War Stories 1
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The Ghost Writer
by John Zwalinski
The intense Central Highlands sun mercilessly beat down on the
corrugated metal roof of the long building that had the dispensary's four
wards. Undoubtedly, the roof was creaking and straining as the blistering
heat of the sun expanded the metal. Inside, we had to contend with an
uncomfortable temperature that would have been unbearable, were it not for
the small measure of relief that the noisy, oscillating floor fans provided.
AFRVN was transmitting the sounds of the 5th Dimension tune,
Up, up, and away, my beautiful, my beautiful
balloon! I thought, yeah, wouldn't that be nice. Thai radio, tuned to
the RVN station, announced the time. BEEP-BEEP- BEEP! Hai gio! 1400.
We finished dispensing early afternoon medications; and admitted
several patients that Bacsi Mang sent our way. Shortly after that, Thai,
Thua, and I were caught up in an amusing scene. In the intense light of day,
a rat dared to make a rude appearance, and we had it trapped between the
medication closet and the corner of the wall near the medic's station. Now,
I knew from the tales that I heard as a kid, that the rats that populated
grain elevators were nasty. So nasty that mean feral felines wanted no parts
of them. True, the current venue was not a grain elevator, but I knew that
this rodent, when cornered, could be aggressive and inflict a nasty bite. I
dismissed the idea, really, a brainless musing, of putting an M- 16 round
through the beast. Instead, we chose to do shooting of a different kind.
Thua grabbed a can of insect spray, the generic olive drab GI version of
Raid, or whatever. This stuff, though, had a high concentration of DDT. The
spray seemed to be doing the job; because the rat was on its side, flailing
Predictably, our activity attracted a curious entourage of
onlookers. They were shouting in spirited, sing-song Vietnamese. Thua
interpreted, "What do you do? What do you do?" The English equivalent
sounded humdrum. I recognized one of the kids with whom I always joked. So,
I did a silly whistle through my lower lip and teeth and hollered, "Hey!
Hey!" The typical response would be a playful barrage of Vietnamese
profanities, with a unique, and I thought, humorous imitation, "Hey! Hey!"
But, this time, I was treated to the cute response, "Why chu see-peak
wheet-wheet?" What it was, was a question: " Why are you whistling?" Ah,
wheet-wheet means whistle. Sometimes, I would hear the variation, "Why chu
whittle?" I was so enmeshed in the festivities that I took no note that
Sergeant Tung stepped into the ward. "Hey!" he called out. Unwittingly, he
signaled the crowd to didi the area. I snapped around, and I could not help
but be amused by his quizzical look. I swiped the sweat away from my
forehead and waved, blowing off the nonsense that puzzled him. "This? No
sweat! We're tryin' to kill a rat. It's trapped behind the medication
Sergeant Tung, one of a handful of ARVN interpreters who worked at
the Villa during the hiatus of Sergeant's Dai's and Sergeant Tinh's tenure,
did not bother to acknowledge my explanation. He had something important to
discuss. "I want for you to help me with something," I noted the papers he
was holding and tapping on his free hand. "Sure," I said, "I just hope I
can." The documents that Tung held consisted of a letter written by Mr. Mang
and Tung's translation. As I skimmed Tung's translation, I perked up. A
glance at him told me that he could not quite get a read on my widened eyes.
"Is it something wrong?" he asked, with a hint of anxiety. "No. No." I
patted him on the shoulder. "I see that Mr. Mang has written this letter to
General Tolson. That made me take note." I was not confident Tung correctly
understood what I meant by, "take note." But his approving nod confirmed he
appreciated that I realized this letter bore an important message. Mang
expressed gratitude for the Cav's help in maintaining the An Khe Dispensary.
He personalized the General's role through the embellishing expression, "You
well know the suffering of the Vietnamese people." Mang, the Civil Servant,
had savoir-faire. He recognized the need to tap the power and authority of
the Cav's CG. If Tolson believed that his people played a significant role
in the "hearts and minds" mission, General Westmoreland's cause célèbre, the
Dispensary would continue to receive support through the 15th Medical
Battalion's MEDCAP. It would, in raw parlance, "stay in business." I did not
think to question why Tung asked me to evaluate his translation. That he did
not approach one of the other GIs, was lost on me. "Tung," I assured, "Your
translation is wonderful. I understand that Mr. Mang is very grateful for
the help the Cav gives to the hospital." "Ah," Tung responded with a snappy
nod. "Then, I can finish the letter and give Mr. Mang sign and send to
General Tolson?" "Um.." I hesitated. "Wait, Tung, " I tapped on the medic's
desk, "I have an idea. Let me read over your text. I'll expand on what Mr.
Mang has to say." "Expand? What is this?" Tung peered at me through a
squinty eye. "You have told me." "Sure," I reassured, "Your translation is
excellent." "But" I explained, "When I attended Penn State University, I was
placed in English 2, Expression Of Ideas. I did very well in that course. I
just think that you will like what I will write, and Mr. Mang will like the
good job you did. Besides, the General should be pleased when he reads the
letter." "Then, that is very good." Tung nodded approvingly. "You can do
Tung understood that I would remain in the background, and, as far
as anyone would know, the translated letter would be his jewel. Surely, Mang
would be so pleased that he would utter the Vietnamese equivalent of, " I
couldn't have said it better myself!" My task was basic. I had to make sure
the text did not project insincerities. Sugarcoating of any sort would
defeat Mang's intended goal: to keep the An Khe Dispensary operating. The
General would read: Sir, you have shown compassion for the Vietnamese people
who must daily wage a battle against the ravages of suffering, sickness, and
death. Your compassion is expressed not only in words but in your deeds and
largesse. You recognize that access to medical treatment plays a critical
role in people's lives. You made it possible for very materially poor and
sick people to be treated by the finest doctors and receive the finest of
medicines. So often, we have seen the joy of parents when their child is
rescued from certain death. And the joy of husbands and wives as their loved
ones recover from sick bodies. How can we possibly thank you? What price can
we place on life and wellbeing? That was the text that I developed from the
original, "You well know the suffering of the Vietnamese people."
When the General read the expanded statement, would he get the
sense that Mang was telling him that he understood the suffering of the
Vietnamese people? Well, that is precisely what I had in mind. Tung nodded
with approval as I reviewed the text. There was, however, one other
important detail. I suggested, "Tung, try to have this letter typed on
official stationery. That will make a good impression. Maybe Mr. Mang can
help." Tung patted me on the back. And he beamed, "Can do!" About a month
later, Tung was assigned to a line outfit; and SGT Thinh succeeded him as
the interpreter. I did not mention Mr. Mang's letter or Tung's translation.
As for my role in this affair, it was ephemeral, insignificant, really. So,
I thought. But soon after Tinh became the interpreter, the An Khe Dispensary
received a distinguished visitor.
Reflections: When I think about the time that Tung came to me with
his translation of Mang's letter, I get a sense of satisfaction that I took
part in something unique. At the time, I did not make the connection that
that letter probably influenced General Tolson's evaluation of the 15th
Medical Battalion's MEDCAP initiative. Too, I have wondered if Mang asked
Tung to approach me. Maybe there was a connection related to the service
that I rendered; and, that I remained at the Dispensary up until the time I
DEROSed. My mind echoes with the words of SP6 Benny Koveckas, a man who was
proud to be a member of MEDCAPs and who loved working sick call and patient
screening. Benny would set me straight on who was running the hospital.
Whenever he felt I needed an attitude adjustment, he would admonish: "If you
don't think Mang don't have no pull, you don't know nothin'." Benny would
punctuate his stern, fatherly tongue lashing with: "If Mang says you're
gone, you're gone! Do ya think ya'd like Bong Son?"
I took Benny's words to heart, and I tried to do my best.
Nevertheless, there were times when my sense of purpose faded, and I needed
to be readjusted. But there is the time that I recall with the kind of
satisfaction that accomplishment imparts. That one special time when I was,
The Ghost Writer.
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A MEDICS GREATEST FEAR
By Sherman (Snore) Breeden
Since graduating from the U.S. Army Medic
School, I have suffered the terror of a recurring
dream. Or should I call it a nightmare? I know that
someday it is bound to come true. I dream I am
shuffling along a narrow sandy roadway winding
snakelike through the dense, moist jungle. Triple
canopy foliage drapes the tops of trees two hundred
feet above, shutting out the sun. A small unit of
infantrymen stalks slowly ahead and behind. We walk
wearily, but with increased caution. No one speaks,
yet we sense from the forest that something is
wrong. Maybe it is the unusual absence of birds, and
the silence is broken only by snapping twigs under
heavy payloads, clicking machine gun shells dangling
in bandoleers sagging from well-worn shoulders,
heavy panting of sweat-soaked men. We continue
waiting for something to happen. We are looking for
it, expecting it, seeking it - yet hoping it is
never found. We know it is useless to hope. This is
My head turns up at the faint crack of a twig somewhere ahead. I am
caught for an instant by a bright twinkling of sunlight slipping between
emerald jungle leaves. I linger for a moment, hypnotized by the blade of
light, aware of what is about to happen. There is no reason to think. I
react without deciding. My legs collapse, crumbling slowly to one side, my
body falling yet hanging in mid-air. A cloud of red dust puffs into the
still air as my body drops heavily to the ground. I bounce and roll, tearing
at my pack straps. I am still in the open - still rolling. I feel the jab
and tear of jagged rocks and sticks as I roll to a stop in a shallow grave
like depression. My arms are free. My pack lies with the aid bag in a clump
of weeds a few feet away. I feel no wounds. The entire length of my body is
pressed flat hard against the earth, my face compressed into the soil. I try
to be thin but feel grossly conspicuous. Certain my rear is high up in full
view. I grind my pelvis tighter into the ground. It will go no lower. I am
stiff and trembling as bullets crack and whiz about randomly. The air is
full of speeding metal. I expect the shattering, hot impact at each second.
I sweat in sheets, my lungs heaving, my heart pumping a rapid pulse to the
brain. Any time now, any moment, "Medic!"
Bullets whine, exploding into fragments, shattering branches, which
drop to the ground, whole limbs ripped and torn, "Medic!" Louder, he screams
out to me in panic. Slowly, through the evolution of seconds, my mind can
see him sprawling face-up in the chalky dust, writhing in a puddle of
spreading blood coagulating in the intense noon heat. "Medic, Please." He
claws the air beckoning to me, opening and closing each hand desperately,
pleading. One-hand moves back clutching his eyes, a brush of tangled blond
hair caught between sticky fingers wet with blood. "Please help me?"
The jungle is roaring a rain of bullets, the air pungent with gray
smoke and dust. I begin to rise. Suddenly I imagine an explosion splattering
my face, turning it to jelly. I cannot move, and I know he is dying. I must
get up! "Please!" I try to move. I am paralyzed, lying helplessly. "Please!"
Tears streams glistening down my face, plunk softly into the earth. I am
sobbing and falling apart. I begin to vomit.
It always ends there. I awake and am relieved to remember that it
is only a dream. But today I am less certain. The airline stewardess speaks
into the microphone solemnly. "Good morning, gentlemen. I hope you enjoyed
your flight. Please fasten your seatbelts and observe the 'No Smoking' sign.
The weather in Bien Hoa is hazy but dry. The temperature is now 110 degrees.
I hope you will all enjoy your stay in the Republic of Vietnam."
There is a mystique about Medevac. So much has been written of the
courage, the dedication and esprit de corps of the men in Medevac that today
they live with a legend. Tradition seems to affect their every action. Pride
becomes a primary motivation. "It's why I joined the Army," said Medevac
pilot Warrant Officer Richard Leonard. "There's something about saving a
life - and the way Medevac does it, defying the odds - that makes it
appealing. I've never seen a mission aborted," said Specialist Four Dick
Gamester, who monitors Medevac Control at Phouc Vinh. "I've seen missions
delayed by weather and suppressive fire, but never called off. There are
nights when the only birds in the sky are Medevac." The esprit de corps
touches everyone. You can't get into the program unless you volunteer, and
even then, the competition is tough.
Specialist Four Mike Vineyard, a helicopter mechanic at 15th Med,
worked in the maintenance shop before he got a shot at a crew chief position
in Medevac. "I frequently flew door gunner when we'd go after a downed
bird," he said. He didn't have to go. He didn't get flight pay for it. "You
just do it," he said. When a bird goes down, everyone heads for the pad.
It's like a brotherhood." That startling routine response to a call that
seems beyond that of duty is part of the mystique of Medevac. Yet there is
another side. "It gets to be a little hairy at times," said Medevac pilot
Captain Ernest Bayford. "But I wouldn't say there's excessive strain on
anyone." He's right, of course. Medevac teams lead a wonderfully comfortable
life when the going is slow. Half their time is free. Even at the brigade
field hospitals, where the teams are on call 24 hours a day, they have no
duties until suddenly, though routinely, they are called to scramble.
"Downed aircraft, let's go! " Captain Bayford shouted from the
doorway of the crew quarters. It was 2:21 p.m., and the scramble was on. The
crew reached the chopper at full stride; in minutes it was airborne, hitting
100 knots at treetop level. The bird climbed to 2,000 feet; then, nine
minutes after the call and ten miles northeast of Quan Loi, the descent
began. They circled once at 300 feet as a Cobra gunship pulled in behind.
The downed aircraft was somewhere in the thick green foliage below. A Light
Observation Helicopter (LOH), flying as low as it could, finally spotted the
wreckage and marked it with purple smoke. Aircraft commander Bayford banked
the ship to the left and hovered over the now visible downed helicopter, its
slender tail protruding through the bamboo.
It was 2:33 when Specialist Five William Meeks attached the yellow,
torpedo-like jungle penetrator to the cable hoist and lowered it to the
bamboo below. On the ground a man grasped it and, shielding his face from
the entangling bush, rode the cable skyward. He looked straight up at the
chopper with a strained smile, drawing closer, closer until he could touch
the skid, grab the medic's hand, and pull himself aboard. "We've got to get
the pilot out! We've got to, got to!" he repeatedly said, breathing hard as
he lay against the cabin wall. The whine of the hoist started up again,
bringing the rescued door gunner to the side of the ship and inside. He
clutched at the medic-crew chief.
It was 2:35. "He's trapped. I couldn't budge him. He waved me away,
and the man blurted out, "We've got to get him out, we've got to," said the
door gunner. "They will. They will," answered the medic. The ship gained
altitude slowly, banked to the left and circled again at 300 feet. It was up
to the Blues now - the crack infantry element of the 1st Squadron 9th
Cavalry, already airlifted to the area and maneuvering toward the downed
aircraft and its pinned pilot. The Medevac chopper circled above. Specialist
Meeks turned at once to his patients, wrapping and taping the crushed toes
of the door gunner.
As the chopper passed over the crash site for the fourth time, a
thick cloud of white smoke erupted from the bamboo below, and there was a
bright red flash from the ground. "Hey, man, our ship just blew up!" the
wounded door gunner shouted. He turned to the medic with his eyes wide and
fearful. The medic talked into his radio mouthpiece, listened, and then
looked up at his patient. "He's all right. The Blues got him out. He's
okay." The helicopter circled down to land in a yellow meadow close to the
crashed and burning chopper. The rescued door gunner looked past the medic.
A big smile shot across his face, and he flashed the "V" sign at the freed
pilot, now sprinting toward the ship. "You're the greatest. You're the
greatest," the rescued pilot cried to the Medevac crew as he climbed aboard.
Then he turned and lunged at his two-crew members who caught him in a wild
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