by Glenn Miscikowski
I watched the freedom bird accelerate down the Cam Ranh Bay runway with the lucky bastards heading back to the world. Nam is my home for the next year. Walking to the first formation, my jungle shirt was already soaked, clinging to me. Cam Ranh Bay was an inferno. The military base reminded me of a small metropolitan city bustling with activity; the war was not evident.
All I could think of is why the hell did I volunteer for the draft, my deferment number was over 300. I’m a pacifist at heart. College was becoming boring, my girlfriend and I split and family life was abrasive. A change was necessary, but did I need this?
Cam Ranh Bay was a transition base for soldiers; new orders are processed for their next destination. My MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was 11B40, light weapons infantryman. No delusion about my ultimate destination; I conditioned myself to accept my fate. Chopper pilot was my objective; but after finding out I was color-blind, dreams died fast.
Daily formations plus infantry classes were required for the new cherries. Bumped into Sgt. Phil at an infantry class; he was from my Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) school at Fort Lewis Washington. We are listening to an NCO explain how to rig a claymore.
Sgt. Phil and I called Milwaukee our home. We had mutual friends and visited the same hangouts. As hard as we tried, our conversations were strained and terse; but bumming with him was better than dealing with my thoughts.
Didn’t know how I was going to handle combat with the aftermath of casualties and death. The mental pictures were vivid; reality was on hold.
Second day in Nam, a GI named Bill initiated a casual conversation; his cot was close to mine. He asked if tomorrow I would share a drink with him. My first comment was what the shit. Bill explained his wife is pregnant with twins and after he phoned her from the Red Cross office, his wife thinks tomorrow will be the day. I told him it would be a privilege to toast the twins.
Curiosity got the best of me; I questioned Bill about any recourse available to him. Bill indicated the Red Cross is working with the Army in getting his orders changed to stateside duty. The change would take another thirty to forty-five days before new orders were cut.
Night two was suspenseful, alarms went off. A rocket attack was happening; the pops were distinctive and far off. Everyone was scared and looking for shelters. I bumped into Bill. He was getting his boots on. The activity outside the tents had a herd of cherry GI’s running nowhere and cussing for the sake of cussing.
The alarms blared for two minutes. Just as quickly as the alarms started, they stopped. The depressed reset button put everything back to the way it was before the rocket attack.
Cam Ranh Bay provided a false sense of security; the conflict, the death, the suffering was outside of the perimeter. The Grim Reaper waited for any soldier crossing over the concertina wire. I was seeing a resort town surrounded by a war zone.
Bill grabbed me as I entered the tent and said, “Don’t forget.” My reply was, “Just let me know.”
Sgt. Phil and I received our orders at the morning formation. Orders were cut for me to board a plane the following afternoon to Da Nang; Duc Pho was my final destination.
Around 1830 Bill approached me. He was shaking my hand; I asked if the wonderful event happened. Bill replied, “I am the proud father of two baby girls, Judy and Janet. We had the names picked out. The Red Cross told me mother and twins are doing fine. I went to the city and purchased a bottle of Johnnie Walter Black Label for the occasion. Would you like a drink?”
I reluctantly declined; told Bill a number of Wisconsinites and AIT guys are getting together at the NCO club for a few beers. I invited him to join the group, he declined. Reassured him I would not forget to have a toast with him this evening.
Sgt. Phil and I met the NCO’s at the bar; they all had their orders. The beer bottles were stacking up; I was feeling no pain. Talked to the group about Bill and his plan for new orders stateside; no one seemed to give a damn. They were facing their own demons. The jokes were loud and crass, but the underlying feelings were subdued; everyone looking at each other as to who will be the winners and losers.
After 2200 we wished everyone good luck; Sgt. Phil and I headed back to the tent. A group of GI’s were looking at something near the tent; a soldier was on the ground. The soldier was dry heaving, puke all over him. Looked again at the soldier lying in the fetal position; Bill looked like shit. He continued to dry heave. A low moan was audible. A bottle of Johnnie Walker was next to him.
I forgot all about my promise to have a drink with him. “Shit.” My head was spinning and I just wanted to get back to my cot.
Sgt. Phil and I lifted Bill onto a cot. The medics were summoned. One medic arrived. After doing a cursory inspection of Bill; the medic indicated it best to let the fool sleep it off. I asked the medic if Bill should be taken to the medical tent.
The medic gave me a quizzical blank stare and left.
Flopped on my cot and I don’t remember the next few hours. In the wee hours, I heard a commotion and thought it was GI’s with nightmares.
Next morning I woke up. My head was pounding and my mouth felt like sandpaper. My duffel bag was packed and ready; the flight was not scheduled until 1500. I wanted to make sure Bill was OK; his cot was empty. A soldier informed me around 0300 two medics with a gurney left with Bill. I must have had a real buzz on not to have heard all of the commotion.
I wanted to tell Bill good luck with his family and reassignment. The medical center was a short distance from the tent. I met a medic who was on duty last night; he wanted to know why I was interested in Bill. I told the medic, I just wanted to say hi and bye.
The Medic said Bill was operated on last night; he died on the operating table. The whiskey he was drinking was thirty percent battery acid; the acid dissolved his stomach.
Walking back to the tent, I met Sgt. Phil and informed him of Bill. We said nothing to each other. We shook hands and wished each other good luck.
Everything was in place for Bill to leave Nam and get reassigned stateside.
I wondered what the Red Cross was going to say to his wife. The birth of the twins was a time to rejoice. Now Bill’s wife had a tragedy to face.
I walked away from the tragedy with a sad heart, thinking about his two daughters who will never see their father. What really pissed me off was that he was dying as he toasted his daughters.
He died but not because of enemy fire. But what’s the fucking difference; he was a casualty of war. I realized life is not always fair; the Grim Reaper won this round.
The tragedy was a life changer. A piece of my heart got chipped off. I didn’t want to feel this type of pain again.
The Iceman went to Duc Pho.