At long last, the day of my departure was near. I was preparing to leave for Bien Hoa the next morning. My flight would be the day following and it seemed almost too good to be true that I was actually leaving, forever. All of my running buddies had already rotated and I was surrounded by new men whom I did not know, nor care to meet. I knew I would never write when I got home, no one ever did and that would only increase their feeling they had been forgotten.
Watching them mope around with sick looks on their faces brought back painful memories of my first days in-country and my packing to leave was a grim reminder to them that they were staying so I could go. I did not intentionally plan to be offensive when I frequently yelled, "short," but I was so elated at the prospect of going home I failed to remember how much I hated that word when I first came to Vietnam. All I knew was that my war was nearly over and I was so happy I had to shout.
As was the custom, I passed along items I had collected during my stay. Articles of clothing, equipment and personal items were all received with thanks, each recipient realizing my gifts would make life a little easier for him. I wondered as I watched men select things from the assortment on my bunk, if I could handle starting over with as much time as they had to do. I was both happy to be going and sad they were staying.
The helicopter quickly rose above the heliport and veered to the left toward Bien Hoa. As we flew across the center of Camp Bearcat, I found myself staring at the sprawling military community that had been my home for most of the past year. I actually felt a twinge of homesickness as I realized I was seeing the base for the last time. Someone has said about his military experience, "I would not experience it again for a million dollars and I would not take a million dollars for my experience." That's how I felt as Bearcat became small in the distance.
At Bien Hoa, I turned in my rifle and was issued a new khaki uniform for the trip home. I located the bunk that had been assigned to me, dropped off the few personal effects I was carrying and decided to go to the "malt shop."
As I walked over the base, I realized not much had changed since my arrival a year earlier. The Vietnamese were still filling sandbags. Green troops waiting for assignment were still wandering around in new uniforms, with dazed looks on their faces and guys like me were still yelling "short."
I had changed though, just as the many others who went before me and who would follow. I had aged. My emotions were desensitized. I had learned to live with death and the threat of death; to exist in primitive conditions without the support of family and longtime friends; to tolerate inconvenience on a daily basis and to use the bottle as a buffer between me and reality. I was a lot smarter and a lot tougher than when I arrived here a year ago, I thought.
I entered the NCO club, never expecting to see anyone I knew, much less a relative, so I was really surprised to run into my cousin, Tom. We had not seen each other since our grandmother's funeral several years earlier. What a small world, I thought, as we reminisced about family and friends.
Tom was on his way back to his unit from the hospital and was in Bien Hoa on layover, waiting for a ride. He severely damaged his finger in the breech of an artillery piece during a firing mission. Luckily, the doctors were able to sew it back and expected it to be good as new in a few weeks.
Meeting Tom was really great. We talked and drank beer until I thought I would explode. Finally, the club closed and we had to leave. As we departed the club in separate directions, part of me wished I had not seen him. For some strange reason, I felt guilty about leaving him behind.
Though I was physically and mentally exhausted, I could not sleep at all that night. The knowledge that I was leaving the following morning prompted me to stay awake, in case of an enemy attack, tornado, earthquake, or other disaster that would possibly keep me off the plane. I was even afraid of oversleeping.
Morning came slowly and the hours until the bus ride to the airport passed even slower. Finally, we boarded the bus for the trip to Bien Hoa. The jeering from civilians had no effect on me at all. I was leaving their war. They were staying.
As I watched the plane come in for a landing, I could feel the excitement in the crowd of men who pushed back and forth for a better look at the silver wings that would carry us out of this man-made hell.
Our time left in Vietnam could now be measured in minutes, rather, than the days, weeks and months that had been ours when we first arrived.
When the aircraft door opened and the first man stepped out, a cheer rose from the crowd as we greeted those on board in the same way we had been greeted a year earlier. Their drawn, white faces were in stark contrast to the suntanned, smiling countenances that cheered as they came down the ramp. I could not help it. I shouted, "Short" at the top of my lungs and shrugged off the looks of disgust given me by the new men.
We could feel the plane leave the runway and as it did, again a cheer went up from the soldiers on their way home. The plane rose to cruising altitude and I was still afraid to go to sleep, afraid I would wake and find myself still in Vietnam. It was hard to believe all that was behind me. Now, I was a combat veteran, an old soldier, who at the ripe old age of twenty-three, was free to put his war behind him and devote himself to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
From an altitude of thirty thousand feet, it's hard to determine where the blue of the Pacific meets the blue of the sky...
A Year To Kill © 1989
Other Content © 1999
by James F. McColloch