Foxhole Blues

1643

When I was in high school, I played flashlight, hedge-apple war in a large, wooded area, contiguous to the Mighty Mississippi River, excuse me, I mean the Mighty Greenville Creek.

After sunset, we would meet at a clearing near the woods and pick teams. Team ‘A’ would enter the woods and set up ambush squads at various strategic locations. After ten minutes or so, team ‘B’ would dispatch and start looking for them.

If you caught/saw a guy in a full unobstructed view, and if you could put your flashlight beam on his chest or head for a second or two, he was dead and had to leave the game.

A much more painful way to die, however, was to get hit by a hedge-apple. These hedge-apple hand grenades, with football like chartreuse green skin, hurt like hell when they found their targets.  I started playing flashlight, hedge-apple war as a sophomore. But many of the players were juniors and seniors that could throw much faster than us smaller guys. I died a painful hedge-apple death on more than one occasion and normally sported a sizeable bruise the next day reminding me of my prior night’s premature death.

Fast-forward three years…

I just completed a twelve-hour shift. I worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. My day job during the war was Crew Chief. I crewed an F4 Phantom D, fighter jet.

After work that evening, I reported to the Security Police tent as directed.  The night security briefing started promptly at 7 p.m. I arrived early and took a seat in the second row. There were roughly 25 of us selected to pull parameter augmentee duty that night. No one in the briefing guarded the parameter on a regular basis. The Air Force spent a sizeable amount of money training its Crew Chiefs. And they didn’t make this investment for us to guard the base at night.  At least, that’s what they told us.

Our base was protected by a special attachment of security police sitting in machine gun towers, located about 100 yards apart. Between each 50-caliber machine gun tower, were two, multi-person fox holes, manned by two to three security police with 30-millimeter machine guns. And finally, situated between the two 30-millimeter machine guns, was a sole, non-security augmentee, like me, in a small one-person self-effacing foxhole.

Our base commander added augmentee security forces to the parameter to reduce the risk of our base camp being overrun by the NVRA (North Vietnamese Regular Army). During the 1968 lunar new year or “Tet” holiday, North Vietnamese and communist Viet Cong forces launched a nationwide coordinated attack against multiple bases at which time Phu Cat (my base of assignment) was overrun by rebel forces.

Within the first couple of weeks of my duty assignment, I received training on the M-16 as a machine gun, as well as a standalone single-shot rifle. A twenty round clip could be emptied within a few seconds, but the gun would “walk-up” on you if you didn’t know how to control the weapon when set to auto fire. I passed my qualifying test and that’s why, in part, I was sitting in the briefing after I finished working a 12-hour shift.

To incent a non-security soldier to find his way out of the augmentee duty rotation, the Air Force would take us out of the base security loop once we achieved the rank of Sargent. It was high motivation to study for the Sargent’s exam which I did in earnest and passed the first time around.  I don’t recall ever preparing for a test more than this one.

I was already fairly tired from a long day at work. I’d been up since 4 a.m.  And it was all I could do to stay awake but I somehow managed. After the briefing, I went to the ammo depot and picked up my rifle, 1,000 rounds of ammunition, 5 slap-flares, and a walkie talkie.

With gear in hand, I found my way to the back of a nearby tank headed to the parameter where my particular fox hole assignment awaited my arrival for the evening. I climbed on top of the tank, sat down towards the rear-end, grabbed ahold of a welded-on piece of additional armor; and off we went weaving and bobbing up and down into the jungle.

It was an extremely bumpy ride on narrow paths cut through thick brush, full of deep divots and holes causing the tank to jerk and sway. Hell, I almost fell off, twice.  I was so completely freaked out by the entire surreal experience that I have no recall whatsoever about how long it took me to reach my hole in the ground.

But the tank eventually came to rest at my foxhole. I climbed off, grabbed my supplies, entered my foxhole and made myself at home. I didn’t start to aggressively worry about my current circumstances until it got dark. I still had, based on my best estimation, an hour and a half of sunlight left. We very seldom got attacked by rockets and mortars during the day. Those attacks almost always came in the middle of the night.

As I sat there awaiting sunset my mind flashed back to Greenville and the days when I played pretend army near the Greenville Creek. In many ways, I still felt like that little kid. The thought “how did I end up here”, crept into my active awareness. “I’m not emotionally equipped to do this”, was my next thought. As I sat there feeling scared and alone my stomach started to churn. Then I threw up.

It was not a good thing that I was alone with my thoughts. My emotions were getting the best of me. I called on my willpower to override my anxiety and fear. I told myself to calm down.  It worked, at least briefly. I collected myself, attached a bipod to my M-16, sat it up in a small opening between stacked sandbags, surrounding my foxhole, and waited for darkness to encapsulate me.

I sat motionless as I stared into the jungle, concentrating on the tree line facing me about 125 yards away. I had clear visibility up to the tree line. Additionally, between me and the bush were strung three rows of concertina wire partially illuminated by gasoline-powered lite-all units. If the enemy attacked in large numbers, they would still need to crawl through the concertina wire giving us ample time to try and kill them.

Since I was dreading nightfall, not wanting it to arrive, it felt like it came at me, more rapidly. In no time, it seemed, darkness engulfed me. This was my first augmentee assignment. And I had yet to come to terms with the notion of taking a life.

I grew up with guns. I have always liked guns. I love shooting them, feeling their recoil, hearing their explosions, and smelling their gunpowder. But I was never a hunter because I didn’t like killing things. I made excuses to my hunting friends about why I couldn’t go with them because I didn’t think it was very manly to dislike hunting, so I kept that particular proclivity to myself.

As I continued to sit in my fox hole, feeling and thinking, it became paramount that I settle the issue of killing another human being before possibly facing the situation in real-time. But how does one go about doing that? How does one decide if it’s ok to kill? Most people think they would have no problem killing another person in self-defense. I thought this, as well, in theory, anyway.

But as I sat there telling myself over and over and over again that it’s morally justifiable to kill another person in self-defense, even though I believed that, intellectually, I could not feel it, emotionally. It still felt wrong to me. It still felt very wrong.  Basically, I was not born with the constitution to kill, evidently not even in self-defense. That’s what I learned about myself that night. But I decided to do it anyway. For, it wasn’t just me I was guarding.  I was protecting everyone who was asleep.

As I continued to sit in my foxhole staring into the abyss, a 120 mm mortar round exploded near the tree line. The 120 mm is a big mortar round, by any standard, and makes a very loud boom upon impact. Needless to say, I just about soiled myself. “Holy shit, what the hell was that”, I thought. “Are we under attack?”  But my concentration was broken once again when a second round exploded about thirty yards next to the first round, followed by a third-round and a fourth, equal distances apart.

After the last explosion, I suddenly remembered that during the briefing it was announced that at certain time intervals, friendly fire (rounds belonging to us) would be strategically placed close to the tree line as a constant deterrent to the enemy.  I felt much better after this recollection and sensed my nerves settle down somewhat.

My best guess is that an hour passed before my next wakeup call. Vietnam is home to many of the world’s most deadly snakes. They were everywhere. There were big ones, small ones, fat ones and skinny ones, many of which could kill or temporarily incapacitate you.

Since arriving ‘in-country’, I had already viewed two snakes (reticulated pythons) that weighed more than me and appeared to be close to twenty feet long. Both were dead. Both had been run over by a jeep, it appeared. But the sheer size of them unnerved me. It’s one thing to see something like this at the zoo but it’s an altogether different experience to view one that lives and moves around freely in the same neighborhood where he lives, moves and has his being.

In spite of the visceral experience tied to seeing a man-eating size snake, I was way more afraid of a little snake affectionately referred to by GIs as “the two steps to death snake, or the Bungarus multicinctus, also known as the Taiwanese krait. Lore had it that if bitten by this little green shit, you would be dead before taking your third step. Since this was way prior to the day where I could do online research, I had no reason to doubt these stories. I believed this little snake could kill me just as readily as the Viet Cong.

So, when I just happened to look to my left (for some reason that I don’t recall) I watched as a small green snake crawled in between the sandbags piled up around my foxhole and down into the sandbags lining the bottom of my hiding place. I assumed it was a Taiwanese krait and immediately exited my foxhole. As I was sitting in the clear, outside my protective sandbag cavity, I realized I was openly exposed to a possible sniper round. The area around my foxhole was dimly illuminated that night by the brightness of a near-full moon otherwise I never would have seen the damn snake.

Death by sniper or death by snake were my two options I thought. I chose possible death by sniper over “sure” death by snake.  But as it turns out, though highly venomous, a bite from a “two-stepper” probably would not have killed me. But I didn’t know this at the time.

I never returned to my foxhole that night. I laid in the prone position, trying as best I could to make the smallest possible target.  I spent the rest of the night on the ground. Shortly after sunrise, my ride showed up. There were a few others sitting on the tank as we found our way back to the security tent. None of us said a word.  We had all been up for over 24 hours with our thyroid glands stuck in the wide-open setting of fight or flight.

After returning my ammo and M-16 back to the ammo depot, I started walking back to the barracks, reflecting on the past night’s activities. I decided to start studying for the Sargent’s test the next day.

As I said, my constitution is not wired to kill. But I ended up doing it, anyway. It was less direct. I never put a man in my crosshairs as I pulled the trigger. Instead, I kept my airplane air-worthy, and the pilots did the actual killing.

I am still prone to tears when I think about it. My F-4 carried up to 24, 500-pound bombs. It flew missions daily where it dropped its full payload. My plane flew over 300 missions and it always returned to base with its bomb pylons emptied.

Where did those 12,000 pounds of bombs end up? The pilots told me even though I never asked because I didn’t want to know. If their primary target was unavailable, for whatever reason, the pilot would find a secondary target. A plane can’t land with its bomb racks full. So, our pilots would look for a farming village where Vietnamese sympathizers may be hiding, or not.

But either way, that village got carpet bombed.

And I will never be able to make peace with this because I’ve tried. As a matter of fact, I’m crying as I type these words.  If there is a personable God of some size, shape or form then I’m sure I will need to be forgiven. I knew what I was doing at the time was wrong, but I did it, anyway. People tell me I shouldn’t worry about it because I was only a teenager doing my job and I didn’t really have a choice. But I did. We all did. It would have been a disastrous decision along with severe consequences for me to refuse to do my job. And no one I knew ever chose to exercise this right of refusal. But the choice was still there even though none of us took it.

I believe we are all responsible for the decisions we make, whether the playing field is level or not. And because these decisions over time come to define us, we need to make them judiciously.

This essay is long. If you made it this far, thank you. Talking about this experience out loud helps me cope with it a little bit better. I’m not sure why, but it does.

I am currently in counseling with a psychologist from the Veteran’s Center for the lingering moral guilt I still tow around with me.  It took me close to 50 years to finally start ‘working’ on my PTSD issues associated with my wartime experience.  I want to make peace with my wartime actions before my atoms are set free to morph into something completely different.