We had made regular contact with the NVA for the previous week. The Vietnamese woman, whose wrists I was tying, was part of a group of 4 civilians who had been used as "mules" by the NVA. One of our patrols had fired on them earlier that day. The NVA fled, leaving the civilians behind - loaded down with rice. The chopper that was to take these detainees to Chu Lai never arrived that day. The civilians were spending the night with us.
It wasn't a scream that was released by the woman when I took hold of her wrists. It was a cry - loud and mournful as she attempted to free herself from my grasp. I was not able to comprehend her words. My immediate concern was that her cries would give our position away. They carried a great distance, through the darkness, across the rice paddies. The NVA were out there. Nothing - not the reassuring pat on her shoulder, nor the "shhh" of my voice - enabled me to convince the woman that I meant her no harm.
My Commanding Officer's voice boomed, "Sergeant Dier, what are you doing to that woman?" His suggestive tone spurred the other members of his command post to laughter.
I cursed all of them silently.
The Captain had earlier called me over to him.
"Have you tied up those people?," he asked.
I thought that he wasn't serious. After all, they were 2 mama sans and two men - one elderly and the other obviously tubercular.
"Sir they aren't gonna bother anyone," I answered.
We exchanged words. He, insisting that the prisoners be tied up and me, stubbornly maintaining my position that the people were harmless.
"Are you refusing an order, Sergeant Dier?" he finally asked, his voice growing ominous - showing his impatience.
"No sir," I said, as I retreated back to the mortar platoon where the 4 detainees were.
I was finally able to convince the woman by my obvious, half - assed rope tying technique that she had nothing to fear from me. She became silent. The next woman gave a half hearted vocal resistance, then quickly fell silent. The two men offered no resistance or comments. Stoics, they had more than likely endured much worse during the course of the war. The four of them huddled together in the night. I allowed myself to think - for a dismal, brief instant - if their families knew of their whereabouts.
Sergeant Christensen brought them hot chocolate and coffee. I rummaged in my pack and found more. Another soldier offered the Vietnamese a spare poncho liner. It was damp and chilly.
Captain F had two sides. Those of us who served with him had names for each side. The Mortar Platoon always was positioned with our loud, boisterous, and overweight Commanding Officer and the men of his command post. Our constant, close proximity enabled us to know them well. We played cards, swapped jokes, and many times associated with Captain F on a social and congenial basis. We saw his lighter side. During those times he was fondly known as "Dai uy" - which was Vietnamese for Captain.
He was "fat Dai uy" the night I tied the civilians.
At dusk the previous day sniper fire had badly wounded Captain F's RTO. The kid's nickname was "Tanker". He had a bad abdominal wound. The Dustoff had not brought a stretcher. Four of us, two on either side of the wounded man, supported and carried his wounded body using two flak jackets - loading him on to the chopper. Angry, I grumbled something about there not being a stretcher.
Captain F looked at me and said, "Let it go. Those men risk their lives many times for us every day. Let it go."
In silence, I felt my face grow red.
In the mountains, I had volunteered to take a squad - loaded with every empty canteen in the company - on a water run. Almost from the start I became lost in the hopelessly thick jungle. Looking repeatedly from thick jungle to map to compass to map; I pursued what I HOPED would be the way to the small stream I intended to find.
Once in a while I looked back and saw Captain F a few men behind me, sweat running down his face. I had a feeling that he knew what I knew: I didn't know where the hell I was. I kept going forward. After awhile a couple of guys in the squad were getting more than just impatient. They began to mumble. Soon they were glaring at me. Reality won over my stubbornness as I stopped and turned to Dai uy.
He said, "Let's see your map."
What a relief! Just as my embarrassment wore off (about 5 or 10 minutes later) a marking round was on it's way from LZ Stinson. The White Phosphorus round burst in the air not far from our position. He took his compass, shot an azimuth to where the marking round had burst, and we were on the move once more.
The stream seemed like a desert oasis. We drank until we could hold no more.
Captain F liked to threaten me with shit burning details.
"Just wait until we get up on Stinson, You'll never see the mortar platoon - you'll be so busy burnin shit."
Making sure that I wore a smile on my face, I would point to the sergeant stripes I wore on my collar.
"See these stripes, Dai uy? I don't have to burn any shit."
A serious look appeared on his face, while the low tone of his voice warned of possible danger, "You'll burn shit if I tell you to."
At that point it was always wise to be silent or change the subject.
He had come up through the ranks as an enlisted man. He was aware of the enlisted man's sensitivities and knew how to push the buttons of his subordinates. It was a mistake to push him past a certain point. He was playful - unlike many officers - but only to a certain point. It wasn't wise to direct anger towards him, either. Like a charging bull he could steamroll anyone in his command.
He was widely disliked. Crude. Vulgar. Never unfair or unfeeling.
Once a chopper, taking off with our artillery FO LT Kaugars and newly arrived Lt Hayes, was shot down a hundred meters after taking off from our jungle clearing.
Captain F hastily organized a squad for their rescue. Rifles and bandoliers were grabbed as men made their way to where the thick cloud of smoke rose upwards. Word came back for more men to join in clearing an LZ for a medevac. All the while Captain F's bellowing voice could be heard in the distance. The agitated, sorrowful voice that unmistakenly expressed the results of the crash without ever articulating the words. They were dead.
Dai uy never shirked the job which he once said he hated most. He never failed to write home to the families of those who died.
Much later, when I was serving in the Battalion Headquarters Company I received a call from Captain F. I hadn't seen him in quite some time. He was calling from Charley Company's headquarters in the rear. He began telling me that the officers shitter was close to overfilling. I knew what was coming.
"Sergeant Dier, I need you to do me a favor and burn that shit."
"Sir, I have told you many times, I don't burn any shit."
"I'll be right over," he said.
Quickly hanging up the phone, I ran out the door and made myself scarce. I was gone for a couple of hours and had forgotten the conversation with Captain F when I noticed him enveloped in smoke from burning diesel fuel. I lived next to the officer's quarters and could see their latrine. He was burning the shit himself. He looked up and saw me, then turned his attention back to what he was doing. Rather than receiving a cursing from him (which I fully expected) I was ignored. I realized that I had made a mistake.
With what had to have been a sheepish grin, I asked, "How's it goin?"
No answer. He acted as if he was preoccupied with a very important task. He could have ordered me to do what he was now doing, instead he had asked me to do it as a favor. I owed him. It doesn't seem like a big deal, and it wasn't, really, except that it was a beginning of a realization for me.
Indeed, I owed him much. I didn't realize how much at that particular time in my life. I was too busy "getting over" on the Army. Too self absorbed to realize what a friend he was. Maybe it was that he was an officer and I was an enlisted man?
These days we talk of "intentions" when trying to make sense of our involvement in Vietnam. We started out with good intentions.
Many theorize nowadays. This could have been prevented if we had done such and such. We should have done this. We could have done that. It is history and the war's - now middle aged - participants are unable to change any of it.
Instead we can learn from it. All of the death. All of the destruction. All of the suffering. This was endured by everyone - friend and foe alike. The spirit survives. And if we are able to rekindle that spirit of "good intentions" God only knows what we will be able to achieve. We are in the present. The future awaits. We can still contribute to it.
Copyright © 1997 Thomas Dier All Rights Reserved