To this day, the sound of choppers can bring a Vietnam War combat veteran’s world to a halt. Sometimes it brings back the harsh bark of machine guns and the roar of rockets spraying the jungle and forest — the winged messengers of death. Other times, it’s the memory smell of rot, the heavy odor of napalm or the stench of death from some god-forsaken battlefield.

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Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson. (Williams family photo)

For some, it’s the bone-jarring, death-defying dive of a chopper skirting enemy fire as it deposits them into combat. For others, it’s the rapid takeoff of a lifesaving chopper ride away from the Grim Reaper’s playing fields. It can still seem so vivid after all these years.

For me, especially in the quiet of night, the memory is that of the forlorn sound of dust-offs — medical evacuation choppers coming in to take the dead, dying and wounded away from all the butchery. In particular, two incidents come roaring back into consciousness as dust-offs, like bellowing warhorses hidden by the blackness of the night and the fog of war alight out of thin air.

The lines are stretched thin. A single Marine is assigned to each shallow fighting hole, which means all night and being 100 percent alert. No sleep — again. Tanks and armored personal carriers are pulled into a tight circle below us. We are one ridgeline over — a football field away as the crow flies.

Tremendous explosions from the circle of tanks and APCs rip apart the night, shredding our sense of safety. Flames shoot high into the air. Exploding anti-tank claymore mines torch metal, barbecue flesh and broadcast trembling shock waves that crash into us. Our night vision becomes another casualty.

Fear hangs heavily in the air — sharp and repugnant, reinforced by our aloneness. Tank cannons, machine-gun fire, M-16s and AK-47s play a madman’s symphony. Flares, in no particular hurry to join the carnage below, float lazily down, casting ghostly images and highlighting death’s obscene dance. Again, the darkness of the night turns into a macabre light show as burning metal and still louder explosions envelope us.

Marine artillery fire adds thunderous volume to the mix soon to be followed by Spooky, a slow-circling plane, an airborne gun platform with automatic Gattling guns sending death at thousands of rounds per minute. The sound of AK 47s creeps closer as North Vietnamese Army soldiers situated on the ridgeline between us and the circle of death open up to keep us pinned down.

The sound builds to a crescendo, then silence. Then the soft thump of chopper blades can just barely be discerned. They grow louder and louder,becoming hypnotic — luring us into a rhythmic trance. A strobe light comes alive, signaling an improvised, supposedly safe landing zone. It is a rock concert light show in the middle of hell.

Choppers buzz in sight unseen, land for seconds and then shoot into the void with their sacred cargo. Silence follows as if the dead are talking to one another only to again be followed by more helicopter blades piercing the sky with their thumping sound mere feet above us. All night long. All night, then now. The dead, the dying and the rest of us. Mind games. What if? Why?

Months later: Again we find ourselves in the high mountain jungles along the Laotian border. We have spent weeks humping the impenetrable jungle forest. Little sleep, sparse food. Deadly games of cat and mouse played with the NVA. We are run down with exhaustion and heat. Morale is low. Malaria is in our blood, but we don’t assign our night sweats, nor the day chills to it — yet. Nor the semi-hallucinations caused by the fevers.

We are dug in just below an artillery fire support base. A thick jungle forest separates us. We hear a lone supply chopper coming in. We hear it land. Then, explosions erupt from hell. The next day we hear tales. Accidental cookoff of artillery shells? Another explanation: a lone and lucky hit from harassing NVA artillery. Or perhaps the chopper simply crashed. Take your choice of excuse that death rides in on.

One massive explosion is followed by another one, and then they begin to run together. Stored artillery shells are definitely cooking off now. Death paces manically throughout the firebase, turning it into a meat grinder.

Thankfully,the pyrotechnics finally end. Deadly shrapnel stops slicing through the night air. From Norse mythology, salvation for the survivors or transportation to Valhalla comes on the back of unseen choppers slipping in unseen through the night. I expect to hear Wagner music. Again: All night long, hour after hour, the dust-offs come in and take off, pounding that distinct sound into your brain. The beating blades invade my troubled dreams. Then. Now.

What is the final toll of that night? How much blood was sacrificed to the war gods? Do they ever become satiated? Did this have to happen? Whose sons, husbands and friends died that night? That sound, the thump of dust-off choppers, becomes ingrained, a part of me as I am of Vietnam. It’s the foreverness of war. No forgetting the memory of Vietnam, no forgiving. It’s the ultimate gift of war that combat veterans have bitterly learned over and over again for the past 10,000 years.


ABC News reports that at least 8 percent of men and women in the armed forces are being medicated for psychological problems — including with antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil.

“We are sending soldiers into the field, into combat missions, who are suicidal,” former Air Force psychologist Jason Prinster said. An earlier report found increased suicide rates among younger veterans.

We can’t replay Vietnam. It must not happen again. It’s time to bring our soldiers and Marines home, and help them and their families heal.

County Mental Health is proposing that it drop treatment to the uninsured. Not only is this immoral, but we will see even more mentally ill people wondering our streets without treatment — having a severe impact on them, their families, our community and our spiritual beliefs.

And, as hard as it is to believe, the Community Kitchen is under heat for feeding hungry people during the worst recession in 80 years. Are the poor really supposed to go hungry in times such as these?

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the last 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.