A Time For War
I hear the sounds of explosives, and fall to the ground, swallowing the muddy, salty rain water. I spit the water out, feel the taste of human blood as I stumble across the ground towards my salvation. An Uzi. Gunfire again and I eat dirt. Sometimes I hate this job.
Being a Lieutenant Colonel in Korea has no advantages, let me tell you. Barely three days ago, I was rubbing noses with the upper brass. Now I am in a ditch, scrambling to my weapon.
I close my fingers around the gun, bring it up to aim it at the sudden figures coming my way. I shoot and... my eyes open. I look around myself. A dream, it was only a dream. Now I'm back with my platoon, on my second tour. Back to harsh reality.
'Nam looks so much prettier at night, when the stars make the whole sky twinkle and sparkle, when the trees don't hide the view. Private Reskin should be on watch, but I can hear his snoring. I stumble to my feet, hear the sounds of the enemy ahead. I wake the guy next to me, who in turn wakes the next... and so it goes on, until my platoon is all eyes and ears, waiting for the inevitable outburst of enemy fire.
The NVA walk on by, oblivious to my platoon. I look over at the Lieutenant and nod, the silent order he knows so well. The platoon open fire, unleashing the fury of their weapons on the backs of the enemy like it were the fourth of July. Enemy goes down. We cheer. No time for a party though, I hear more sounds of NVA heading our way.
I signal for the platoon to make a move and we head out into the jungle further.
"Nice work, Lieutenant," I comment, as I stumble under some wet foliage.
"I do my best sir. Far cry from what I'm used to." Lieutenant Peck says softly.
"Why do you say that? Your a supply officer for this platoon," I crack a smile
Peck groans. "At least back at base, I wasn't crawling through piles of..."
"Colonel! Over here!" Private Reskin says.
I walk over to see a hole in the ground. I grab a grenade from my belt, pull the pin out and throw it into the hole "Clear!"
The platoon dives for cover, and I join them, waiting for the inevitable explosion. I hear Vietnamese screaming as the grenade is lobbed back out at us.
"I got it!" Private Reskin says.
"No! Leave it Private. Take cover!" I say, pulling Peck out of range behind a rock.
The explosion sounds and Reskin screams. I try and keep Peck at my side but he is off like a bullet, kneeling by the wounded Private's side; laying a hand over the wound. Hard to tell where the wound ends and begins, half his body has been torn apart by the blast.
"Colonel...?" Peck asks, his voice torn and miserable. He knows there is no hope, not now.
"Lieutenant, back off." I say, pulling him back, and looking down at Reskin who is taking his last breaths of life. I often wonder what that's like, when the curtain drops. When you know it's your last breath. What the hell do you do with your last thought? Its gotta be something grand, cause its your last one.
Reskin signals me to drop to one knee beside him. He points to his jacket pocket, the side that wasn't blown to smithereens. A letter to go back home. I nod.
Later on, when we are taking a little rest, Peck is on watch. I watch the young man move in and out of the trees like a snake, completely on guard and smile.
My little habit, which I have always known was wrong, is I read all the letters from soldiers going back home. Why do I do it? It gives me something personal and vivid to remember. I find by reading letters like those, I know more about the person who died than any conversation. I sit now and read Reskin's letter.
"Dear ma and pa. Gee, guess this means I'm dead, right? This lil ole letter is home and I bit the dust. Its gonna be hard on you guys, I know. But you gotta be strong. I died doin' something brave and honourable - love me and remember me for that. I'll be watching over you guys, see you on the other side. Your Darren."
I look up. "Hi, Peck. What's up?"
"Reading those soldier's letters. They aren't meant for you," Peck says grimly.
I gesture for him to take a seat. "Watch sucks doesn't it, kid?"
Peck nods. "Why do you do it, Sir?"
"To gain a better understanding of the men we lose over here. When the party's over, the guy is dead - there is no reason to think of him as a serial number any more."
Peck shrugs "I dunno. Seems kinda sick. I don't want you reading my letter when I'm gone. You promise me you'll just send it on?"
"Your not dead yet, kid," I say, indicating for Peck to resume watch. "But you will be if you don't keep a keen eye open for the VC."
Peck sighs and heads off. For an instant I think Peck has a death wish, some desire to die. I shrug the thought out of my head, and try and get some shut eye.
An hour later is my watch. I keep my eyes trained for any foliage out of place, any sudden movement. Nothing indicates a VC presence.
I head back to the others resting. They all look so damned innocent, a bunch of boys in a war they aren't prepared for. Curious, I do something I have never done before, but which I WILL do as standard if I get an off feeling about one of my men. I gently take Peck's letter from his pocket and open it.
I unfold the letter, expecting to see Peck's perfect handwriting. The sheet is blank. Except for the writing on the bottom of course, in small print. "I am an orphan, bury me as such. Let another unknown die for their country... Face."
Peck didn't tell me that he was an orphan. I am too choked for a moment to think clearly, which is a sin that is never forgiven out here in the jungle. I fold the letter back up and put it into Peck's pocket; resuming my watch, a nervousness eating at my inside.
I keep thinking, why the name 'Face'? Maybe because it is meaningless? One of a crowd, a thousand unfamiliar faces - he could be anyone. A nameless. An orphan. A boy who has never seen compassion, and would die in a heartbeat defending a cause he never really knew anything about. Face. The orphan, one of many. The perfect name.
The next day is spent trudging through the jungle. I hear a sound in a thicket.
"Alpha company! Get down! Shut up!" I shout.
Everyone disappears into the green and lush jungle, fading like shadows into the greenery. I reflect for a moment on the lush beauty of this country, the sickening thoughts that its beauty is being destroyed by war.
The unmistakable sounds of VC predators, hunters - talking low, guns ready. Then, Peck walks out in front of the whole enemy platoon!
"For fuck's sake, Face!" I yell. He turns to me with a hint of sadness in his eyes. I curse myself for having said his signed name in the desperate letter.
"You read my letter, didn't you?"
I grab him as gunfire explodes around us. "No Peck! Not like this!" I pull him under me, wedging his shoulders together with my knees, and raising my own weapon, firing high. He just looks at me, his wide young eyes just don't want to see anymore of this. If I don't do something fast, he'll walk into the enemy, have himself shot instantly.
I grab his shoulders "Peck! Why are you doin' this! You'll take the whole platoon down with you!"
Peck just continues to stare at me. He's gone, lost it. The platoon is being wiped out, sounds of gunfire exploding around my ears, just like... Korea. Hold on Smith, don't lose it now. I keep repeating this to myself, dragging Peck to his feet.
"Retreat! Now!" I grab Peck's waist, and drag him backwards, away from the intense fireworks.
Retreat. Normally I'd spit at anyone who ordered one, but this time its necessary, before more men are taken down. I drag Peck for about an hour then I hear the remaining Platoon regrouping and join them.
"Colonel..." Corporal Davies says, helping me carry Peck to the survivors.
Three left. Oh great! The VC are on my tail, and out of twenty, there are three men remaining. Corporal Davies, Second Lieutenant Marsh and Sergeant Baracus. This is becoming a real nightmare.
Sergeant Baracus is becoming agitated. "The VC are right on our tails, man. You got a plan or have I got to beat it outta you, sir!"
"Quit it Bosco. Stow your bad attitude till we get back to base."
Movements all around, VC are closing in fast.
"You guys carry Peck on out of here," I say, watching as Sergeant Baracus comes forward, lifting the slight Lieutenant gently into his arms.
"Where are you going sir?" Corporal Davies asks.
"Corporal! Follow my orders, the base is only twenty clicks from here. You can make it if you hurry before night falls. I'll be back, don't worry."
Peck looks at me through misted eyes, "I'm sorry for losing it out there. I'm sorry about not telling the Army I was an orphan."
I shrug. "Lieutenant, tell the Army what you want. But, when you're in my unit, I want you to be straight with me from now on."
Peck nods, and the remnants of my platoon head back to base.
I go back to the muddied, bloody area where most of my platoon fell victim to enemy fire. I pick up the letters from each of their pockets, and then go to retrieve the mission.
The 'mission' being chemical. I reach for the black case and look inside to see the small vial still intact. lucky thing too, else a viral infection would have knocked out half the country. Worse still, this virus had been mutated. Anyone infected died within a couple of hours.
Bringing the case carefully under my arm, I quickly move back into the jungle, back towards the base, I reach safety just after nightfall.
"Hi Peck. What did the doctor say?" I lay the letter I had been reading to one side, and look up to see Peck smiling playfully at me. I grin.
"Nothing much. Told me I had many 'Pent up anxieties', that I need to talk about with someone."
"Me?" I ask, sighing. I move the letters to one side so Peck can sit beside me.
"Yep. As my commanding officer, he thought it was a good idea for me to talk to you," Peck leans forward and embraces me.
"Hey! Easy kid! I don't do the hug-stuff, okay?" I try and move gently out of the embrace, but Peck is firmly holding onto me, not letting go. "I said, I don't do hugs. What's this all about?"
Peck removes his arms, and looks away. "I dunno - guess I needed to feel safe."
I feel ashamed becuase Peck is ashamed. "The hug wasn't that bad, needs a little practice," I say softly, gently, surprising the young Lieutenant.
"Did the General thank you for bringing the virus back?" Peck says, changing the subject.
"No, and I didn't expect it. He just said; 'You have completed a vital mission for your country'" I say, imitating the General.
Peck laughs, his shoulders shaking. Suddenly, I realise his eyes are bright with tears.
Peck looks at me, startled. "What, Colonel?"
"I'm sorry. Guess I can be a little heavy handed at times. I'm not one for sentiment."
Peck smiles. "I know. Its not that, its just... I really wanted it to end out there."
I touch his hand, wanting to make amends for the rough treatment I gave him as he tried to hug me. Peck flinches at the touch, but smiles.
"You know what, kid?" I say.
"What?" Peck asks.
"I'm going to have to start calling you Face, kid. Its the only name I get a response to!"
Peck smiles. "I like being called Face, Colonel."
I smile and gesture for him to leave, "...got some reading to do."