The Viet Cong welcomed Dan Rhinehardt’s plane to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, near Saigon, with a mortar attack. As the shells exploded near the perimeter of the base, Dan was more interested in the aircraft of every shape and size that were flying in every direction at various altitudes. After a week of processing, Dan reported to a fire base north of Saigon. Another medic met him at the base’s headquarters, a bunker surrounded by and buried beneath hundreds of sandbags.
“Rhinehardt?” He studied the new guy’s name patch. “I’m Roscoe. Let’s go.”
Dan flinched and crouched at the sounds of artillery shells flying overhead.
“That’s just the afternoon mail to the NVA and Cong out there.” Roscoe pointed at the thick jungle that bordered the 1,000 meter clearing that surrounded the base. “Have to let them know we know that they’re out there.”
“So the platoon I’m assigned to has two medics?”
“Not for long.” Roscoe fondled the necklace that hung about his neck. Most of its beads had been broken off; only about a dozen remained. “I’m short, eleven days and a wake up and I’m on a freedom bird back to the world. Well, here’s home.” He led Dan into a bunker filled with fourteen grunts, infantry who only counted one thing, the number of days left in Vietnam. Roscoe banged a greasy mess kit on a can of C-rations. “Listen up! This is your new medic, Dan Rhinehardt.”
One of five poker players looked up. “Hi ‘cruit.”
“Okay, the card sharks are Lewis, Ben, Ed, Pete, and Mike.” He turned toward another group, lost in a haze of whitish-gray pungent smoke and the sounds of Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow thumping out of a small cassette player. “And that’s Bernie, John, Chuck, Bill, Ken, Kevin, Al, and Junior.”
Two of them acknowledged the new arrival with nods. The others did not lift drooping heads or focus bloodshot eyes.
“I guess the other two guys are out somewhere.”
“Hey, I’m here.” A figure rolled out of a bunk. “I’m Hank.”
Dan shook the only hand that had been extended to him since leaving America. “Hi. Good to meet you.”
Roscoe was all business, even as they went through the chow line and then sat on a mound of sand bags to eat supper. “Guess I should run down the slang so you don’t get confused too bad. The word ‘cruit is short for recruit, which is what we call all the new guys like you. A dust off is when you call in a med-evac copter. A klick is a kilometer. Sappers are VC with explosives strapped to their bodies. They try to get through the fence and then run to the ammo dump to blow themselves and most of the base up. The mama san and papa san run joints that GIs go to for booze, dope, and girls. OJs are marijuana and opium joints that come in from Thailand. They grow the poppies over there. Do not, I repeat, do not smoke anything with opium or heroin in it unless you want to get strung out.” He stopped talking and shoved three forkfuls of beef stew into his mouth in rapid succession. “Ugh, tastes like dog meat again. The cooks must’ve run out of beef rations. Any questions?”
“How long are they going to call me ‘cruit?”
“Until you do a good enough job patching somebody up. We’re due to go out on patrol tomorrow so do your best work.”
“There a lot of drugs here? I could barely see in the hootch because of all the pot smoke.”
Roscoe choked on a string bean and then spit it at Dan’s boots. “I forgot. You’re from the Heartland. Not many drugs where you went to school?”
“No. Some kids took cross tops.”
“You ever go down into Mexico while you were at medic school on the weekends?”
“Boy, you are green. Listen, there’s every drug and then some floating around here. Our platoon is lucky. Sergeant Felder is cool. He looks the other way if we get high back here in our hootch. But he gets bent out of shape real bad big time if anyone brings any drugs out on patrol. He’s tight with the C.O. and gets those ones shipped out of his platoon in a heartbeat. Believe me it is his platoon. I kid you not.”
Dan met Sgt. Felder at 0700 hours the next morning during formation.
“So this is our new medic?”
“Good. Specialist Fourth Class Drummer will show you the ropes on patrol, Private Rhinehardt. We leave at 1600 hours. All of you tear down and clean your weapons for my inspection at 0900. Dismissed.”
The nineteen-man platoon shuffled back to their hootch. They knew if even one part was not devoid of dirt, sand, or any other foreign object, Sgt. Felder would lecture them while he watched them tear down, clean, and reassemble their weapons. Roscoe ran after his NCO.
“Sarge, you can’t send me out on patrol. I only got ten days and a wake up left.”
Sgt. Felder spun around and leaned toward him until his body tilted at a 30-degree angle. “Troop, I am infantry. I have been since the Korean War and will either die or retire as infantry. I am not equipped to give the new man on the job training as a medic that he needs. Without it one or more of my men might die. Do I make myself clear, short timer?”
The platoon filed through the lone gate in the base’s concertina wire perimeter fence at 1602 hours. Hank walked point. The others believed he had a sixth sense of the enemy and obeyed whatever commands Hank issued, verbal or gestures.
“Either that or he smells them,” Roscoe explained to Dan.
Neither medic carried the M-16s that the others held, fingers on triggers. Lewis also toted a sawed off shotgun strapped over his shoulder and Bill a mortar. Armed with .45s, the medics lugged forty pounds of lifesaving equipment, including IVs. No one spoke until they stopped after penetrating five klicks into jungle that blotted out the sky.
Sgt. Felder ordered them to bed down twenty meters from where they had congregated for supper. Those who acted as sentries watched for enemy and waited for their shift to end. Dawn never appeared soon enough. The platoon had travelled for half an hour the next morning when Hank spotted a trip wire. His hand signals sent the long line behind him diving for trees, bushes, rocks, anything that might protect. The first rocket propelled grenade showered Dan with dirt and shredded foliage. Roscoe laughed at his baptism.
“Welcome to Congville, ‘cruit.” When the enemy’s fire came from all sides, Roscoe stopped laughing. “Oh Jesus, please don’t let me die. Not when I’m this short.”
As Sgt. Felder radioed the enemy’s position to the fire base, Bill lobbed mortars, their parabola flights calculated in his head and decimating the unseen enemy. The first screams for help convulsed Dan’s stomach.
“Let’s go.” Roscoe crawled snakelike toward the cries, Dan copying every move. He thought he was watching himself star in a B-movie.
Although the firefight lasted only five minutes before the artillery shells from the firebase routed the enemy, the platoon suffered four wounded.
“This is your final exam, ‘cruit. Set up triage. Tell Sgt. Felder if you need a dust off.”
Dan froze. Triage. How he dreaded the word. His mind backpedalled to the air-conditioned classroom he had sat in nine months earlier.
“When you got wounded you have to set up triage,” the instructor had said. “That’s where you put them in three spots. One is for those who can treat each other’s wounds because they are not life threatening. The second is for those so severely wounded that they are dying no matter what you do. The third is for those who you can save.”
One trooper was bleeding from an arm and a second from a leg wound. Dan tossed them two field dressings. “Put these on the wounds. I’ll be back to check on you.”
A third soldier had a sucking chest wound. Dan recognized it by the air bubbles escaping with the blood flowing from the bullet hole in his chest. The fourth soldier had massive wounds to his abdomen, noodles and ham he had eaten swimming among bloody intestines. Choking back vomit, Dan yelled at Sgt. Felder, who was still on the radio.
“Sarge, we need a med evac for these two now!”
He dropped to his knees and tore open two large field dressings and covered the exposed internal organs. “Roscoe, give him morphine.”
His mentor injected two plastic ampules of the painkiller into the man’s left thigh. Dan took a piece of thin plastic paper and slapped in onto the other man’s chest wound. He wound the straps of the field dressing around his back and tied them tightly in a square knot. Bit by bit, movements and sounds returned to normal speed and volume for Dan by the time the two with severe wounds had been carried to a landing zone for the inbound copter, smoke from canisters marking it. Dan did not stop shaking until it lifted off with the ones he prayed would survive. An unseen hand squeezing his shoulder made him jump.
“Good job, Doc.” Roscoe patted him on the back. “You’re still a little bit jumpy but you pass.”
They returned to the battle scene with the two who had helped them to carry the wounded to the landing zone. Because Hank had found a tunnel Sgt. Felder ordered a barf grenade tossed into the hole and for his men to spread out in a 360-degree pattern from the tunnel’s entrance to watch for enemy using hidden exits. Four VC came up through a hole 75 meters from the entrance, all of them vomiting so hard that they crawled. When no more appeared, Sgt. Felder ordered a body count. The tally came in at twelve dead, four captured. Roscoe smiled for the first time since the platoon had left the safety of its base.
“Thank you, Jesus.”
“Why are you so happy all of a sudden?” Dan asked.
“Because whenever there’s prisoners, Sarge always has us head back to base so they can get interrogated right away by an ARVN soldier. Otherwise he would’ve had us go after the Cong that got away.”
Having a headful of lifesaving techniques had been one thing; living in this surreal world of war where most of the enemies ever seen were dead was another. Dan thought their seeming invisibility to be their greatest asset and for his platoon, his sergeant. Back at base, Dan sought him out.
“Can I talk with you, Sarge?”
“Sure.” He put down the weapon he was cleaning, an M-16 that the troop with the massive abdominal wound might never hold again. His sweat made his black skin glisten as he shook some of it from his bare arms. “Water comes out of us here faster than we can drink it.” For the first time he smiled at his newest ‘cruit.
“How have you stayed alive all the way through Korea and now Vietnam?”
Felder smiled. “My momma says it’s her prayers. I say it’s my hero.”
“Yeah, Willie Mays.”
“Because in his prime he was drafted into the Army and missed two seasons of baseball. Because of that he’ll never break Babe Ruth’s lifetime homerun record. I figure he’ll end up only with about 650 homers.”
“I didn’t even know he was in the Army.”
“He didn’t make a big fuss; he just did his duty. So who’s your hero?”
Dan pursed his lips. “My dad, I guess. He died in the Korean War.”
“Did he die in the invasion at Inchon?”
Dan blinked. “No. He got appendicitis. The infection spread too fast.”
“I bet that’s what inspired you to be a medic. So you could keep others from dying like your dad died. You did a good job out on patrol. Roscoe said so.”
“Sarge, how long is this war going to last?”
“Forever, now that China’s blowing up A-bombs too.”
Dan only took one ride on a chopper. After a fierce fire fight on his twenty second patrol, he thought the dust off would be routine: load the one severely wounded who was bleeding from an artery onto it and wave goodbye. But the copter’s pilot had other priorities.
“Get on board, doc.” He yelled over the thump thump thump sounds of the spinning rotors.
“Huh? I can’t leave my platoon.”
“My medic is shot up bad. He and your wounded man might both die before I can get this bird back home. Get in now!”
Dan glanced at the crumpled figure behind the co-pilot’s seat as the helicopter’s gunner pulled him aboard. The wounded medic smiled weakly as Dan stretched him out on the cold steel of the bouncing copter.
“Thanks, man. I’m hit in my back. Can’t reach it to stop the bleeding myself. I…” He passed out.
The gunner fired his last belt of bullets from his .50-caliber as enemy bullets ripped new streams of daylight into the fuselage. Twenty minutes later the air ambulance touched down at a field hospital and the gunner jumped out and kissed the ground.
The following month Dan took a three-day R&R to Hong Kong. He bar-hopped with a Marine that had flown there on the same plane from Saigon.
“Man, I don’t know how much more I can take.” Dan’s fourth drink loosened the pent-up fear. The fifth bared his soul. “We got this new platoon sergeant. Sgt. Felder was cool. But this new guy…” He stared into the shot glass to conjure up more words.
“A by-the-book man more interested in body count than his own men?”
Dan looked up. “How’d you know?”
“Listen, kid, it’s SOS all over. It’s even worse in the Marines. Some of our sergeants and officers are so gung-ho that it’s scary. Say, I know what you need.” He handed Dan a cigarette.
“I don’t smoke.”
“This ain’t no ordinary smoke.”
“Opium joint? Man, that’s addictive.”
“Nah. I just put some heroin in with the tobacco. If you just smoke heroin, you can’t get hooked. Besides, they invented heroin to help morphine addicts out. Best of all, no one can smell it.”
Dan continued the habit of smoking heroin laced cigarettes once back at his fire base. He kept telling himself he would quit before going home. But then a VC mortar shell exploded ten feet from where he was patching up a wounded comrade. The shrapnel embedded in him earned him an early end to his tour.
He was still fading in and out of consciousness as they loaded him onto a C-118 Air Evac bound for Clark Air Base, Philippines. Its four engines’ drone drowned out most of the cries of pain from the patients lying on the tiers of litters, monitored continually by Air Force nurses.
“How you feeling?” The one assigned to Dan asked as he awoke from a morphine induced dream.
“Where am I?”
“On the way to Clark’s hospital for surgery. Hang in there.”
After ninety percent of the shrapnel had been cut out of him, Dan kept requesting more morphine for the residual pain. A doctor making his rounds shook his head as he read Dan’s chart.
“You use heroin in Vietnam, son? You’re getting enough morphine that you should be asleep or at least out of it right now. I think you already had a tolerance before you started getting morphine after your wounds.”
“I think you want more morphine because you’re going through withdrawals from the heroin you used to use.”
“I just smoked it so I couldn’t get addicted.”
“It doesn’t matter if you inject it, eat it, snort it, or smoke it.”
Five minutes later, Dan was transferred to a ward set aside for addicts. Two of them helped him ride out his withdrawals, which lasted four days. He ached and sweated until he thought he was dying. Each afternoon a Red Cross volunteer checked on him.
“You’re looking a lot better.”
“Thanks.” Dan took the magazine she offered. “Why do you do this? Things that dead for teens here on Clark Air Base?”
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Why’d you go to Vietnam?”
They laughed. Two days later Sandra asked him to a dance at Wagner High School, which mystified Dan. “I thought you had a boyfriend.”
“He dumped me.”
Dan’s doctor agreed to a pass from the hospital “only because Sandra will be a good chaperone. No monkey business.” He wagged a finger in Dan’s face. “That includes alcohol.”
The occasion was informal with music by Filipinos who called their band d’Sparks. Still on crutches, Dan hobbled on his cane into the dark concrete gym and shuffled more than danced to covers of the day’s hits: the nonstop D-D-C-D bass line of Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love, madness of The Door’s When the Music’s Over, and Blue Cheer’s thunderous remake of Summertime Blues. He tried to thank Sandra for letting him relive his high school days as she drove him back to the hospital.
“You think we could do something together again?”
“I’d like to but I’m flying back to the States next week.”
“But you’ll miss your graduation with the class of ’68.”
A tear rolled from her eye. “I’m pregnant. That’s why my boyfriend dropped me. I’m going to live with my grandparents to have the baby.”
“You going to keep it?”
“I don’t know yet. Listen; before I leave I need to introduce you to my friend. She can show you around Luzon.”
After having endured weeks of physical therapy and drug tests to check if he had returned to heroin, Dan welcomed the introduction to Sandra’s friend, a dark-eyed, dark-haired Filipina whose skin seemed to glow. She acted as his tour guide and took him by bus to the history and nightlife of Manila, the mountains and rice terraces of Bagio, and the white sand beaches and crystal clear ocean waters next to Long Beach and San Miguel. By their third trip to Manila, they were in love.
At last, Dan did something he had neglected for months. He wrote home:
April 29, 1968
Sorry it’s been a while since I wrote. I guess I’ve been sort of busy. The last few months have been a blur ever since I almost got blown away and sent to the Philippines. Things are going well with my PT. The therapist says my leg is getting stronger.
These Pacific Islands are like paradise, especially compared to Vietnam.
I guess the other news is I’m getting married. Her name is Teresa. She’s moving to the States as soon as she gets her visa.
Dan’s freedom bird, a chartered airliner filled mostly with Air Force personnel and their dependents, landed at Travis AFB in northern California. Only an airman welcomed those returning from Vietnam and directed them to a waiting vehicle. Dan joined other grunts on a bus bound for Oakland Army Base and their discharge papers. They talked about “being back in the world” until the bus drove off the base through the main gate.
A group of protestors against the war launched the only welcome home most of the soldiers would receive until years later when a memorial to the war’s dead was built in Washington D.C. and a nation slowly began to heal. Dan flinched at the incoming missiles. The bags of crap and piss that pelted the bus silenced those inside of it.
They reminded Dan of the mortars that had welcomed him to Vietnam during what seemed like a lifetime ago.
The one sitting next to Dan did not speak until they were halfway to Oakland. “You know, I was going to get out and maybe use the G.I. Bill to go to college.” He pointed at the brown stain on the window. “But now I think I might re-up. Maybe I’ll even do another tour back in ‘Nam.”
“Why?” Dan asked.
“I don’t know. I feel like an alien now that I’m back here in the world. It seems like I don’t belong here anymore.”
Adapted from Day of the Bomb