One By One
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Wednesday 03 September 2003
The average is just one a day, like a multi-vitamin - one a day. They tell us this number is not so bad, compared to say, the average murder rate in D.C. or California. A nation's murder rate being higher than its war dead is apparently something to brag about.
The numbers are good, they tell us. But numbers have names and faces.
Here is just a handful of numbers from July 1, thru August 26, 2003:
- Sgt. Melissa Valles (age-26) B Company 64th Forward Support Battalion - Eagle Pass, TX
- Spc. Chad L. Keith (age-21) Delta Company 2-325 Infantry - Batesville, IN
- Pfc. Jonathon Cheatham (age-19) 489th Engineering Battalion - Camden, ARK
- 1st Sgt. Christopher Coffin (age-51) 352nd Civil Affairs Battalion - Bethlehem,
- PA Spc. Justin Hebert (age-20) 319th Field Artillery 173rd Airborne - Arlington, WA
One or a thousand, how do you measure loss? After all the words of condolence fall silent, and you sit in the dark, listening to the whispers of war, who do you tell that everything you loved was in that number? One.
They say war is hell, but if war is hell, where does God send the armchair-warriors after they die?
Today is the last day of August in Arabia. Hot. Dry. So hot that just standing on the sand warms your bone marrow. Hot enough to melt three-and-a-half decades of today into one yesterday. Another August, the air so hot and humid, you had to chew it and swallow it, just to breathe.
Tra Bong, a dot on the map to nowhere. The silver Air America chopper hovered long enough for me to jump off, then run like hell, through heat and mortars, to the tiny compound where the MACV Green Beret sergeant slapped me on the back and said, "Welcome to Hell's waiting room." He pointed at the small chapel crammed up against the corner wall of the compound. "When we get overrun tonight or tomorrow, that's where we take our stand. Make yourself to home, Doc."
Tra Bong lasted only eleven days, the average length of a working family's vacation. But I was nineteen, praying to make twenty. Eleven days was a lifetime. It was for the three who never left. Eleven days and three dead, another set of numbers.
The thing about war is that you live life backwards while hoping for tomorrow. Conversations are about what you used to do, back in the world; like how my buddies and me used to go fishing on the Heber River in July, or spring nights when we used to drag State Street for girls. The ghosts of war are not fallen comrades; they are the folks back home, the other-world-dwellers. Suzanne Sutton in her prom dress, the gang hanging out at Bilko's burger joint, Ron Branca's beautiful maroon and black vinyl-topped '67 GTO with the chrome Hurst gear shift, or Peggy Jo Stewart's lemon meringue pie on the final summer night before my Army induction. And those are the faces you see in your mind's scrapbook, and you pray they have the solution to stop this madness, so you can go home.
September came, and we moved from village to village, Tam Ky to Vin Loc to Hoi An and back to Vin Loc. The village was friendly. The village was dangerous. They welcomed you while they hated you - and then we killed them with kindness. For their own good. Gave them freedom to rebuild what we had bombed, or move on.
Somewhere outside Vin Loc, the rainy season began in a narrow passage of rice paddies bordered on two sides by tree line, and a mud-funnel-exit blocked by a steep rocky hill. The only high ground for making camp was a cemetery. War, is irony, if nothing else.
The day Pat died was a rainy day. Some other, more talented writer might tell you the sky was weeping, on the afternoon John Patrick Lambooy lost his life. A soldier's death is never poetic, except to politicians and Hollywood. It was raining, gray and dismal. The muddy clay earth had the consistency of a pur ed turd.
We set up too early, on the orders of the Battalion Commander. Intelligence told him Charlie (VC) was in the area, and we had gone five days with no enemy contact. He wanted contact. He wanted a body count. He wanted numbers.
Each day of war has its own feel and rhythm. Air current is the key. When the air stops whispering against your skin - listen up.
At 4:12 the air stopped.
The RPG sailed over a nearby tent, skipped across the rice paddy water, and then laid still with embarrassment at not having exploded. The next RPG exploded, and so did the one after that. And then the mortars walked right through our perimeter. The Battalion Commander had his wish.
Pat died a stranger to me. My best friend of 55 days, was just another grunt, one more faceless pile of damaged bone and tissue I tried to hold together until the Dust-off chopper arrived. He was unrecognizable, but he was my friend, and I should have recognized him even in death. September 19, 1969 is another set of numbers that equals one.
Nothing changes about war, and yet in war, everything is forever changed.
When the firefight that killed John Patrick Lambooy ended, we saw them. Defiant eyes, apologetic posture, the villagers clung to the far-off tree line, watching us. In the distant rain-washed sky, the smoke from their burning village drifted up in an accusatory cloud. Whatever we had not bombed, Charlie set ablaze. They were homeless in their homeland.
The war doesn't haunt me. It is just a place I go, or sometimes get taken to, when a certain smell curls up inside my nostrils, or the sound of a helicopter overhead makes me look up. Sometimes it is a smile. Huff, had one of those Big Apple smiles, just full of New York sunshine and mischief. He was from Staten Island, I think.
Huff, died over the radio. Magnesium batteries and microphone static transmitted his fate on October 4, 1969. Fred Jenner and I crouched by the olive drab box, desperate to find the knob or switch that would undo the night, undo the death of Ronald P. Huffman, six klicks out in the darkness of Quang Ngai. We failed.
Fred stared at the plywood walls of the aid station, memorizing splinters, while I stared at the eye chart by the back door. It was crooked.
One by one, we rotated in, and we rotated out. We were friends that would never see one another again, no matter how much we promised to look each other up when we got back to the world.
War is truth - and lies. The truth of war is that it is always based on a lie; and the lie of war is that it is based on truth.
In war, the dead always make an impression. You remember the dead better than you remember the survivors. Maybe that is survivor's guilt. All those times you sighed in relief, after the wounded and the dead had been evacuated. It is a brutal sin, to be thankful the other guy got hit, and not you. But it is only a transient sin.
And maybe it's not a sin, just a survival mechanism. It is easier to remember the dead, than face the living. When I wrote to Pat's folks about wanting to come out for a visit, they said, no. They sent directions to his grave in Arlington, but I never went. I've never been to The Wall either. Maybe the thought of mixing the dead with the living keeps me at the safety of distance. I don't know.
After the dead have been neatly packaged and put away, the wounded, the scarred, and the limbless, live on. We ought to cherish them as much as we do the memory of the dead. But wheelchairs and prosthetics make us uncomfortable.
Midnight in a cramped thicket, somewhere in the mountains above Happy Valley, we fit twenty guys in a space for ten. We just need some sleep, and this tiny cove offers rest and safety. The bramble bush and skinny trees are so thick, you can't see through them.
Jabbering voices wake us. Two companies of NVA regulars are taking a break on the other side of the thicket. We can't see them, and pray to God they can't see us. Then we freeze, waiting for the world to end, as several of them tramp their way into our bushes. No one moves. My legs are sticking out into the hedges. I can't move without giving our position away. The two or three soldiers laugh and chatter and stop, just two feet away in the darkness. Silence.
I heard it before I felt it, the sound of water splashing on leather and leaves. Then came the spreading warm wetness down my shins and dripping across my boots. Mr. Charlie was taking a leak, on my legs.
As we move out in the morning, some smart-ass serenades me with a rendition of, Singing In The Rain, and the new guy offers up his version of, Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head. The Captain strolls by and grins, "Ain't war a pisser, Doc?"
So go the days of war. Faces and numbers, one by one.
John Cory is a regular TO contributor and our correspondent in Saudi Arabia.
Reference for U.S. soldiers KIA :http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpsrv/world/iraq/casualties/facesofthefallen.htm
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