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Absent of Grace and Mercy

by Rich Raitano, HHC 4/3 Medic

In March of 1968, after spending time on LZ Sue with Bravo Company, and stays at the aid stations on Hill 54 and LZ Bronco, I was assigned to 2nd Surgical Hospital in Chu Lai to act as Casualty Reporter / Hospital Liaison for our battalion and Task Force Barker. My primary duties were to assess, evaluate and interview our unit wounded when they arrived from the battlefield, and report to battalion S-2.

I made regular visits to the wards, spending time talking with each man, bringing Red Cross supplied sundries or requested materials from the PX, and when called to do so, tour with unit officers who came to visit their wounded men. The most difficult part of my assignment was the visit to Graves Registration to identify, assess, evaluate, and confirm cause of death. Most of these men were known to me from the early days of our training at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Many were friends. All were brothers.

An insufferable despair hung heavy along the murky waters of Acheron. Thick, black clouds tumbled and swirled with frenzied rage in a blood red sky.Dark, unearthly shadows drifted uneasily above the charred and ashen landscape. It was an eternally damned place, chosen to serve as an un-holy tabernacle for mayhem and carnage; for fear and endless sorrow. No God or gods dare walk there; it was absent of grace and mercy.The dog tired and sweat drenched platoon stumbled into the clearing. Web gear and tired asses hit the ground. Smokes were lit. Small talk and muffled laughter rolled uneasily in the sticky May night. It was good to stop, to finally end their nomadic trek through jungle brush, and rice paddy muck in search of an elusive enemy. One by one each man settled in for the night. All was not well. As quick as a raging torrent and roaring thunder comes in an unexpected storm, the jungle erupted in a deadly and frantic fury. Hot, angry projectiles stampeded through the musty air, cutting a path of instant death. Shouts and screams filled the windless night. Then all was as swiftly still and silent. The foul stench of death hung heavily around them, clinging to their clothes, filling their lungs. The deadly incense of cordite pierced the air in the retreating twilight. A tattered paperback lay on the grassy rise; an outstretched hand gripped the curled and sweat stained pages. Bloodied fingers clawed in vain at the soft earth in a hopeless attempt to escape the coming tempest. The weary, faltering rhythm of his fading heart summoned the demons to gather in ghoulish anticipation; waiting patiently for the moment when all is forever lost and the profane feast that would soon begin. The vital glow of his life grew pale and dim. One last image lay unseen in empty cold eyes, one final thought fell short of lasting memory. And in the ominous silence between now and never, the desperate struggle for life and death began. His life's blood ran warm through the hands of those who worked in vain to save him. They could not comprehend that he was already gone;the life they knew to be his had been torn from this world and flung carelessly into another. Only the dead and dying heard the pitiless triumphant mockery as it moved in the ground beneath the ...

May 8, 1968

My thoughts were wildly conflicted as I sprinted through the maze of screened wooden hooches of 2nd Surgical Hospital in Chu Lai. Delta Company had made contact and the wounded and dead were on the way. I waited uneasily at the pad for Dust-off to arrive. My heart pounded in my ears and my lungs sucked in the heavy night air.One of our medics was a casualty. Andy, Fred, and Leroy were medics with Delta Company. In the distant darkness the familiar cadence of blades slicing into the dank night air worked its way into my anxieties. I watched with pained anguish as Dust-Off approached, touched down, and the wounded were off loaded and rushed into the ER.Gathering myself, I took a deep breath and followed them into the ER. The smell of blood and torn flesh filled the room. Doctors, nurses, and hospital medics went from litter to litter treating first those with the best chance of survival.I went from litter to litter taking names and assessing wounds while searching for the medic. He was not among them. One of the wounded told me that 'doc was hit' but could tell me nothing more. I resisted the thought of where he would be and struggled with the persistent gnawing truth as I made my way out of the ER and trotted down the darkened road to Graves Registration. I had done this so many times before and I knew he was there, but I would not say it; I would not dare think it.

The reefer room was dimly lit and cool. I had come to appreciate this room and the macabre opportunity it offered for escape from the hot and oppressive air outside its walls. On most occasions the attendant would pull cool beers from an empty drawer while I examined the bodies of fallen comrades. With emotions shut down it had become nothing more than a daily routine: assess and evaluate the dead and wounded, drink a beer and exchange small talk. Such is the stolid necessity that separates the living from the dead. GR was nothing more than a grim crypt with a never ending supply of dead. Time and countless visits had kindly dulled my senses. But that night, May 8th, the room would not willingly receive me. Struggling against my desire to turn and walk away, I made my way to the desk and asked about the recent delivery. The attendant led me to a drawer, pulled it open and unzipped the body bag.

It was Fred.

I stepped back as the hopelessness of his death struck me. The room went silent, and my head filled with an incredulous roar as the sinister, cold specter of death rushed past me once again; looked me in the eyes and moved on. 'GSW to the back of the head', the attendant reported with a casual indifference, turned and went about his business; his own senses numbed long ago.A tight, knotted pressure began building in my chest and my head ached as I looked on the lifeless body of my friend. His face was unshaven and sweat streaked' and warm still to the touch. I gently lifted his head and located the entry wound. No exit. I wept silently for my friend; his life now gone. My tears fell on his lifeless body. I was just two months into my duties as a Casualty Reporter and I had seen much death and mayhem already, and much more would follow before my tour was over, but this one was personal and filled with cruel irony. In mid-January, 1968, while pulling guard on LZ Sue, the word had come to us that another friend, Dave, had been killed. It was a friendly fire incident. As the platoon was moving through rice paddies, Dave reached up and grabbed the barrel of Fred's M-16 to pull himself up. A shot rang out and a round entered Dave's chest under his arm. In a matter of seconds he was dead. Fred was devastated and noticeably changed when I saw him again sometime later. He was more subdued; quiet. The weight of that death hung heavy and hard on his spirit. And now he was dead. I turned and walked away into the humid oppressive air. My body shook with anger and grief while the past and present collided in my head. I had had enough.I was physically and mentally exhausted from the goddamned daily bloody mayhem. I screamed at God that night as I made my way up the road. I could not contain my anger or my tears. I wanted the forces of Heaven to explain this to me. But God was silent and Heaven was far from near. The urgent cacophony of busy choppers was the only reply I heard that night as I made my way back to the ER under a star filled sky.

The aged merchant ship USS Gordon cut smoothly through the blue-gray ocean, slowly rising and falling, sending salty mist over the bow. We gathered to watch in fascination as a school of porpoise frolicked alongside; rising and plunging, leading the way. Later that evening as the sun was setting; Fred, Jim, Andy, Lee, and I sat on the steel deck talking in hushed tones, discussing our coming fate. We were in a reflective and somber mood that December night as we steamed towards Vietnam. Up to that time we had managed to avoid any discussions of our inner thoughts and fears. We laughed and joked and ran about the ship as if on a cruise, or another exercise. But it could be stilled no longer.

The grim reality of what lie ahead of us had finally come to the surface. We looked at things and one another as if it were to be the last time we would have that chance. It was a simple fact; one year from that moment the odds were that one or more of us would be dead. It was a hollow and forbidding thought. Who would it be? The mood was somber and reflective and somewhere on deck a soft melody from a guitar accompanied by several low voices drifted amidst the many muffled conversations around us. Fred spoke what now seems to have been a prescient forethought which has remained with me through all these years ...

'If I die ...' he quietly pronounced, 'I want to die for a cause, not because'. He never got his wish. It was silent and still. The shadows grew restless; aroused with vile expectation and hungry for the souls delivered to them in this bitter place. A shrill and demonic wailing echoed from the depths of the blackness. The time had come. Death rose from the putrid depths and stood triumphantly above the tragedy before him. And with a cool indifference, he raised his staff to signal the gruesome feast begin.

The nobility of the soldier willing to give a life for God and Country lies silent and still amidst the broken promises of leaders. Send them not to futile sacrifice on shores so far from home, but keep your word to all that serve that none shall die in vain.

The nobility of the soldier willing to give a life for God and Country lies silent and still amidst the broken promises of leaders. Send them not to futile sacrifice on shores so far from home, but keep your word to all that serve that none shall die in vain. ~ Rich Riatano

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