In Vietnam L. B. J. meant something else
I was escorted down to the flight line by another one of those big guys. He took me right down the middle of main-street in cuffs, and the added leg irons. They were making an example of me. As we walked… briskly, he began to gently tap me with his stick on the back of my thigh. Each step brought another little tap. He never changed intensity but they started feeling stronger. He was getting inside my head. It must have been some kind of mind control because by the time we arrived he had my full attention. It was starting to get serious. I was getting nervous again, like a kid in real trouble nervous.
There were three other shackled prisoners already waiting, along with two more armed guards. The helicopter waiting for us fired up and made ready to go as we got on board. I was having a little trouble getting up on the ship, what with all the chains, when I was grabbed by one arm and one leg and tossed on board. One of the other prisoners, only handcuffed, helped me to a seat. I turned around to see my guard walking away. I hoped the guy that unloaded me was having a better day.
The other guards, already on board, were trying to look as mean as the other guy, but, they still had that fresh look. Still, I was not going to do anything to upset them, not on purpose anyway. That fresh look meant they probably still hoped to shoot someone someday and I didn’t want that to be me.
Dad once told the story up at Grandma’s about when he escorted a prisoner as an assignment. They told him if the prisoner escaped that he would take his place. I don’t think these guys had any fears like that. There was no good reason behind the way that guard bound me up like he did. He just wanted to. He was certainly well practiced at it.
I was still not sure what was happening to me or where they were taking me. They told me nothing. Am I a prisoner of war, a P.O.W. captured by the wrong side? We were all on the same side. If it was jail they were taking me to, certainly it would be no picnic but it shouldn't be too harsh. I would just pay attention, do exactly as I’m told and stay out of trouble. It worked before.
Once I played a German prisoner during war exercises in Europe. Everyone had to put on this act. Some of us played it pretty real but no one got hurt. It would be nice if things turned out like that.
One look on the other passenger’s faces told me we were here for the same reason. It was obvious it had been quite a while since their last fix. They looked utterly miserable.
One guy looked like he was crying He wasn’t. His eyes just kept watering up. Snot ran down to his chin. He wiped at it but that only smeared it more until it was all over his sleeve and face. He didn't care. He kept hugging himself, bobbing up and down. I caught myself staring at him and quickly looked away. I couldn’t look away from the fact that I was looking at myself in the not-too-distant future.
This was the longest I’d gone without doing even a little bit though I wasn’t doing as bad as these guys were. They must have been doing it longer than couple months. I didn’t have it that bad. They were sure to give us something to help when we got wherever they are taking us. There were rules to war and rules about the treatment of the prisoners, no matter what side they’re on. I fought for this side. That had to count for something.
Just then a gut wrenching cramp seized me right up. Things were starting to go down hill. When I felt the ship descending I was relieved. It shouldn’t be long before they gave me something.
I managed to bend over enough to see the scene below and recognized it right away. We flew over it many times but never though I would ever be landing there. It was the stockade, the jail in Long Binh, shortened to L.B.J.
We swung around for the landing and an old familiar feeling came back. It was the excitement, the thrill that came from flying in those magnificent machines. No matter what the mission was, one part of it I would always miss was flying.
Not this trip. All of the feelings that usually came, the feeling of power I got from sitting behind a machine gun, the satisfaction when the outcome was good, and the incredible closeness I had with those aboard, was gone.
The gunners seat, the "Hell Hole" as it was called, sat empty, like the horse with no rider at a great mans funeral. The place I once sat had a special almost personal feeling to it. In it, I had a purpose, even a sense of pride. Now it was just an empty seat.
Something reached into my gut, grabbed everything it could get, and squeezed. It eased… for just a moment… then again, harder, and even harder. There was no way I could sit that would make it go away.
The guards made their way off the ship, hopefully to escort us to the prison hospital where there would certainly be enough beds. They were taking way too much time and my patience was fading fast.
I would not coast through this. My nose started. Still handcuffed behind my back, unlike the other guys, there wasn't much I could do. I tried sniffing. Some of the precious drug might not have dissolved completely. There was no way. It was already filling my throat and I was starting to choke.
I leaned out, as far as I could, over the edge to spit, not wanting to get any on their ship, and spit out a blob of snot about the size of a golf ball. My eyes had already crusted over but through my blurred vision I saw it land on the ground right next to a shiny black boot.
I didn’t touch the boot. But I just knew he thought I had, maybe even on purpose. The next thing I know I was grabbed by the back of my hair and my cuffs, yanked out of the ship and dragged to attention by someone almost twice my size.
"You got a problem puke?"
I hadn’t heard that word since basic. He was screaming at me and his hot smelly breath washed over my face, making me want to throw up. I gagged and bent over and was immediately jerked back up
"You hear me?"
I couldn’t speak. He jerked the voice right out of me and I could only shake my head yes. My eyes pleaded with him to take it easy, that I wasn’t trying to do anything to displease him.
Yes! I do hear you and no there was not a problem. I need to get to the hospital, please!
"Lets go… Move it!"
We formed a “loose” line and followed him, as best we could to keep up, to a building that I hoped was the dispensary.
Behind me, I heard the choppers engine changing sounds, as it gained power for the take-off, like a mechanic listening to a finely tuned motor. It taunted me by flying away without me. It lifted over the wall and out of sight and I tried to catch one final glance, but my eyes had watered over so much it was only a blur. I lied again! I was crying.
Right across the back of my legs, on the muscle, where it would only bruise and not break anything. It stung so bad I dropped to my knees. He couldn’t have hit a more sensitive spot, unless he practiced. Again, I was snatched back up. Wasn’t anyone else pissing this guy off?
He pulled my head around and got right up in my face, staring, like he wanted to remember me. I could hardly see him through my tears. I didn't know what he had against me, or the world for that matter. At that moment he wanted someone, and I was in his sights.
Grabbing me by the shoulder with one big hand, he spun me back around and pushed with that stick in the middle of my back towards a big white building.
Any step forward meant we were getting closer to some kind of relief. It was now all I could think about. I wasn't too worried about Robo-guard. He should be handing me over to a medic or something any time. They must need him to go pull a jeep out of the ditch somewhere. I felt bad enough to want to start speaking up. This was already way past cruel and unusual punishment.
As soon as we walked in, another guard, a little smaller than Sergeant Rock but still well built, grabbed us one by one, spun us around and pushed us up against the wall. Then he zeroed in on me and spun me back around.
“What’s this one all shackled up for?”
“I don’t know. He came that way. Looks like a real killer don’t he?”
They both looked right at me and laughed right in my face. I looked at the one that asked the question, trying to find any glint of compassion, something I could plead to, and I saw it. Inside, he was not evil like the other guard, but he had appearances to keep on the outside.
Without speaking, he took off the chain that went from the handcuffs behind my back, to the chain between my legs. Then he removed one handcuff, brought my arms back around to the front, and put them back on. He left the leg irons where they were, maybe to keep his reputation.
OOOHHH that felt SOO good!! I forgot about everything else. I didn’t thank him, not wanting to make it obvious, but when I shot him a glance of gratitude one of his eyebrows went up. Maybe I had a friend, at least an ally already, someone to help get me through it all, but I never saw him again.
One of the guys with me, the worst off, was now having trouble standing. The guard nodded to a couple others standing by and they picked him up by his arms and forced marched him away. I felt a jealous that he was going to get help before me. I never saw him again either.
The remaining three of us were unshackled and told to strip. I looked down at my flight suit, the one I was so proud of wearing. It made me like the others, part of something. The patch, something I hadn’t taken a good look at for months, how carefully it had been sewn on, and what it once meant. It was covered with snot and spit.
I unzipped it, pulled it off and carefully handed it to one of the guards. He threw it on a table, took a razor and cut all the patches and name tags off. Then he tossed the shirt into a pile of other dirty uniforms. The patches went in the garbage!
When he did that, any right I might have had to feel like I belonged went with it. Every experience, emotion, all the pain that had impacted me so greatly over the last year and a half didn’t count anymore. I had no past that mattered, and no future to speak of.
The pile was big too. Each pair of clothes meant one person, one life, suddenly changed. Even if only half were there because of drugs, I would have an awful lot of like-minded company, once I got inside, after I got to see a doctor.
I thought back to what I told my Mother about sending her a medal instead of me, if that might be better after all. At least then, she would have something to be proud of. Then they told me to bend over and spread my cheeks.
After being checked in places I’d never put my finger, I was handed a pale blue smock and oversize pants with draw strings. Blue meant drug sick, and it was coming on pretty strong. The cramps in my gut had me bent over. My nervous system was short-circuiting. Little sparks all over, everywhere inside. Every few seconds I had to jerk my whole body. It was the only way to shake off the horrible feeling that kept building up.
Why was it taking so long to get me some help? Was someone trying to teach me a lesson? If they were, I’ve learned it!
They gave us a blanket, pillowcase, and a towel. Still no medication. Three new guards came in, we were each taken off in a different direction, and I never saw those guys again.
My guard took me to a room at the end of a hallway where I saw rows and rows of bars, cell doors. A buzzer sounded and he marched me out another door, outside again. This time we went through a path fenced in path, lined along the top with the same razor-sharp wire we used on the perimeter to keep people out.
He never said a word the entire time, letting his stick direct my turns, and tell me when to stop. We finally walked in to another part of the prison. I couldn’t wait to get wherever I was supposed to be, and someone who could treat me.
Another buzz, and we were in another hallways with cells. He prodded me with that stick and I started down row, passing in front of cells where the other prisoners were all gathered up to the front bars to check the new guy out. I watched their eyes, hoping to see someone familiar, wanting to find someone to maybe talk to later, but there wasn’t and they just stared. The ones I passed yelled up to the ones on ahead what they thought about me and it was mostly bad.
"This Newby here is one sorry looking piece of crap!"
Others joined in, with choice names, and future fun times in store for me. I held up pretty good, until they started betting on me.
"I'll give him till tonight before he's bawling like a little baby!"
Others agreed, and bets were placed on just how long it would take for me to break down.
He took me all the way to the end of the hall. I figured we would go out that part and maybe finally to the infirmary, but the stick told me to stop at the door of an open cell. Finding the middle of my back, it pushed me in… and closed the door behind me. They say when you hear that door slam on your freedom it’s the worst feeling there is. It was, or so I thought.
I stood there and looked around. It was about eight foot long, and less than that wide. There was a double bunk and thankfully no one was in either one. I flopped down on the bottom one and pulled the pillow into my gut, already in full time, full cramp, and did my best to lay still.
All the excitement about me finally stopped. I tried to relax, or whatever not trying to move was, when my whole body exploded with full-blown withdrawals.
Everything was rebelling against me. If it could hurt, it did. I lost any control of my bodily functions and unable to stop myself, I laid there and peed all over myself.
No one had to wait for night. I couldn’t hold it in. Quietly, for fear of being heard, I cried like a little baby and tears poured down my face. This had to be the end, the lowest level of existence. I was in total misery, feeling unwelcome and unwanted by anyone and everyone. There couldn’t be any more steps down. Oh, how little I knew!
I glanced up to see yet another guard, with sergeants stripes, peering into my cell. Maybe he would help me out. Maybe that first guard, made a mistake, and they were supposed to take me somewhere else, like the hospital. Maybe this one will correct that error.
"Sergeant, when do I see the doctor?"
It came out more of a plea than a question.
He just kept staring. I’d been stared at before and by other sergeants, but I was shocked to see such hate as this guy had in his eyes, hate for no reason, like I’d just done something terrible to him, or his Mother! I never saw anything like it before, not even in the eyes of the enemy prisoners we once ferried to the rear.
He actually smiled.
"I'll get right on that for you!"
He walked away and I never saw him again.
I rolled back over. Trying to straighten out was impossible. My gut locked firm in a doubled over position, except when I had to jerk straight to get rid of the other awful feeling that kept building up. Each time it felt like something tore inside.
Then the cramps came back and I had to pull my knees back up into my chest. My nose was full of snot and it ran back down my throat almost suffocating me. There was nothing to do but spit it out and I could barely manage the strength to do that. Most of it ran down my chin
My eyes were stuck shut. The mixture of tears and the dirt on my face turned it all into a crust that was starting to build up. It hurt just touching them.
It was done with me. The dry heaves started in earnest. I hadn’t eaten for at least a couple days and it only made it worse. If something had been in there to come up, the heaving part might not have been such a ordeal. The only thing that came up was a bitter tasting fluid that burned my mouth and throat.
The back of my legs, where that guard smacked me, throbbed even worse, and my head pounded in synch, with each shooting pain. All the symptoms were happening, one right after the other, then together in pairs, then groups, then all at once. Then, mercifully, I passed out.
It seemed like only minutes. It could have been hours, even days, and I was jolted awake by a stabbing pain in my head. It was still daylight. I could only hope that a whole day had passed, but everything all over me was still wet and I knew better. While I was passed out I had yet another leak, the runs! I'd been lying in it and my jerking spread it everywhere from my hair to my socks.
I couldn’t even move enough to help myself, not without hurting, or something letting loose. There was no choice but to lay still. Other than that, there was absolutely nothing I could do to make even one thing the least bit better. If it had been my choice I would have left my body.
I laid there, alternating between sobbing, to being crumpled up in pain with my knees pulled up into my gut as far as they would go, to violently jerking, around, to finally actually passing out, maybe only minutes, never long enough! Time no longer mattered.
My body had become hyper sensitive. Everything the drug had put to sleep, physical and mental, was waking back up, wide awake! Any movement brought pain. No movement brought more pain and the mess I was laying in was starting to stick to me.
It was getting darker outside. This was only the end of my first day. Noises were coming from down the hallway. It hurt my ears! The clanging of metal got louder, and sharper as it got closer. By the time it got to the cell next to mine, each noise caused lights to flash in my eyes, even with them closed!
Another new guard stood in front of my cell door with something in his hand. It was a mess hall tray. He leaned in to get a better look at me and the smell must have been too much. He stepped back, dropped the tray and whatever was on it then slid it under the bars with his foot and hurried on to the next cell muttering something in disgust.
Good! I hoped he got a real good snout full! I surprised myself at still having some personality left, even if it was only to be a prick.
I certainly couldn’t eat. The smell of whatever was on that tray was making the heaves come back and the only thing coming up was more bitter stuff. With whatever determination I had left, I managed to crawl to the bars and push the tray back out into the hall I only wanted to get the smell as far away as possible. I don’t think I was supposed to do that.
Almost immediately one of the guards came back, looked down at the tray, which had spilled out onto the floor, then up at me. He shook his head and threw his hands up in disgust. He left, but soon returned with two more guards, including my old friend. They unlocked my cell door. The first one started in at me, gagged as he got a whiff of what I had become, and rushed right back out.
"I'm not getting near this piece of crap! Go get some trustees to deal with this!"
Then my old friend looked in at me, the one that, for some reason, simply needed to hurt me. He looked down at the tray.
"What's the matter with the food? Is it too good for you? You gonna have a little "Hunger Strike?" Is that it? You gonna show us by not eating? Well! We-shall-see-about-that!"
I tried to answer him, wanting desperately to tell him that I was not striking, or trying to do anything at all to upset anyone. But my throat burned so bad from all the stuff I spit up, that no sound came out. So I laid there, one arm grabbing my gut, the other arm up in the air, reaching towards them.
Three others, in orange jump suits showed up. Trustees. I hoped they would take it easy with me, but it was not to be. They seemed to be on the same power trip as the guards.
They gagged, grabbed me and yanked me down the hall. Water was running in the distance and realizing I was about to get a shower, I picked up the pace. I wanted to wash. A shower and to get in some nice warm dry clothes would help me feel a lot better. They stood me up in front of a showerhead, cranked the water all the way up, stood back, and watched.
Each tiny drop felt like a red-hot skewer jabbing into my skin. It didn’t feel cool, even though I knew it was. It was a total assault on each of my senses, a burning stinging, freezing, aching, terrible, terrible feeling.
I started taking my pants off to rinse off before they gave me something clean and dry to put on. One of the prisoner trustees yelled at me to put them back on. This wasn't a shower. I was getting rinsed off.
Gritting my teeth, I winced as I pulled them back up, but held them open so at least some of what was inside, could rinse off down through my pant legs. About the time I was thoroughly soaked, the water was shut off and I was grabbed again and led down a different hall. Did I dare hope they were finally taking me somewhere to be treated?
I wouldn't do that to myself. It had not taken long to become totally cynical about every one and every thing in this place, and at this point, maybe everything else.
This time they took me outside the main prison building, across the yard to a row of what looked like abandon buildings. They were taking me to a part of the prison that had been condemned.
From what I could see in the dark, they were individual cinderblock squares, in rows of five, much smaller than the one I had come from. There were no windows, just a metal door with two holes, one that could be slid open at the top, to talk, and one at the bottom, to put food and water through. Wet, in terrible pain, and now cold, I was shoved inside one and told, in no uncertain terms, not to make a sound. And then they slammed the door.
As they closed each little hole, before it became completely dark, I took a quick look around my new world. There was a metal bench held up by two chains fastened to the wall and a bucket in the corner by the door. No pillow, no blanket, nothing. The last little window closed, and it was dark.
Feeling my way around, I found the metal slab and laid down on it. Each place it came in contact with my body felt both freezing, and burning, and it hurt me to my bones. Closing my eyes, I felt myself slipping down to a new level of miserable from which I knew even then, I would never fully return. I felt totally despised. Everyone had turned into my enemy.
I had no way to fight back, and was in no shape to do so, even if I wanted to. I once fought an enemy I knew was out to get me. Now I’m fighting everyone, with no idea why, and no one at all to even speak a kind word to me. And I had to sit here, quietly, and take it.
Time passed, maybe days. The only idea I had whether it was day or night, not that it mattered, was that nights were colder and it got cold in that cell. The cold had its own kind of pain.
After a few times the tray was shoved under the door I was finally able to choke down some of the food. I couldn’t eat it all but I soon learned that if I didn’t take all of the food off the tray they put less on it the next time.
I started taking it and putting it in the bucket, never once thinking if they found it they would think I was still trying to starve myself and that would make them want to continue to keep me in there until I gave up and started eating, or starved to death. Why would I think of something like that? I wasn't on any hunger strike in the first place!
They also gave me one canteen of water each day, I think. It usually happened while I was passed out, and I couldn’t count on it to keep track. The smell of urine got bad in the daytime when it got hot and steamy. That was the reason the water smelled like it, or I hoped so anyway. I was way past doubting anything.
I started trying to keep track of time when I noticed off in the distance, someone, maybe a tower guard, would play the same two songs, maybe when he started his shift, and turn up the music loud enough for at least me to hear. The first one would always be "Riders on the Storm" by the Doors, followed by, and this was my favorite, "Ball and Chain" by Janis Joplin. Then he would turn down the volume and that would be that. I began to use it to mark the days. Best I could remember I’d heard it five times.
As the days, and nights, passed I began to feel a little bit better, or less worse anyway. The cramps were subsiding but my stomach was still extremely sore from being constantly crunched up with such intensity. Something must have sprained. I had been straining and clenching my teeth for almost a week and my jaw was so sore it wouldn't close all the way. My ears were still ringing, sometimes so loud I couldn’t hear anything else. Without warning my nervous system would short circuit and my body would jerk, and knock me a half a second off reality. But, all in all, it was less worse.
I'd been lying around counting the minutes for ten, maybe twelve days, when I heard keys in the door. This was something different. It wasn’t feeding time. The door opened wide and that intense Vietnam sunlight pierced deep into my head, and I thought I heard the trumpets of angels. Even with my eyelids closed tight I couldn’t shut out that light and it felt like they would explode. I covered them with my hands and sat there reminding myself not to hope or even imagine anymore. That never worked. Nothing could get my hopes up again, not anymore, maybe not ever!
A voice boomed from somewhere in the brightness.
"It's time for your exercise!"
There was something in the tone of his voice and I knew it wasn’t gonna be the Army daily dozen.
I had no desire to argue with anyone. I wanted no more trouble. I got right up, as fast as I could anyway. I hadn’t realized how stiff I was until I started really moving. My only goal was to make it through whatever I had to without making one more person angry.
I made my way over to the doorway. Once more something grabbed me and I was pulled out into the hot dry air. My clothes were still moist and my skin felt clammy. Another hand reached around me and grabbed my hand away from my eyes. I couldn’t hold them open and they watered over. The water acted like little prisms and amplified that already excruciating brightness into sharp little rays that I could actually hear. They got the other one and wrenched them around behind my back and clamped them in cuffs. These cuffs weren’t as bad as the first ones. They had about two foot of chain attached and instead of being tightly bound, I could bring my hands around almost even with my sides. Someone else was putting leg shackles on and they took yet another shackle and hooked it from the chain on my legs, up to the one on my wrists. Really? Was it all really that necessary?
I could finally open my eyes just a slit, but even then and everything stayed blurry. I could see enough to realize I was being led to one of those chain link fence pathways. This one was about six foot wide and maybe eight foot tall with one end was closed off. This… was my exercise area.
As soon as I got inside the fence one of the guards moved up in front of me. As he did the two others grabbed me by the shoulders and hurled me down the pathway. I stumbled towards the guard in front, trying to stay on my feet but he stuck his baton in between my legs, and I tripped. My first reaction was to put my arms out to catch my fall, but they were stopped, and I realized why the chains were the length they were. I fell on my chin. This must have looked pretty funny because it got quite a laugh. They must have enjoyed it too because they picked me back up and did it again, and again, and again!
I don’t know if it was because they were bored or getting tired picking me up but eventually they tired. The last time, instead of trying to trip me, the guard in front just pushed me down. I fell, hitting my forehead on a small rock and split it open. They yanked me up on my feet, cursing at me for being such a klutz, unhooked me from my chains and hustled me off to the infirmary. So! They do have one!
The doctor asked what happened. I was right there and even in my state of mind I heard it clearly and couldn’t believe my ears. Those soldiers (and I use that word lightly) told that doctor that I cut my head by walking into a ceiling fan. Even more unbelievable, the explanation was good enough for the doctor, who then proceeded to sew me up.
Somewhere in the official military records archived in some cave in Colorado it is written that once, while in Long Binh Jail, I walked into a ceiling fan and split my head open. Honest truth!
It must have made them feel a little guilty, or maybe only worried about getting caught. After being repaired, they cleaned me up then took me to a regular cell. This one had a mattress, a pillow and a blanket. There were bars for a door and windows on the opposite wall. I could see the sky and clouds and felt a slight breeze sometimes. Everything felt brand new again. It surprised me at how little it took. By my count I spent sixteen days in that hole.
The windows allowed me to see the helicopters flying over. Each time I heard the sound of those familiar blades I ran to the bars hoping to see the familiar nose cover of the unit I once felt was my own. It got more agonizing every day. It had been well over a month at that point. They would let me sit and rot until the end of the war for all I knew. Am I even still in the Army?
Sitting back on my bunk, again disappointed, I wondered if there was anything I could have been done differently, and if I would have. Was this really all my fault?
Yes… yes it was. No one forced anything up my nose. Even so, was what I did so heinous that my punishment was to strip my humanity? I didn’t understand how one human being could actually enjoy causing pain to another. I never saw torture but at least that hostility was aimed towards an enemy.
I was not that enemy. Why did they perceive me to be one? We were supposed to be on the same side, fighting for the same cause, sharing the same dreams. How could they get past all that? I was thankful it was one thing I hadn’t learned.
Except for prisoner or inmate, there was nothing, civilian or military, that I could rightfully claim to be a part of, or that it had ever been a part of me. I was starting back at one.
There was more to me when I arrived, than when I will leave with. One thing I knew for certain. Something different, something, not me, would be returning home in my place.
Home! Just the thought of it brought tears to my eyes. It was a far away wonderland, but I had a wonderful memory of what I thought it would be like. Hours and hours of the past months turned years were spent thinking only of getting there, being there, and enjoying it there. Bad thoughts weren’t allowed when it came to thinking about home. That would put a jinx on it.
I only thought about how nice it would be walking around in my uniform, maybe with a pretty lady on my arm, nodding at admiring passers by, like Rhett Butler did in “Gone with the Wind.” I thought about that a lot. Everything would start to be better the moment that plane nicknamed “The Freedom Bird” left the runway, taking me home. There were just too many opportunities to imagine.
I knew some people back home were against the war. I heard things. I also knew there were lots of people that supported us, that wanted us to win. From what I understood the ones that protested were mostly college kids and there was still plenty of pride left in the country.
I remembered that “hint” of pride in my Fathers eyes. What would he be able to brag about now? It hadn’t been that long ago John and I were awarded medals. As personal as I am trying to be here, I don’t feel it necessary to go into it. I had personally seen far braver men receive nothing for their actions, and a couple of them died. Funny, that was what I once wanted, and when I received one, it didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel worthy.
I did write home and made mention of it. They were so proud they put it in the paper and they sent me a copy. All they had for a recent picture was the one they took the first week I was in the service, standing by the flag in my dress greens with my fresh haircut, trying to look all military. I didn’t recognize him, and barely remembered how he felt when it was taken.
They were so proud of me, and I let them down. I needed to write them before they brag any more, and say something they might eventually have to take back.
Dear Mom & Dad,
No, that wouldn't work.
This letter is coming to you from wonderful Long Binh where I have been recently transferred. Because of a sudden increase in worthless drug addicts at my former base, it was decided that I was no longer useful, or needed by the United States Army, and until they decide just when and how they will be disposing of me, I can be reached at this address…….
Only much later did I find out just how close I had come to the actual truth!
I don't know how to tell you this any other way. I am in jail. I had been using heroin for a few months now. I was caught using it one night, arrested along with several others, and sent here. Please don't hate me. I know you wanted me to be something you could be proud of and it hurts to know I failed. I know why I started, but looking back, it wasn’t a good reason. Things are pretty confusing here and I just got caught up in it. No one has told me anything about what the charges will be or even how long I will be here. I don't know what else to say except that I am really, really sorry for turning out to be such an embarrassment to you both. I will write you more if I hear anything new.
It’s been a month and a half. Days, weeks, even months no longer seemed important as they once were.
“Its Tuesday you say! Is that going to make the food in here taste any better?”
“Is someone going to come and get me out of here just because it is Tuesday?”
“If so, then please do not forget to come and tell me, when it’s Tuesday!”
I was well on my way to going stir crazy.
I heard the sound of the chopper long before it came into my limited view. The landing strip was somewhere behind my cell block and they came right over my cell. I almost didn’t get up. What little hope I had was fading. But I did, and what I saw, brought life back into my body, and I didn’t recognize it. Was it Tuesday?
That was our nose cover! Someone from my company was here! Can I even call it mine anymore? It was the first familiar thing I had seen in an awful long time. Okay! I told myself, you know what happens every time you even try to get your hopes up. They get dashed, sometimes even gashed. They could be here for any number of people. They could be bringing someone else here. I was certainly not the only one from our company in jail. I better not be!
I couldn’t sit still. I waited excitedly to see a familiar face, anything not hateful. I didn’t care if it was the same people that had sent me here. That same agonizing feeling returned, like when I was flying, waiting for something to happen.
Were they coming to take me back to my unit? Was it still my unit? What about the other gunners? What were they gonna think? Don’t get ahead of myself! It might not be me they’re coming to see? But there was nothing else to hold on to, only the possibility of someone on that ship coming for me, maybe to take me back, maybe, to give me another chance.
It might be my last opportunity to redeem myself. I was already defeated. There would be no more resistance from me. I would put up with whatever needed to happen and give them my very best. Maybe one day I’d be able to hold my head back up. I was clean, and certainly not ever going near that stuff again! I can find normal. I can do my job again. Okay! That was the plan.
Guards were coming down the hall. My excitement grew, despite every fiber in my being warning me against it. They stopped outside my door. One of them was in a flight suit. He didn’t look familiar but I recognized the patch on his shirt. It was like fresh air to a drowning man!
Sensations filled places I forgot were there. Feeling came back to my fingertips and I almost felt… alive again.
He had to be one of those new replacements I’d seen on my way out. He looked so young and clean-shaven, not like I remembered our guys being, but things change. That was okay. I would catch on. Whatever I had to do, I would do.
They opened the door. He walked in and they closed it behind him and walked away. He sat down on the edge of my bunk, not saying a word, and pulled several papers out of his briefcase. Was it some sort of confession I had to sign? Maybe they want me to swear that I won’t do it again. That wouldn’t be a problem.
It could be an “Article 15.” That’s non-judicial punishment, or a bad slap on the hand. If it was, I deserved it. Whatever it took to get out, I made up my mind to do.
Then he looked at me and his face got serious.
"Specialist fourth class Turner?"
He rattled off my serial number for me to verify.
Where was he going with this? It wasn’t sounding good.
"Specialist Turner, I have been sent here to present to you, your options, as to your future in the United States Army!"
His speech sounded well practiced, like he had done it before, maybe several times.
He stopped and looked up at me as if to say this would not be the one to pick. He took a breath.
"Is to refuse to sign this document! In which case the Army will formally charge you with possession and sales, with intent to distribute, a controlled and forbidden substance, to wit Heroin!”
He took another breath.
“You will be brought up before a General Courts Marshall where, if you are found guilty, you will face the possibility of a maximum sentence of up to ten years “hard labor” at Fort Leavenworth Military Prison!”
He looked right at me, no longer reading. He had this part committed to memory.
“Upon completion of said sentence, you will receive a Dishonorable Discharge! Do you understand this option?"
What? What did he just say? I heard “ten years”, and “hard labor!” The discharge part didn’t matter. I couldn’t do ten years! I’m already going nuts! What little hope I had faded away. Every time I thought I’d found my bottom, that bottom fell out.
"I think so!" I answered.
He looked stern.
“You either do… Or you don’t!”
I sighed and leaned back, bouncing my head against the wall. I felt defeated.
“Yes! I do!”
Satisfied, he went on.
There was a hint of optimism in his voice.
There was an Or?
What? Line me up and shoot me? That would be the only thing worse than what he just explained. I hoped I’d at least have the guts to stick my tongue out at them while they took careful aim.
Let's hope they don't do it on a Tuesday. Any other day but Tuesday!
I did my best to brace myself for whatever was coming next. No matter how prepared I was they always still surprised me. I was determined not to let anything he could say, knock me down any lower.
Go Ahead! Give it to me! Watch and see if I can care any less!
"Or!" He continued,
"You can sign this paper and be sent back in the states, and out of the Army, in about seven days!”
Wait a minute! Back in the states, and out of the Army, in seven days? Something wasn't right. It had to be a trap!
“Is that all? Just sign and go home?”
It felt good to be suspicious, not to be in such a hurry to jump into whatever looked good at first glance. Maybe I learned more things here than I thought.
“If you sign these papers, you will be resigning from the Army before your full term of enlistment is over, and you will receive an “Undesirable Discharge!”
I reached out and he handed me the paper. At the top it said something about being an application for consideration of a "Chapter Ten" in the following case. It went on about the charges they would bring against me. What was written was I not what happened in that room that night, but there was nothing left in me to argue about it.
Reading down a little, it stated,
“By signing, I would be requesting to resign for "The Good of the Service!"
In other words, I would be stating that I agree that the service would somehow be a better thing, and a better place, without me. I would no longer be part of the United States Army. Simply put, they wanted to get rid of me, and they wanted me to ask them to do so.
I only thought for a second, not longer than two. Whatever feelings I desired to have, pride and satisfaction, was now only contempt and disgust for everything it stood for.
“It probably would!” I said softly to myself.
Without another thought, I signed!
True to his word, the very next day they led me out to one of the main rooms, without the cuffs on. They gave me back the few personal belongings I brought with me, except my clothes. I was given, not my flight suit, but an old pair of regular fatigues. Dark green places stood out where patches once proclaimed the name, rank and unit of some other poor soul who watched them be torn off. Where everyone else at least had a nametag I was nobody. That just hurt!
What did we learn today kiddies? We learned that no matter how hard you try, no matter what you think you can accomplish, or create for yourselves, at any moment someone can come along, and for whatever reason, or no reason at all, just take it away. We sum it up by saying, "What's the use?" That was it! That was how I felt, right down to the very depths of my being.
I did not expect to be sent back to my unit but they still had unfinished business with me, like giving me my discharge. It wasn't a normal one. On the top, where it stated type of discharge they typed “Undesirable!” In space for the reason, where on most it is “E.T.S.” or End of Tour in Service. That space on mine stated only “dash ten.” That meant “under special circumstances.
It didn’t matter. I just wanted to get it over and done with.
I was told I was restricted to base and To pack what little stuff had been put in storage at my departure and check back later.
"If there was anything!" they added.
I wondered about John and I asked the new clerk if he knew him. He said he didn’t recognize the name. That was it. I didn’t even have his address, thinking we had plenty of time to do things like that. We wouldn’t see each other again. It felt like he had been killed, the loss was that deep. With nothing left to do, I walked out to take a look around what once was my home.
Looking around, I saw no sign of the upheaval the fateful night. After what had been done to my old place, I figured the rest of the base would be close to shambles. Things actually looked better.
I wanted to see my former room and walked over to the platoon hooch. When I got there the door was back up and someone else now occupied the space. It was like I was never there.
There was nothing more for me to look at. What they had done to it that night would always overshadow any fond memories there might ever be.
It didn’t stop the pot smoking on the base. I could smell it coming from the top of the same bunker I once learned to roll perfect joints in the dark.
Something grabbed my insides. If there was still pot around, was there still any heroin? Did the big crack down solve the Armies problem, or just slow things down.
I realized that although I was physically off the drug, I was I not mentally clean. It wasn’t hurting but I sure did crave a snort.
I went searching for any face that looked familiar. I heard some of that cool music coming from one of the rooms in one of the other hooch's and decided the heck with it and knocked. After some scuffling around inside the door opened and there stood a familiar face, not one I shared anything close with, but enough for what I had in mind.
"Come on in!" he smiled.
And I joined the group.
"Man! What happened to you that night?"
I sat down on a very familiar hand-made seat that John spent so much time making. He looked nervous, wondering if I recognized it. I just smiled. It didn’t matter anymore. Material things had very little meaning in my life anymore.
"I'm still trying to figure it all out!"
I answered just to give one. I wasn't here to chat, only to tease myself with an old craving that was starting to grow.
"You guys still doing it?"
I looked for any grins, something that might give them away. They were all over the place. It didn’t take long before one of those familiar little vials came out of a shirt pocket and was handed over to me.
I held it in my hand. There was no doubt in my mind I wanted to do it. Did I need it? No. But, did I want it? Yes, I did. As much as I was determined before not to go near it, being that close, just a snort away, I knew there wasn't going to be an argument. Right or wrong lost all of it’s influence over me in prison. I wasn't sure what was right and wrong anymore.
I opened the vial, poured some out and put it up, first to the right nostril. I felt that familiar burn as it traveled up my nose, through my bloodstream and into my brain By the time I got to the left one, I could already feel the relief pouring through my body, release from an agitation I didn't know was still there.
Waiting to feel the nausea that came the first time, I was mildly surprised when it didn’t happen. There was just that relief that first convinced me to do it until I went home. It was good to be at some level of peace again, or at least back where nothing mattered.
Other than that, I had no use for these guys. Not that they had done anything wrong. Not having a patch or even a flight suit signifying me as one of them made me feel out of place, so I thanked them and left.
Going through what little they had bothered to store away for me was depressing. All that was left was a meager pile of mostly broken things. Anything of value was gone. I did find my picture album, missing a few pictures, some of my better ones, mostly of the beautiful sunsets. Even with the drug in my system I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was looking at the remnants of a shattered life and I felt sorry for the person they belonged to.
My spirit lifted just a little, when I remembered that when I had gone home on leave between my first and second tour, I took a lot of stuff, mostly to show off. That included two of my flight suits, complete with patches, and I left them there. When I returned, I told supply that someone had broken into my locker, which was true, and stole all my uniforms, which wasn't quite true.
They gave me a brand new set. Everyone was supposed to turn them in at the end of their tours. No one got to keep the flight suits. But I did! Whether I could ever wear them with any kind of pride or just satisfaction, I didn’t know, but I had them to keep, and few others, if any, ever would.
Seeing nothing else worth keeping, I headed to the orderly room to see how my paperwork was coming along. It was finished. Looking at it I saw that none of the decorations, marksman badges, or spaces for my accomplishments had been filled in. The last year and a half had been erased from the record, as far as my part of it was concerned. It made one part stand out even more. Undesirable! That was my consolation prize instead of ten years in prison at hard labor. Well, that too meant squat to me. I was going home!
The clerk looked up at me.
"You got your stuff packed up?" he asked.
"What there was left!"
I answered sarcastically. He wasn't listening.
"Okay then, go down to the dispensary and take your piss test and you are on your way home!"
Piss test? What piss test?
It seems that while I was away, the Army had instituted the testing of all soldiers due to return home. They were trying to intercept, and clean up, everyone using the drugs before they sent them back to the states. That way they wouldn't be sending hundreds, perhaps thousands of full-blown addicts out into the streets of our fair cities. While I thought this was probably a good idea, I really wished I’d heard about it, even just an hour before.
I went to the dispensary, hoping against hope that it was too soon for the drug to have already gone through my system and show up in my urine. I wasn’t expecting something to actually go right for me, and I wasn't let down. My test showed up very positive.
So, instead of heading to Saigon, and the plane home, I was sent to a dispensary in Long Binh, to stay until I had counseling and handed them three clean tests. At least this time they didn’t move me around in cuffs but I was in the same blue pajamas. Just being in them was a constant reminder. This time, they gave me a drug to help with the withdrawals. Where was this stuff before?
I wasn’t going through withdrawals and it made me sick, but I took it. I went to every meeting and said everything I thought they wanted to hear. They were treating me decently and I would do whatever they wanted me to. I wanted to do nothing that would keep me here any longer.
After three clean tests I switched out my pajamas for a pair of brand new fatigues and was driven to the airport.
I kept waiting for the feeling to come that it was finally over, but it wasn’t happening. Instead I felt on edge, that same old feeling. Something needed to happen to interrupt that sensation, and this time it couldn’t be Betsy. It would have to be something else.
The plane I was looking for was one of them big ones, a civilian job, with all the comforts one could imagine. The only plane big enough for the trip that was on the runway was a military transport aircraft. Figures! Getting aboard, and being helped aboard first were wounded soldiers. They were being loaded on stretchers, walking with those metal trees with the bags of medicine hanging from them, and struggling with crutches. I remembered the scene well, but couldn’t remember who it was that saw it.
Next, was our little rag tag group of a half-dozen. We would to have to sit with the real wounded of the war for the next twenty-four hours. I wanted to limp, something, just to somehow justify my even being on the plane with them, even just a little, but decided against it.
Was this on purpose, part of their plan, one more way they could teach me what real sacrifice was, and how little mine actually meant to them?
I chose a seat farthest away from anyone, feeling uncomfortable whenever anyone was behind me and stored my ditty bag under the seat. In it was a set of civilian clothes that hadn't been seen in quite a while. It would be nice to finally change back. Maybe that would signal some kind of change. I couldn’t wait to start feeling normal again like I did before I left. I still had nowhere near the feelings I should have felt by then.
All I expected was just to be able to relax, to breath a sigh of relief, knowing that the lifetime I barely survived was behind me. Maybe when we were airborne, maybe that would be when.
We taxied down the runway, bumping and bouncing as we picked up speed. It was exciting and for a moment I forgot everything else as the thrill of flight came back. We lifted off the ground, and nothing happened. That peace of mind I was so very sure would be washing over me at that point was still missing, and that nervous expectation still wouldn’t go away.
I sat up on the bunker many nights, maybe every night, and dreamt of how it would be. None of those feelings were happening. With my new pessimistic attitude I still didn’t believe that they were really taking me back home. Only when I get there, and stood in front of my house would there be no doubt. Maybe then it will come.
There was no insulation in the plane and it was loud. I thought the wounded should have a more comfortable ride. But they weren't complaining and I certainly wouldn't. I noticed one guy missing both of his legs. His right arm was in a cast and his head was bandaged. A nurse caught my attention as she rushed over to a soldier tossing back and forth in his stretcher. She talked to him, trying to calm him as she worked feverishly trying to control the bleeding he caused with his movements.
Another nurse came to help. I watched, horrified at the thought of having to watch another person die in front of me. Sometime in the last couple months all of the hardness I had built up against such things was no longer there. I looked around. No one paid any attention, lost in their own worlds, numb to what was happening right next to them. Why couldn’t I be lost in mine?
I couldn’t take my eyes off them until they got things under control. I wondered if he would survive. I didn’t think so and it really bothered me, more than it ever had. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and didn’t know why. Then I did. I had the time to. There wasn't anything else to worry about. I had all the time in the world.
It started to make sense. The real cost of war, that so-called price of freedom was right there on that stretcher. This wasn't his reward for being involved. It was the price he paid, and it was a costly one. Tears came to my eyes. He would continue to pay that price for the rest of his life. Medals, the ones I once coveted more than anything, even the ones that were supposed to be on my discharge papers, now meant more than nothing. I would never bother to try and get them back.
I leaned back and closed my eyes unable to face any more "happenings" on board this plane. It was time to get my mind on what lay ahead for me. What was back there at home and how would I react once there? I would wake up in the morning, and then what? The only thing I knew was to get ready for a day in Vietnam! What would I do now that I didn’t have to check out my machine gun? There simply had to be something civilian, which I would soon be, to replace every military action I had been doing!