For Fucking Ever

1968.

It was a year of demonstrations and elections, of free love and the tail end of the British invasion. For me though, it was the year of the jungle, of the heat, of the rot, of the fear; it was the year I have to live with for the rest of my miserable life. Jesus Christ.

June 1967.

Looking back, it’s easy to say I joined in order to “challenge myself” or “combat the scourge of Communism,” or whatever other bullshit the recruiters and politicians spoon-fed me. I’ll be the first to admit it: I ate it up.

I had completely exhausted the recreational opportunities of Lander, Wyoming. I had felt up Mr. Russell’s daughter, bagged enough deer to fill an industrial meat locker and failed enough classes to be classified as a class-fuckin-A-re-tard.

In reality, I joined because I was bored; I wanted an adventure. I lusted to shoot up some gooks and be a hero. Like every 18-year-old adolescent male, I was invincible.

The 200-mile drive to the recruiting center in Laramie was a misty blur of dope, Hendrix and plenty of cheeseburgers—a venerable purple haze. I had saved the finest grass for the drive over: a seamless blend of Himalayan Kush and Wyoming stink.

I signed the papers in a frenzied rush and before I knew it, was in a harshly-lit, linoleum barracks, a testosterone-fueled drill sergeant mere inches from my face, telling me what a worthless piece of shit I was.

“You’re the ugliest shitbird I’ve ever had the displeasure of laying eyes on! Your fat fuck of a mother must have been the finest bovine specimen west of the Mississippi” Sergeant Wilkes screamed at a rather large member of our company. I couldn’t help but quietly chuckle at the absurdity of it all: a fully grown man swearing at a room full of other fully grown men like a 12-year-old bully. Absurd.  My chuckle didn’t go unnoticed.

“Rollins! Was that a laugh I heard escaping your meat sewer?!”

“Sir, no, sir,” I screamed. (You see, in the Marines, the only acceptable volume is savagely loud.)

“You fuckwad! You are lying to me! You had best unfuck yourself or I will punch you so hard you'll be shitting your own teeth!

I did the requisite punishment pushups and jumped back up as Sergeant Wilkes continued with his withering verbal assault on another recruit: “Fuck this…fuck that…fuck you….”

The next 13 weeks comprised of endless PT, countless hours on the rifle range, nasty chow and Sergeant Wilkes’s incessant and vulgar “wisdom.” And then, I was in Vietnam.

Da Nang. January 1968. Pre-Tet.

“Hustle dick-wads!”

Not quite the welcome I was expecting. The REMF, in his pressed cammies, sweat dripping from his doughy arms, a spit-shined West Point ring proudly protruding from his finger, waddled into the hold of the C-130 and began asserting his dominance.

“Get your asses out of my airplane and onto my tarmac!” If I so much as hear a fucking word from any of you, I’ll kick your ass all the way to Hanoi!”

I’ve never seen men move with such purpose. We hastily assembled ourselves on the tarmac. We had arrived at the busiest airport in the world: Da Nang Air Base—acres of shimmering tarmac bleeding into the piercing brilliance of the South China Sea. The asphalt possessed an assorted collection of planes, helicopters, and every other conceivable machine of war. The sky was filled with the whining of jet engines and the thump thump of low-flying Hueys.

My first memory wasn’t of the heat—which was oppressive, or the overpowering tropical smell—which was rank, a mix of rotten fruit and human excrement, but it was of a collection of veterans. A group of them slogged past us, their tours completed.

Their eyes. Their eyes are something I will never forget. They were hollow, devoid of all feeling, totally and utterly blank. They were the color of gray tea: dull and dead. Their uniforms were a ragged mess—caked in mud, clay, dust and blood. One of them snapped out of his stupor, looked at us and remarked with a sardonic grin, “Well, well, well, green fuckin’ recruits. Woo-eee motherfuckers…you’re gonna love the Nam. It’s for fucking ever.”

Somewhere near the Laotian border. March 1968. Post-Tet.

Overwatch four, Assassin five, radio check. Over.

Overwatch four, confirming. HQ reports heavy movement near coordinates:

niner-six Echo Bravo. It’s in you’re A.O. Some SOCOM boys got hit hard last night. Tread carefully, happy hunting boys.

Roger that, Overwatch four. Assassin five, out.

The radio, fourteen pounds of dials and antennas, our lifeline to air and artillery support, went silent. We were on our own. We were recon Marines: working in a small, self-contained platoon is what we did. We were the self-proclaimed “Masters of Disaster”: badasses, death-dealing devil dogs.

“I thought those ARVN shits were supposed to check it out,” remarked Sly, our RTO, “I’m too damn short to be romping around in this humid-as-shit jungle waiting to be wasted by some sneaky gook!”

The rest of the platoon issued a collective groan. We were tired of hearing how short Sly was. He had five days and a wake-up before shipping back to the World, while the next closest guy still had over a month to go.

“Shut the fuck up Sly and watch your sector,” issued lieutenant Early in a stern whisper.

The Tet Offensive was fresh on our minds—the NVA and Viet Cong had launched a brutal coordinated assault all over the country and while their losses had been high, they had the momentum, and in war, momentum is everything. We on the other hand, had been out in the boonies for over a week trudging through the bush. Tensions were high and we were all on edge from lack of sleep, lack of warm chow and lack of contact with Charlie.

***

You go to war expecting John Wayne-esque action: guns blazing, bad guys dying and scantily clad native girls feeding you grapes as you recline on the beach. What they don’t tell you though, is that war is boring, excruciatingly boring. I had been in country for just over two months and had fired my M-16 exactly once. I hadn’t even fired it at the enemy. I had fired it during a mad-minute when we were posted up near Phuc Loi “winning hearts and minds” and doing other humanitarian bullshit. I had joined the Marines to grease gooks, not feed smelly little kids MRE’s and help village elders locate their fucking water buffaloes.       

Our mission was simple: locate Charlie and kill him. It was a classic search-and-destroy mission. Our 28-man platoon was a coordinated chaos of heavy weapons operated by trigger-happy grunts.

You learn pretty early not to become attached—it’s impossible to predict who is going to live and who is going to die. The guy I shipped in with—either Weston or Wesley—was torn in half by a jerry-rigged artillery shell on our first day in the shit. He was quickly replaced; no one missed him. I had found his mangled arm 15 yards from where he was killed. I pocketed his watch, no one would ever know. Silver like that meant ounces on ounces of the freshest dew.

***

Our patrol that day in March began on an ominous note: a little brown snake had bitten Patterson, one of the FNG’s, a skinny kid from Brooklyn. He was medevac’d and survived, but Tranh, our Kit Carson scout, warned that such an occurrence meant bad luck. That spooked some of the greener boys, but the rest of us shrugged it off as Oriental superstition, voodoo nonsense.

All week we had been fording leech-infested rivers, hacking our way through the seemingly impenetrable growth, interrogating villagers, searching filthy hamlets, sleeping on a ground crawling with every manner of insect and sweating more than humanly possible—it was a miserable existence.

As I slogged through the shit, my eyes should have been scanning the brush: the vines, rain-trees, and elephant grasses blended together like paint—nothing more than a familiar green blur tucked beneath the melancholic grayness of the tropical morning sky. But, it was pretty easy for the mind to drift: I thought of girls, of the food I would eat when I got back to the World, and of more girls. If it hadn’t been for the way a certain tree reminded me of the curves of my ex-girlfriend, I would have missed it: a subtle shudder in the underbrush, a glint of metal. I was on point, leading the column. My fist shot up and I motioned for everyone to kneel—it was eerily silent. No bird chatter or monkey squawks, the jungle was deathly still.

Contact. March 18th, 1968. 11:43 A.M.

The first bullet whizzed past my ear and lodged itself squarely in Rivera’s forehead. A brilliant crimson fountain jettisoned out of the hole in his head and he fell quietly and gracefully, like he had been tranquilized.

Contact! Chaos ensued; we were in a serious cluster-fuck. We hit the ground and began spraying the brush with hot lead. The sound was deafening. To be honest, I don’t remember the whole firefight, just assorted bits and pieces. I remember hearing lieutenant Early screaming into the radio: CONTACT! CONTACT! Unknown number of enemy elements! Requesting artillery support at coordinates Echo four Lima! He was panicking. His hands were shaking and spittle was hanging from his mouth. He was fresh out of OCS and didn’t have the faintest idea of what he was doing. I remember sergeant Meyer, our gunny, grabbing the radio, shaking off the incoherent lieutenant Early and calmly directing our fire. Calm being a relative term.

“Lee! Rollins! Get on that 60 and grease those motherfuckers!” he screamed. We quickly followed his command and began pouring lead in the direction of Charlie in a withering assault of fire.

I remember watching Hester and Nelson being blown apart by a grenade and watching helplessly as Moore begged for his mother as his intestines spilled out of a gaping hole in his stomach.

And as just like that, it was over. The air was an acrid haze of smoke and sulfur. No one dared move. We heard the groans of our injured comrades in various states of duress.

“Sly! Go check out what’s up there,” sergeant Meyer commanded.

“Fuck you man! I told you, I’m too short for that shit!” Sly retorted.

“Don’t make me tell you twice. Take Rollins and recon now!” Meyer yelled.

Sly and I linked up and began crawling in the direction of the initial contact. We would stop every few yards to listen. I was scared shitless. I smelled them before I saw them. Blood has a very peculiar scent, especially when it is present in large quantities. There were three of them: three very real and three very dead Viet Cong guerillas. They were arrayed around a camouflaged machine-gun emplacement, limbs intertwined in the gruesome embrace of death. I motioned for the able-bodied members of the platoon to come forward as Doc tended to the wounded.

The Dilemma. March 18th, 1968. 12:02 P.M.

“How the hell did three primitive, fucking slinks kill 4 of my men and wound 2 others?” lieutenant Early wondered aloud, his composure and dominance magically regained.

I was wondering the same thing. How could three men inflict such heavy casualties on what was supposed to be some of the most well trained soldiers on the planet? I was convinced there was a fourth man—either wounded or hiding. I kept my premonition to myself and walked around the battle area looking for him, looking for anything. After a few short moments, I was rewarded: cowering in the mangled roots of a massive banyan tree was a man, clutching a machete, his eyes wide with fear.

“Get out of there! Didi mau motherfucker!I exclaimed, pointing my M-16 at his scrawny chest. He tentatively crawled out, hands-up, and I realized it wasn’t a man at all, but a boy, no older than 15. Fuck, I thought to myself. I led him back to the platoon where he was promptly assaulted by a delirious Sly: “You killed by best friend! I’m gonna’ eat your fucking heart!” He pummeled the prisoner with uncorked fury before being pulled off.

“Everyone calm the fuck down! This is my P.O.W. and he will not be harmed!” Lieutenant Early shouted. “Rollins! Get on the radio and give HQ a sit-rep; I need to think.” I pulled the radio off Sly’s shaking body and radioed command:

Overwatch four, this is Assassin five, over.

Assassin five, we read you, go ahead.

Contact with VC guerillas: 3 K.I.A. 1 P.O.W. Our losses: 4 K.I.A. 2 W.I.A. Requesting immediate medevac. Over.

Roger, Assassin five. Medevac denied. You’re A.O. is too hot. Dispose of the prisoner and carry on to coordinates Zulu six Charlie for extraction. Over.

Dispose? Over.

Roger. Overwatch four, out.

I shook my head in disbelief. HQ had just commanded us to execute an unarmed prisoner. I raked my mind for justification: we couldn’t let him go; he would just report our position. We couldn’t take him with us; we had to tend to our own men. Shi-et.

I relayed the command to Lieutenant Early. Everyone began to shout at once.

“Grease the bastard!” shouted Sly.

“No man, that ain’t right!” volunteered Jones.

“Just do it already!”

“Everyone SHUT UP!” exclaimed lieutenant Early in a fit of rage. I could tell his mind was panicked; he looked uncertain and frightened, unsure of himself. “All right men, we’re moving out. Put the wounded on stretchers. Rollins, take care of the prisoner.”

“But sir,” I stammered. “Do it,” he commanded.

The platoon moved out. I was left alone with the boy. His eyes darted from my gun, to my face, to the jungle and back again. Pick up a weapon kid. Run away. Help me out here. Make this easier, I thought to myself. He remained crouched on the ground. He looked like my kid-brother Ronnie. Jesus.

“Stand up!” I yelled. I docked him in the face with the butt of my rifle. “Why kid, why!?” I began to sob. The boy kept his eyes to the ground, avoiding my gaze. I kneed him in savagely in the stomach. “Come on motherfucker! Hit me! Don’t stand there! Hit me!” I shoved his machete back into his hand and he promptly dropped it. “Ahhhh!” I yelled.

I fired.

That’s a lie. I didn’t fire. I fucking unloaded. I must have emptied at least 20 bullets into him. He shook like a doll, arms flailing, before falling onto the jungle floor, a mangled, bloody pulp. Teeth, brain and gore had flecked onto my sweaty uniform. I collapsed. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think. Almost mechanically, I took my rifle, rammed the barrel below my chin and pulled the trigger. Click. I pulled it again. Click, click, click. Empty. The clip was dry. I fell onto my back, looking up at the sky. I couldn’t even take the coward’s way out.

You gotta love the Nam man, it’s for fucking ever.

 

 

 

 

 

Glossary of terms

AO—Area of Operations

ARVN—Army of the Republic of Vietnam; the South Vietnamese Regular Army

Charlie—military phonetic for the letter 'C"; “Victor Charlie”—Viet Cong—the enemy

Company— military unit usually consisting of a headquarters and two or more platoons

C-130—large propeller cargo planes

Devil dogs—nickname used to describe marines

Dew—slang for marijuana

Didi mau—Vietnamese for “go quickly”

FNG—Fucking new guy

Grunt—slang for a Marine infantryman fighting in Vietnam

HQ—headquarters

Huey—nickname for the UH-1 helicopter

KIA—Killed in action

Kit Carson scout—former Viet Cong who act as guides for U.S. military units

Mad minute—a weapons free-fire practice and test session; also used as a tool of stress-alleviation  

Medivac—evacuation by helicopter

MRE—Meal ready to eat

M-16—standard issue infantryman weapon

OCS—Officer Candidate School

Platoon—a military unit of organization, usually included several squads

POW—Prisoner of war

P.T.—Physical training

Purple Haze—Jimi Hendrix song; term used to describe the haze of smoke left after sparking up some marijuana

REMF—rear-echelon motherfucker

RTO—radio telephone operator

SOCOM--United States Special Operations Command; reference to special forces soldiers

Sin loi—“sorry” in Vietnamese

Sit-rep—situation report

Short—a term denoting that a solider’s tour was almost over

WIA—Wounded in action

World—slang used by soliders to describe the United States; the “world” outside Vietnam

60—refers to the M-60 machine gun; the classic heavy machine gun used by the Marines