I have a good idea why the sergeant from Kentucky raised his rifle to shoot the two women who were walking to market along the Tra Bong road that day.
The road was a red dirt track. It was barely daylight and the sergeant came over to my position to share some coffee with me. We each had last watch, which was the watch no one else wanted. After having slept for most of the night, losing the last two hours sleep was disconcerting. I awoke from a warm slumber to a chilling mist that had settled on everything. One had to dig deep for resolve to stay alert - all the time searching the eastern horizon for early streaks of dawn, shivering from the chill air (or was it fear?) and hoping that the NVA were asleep.
We both wore the dirt from the week we had spent in the mountains. Free Fire Zone. I hadn't taken my boots off the whole time, nor had I shaved. Inside my elbows on both arms were jungle sores that were irritated from mosquito repellent. The mosquitos! They had been bad in the mountains. Too lazy - as most of us were - to carry mosquito netting I had to sleep with my head under my poncho liner, only to wake up in a tormented sweat. My time on guard duty was spent continuosly fanning and waving my hands to discourage the mosquitos.
When you woke a person for his turn at guard duty, it was necessary to make sure that he wasn't disoriented in the pitch black triple canopy jungle. It was easy to get turned around, hear someone roll over in his sleep, mistake this for an approaching enemy soldier, and open fire - right through the center of the perimeter.
The jungle in the mountains was murderous for travellers on foot. The few trails were sure to be booby trapped, thus it was wise to stay off of them. New trails needed to be broken through the thick vegetation. One, or even two, men walked in front swinging machetes, while the third man held a compass and map. That wasn't the fast and easy way, however. It was slow and frustrating. A mile a day was great time. In the sweltering heat, men rotated, each taking a turn with the machetes. Much of the time we were hunched over, tripping and lurching forward, getting packs and machine guns caught on vines. Noise discipline - vital in areas where soldiers were heard before they were seen - was disregarded by cursing soldiers caught in "wait a minute vines". Our enormous thirsts were never quenched by the disgusting hot water in our canteens. It didn't take long until many of us were completely out of water. I was to spend two days without water. A couple of guys reminisced in camp about how, when they were back at home, they would let the tap run for a few minutes in order for the water to get "good and cold". References to home created despair.
I was completely out of food, but was able to scrounge a couple of cans of C-Rations. Before we left for the mountains we were issued enough meals for a week, which was a load to carry. Some of us "smarter ones", who preferred travelling light, threw the meals we didn't like into a hole that had been dug to burn trash. Before we left, a grenade was thrown into it, depriving the enemy of any potential meals.
We lost 5 men killed the day before we entered the mountains. It was a necessity to put those deaths out of mind. Which I did. As great as the danger was in the Free Fire Zone, the sheer drudgery of being a foot soldier made us oblivious to it. We suffered two wounded the day we left the mountains when a friendly helicopter - spotting movement in the jungle below - was mistakenly given clearance to fire on us, making three passes with its M-60's blazing. Someone had the good sense to pop a smoke grenade to alert the chopper of our desperate and helpless situation.
The day we left the mountains we finally came to a river and used it for our trail, crossing it many times - sometimes wading up to our necks. Everyone's weapons got dangerously wet that day. Not much was said as 50 pairs of eyes anxiously watched the riverbanks for signs of an enemy ambush. We used alot of hand signals.
Once we reached the Tra Bong Road, choppers flew in to resupply us and bring mail. Our assignment for the next day was to provide security for a convoy. We would get a good days rest.
I was startled when the sergeant from Kentucky suddenly said in a loud whisper, "Holy shit." He clicked his M16 to automatic as he raised it to fire.
In MY mind there was no mistaking that the two women were civilians on their way to market. They were partially obscured by the morning mist, no more than 50 feet away, they carried small baskets and wore their traditional straw, cone shaped hats. They turned to each other as they chatted - not mindful of our presence.
The sergeant from Kentucky, in HIS mind, was still in the Free Fire Zone.
In a split second I said, "Don't shoot. Don't shoot."
Furious, he brought his weapon down and abrubtly stood up to leave. He turned to me and said, "You're chickenshit."
I didn't answer. I looked down the Tra Bong Road toward the two women, lit a cigarette, took my boots off, and decided that, after coffee, I would wash my socks.
Copyright 1996 Thomas E. Dier
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