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 away.

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 closet."

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 it."

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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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 war.

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 embrace.

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