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I submitted this one to EDF, but even if they accept the story it won't appear for a month or two. I figure this is a good day to post it here. JRH I never wanted to visit the Wall. For many years Vietnam veterans had only each other; as a memorial the Wall seemed too little, too late. Besides, there were too many names -- too many memories. I often dream of one night in August, 1968. All was black. I rubbed sweat from my eyes. Under the wavering light of a parachute flare squat bunkers and tangles of concertina wire emerged. I smelled blood, hot weapons, burned powder. My back was against a sandbag wall. Someone hunkered down next to me. "Hey, Teach, I hear the bastards got a piece of you." It was Doc Wills, platoon medic. He drew a knife and slit my trouser leg. "Hold still." "I ain't goin' nowhere. Hurts like all hell when I move." "Don't move then. Damn, Teach. I gotta get a tourniquet on this." My head ached. Gingerly I checked it out. Warm blood coated my fingers. "What about my head, Doc?" He glanced up. "Later. That one ain't gonna kill you." A dull roar filled my head. I drifted into a black tunnel. Sharp pain drew me back. Wills let go of my shirt. "Don't drop out on me, man!" I tried to concentrate. "How bad -- we get hit?" "Danforth took a direct hit from an RPG. Lieutenant Burns got killed. Riley. Miller." "Miller? Jesus, he was about to go home." "Yeah. Ain't that the shits?" Riley was in my platoon. Doc moved my leg. I jerked. "Jesus Christ! That hurts!" He grinned. "You got one fucked up leg, Teach. Surgeons will fix you right up." He started rigging a blood bag. "I'll give you some morphine when I get this going." I gripped his arm. "I don't wanna die, Doc." "You ain't gonna die." He shoved me back against the sandbags. "Get that through your thick head. I ain't gonna let you die." He wiped blood off my face and scalp. "Just a nick, Teach." Deft fingers secured a bandage. "Now relax. Evac choppers are on the way." The pain seemed less. He must have injected morphine when I wasn't looking. "I ain't gonna die?" "You ain't gonna die. Okay? You concentrate on one fucking thing: Doc Wills says I ain't gonna die." I faded in and out. Next thing I remember was looking up at the interior of a Huey. A door gunner knelt over me. He held a bag of blood. "Doc Wills says I ain't gonna die." "Sounds like a good fucking deal to me." Splotches of dark liquid stained the gunner's flight suit. He handed the blood bag to a rifleman sitting on a web seat. "Don't fucking drop it." The rifleman looked down at me. "I got it, Teach." Engines screamed. Door gunners raked the slope as we took off. Rotor blades pounded a frantic beat. I faded into the dark and awoke to find a man who looked as if he hadn't slept in a month standing over me. "Doc Wills promised I wouldn't die." He glanced at me then went back to reading a tag tied to my shirt. "Hold on to that thought." They saved my leg, but the muscle damage was permanent. I didn't see Doc again. In 2008 my wife persuaded me to attend a unit reunion. In the process of swapping lies, I met the guy who held my blood bag. Hansen was his name. He was a rifleman in third platoon. He told me about Doc Wills. "I was back with the company about a month after you were hit," he said. "They gave me a squad." He paused to sip his beer. "A few weeks later we got into it with an NVA regiment. On the second day we were in a treeline exchanging fire with some bad guys in an abandoned village. You know how it was." I did know. "We started taking mortar fire. One of the new guys got hit. Doc headed down that way. Four or five more rounds came in." Hansen paused and stared down at the bar. He rubbed the palms of his hands on his jeans. "Doc was kneeling beside the wounded guy. A round hit a couple feet away. He was killed instantly." "Damn." For a long moment we sat in silence. Hansen coughed. "The reunion committee worked up a list of unit KIA." He handed me two printed pages. The list had Wall panel numbers beside each name. A few months later my wife and I went to Washington for a week and toured the usual sites for five days. The morning of the sixth day she handed me the creased casualty list. "We leave tomorrow. If you want to visit the Wall . . ." It was time to confront those tall black panels -- and all those names. Doc Wills. Riley. I owed them that much. I sighed and opened my suitcase. "I have to take a couple things." Half a dozen men gray-haired men moved along the path below me. Two wore faded boonie hats. One had on an equally worn field jacket. The others wore black Vietnam Veteran caps. For the first time in over forty years I felt out of uniform. My wife joined two women standing near some statues. Black granite drew me down into the shadows of my past. Panel height increased as I descended the path. A dark weight lodged in my chest. The panel I sought was near the lowest part of the Wall. High up on the slab I found Burns, Danforth, Miller, and Riley. Doc's name occupied part of a line halfway down. I touched it, reliving our last conversation. People leave things at the Wall. Flowers, letters, medals, guilt. I placed a unit patch and one of my dog tags at the base of the slab. "Thanks, Doc." Stepping back, I saluted smartly. My old drill sergeant would have been proud. Then my wife came down and held me while I cried. End
I started thinking about this a couple days ago and did a lot of mental composing. Finally, I had to sit down and write it down as you see it here. Consider this an advanced draft. I'll surely work on it some more. Missing They say the '91 War in Iraq wiped out the stain of Vietnam. What stain was that? Was it due to the actions of a combat medic who never fired a shot in a year of treating wounded -- ours, theirs, and civilian? Or was it in the nightmares of the rifleman who could not shake the visions of dead villagers slaughtered by NVA 'freedom fighters'. Was the mechanic who spent a year repairing vehicles in the steam bath heat of Bien Hoa somehow responsible for the errors of leadership? Veterans all -- reviled by their peers, branded as 'baby killers' by ignorant fools, portrayed for decades as brutal thugs -- and worst of all -- as losers. Some took refuge in drugs -- and died. Others ended the torment with a bullet. Most put their heads down, kept to themselves, and managed to live successful lives. In '91 it was decided to welcome the soldiers home, and -- oh by the way -- maybe it's time to welcome the Vietnam vets as well. So there were parades. Graying men in jungle fatigues marched along avenues lined with flags, watched by the young, who knew nothing of that war. Others peered into their hearts and knew themselves for fools, glimpsed a shadow of the wrongs done. Few apologized. For the living, wounds heal. But there is no healing for men who could not cope, abandoned by their countrymen, blamed for performing their duty as they saw it, laughed at for serving with honor. Ghosts do not walk in parades. Bodies buried beneath cold white marble do not rise to be thanked. Many casualties are not named on the Wall. Vietnam veterans forgive and drive on. But they do not forget. JR Hume, 2013