It started on a fairly sunny, warm day. I had come in-country just a couple weeks earlier. 26 weeks of boot camp and combat infantry training had already shown me that being a Marine was a bad decision but there was little I could do by now. The last thing I really thought about was the reality of what I was doing and the reality that I would in a very few hours find myself living through the hell of seeing little dead Vietnamese girls and that I would live every day with that nightmare.
I’d been trained to be a radar tech but quickly discovered that there were no working radars in Vietnam which meant that I could either sit in the bunker, get drunk and stoned, and wait for my rotation in thirteen months or I could volunteer to go with the grunts. Since everyone in the company seemed quite content to get high and wait it out, I had to go about volunteering as a grunt very quietly. The unit I was volunteering with had a history of constantly needing warm bodies so they happily welcomed me and worked out the process with my commanders.
I was in I Corps, the designation for the area in Vietnam closest to the DMZ. We were, at one time or another, at Khe Shan, Rock Pile, Con Thien and a half-dozen fire-bases here and there. The first couple weeks we were used as perimeter protection, convoy guards and the patrol that protected the guys that cleared the roads every day of the mines that the Viet Cong laid every night. Those patrols came in two flavors; either you just walked 15 miles or so, staring into the bushes and rice paddies for movement of any kind, taking the unexploded rounds from the children that brought us mortar and 155MM rounds and the like to sell for a few pennies and arriving at the end of your assigned portion of the road to wait for your chopper ride back to base or else they were days of constant ambushes and snipers, sweat pouring down your back from fear (although you told yourself it was just the heat), the screams of the wounded and the sound of helicopters coming and going as medivacs or fire support and the smell of napalm dropped by passing Phantoms until you arrived at the end of your assigned portion of the road.
One morning we were told that we were to clear a 4 mile road that was seldom used by military vehicles. The reason for that was because there was nothing of any value at the end of that small dirt road except for a few small villages that had apparently become the base for a small group of Viet Cong that was causing a high number of casualties in our night patrols. A new fire base was going to be constructed on top of a small rise in the midst of rice paddies in which we would place a dozen or so 155MM cannons and perimeter bunkers for mortars and towers for recon and snipers.
Supposedly, the Vietnamese inhabitants of the villages had been told of the new base and that the land surrounding their homes and paddies were now considered “Free Fire Zones” meaning that anything that moved was going to shot at or blown up. This didn’t set too well with them both because the paddies were their only food and income source as well as a number of the folks there were supporters or, at least, sympathizers with the Viet Cong’s war against the vast, invading American military (sound fucking familiar?).
On our minesweeping patrols, we had long ago learned to walk along inside the area that the mine sweepers had covered. You didn’t walk along the side of the road nor did you leave the road to pee or crap, you just did it where you stood. Since this was our first patrol along this road and since the knowledge that we would be sweeping the road was well known by the locals, we knew we were probably going to encounter resistance along the way. We had just piled out off the trucks when the first mine was discovered just a few feet from the intersection of roads. Everyone froze while the rest of the area around the trucks was swept but no more mines was found.
A few of the older, crazier guys had been trained on the removal and disposal of mines. The mines came in many shapes and sizes since nearly all were makeshift explosives cobbled together from our own unexploded ordinance fused with either magnetic or pressure primers, among other ingenious manners of causing shit to explode. Occasionally one would find a landmine with Cyrillic or Chinese characters but those were rare in our area. Some mines could be carefully removed and then exploded a safe distance away but some were too large and had to blown in place.
The road was swept, we found a lot more mines than normal, which we expected, and we eventually neared the first small village of maybe ten small huts made from bamboo and thatch and cardboard. There were some bushes here and there but nothing that seemed large enough to hide behind so we relaxed just a little but never strayed beyond the path of the sweepers. We could see faces staring at us from doors and windows as we walked and even a small group of five children playing alongside a paddy. A hundred eyes absorbed that group and a hundred weapons moved quietly towards their general direction but, since they were two small girls and three slightly older boys and their dirty clothes were so thin that any sort of weapon would be instantly apparent, we all went back to watching where we walked while staring off into the distance looking for anyplace a sniper or ambush could be waiting.
The path they were taking intersected the road about 100 yards ahead of me. Three of the five were boys and seemed more aware of us than the two little girls. The boys slowed their walk, looked at this column of well armed Americans and walked to the right along another path that led to a couple of the huts between the paddies. The girls, may 4 or 5 years old, seemed completely uncaring about our presence and, holding hands together as children do, began to dance and laugh at some unheard joke. They came to the road and seemed to notice us for the first time. They still didn’t seem to care as they began to skip alongside the road, away from where we were walking behind the sweepers.
I heard someone to my left light up a joint and asked me if I wanted to pass it on. I glanced back towards the front to get my bearings and be certain that I was still in the safe part of the road. My eyes fell on the two little girls in their dirty, torn dresses, laughing and holding hands when they suddenly disappeared in a huge explosion of dirt and dust and rocks. I stopped and stood, fascinated, at the sight of tiny pieces of the two girls as they flew softly through the air. An arm, from the elbow down, fell at my feet. I looked around to see if any of my people were a part of that explosion but discovered I was the only one standing. Everyone else had already hit the dirt, weapon aimed into the distance, waiting for fire from an enemy that wasn’t there.
From one of the small huts I heard a scream, a woman, probably the mother of one or both of the children. I saw an older child begin to run towards the mess in the road when she saw all the weapons suddenly turn towards her. She almost fell in her efforts to turn around and return to the false safety of the bamboo walls.
Another face appeared in the door of the same hut. This face was much older, wrinkled and old like all Vietnamese women over 30 looked in that war. This woman completely ignored the weapons aimed at her as her eyes widened and her face fell in an almost comical way.
I looked back down at my feet and realized that the arm probably belonged to her child. The rest of the company, realizing that there was no immediate danger from attack, were slowly regaining their feet and the patrol began moving again. I looked from the arm to the woman running through the paddy, tears streaming from her face. I looked ahead and saw that the other guys nearest me were either kicking pieces out of the way or just stepping on them as if it was just trash in their path.
I will never understand why I did it but I took off my pack and grabbed the cloth bag I always carried with a clean uniform and socks and emptied it all back into the backpack. I knelt down and began picking up the pieces that I could find. As I moved slowly along I came across one of the girl’s torso. It lay there with just part of the right arm, no left arm or legs but most of the neck and head still attached. My mind told me that I couldn’t fit that into my cloth bag when two arms pushed me aside and grabbed up the tiny body. I fell to the side and reached to unshoulder my weapon when I realized it was the woman whose face had just been in the doorway. She gently picked up the bloody mess that used to be a child and ran screaming back towards the hut she came from. I didn’t know much Vietnamese but the words she was screaming at us as she ran weren’t terms of endearment.
I continued to pick up the pieces I could find when I noticed a young male on his knees, slowly picking up pieces and placing them in a wooden crate stamped “US MARINES”. Our eyes met and where I expected anger, even rage, I saw an emptiness so deep it hurt my soul. This was someone important to him and he was picking up their little lives a piece at a time.
I felt a hard slap on the back of my helmet that threw it forward a few feet. I looked up to see the company Captain glaring down at me. “Get up and back in formation, asshole,” he said, “It’s only Gooks. Stop wasting time and get back in line.” “Fuck you”, I told him as I turned to get my helmet and started picking up small pieces and putting them in my cloth bag again. I heard the distinct sound of a .45 pistol being cocked and then the Captain said, “Get up or I’ll blow your head off for insubordination. They’re just fucking Gooks. You’re a Marine. You NEVER get on your knees for a Gook!”
I picked up my helmet and put it back on. I brought my weapon back to the ready, picked up the cloth bag and walked towards where the kid was still on his knees picking up chunks of someone important in his life. I slowly walked to him, our eyes locked, and I gently lay the cloth bag down by him where he knelt. Tears were streaming down both of our faces as he mouthed a very silent “Thank you” to me. The Captain gave me a shove to force me to keep walking.
I looked around to see if any of the other Marines were watching but every single one had moved on with their life and were silently intent on the bushes and staying in the safe part of the road. Those behind me simply walked by the boy on his knees, one purposely kicking his leg hard as he walked past to the laughter of those following him. My stomach hurt, my heart hurt, my eyes were filled with tears as I shuffled along, leaving hell behind me.
Two little lives lost in a war that all of us knew, in our hearts, was already lost which made every single life that was destroyed completely and utterly wasted.
And I thought to myself, “Only 11 months to go before I get to go home.” That person never came home. That person is still there, wishing I could have at least finished helping collect those two little girls but knowing they are long forgotten by everyone but me and maybe that boy if he lived through our war on his family and neighbors. It doesn’t matter who set the mine or who placed it there or why. Two tiny lives were extinguished in milliseconds and three or four years later we all left and went home and tried to regain a life that no longer existed.
Fifty years later nobody remembers that hell and most couldn’t find Vietnam on a map if their life depended on it. Tens of thousands of us died there and tens of thousands died when they came home and realized that they couldn’t live with the memories and with the screams they heard every night in their sleep. For too many years we were told to just get over it, to just move on with our lives.
But the reason I constantly remember those two tiny girls? Because when we finally finished the day’s patrol and set up a perimeter for the night on the hill that would soon be the position for a new fire base where we could kill at our leisure, as I removed my sweat drenched shirt and went to dig into my backpack for the clean shirt I carried, I found, laying on top of a flap, a chunk of flesh with tiny shreds of fabric still attached. I didn’t know what to do with it so I dug a small hole beside where I laid, gently placed the little girl’s memory into it and slowly covered it with dirt. I laid there beside that hole the entire night but had to abandon that position the next morning when we were rousted in the dark and told to get ready to welcome the choppers that would take us back to our base.
I think about those girls every single day. Somehow that keeps them alive, at least inside my brain. There are so many other lives I feel like I must remember, both of my friends that came home in a bag and those whose lives I am directly responsible for taking. In my heart, as long as I live their memories remain but what happens when I die? Who will remember them? Their lives cannot be wasted like that. No god would ever allow that. Life is a one time thing and two little lives disappeared in a cloud of laughter and play and dirt and blood and flesh torn from bone.
I hate war. I hate our “leaders”. Since I walked away from that tiny hole, I’ve hated my life but never found the courage to end it. There is nothing good or honorable about war. Tiny children, mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, all innocent people, die and then all sides go home and 50 years later nobody remembers, nobody cares, nobody wants to stop the next war or the next or the next.
I put silly notions of a loving god into that tiny hole and left it there. Any god that allows that is to be despised, not worshiped. Children aren’t supposed to be harmed because adults are assholes. But that’s war. That’s what creates profits. So they are just “collateral damage” in the disputes that insane, stupid men with short pricks cause over and over and over. Tiny children with no names die and people think about sport teams and mindless actors that pretend to be brave in front of cameras.
So fuck Obama and Bush and Johnson and Reagan and anyone that has happily created hell for those who never did anything to me or my neighbors. I’ve lived with those two little girls for 45 years. I hope we can all be forgotten very soon.
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