Thinking back on the months I spent in combat, there were only a few
times that I remember being really afraid, of being so scared that I didn't want to go
where we were going because I thought I might be hurt. But before I give the wrong
impression, let me explain. Most of our days were filled with dull routine.
When danger appeared, it came suddenly. One minute we would be walking along as we
had for the last several hours, the next a booby trap would explode and several men would
fall wounded. Our only thought was to help the wounded. There was no time for
fear, only action. And by and large, at that point the danger was over.
The real fear came when you had time to think about it beforehand. That was the
hardest. Knowing you might get into a situation you couldn't get out of.
That's when fear started building.
We had spent an uneventful two hours hiking through tall grass on a routine morning
patrol when a call came in over the battalion radio. Our
Bravo company had walked into an ambush. They were pinned down under heavy fire.
They needed back-up, and other units were being rushed to their assistance.
Even now helicopters were on their way to pick us up. We moved into pickup formation
in a large meadow. Soon we heard the heavy beating of the Hueys. They circled
once and swept in to land.
I took a seat on the floor with my feet dangling out the door of the chopper, and
switched my radio frequency to that of the chopper. Messages were streaming in from
other units in the area. Our battalion's Charlie Company was going in ahead of us.
I listened tensely to the blow-by-blow account of their hot LZ, broadcast from
choppers climbing to get away from the heavy fire. Charlie Company was on the
ground, and like Bravo was now pinned down. Delta would go in next. Our entire
battalion was being committed, along with armor from a nearby fire base.
Soon it was Delta's turn. They were being inserted about a mile away from the
battle, with the idea of flanking the main ambush. As the choppers went in their
radios came alive. Fire was coming from nearby woods. Another hot LZ.
The gunships raced in to cover the Hueys as they made their getaway. Now, Delta
became the third company to be pinned down.
We were up next. From a thousand feet above, the forests and fields looked
peaceful, but big metal birds were circling and diving around them like so many hawks
eager for prey. Now we started our descent. Closer and closer came the dark
green foliage, while here and there black columns of smoke rolled upward. All this
time the fear had been germinating, taking root. Now it started to break its way to
the surface. We were going into another hot LZ, I was sure of it. We would be
sitting ducks, drifting toward the surface as the enemy lined up his sights and picked us
off, one by one. The bullets would come in a hail, too thick to stop. There
was going to be no place to hide. We would be exposed, in the open on a flat field,
with wave after wave of machine gun fire raking through our ranks. It was
going to be hell. I might even die.
But the fear hadn't won out completely, yet. I switched my radio
back to the company frequency, made sure my M-16 was loaded, and
looked over my stock of grenades. I wanted to be ready for
anything. I started planning what I would do as we came in. The choppers
wouldn't set down - they would sweep in, rock forward to brake their forward momentum,
hang for just a second several feet off the ground, and then as they swung back, hit the
juice and lift away as fast as they could. I had to jump immediately and get out of
the way so the others could land behind me. And stay low because the door-gunners
were shooting. Last, but not least, I reminded myself, get down flat as fast as
possible and find cover.
This was it. Twenty feet off the ground, I slid forward to rest one foot on the
landing rail beneath me. The Huey was still several feet from the ground and moving
forward when I jumped, pushing off the rail. I hit the ground and took two giant
strides, looking for a place to dive for cover. I saw a mound and bushes to one
side. Without hesitating one second, I leaped with all my might for the mound,
stretching my body flat so I wouldn't bounce. I landed in a thick patch of wiry
bushes. I shouldered my rifle and sighted down on the wood line to our flank, ready
to give them round for round.
I glanced back to see if the others behind me were O.K. They were scattered
through the grass and brush flattened and ready to shoot. The Hueys retreated into
the distance, and the sound of their door-gunners' firing faded away. All was
silent. Suddenly I realized not a shot had been fired against us. And now that we
had reacted to the danger with action, the fear was gone. It might almost have been
better if we had seen some fighting. It would have been a more noble, more glorious
end to the day. For, in my haste to find cover, I had chosen to jump into a bramble
bush. My arms, chest and neck were bristling with little thorns - painful little
thorns. As we regrouped and headed overland to aid our embattled sister companies, I
could think only of the thorns. One by one I picked them out of my skin, but many
were buried deep, and itched and stung. The rewards of my heroic leap for life
stayed with me for weeks, and taught me another valuable combat lesson. In your
haste to stay alive, don't exchange one trouble for another.