The tank reared up like a wounded elephant thrown skyward, perpendicular to the land that had hidden the anti-tank mine. The tank I was riding on was to the right and slightly behind, giving me a front-row seat. A cloud of rising dirt and black smoke quickly engulfed the enraged tank. Out of that dust storm, the body of a Marine emerged, shooting high and backward, engaging in free flight through the air. I was close enough to get a good look at his face. I expected anger, fright, pain; instead, there was a bizarre calm acceptance.

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

I exchanged harried glances with the other grunts riding on top of the hot metal tank before we jumped down, switching off the safeties on our M-16s, preparing for the ambush that we knew awaited us. We burrowed into the high, sunburned elephant grass, trying to see into the foreboding tree line immediately in front of us. All was deadly silent; no incoming nor return fire, only the roaring of tank engines as they circled their wounded comrade. A visual image of circling Triceratops, horns pointing outward to ward off an attack came to me. Looking back, I couldn’t see the Marine who had been blown into the air.

The tank-led assault had started innocent enough. Anytime us grunts could ride rather than walk on our unending sweeps of the surrounding plains around Con Thien was a blessing. It was just too hot and the terrain too unforgiving to have it any other way. Of course, we didn’t like the fact that this mission was intended to draw enemy artillery fire from across the Demilitarized Zone. The purpose was to locate their 155s and 175s long-range artillery inside North Vietnam so when the current bombing halt collapsed, the Air Force would have something to bomb again.

It made us all feel like bait dangling on the end of a line. But that’s what being a grunt was all about. Your life was part of an equation, a mere calculation in an absurd game with death as the scorekeeper. Until the roar of the explosion cracked the morning, it had been an easy ride.

Lying prone with my nose inches from the hard-baked soil, I saw others begin to stand and look quizzically at the ground. I slowly stood, keeping an apprehensive eye on the tree line. There at my feet was orange plastic tape that encircled a rather large rectangle. All over the field, other marking tapes were found. Word was quickly shouted from one Marine to another. “Mine field!” We stood frozen. This was no mere mine field but an anti-tank one, judging from the force of the blast that could blow a several-thousand-pound tank into the air like a kid’s toy. And it had been marked off. “What the hell was going on?”

Long story short, it was an old mine field left over from the days when the French thought they could tame the Vietnamese. Our engineers had come before us to mark it off in anticipation of our supposedly fast-moving tank sweep. Had the NVA observed them? Had they moved some of the anti-tank mines around to blow an unsuspecting tank? Or had an officer simply misread a map and sent us into harm’s way?

The only thing for sure was the comical sight of delicate stepping of a heavy armed company of Marines cautiously getting back on the tanks and praying like hell: No more mines, and vowing vengeance should a tank driver stupidly ignore the tread tracks of the tank in front of us and strike out on his own.

Before doing so, we refilled our canteens with water we found in bomb craters scattered about. I remember the chemical taste and oily film on top of the water. I didn’t relate it to the event of the evening before.

We had sat on our bunker overlooking the wire at Con Thien; shirts off, flak vests on, watching the sun setting into the towering mountains off to the west. The flight of three cargo planes in a shallow V formation flying low caught our attention. The pristine white mist they released gently flowed to the ground, catching the rays of the setting sun like fog settling. It was beautiful and graceful in a peaceful way. Agent Orange wasn’t really orange. That was the color of the bands they put on the barrels to identity its deadly cargo. Nobody ever bothered to warn us about its deadly effect. Nobody told us not to drink the water from the sprayed land. No one told us anything. As the grunt motto of the war went, “It didn’t mean nothin’.” Nothing meant nothin’ there, but of course it did.

Weeks later, we were deadly tired. We had wasted the day in the boiling sun, hunting the NVA in a God-forsaken valley deep in I Corp. Sweat and grime coated our bodies, and thirst tore at our parched throats. Why anyone would want this piece of real estate was beyond our imagination. The boys at the Pentagon, the NVA — whoever wanted it, could have it. The only thing we knew was that we, grunts, didn’t.

We had been entertained with random artillery explosions and had had the privilege of watching our mortars flying overhead, stall and plunge to Earth. Of course, the brilliant display of napalm never failed to impress. The only confirmed body count (partial) was a foot blown off at the ankle. I tried not to think about it, but how could one not? Had he lived? Had he become disabled for the rest of his life? After all, what good was a farmer without a foot? Had he either crawled away or been dragged away by his comrades to simply bleed to death? He was the enemy yet more. He was my comrade in all this suffering.

The mission finished. We let our guard down and began congregating, waiting for the tanks — our ride back to camp — when the bullets began to fly, with persistent cracks from AK47s breaking the air. I dived head-first into a bomb crater. Everything suddenly went silent. I crawled to the top of the crater and looked over. Just as I did, a lone NVA soldier opened up on me — only on me. The bullets dug into the ground below me. I felt the impact of the bullets as they walked up the side of the crater, and the last one flew by so close that I could feel the air pressure being compressed by it. A half-inch? A quarter-inch was all that separated me from a deadly head wound.

I felt hurt, emotionally. This was personal. He hadn’t sprayed his rifle fire. It wasn’t an impersonal bomb, mortar or RPG. He had taken careful aim — waited for me to peek over the edge and tried his best to kill me. Foolishly I asked myself, what had I done to him to deserve this? Why was he mad at me? But that was the whole point: The impersonal nature of war. It was an abstraction against an abstraction. Him. Me. An instrument of death against an instrument of death. Except of course, the abstraction was me, my life.

I took it very personally. Probably the way my comrade who had lost his foot and now lay bleeding to death, a future gone suddenly bleak. In the end, it was all very personal.

The Present

Veterans from numerous wars, wounded in mind, body and spirit, continue to find the streets home. Studies show levels of post-traumatic stress disorder approaching 25 percent of Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, the average suicide rate of 18 per day among veterans waiting for their disability claims to be adjudicated is escalating. Yet, more are sent into harm’s way. An unpayable debt is already owed.

“Some gave all. All gave some.”

— 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.