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And a B-52 For You
by Tom Skiens (AKA, 'Foxtrot')
In October 1968 I got a punji stick in my left knee while conducting a combat assault with Charley Company of the 4/3 Inf. I found the punji stick by a large, gray, moss and debris covered rock God had put there for me to hide behind.
I was hiding behind the rock because that's what I always did when I reached the destination of a combat assault. I would get off the chopper, hide behind a rock or tree, or a piece of bamboo or an anthill or a chick dressed up like a rice paddy Dyke on a motorcycle. I could hide behind a single blade of grass or a distant sound. I was determined to hide behind something because that's how the army had trained me. They called it cover and concealment.
Even though I was a self proclaimed expert at hiding I always liked to be on the first lift of a combat assault. As company 4.2 FO I was independent and attached which allowed me the freedom to choose who I traveled with on any given day. my alternative reason for being on the first lift was that maybe then I would catch some shit and get out of the bush in a half-way, sort of respectful manner. It never occurred to me that I could die again. Hell, I had already died once.
So I am hiding behind this rock covered with debris from the two B-52s who, 1/2 hour earlier, had dropped half their load in this huge valley that had its mouth pointing in a northeasterly direction.
The B-52s did a 180 and dropped the rest of their load in the valley. C and D companies were far enough away to be safe but close enough to be impressed. We could feel the shaking of the earth like God taking command of the planet with a completely controlling hand and moving it about. The sound was a deep, deep rumble unlike the sharp smacking sound of artillery or the air moving freight train sound of 16 inch rounds from a Battleship as they passed overhead. This sound was God awful death from 40,000 feet. Hundreds of bombs going off individually and combining into one move the earth rumble.
Both Delta and Charlie companies would combat assault into the decimated area left behind by the B-52 drop. Minutes after the rumbling from the B-52s subsided we could hear the wop, wop, wop of helicopters descending on our dry rice paddy LZ. Some of the choppers picked up the first lift of Charlie company and took us to the West ridge of the valley. That's how I got behind this rock.
So I am hiding behind this rock after a CA and I get a Punji stick in my left knee. I called the second lift and tried to send the message about Punji sticks. It's hard to talk on an open mike inside a heavely loaded chopper. I'm not clear weather the message was copied but no one else to the best of my knowledge got stuck that day.
Very close to my hide rock I saw what used to be a human shortly befor we arrived. He was 5 meters from the edge of a crater created by either a 250 or 500 Lb high explosive bomb. I think pulverized or maybe pulverized jelly might be the best I could do in describing the condition of the body. Almost burnt into the ground by concussion like a surreal sculpture hinting at the life that used to exist there.
It's like, 'Wazup breeze, want a smoke'. A dropped cigarette would poke a hole through his body like a spear. It's like, 'Your looking thin man, Maybe you need to stop smoking'. Smoking from the B-52 bomb.
We patrolled the ridge and on the third day worked our way to the bottom of the valley. At this point my left knee had swollen up real good from the pungi stick and a medic told me to go to a firebase and get it fixed.
At the bottom of the valley we were entertained by a show where fast movers (Jets), were dropping Napalm close enough for us to feel the heat. A pull me-push me FAC (forward air control) plane was on station using WP (white phosphorus) to mark targets for the fast movers and a Gook piloted prop job that could slide into box canyons or tight places the fast mover could not reach. I think the Col. got shot down on this week. If memory serves, he was shot down 3 times in one week. This did not bother me much. Every time he flew over us it pinpointed our location for Charlie. After he was shot down I sent an imagionary thank you note to the Gooks.
Later that day, after I mailed my note to the Gooks, we prepared for another combat assault. Choppers came in and we were taken to the top of the opposite ridge. I was on the first chopper of the first lift. As the chopper was about 6 feet off the ground I jumped, much to the dismay of the pilot. I could read lips well enough to know that the pilot was not praising my courage and tumbling skills. No, it was more like, 'you dumb SOB, what the fuck are you doing'.
After the company had landed and formed a perimeter I talked with the Company CO about catching a ride to an LZ to get my wound treated. He said that if I could bum a ride on the battalion commanders bird it would be O.K. with him.
The Battalion commander landed his chopper to confer with the Company CO. I ran up to the Battalion CO Stinking from beau coup sweat and no personal hygiene for over a week plus the fact that I had not worn shorts for over 9 months.
I approached the commander and dropped my pants to my ankles to show proof of my wound. Looking back on it 40 years later I think this is when I concluded that the Battalion CO was not gay for unwashed grunts with an M-16 and their pants around their ankles.
I requested a ride to whatever LZ he was going to. One look at my leg and he agreed I should have the wound treated. I did not tell the Battalion commander about my note to the Gooks. After this ride I would never again be required to go on patrol or to the field. This was a good thing. I was taken to Duc Pho. The first shirt from Echo company met me at the chopper and told me to go to the medics, 'Get fixed up and tell them you have earned a purple heart', he said.
I lost it. I started crying and yelling at the first sergeant. I told the first shirt that everyone in Charlie company was losing their legs and arms and their lives and the only thing they received was a purple heart. I pointed out a place he could put his purple heart.
I went to the medic tent and they told me I had earned a purple heart. In my mind, medics walk on water so I told them in a civil voice that I didn't want a purple heart because my mom would receive a telegram notifying her of the wound and that would concern her. They said, 'OK, but you will be sorry'. 25 years later when I started dealing with the VA I found out the medics were right.
For the next two months I smoked weed. I smoked like the top of a nuclear reactor's cooling tower. I bought a brand new pipe and burnt a hole through it in a month. One day I smoked 40 T's before lunch, ate and then smoked my pipe for the rest of the day. I do not remember ever being stoned. I just smoked and smoked.
I don't think the smoke could match up to the full combat alert that my mind and body were in. Even after being out of the field for close to two months my hyper personality and combat experience had me wired, violent, depressed, and I would find out later, a bunch of other emotional and psychological stuff I had not even heard of.
During the last week of November I was handed my ticket back to the world. I went to Chu Lai and just waited. Semi-morbid, waiting for dead guys. I couldn't remember any names but I couldn't forget the explosive body ripping images of people being blown up by a Bouncing Betty. I could have jumped on a plane and flown to Cam Ranh bay but I needed to know, I wanted to see how many Charlie company boys would show up. After five days it was clear I was on a flawed mission. Some of the boys had been wounded, some had finished their time in the service, some had transferred or extended. I had only my memories void of the names that went with them.
I flew to Cam Ranh bay. As the C-130 was about 5 minutes from the runway I saw smoke coming from the electrical panel. I was about to inhale the smoke but decided I might some day want to run for political office.
Everyone in the cargo department was asleep except for me. I went to the back ramp where the crew chief was catching ZZZZs and gently woke him. He startled awake and looked at me with contempt. C-130's are loud and there was to much noise to yell so I stepped to the side and pointed to the smoking electrical panel just behind the pilots cabin. At this point the crew chief became the leader of all the panic that would visit the C-130 over the next 5 minutes and I had a front row seat.
The crew chief jumped up to run to the front of the plane where the smoke was as he reported to the pilots on his headphone setup. His cord got tangled up and it unplugged before it broke. He had to come back and plug it in causing additional disturbance which alerted more people on the flight to our crisis. The crew chief was in charge and aggressively recruiting sleep deprived partners for the growing panic on the plane. Although panic is an understandable result of being trapped on a burning C-130 in flight it does not solve the problem. We were still in the air and the electrical panel was still smoking.
When we landed everyone was lined up behind the side door I had been sitting beside when I noticed the smoke. Everyone wanted to be the first out of the plane. I stayed the last in line figuring I would have soft injured bodies to land on.
I timed our landing from when our tires first touched the ground until we stopped, got off and firemen in silver suits were getting on the plane with hoses. The landing and evacuation took less than 30 seconds. When my feet touched the tarmac I walked away from the C-130 and never looked back. I did not know or care what happened to the C-130.
I checked in with the freedom bird people and was told I would be on the first flight the next day. About one month earlier I had put a 10 pack of Nuc Mao's in my wallet. Nuc Mao's are Pall Mall size prerolled joints that come in a pack of 10 for $1.50. I was afraid of being searched getting on or off the plane so I went to the beach and smoked every last one of them. It was a mission. Not to get stoned but to get home.
The USO or other people who do these kinds of things organized a party for the departing veterans inside a large brightly lite building. You would think light radiated outward but in this case I saw it as a big fucking magnet attracting every unpinned grenade in Charlie's kingdom. It was like the headquarters of the galactic solar exchange. Nobody needs that much light for anything. They could cover up a black hole and have light left over. The light was strong enough to hold up the ceiling without the walls.
The Biscuit Bitches provided food, music, entertainment and nonalcoholic drinks for the party. Three times I made it to the door and looked in at the REMFs (Rear area mother fuckers) smiling and telling lies about their imaginary 'cop a feel' from a round eyed Donut Dolly. The doorway, the line between light and dark, was like the Concertina wire that separated an LZ from the bush. Once I stepped into the light, once I crossed that wire, Charlie would have the upper hand. If Charlie hung around after first contact we would fuck him up but Charlie was smart, he would hit and run, or place a mine and di di mau. He rarely presented a target.
In my High school yearbook I am listed as the outstanding male personality of the senior class '66?. Now, less than three years later, I am the king of paranoia and antisocial behavior who cannot make myself attend a party on my own behalf.
I flew back to the world at the end of November 1968. I had an aisle seat and as the plane lifted off I reached across the chest of the person in the window seat and flipped off the whole fucking country. I was crying and I couldn't talk to the guy beside me. I think I freaked him out. We didn't talk for the entire flight. When we landed at McCord air force base in Washington State we all clapped. Four hours later I was out of the army and hopping a plane to Portland Oregon. I don't know if I will ever really come home.
My brother and sister-in-law picked me up at the airport. They gave me dinner and a piece of floor to sleep on. I ran patrols all night long.
The next day I called my mother to check in. She told me that my best friend from High School was in Portland being fitted for his prosthetic arm. We had played football and basketball together. We spent every weekend together. We took basic training in Fort Lewis Washington together. He went to Ft. Polk for jungle training and then joined The Big Red One. After running patrols for nine months he lost his right arm in a night time battle.
I hooked up with my high school friend and we spent all day together. Late that night we were at a bar and grill in downtown Portland when a homeless drunk told me to go get a haircut. I blew my top. My buddy helped hold me back. I told the drunk that I hadn't killed anyone in a long time but I would make an exception in his case. This was a lie as I maintain I never killed anyone. I told him that 40 hours ago I was in Vietnam finishing my one year tour and I don't remember seeing his sorry ass in my foxhole.
I was less than 40 hours out of the Nam and I was psyched to kill a civilian for little reason. I did not know that this kind of anger and hate would still be with me in 2008 at the age of 61. I never did come all the way home and that's O.K.
At this time in my life the VA sends me Meds in the mail. I like to think of it as, the people who go postal delivering Meds so I won't. If I went postal it would be like some kind of a franchise infringement on the post office and I could get in trouble.
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