Dictionary definition of obsession: “Preoccupation or uncontrollable persistence.”
At certain times of the year, random and intrusive obsessional memories come alive: Veterans Day. Memorial Day. March.
A month’s stay aboard the pristine, white hospital ship USS Repose comes to an end. It was a fever-induced delusional existence in an all too real hell. I find my way back to my unit — the 9th Marines, The Walking Dead. All of my gear has disappeared.
Did I have an existence before my stay aboard the hospital ship? I am a different man now. I go in search of replacements for the trappings of war.
Inside a large tent, I find piles of discarded flotsam of war: abandoned helmet, used flak jackets, and camouflaged boots dulled by too much sun and damaged by too much water. There are also mountains of ammo clips, canteens and ponchos.
Ever present is the smell of war in Vietnam. Rot. The temperature is over 100, yet an icy chill runs down my spine. I stand before a graveyard knowing what happened to the owners of all this stuff. I dress in the castoff fashion of war, no longer caring about style.
I rejoin Charlie Company. We sit under the scorching sun in Quangtri Province, a stone’s throw from North Vietnam. Listlessly, we listen to whatever nonsense some officer is saying. I notice harsh and hateful stares coming my way from a skinny, sunburned Marine. Nothing new. By 1969, everybody hates the war. Hate is all around. It is all consuming. It is the one emotion we can depend on and be secure in.
A stare-down ensues. It was only when his friend, who likewise keeps looking at the helmet, finally says, “That was our friend’s. He took a headshot,” that I understand. I take the helmet off and inspect it for a bullet hole or blood. Only the usual dings are to be found. Must have been a face shot. Putting the helmet back on, I remember thinking it didn’t do him much good; probably won’t do me any good either.
A platoon of us ride tanks on one of the endless sweeps up against the DMZ. The land consists of rolling hills decorated with sunburned elephant grass. We roar up to a depression about 75 yards wide. Blackish, foul-smelling water fills the bottom. For some unfathomable reason, the trail that our tanks had followed led into and out of the depression. Our tank, the lead one, crosses the bottom of the depression and stops at the ridge waiting for the others to catch up. The next tank makes it about two-thirds of the way over before sinking its tracks into the mud. The more it tries to get out, the deeper it sinks. We laugh.
Then tank two goes in and tries to push the trapped one out. It, too, becomes stuck. Our laughter turns quiet. It is late afternoon. Darkness is only hours away. All thoughts become one. What a gift waits for the NVA this night: Marine tanks stuck in the mud.
Tank three enters, pushes and also becomes stuck. Grim apprehension leapfrogs among us like a contagion. There is no way help can get to us from Con Thien before dark. It will be a slaughter. Trapped tanks and grunts isolated and cut off. Fortunately, our tank driver has more common sense. He secures the lead trapped tank with chains, and from the high ground pulls it out. It is another near miss. Vietnam is turning into a grotesque farce, except real lives are being wasted.
One thing a tank driver never does is drive outside of the tracks of the tank in front of him. To do so is to suck up antitank mines that populated the sun-scorched land. The lead tank in front of us drives down an embankment, unable to cross the bridge that has been blown the night before. The next one follows suit.
The driver of the tank we’re on has a different mind. He skirts the tracks in front of him and makes his own way. All Marines riding on the top come close to heart failure. Deeply tanned, weather beaten faces become caulk white. The tank commander looks about. Suddenly he slams his boot into the back of the driver’s head. I wondered if he is as angry and scared as we are, thus the boot kick, or has he done so fearing a more severe reaction from what he sees on faces attached to itchy fingers on M16 triggers?
The cargo/troop transport plane that I ride on approaches Quang Tri City. Fifty of us sit on the floor; no seats and no seat belts. Suddenly and without warning, the plane goes into a steep and gut-wrenching dive. We grab onto whatever we can and try not to tumble into one another. Screaming engines roar loud in protest. The plane shakes violently, threatening to tear itself apart. Have we been hit? Are we going down? Mere days in Vietnam, and I am already going to die?
At the last second, the plane’s nose pulls up and we make a very rough landing. Someone finally tells us it is all standard operating procedure — a hellbent dive to evade enemy anti-aircraft missiles and automatic weapons fire. It would be nice to tell us that before the fact, but being mere grunts, we are not in the need to know.
The real purpose of a two-man listening post is to die nosily. Of course, that isn’t what we were taught in boot camp. Two men are sent out a couple of hundred yards in front of a fire support base or company nigh parameter with a radio. If you heard unfriendlies, you were supposed to call it in and hightail it back to friendly lines. In Vietnam, we discovered a different truth. The sacrifice of your death; the louder, the better will alert friendlies in the area of a pending enemy assault. Makes sense in the large, grand scheme of things. A real downer, a losing proposition if you are the two unlucky ones.
Two o’clock in the morning and a bright, full moon cast threatening shadows. A whisper of wind stirs the tall, elephant grass that surrounds us. Our listening post is outside the barbed wire and minefields that surround Con Thien. I hold a radio up to my ear while my head droops in exhaustion. Tiredness has a whole other meaning over here. My partner sleeps a few feet away.
Inexplicably, my rifle is a foot away — easy to get in the event of an enemy attack, but what about the wild boar with the razor-sharp tusks that is suddenly staring me down? A mere 3 feet separate us. How has he gotten so close? I am prone, just off the dirt road that he is trotting down. Those soulless black eyes pour primitive terror into mine. If I reach for my rifle, will he tear me to pieces with those menacing tusks? In the end, he can’t be bothered. The sound of hoofs trotting down a dusty road is all that is left of my nearly deadly encounter.
Like I said, random obsessions; a few of many for this time of year. Others include a hospital ship of mercy and horror; the smell of napalm; shock waves and deadly shrapnel from bombs, mortars and artillery — forever on a very long day. Obscenely burnt flesh, and the haunting eyes of what were once innocent children.
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. His writings and opinions reflect only his personal views. He does not speak as a representative for or on behalf of any organization with which he may be affiliated. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. He has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.