idol season 11 | week 20 | ~900 words
Everyone said I would have followed you anywhere. Best friends since Kindergarten, some part of that was probably true.
But the war was different. We lived in a time when it was simply what men did. When your country called you, you came to its defense. It was what our fathers had done, and their fathers before them. We were told we were needed to protect America and its people from a threat to everything our nation stood for.
We assumed that it was true.
Even then, there were those that wondered. How could the politics of some small country on the other side of the world have anything to do with us, no matter how misguided they might be?
Dominoes, the government said. If a nation went communist, then the rest nearby would follow until it spread across the globe. Communists were the bogeymen of our era, and we'd been afraid of them since before we could remember. We believed the danger was real.
We joined up together at the end of the summer of '65. We were just two months out of high school, but we'd already seen that the future held nothing but running cash registers or unskilled labor, even for the former star quarterback and his fullback friend. The Army offered honest employment, and a career path in service to our country. It seemed like the right thing to do.
Our Mamas cried but our Daddies were proud, and we both felt a little closer to being men instead of boys.
We bruised and blistered our bodies together in Basic Training and AIT, running mile after mile in our combat boots and doing pushups until we puked. It was hard as hell, but we were in it together. If one of us said our drill sergeant was a sadistic sonofabitch, the other knew it was true, and even knew the damn sonofabitch's name. We were having the time of our lives, with all that shared misery building us up and making us tougher for the purpose ahead.
We shipped out at the end of March and arrived in Da Nang in early April, the first time either of us had ever been out of the U.S. The army put us through a few more weeks of training, and then outfitted us with our gear and weapons and sent us on to our platoons. We were nervous and edgy like most of the other recruits, all hopped up and itching to prove ourselves as brave as our fathers and grandfathers had been.
We were full of ourselves, overconfident and cherry and so goddamned naïve.
By the first day, it was clear that the army hadn't really prepared us, not by a long shot. All those months of drills and training didn't begin to cover the reality of the bullshit jungle terrain and the constant vigilance required to survive. We slashed up and down those forested slopes, trying to figure out where the hell we were going and then re-triangulating all over again when the targets and objectives changed a few days or hours later. It was hard to see and even harder to move quietly, and there were tripwires and land-minds and enemy soldiers hiding all around us. Every step could be your last.
Whatever we thought we were bringing to those men in the field, we were wrong. Too new and inexperienced to be of much use, we were more likely to get ourselves killed those first few weeks than shore up our platoons. I heard two of the boys from Basic were hit just three days in, and I wondered where your squad was and who was watching your back. I hoped to God it was someone better equipped than me.
I saw combat before nightfall that first day, and nearly every day in-country before my tour was through. We had run-ins with snipers, artillery units, enemy squads, and VC hiding in villages or spider holes or trees. It was brutal and bloody, and we never seemed to be turning the tide.
God, but we lost a lot of men.
The U.S. government was sending in more and more troops to grow our presence on the ground, but there weren't enough volunteer recruits to meet that kind of need. Boys were being drafted in to join us, dying for a cause they didn't even believe in.
There weren't many believers there on the ground anymore either, not after we'd seen the struggle we were up against and had been betrayed again and again by the people we were trying to protect.
I think most of us doing the fighting already knew we didn't have the tactics to win the war, not against that enemy on that kind of terrain. We didn't know the U.S. would keep pursuing it for almost a decade more.
In a few years, it wouldn't be about Communism or protecting American liberty. It would be about pride, about not losing a war to rice farmers and guerrilla soldiers, about not admitting the whole thing had been a mistake.
It cost so much to fight that war, and money wasn't even the steepest price we paid. We lost so many lives, both on the battlefield and at home in the years that followed.
We lost your life in that godforsaken clusterfuck.
I didn't follow you into that war.
But worst of all, I could never lead you back home.
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