idol season nine | week 32, #1 | 1064 words
Captcha the flag
It's Spring in 1968 when my number comes up. I knew my luck would run out someday, but the damn war's been going on for years now. Thought maybe there was a chance it'd finally end, or at least our part in it, but that hasn't happened yet. The draft's still legal and I'm still screwed.
After eight week of basic training—drills and conditioning and "Sir, yes sir" until you breathe it—we ship out to Vietnam. We're the grunts of the operation, the regular Army Infantry. Our brothers are already knee-deep in the Mekong Delta keeping the Viet Cong at bay. Our unit joins them.
The country is beautiful but treacherous. Thick jungles hide snares and enemy combatants, and the open areas leave you exposed. The native people could be working for either side of this war, or just trying to survive it, but the thing is, you don't know. You can't trust them too much, but if they're allies, you need them. They know the secret tunnels where the enemy hides, and they recognize Viet Cong sympathizers better than outsiders like us ever will.
There is no down-time in this war while you're on the front. A couple of minutes—even seconds—of inattention and you might get yourself or the men in your unit killed. The army tried to prepare us, but it was clear from day one that we didn't know shit about being soldiers. The reality of it, the danger in every step you take and three-sixty on the perimeter, just doesn't sink in until you're living it.
We move steadily, even at night, advancing our position while trying not to alert the enemy or set off trip-wires and land mines. It's hot and humid, and you ignore it along with the dirt and bugs and the days when it rains until your kit, rifle, and boots are soaked. You never stop scanning the ground, the trees, and the hills, for traps and hints of enemy activity. You listen so hard, your ears hum from the sound of your blood running through them. At night, when you're on watch, your eyes ache with trying to detect the movement of darkness against dark.
You won't really sleep, because you know an attack can come at any time from any direction—including underground—and you just can't let your guard down.
After a month in-country, we've lost two of our men to a landmine and a sniper. We've killed probably thirty enemy soldiers, and there've been a few civilian casualties we couldn't prevent. The kids are the hardest.
Our squadron is on the move, toward a village ten klicks from here. We're in farming country, where there isn't much concealment. Sergeant Helvik is on point, with eight of us behind and Smithson at the rear. We're all on edge today, every sound the sign of enemy movement, every glint of sunlight a weapon poised to fire.
Around the edge of a hut, Helvik stops, and motions us down and then over. We belly-crawl, slow and quiet until we can see what he's spotted: a Viet Cong unit in the fields up ahead, surrounding the region's only bridge.
We can go through them, or simply wait. An hour passes, but they're still in position. They may be stationed here, to keep patrol units and reinforcements from moving south. Helvik clears a spot in the earth to sketch out our attack. We'll engage the enemy in daylight, while we can still see.
There are nine enemy soldiers ahead, and probably a few more hidden nearby. Part of our boot camp training involved capture-the-flag exercises. Those were not just about sneaking up on the enemy or defending a valuable commodity or position. The lessons in using cover-fire to protect exposed soldiers were just as important.
We were about to enter a situation where that training applied.
The squad splits, half of us moving around to the other side of the hut and soldiers crawling out in an arc on both ends. This broadens our shooting position for the first salvo. On the Sergeant's signal, we fire at the Viet Cong, dropping all but one of them before an answering barrage comes from a tree to the east and from somewhere in the farmland to the west. Wily sons-of-bitches always have something up their sleeves.
Brightboy finishes off the final guy in the field, and Smithson, Pinky, and Hank fire grenades at the sniper's positions. Helvik, Jerome, Jimmy D, and I begin the run, rifles ready and sweeping in arcs as we go.
A crack rips through the air, and Jimmy D crumples next to me.
Jimmy D's gut-shot, and he's really hurting. I pull his arm up over my shoulder, and keep going, half-carrying him. Bullets are flying everywhere, hitting the dirt, clipping off pieces of grass. Helvik throws a grenade toward the field fire, and it finds its mark. There's a yell, and a shower of smoke and dirt.
We're just at the bridge when I get hit with a bullet, right in the chest. I drop Jimmy D and fall down myself, and then all hell breaks loose.
Jerome heaves me up over his shoulder and carries me across the bridge, and I hear gunfire and explosions coming from all directions. He moves us into a patch of tall grass and sets me down, and then he's gone again. Soon after, Helvik brings Jimmy D over, and things seem to be getting quieter.
Footsteps and voices gather in.
"Took those assholes out," Hank says.
Helvik radios out for Medevac. Jimmy D is in real pain, with Pinky leaning over him and trying to slow his bleeding. Brightboy's pushing down on my chest so hard I can barely breathe. "Hang in there, Rod," he says.
I hope Jimmy makes it—he's got a wife and kid back home. Nobody would much miss me, but Jimmy's got family. These are good men. We've held together pretty well over here. Apart from Jimmy and me, they're all still safe.
The world's going dark around the edges. There's a beating sound, helicopter blades or blood pulsing through my ears. You'd think being shot would hurt more, but I just feel numb.
The blackness that comes for me hums with my team's voices, and it smells like gunpowder and copper and the richness of dirt…
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