Yes, that story did have a surreal imagery to it, didn't it. But for me it rang true and clear. The banality and mundaneness of worrying over what you were carrying as violence and death were moments away. In the unit I was in, 101st Airborne we stayed out on longer missions. Typically we were in the bush for 3 to 4 weeks at a time. We would be light re-supplied with ammo and food every four days and then a heavy re-supply every 8 days. So you worried and fussed over ounces and keeping your rucksack as light as possible (even though it was always over a hundred lbs.) At the same time you lived with the daily possibility of firefights, ambush, and booby traps. It really was long stretches of boredom interrupted by moments of intense terror.
On one mission we had been humping the bush for days on end it seemed. It was hot, humid with the ground being marsh-like so our feet were getting in bad shape. The marsh had made the walking more difficult so everyone was tired and grumpy. We found a dry spot and took a break. I was sitting on my rucksack talking to Luther Ward who was maybe 3 feet from me sitting on his rucksack. Suddenly the right upper fourth of Luther's head exploded out splattering his blood and brains everywhere. Luther did not die immediately. Even though he was in shock he continued to gurgle and make sounds. I cut a tracheotomy on him so that he could breathe and put a field bandage on his head. He continued to gurgle and make sounds till the evacuation helicopter picked him up.
But once he was gone the banality of our existence continued as we put our rucksacks back on and walked and walked and walked. For hours that day and for days to come we walked. Extreme boredom interrupted by moments of intense terror. Word came down the next day that Ward was dead. Word came down over the radio and the news was passed up and down the line. And we walked.
That is only the second story I know of a specific event which my uncle experienced in Vietnam. I'll tell the other story another time. Both stories, however, have horrific aspects to them. He was only 19 at the time, I believe. He was this goofy guy who played practical jokes on people and liked to laugh all the time.
To imagine just sitting there when someone right next to you was killed.
To try to help that person but having to just do what you can and then move on.
To know that it could just as easily have been you.
It isn't difficult to understand that a one year tour of duty had a profound impact on his life. I think for years and years he never talked about his experiences. I believe only after he went through rehab, lost his marriage and was working on recovery that he opened up a little more about his time there. At least to me. I'm glad to know something of his experiences. It does help me understand part of what haunted him. I'm glad he shared with me. He was an incredible man--incredibly intelligent, funny, talented, flawed.
I wish we could still be sharing.
March, 30 2006: A few weeks after finding that email, I was in Border's and happened across a book called The Things They Carried, a soldier's memoir of Vietnam. Because I had been writing about my uncle, I decided to buy it. As I started reading, I realized it was the book my uncle had shared with me.