When I was training to become a Green Beret Medic, I had a a small roadmap of Wyoming and Montana I always carried with me. I kept it hidden in the notebook in which I was supposed to keep my military notes. I stared at it, especially at the blank spaces, for several hours of every day for over a year as I pulled duty on different military bases scatterered over the deep south where the soil was always the color of clotted blood.

With this map, I would travel in my mind over the ridges and peaks into hidden basins and high cirques of the Wind River Range and the Yellowstone Plateau or explore the emptiness of the Bob Marshall Wilderness up north.

In those days the image of a single wild place--a great canyon of the southwest, a cascading mountain stream, or a high ridge of tundra dropping off steeply into a hidden alpine basin--could bring on a bottomless homesickness.

In November of l966, my orders for Vietnam arrived at Fort Bragg. I packed up the deeply creased map of the Northern Rockies and made the 10,000 mile trip west to Nha Trang, headquarters of the 5th Special Forces, where I stayed a week or two until a slot on an A-team opened up. The A-team was Thuong Duc up in I-Core. The senior medical sergeant at Thuong Duc had been on patrol with another Green Beret and a couple dozen of CIDG. The two Americans were standing by the entrance to a bombed-out village when someone command-detonated a mine which caused the hand grenades hanging from their web-gear to explode, traumatically amputating adjacent limbs. Both died before serious help arrived.

I was the replacement.

The tattered map went with me to Thuong Duc. A month later I had it spread out on the table of the team-house, pouring over the wringles with a penlight. It was after chow, towards 2000hrs, and getting dark. Six US Green Berets, a Vietnamese interpreter and a Chinese Nung were sitting around the two tables, drinking beer and playing poker.

In my mind I was flying over the map again, over the huge meadow complexes north of Yellowstone Lake. The map showed one creek draining from the north and I imagined a narrow grassy defile through dense lodgepole thickets with tiny hot springs steaming away.

An explosion rocked the tin-roofed, half-sandbagged house. Gravel and debris rang off the roof and cut through the screen-wire. Everybody hit the floor then ran crouching out the door and through the trenches to defensive positions.

The mortar attack went on for less than five minutes although we returned fire with mortars and 50 calibre machine guns for much longer. That's all there was to it. Nobody seemed to be hit and we never even knew where the 82mm mortars were being fired from. I was new and could not make any sense out of the attack which was too early in the night and weak to constitute a serious probe.

Then the casualties from the adjacent civilian resettlement village started to trickle up to the camp. It had taken the brunt of the attack. The settlement had been the target because there would still be a lot of people out on the street and kids playing.

I was waiting in the medical bunker when the casualties arrived. There was one local RF/PF soldier; the rest of the wounded were civilians, 16 altogether. Most were children under 12. The American medic and my new boss, Art, was sorting the wounded into different areas around the small underground bunker. The Vietnamese Special Forces medic was getting IV's started on a group of four children who looked to be in bad shape. I moved in beside him. He was working over a 5 year-old boy with a broken shoulder who was in shock. I had always thought the Vietnamese medic a worthless shit, but then he reached over and helped me find an open vein on the little boy. All the wounds were the nasty kind caused by large hunks of shapenel. This was my first experience with mass casualties in Vietnam away from any hospital facilities.

We started IV's on everyone except a woman and small girl. They had head wounds and the woman was unconscious. Next to them, a single military stretcher held two small lumps under a blood-stained sheet. Art helped me make a wire-mesh splint for the boy's crushed shoulder blade. The kid's collarbone was also busted so we elevated his little arm with a sling then bandaged his upper arm to his chest. Art called the kid "ti ti" and the boy seemed to be responding well to the half-dose of morphine we had given him.

We sit the kid on the floor leaning against the wall and went on to others. I stepped over to the girl with the head wound but Art called me back.

"Best just leave them there", he said. "We ain't going to save them all and those are the ones who aren't going to make it anyway".

I moved on and saw the boy with the mangled shoulder blade slumped against the wall. Art was already there.

"Shit, look what we missed", he said as he brushed the sticky, blood-clotted black hair out of the way revealing a quarter-sized hole into the kid's brain.

I reached in for a pulse. Art stopped me: "Forget it. He's already gone".

By 2400hrs the Marine helicopter had taken the seriously wounded to DaNang. The dead had been carried back down the hill. I sat alone in the team house. The others were trying to get some sleep in case the Vietcong hit us again before morning.

I poured myself a half-milk glass of bourbon and spread out the beat up roadmap in front of me. I looked at Wyoming and found the drainage on the Yellowstone Plateau that I was following before the shit hit the fan. The smell of blood clung to my clothes. I gagged on the warm whisky and watered it down with a coke. It was hard getting back into the Yellowstone country. I sipped and peered into the map waiting to be transported like when you sometimes stare at paired stereographic photographs until the third-dimension suddenly springs out at you and mountains shoot up and canyons drop down.

Finally, just as I finished the milk glass of whiskey-coke, I managed to ease myself back into the landscape again. I smelled the sage and could see around the corner of the timber into the next meadow. A warmth spread down my body as the whiskey did its work. I sat back and looked out at the dark sky. At Thuong Duc I knew I would be looking at something more than homesickness. I had a year in Vietnam left to go. I would be needing the map.

Audio

Ready for War
Interview by Scott Carrier: National Public Radio, September 2001 (18:37)

 

Ready for War: Ten Years Later
Interview by Scott Carrier (11:44)

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