A Letter to America: No Medal Jacket
By Marc Levy
Let me never tell you
Things you cannot know
Let me never tell you
Things that won't let go.
Soldiers do strange things in war. After a month on patrols we sit beneath triple canopy waiting for the choppy tune we love. When three North Vietnamese troops walk down a well-used trail every American opens fire.
"Where's the goddamn RTO?" shouts Tommy between lobbing hand grenades. "Where is that cocksucker?"
But Miller the radio-telephone man trembles behind a large tree. Standing up, the Captain and Sgt. Burke leisurely kill the foe one by one. The last to fall tumbles into a tangle of vines. Running forward, we gather round Crazy Frank who kicks the corpse, pokes it with a branch. "Fuckers don't bleed much," he says, giving the body one last kick.
When Miller, who is tall and muscular, saunters up, short thin Tommy shouts, "You pussy. You fuckin coward." His small hands pound Miller's broad chest. "I oughta waste you, man," he says. "Coward. I oughta waste your fuckin ass."
Miller is silent and still as the harmless blows hit their target. Then Tommy hurls a fistful of dirt into the RTO's reddening face. "Coward," he says. "You're a goddam coward."
Tommy will continue shouting abuse, then abruptly stop, fascinated by the trail of tears which fall like rain down the tall man's crimson cheeks.
We hold a Mad Minute on a remote firebase near the Cambodian border. The intent is to frighten the enemy with a random display of firepower. We set our M16s on full automatic and pepper the wood line. We unleash spectacular bursts from machine guns and launch shoulder fired anti-tank shells. We hurl deadly baseball grenades, shoot basketball-like tracers from hand jarring .45 cal pistols. We spatter trees and clouds and sky with fifty cal machine guns. Gleefully, we smack the bottoms of hand held illumination flares that ignite the darkness to further frighten our invisible foe as we flex our prowess.
Mortar crews jump to the fire brigade beat of passing and launching high explosive shells that arc up at metric angles then plummet down in search of prey. Quickly, quickly, regimented heavy gun crews swivel monstrous steel cannons, energetically hoist man sized rounds, slam them into the womb-like breach, lock the submarine-like hatch, brace themselves at the recoil, watch the illegal firecracker shells burst and sparkle and pop-pop-pop. Every grunt and clerk and non infantry officer will instantly crouch as the gun crew shoot a red flare, yell, "Fire in the hole!" just before the cannon fires the deadly beehive shell whose swarming ten thousand steel darts impale men to trees.
As the furious minutes unfolds, even the cooks and mechanics join in. Small arms, machine guns, heavy artillery and mortars: In this willful pandemonium of roaring lead and swirling smoke and whizzing steel a man will casually walk up behind another man and shoot him in the base of his skull. The mastoid process, it's called.
The next morning, policing up the million spent casings, empty ammo clips, unboxed grenades, Ray accidentally kicks a dud hand flare. The small rocket slams into his face, then soars up, leaving a faint white path. The miniature parachute deploys, the rolled magnesium strip ignites, the descending silk parasol methodically sways until the hissing flare burns itself out.
In his lazy Southern drawl Ray screams, "Medic!" I twist white gauze around his broken face, guide him to the tarmac, comfort him, wait for the chopper.
"It's a million dollar wound. You'll be all right. You're going back to the World."
"I sure hope so, Doc," he says.
A month later, a long neat scar scoring the length of his nose, Ray continues as our machine gunner. Continues to keep the green nylon cross tucked in his helmet band to ward off death. He will survive Cambodia. Others will not.
Midnight monsoon and the order has not yet arrived to sleep like dogs on the cold wet ground. Crack-Bang! go our claymore mines in the booby-trapped ravine. At daylight third squad slinks out to reconnoiter. From ten meters the surviving enemy open up and Bill Williams is shot. Falling, he shoots Handsome Glenn. Pinned down, we toss frags to Tommy and the work is done. Bill will die but Glenn is screaming. He is shot in both arms. He is shot in one leg. I spike Glenn with morphine. "Give me a joint, Doc. For Christ sake gimme a fuckin joint," he yells. Someone lights the paper stick, puts it to Handsome Glenn's quivering mouth; he takes long shaky drags until the morphine kicks in.
The day before, I show Glenn photographs. You mail the film to Hawaii, you get back pictures.
"Gimme a copy," he says, smiling. "Doc, gimme one so's I can send it to my girl."
"Sure, man. Sure."
These days, when students marvel at Glenn's finely rippled physique, his broad voluptuous mouth, his piercing amorous eyes, they ask, "Who is that?"
"A good soldier," I say.
A very good soldier. Who would not write back twenty-five years after the event.
After three months we come in from patrols. I visit Lieutenant Nile, the officer in charge of medics. We love this fine and confident and born leader of frightened young men.
"Sir, I don't know if I can take it much longer."
"I'll bring you in as soon as possible," he says.
"Thank you, sir. Thank you."
The evening is spent with combat medics who've done their time and earned safe jobs. We grill blood red steaks on a make shift stoves. Play cards, swig beer, smoke good Thai weed. On this large rear base ringed by no-man's-land and earthworks and bunkers and guard towers and coils and coils of concertina wire, we have no fear. But someone shouts, "Incoming!" and like frightened dogs we rush to the bunker; the last man slamming its heavy door shut. Outside, the barrage of enemy shells crump and boom; skittering shrapnel pings off perforated steel plating. A rocket's near hit seems to raise our shelter into the air. Inside, some men talk loudly, others pray or cry or huddle beneath empty canvass stretchers. When the attack is over we stumble out into the starlit night. The thrown down wounded lie everywhere. Others kick and caterwaul in the strange calligraphy of dying. A dreadful chorus lifts from this army of broken men. "Medic...Medic," they cry out as we bind their wounds and carry them off. Lt. Nile is dead.
Killers In Action
It's a strange looking dog. Half Shepherd, half Saint Bernard says the K-9 Scout.
The body of the beast is sleek and large and powerful, its curly hair brindled white and black. We have never used dogs but the order has been sent and we must obey. The animal heaves a great animal sigh, then hunkers next to its master. We grunts draw match sticks for guard. Two shifts, two hours each.
At dawn, as first squad sets out on patrol, the excited dog bounds ahead. Every thirty meters it looks back to its master. At the sound or scent of Viet Cong the well-trained animal will alert, the Americans will drop, open fire, advance. When M16s do erupt there is no enemy reply. An hour later the squad returns but something is not right. Then we see it: the dog handler covered in blood, two grunts carrying the upside down canine trussed by its feet to a bamboo pole. The limp body hit nearly one hundred times.
On the chopper back to base a cool wind buffets the grieving Scout's stained pants, turning the wet cloth stiff. But the K9 handler does not move. Does not speak. Does not hear the awful swish of blood filled lungs, does not see the bullet flecked fur, or the long pink strip dangling from the slack-jawed mouth. The moment the chopper lands he sobs without mercy.
No Medal Jacket
Very early one morning, on a well used trail, five claymores, set to explode by trip wire, blow up. With the blinding flash and deafening roar the agony howls begin. Then a wild stampede and rifle shots to draw us out but we do not return fire. Over the hours the wounded die slowly; their unbearable screams yielding to child-like moans, to puppy-like yelps, guttural bird calls, then nothing.
Two platoons march out to recon. A dead man, eyes still open, sits on a tree stump. A rusty timber saw girds his waist. Seven others lie sprawled where they fell. Each is punctured head-to-toe by 1/8 inch steel balls, hurled with the force of dynamite. Lieutenant Gill walks up to the lone survivor, who is badly wounded. "Chieu Hoi!" he shouts. But the brave man will not give up and lifts his AK in a last bid for life. Point blank the lieutenant wastes him; BBBRRRRAAAPPP. Next the machine-gunner and two platoons open up. When the smoke clears the brave man is decapitated. His brains spattered over the girl next to him.
We sit down. Lt. Gill grips his jaw, shows me his cracked tooth. "Purple Heart?" he asks. "Doc, you gonna put me in for a Purple Heart?"
"Are you shitting me, sir? Are you shitting me? It's just skull fragments from the dead dink. You didn't get shot. You didn't get hit. No way I'm putting you in for a medal, sir. No fuckin way."
* * *
Men do strange things after war. At the posh restaurant the young maitre d' guides us to our table. Amidst the clink of polished silverware, the plush skid of porcelain on white linen, the ambient chatter of fellow gourmands, Merrick, whose once black hair is now ghost white, tells the story. On patrol, a new lieutenant orders him thirty meters past the right flank. Concealed enemy soldiers cut Merrick down. As the Viet Cong rush forward to finish him off he screams for help. Afterward, waiting for the medivac, Merrick delves into his ruck with his good hand. "Here," he says. "Don't want to get caught with this shit." Someone takes the half key of dope; the chopper arrives and Merrick is gone.
"Cheers," he says, raising aloft a glass of fifty-dollar wine. Then he curses the officer. Loudly curses the whole damn war. Nearby well dressed diners too politely clear their throats; they glare at us as if we have trespassed on sacred ground or spit on foreign land.
"The hell you looking at?" scowls Merrick, turning his head from side to side. "Yeah, you, asshole. The hell you looking at?" Our smiling waitress brings the check.
We drive to Merrick's black-painted, two-storey custom built home and sit cross-legged on the comforting porch. Merrick has just read aloud his VA service-connected-disability letter.
"Can you believe those scum bags?" he scowls. Because Merrick is ever anxious, depressed, annoyingly vigilant, eternally angry, the softer emotions in short supply. "Purple Heart, Bronze Star, a shit load of PTSD and this is what I get?" He tears the letter in half. "The hell with their bullshit ten percent rating. C'mon, Doc. Got something to show you," he says.
In the center of the immaculate garage stands a blazing red Harley Chopper, the perfect simulacrum for the demons which drive him.
"Hop on," says Merrick. "Let's go for a ride."
We cruise fifty miles an hour down long back roads, lean and dip into wide, sweeping turns. "Yeah, baby! Yeah!" shouts Merrick, as he guns the engine. The greater the risk, the greater the rush.
Later, while Merrick tunes the engine, I sit with his lovely wife and quarterback son in a living room filled with costly furniture, tranquil paintings, tropical plants, plush carpets. We are overly pleasant. We counterfeit small talk. In this unblemished house with nary a speck of dust or drop of blood the war is nowhere and everywhere and the three of us know it and avoid any hint of an ambush.
At night; a light rain falls over the high school playing field. Merrick's son does well. At half time his father constantly spits, as if trying to rid a permanent bad taste lodged deep in his mouth. From his coat pocket Merrick plucks a matchbox taken from the restaurant, and strikes a match across the flint. Its small blue tip releases a bantam fury, which spools a thin gray mist when he tosses it high into the air. The empty look on his face is the same in the war photo I gave to his wife. "What happened to him?" she asks. "Why is he like that?" And I tell her things knowing I should not tell her what she will never understand.
Joseph says Sylvie is the best screw he's ever had and Joseph has made love to five hundred women. She likes it this way, she likes it that like that, she likes toys and talking dirty too. Joseph says Sylvie has no shame. She loves sex, she'll do anything, anytime, anywhere. Just do it. Do it. Do it.
One night, after a raging bout of love Sylvie asks Joseph, "Can you take care of yourself?" "I think so, says Joseph. "What's up?" Sylvie says, "My ex-boyfriend. He's jealous. Can you fight if you need to?"
Joseph, a two tour Ranger who walked point and crawled tunnels tells Sylvie things he did in Vietnam. He mimics bare handed killing techniques, mimes the art of stuffing rags down unsuspecting throats, recalls the science of drowning desperate men ever so slowly. Then tells her of years spent in prison after the war. Describes the crime of Lewisburg. The hell of solitary. The ever present sadistic guards, cell blocks populated with psychos and punks, the culture of gangs, the need for self-preservation. The merciless lead pipe beating he gave two inmates who tried to rip him off. He says Sylvie freaked out. Really freaked out. "Who...who are you?" she stuttered. "Is there anything you haven't done?" Until he calms her down, tells her he made it all up, Sylvie, who loves good sex, will do it, do it, do it, anytime, anywhere, shakes uncontrollably with fear.
One day Joseph asks, "What was that about?" When I tell him he's done things beyond the range of normal human experience, things Sylvie couldn't imagine, things that would terrify tough New York city cops, hardened medical examiners, even hardcore Viet Cong, Joseph, an extremely bright, honest and compassionate man says with complete sang froid, "You know, I never thought of that."
After the ambush Michael is lifted onto the chopper. Twenty-seven years later we hunt ground hogs, holding our twenty-two caliber rifles at the hip. Michael walks first through the muddy meadow. It's bone cold wet and there's nothing to kill because Michael has killed them all. In the distance, two large chimneys belch thick smoke. With a branch I scratch a portrait in the mud, Michael takes the photo: a man with a rifle flanked by two nuclear smoke stacks on the horizon.
"It's the perfect holiday card. 'Merry Christmas, Motherfuckers!' "
"You'd never send that out!" says Michael.
We laugh, then return to his truck.
Late at night I ask about Red, the transfer from another division. "Your squad had patrol. We heard the shooting. Red was shot in the arms, the legs, the belly. No one else hit. You remember?"
Michael is not the silent type. Not one to brood or hold a grudge. But the seconds tick past and he gives me a look that is not pleasant.
"Don't want to talk about it," he growls. "Let's change the subject."
Clarity arrives when you least expect it.
"Who shot him, Michael? Who really shot him?" The tone in my voice tells him the secret is safe. Tells him, 'Get the monkey off your back, bro. You talk, I'll listen. C'mon, I was the medic. I cared for my men. Always did. Always will.'
Michael leans back in his Lay-Z-Boy recliner. He shuts his eyes, takes a deep breath, locks both hands behind his head. A moment later he sits straight up; his voice is low, methodical, murderous.
"Twice we told that boy, 'We are not your shit ass old unit. We get hit, we don't hang back; you move your ass up. There is no next time, bud. You move up. You got that? You move up."
There is absolute rage in Michael's eyes. And behind that guilt and sorrow. "So we get hit, he don't move and..."
No need to hunt for words. They come quick and easy.
"You did the right thing, Michael. I would have done the same. He deserved it. He really did."
Ted and Sarah
Grenade. Harvard. Princeton. A lucrative career in finance. Fit and spry at six-foot-three, Ted is affable, jocular, his understated self-assurance a mark of highly intelligent people. The first wife of Asian descent. The second a local girl, perhaps five-two, a bit on the plump side. Ted and Sarah have three grown children each doing well. It is a happy home. It is a good marriage. They work hard. Play hard. Travel the world at their leisure. Though Ted is heavy combat and king of the hill, Sarah wears the pants in their seven figure castle.
"Ted, I want you to put those dishes on the third shelf," she commands, wagging a school marm's sassy finger.
"Of course, Sarah," he replies with cloying deference. "I would love to put those dishes away."
Minutes later, "And turn the heat on, Ted. It's cold in here. You know that. Turn the heat up, now." She speaks with the authority of one who knows but does not know.
Ted replies in a light-hearted abject voice, "Yes, dear, I would love to turn the heat on. There is nothing more in the world I would rather do." But his jestful manner cloaks unseeable wounds and slaughterous feelings.
Mental health professionals who work with married combat vets see this behavior all too often. By ceding to nearly every spousal demand, the veteran feels he is avoiding potential conflict. Feels it is the right way to keep the relationship intact. In reality, disguising fearsome past rage most often fails. Sooner or later the conceit will collapse, the veteran's pent up fury is revealed, the couple may split up or find themselves treading very hot water.
Out of Eden
An email from Ralph marked Urgent begins, "Had a very disturbing experience." He tells of talking politics with Daniel. One man can hold his liquor. The other cannot. In the crowded bar, Daniel says, "Terrible mistake sending more troops to Afghanistan. Terrible...Terrible." Nearby, two young women, beauties, says Ralph, chime in, "We were just discussing that." The two old vets cozy up to the sweet young things to bestow their hard earned wisdom. But after a time, Daniel ignites in a burst of gin-fed slaughter. "You ever kill a teenager you didn't even know? I mean just waste her. Grease her good. You ever do that? Forget politics, ladies! It's all about killing!" Daniel gets loud, louder, begins to cry, patrons steal looks, the girls recoil, scramble, disappear.
Ralph leads Daniel outside to quiet him down but Dan is stoked. "How many confirmed kills you got? How many? You didn't kill, you ain't shit, my man. Ain't shit."
Ralph, a Quaker, takes the abuse, the threat of fists, then counter attacks. "You want to fight, brother? You win. Here's a medal. How's that? Now go fuck yourself, Dan. Got it? Go fuck yourself." Dan calms down. The pair re-enter the bar, Dan drains his drink, then leaves.
"It was horrible," says Ralph. "Was I right getting him out of there or should I have kept my mouth shut?"
I tell Ralph he's a man. I tell Ralph he did the right thing at the right time in the right way. Ralph says thanks. He hopes Daniel does not do something crazy.
So it goes, as a sage once said of a certain silly pilgrim. Now a new generation has learned the language of war: every other word a carnal act, the obscenity for incest quite popular. Now a new generation steps forth to meet what is to come: spectacular car bombs, exploding humans, cheap fearsome booby traps, relentless well sprung ambushes, an endless parade of catastrophic casualties inflicted in scorching or freezing or brutal terrain. Then months or years recovering in military hospitals, or strained or broken marriages, or, killing and survival skills no longer needed, years of struggle to fit back in. A Veterans Administration rocked by scandals and occasional good news.
Until the stakes are too high, until the dread hits home, until the machine breaks down, until we lose our way out, say hello, then, dear America, to the long road back for the ardent upended volunteers of Obama's Folly.
Marc Levy served as an infantry medic in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970. His prose and poetry have been published in various online and print journals. Epigram taken from "He Would Tell You" first published by VVAW in The Veteran, Spring 2006 (http://www.vvaw.org/veteran/article/?id=624). An excellent news source on the Veterans Administration is VAwatchdog.org.
This article was originally published in the February 3, 2010 edition of counterpunch.org
Commentary on VVAW.org:
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