by Bill Snyder
Lieutenant is dedicated to the memory of Lt. Thomas G. Dineen jr. killed in Vietnam. He was a close friend and college rugby teammate. Tom was beloved by the men he led. There is a hill named in his honor in Vietnam. The incidents and characters recounted in this story are purely fictional.
Vietnam – 1968
Nam could be beautiful at dawn. Sunlight shimmering off the wet jungle gave it the gleam of a morning jewel. The lieutenant stood outside the communications hut and watched orange flames rise from the hills blackening in the distance. Two days ago the hills had been green and wet. Yesterday’s napalm shower had dried out the hills but the lieutenant couldn’t remember what it felt like to be dry.
The phone rang inside the hut. Corporal Crawford answered.
“For you. Captain Scheuter.”
He walked into the hut and put the handset to his ear.
“How’s it goin’ over there, Lieutenant?” Scheuter used rank to maintain authority.
“Just another beautiful day out here in Malibu, sir.” The static was heavy.
“Glad to hear it, cause you’ve got some surfin’ to do. Bravo Company’s been hit hard in a village to the south. We’re sending a chopper on a medevac. You’ll need to take some men to provide cover.”
“Yes, sir. Give me 15 minutes.” The lieutenant forgot his skin fungus as he made a mental list of the grunts he’d take along.
“Good luck.” Scheuter hung up.
Outside, the whistling noise of a howitzer shell grew louder.
“That’s coming pretty fuckin’ close.”
Shoving his helmet on he stuck his head into the ground and saw an alabaster face with crystal blue eyes bending over an infant for an instant. The shell exploded in the mound 10 yards from the hut.
“Yeah, sir. That was weird.” Crawford answered.
”Yeah. Get Sullivan and Nance over to the chopper area, right away. I need them for cover for a medevac.”
“Do I have time to wipe the shit off my pants first?” Crawford had soiled himself the first time death came as close as it just had.
The corporal left the hut laughing. The lieutenant took off his helmet and checked for dents; it didn’t matter whether there were any or not it was just a ritual. Afterwards he fixed his pistol in his belt, picked up his M-16, and made the Sign of the Cross on himself. Sullivan and Nance were already in the chopper area when he arrived. The chopper blades whirled a wet vortex into dense greenery.
“We’ve got to pick up some guys in trouble. You know what to do.” He yelled to them over the sound of the engine. They both nodded and clambered inside the long green insect where two medics were checking to make sure they had enough first-aid stuff. The medics nodded as he made his way to the cockpit.
“You know where you’re goin’, Morales?” He asked the nametag on the pilot’s chest.
“Yes, sir. Twenty clicks north, twelve west.”
“We’re ready. Let’s go.” He gave thumbs up and returned to the cargo area. They lifted off and left behind a mass of twirling foliage. Twenty clicks north and twelve west was twenty-three kilometers. It would take between five and ten minutes for their green insect to get to the LZ.
“Sullivan, when we get there, you take the left, Nance you got the right, and I’ll take center field.” He looked them in the eyes.
They had it straight with a shot-to-kill look in their eyes. Flying over patches of dense green wetness they reached an open meadow of elephant grass where the pilot took the chopper down into the blowing waves of yellow-tipped grass.
“There they are, forty degrees to the right.” Morales shouted over the engine noise veering toward five grunts huddled together by a dirt mound. Two of them were wounded writhing on their backs. Morales lowered the medevac chopper. One grunt pointed to the other side of the mound. The pointing became more frantic as the chopper hovered. The lieutenant looked where he was pointing. A NVA V gook stood in the grass dead-aiming his rocket-launcher. Moving his M-16 to firing position he squeezed and felt the thud against his shoulder a second before a red stream of blood spurted from the NVA’s neck. The tall grass flattened under the dead weight.
Morales edged in closer. Another grunt turned and fired as Sullivan fired on the same spot. The grass repeated its burial ritual over the second NVA. The medics reeled in the stretcher with a howling PFC spurting blood from a gaping thigh wound. The medics lifted him from the stretcher and lowered it for the other wounded grunt, dropping a hoist for the others. One medic administered morphine while the other wrapped a tourniquet around the thigh. The next grunt on the stretcher was hit in the lower leg. The lieutenant could see how bad it was from the misshapen mess of boot dangling at the end of what had been an athlete’s limb. The three other grunts clambered aboard.
“Let’s get outta here.” One of the medics shouted. Morales piloted their ascent with the sound of the engine drowning out the moans of the wounded.
“Thanks, I didn’t like it down there much.” One of the unwounded grinned.
“Thank him. No way we’d have gotten ya outta there without ‘em.” The morphine-administering medic nodded toward the cockpit.
“He’s right. Taxi driver held this motha steady.” Sullivan said.
“What’s his name?” The sergeant who had pointed out the NVA’s position spoke for the first time.
“Morales.” The lieutenant answered.
“Mucho gracias, hombre.” The sergeant yelled.
“De nada.” Morales yelled back.
They touched down at the field hospital where the wounded were taken inside. The lieutenant trudged back to the communications hut. No elation for what might be called victory. The empty feeling in his stomach had to do with two NVA dead and two wounded US Marines.
“Sir, Battalion wants the platoon for a sweep tomorrow morning. Captain Schueter said be at HQ at 0700 and get outta here till then.” Crawford looked up from his Playboy.
“Okay.” The lieutenant turned and left the hut.
As he crossed the clearing he stopped for a moment before entering his tent. Mick Jagger screamed, “Hey you, get offa my cloud.”
Maureen and baby Brian had become his clouds now. Maureen was three months pregnant when he left for Nam and he had seen Brian in photographs only. He had come to Nam to free the people from communism but the political ideology of freedom had no place here; freedom in the rice paddies of Nam was more often attained by the dying than the living.
Inside his tent he dozed off. When he woke he re-read the ending of Maureen’s last letter
I call your name, but you’re not there.
Don’t you know I can’t sleep at night?
But just the same I never weep at night
I call your name.
and began his answer.
I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day
And when it’s cold outside I’ve got the month of May
I guess you’ll say what can make me feel this way?
My girl, I’m talkin’ about my girl.
My Wild Irish Girl:
How’s Brian? Is he walking yet? He’s almost four months now and the great Irish warriors are usually walking by then. Give him a hug and a kiss for me. The last pictures were great; you’re getting good with the camera. It’s been nine months but from those pictures I can tell you’ve gotten your figure back. I want to hold you in my arms again. How I miss your smile, your beautiful blue eyes, and the feel of your body next to me. You and Brian are more important to me than anything. I can’t wait to be with you again.
He never told her how it really felt in Nam. It was one moment of truth after another. When that howitzer shell came he felt so intensely alive when he thought it was going to be all over. Maureen and Brian were so clearly formed in his mind’s eye. He would go out seeing his wife’s smile but never having held his infant son in his arms. Nam was one day after another walking a high wire balanced by fear.
The platoon assembled in front of him a few minutes later.
“We have to be at battalion at 0700 tomorrow. Got a sweep. We’ll probably be gone all day if things go as usual. Any questions?” He looked at each one of them. “Be ready to go by 0630. Get some sleep tonight. See you in the morning.”
They had no questions because they had been there almost nine months. It was the Fucking New Guys who always made the mistakes. The lieutenant had lived through some hellish times and had learned the best way to survive was to expect not to. He got to a point where he didn’t care; he expected to die, did what he knew he had to, and didn’t think about it. Seventy-eight days and he’d be going home. Why was it that the highest number of casualties occurred in the first ninety days and the last ninety days. After nine months in-country a soldier should not be making mistakes that put him in a body bag. It didn’t make sense that so many short-timers were killed in the 3 months before they were to go home. But once a soldier had less than ninety days to serve in-country he could taste home. It affected how he acted, how he thought, how he slept. Now more than ever the lieutenant didn’t want to die. He’d proven to himself and his men that he was no coward. But now he was scared as hell that he was going to fuck up and get himself killed. What a waste to have done his time here, and then not ever see his son and hold his wife in his arms again.
Back in the tent, he began telling himself to be careful and look out for mines, look out for Charlie, look out for…he didn’t think that way before becoming a short-timer. Before, he had been conscious of the mines, the snipers, the NVA, the VC; they were part of the job. He just concentrated on what he had to do. Now he was trying to avoid consequences because he was so close to going home. He had stopped being a natural soldier; he was over-thinking.
Moving forward quickly, their point man spotted a clearing; something looked suspicious. Captain Schueter signaled the lieutenant to come forward.
“Take your men and check the perimeter of the clearing for a tunnel.”
The lieutenant signaled for the platoon to circle counter clockwise. When they had cut three quarters of their way around the clearing, the lead signaled. The lieutenant motioned to his tunnel rat. The corporal was five foot six and had been tunnel rat on all sweeps. The smallest guys were always designated tunnel rats. They would go down with a flashlight and a .45 to root out whatever was down there. If they took a live VC Battalion would interrogate them. The lieutenant had recommended his corporal for the Distinguished Service Medal after he killed three tunnel gooks on the last sweep.
“Okay, do your thing.” The lieutenant pointed at the opening in the ground and looked at the corporal. The corporal’s face was not what he expected. There was fear in his brown Italian eyes.
“Sir, can somebody else do it for once?”
“I’m the only other guy that’s small enough. I’d do it but it’s not for me to do.” He waited for the corporal to follow his order for what seemed like minutes. The corporal stood motionless, his eyes darting from corner to corner. The lieutenant reached out and held him by the shoulders – the rims of their helmets touched. There was nowhere for the corporal to look; the lieutenant spoke softly.
“Pull yourself together and get down there. You’ve done it before. You want to get outta here in one piece; so do I. We will.”
Gradually the corporal’s darting eyes slowed. “I’m all right, sir”, he said and crawled into a hole that went straight down for about four feet before turning to the left. Light from the flashlight disappeared when he turned into the tunnel . The lieutenant worried. He was the executioner if the corporal didn’t come back. About five minutes passed before he heard the sound of boots in the dirt.
“Hold yer fire. I’m comin’ back up. Got a buddy with me.” The voice had a casual sound, almost like a line sung by Smokey Robinson . The lieutenant relaxed.
The corporal emerged belly-down feet first from the tunnel followed face-to-face with a dirt-covered Vietnamese boy around ten years old. Their faces were only six inches apart ,separated by a forty-five-caliber pistol that the corporal pointed between the kid’s eyes.
“I found him asleep down there near the guns and ammo. It’s about 100 meters from here. Guess he’s the guard. Didn’t look for anybody else.” Brushing mud from the front of his fatigues the corporal put his 45 back in his belt.
“Good job. He can probably tell us something about how many of them are around here. Let’s head over to Schueter. The rest of you guys stay here.”
The corporal poked the kid in the ribs with his M-16 and pointed out the direction.
“Got one out of there. Some guns and ammo down there about 100 meters from the opening.”
“Take him to Battalion for questioning. You earned an early ride back. We’ll call for a chopper. Go on ahead; I’ll put your men with another platoon to finish the sweep. We’ll get the guns and ammo.”
The lieutenant didn’t leave. It was one of those things he learned early in-country. Counting on somebody else to be thorough could lead to being quick and dead. He waited to hear what Battalion said about the chopper on the phone. If arrivals weren’t timed properly, they could wind up dead. When the radioman reached Battalion the lieutenant took the phone. He scheduled the pick-up for 11:45.
It took them forty-five minutes to get to the LZ. Once they knew the LZ was clean, they positioned on the perimeter and waited. The corporal opened his C-rations and offered the kid a can of spaghetti and meatballs. The kid ate it ravenously. They heard the chopper approach. At 11:45 on the nose, the chopper swooped into the clearing. The corporal ran out and waved while the lieutenant stayed with the kid. The chopper hovered and dropped a hoist. The lieutenant motioned to the kid to move out. The kid’s face was full of fear. Jabbing the kid in the ribs, he got him moving. The kid hesitated. Pushing harder, the lieutenant yelled at him.
“Go, go, go.”
The kid finally moved. The corporal waited with the cable, secured the kid and grabbed on himself. They were hoisted into the chopper. The hoist came back down. The lieutenant grabbed it and clambered into the opening in the chopper.
“We got another pickup to make before we head home” A sculpted face and blond close-cropped hair made the sergeant a Barry Sadler look-alike.
“Okay.” The lieutenant answered.
Having left a tunnel of death for a bird of destruction, the kid was terrified. A wet stain spread across his crotch. The lieutenant sat down and looked straight ahead. As they swooped away from the LZ, the kid started to slide across the floor. The lieutenant and the corporal grabbed him and stopped his slide.
“How fuckin’ old dya think he is?” The sergeant asked.
“I’m not good at guessing their age … about twelve.”
“Old enough to kill or be killed. Seen more and more of ‘em like him lately.” The sergeant checked out the hoist for the next pick-up. In ten minutes they were on their descent groundward. The sound of gunfire grew louder as they approached.
“No sweat, the LZ’s not hot but there’s some shit happenin’ about five clicks from here. They got themselves somebody. You guys stay with him unless I need ya, OK?” The sergeant looked over his shoulder.
“Just let us know if you need us. Hold on to him.”
“Yes, sir.” The corporal’s grip tightened on the cloth of the kid’s shirt.
The sergeant lowered the hoist. The chopper hovered as the sergeant reeled the cable in with two new guests. A Special Forces Captain held a pistol to the head of a NVA officer. They sat on the floor opposite him. The Captain jammed his forearm against his prisoner’s throat.
“Don’t move or you’re dead.” The Captain sneered in Vietnamese.
“Motherfuckers ambushed us. Lost three men. What’s up with you, lieutenant?”
“Doin’ a sweep we found this kid hidin’ in one of the tunnels. We’re taking him back to Battalion.” The lieutenant said through the spreading smell of urine.
“I know how to get answers from these motherfuckers. Kid doesn’t know shit. Throw him out. My guy will tell us what we want to know after that.” The Captain said with a crazed stare.
“That’s not my style, sir. I’m taking him back to battalion for interrogation.” The lieutenant looked away.
“No you’re not. This is about results. I’ve been through this before. These guys only talk when they’re scared shitless and your kid ain’t gonna know nothin’ worth listening to anyway. If you won’t toss him I’ll order the Corporal to.”
He had a decision to make. How far would the lieutenant go to save this kid? It was more than just about the kid. It was about the honor of the warrior.
“Do what you want with yours, I’ll take care of mine.” The lieutenant sat up and kept a hold on the kid’s shoulder.
“Corporal throw that kid out the door.” The lieutenant tightened his grip as the corporal tried to pull the kid toward him.
“This is between me and the Captain, corporal. Disregard that order.” The Captain came toward them with the NVA in a headlock and his pistol pointed dead center on his forehead.
“You stupid fuck! Do what I tell you or I’ll blow him away right here.” The Captain pointed his pistol at the kid.
The lieutenant got up and grabbed the Captain’s gun hand as the sergeant came from behind, grabbing the NVA around the waist. They went into an awkward four man waltz toward the cargo door. Suddenly the chopper dipped and they were sliding across the floor then falling through the air. The corporal and the kid watched as they disappeared into the green trees below.
Philadelphia – 1970
Danny Maguire sent an opposition letter to the White House when Richard Nixon’s ending of the war in Vietnam was belied by the US bombing of Cambodia. He wrote that Lieutenant Thomas Maguire, his brother was MIA, and his father had died in Korea, but Nixon’s foreign policy and civil rights issues at home no longer made it possible for him to be proud to be an American. Danny showed it to a SDS member who sent it to the editors at Ramparts, the SDS newspaper. His letter became the centerpiece of the next issue of the paper.
He was asked to speak after the Kent State massacre at a Temple University student protest. After praising his father and brother for protecting freedom at the cost of their lives he pointed out that the government they fought for dishonored their sacrifice by refusing to allow free speech and protest. From then on, he was well known on campus as an eloquent voice who could not be dismissed as a long-haired drugged-out hippie although that’s what he looked like.
Occasionally the anti-war movement held what they called Military Week – an attempt to enlist returned vets into the war resistance effort. The SDS chapter at Temple scheduled one in the last week of November. Danny’s phone rang the Monday before Thanksgiving.
“Danny, this is the SDS planning committee. We wondered if you could take two soldiers to dinner this Saturday?” A young woman’s voice asked.
He hesitated. “I guess I can.”
“Great. We’ll have them at your apartment at four. Bye.”
Before he could ask any questions she had hung up. He didn’t know who she was so he didn’t bother to call and get any more information. He called Maureen and told her a couple of soldiers were coming to his place for dinner and asked if she’d like to come. She suggested eating at her place, so she wouldn’t have to find a babysitter. He’d bring the steaks and wine; she’d do the salad and baked potatoes.
In the two years since Lieutenant Thomas Maguire had been listed MIA Maureen had been stymied in her attempts to learn how he had become MIA. She had been told that there had been a helicopter accident and three American soldiers were missing. Tom was not officially a POW, but it was possible since there were many MIA’s who turned out to be POW’s. There were times when she believed that Tom would return and times when she believed he wouldn’t.
Danny saw Maureen once or twice a month. Brian was full of energy and toddler mischief with Tom’s brown eyes and his mother’s alabaster skin. Danny couldn’t help but think of his brother and light brown-skinned Irish leprechaun whenever he saw Brian. He was a beautiful child but it was going to be tough for him as he got older. Irish-African Americans didn’t have a neighborhood in Philly – a city of ethnic neighborhoods. None of that mattered to the Maguire’s growing up; it only mattered to everyone else. Danny remembered the talks that Poppa and Momma had with Tom and himself. They were different than other families because Poppa was white, Momma black; nobody needed to tell them that. But different meant that some kids would hate them. Poppa and Momma told them that different meant more because they had warrior blood. They were Masai and Celt. The best way to prove what different meant was to show what they could do. Be at the top of your class; be captains of the rugby team. Maureen could only give Brian the white half of that message. Danny wanted to talk to her about how he might help her with Brian.
Theday of the dinner there was a knock on his door. He was surprised at the appearance of his two dinner guests. One of them was no surprise – a new SDS member he had seen around at a few meetings; but the other was an Asian teenager.
“Hi, come on in while I get the stuff. I’m Danny Maguire. We’re going to my sister-in-law’s for dinner. I didn’t expect the soldier to be you. We met at one of the meetings, right? Are you on active duty?” Danny asked.
“No, I’ve been out for awhile. I just started at Temple and joined SDS this semester. I met you when you gave the speech after the Kent State thing. “I’m Carl, this is Charlie.” The teenager stuck out his hand. “Charlie’s still learning the language. He can understand, but he’s not very good at speaking it.”
“I’ll be right back.” Danny took the steaks from the refrigerator and put them in a bag grabbing the bottle of Chianti he had bought that afternoon.
“All ready.” He led them down the stairs and around the corner to his orange Volkswagen, a dissident’s popular car in 1970.
“I remember your letter in Ramparts. Your brother is MIA, right? Is it his wife we’re having dinner with?” Carl took a seat in the front.
“Yeah. We’re still hoping he’s alive, but it’s a long shot now. Gets worse the longer we don’t hear anything. Maureen’s pretty messed up from waiting two years.” Danny parked the car on Germantown Avenue a few blocks from his sister-in-law’s apartment.
“What part of Nam did he get lost in?” Carl asked.
“I don’t remember. Maureen knows.” Danny feared dinner might become a collection of war stories.
Danny’s jaw dropped when Maureen opened the door. She had gotten out of the habit of wearing stylish clothes but tonight she looked better than she had in a long while; as good as she looked when Tom went to Nam. She wore bell-bottoms and a white blouse with red and yellow embroidery bordering a bee’s nest neckline. Her curly hair was permed in an Afro. She could have been on a billboard for the counter-culture if the counter-culture had billboards.
“Hey sis, you look great. This is Carl and Charlie.”
They each shook her hand.
“Where’s my man? C’mon Brian.” Danny raised his voice and listened for the sound of the toddler’s footsteps.
“He’s at my Mom’s. I need a dinner without him. Maybe it’s the wine I need. Where is it?”
Danny shook his head at his forgetfulness.
“I left it in the car. I’ll get it.” Danny said.
“Here, let me take your jackets. I’ll throw them on the bed. Not a lotta closets in here.”
“I’ll go with you to get the wine.” Carl offered.
“No, that’s OK.”
Danny walked to the car mulling over Maureen’s new look. She hadn’t shown a rebellious side since he’d known her. But he should have known she had a rebel side. Mixed race marriages were rebellion for Philadelphia Irish Catholic girls in the 60’s. When he returned with the straw-wrapped chianti bottle they all were standing in the kitchen.
“Carl was in Nam during the Tet offensive.” Maureen turned to Danny.
“That was when Tom was reported MIA.” Danny put the bottle on the table.
“I told him.” She turned back to slicing a tomato.
“I don’t like to think about that time, we lost a lot of guys.” Carl sat at the table.
“We don’t either. Before it started they were telling us that the war would be over soon. They couldn’t lie about the Viet Cong’s will to win after the Tet.” Danny caught a saddened expression on Charlie’s face out of the corner of his eye.
Maureen finished tossing the salad and sat down to eat. The Fifth Dimension were singing “The Age of Aquarius” in the background as they began to eat.
“Have you seen “Hair”? Carl held out his glass as Danny poured.
“I’ve wanted to, but I haven’t been able to get a weekend to go to New York.” Maureen answered.
“Maybe we can go over the holidays.” Danny said passing her a glass of wine.
“Are you kidding? Tickets for Hair over the holidays are impossible.” Maureen’s glass was empty already.
“I’ve got an old friend who might be able to get you some. She’s a dancer. Let me know when you want to go and I’ll see what I can do. In the play “Aquarius” is two different songs.” Carl poured more wine.
Danny grilled the steaks and Maureen served them with baked potatoes she took from the oven. Carl took control of the conversation. He was knowledgeable about art, rock n roll, jazz, literature and politics. Danny thought to himself SDS didn’t know what they had – he was articulate, against the war, and a Vietnam vet.
When they were finished eating Danny carried a silver percolator and cups into the living room while Maureen went back into the kitchen. She joined them with a New York cheesecake that she set on the table.
Carl leaned forward intently looking first at Maureen then Danny.
“I have something to tell you; it’s been on my mind all night. I needed to make sure the lieutenant was your husband and brother. I was the lieutenant’s corporal in Nam.”
Suddenly the room seemed filled with the sounds of distant war. What was it he had to say? Why hadn’t he said it?
“When?” Maureen’s question welled from need not inquisitiveness.
“When he was lost. We were on the chopper together. They haven’t told you what they know about that day.”
Carl told them what had happened. From the sweep to the fall from the chopper. He said that he didn’t think Lieutenant Maguire or the other two soldiers could have survived the fall. Maureen wept uncontrollably. Tears held back for two years flooded from her chrystal blue eyes like diamond rivulets.
“I’m not worried about having what I’ve told you being repeated to anyone. I told the truth in Nam when it happened. I didn’t know what they did with it, because I got out of the army very soon after. I only found out that the lieutenant was MIA when I read your letter in Ramparts, Danny. Maureen, I know how much this hurts you. But there has been some good that came out of all this. After I was discharged I went back to Nam and got Charlie outta there. The VC had killed his family and put him in the tunnel. He wants to say something.”
Carl nodded to Charlie.
“Pardon. English not too good. I am soooey. Lieutent good man. I be Choolie. I catlic now. Nex week confumashun. I take new name…Toomas.”
Bill Snyder began writing short stories and poems for the Philadelphia literary arts newspaper, The Queen Village Crier.
As an Information Technology and Business consultant he published articles in various technology journals and presented software development concepts at technology conferences during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
He has also edited and been a reader of stories submitted to and published by Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope: All-Story magazine in San Francisco.
Lastly Bill has been a teacher of English Literature and Composition and Computer Systems Management in various universities and preparatory schools in the Philadelphia area.