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RECOLLECTIONS: Ponchos and Memory
By Peter Sablock
I was drafted at 18 and was a perfect example of an apolitical, carefree and quite unconcerned young adult. I was well read, really knew my history, knew what war was, but really, it was the other guy who died, it would never be me. In my foolishness I was an immortal. I cared nothing about politics and longed to see what war was about. Hell, I was raised on dozens of Hollywood movies where the bad guys died and the good guys (mostly) lived. And they all died quietly, fell over when hit, and it was done. I went a baby and came back 100 years old, scared of noises, scared of crowds, scared of the dark, especially the dark, hating the government and wanting nothing from it, and angry. Oh the anger, the tendency to go from calm to uncontrollable rage in 15 seconds. How did that happen to me?
When someone says "thank you for your service" I respond "thanks" and then change the subject. But really, I'm angry. Did they just get a little endorphin rush from their good deed? Do they feel noble now having said that? Do they have any idea what I did over there? Would they say it to a participant of the My Lai nightmare? How do they know I didn't do something like that? What they should do is apologize for all the ways the experience warped us. Apologize for the government, with data from 3 wars, utterly failing to help us transition back to the world.
Soon after arriving in VN, I reported to the divisional in processing unit. It was situated next to a chopper pad. As I stood outside, a Chinook with a sling under it came in to land. The sling was filled with ponchos. The NCO told the 11 Bravos among us that we were their replacements. The ponchos held bodies. So began my journey.
I often think that there are dozens of Vietnam's. The VN of the units that first deployed together, the VN of the replacement, the VN Army pre-drug and drug. The VN of anti-war attitude, the VN before the attitude "outed." The VN of the delta, the VN of the tea plantations, the VN of triple canopy and steep rugged hills and mountains. The VN of urban, the VN of settled populations. The Army of the brigade and division base camps and the Army of remote company sized fire bases. The VN of free fire zones with all locals removed to large camps. The VN of an armored/mech unit, the VN of an infantry unit. The VN of cold milk and ice cream at dinner and the VN of a canteen of warm water with beans and franks. And all this is important because no one can know what it was like unless they were in your VN.
Oh, I know, there are overarching aspects we all share. It's what bonds us together. But the devil is in the details. We all know what a round sounds like as it snaps by your head, but were you hugging the ground, or standing up in an APC?
My M113 carried a floor of M60 ammo boxes and 50 cal boxes. We hoped that they would deaden the blast from a mine. Of course if we are moving quickly and throw a track, and the vehicle rolls, then we die, crushed under 1,000 lbs of ammo. Oh wait, let's solve that by sitting up on the back hatch. Oops, perfect target. A mech/armoured unit never surprised anyone, they could hear us coming kilometers away. When we took fire it was because they were set up and ready for us. And crap they were good soldiers; the NVA 22nd Regiment is the stuff of my nightmares.
After almost 50 years, I can still strip down my M60 step by step. I can feel the receiver tucked under my right arm, the belt feeding over my left, and smell the gunpowder. I can remember which C-rats came in the B1A, B2, and B3 units. I can still taste that god awful unchewable Hershey jungle chocolate bar. I remember the smell of burning shit in half a 55 gal drum, a body 2 days old, feel the blast wave of a Chicom, and the ball of plasma from an RPG going off beside me.
For a brief period of time I walked the edge and came through it. And on one dusty late afternoon in dry season, when I was the only one left capable of standing, I did my job.
Fact, the plasma jet from an RPG going off 3 feet from your face looks like a miniature sun and will deafen you for several minutes. Daily questions I ask myself. How did I not get completely ripped up? Why was I fated to get the one-in-a-million "you live" card? How did they miss with the follow-up grenade? Why did I run at them? Why did they fade back? So many questions and no fucking answers.
I am the last of my crew, all have gone from battle, suicide or strange cancers. I keep them alive as they were, as I was.
Peter Sablock served with Bravo 1/10 Cav 4th Infantry Division 1967-1968. He teaches Geological Sciences at Salem State University in Salem, MA.