“Three Sixty-Four” – Barry Brown

“Gonzales!”

“Here, Sergeant.”

“Jones!”

“Here, Sergeant.”

“Sawyer!”

“Here, Sergeant.”

“Okay. Let me see. Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, I still need one man,” growled Staff Sergeant Kominski. “Listen up, ladies,’ you are still at parade rest so keep your mouths shut until I figure out this duty roster!” Moments passed. Everyone standing in formation kept holding his breath hoping the Staff Sergeant would not call his name.

“Private First Class Brown, get your happy heart over here on the double!” barked Kominski. Dutifully, Brown joined the others chosen for perimeter guard that night. Centering himself before the remainder of Company B, Kominski clapped his combat boots together and announced, “Company, dismissed!” Turning his attention to the twenty he picked, “Guard mount, dress- right-dress!” Waiting for the soldiers to form perfect rows equally spaced both to the sides and front to back, the staff sergeant from Company B struggled to inflate his nicotine-damaged lungs. With all the volume he could muster, he cried out, “Guard mount, ahh-ten-hut. Trying to correctly pronounce each syllable of the word attention did not sound military, especially when one paused for a long time on the middle syllable as those with authority preferred to do. The solution was to change the last syllable from chun to hut.

“Now listen up all you eager beavers. Forget about your mama. Forget about your wife. Why, you ask? Because your mama has your daddy and Jody has your wife. Now give your ‘undivided’ to Lieutenant Sidenn. He has a few comments he wants to make.” Doing an about face, Sergeant Kominski saluted Lieutenant Sidenn and said, “The men are all yours, Sir!”

“Thank you, Staff Sergeant,” began the lieutenant who was chosen by the battalion commander to be the Officer of the Day; “Congratulations on being picked to guard our base tonight,” he finished sarcastically. “While others sleep you will be awake. On my command, I want every man standing here to reach down and squeeze his testicles hard enough so that the damn Viet Cong fifty miles away can hear your first general order. Ready…squeeze!” In perfect harmony twenty men began to shout, “I will guard everything within the limits of my post, and leave my post only when properly relieved, Sir!”

“Very, very good. I am most impressed with your high level of academic achievement. Some of you have the makings of a lifer in the Army. I know you want another eighteen or nineteen years of this, right?” The Officer of the Day knew there would be no response from the men standing before him. Even if they wanted to speak, they were at attention. Being at attention meant having one’s fists solidly against the outer seam of his fatigue pants, heels together, and eyes cast at a forty-five degree angle to insure an enlisted man never looked an officer directly in the eyes when in this position. Being at attention rendered an enlisted man powerless. The only words allowed a soldier while at attention are “Sir, yes, Sir; Sir, no, Sir; and Sir, no excuse, Sir.” Aware of this, Lieutenant Sidenn was free to continue his diatribe for minutes or hours. It was his choice.

“In addition to your general orders, which are always in effect, let me hasten to add a few of my own. Listen and listen well. If anything or anyone approaches our perimeter wire tonight I am giving you a direct and lawful order to shoot to kill. I do not care if it is a man, woman, child, dog, cat, or monkey…if it walks and talks, barks, or purrs…you shoot it. If anything gets through our wire tonight and you have not melted down the barrels of the weapons you are carrying, I will personally hang you from the highest tree I can find.”

Continuing his harangue, Lieutenant Sidenn said, “Second, if anyone approaches your position from our side of the wire, you better not let him get into your bunker. I do not care if it is President Richard Milhous Nixon or Miss Hanoi Jane Fonda. Your orders are to challenge them. May God have mercy on their souls if they do not respond with the correct password. For tonight the password is ‘broken arrow.’ When you say ‘broken,’ they best respond with ‘arrow.’” Am I making myself clear?”

“Sir, yes Sir,” was immediately screamed back by the guard mount.

“Good. I like that. You guys just keep on inspiring the hell out of me with your listening skills and superior intellect. Number three is coming up, and all you party animals best heed my warning that accompanies this one. It has come to my attention that from time to time you guys sneak sweet little Mary Jane in the bunkers with you. Mary Jane will get you killed. She will get your buddies killed. When I come out there tonight to check on you, I best not smell weed. Call it what you want: whacky weed, grass, reefer, pot, or Mary Jane. It is all the same to me. Let me catch it on you while on guard duty and you will spend the next twenty years of your life in a six by nine at the Gray Bar Hotel located in Leavenworth, Kansas. Do I make myself clear?”

“Sir, yes Sir!”

Sidenn ranted on, “Number four. Along about two or three o’clock, your eyes are going to get heavy. You may consider the possibility of getting a little shut-eye. You ask yourself, ‘Who will be the wiser? Old Sidenn will not make his rounds for at least another hour.’ That, my friends, just might be your last mistake you will ever make. If the Dinks do not get you, I will. Remember the words of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. As a commissioned officer I have the right to kill you with my side arm for disobeying a direct and lawful order while in a combat zone. Your direct and lawful order for tonight is not to sleep on the job. Gentlemen, on this one I do not play. Never have; never will.”

The guard mount was handed back to Kominski. He directed the soldiers to waiting trucks that would take them to the perimeter. The safety of all the souls on post was now their responsibility. Kominski and Sidenn would ensure the guard’s vigilance throughout the night.

The moment a truck stopped adjacent to a bunker, the soldiers who had guarded during the day would rush out, happy to be relieved. On the truck a sinister ruse was in play – even before the vehicle stopped. The ruse actually began while boarding the truck. The best seats were the two at the tailgate. Every effort was made to board first to insure getting one of those two seats, one on the left side and one on the right. Those who boarded next tried to sit according to their race. The rule was four men per bunker. The most dreaded situation was being in the minority within the bunker. Soldiers jumped from the truck in racial pairs thus making sure that if the bunker were to be manned by a racially mixed detail, the balance would be equal. Being the only one of a different color within the bunker made for a long, dangerous night. Racism was rampant – on both sides of the color issue. An innocent comment taken the wrong way by the majority could result in physical assault. Fear and intimidation kept assaults from being reported. If one dared make such a report, revenge was swift and certain.

Once in the bunker, the four-man squad began to take their places. Ammunition was inspected. The fifty-caliber machine gun was checked. The M-79 grenade launcher was located. In addition to the thousands of rounds of ammunitions for these weapons, there was an abundant supply of aerial flares. The hours between arriving and sunset were spent complaining about every facet of military life, but before the testy talk began, there was a ritual that had to be observed – the ritual of telling how many days one had left in Vietnam. This ritual was not confined to the perimeter bunkers, but was ubiquitous in every possible setting in Vietnam. This sacramental pastime replaced greetings such as hello, hi, or simply asking how one was doing. Next to life itself, the most important thing in a soldier’s mind was how many days he had left before he could return to what was referred to as “the world,” meaning the United States. By inference that meant that Vietnam was not considered part of the world. Indeed it was not by any elucidation or interpretation framed in the young minds that fought there. This deified count began the day a soldier arrived “in-country.” The count actually started with 364 days because the day one arrived was considered completed, or partially anyway, so there was no need to count it as something not yet faced or endured.

Within minutes of settling into the bunker, someone would begin by disclosing how many days he had left. No one was exempt, especially a newbie. There was an inherent cruelty in this tally-tell ritual. The man who had the greatest number of days remaining on his tour was scoffed as if he were personally responsible for not having been in Nam longer. Even more heartless was the way a newbie was drawn into the rite by those who were much closer to the end of their tour. Newcomers were easily identified by their newly issued fatigues. Even without the new fatigues, they stood out by the fear on their faces. A rookie’s face, not his lips, continually asked for help as he tried to figure a way to survive in his new environment.

Once identified, a fledgling was fair game for the cruelest part of the psyche of man. With a sincere and caring voice, he was asked a series of disarming questions like, “What’s your first name? Where are you from? Are you married? Did you get drafted?” After bewitching the unsuspecting prey, the trap sprang shut with the question, “How many more days do you have?” Once the duped fellow answered, the torment began by the united laughter of those who had been in-country longer. After the laughter subsided, then offers to take “special” care of his wife or girlfriend until he came home was always the central theme of this genre of persecution. Remarkably, this malady of man poorest nature did not cease until one was safely onboard a “freedom flight” back to the States. The chartered aircraft that ferried troops back and forth across the Pacific and South China Sea spent little time on the ground in Vietnam. The airplane was a sitting target for Viet Cong rockets or mortars. To expedite the loading and unloading of troops, stairs were placed at the front and rear passenger doors. The new arrivals ran down the front stairs while the home-bound soldiers ran up the rear stairs. No last opportunity was missed to harass new troops. As the replacements ran down their steps, they were accosted, not with offers to take care of personal matters back home, but threats punctuated by profane words and finger signals. It was a cruel introduction to the reality of war.

As darkness fell over Southeast Asia, fear rose in the minds of those on guard duty. They knew they would be the first to engage the enemy if he chose to attack. Darkness always favored the elusive Viet Cong. One moment they were everywhere, the next they were nowhere. They could move in and out of nearby villages with anonymity and little fear. They could confront the Americans in battle, and immediately fade into the ambiguity of Vietnamese society. All eyes and ears were to be on high alert. Failure to detect an enemy soldier meant certain death. The Viet Cong used to say, “Before you kill an American soldier, you first kill his mother.” They understood the grief of a mother for her fallen son would condemn her to a mournful, shortened life. It was not expected that the adolescent mind of an eighteen year-old soldier could apprehend the depth of the Viet Cong’s adage. How could minds so young comprehend such matters as the finitude of man?

The hours after midnight ushered in a bizarre world in which boredom replaced fear for most of the soldiers who stood guard along the perimeter. Homesickness, anger, and time combined to make the men reckless in their duty and obligation to “guard everything within the limits of their post.” If they were willing to exchange their personal safety for a few minutes of amusement, then they were willing to make the same exchange for the men they resented now sleeping far to the rear. In the early morning hours, those who brought contraband doobies removed them from hiding places, normally deep within one’s boot. The next order of business was to unload the M-79 grenade launcher. While keeping the breach open, one soldier would funnel the illegal smoke into the barrel while another would lock his lips around the other end. By inhaling through the length of the launcher’s barrel, the affective strength of the marijuana was increased in the same manner as a nebulizer with asthmatic medication.

Within minutes, all those who planned to trip did so. Visions from places ranging from San Francisco to New York City were seen in vivid detail. Fast cars, hot women, parents, siblings, former teachers, and favorite foods all found their way into the delusional minds of those who had nursed the end of the launcher’s barrel. The varied illusions had all the right components for the making of a great, collective celebration for all the men who were now back home in their dreams. But peace and happiness were not to be. Instead of sharing common interests, aspirations, and exploits in a harmonious way, perceptions became blurred and poisoned by sectionalism and cultural differences. Were the women from Yonkers more willing than those from Selma? Were people from Boston smarter than those from Atlanta? Who exactly had accents – surely it was the damn Yankees because people in Texas did not sound funny while talking to each other. Would the South rise again? The vehement exchanges continued until they were too large to be contained within the confines of a single bunker.

One soldier may have recalled seeing a fellow Confederate get off at a neighboring bunker emplacement. Or, was it a fellow from the Bronx who remembered seeing a buddy from Jersey get into the bunker opposite his? Regardless of who remembered what, the heated disputes soon spread from bunker to bunker. The hand-launched phosphorus flares were no longer being sent skyward by the vigilant soldiers who chose not to ride Doobie Airways back to the world. What better way to drive home the point that the South would rise again than to launch a flare horizontally in the direction of those who doubted it? What better way to drive home the point that “black was beautiful” than to pop a flare at the crackers who dared question that truth?

“Hey, dodge this, you muthers…”came from the bunker where black was considered beautiful.

“Well, dance the gig around this one, you jungle bunnies” was the response from Fort Sumpter.

“Que demonios es eso!–What the hell is that!” was followed by two flares; one aimed at Fort Sumpter, and one aimed at mid-town Harlem.

“You wet-back muthers….” Pop, pop was the response as two flares raced toward their target somewhere in Puerto Rica.

Eager for revenge, “Catch this, you smuggled in grease heads,” countered the Rebs hold up in Sumpter.

Did anyone remember the thousands of rounds of ammunition stacked inside the bunkers? A direct hit by a white-hot flare would have caused an internal explosion with deadly consequences. Did the soldiers who remembered the words of Lieutenant Sidenn plan to report any of this? There was not a chance in a million that snitching would take place. There was not one chance in ten million that such snitching would have gone unpunished at the first available opportunity. Snitching was something that simply was not tolerated—just ask the new replacement who reported seeing several soldiers smoke a joint. Shortly thereafter he found a Claymore mine, complete with trip wire set to detonate, waiting for him when he returned to his hooch.

Life was not the only thing that was cheap in Vietnam. A taxi girl cost the equivalent of one American dollar. A taxi girl and a joint went for two. Prostitution was strictly forbidden by the Army, but nothing stopped it. Those soldiers who were caught engaging in this illegal barter were given an Article Fifteen. Normally, money was withheld from the following month’s pay, and extra duty was assigned by the company commanders. In an effort to discourage soldiers from employing prostitutes, company commanders would order mandatory formations where a doctor presented the grim statistics of socially transmitted diseases.

“You will never be sent home with a disease we cannot cure here in Nam. We will not have you going home and spreading something for which there is no cure.” The doctor continued, “There are strains that have come together that we have great difficulty in curing. Our greatest fear is one will show up for which no amount of effort on our part will cure. Are there any questions?”

“Sir, Private Jones with a question,” Jones remarked,coming to attention.

“Yes, Private Jones. Go ahead with your question.”

“Sir, you said we would never be sent home if we caught something you cannot cure. My question is what will you do with us if we end up in that situation?”

“I am glad you asked that, Private Jones. Be seated.” The doctor resumed, “We have plans for just such a scenario. If the war ends and you still are not cured, you will be shipped to an undisclosed island and held there until you die. Your next of kin will be told you are missing in action. You will be asked to make a choice between two options once on the island. The first option is for us to return your body to your family. If we do that, we will notify them as to the cause of your death. If you prefer for them not to know the cause, we will bury you, and you will remain missing in action forever.”

“Thank you, Captain, for your presentation.” The company commander continued, “Men, I want to remind you that doing anything to harm government property is an offense punishable by court martial. You are government property. That is what G.I. stands for…Government Issued. You were issued by the government of the United States to the Army for up to six years of military service. Catching a venereal disease is the same as destroying government property. Hospital time spent recovering will not count on your military obligation. Keep your gun in working order – keep it in your fatigue pants.”

The following night Company B was assembled again for the selection of twenty men as its share of the number of guards required by the entire battalion. The same routine was followed by the sergeant in charge. The responsibility of being the Officer of the Day rotated among the lieutenants within the battalion. With each new OD came a new set of orders replacing those of the previous night. The sergeants’ role was routine and predictable, but the rules of engagement were never consistent with the officers. When Lieutenant Sidenn was in charge, his rule was kill anything that approached the perimeter wire. Lieutenant Bost’s rule was to never fire a shot without first obtaining permission from Battalion Headquarters via a field phone. If the guard mount came under enemy fire while Lieutenant Bost was the Officer of the Day, the men would have to die without a chance to fight.

After the staff sergeant handed the selected guard troops over to Bost, the lieutenant began his instructions. For the most part, they were standard military orders that had been recited many times by various OD’s. His spiel was much shorter than the night before when Lieutenant Sidenn kept the men at attention for at least a quarter hour. “Tonight,” pausing to emphasize the fact that he was issuing his final order for the night, “if any man fires a single shot without first receiving permission from Battalion Headquarters, I promise you I will hang him from the tallest tree that can be found!”

“Am I making myself clear?”

“Sir, yes sir,” came the bellowing response that Bost fully expected. “Don’t take lightly what I told you. I meant what I said about the tree. I meant what I said about the hanging. Don’t be the one caught in the noose.”

“Sergeant!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Take charge. Get these men to the perimeter as soon as possible.”

“Sir, yes sir,” replied the staff sergeant snapping an exuberant salute. “Men, fall out and load the trucks on the double.”

There was not a single man on guard duty under the command of Lieutenant Bost who had any intentions of obeying his last order. “If it comes to kill-or-be-killed, you can bet your sweet petunia I am going to be the one doing the killing” was heard from the front of the truck. As if roll were being called, each took his turn agreeing. The resolution was unanimous — having been affirmed by every expletive that could be thought of. By the time the trucks arrived at the perimeter, no doubt was left among the men that the Officer of the Day was nuts, or as the Vietnamese expressed idiocy – dinky-dow.

Rumors were rampant in Vietnam about how grunts had taken care of dinky-dow commanders in the field. The rumors shared a common thread. The story line was always the same. An inexperienced lieutenant would take command of a rifle company, and would proceed to wage war from an extraneous, unrelated chapter in a text book he read while in officer’s candidate school. The men under his command were given two choices. The first choice was to obey the direct and lawful order and possibly be killed. A second choice was to disobey the order and be court martialed. For a grunt who had started counting at three hundred and sixty-four days and was now down to two-digits, or better still, in the single digits, the answer was clear.

Consider this account as told by a grunt from the front. The rifle squad was ordered to charge an enemy fortification. The experienced men knew the risks. They also knew nothing more than an artillery strike needed to be called in to neutralize the enemy’s location. This could be done without the loss of a single American’s life. If artillery was not within range, an Air Force or Navy pilot was. It was simply a matter of radioing the American’s location using the coordinates of a map. An F-4 Phantom would immediately respond to the call for help. As the Phantom would approach the target area, further information was transmitted to the pilot as to the exact drop zone for the napalm. To insure that the pilot knew where the Americans were, a smoke grenade would be set off. The decision about the color was done at the last moment. The Viet Cong were expert scavengers on the battlefield. They would pick up whatever they could find, including smoke grenades dropped by the Americans. If the Viet Cong saw green smoke coming from the American position, they immediately popped the same color in an effort to confuse the pilot.

“Delta company, Delta company, this is Silver Eagle coming from the west. Do you read me?. Over.”

“Silver Eagle, Silver Eagle, roger, roger,” came the panicked reply. “Victor Charlie is on the eastern side of the river. Repeat Victor Charlie (radio lingo for V.C. or Viet Cong)on the eastern side of the river. Over.”

“Roger, Delta company. Lining up now. What will you be popping?” asked the pilot trying to use his calm demeanor to bring reassurance to the desperate voice on the ground.

“Silver Eagle , we are popping red. Repeat, popping red. Over.”

“Roger. Popping red. I see you. I am on the tree tops. Give me ten more seconds and Charlie will be in hell. Bury your faces and put your fingers in your ears. Here I come.”

Thirty seconds later the Phantom pilot disappeared over the jungle canopy, but the roar of his engines was heard for miles. From across the river came screams from the Dinks who survived the explosion of the bomb charged with napalm, but who were burned by the gelling, incendiary petroleum mixture that was designed to stick to skin and cause severe burns. That was no concern of Delta Company unless the enemy was willing to surrender so they could be given medical treatment as prisoners of war. What the platoon leader wanted to do was contact their savior-pilot and thank him, but he was beyond the range of their radio.

The veteran grunts knew that was the way to level the killing field when faced with overwhelming numbers of enemy troops. It simply made no sense to die unnecessarily. Neither did it make sense to obey a rookie lieutenant who wanted to fight a war by a school book that would result in the needless loss of American lives. The grunts had heard all too often that “their place was not to question why, but there place was to do or die.” They also knew the distinction the Army made between enlisted men and officers. It was demeaning and insulting for them to read a report of casualties when the report stated the death toll as “eighty enlisted men and five officers.” Why were they in separate categories? Were the officers of more value? It was too similar to the World War II monuments back home that listed the names of the White soldiers who were killed in action and underneath were the names of the “Colored” who had also died. For a grunt who had only a few days standing between him and his freedom flight back to the world, disobeying stupid orders and staying alive was more compelling than the threat of a court martial for insubordination.

Was that the etymology of the word fragging? What options were available for men who were informed by their lieutenant that once they arrived back at base camp that charges of insubordination were going to be filed against them? What choices did they have to keep from spending twenty years in prison for disobeying a direct and lawful order in combat? Their options were few. They could try to convince their platoon leader that he was wrong. Could they persuade him that given a few more months of experience that he would never issue such an order? Would any appeal work? If all else failed, there was only one option. There had to be a consensus. They would all have to share the blame and guilt equally. That was their insurance against someone snitching on the others. Everyone’s story had to be identical. The decision had to be made before the slicks swooped down from the sky and transported them back to base and the stockade.

One by one the men slowly separated as they got ready to dive for cover. The platoon leader with his radio operator was up front. The radio operator had pledged his help with the conspiracy. He pretended to make a call for slicks to come for the pick up. The last thing they needed was a chopper overhead to witness the event. Shouting the words “sniper, sniper” was be the signal. Every man in the rifle squad knew what do – except one. A grenade was tossed in the direction of the only man standing between them, home, and freedom. Their story would be that the lieutenant was upfront and stepped on booby trap. Ballistic tests could not be performed on fragments from a grenade. After the fragging, a frantic call would be made for a medevac helicopter while applying tourniquets. It was imperative that it appeared every effort was made to save the lieutenant. If the Viet Cong theorem was correct, a mother somewhere in America died in the fraction of a second that transpired between the words “sniper” and “sniper.”

The men on guard duty from Company B had heard such stories. Little did they know that within hours they, too, would be faced with a similar situation. About three o’clock a trip flare was set off by something in the perimeter wire. The phosphorous flare burned so brightly that Private Brown was partially blinded. Since the flare was within thirty feet of where he stood guard, Brown knew it could have been an animal of some sort, but if it were a Gook, death was knocking at the door. Without hesitation he squeezed the trigger on his M-14. The recoil knocked his helmet down to his glasses

“Get up! “Get up!” he shouted to those inside the bunker. An instant later, aerial flares began to light the perimeter from other bunkers. The only response Brown got from the others assigned to his bunker was racial slurs. Two hours prior they had boarded a non-stop flight to Detroit on Doobie Airways. The grenade launcher was still beside one of them, breach open, and unloaded. Realizing they would be of no help, Brown took cover outside the bunker looking for any signs of enemy movement. Someone in another bunker had used a field phone to call Battalion Headquarters to report a shot was fired on the perimeter. Within four minutes a blacked-out jeep approached the bunker where Brown was waiting, shaken. He knew Lieutenant Bost would be enraged.

“Halt! Who goes there?” asked Private Brown.

“First Lieutenant Bost.”

“Johnny!”

“Appleseed!” replied Bost.

“Sir, assume the front leaning rest position and toss your military I.D. toward me.”

Bost complied immediately.

“Very well, Sir. You are clear to stand up.”

“Get your boots together, soldier,” Bost demanded.

“Sir, yes Sir. Private Brown reporting, Sir.”

“Soldier, you are in a world of hurt,” screaming directly into Brown’s face. “You were specifically ordered never to shoot unless you had permission! Why did you shoot?”

“Sir, no excuse, sir.”

“Damn right! No excuse.” I order you to stand here until I go back and report this to Colonel Martin. Then I will be back with the Military Police. You are on your way to the stockade, soldier.”

By that time those who had been on furlough in Detroit came out and began their bullying. “Hey, muther…you now got us all in trouble. You better not tell about the Mary Jane if you know what is good for you.”

“Don’t worry. I am in enough trouble. I don’t need more,” Brown replied, desperate for a friend.

“Quick. Let’s check the bunker. Make sure there’s no weed lying around. Get things straightened up. The M.P.’s will sweep this place. Remember, Cracker, you breathe a word about this and we will find a way to get you.”

“Like I said, I am in enough trouble with the lieutenant. I am not looking for more.”

Fifteen minutes later First Lieutenant Bost arrived back at the bunker. Brown was still standing where he was ordered to be. The moment the jeep stopped, Bost stepped out. “Halt. Who goes there?” asked Brown. It was not that he did not know who it was, but it was imperative that he follow military protocol, even if it meant identifying the same officer ten times or more during the night.

“Private Brown, it is Lieutenant Bost.”

“Johnny!”

“Appleseed.”

“Sir, please assume the front leaning rest position, Sir.”

Bost complied, and without being asked, he threw his military I.D. in the direction of Brown’s feet.

Brown, in a terrified voice, “Lieutenant Bost, you are recognized. Please stand up.” He remembered the threat concerning the lynching for disobedience that was given during the lieutenant’s briefing.

“Private Brown, I have been ordered back out here by Colonel Martin to apologize to you personally. He has just informed me, in no uncertain terms, that it is because of men like you that men like him can sleep without fear of being killed. Private Brown, I sincerely apologize.”

“Sir, thank you. Thank you very much. I appreciate that, Sir.”

“Carry on! Thanks, Brown.” The lieutenant’s jeep departed into the darkness and was invisible within seconds.

“And thanks to all that I just tossed some perfectly good Jane. I will never find it now,” was heard from within the bunker.

One by one members of Company B completed their three hundred and sixty-five days. None of them ever learned what the Military Police did with the soldier who tried to commit suicide one night by crashing his head repeatedly into a concrete wall. The top part of his scalp was torn from his skull. His head, face, and torso was bloodied to the point that no one recognized him. He was not from Company B because no one was missing the following morning. All that was known of him was that he walked through crying and saying he was walking home because he had had all he could take. His plan was to walk the twelve thousand miles back the United States. It was assumed he had been court martialed for trying to destroy government-issued property.

In April of 1970 it was time for Private Brown to return home. Unlike most of the others who had reached the coveted status of being a one digit midget, Brown celebrated quietly. He did not pass his last nine days drinking and screaming, “short! short!” or “tee-tee days” which was pigeon Vietnamese for “little or small.” Neither did Brown carry a short-timer’s stick with notches on it and pointing it at everyone while yelling profanities about the Army. Such behavior was tolerated by those in charge as long as one did not become destructive and violent. Some stayed totally intoxicated their last nine days, sobering up just in time to be shipped to the 90th Replacement Depot.

Brown spent most of his time in quiet reflection. Several men had heard him speak of the terror he felt his first night in Nam. The mortars were so horrifying he said he knelt down and prayed for God to deliver him. Brown was spared, and he did not want to become a public spectacle his last few days. When he arrived home in South Carolina, his wife was the only one at the airport. There were no news cameras, no newspaper reporters to cover the story. Well-wishers did not line the concourse offering their hands while saying “thank you.” There was no parade. Vietnam Veterans returned to a country deeply divided over the war in Southeast Asia. They returned to a thankless America. Little did any of them know that it would be forty years before America would even start the process of recognizing their service.

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