A Year To Kill


The evening rain was over, the clouds were dissipating as rapidly as they had formed and the sun was a bright orange ball in the western sky as it headed for duty on the other side of the earth. I knew I could not, but still I wished that I was going with it as I sat inside the musty smelling bunker, awaiting my turn on perimeter guard duty. At least, the sunset signaled the end of one more day in this, the armpit of the world and meant I was one day closer to home.

Three men were assigned to each of the bunkers that protruded from the earthen wall that surrounded the base camp. Constructed of sandbags, each bunker was approximately eight feet square and contained two crude benches, also made from sandbags, which served as multi-purpose replacements for chairs, tables and beds.

A series of stair-stepped sandbags led to the roof of the bunker, where the lookout man would sit behind a sandbag wall and watch the cleared area from the berm to the jungle, for signs of activity.

Each man would spend two hours on watch while the other two tried to sleep. However, the heat and humidity inside the bunker turned it into a reasonable facsimile of a sauna, making sleep impossible until well toward morning. Then, exhaustion wrought heavy eyelids and bodies too tired to care about surroundings, sought relief from the all-night vigil. This period of grogginess came during the last watch in the rotation and the man who drew it normally had a difficult time staying awake.

Since I had drawn the last watch, I had four hours to stew inside the bunker before my shift and I used the remaining minutes of daylight to read the graffiti that covered the inside walls. Among the most humorous was a drawing of a combat helmet directly on top of a pair of combat boots, with the caption, "Short." The proclamation, "If God had wanted men to be soldiers, He would have given them green baggy skin," caused me to burst out with laughter and the soldier sharing my temporary quarters jumped as if a bomb had exploded.

He was busily trying to finish a letter before the darkness encroached on us and I shrugged at him as if to apologize, before dropping down on the sandbag bench, to silently watch. I knew better than to bother a man while he was writing or reading his mail. Tempers are very short when a man is lost in thoughts of family and home and a bloody nose is often the reward for interruption.

I did not have an opener, so I used my knife to work on the can of beer I brought along. I had learned to cut a neat V in the top that looked as if it had been done with an opener and this time was no exception, I thought to myself. I admired my work prior to turning up the can and gulping down the liquid contents. The hot beer burned slightly as it hit my otherwise empty stomach and I again broke the silence with a loud and obnoxious belch. My temporary roommate again raised his eyes to glare at me in disgust, but this time I ignored him as I again raised the can and finished it.

Both knew that drinking while on guard duty was a court-martial offense, but I figured he would not tell and I really did not care if he did. I had reached the point where I did not care about much of anything except going home to my wife and our soon to arrive baby that I just knew would be a boy.

My thoughts of home were interrupted by my partner who putting away his writing materials, and apparently believing I needed a dose of religion began telling me about his service as an alter boy and his plans to be a priest, someday. I figured he needed to talk as much as he figured I needed to listen, so I sat quietly in the darkness while he testified. Though I paid little attention to what he was saying, his words stirred memories of my childhood.

My mother tried to raise me in a Christian environment, though my dad was not a Christian at the time and when I was eight years old I realized that Christ died for my sins and rose from the dead. In repentance and faith, I trusted Jesus as my Lord and Savior.

During my early teens I considered becoming a pastor or missionary and was probably familiar with any sermon my bunker mate wanted to preach, but I was mad at God for allowing me to be sent to a hell-hole like Vietnam. Though I later realized just how gracious He was to watch over me during my tour of duty, I thought He had forgotten me and I really did not want to hear about Him. Besides, the crutch I found in alcohol, while at the time seeming more tangible, made me feel ashamed of myself, when I thought about the things of God.

I was beginning to resent the sermon when the time to change shifts came and my personal preacher had to go topside. I did not even bother to speak to the man who took the preacher's place. I did not want to talk, or think, or anything, other than forget where I was and what I was doing. But forgetting was as impossible as sleep, so I stared into the darkness and alternately cursed and felt sorry for myself until it was my turn to go topside and watch.

I inserted a full magazine in my rifle, put on my flak jacket and steel pot and climbed to the lookout perch on top of the bunker. The cool night air was at first a welcome relief from the stagnant atmosphere inside the bunker, but as I sat for a few minutes I began to feel chilled. The temperature was probably in the mid 80's but after a daytime high of 115 degrees, the air felt very cool and an occasional shiver traveled the length of my spine.

The field telephone near my feet buzzed briefly, almost in harmony with the innumerable mosquitoes that incessantly gorged themselves on my life's blood. The concoction the army called mosquito repellent worked well to remove leeches but had little deterring effect on the bloodsuckers that constantly probed my skin in search of a meal. The big orange pills we took on Monday mornings were intended to keep us from getting malaria and I sure hoped they worked as I reached for the phone.

It was unusual to receive a call from the command post unless a man failed to check in at the prescribed time, which sometimes happened if a guard dozed off for a few moments, or was caught up in his thoughts and lost track of time.

However, neither was the case this time and the sergeant-of-the-guard quickly satisfied my curiosity by telling me that Viet Cong activity had been detected in the area around the base camp. He instructed me to be extra alert.

The guard duty that started as a routine chore was now a more serious matter and I gripped my rifle tightly as I felt the tension growing in my neck and shoulders. The night seemed to get blacker as I stared at the wall of vegetation outside our perimeter and I began to imagine movement everywhere I looked, though in reality, I could only see the darkness. After a few minutes of trying to visually search the tree line, I reminded myself that mine fields, booby traps, barbed wire and assorted physical barriers including the berm itself, were between the base and a ground assault. Not even Charlie could get through that maze undetected, I thought, as I began to relax.

Suddenly, a song by Jefferson Airplane began to play outside the berm and I felt myself jump because it was so unexpected. The music was almost deafening where I was and I had no doubt the whole camp would easily hear it and awaken. This was just what Charlie wanted.

Using a World War II Japanese tactic, the Viet Cong set up loudspeakers to keep the GIís awake with their anti-war propaganda. The music was followed by a sexy-voiced woman we called Hanoi Hanna, who patiently petitioned us to lay down our arms and rebel against our commanders. After a few minutes of her droning venom, she introduced another song she said was popular in the States and the music started again.

Her next appeal was for us to consider what our wives and girlfriends were doing for companionship in our absence. This was followed by the news that the USS Pueblo had been captured in North Korea and then, more music. So it continued while choppers with search lights flew overhead in search of their position. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the music and propaganda ended and dark silence again engulfed me.

The next day, the "Stars and Stripes" (the official military newspaper) confirmed the capture of the Pueblo in North Korea. This was quite a blow to our morale. It seemed foolish to be fighting a war in Vietnam while doing nothing in retaliation to North Korea taking our ship. If our government would not go after the return of an entire ship and crew, it was clear that we as individual soldiers could forget home if we were captured by the VC. Most men in my company would have readily volunteered for an assault on North Korea. It made more sense to fight for our own Country's flag and honor than what we were doing, but wars never make sense to those who fight them, only to the politicians who pull the strings.

Charlie poured on the harassment for several consecutive nights with mortar attacks and loudspeaker propaganda. The sirens would sound and we would fall out in full combat gear to take our defensive positions as backups to the perimeter guards. A few mortar rounds would explode inside our camp and although they did little physical damage, the psychological effect was great. It was nerve rending as they screamed overhead, prior to exploding. One could not help wondering if the next round would blow him into eternity.

The VC knew sleep was impossible under the conditions they meted out and after a week most of us looked like zombies stumbling around, from lack of sleep.

Base security was tightened and patrols constantly swept the area surrounding the base. In spite of these efforts, like a phantom in the night, Charlie would appear to pop a few rounds in our direction, or play a few records and then disappear until apparently, they grew tired of their sport and the nightly visits would cease for a while.

During this period, the reports that circulated through the base concerning the attitude and actions of fellow Americans at home were as disconcerting as the VC efforts. Student demonstrations against the war, often directed toward returning GI's, made us feel betrayed and angry that we were being blamed for participating in a war we did not want. At the same time, our sense of patriotism was also inflamed by the reports and often we discussed how we would kick-ass, if, when we returned to the world, we caught someone burning a flag or spitting on a fellow vet. We did not like war but we did not like traitors more.


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