A Year To Kill


The ride from Bien Hoa to Long Bien on a military bus did nothing to ease the tension and stress I was feeling. Along the way, children made obscene gestures and shouted what I supposed were profanities in a mostly unintelligible dialect. Among the phrases I could understand were, "Go home Joe!" And "Charlie get you!" I thought we were here to help them win their war. Don't they realize we are on their side?

The sound of an occasional object hitting the side of the bus made me want to close my window, but the heat and humidity were stifling and I decided to take my chances rather, than suffocate. I was beginning to realize that life for the next year would involve a series of calculated risks, compromises, and make do's, made bearable only by the knowledge that if I could last for a year, I could go home.

Home never seemed farther away than it did then. The callous reception we received when we landed and the obvious contempt shown by the people on the streets, made me realize it was going to be a long year. Although it had only been ten days since I left Tulsa, it seemed like ten years, partly, because I had not received any mail.

Throughout my training in the States, I learned to really look forward to mail call. Now, the thought that it would probably be close to a month before I would get my first letter was really working on my mind. I longed for the opportunity to communicate with my wife, to hold her, caress her, make love to her, even if it was imaginatively, through the mail.

I did not know any of the men on the bus. All the guys with whom I had gone through training had shipped out long before me since I was an OCS candidate. I sure needed someone to talk to, and judging from the looks on their faces the other men felt alone and vulnerable, as I did. I suppose that's why we did not talk to each other. It's interesting how a person can sometimes feel alone in a crowd.

When we reached Long Bien, the in-country processing was done in typical army fashion-Hurry up and wait! The lines seemed endless as we were issued clothing, briefed on what to expect when we shipped to our units, and assigned temporary sleeping quarters.

Always, we had to contend with hecklers who were quick to let us know they were processing through to go home. They seemed ever able to incite feelings of homesickness, jealousy, and even hatred with their incessant crowing.

To my addled brain it all seemed like a beehive of mindless activity, but finally it was finished. With what seemed a mountain of gear and paperwork we were led to the barracks and allowed to lie down for some much needed rest. The long trip and stress of the situation had exhausted me to the point where I no longer cared what happened and I dropped off to sleep.

I woke to the recorded sound of reveille being played over a loud speaker system. Not fully aware of my whereabouts, I quickly sat up to survey my situation, only to find nothing had changed. I was still in Vietnam. I dug through my duffel bag to find and put on one of the new jungle uniforms before heading out the door to follow the crowd to what I hoped was the mess hall.

It had been so long since I had eaten that not even the stench that permeated the air since I landed in this God-forsaken place could take the edge off my hunger. That smell, somewhere between raw sewage and burning rubber, coupled with fatigue and my mental state had effectively destroyed my desire to eat, the night before. However, this morning, because I was so hungry, the lines I came to abhor since being inducted, were not a deterrent to eating, as they had sometimes been in the States.

What a surprise it was when I finally worked my way through the serving line and received my food. Practically everything served was reconstituted from powders or some other dried state. The water used to mix things tasted like quinine because of the additives to kill malaria or other diseases and the cooking was on motor fuel-fired stoves and ovens. Together, the processes of reconstituting and cooking gave everything a very bitter, fuel-smoked taste.

I had been told by one of my sergeants in the States to take along Kool-aid to put in the water because it was so bitter. That was good advice. I wish I had followed it. When I get to my unit and have an address, I thought, Annie will send me a "care package" (she may never know how much I came to depend on those packages). In the meantime, I would tough it out. I quickly forced down a few bites of the disgusting fare and promised myself a candy bar later, if I could find one.

Though the sun was just coming up when I walked back to the muddy road, all functions of the post were in full operation, as if unabated through the night. As I slogged through the mud toward the area where I was to report after breakfast, I curiously noticed the Vietnamese people working along the way. Most of them were dressed in black and wore a cone-shaped straw hat. The women were working alongside the men with no apparent distinction between the sexes as they filled sand bags, shoveled, or did other manual labor.

woman in hat

The Vietnamese are small people and it took three or four of them to perform an operation that would require one GI. The constant chatter while they worked and their swarming, cooperative movements, captivated my attention and I stared at them for a long moment. They quickly grew tired of my scrutiny and started shouting and pointing at me, which prompted me to move along. But not before someone shouted, "Hey, New Troop! Ain't you seen a gook before."

The permanent cadre at Long Bien took advantage of the captive labor pool, composed of those awaiting orders, like myself, to get every tough job accomplished. The construction of wooden barracks to replace the tents being used, was the current project. I was assigned to a concrete crew that was packed in the back of a truck and driven to the batch plant.

We had to mix the concrete by hand-shoveling sand, gravel and cement into a large mixer, adding water and agitating. The dust from the gravel and cement was thick in the air and stuck to our perspiration soaked bodies as a ghoulish gray crust. Just breathing was difficult in the dust and stifling heat, not to mention the work we were expected to do. Before long, searing pain tore through my muscles with every lift of the shovel. Hell must be like this, I thought to myself.

After mixing, we dumped the wet aggregate into the back of a flat bed truck and piled on for the seven mile trip to the building site. By the time we arrived the water had come to the surface of our mixture and drained off, leaving the concrete nearly hardened in the truck. This unwieldy cause of many aching muscles had to be shoveled into place by hand and leveled off to form a rough floor on which to erect the building.

Finally, after many trips in what seemed like a day that would not end, we completed the floor and dutifully left our names inscribed in the fresh concrete. A good soldier never passes an opportunity to leave his mark or graffiti. I suppose, for the same reasons a dog feels obligated to "hike" on all the tires in his neighborhood. Sleeping was not a problem that night.

building site

I spent the next few days on the concrete detail while awaiting orders for assignment to a unit. Because I was trained as an infantryman, I had no doubt that I would be assigned to a combat unit. I wondered continually which one and the suspense bothered me emotionally. While the relative safety of the concrete detail was appealing, the hard work and twelve-hour days were not, and I was still without an address to receive mail from home. All the talk about "Jody" (the mythical character who wins wives' hearts), coming from those who were on their way home started to affect me and I thought if I did not hear from Annie soon, I would go crazy. Even a combat assignment beats that.

The most frequently used word in the vocabulary of those close to rotation back to the States, was "short." It was written on helmets, books, bags, walls, on anything that moved or stood still. It seemed an opiate to those with less than sixty days left in country but, to new arrivals, it was a degrading reminder of how much time we had remaining to spend in that armpit of the world. I was beginning to hate that reminder every time I heard or read it.

One evening, some of the guys I befriended on the concrete detail invited me to the "Malt Shop." That's what the EM Club was called. I was not much of a "drinker" but I went along. In fact, during my stateside duty, I wrote letters to Annie about the foolishness of those who spent all their money and free time drinking. Now, beer was more readily available than soft drinks. Besides, a few beers made the time go faster, dulled the homesickness and tasted a lot better than the water or anything else I found to drink. Also, I reasoned I knew where to draw the line with alcohol. My dad was an alcoholic. I had grown up with first-hand knowledge of how it destroys lives and families and I had too much going for me at home, to throw it away on booze. I did not realize I had just taken the first steps toward dependence on the mind numbing effects of alcohol.

My first mortar attack came on a night after my buddies and I had closed the "Malt Shop." Though I did not know what to do or much care because of my condition, I managed to follow some other men to cover. While there was no immediate danger during that attack since it took place on the far edge of the base, the base Commander decided to send out night patrols to discourage any future attacks.

The next morning I was issued the M-16 rifle I would carry for the rest of my tour and told to report in combat gear that evening after work. I was among the infantrymen selected for a night patrol to help secure the base.

As we marched beyond the perimeter of the base, it felt no different from the dozens of other times I had "patrolled" during my training at Tigerland, Ft. Polk, Louisiana. The rifle had a familiar feel. I had fired its twin thousands of times in training, and so far, most of what we were doing was just as I had been taught. Actually, the feel of the "Mickey Mouse" rifle in my hands imparted a sense of power and confidence that I had not experienced since arriving in Nam. Also, it felt good to be away from the teasing of "short-timers" and the pointing and laughter of the gooks who also noticed the new uniforms I wore. I was at that moment, proud to be one of the best trained soldiers in the world and confident that I could handle any situation that arose. But, no amount of training can totally prepare a person's mind for what was going to happen.


A Year To Kill © 1989
Other Content © 1999
by James F. McColloch