A Year To Kill


I kept my head down and my elbows up and it paid off with a promotion. This meant more money to send home to Annie and also caught the attention of the division finance officer who sent through the chain of command, his verbal commendation for doing a good job.

This of course, pleased the NCO's and officers who were in charge of me, because it reflected well on their leadership abilities. Life in the military is much more pleasant for a soldier whose performance reflects well on his superiors. Even the sergeant-major began to call me by name when we had occasion to meet. I had, without knowing it, established myself as a good soldier in the minds of several high ranking NCO's and officers.

Apparently through the military records, the colonel was familiar with my civilian occupation when he asked me if I could connect a lavatory he had picked up in the Saigon market place. Unlike enlisted men and junior officers, the senior officers had private quarters and because "rank hath privileges," they were free to improve or renovate as they saw fit.

Though private, the colonel's hooch was still a tent walled with sand bags. He did not have private bath facilities but used a shower and latrine similar to those the enlisted men used. Therefore, the addition of a personal lavatory inside his quarters was a status symbol deserving of his rank. I managed to scrounge around the base and "appropriate," by any means necessary, sufficient hoses, clamps and fittings to connect "running water" to the colonel's lavatory.

Admittedly, it was a makeshift rig consisting of a GI can overhead, connected to the faucet with a length of rubber hose and the lavatory drained into a bucket. Though crude, it made the colonel very happy. He was so pleased with my work that he decided to give me a new job. I was put in charge of filling the water can and emptying the drain bucket, which I did twice a day. In addition, I cared for the few potted plants he kept and the two flower beds he had me plant next to his office entry.

The Colonel's Flowers

Though my rank did not increase with this new job, my status among the troops took a quantum leap. I quickly discovered that when told to do something by a ranking NCO or an officer, I could mention I should check with the colonel and they would tell me not to bother, they would get someone else. No one was willing to inconvenience the colonel by tying up his flunky, or saying "no," when I requested something. Life improved a lot for me as I learned to take full advantage of my new found position.

The arrival of our baby was very near and I waited anxiously, expecting each day to hear from the Red Cross, the good news that I was a daddy. Since the lag time for mail was nearly three weeks, it did nothing to write letters of inquiry. Consequently, I was nearly consumed with worry on the tenth day after Annie's due date. Finally, a messenger arrived with the news that the Red Cross Representative wanted to talk to me.

On the way to the Red Cross office, I felt as if I were ten feet tall while trying to decide a nickname for my new son. I planned to give him the name I inherited from my grandfather, but I knew that two men with the same name, in the same household, would be confusing, so it was important that he have a good nickname.

The closer I came to my destination, the more proud I became, knowing I had fathered my dad's first grandchild and a son, to carry on the family name. By the time I reached the door, I thought I was going to explode with anticipation.

I composed myself and regained my military bearing before I knocked on the door and entered smartly at attention when invited to enter. The Red Cross officer was all smiles as she began to read the telegram and I dared not look at her for fear I could not keep from laughing with joy, at the long awaited good news.

"We are pleased to inform you of the birth of your daughter born this date." The telegram began. I was shocked at the birth of a daughter because I expected a son. My mouth dropped open, my eyes popped wide and I weakly exclaimed, "You're kidding!"

The Red Cross woman, perhaps thinking I was unaware of my wife's pregnancy, immediately stopped reading and began to counsel me, saying, "These things sometimes happen when husbands are away." "But it's not possible" I blurted, still surprised and not realizing what she was thinking.

My comment reinforced the woman's concerns and she stepped from behind her desk walking towards me while she tried to calm and console me. Just as she invited me to sit and talk about it, I realized what she was thinking and began chuckling. This caught her completely off guard and she looked at me as if I was crazy, until I explained why I was so surprised.

We had a good laugh together and I left feeling very proud of my new role as father, even if my daughter was ten thousand miles away. Although it would be months before I could see her, I had a new daughter and I went straight to the malt shop to celebrate.

I did not recognize Lee when I first noticed him sitting alone at the bar. He appeared considerably older than I knew him to be and he was wearing staff sergeant, E-6, stripes. I could not believe he would be an E-6 already, but the more I stared, the more the matured soldier looked like Lee, and I finally walked over for a closer look. As I approached, he looked my direction, quickly rose from his stool and rushed toward me with arms outstretched in greeting.

I had not seen or heard from Lee since Tigerland and had no idea that he was in the 9th Division. I do not know which surprised me most, seeing someone from home, or his appearance that definitely showed the effects of his time in combat.

After ordering another round, we sat at a table and I began to ask questions in rapid-fire fashion, barely giving him time to answer, before I fired another salvo. I was so curious about what he had been doing and how he, a draftee, became an E-6, that I forgot for a time why I was celebrating.

Lee told me his platoon was on patrol in the north end of the Delta at the extreme edge of the 9th's area of operations, when they walked into a VC ambush. In the ensuing fire fight, every man in his platoon was hit, except Lee. The officers were killed and the NCO's were unable to function because of their wounds. The radio operator was able to call for a "dustoff" but when the choppers arrived, the LZ (landing zone) was too hot for them to land.

Meanwhile, Lee, the last able-bodied man, assumed command, just as infantrymen are trained to do and single-handedly held the enemy at bay with an M-60 machine gun. He continued to lay down a base of fire to secure an area for the choppers to land and then began carrying his wounded comrades to the "OD angels" for evacuation, even though, he was wounded himself. Not concerned with his own welfare or safety, Lee continued to work until all the wounded were aboard before boarding himself.

Lee's heroic actions earned him a purple heart, a silver star and a battlefield promotion to 2nd lieutenant. He modestly turned down the promotion to the officer ranks, so his company commander promoted him to staff sergeant, E-6. He deserved it. He earned it the hard way.

As we visited, I asked Lee if he knew anything about Red, or his whereabouts. Red, Lee and I did not know each other before being drafted and were only casual acquaintances during basic training. We became friends during our training at Tigerland when our wives got together somehow, and made the trip to Ft. Polk, Louisiana, to see us, one weekend.

On the way home, they ran into a blizzard, slid off the roadway, wrecking the car, forcing them to walk in the snow for help. Fortunately, no one was hurt seriously. After this we had a common experience on which to develop our friendship.

Red, like Lee, had shipped out of Tigerland straight to the infantry in Nam. His was a bad luck tour from the beginning, according to Lee. During a routine march between outposts, his company was traveling single file, along both sides of a road, when a grenade came flying out of the bush and landed in the road. Someone shouted "grenade," and everyone dived for cover.

Red kissed the dirt behind a tree and covered his ears in anticipation of the explosion. The grenade rolled off the road and landed against the tree Red was behind. The explosion knocked the tree over on Red, which put him in the hospital for several days. He was sore from bruises and cuts but not seriously injured. However, his pride took a real beating from the other guys in his unit wanting to know about the "attack tree" or making other similar remarks.

Red's next encounter with the enemy had far more disastrous results. His unit was called on to bail out a recon patrol that was in a fire fight with a superior enemy force and about to be overrun.

When a chopper hits a hot LZ to drop a fighting unit, the pilot keeps the craft four or five feet off the ground. The soldiers jump to the ground and return fire as quickly as possible, to protect the aircraft. The helicopter never stops moving, never touches the ground and immediately climbs toward the heavens, as soon as the last man jumps.

Red was on the door and the first man out of the chopper when they hit the landing zone in a hail of bullets. He jumped from about six feet up and immediately disappeared as the ground gave way where he landed.

After the area was secured, the medics found Red impaled on bamboo spears, in a punji pit. In typical fashion, Charlie had covered the insidious trap with a thin layer of vegetation, designed to give way under the weight of a man, causing him to fall on the bed of sharpened bamboo stakes protruding from the bottom. As an added touch, the points were coated with human excrement, so the victim was subject to severe infection if he survived the fall onto the piercing spikes.

Red survived the fall, even though the spears had penetrated both legs, his buttocks and lower back. He had spent months in the hospital, endured fourteen surgical operations, was confined to a wheelchair, his wife had divorced him and he was perpetually drunk, when I last heard about him, years later. He, in reality, had given his life for his country.

I did not ask about anyone else. I did not want to hear about any more misery, so I ordered another round and turned the conversation to the birth of my daughter. As I spoke of home and the expectation of seeing my wife and new baby, Lee's eyes filled with tears and he told me he had received a "Dear John" letter from his wife. "Damn," I thought, as the hot liquid began to trickle down my cheeks also, "doesn't this war ever stop taking?"

We sat in silence for a long time, each of us swallowing hard, trying to regain our composure, until finally, I managed to blurt out that I had to go and stood to leave. "Me too," said Lee, and we started for the door together. Outside we shook hands, said good-by and headed in separate directions, He, back to his war and me, back to mine.


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