In The darkness of night, nippa palm bushes begin to look like Charlie.
Sometimes Charlie looks like a nippa palm bush. There is no such thing as
relaxing in war. Even when you're riding on a thick armored personnel
carrier, you are sometimes only inches from a buried mine that can change
your whole life if you are lucky enough to escape with it. The small
pleasures in life like a refreshing shower and a cold beer are as remote as
a peaceful nights sleep. Your day (and your life) are controlled by anyone
with more stripes on his sleeve than you, regardless of his innate ability
to lead or his lack thereof.
The lessons that your parents taught you about treating your fellow man
with the same respect that you would like to be treated are replaced with
lessons on how to kill "gooks" before they kill you. It is probably true
that somewhere in the jungle or the wet rice paddies a ranking "gook" was
teaching young men similar ugly names to use when referring to us.
If you were lucky enough to find a mamason who was selling Coke or
Pepsi, you were warned not to drink it if it was bottled. The enemy (maybe
Mamason), were known to put shards of glass in the bottle and then replace
the lid. Not the most valiant way of dying in the Viet Nam war.
We often heard stories about how "Charlie" loved to find the GIs that
were "short" (about ready to go home) and kill them. This was obviously very
debilitating to the rest of us who could only dream of being short. Common
sense would have dictated that you would keep information such as that as
quiet as possible. But, quite the opposite was true. It was not uncommon to
see guys with their steel pots (helmets) decorated with a calendar with
their remaining days in country clearly marked. One of my saddest memories
of the war was seeing a member of my unit being zipped into a body bag and
noticing on his steel pot "SHORT, 21days and a wakeup"! He went back to the
world before his time but unfortunately for his mother, father and the ones
who loved him, he never got to wake up.
One of the things that keeps a GI going in war is music. Sure the
commercials are about putting on dry socks to prevent jungle rot or a
reminder to take your salt tablets to prevent dehydration caused by profuse
sweating in the tropical heat. But no matter what, the Doors, the Stones,
The Beatles and all of the other music of the era sounded like home. A place
where we all longed to be. Even now, 30 years later, when I hear one of
those tunes, I am transported for the moment back to the sights and sounds
of a small far away country when we were both loved and hated by not only
the natives, but our fellow countrymen back in "the world".
The death and dying in a war are only half of the misery that a human
being sometimes must contend with. If he or she is fortunate enough to come
home with all of the parts that they left with, there is still the physical
and mental illnesses that may not manifest themselves until later in one's
life. They are waiting there, hiding like Charlie in the nippa palm bushes,
to ambush you just when you think you made it through unscathed.
Unfortunately the very country that insisted that we go and fight their war
or go to jail, doesn't always care about us once we have used up our
usefulness. Instead of helping us heal, they grab the next generation of
younger, stronger and healthier specimens and teach them how to kill, even
as the veterans die.
My father Clair L. Allen was a conscientious objector in World War Two.
He was a medic in Europe and fought to save the lives of his fallen
comrades. When we were young, we would say "tell us about the war Daddy". He
would say: "Well, I shot thousands of guys.(With a needle)". I on the other
hand, was a sniper with the 9th Infantry Division and killed several people.
Who was the brave one between us? I say the one who stood up for his
principals and shot people with the needle, not the M14.
As I look at my own young sons today, I hope that the music of their
teenage years never reminds them of a foreign country full of death and
destruction. Those years are meant to provide wonderful, safe memories of a
time when you stepped from boyhood to manhood. Where you learned to drive a
car not an APC. A time when "short" meant that you were not as tall as your
friends and your parents would never tolerate you calling someone a gook.
We were robbed of those memories and that safe secure feeling of passing
into adulthood with our family and friends around us. They say all is fair
in love and war, but that doesn't seem so fair to me. I am proud to be a
citizen of the finest country on the planet and I am proud to have fought
and to have done what I could to rid a country of a military force that were
unwelcome in that country. I'm not certain however that they are any better
off today because of our efforts. I know many of my fellow soldiers
certainly are not. American Soldiers have always been welcomed home as
heroes until it was our turn. Maybe we're not heroes but we did what our
country asked us to do and now all we ask is that our country do what we ask
them to do, take care of the sick and injured that fought your battles for
you before they are down to 21 days and a wakeup. America, take care of your
sons and daughters. Provide funds to make them whole again where possible
and relieve the pain of those who can not be made whole.
I am one of the lucky ones. I am healthy, my family is healthy and doing
great 30 years later. My letter is for those who didn't fare as well. Here's
to you my Brothers and Sisters. May you someday know peace and health just
as you knew it before the experience known as The Viet Nam War.