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.
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
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
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.