Death In The Jungle

 

In some ways a soldier's life was pretty dull.  Every day was long.   So long, that even if something unusual happened, the rest of the day provided enough dull routine to sort of cover it up, so the whole day seemed dull.  But once in a while something dramatic happened to set the day apart.  This day began like any other.  It was to end as one of a kind.

We left the wire at 7:00 A.M. and climbed aboard waiting helicopters for a short flight to our patrol area.  Today our force consisted of just two platoons - the First and Third - and a small command group with three RTO's, the captain, the artillery lieutenant, and a couple of other men.

Leaving the Wire...We landed on a gently sloping field.  Climbing a slight hill, we walked into an area that had seen fighting only weeks before.  The gutted remains of an armored personnel carrier stood silently at the edge of a bamboo hedgerow, its front blown away by an antitank mine.  Thousands of shell casings littered the ground.  Several booby traps, their trip wires carefully wrapped around the grenade pins, were still partly concealed in low-lying bushes.  Metal clips, scraps of metal, unexploded projectiles - all the refuse of war lay scattered about.   We walked especially carefully now.  The slightest touch might detonate these leftovers.  The point man was the most cautious of all - we'd lost a point just two days ago - and he breathed a sigh of relief when we safely left that area of death and destruction.

We moved into an open field beyond the battle site and spread out into our usual marching formation:  five yards between each man, with flank guards about fifty yards out on each side of the column.

Perhaps flank guards had the toughest job.  They had to keep up with the column even when it changed course - and in thick terrain they couldn't always see us.  They were doubly exposed - they had to watch for both booby traps and enemy soldiers waiting in ambush.  Their only security was that the enemy might ignore them in order to get a shot at the main group.  It was a nerve-wracking job.

Today my friend Conrad was on the right flank.  Conrad had been drafted just after graduating from college.  He and I had become friends almost at once, probably because we were both older than the rest of the guys in the squad.  In the last week he had become apprehensive, probably because of all the guys we were losing, and he started to worry about dying.

Conrad was not the first soldier to think about getting hurt in combat.  The Army even had a solution to the problem.  By merely agreeing to sign up for another four years in the Army you didn't have to go out into combat again.  You even had a choice of career paths.  We called it re-upping, and re-enlistment sergeants visited us on a regular basis.  Things were so bad at Dragon that quite a few men signed up for another hitch, figuring that bad as it was, it beat a permanent ticket home in a box.

Conrad had been talking to the sergeant recently.  In fact, he had almost re-enlisted the day before.  But the thought of four more years in the Army was more than he could stand.  At the last moment he had hesitated and asked the sergeant to give him one more day to think it over.  The sergeant promised to be there when we returned that afternoon.

Later that evening Conrad was in a quiet mood.  He told me, "Kirk, I should have re-enlisted.  I'm not going to make it."  I just told him not to think about it, that the sergeant would be there when we got in the next day and he could sign that paper and get it over with.  As he walked alone out there on the flank, perhaps his mind was on that premonition, or perhaps he was thinking about the seeing the sergeant later in the day.  Or perhaps there was no way he could even have seen the detonator he stepped on.  Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion to the right.  A column of dirt rose twenty feet into the air.  Conrad had stepped on top of a tank mine.

Several of us ran over to see if we could help.  As we approached we could see the six-foot crater, still smoking.  More than half his body was gone, disintegrated by the force of the explosion.  We called for a Medevac to bring a body bag.   Several of the men who'd come to help were sick.  I guess I just thought that the Conrad I'd known was already gone.  I hoped he had gone to a better place than the one he'd just left, with its killing and booby traps and antitank mines - devices with no other purpose than to tear men into small pieces.

Within thirty minutes we were moving again.  War takes no notice of tragedy.   The chopper had taken Conrad's remains away, and I think the captain wanted to get everyone's mind off the accident.  I wish he had chosen to head back.  But of course, it wasn't his to choose.  We had orders to patrol, so that's what we did. But Conrad was only the beginning of a long, bad day.

As I walked along I tried to figure it all out.  In that vast expanse of jungle, on that particular day when he had said he knew it was coming, could it possibly have been chance?  Vietnam taught me that life is not guaranteed to any of us.  And one thing seemed pretty straightforward to me that day - Conrad had known he was going to die, as surely as any of us ever will.

 

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Death In The Jungle:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Picture Copyright 1995 Bob Lindgren
Last modified: March 02, 1995