All Infantry soldiers went to Vietnam expecting to spend 12 months in the war zone (Marines – 13). It was like a jail sentence – spending 365 days in a war-torn, God-forsaken place on the other side of the world. Only here, it was very different – there were no cells or bars on the wall, no TV, no confinement indoors for most of the day, no running water, showers or flush toilets, and certainly no “three-squares a day”. There was, however, lots of fresh air, plenty of exercise, travels that took you through the countryside and mountains, high heat and humidity, little sleep, little food and water (warm to drink and cold to bathe), and numerous moments of sheer panic – sometimes leaving one numb, thankful, sorrowful and sometimes – exhilarating.
In Vietnam, 3.5 million soldiers served this prison sentence during the 16-year war, early releases were only granted to those incurring a severe injury or death. During the first nine months of their tour, many soldiers honestly believed they would not survive the year long sentence. If not killed by the enemy himself, most were at risk of contracting malaria, drowning, bites from dangerous flying insects, snakes, spiders and rats, falling from the side of a mountain or hill, and friendly fire. It was the worst of the worst place to spend time in! If a soldier survived nine months in this environment, a light was suddenly visible at the end of this dark tunnel. He had 99 days or less left in-country – he was now a double-digit midget – short.
Since tenure in Vietnam was measured in days, a soldier, who was “short”, had less than 99 days to go in his tour. It was cause for celebration and time to start counting down the days until only a “wake up” remained. Being “short” was a measure of stature to his peers. He survived nine months in this hell hole and had earned the right to call himself “short”. The goal of him boarding the “Freedom Bird” and flying home to “The World” were now within reach.
Short-timers used to cajole with other short-timers on the amount of time they had left…it was like rank, the lower the amount of days left, the higher the ranking. I remember some of the bantering:
“Hey man, I just broke fifty – I’m short.”
“That ain’t shit man, I got twenty-five and a wake-up. I’m getting so short I have to play handball against the curb.”
“I’ve got ten left and a wake-up. I’m so short, I have to look up to see down.”
“I’ve got one left and a wake-up. I’m so short, I don’t have time for long conversations.”
My favorite was in the movie Platoon when King was assigned to the “shit burning” detail with Charlie Sheen. King said something like this, “I’m so short, I could smell the fresh mountain air of Virginia and that fine aroma from the girl I left behind. I can’t wait!” Then he looks over to Charlie Sheen and says, “how many you got left, three-hundred and fifty what?” Kind of puts things into perspective.
There was also a danger of being “short”. Most were paranoid, avoiding dangerous patrols or taking unnecessary risks. They had their eye on the prize and didn’t want to lose it. It was a more nerve wracking, cautious and stressful time than when they first arrived in country as Cherries.
Short-timers counted down those final days in a variety of ways. Some carried a short stick with notches, wrote on helmet covers or used special calendars – similar to paint by number pictures. I’ve included samples of many used in Vietnam – I’m also certain there are dozens more and similar items used by our Modern-day military soldiers to count down the number of days left in their deployment.
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Did you have something different to count down during your tour of duty?