.  Radio silence was broken so we could decide how best to proceed.  A single crossing in the middle of the company was the only was we could find to get to the other side.  In spite of the reported danger, we went into our single file, crossed the foot bridge, and regrouped in four lines on the opposite side. 

As we continued our four column march up a hillside and across other areas of both farmland and thin forest the fear mounted.  Radio silence kept any real communication to a minimum.  At least we heard no firing either from our own or other forces.  The fear mounted with each passing step.  As the day wore on we penetrated farther and farther into what was supposed to be an enemy stronghold, we continued to find nothing of any value and encountered no resistance of any sort.  We saw not one other human being for the entire day’s march.

As darkness began to fall we reached our objective hilltop and set up camp for the night.  The moon was bright and full that night as we sat in open territory.  So many nights were in full jungle that the moonlight was a remarkably fine piece of life that night.  We in the headquarters platoon were still suffering the mental high that comes from spending a day of abject fear.  A poker game was soon underway in the moonlight.  We sat on our helmets and played our cards on an ammunition can.  Five card draw was the standard game due to the limited playing surface.  Cigarettes were lit and we were as jolly as could be in the circumstance.  Sentries began to call and complain about both our noise and our lights from matches and cigarettes.  Still we persisted far into the night without real thought as to the danger we might invoke.  Bravado was the real name of that game.

Near midnight, with nerves at long last quieted a bit we divided the radio watch into equitable segments and turned in for a night’s sleep.  One more 24 hours in country had passed and we all remained safe.  In spite of an ever present fear for our days, I among others was grateful for another benign day.

Crossposted at Never In Our Names and Daily Kos