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 contained 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's
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 thereafter, 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 medics station. Now, I knew from the
tales that I heard as a kid, that the rats that populated grain elevators
were nasty. So nasty, in fact, 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. Obviously, 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 papers 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 certain that
Tung exactly understood what I meant by, "take note". But, his
approving nod confirmed that he appreciated that I understood that
this letter bore a significant message. Mang expressed gratitude for
the Cav's assistance 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 very fine. 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 letter and give Mr.
Mang sign and send to General Tolson?" "Um.." I hesitated. "Wait,
Tung " I tapped on the medics 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 very fine." "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 that you did. Besides, the General should be very 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, really. I had to make certain that the text
did not project insincerities. Sugar coating of any sort would defeat Mang's intended objective: to keep the An
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 the
people's lives. You have 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 witnessed 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 well
being? 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 exactly 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 really 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
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 participated 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
DROSed. 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 endeavored to do my best. Never the less, 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 dense, moist jungle.
Triple canopy foliage drapes the tops of trees two hundred feet above,
shutting out the sun. A small unit of infantrymen stalk 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, the silence 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 an
intense 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 whole 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 randomly
about. 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. 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. 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. 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 espirit de corps of the men in Medevac that today they
with 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
only birds in the sky are Medevac." The espirit 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
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
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
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
Captain Ernest Bayford. "But I wouldn't say there's excessive strain
on anyone." He's right, of course. Medevac teams lead a very comfortable
life when the going to slow. Half their time is free. Even at the brigade
hospitals, where the teams are on call 24 hours a day, they have no duties
until suddenly, though routinely, they are called to scramble.
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
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,
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 said
again and again, breathing heard as he lay against the cabin wall. The whine
of the hoist started up again, bringing the rescued door gunner to the side
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, 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
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 own two-crew members who
caught him in a wild embrace.
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