Monday, May 21 , 2018, 5:29 pm | Mostly Cloudy 65º


Ken Williams: Walking Point Down a Road to Hell

For those in war, the fear of the moment is a life-altering experience

My eyes are fused on Wayne’s back. He is five steps in front of me when he suddenly stops. Unconsciously, my hands tighten their death grip on the hard plastic of the M-16. Fear laced with salty sweat burns into my eyes and blurs vision. My stomach becomes a vise. Wayne turns his head and I see that his eyes are jacked wide with terror. He looks at me but sees me not. Instead he looks through me to the lightly stepping Grim Reaper behind me. This doesn’t surprise me as I can feel Death’s icy breath on the back of my neck.

Wayne turns his head back to the road that lay before us. He swings his shotgun left to right as if sweeping back the cobwebs of Death. I know he has a round in the chamber — no safety on — instant death. He loudly sucks in air, shattering the eerie quietness as a footstep can be heard — after all, thousands of young men weighed down with the trappings of war should make some noise but not a sound. Wayne’s neck muscles stand pronounced like tightly strung barbwire. We tense, and cautiously, boldly, march forward into the gaping mouth of Death.

In front of us are 10,000 heavily armed and battle-tested soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army. Behind Wayne and me are hundreds of heavily armed and battle-tested Marines of the 1/9 — The Walking Dead (1st Battalion, 9th Marines).

At another part of this valley, the infamous A Shau soldiers of the 101st Airborne are days away from the slaughter that will become known as the Battle of Hamburger Hill.

Of course, they, Wayne and I don’t know this yet. None of us know where the NVA will engage us in violent death, but we know that they will and that they are very good at it. And our adversaries know that they will die by the hundreds if not thousands.

To walk point is to be expendable — disposable — the ones to trip the battle by detonating the landmine, engaging full-metal jackets from enemy machine guns, or to feel the heat of a rocket-propelled grenade, an RPG, just as long as we die loud so those behind us can fan out and become one with the earth and, hopefully, live. Of course, for the brass back at base, their hope is for a glorious battle with pretty ribbons and medals to pad resumes.

A more hellish road would be hard to imagine. This is a super highway, a straight shot to hell. The road is sunken into the dry dirt with three-foot embankments on both sides funneling us into a killing zone. The sloping land on both sides is scarred — desecrated by the mayhem of modern war and a witch’s brew of 250- and 500-pound bombs, artillery, rocket and napalm. Trees are bent, broken and pulverized into toothpicks. The chemicals: white phosphorus and the mutating agents that make up Agent Orange transmute what’s left into a Goya landscape of hell. Not one green leaf is left on what were once majestic trees and an all-encompassing jungle. Everything is twisted, deformed, the land raped and mutilated. A fine gray dust — the color of death — coats everything and everyone. There is no black, brown, white or yellow, only ashen gray that unites us all in an ironclad brotherhood with dues paid in blood and fear. Truly this is what hell must look like, what it feels like.

Wayne is small and wiry, a sinewy kid from Chicago. I’m tall and lanky, a surfer from California. The Vietnamese are invisible yellow giants, a death-delivering myth that can take on terrifying reality in seconds, inflicting mayhem for seconds or weeks; it’s all up to them. We Marines dance to the tune of others and we pay the piper’s due.

Each step we take is excruciating. Will Death come for us from an anti-tank mine buried in the road? Or will the rattle of a machine gun or the crack of an AK-47, a communist assault rifle, accompany it? Will the impossibly still air give way to the rush of an RPG or the silent flight of a high-arcing mortar? Death is lazy and manic-y at the same time, and has many delivery systems. He can even come on the tiny wings of mosquitoes that give us malaria.

Wayne inches forward; I’ve got his back. Time becomes frozen with fear. You can only walk so long like this before your pace increases. Adrenaline pumps charge-hard chemicals into your blood. Exhaustion comes next when adrenaline burns out, robbing you of caution until it is replaced with the hope that this slow-moving torture ends.

We sped up, become careless, stop looking for the telltale signs of mines. We no longer care that every fallen tree, every abandoned bunker could hide the enemy. Just let this torture end. If we’re lucky, it’s a million-dollar wound that will send us back to the World, to clean sheets, hot food and rest. If not, maybe death is even better than this.

Wayne and I exist in our own universe — alone — cut off from everything and everyone else. It’s like a lead bubble has dropped from the heavens, suffocating in its claustrophobic effect. Alone we stand — brothers in arms —trapped in this insane world. There is no future and no past. Nothing is in front or behind us. Only the two of us, and a few yards around us, and a thousand what-ifs.

We make it through the day but Wayne has aged decades. He’s 19 but looks like an old, decrepit man with deeply sunken eyes in a heavily lined face. Weeks from now I will gently kick aside his shotgun when I see his eyes go coal black with hatred for the officer who walks past us as we wait for the medivac chopper that will take Wayne away from this hell. The hatred in his heart will take longer to heal — if ever.

The Costs of War

» American dead from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars: 6,018

» Wounded: 43,399

» Evacuated from the war zones: 55,050

» Afghanistan and Iraq war dead: various estimates between 110,000 and 500,000

» A federal judge has ordered the Veterans Affairs Department to revamp mental-health services, citing “Treatment delays for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and other combat-related illnesses ... contribute to the despair behind many of the 6,500 suicides among veterans each year,” according to the Los Angeles Times in a May 11 article.

» A 2008 Rand Institute study found 300,000 returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from PTSD and/or major depression.

» A Defense Department study released in February found that among those currently serving in Afghanistan, “Nearly one in five soldiers and Marines reported psychological problems such as acute stress, depression or anxiety last year, compared with one in 10 among soldiers in 2005 and about one in eight among Marines in 2006.”

— Ken Williams served with the 9th Marines in Vietnam. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets, and has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.

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