The Torment of a Distant War

(Page 3 of 4)

When we landed on the beach, my friend Don and I exchanged looks as we piled into our trucks. Don had this distant look in his eye, as if he were in a place where I wasn't quite welcome. Don had become increasingly morose during the voyage, at times expressing suicidal thoughts. Once he got into his truck, he wouldn’t look at me again. It’s like his mind was made up about something. Our trucks took off in separate directions, to different units. There was no “good-bye.” I never saw him again.

A few months later, Doc John Kutkusky, my friend and mentor, showed me the “Stars and Stripes” listing of Don’s death. Don had met up with a Chicom grenade while tending a Marine. By then, my reaction to death was that of numbness. I only remember feeling less than you might expect after learning of a best friend’s death, and surprised how this matter-of-fact conditioning was changing me. Now I understand this to be the process of denial. To function at all, you had to bury grief and to deny emotion. It’s a battlefield necessity.

To this day, I can't imagine Don showing much fear. I can't picture him trembling while clutching at the ground. Instead, I imagine him moving around too slowly, not batting an eye in the face of danger.

Me? I was scared shitless. I never took unnecessary chances. I always wore a flak jacket and helmet, and I avoided clearings and exposed areas. I stayed deep in the bunkers and trenches. When I went out, it had to be pretty safe or I had a job to do.

It’s a spooky feeling to work on someone in the open. You’re always at a spot where someone just got shot. I dreaded to an extreme the thought of being in a sniper’s crosshairs, the thought of a rifle scope zeroing in on my head. I'm sorry to be so graphic, but that’s how I worked myself up.

Being really scared and jumpy probably improved my survival chances. But pure chance also determined who lived and who died.

One night at a hot spot in the DMZ, Doc Acton, my senior corpsman, gave me the choice of settling in with the machine guns or with the radioman and lieutenant. I chose platoon command. I had just two layers of sandbags protecting me when, at around 2:00 a.m., I heard the dreaded “thoop, thoop, thoop ... whump! whump! whump!” It was the sound of mortars leaving their tubes and exploding all around us.

When the barrage lifted, the call came for “Corpsman up!” Doc Acton was peppered with shrapnel across his head, chest and abdomen. The machine gunner’s legs were blown off. Marines were down all around. It was the only time I ever yelled out for Marines to practice buddy-aid. I couldn't be everywhere at once.