By: SPC Richard S. Bergquist
I first received this story in early August when a friend of mine emailed it to me with a note saying that it was rather unique and worth reading. The PDF file, formatted like a book, is 28 pages long and easy to read. It’s more directed toward combat veterans, but certainly, all Vietnam Vets will be able to relate either in whole or in part. The author nails it with his recollection of “Firsts” and also offers us a new perspective for the term “Short-Timer”. I thoroughly enjoyed this work and have Rev. Richard Bergquist’s permission to publish it here for everyone else to read. I personally believe that stories are more enjoyable when pictures accompany the prose, thereby, providing readers with a visual aid that portrays the event. So, I’ve added photos from the internet. I hope you enjoy the story!
Vietnam provided me with many firsts, matured me beyond my years, and increased my vocabulary considerably. Aside from some new profanity and the learning of local language phrases there were certain words and phrases that were uniquely the jargon of the Vietnam experience. One of the more common and celebrated of the latter was “short-timer.”
Typically, anybody with less than a hundred days left to serve in their “tour of duty” was considered, and addressed, as a short-timer. A tour of duty was three hundred sixty-five days and “a wake-up.” The Marines, known for their one-upmanship, were the exception by serving a thirteen month tour. Short-timer was a title one earned by surviving a tour. Therefore, it was touted quite proudly. To proclaim oneself a short-timer was to declare a social status. You were the envy of all, and the company of few.
A “Short-timer’s calendar” might be proudly on display in your hooch (living quarters for those in the rear area), or the passing days might be checked off on your helmet’s camouflage cover. You could also strut around with a “short-timer’s stick,” if you were so inclined. Perhaps, best of all, if you were ever asked your opinion about anything, you had the right to declare: “I’m too short to give a ____!”
It was not unusual for a short-timer to be afforded certain privileges. Not having to pull some crappy detail (chore) or not “walking point” (front man on a combat patrol) was the most common. Short-timers were also protected by their fellow soldiers. The death of a short-timer was terribly depressing and demoralizing. It was to be avoided at all costs. There was always a way to get a short-timer out of the bush during his last week or two. Usually a temporary assignment was arranged in the rear area. This accommodation was made for officers as well as the enlisted ranks.
Short-timer could also be used to describe anyone, who for any number of reasons, was leaving before the end of their tour. It is in the latter sense that I title this story.
Myself and another young paratrooper by the name of Gerald Kirby were assigned bunks together at SERTS (Screaming Eagle Replacement Training). This was the 101st Airborne Division’s first stop for all “Cherries” (new guys) as we were called. For the Infantry soldier, this title stuck with you until you either served an acceptable amount of time in the bush (determined by your peers), or had distinguished yourself during a “fire-fight” (gun battle). Better yet, to have gotten your first “body count” (enemy kill).
Exactly how, or where, along the training process we met escapes me, but Kirby and I hit it off right from day one. Kirby, as I preferred to call him, was from Houston Texas. He didn’t look, sound, or act like no “Texan” to me. I always thought you had to be at least six foot tall, chew tobacco, and speak with a drawl to be a Texan. Kirby was average height, talked normal and didn’t even smoke Marlboros. Talk about a disappointment! I was a California surfer; tall, tan, and smoked anything, well almost anything. We came from different states, but we were both “city boys.” Both of us were eighteen. Like all “red-blooded American boys” away from home, we spent most of our spare time talking about either Mom’s cooking, cars, or girls. Which of those dominated our conversation, I shouldn’t have to say. We both liked Chevy’s! We joked around constantly. We made each other laugh so much we could actually forget we were in a war zone. The occasional scream of a low flying fighter jet would drown out our laughter just often enough to keep us in reality.
Amidst all the joking and laughing, we knew our time in Vietnam was serious business. We were both highly trained, Airborne Infantry paratroopers that were here to kill as many of the enemy as we could. We also knew the enemy had the same objective. For some strange reason though, maybe it was the invincible attitude of an eighteen year old, but we gave no thought at all to the possibility of getting killed. I know I didn’t, and Kirby never brought it up. We did make a solemn promise to watch out for each other, and help each other make it through the coming year.
Kirby and I would have nothing to do with any of that talk. We also agreed to keep each other’s morale up, knowing that our tour was going to be psychologically tough as well. Guerrilla warfare was nasty business. The VC (Viet Cong) typically would hit and run, killing or wounding as many as possible without becoming engaged in a drawn out gun battle. Therefore, the gratification of killing the enemy was not a common experience. Additionally, the life of the Infantry soldier presented a long list of hardships: sleepless nights, fatigue, tropical heat and humidity, rain, mosquitoes, leeches, rats, snakes, booby-traps, snipers, C-rats (canned rations), death and disease, to name the obvious ones.
Speaking of death, when a fellow soldier was killed in battle, there was no time for sorrow and little time for sentiment. In part or in whole, he was conveniently zipped up in a body-bag, and shipped out on a helicopter as quickly as possible. There was no ceremony, no memorial, just a replacement, and hopefully, soon. The saying; “it don’t mean nothin” expressed an attitude essential for survival in the bush.
For this reason, many warned against being buddies or making friends. The thinking was, that you saved yourself a ton of grief if you didn’t make friends. To have a close friend die in combat was indeed difficult to deal with emotionally. Only one problem, it was impossible not to have friends. You simply couldn’t help caring about the guys you depended on day in and day out for your very survival. Eventually, a special human bond develops, known only to those that have suffered the privations of war and the comradeship of battle. Indeed a love, an affection, a bonding of the soul happens between men on the battlefield. Men that fight, pray and even cry together are men that mean everything to each other. This bond will last for the rest of their lives. For this reason, I was prepared to risk having a buddy. The benefits seemed worth it to me. Kirby agreed.
Just as Kirby and I entered the barracks, two mysterious figures shuffled in through the door at the opposite end. The long row of green canvas cots led our eyes directly to them. In the fading daylight, it was hard to identify them for rank or even unit. However, their shabby appearance made it obvious they were not Cherries like us. As the generators cranked up supplying power to the camp, the long row of light bulbs slowly reached a full glow. They revealed two war-hardened paratroopers that looked old, talked old, and even from a distance, smelled old. Yet, neither of them could have been more than a year older than ourselves.
Both soldiers were clad in the same jungle fatigues we were, but the faded and tattered look would lead you to believe that one uniform was expected to last all year. The strange streaks of white that outlined their chest pockets would also outline ours as the salt deposits from constant heavy sweat collected and dried.
My eyes were drawn to a distinct patch worn above their “jump-wings” (parachutist wings), over the left shirt pocket. Instantly, I recognized the long-rifle on a field of blue against a victory wreath as the CIB (Combat Infantry Badge). This was the Army’s most coveted badge, and it was proudly worn by Infantry soldiers that had served a qualified amount of time in combat.
These guys were bigger than life to me. I was totally awestruck by their appearance. My mind was overloaded with wild imaginations of the unspeakable horrors they must have seen, and the hardships they endured. It was obvious they had, “Spent their time in hell.” What was described by some as the “hundred yard stare,” was a fitting description for the look on their faces. While I appreciated what they must have gone through, a good bit of envy still crept up within me when I learned that these guys had just completed their tours and were now rotating back to “the world” (the USA).
Much to my surprise, these two battle-worn paratroopers, were extremely cordial to us. They introduced themselves and asked us how long we had been “in-country.” When, they learned we were green replacements they demonstrated such an attitude of compassion that it was actually a little unnerving. However, it was apparent by their manner and tone, that their intent was not to scare us, but to prepare us. It was as if they were obligated to tell us all they could. They began giving us tips on what to do, what not to do, and what to watch out for. Neither of us were writing any of this down, figuring I’m sure that we weren’t likely to forget anything that might help us stay alive. Most the stuff seemed to be common sense anyway, like keeping your helmet on in the bush.
However, other things, like not carrying any hand-grenades didn’t make any sense at all. Weren’t we supposed to blow things up? Oh well, I’m sure the guys in our unit would help us get “squared away” regarding all the “do’s and don’ts.”
Suddenly, it dawned on me, that these two guys came together to Vietnam and were now leaving together, the result of the “rotation” system. From this day forward, there would be little doubt in my mind that Kirby and I would be doing the same exactly one year from this day.
For quite some time I believed this to be an arranged encounter. Two survivors returning from the battlefield, being assigned bunks right where two raw recruits were. Think about it, who better to prepare us psychologically for the year ahead? The commanders seemed to have thought of everything. A few days of introduction to the “real” Vietnam; several mock patrols, some live-fire exercises (the use of live ammo in a training situation), and a chance to acclimate to the tropical heat. Now, meeting a couple of guys that had “been there and done that.” Perfect! That’s the Airborne for you! Some time later in my tour, my relating the event to others revealed that we seemed to be the only ones to have had such an experience. The encounter seemed to be either completely by chance or by divine order. These two guys came through our area, stayed that one night, then headed south for the “freedom-bird” the next day. Well, I would eventually learn that allot of mysterious and unusual things didn’t just happen by chance.
Next stop, “LZ Sally.” More than an LZ (landing zone), Sally was actually a base-camp. We were now in the northern region of South Vietnam, referred to as the I Corps. I Corps being the North, II Corps the Central, and III Corps the Southern Area of Operations. This was the AO (area of operation) for the 101st Airbone Division, loosely described as, “from Da Nang to the DMZ, and from the Anlo to the Ashau,” prominent geographical markers. Like a couple of tourists in a strange city we asked our way around Sally with orders in hand attempting to locate our assigned unit. As we walked across the camp I still didn’t get the sense that there was a war going on anywhere close. Everybody seemed at ease and focused on their duties, stopping only to take a good look at the two of us. I’m sure it was our obvious “new guys” look that drew the many stares we got.
“Geronimo” was the greeting at the top of the neatly painted sign in front us. A giant pair of jump-wings dominated the sign, and the famous “Screaming Eagle” patch proudly announced the unit’s identity; 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, “Swift and Deadly.”
We had arrived, but not to much. To our surprise, the Company area seemed deserted. After a little snooping around we finally found the company clerk, and the supply sergeant. We were told there was an Officer of some type over at a tent set up as an Officers Club. Where else would you look for an officer in the rear area? The rest of Charlie company was in the bush.
We got the definite impression that we were not going to be allowed to hang around LZ Sally very long by how quickly the supply sergeant issued us our field equipment. We had both heard stories of new guys getting used equipped recycled from the dead or wounded, blood stains and all. We were relieved to see that most of our equipment was brand spanking new, and what wasn’t, was free of blood stains. It was like Christmas in June, a “green” Christmas! We got all kinds of really cool stuff, in various shades of green. There was a back-pack called a “ruck-sack” or “ruck” for short, four canteens, (a fifth, if we wanted it, but Sarge warned us that the weight of the average ruck was about sixty pounds), one, really cool looking blanket, called a “poncho liner,” one green face-towel, one field-dressing (compress bandage) with pouch (Kirby joked that we were only allowed to get “one” wound at a time), one canteen-cup and that all-important helmet or “steel pot” as they grunts called it, with liner and Camouflage cover.
After getting all of our gear, we were issued our weapons and ammunition. One M-16 automatic rifle, one bayonet, four bandoleers of ammo, eight to twelve ammo magazines (again our choice considering weight), one “trip-flare” (phosphorus flare with trip wire), one Claymore mine (command detonated, directional anti-personal mine), one LAW (light anti-tank weapon) and four to six hand-grenades. Hand-grenades? Like that warning from Mom that stays with you all your life and comes to mind the very instant you’re about to have a little dangerous fun, the words of the two short-timers came back to me when I saw the deadly devices. I limited myself to four grenades, Kirby did the same, and echoed their warning to us; “be sure to check the pins every day.”
Walking around carrying an automatic rifle with a loaded ammo magazine in it seemed a really strange. For some silly reason I felt like one of the cowboys right out of the old west, walking the streets of Dodge City. The feeling was absolutely cool! Up until this point in our military experience, weapons were only carried in
training situations and then, with absolutely no ammo. Even on guard duty, only a few rounds were issued, and each and every round was strictly accounted for at the end of the duty. Today, we would be denied a meal at the mess tent if we didn’t have our M-16’s with us. As far as ammo went, we could have as much as we were willing to carry. It was starting to sink in that these two cowboy’s were getting closer to “OK Coral.”
Except for our conspicuously new jungle fatigues, Kirby and I were beginning to look like real fighting men, “Line Doggies”, “Boonie Rats,” or just simply “Grunts.” We were quite impressed with ourselves. Only one problem, while we may have started to look the part, we definitely didn’t feel the part. We were green, hadn’t seen a hint of combat, and we were both starting to get just a little bit nervous. In less than twenty-four hours we would be in the “boonies”.
Sarge had just informed us that we would be going out on tomorrow’s “re-supply chopper” (helicopter) to join Charlie company.
Most of the next day was spent desperately trying to lighten our rucks. Once all the canteens were filled with water, and the ammo and other items of destruction were either stuffed into or strapped onto the ruck, it was easily in the fifty pound range! How on earth were we supposed to carry all this stuff? We never trained with all this weight! Something was terribly wrong with this picture. Then, as if our burden was not enough already; Sarge was kind enough to warn us that once we were in the bush, we could expect to be given a couple hundred rounds of machine-gun ammo to carry as well. God help us! We were quickly learning why the infantry soldier in Vietnam was most often referred to as a Grunt! Not to worry though, for we were the Airborne! Mighty, Mighty Airborne! All The Way! Now this was not “The Power of Positive Thinking” at work. Just good ole’ military brain-washing, and we loved it! Geronimo!
FIRST CHOPPER RIDE
With our “still too heavy” rucks on our backs, we moved as quickly as any “pack-mules” could out to the waiting helicopter. Getting aboard was a process that was more trial and error than execution. Eventually, we figured out that it was best to back into the cargo area of the chopper, get the ruck to rest on the floor, then turn and throw your legs up onto the floor.
We had been instructed to board the chopper from different sides to keep the weight evenly distributed. Now that actually made a lot of sense to me. There was little doubt that the two of us were the heaviest things aboard. Had we sat on the same side, the helicopter would have just flown around in circles.
We sat on the cold metal floor amid cases of c-rations, hand-grenades, Claymore mines, and assorted ammo cans. There were two large, wet, burlap bags, that much to my surprise, were full of beer and soda! Each soldier was allowed two refreshments a day when a resupply was possible. Things were looking better already, a cold beer or soda from time to time! There was a smaller bag the Sarge kept tucked neatly under his arm, and looked like he would kill to protect it. At first I thought it was a pouch of secret orders to the Commander. I later learned it was something even more valuable, mail from the “world”.
Sarge sat right on top of the supplies. He looked like a mother hen protecting her precious eggs. A well-armed hen at that, for in addition to the 45 cal. pistol he always wore, he now had a loaded M-16 resting across his lap. Sarge, we had learned, was also a short-timer, and had spent his time in the bush. He was obviously not taking any chances.
The flight was too short to give much thought to anything, except for how fast my heart was beating. I glanced over at Kirby, he didn’t look very relaxed either. He smiled. I’m sure he was trying to put me at ease. It didn’t work. Sarge, however, really looked calm, and that helped. His composure made me believe we actually had a fair chance of surviving the helicopter ride.
There was one guy aboard that caused me a great deal of concern. That was the door gunner. His dead serious expression and deliberate behavior reminded me that we were not on a pleasure flight. Once in the air, this guy never took his eyes off the terrain, and one hand was always on the grip of the machine-gun. Now that had to be the absolute coolest job in the whole dang war! A sit-down, fly around, shoot-em up job, that allowed you to wear a really neat flight-helmet with a built in sun-visor! Momentarily, I daydreamed about sitting in his seat, firing that machine-gun, mowing down untold numbers of Viet Cong. Just as I was losing myself in the glory of battle, I felt us dropping out of the sky.
Only Sarge’s continued calm assured me we weren’t crashing. Just like any good ride, it was ending too soon! As we left the cooler altitude, the tropical heat once again assaulted my senses. The distinct odor that is Vietnam quickly made its way through my nostrils and my eardrums resonated to the loud slapping of the rotor blades. There was no doubt in my mind that every able bodied Viet Cong for a mile around was at this very moment, grabbing his AK-47 (assault rifle) to run out and greet us. “So much for sneaking up on the enemy” I yelled over to Kirby. Hoping a little humor might relieve some of the obvious anxiety we were feeling at the moment. Kirby smiled. The door gunner now lifted his machine-gun into the ready-to-fire position, moving it along with his sight as he scanned the horizon. Sure hope he doesn’t have to use that thing. I thought to myself. A nice peaceful landing would be just fine with me.
It was dusk, and the failing light prevented me from getting a good look at the surroundings from the air. The chopper came to a hover about a foot above water in an open field. The wet marshy area was divided by small berms of earth called dikes, so I figured we were in the middle of a rice paddy. Only one small clump of bushes gave any cover. A small group of soldiers were gathered there. The rest that I could see, were spread out in all directions, in squatted positions, weapons at the ready, looking out into the open fields.
Several guys began sloshing their way up to the chopper from both sides. With one hand holding their helmets, they fought their way through the rotor-wash. Sarge gestured for us to stay put until all the supplies were off-loaded. Everything was quickly thrown out into the mud and water. The speed with which the helicopter was being unloaded made me nervous.
I doubt they could have been faster had we were under fire. Maybe we were we, and I just didn’t know it yet. With the last burlap bag being drug out, Sarge directed us out the doors with a thumbs up and a friendly, somewhat reassuring smile on his face. I was certain he was smiling because he was leaving with the helicopter and would be spending his night sleeping on a nice dry cot. Well, out we went, virtually “getting our feet wet.” The first few steps were murder. The weight of our rucks caused us to sink to our ankles in the mud. So much for “Swift and Deadly” I thought to myself. We were not under fire, I was thankful for that. I would have been an easy target to hit, big and slow!
We were immediately escorted over to the clump of bushes. On the way, we were reminded not to salute the CO (commanding officer), so as not to reveal him to the enemy. Now, I doubted seriously that the enemy could see anything way out here, specially as dark as it was getting. But, better go along with the program for the time being. Besides, not having to salute officers, was a perk for the enlisted man. Following a very brief introduction, which amounted to “welcome to the team,” Kirby and I were assigned to different platoons. This was terrible! How were we going to watch out for each other now? For some dumb reason, I just figured Kirby and myself would be right next to each other all the time. The two of us belonged together, after all that’s the way they sent us! I figured to correct the obvious mistake as soon as possible. Tomorrow, I would simply explain what good friends we had become, and how important it was that we be allowed to stay together, after all, we were buddies.
The chopper was in the area less than a minute, and the introduction to our CO certainly took no more than two minutes. So, about three minutes after arriving, the Vietnam War began for Kirby and me. For no apparent reason, everybody was either ducking down or diving for cover. I didn’t hear any shooting or explosions, so I was wondering what the heck was the matter with these guys. Then I figured it out, it was some kind of drill they did about this time each night, just to stay focused. Always training, these paratroopers!
Suddenly, somebody pushed me to the ground yelling “get down Cherry!” My nice dry fatigues were now soaked, and I didn’t have a change of clothes. The thought of trying to sleep in wet clothes was not pleasant. Little did I know, this would be the least of my discomforts.
Just as I was about to swear at the somebody that pushed me down, I heard a distant voice yell “sniper!” Followed by the familiar sound of M-16 gunfire.
Cautiously, I lifted by head and stole a glimpse of where the shooting was taking place. The paratroopers near the clump of bushes were now firing rounds in the direction of a large row of trees about a hundred yards out.
A bullet had whizzed by somebody’s head. The rest was conditioned response by the grunts. Whoever it was that pushed me to the ground, was actually doing me a favor. An unsettling fact of physics is, that a bullet travels much faster than sound.
The saying “You won’t hear the one that kills you” is a fact! Already, I had learned a valuable lesson; when you think the enemy’s not watching, he is. Fortunately, nobody was hit by the sniper shot. As for me, I was more upset about getting wet than scared. I didn’t really know enough to be scared yet. What I did know, was that I had just arrived, and in little more than three minutes the enemy was already letting me know he was out there. My mind was reluctantly accepting the undeniable evidence that somebody would be trying to kill me from this day forward. I wondered if Kirby was thinking the same thing. While the incident was not quite a baptism by fire, it was definitely a wake up call for both of us. As I lay low behind a dike for cover, I was beginning to feel just a little bit more comfortable in my wet fatigues.
I was assigned to third platoon, and was introduced to “Vic.” “OK if I just call ya Berk?” He asked. “Most the guys go by some kinda nick name out here.” I have never had a nick name other than Rick. That must have sounded too much like Vic so he picked out “Berk” from my last name. “Sure, no problem, Berk will do just fine.” I replied. Vic was taller than me by an inch or two and had a mischievous looking grin, the kind somebody has when they know something you don’t and they know it. He was friendly but authoritative, what I always figured a big brother might be like. My guess was that he was a year older, maybe two. He was the M-60 machine-gunner for our platoon. “Berk” was now his new assistant gunner! “Good Golly Miss Molly,” this was too cool! Assistant gunner! Wait until Kirby finds out! Wonder what kind of assignment he got?
Vic began checking out my ruck. He told me he would be happy to carry two of the canteens of water to lighten my load a bit until I adjusted to humping the ruck. This guy is really all right, I thought to myself. Then he reached over to his gear and grabbed two ammo cans, smiled with his silly grin, and said; “you just inherited four hundred rounds of M-60 ammo.” Wonderful! Sure enough, more weight, just like the Sarge had warned. Somehow, I think Vic got the better end of the deal, but who was I to complain?
Noticing my nervousness following the sniper attack, Vic tried to assure me that everything would be OK. Hoping to impress him, I was a bit disappointed my calm exterior didn’t have him fooled. It was dark now, and we were facing the long tree line the sniper had fired from.
Meticulously placing the machine-gun up on the dike, Vic laid out his towel next to it, hooking up a long length of ammo. “If I start shooting, you keep linking ammo. If the gun jams, move with me quickly to another position,” he instructed. “The VC would love to put an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) in on a machine-gun position,” he explained.
“Wait just a single combat moment here, that little piece of information was never mentioned in training,” I half seriously complained to Vic. “Your gonna learn allot of stuff out here Berk they never mentioned in training,” he said with a chuckle. If he had been trying to make me feel more at ease, he was failing miserably!
I asked Vic how long we had to stay out here in the water and mud. “Normally we would move into the tree line of that village for the night, and set up our NDP (night defensive perimeter) but with our little sniper friend in there, we can’t risk it. He’s probably busy right this moment setting up a few welcoming toys for us to stumble upon tomorrow.” Huh? “Toy’s?” I asked? “Booby-traps! Berk, you do know what those are don’t you?” He teased sarcastically. “We’ll go in tomorrow morning and sweep (patrol) the village. Tonight, we’ll just have to put up with the water. Put your ruck up against the dike and lie back on it. At least you can keep half dry, and by the way, the leeches love fresh blood, so make sure your pants are tied down tight at the ankles,” he warned. Once again, I found myself wondering how Kirby was doing. Did somebody warn him about the leeches?
Morning finally came. It was a quiet night, but a long one. I was unable to sleep until after my last watch. Nature was telling me that the first order of business this morning was to relieve myself. Now, I had heard stories, but this was the real thing and I wasn’t absolutely sure that all the stories I had heard were true. Except for that small clump of bushes where I was introduced to the CO, we were completely out in the open. Where the heck do I go to relieve myself? Certainly not over by the CO! I decided to hold it, and hopefully I could learn by observation. To help take my mind off the matter; I scrounged through all the pockets of my ruck, trying to remember where I put those tablets for heating food and water. I was ready for some hot coffee, even if it was instant.
Just a short time later, two guys passed by me on my right. I watched with curiosity as they casually walked out toward the village where the sniper had fired from, armed only with their M-16 rifles. Is anybody watching these idiots?
They can’t be going out on patrol all by themselves! They got about five yards out and stopped. One of the guys slung his M-16 on his shoulder, and got something off his helmet. What I saw next, really surprised me. I couldn’t believe my eyes, he dropped his pants right out there in front of God and everybody, and just like I had heard, he wasn’t wearing any underwear. I looked around me, and nobody was paying any attention at all. I looked back, and the guy that had dropped his pants had squatted, the other guy squatted a short distance away but kept his pants up. I finally figured he must be “covering” the guy taking a dump. I was right. When one was done, the other took his turn. So that’s how it’s done! Welcome to the bush, “Berk.” That’s just wonderful! I was going to have to ask a guy, that I‘ve known less than a day, with his “I know something you don’t” grin, to “cover me” while I dropped my pants and relieved myself. I really wished Kirby was around now. I’d be a heck of a lot more comfortable with somebody I’ve known for a while on such a mission. Embarrassed a little by watching such a personal activity, I quickly redirected my full attention to getting my coffee water hot.
Vic couldn’t help noticing my struggle in getting the coffee water going. Reaching into a fatigue pocket he pulled out a stick of something wrapped in green cellophane. He pinched off a small amount, knelt down where I had my heat tablet glowing nicely and placed it next to it. Using his bayonet, he gently moved the putty like substance into the flame.
Instantly, there was a bright orange flash as it began to burn. I jumped back a bit, alerted when I understood him to say “C-4.” I was expecting an explosion, thinking this might be some kind of “new guy” initiation; “blow up the cherry’s canteen cup!” Now, there was a horrid thought, “Killed in Action” by shrapnel from his own canteen cup!…Not the eulogy this young paratrooper wanted to have read at his memorial service.
Vic chuckled a little at my reaction, but quickly assured me everything was safe. About which time, I glanced back at my cup and noticed the water had come to a full boil in just a matter of seconds. With some reservation, I thanked him for the “instant” cup of hot coffee and asked how safe it was to be using explosives for cooking. “No problem, we do it all the time. Only thing you don’t want to do is stomp on it to put it out. It’ll blow your foot clean off!” Now there’s a nice piece of information to retain. I thought to myself, wondering if Kirby had been warned. I hoped I could remember to tell him. I couldn’t help but wonder if the warning was the result of an actual incident. Some poor “new guy” sent home minus a foot because nobody warned him.
It was now time to make that deferred nature visit. I asked Vic about the proper procedure. He gave me the run down (just as I had observed earlier), told me he would go with me and cover me with my M-16. “Normally we try to be a little more private about these things, but you’ll see Mama-san out here too, you’ll get use to it,” he said. So, off we went on our not-so-private “potty call.”
Now, nobody, but nobody, warned me about the battalion of Kamikaze mosquitoes secretly waiting in the wet environment ready to assault my Lilly-white bottom the instant I exposed it. Now that was a battle! I was “slappin and crappin” as fast as I could. God, what an awful experience! So, my first morning in the “bush” I learned how to make a really fast cup of coffee, and take an even faster dump!
Oh yea, there was one more necessity; checking for those pesky leeches (conveniently done while the pants were down of course). Now there was a real nuisance! You couldn’t feel the suckers, so they would stay on you, drawing your blood, like slimy vampires, until they got big and fat, all night long if possible. The heat from a flaming “Zippo” (cigarette lighter) or “bug juice” (mosquito repellent) would get rid of them easy enough, but the idea that something was secretly draining my blood away somehow seemed extremely unfair. I personally had planned on keeping every drop of my blood, and to have it stolen from me during my sleep was disgusting. Between the vampire leeches and the suicidal mosquitoes, there would be precious little of my blood to go around. This was indeed going to be a tough tour!
Within an hour of daylight we were on the move again. We “humped” (walked) along on the rice-paddy dikes in two columns. Keeping a good distance from the guy in front of you was mandatory. The idea being, that if he set off a booby trap, he would hopefully be the only casualty. Of course that all depended upon the size and type of the particular booby-trap. The Viet Cong were genius at creating weapons from nothing, and the booby-trap was their specialty. Most devices would simply maim you, many would kill you slowly, a few would leave only pieces to collect, and still others could take out an entire squad with one blast. Each and every step in the bush could easily be your very last. For this reason, I learned to take every step with care and for good measure, memorized the Twenty-third Psalm, “Yea though I walk through the valley…..”
As we moved along, I looked across the rice paddy to see if I could identify Kirby. After scanning a few silhouettes, there he was! I gave him a wave, and he waved back. It felt good to see him again, even if just a form in the distance. I couldn’t wait until we had a chance to compare notes on our first night in the bush. I would talk to the squad leader when the opportunity presented itself, and get Kirby transferred to my platoon.
We patrolled the village just as Vic had said. Fortunately, the sniper was not heard from again and I guess he didn’t feel like leaving us any toy’s to “stumble” upon, thank God! At our first rest break, I asked about getting Kirby to the platoon. I was told to forget it for a while. “Cherries don’t have any rights” I was quickly reminded. The platoon leader had to OK any changes in assignments requested by the platoon sergeant, and the platoon sergeant didn’t move cherries around much, especially not at their request. So, for the moment, I would have to patient and wait. The Company would be standing-down in just four more weeks. We would be spending two weeks at a place called Cocoa Beach, a Naval fuel supply base on the Gulf of Tonkin. We were free during the day to relax and have some fun but at night we would man the perimeter bunkers for the security of the base. We would be able to spend some time together then.
I couldn’t wait to hear how things had been going for him. We would go together to talk to the platoon sergeant about our being in the same platoon. Until then, we would continue our “Search and Destroy” patrols through the villages for Viet Cong, their weapons, and their food supplies.
It was well past noon, and there had been no contact with the enemy all day. That usually meant, there was a good chance we would be getting a hot meal flown out to us by helicopter. Sure enough, just a few minutes after stopping for our noon break, I heard the Huey off in the distance. We took up positions just off the trail, finding some kind of cover. We went in two’s up to the “CP” (command post) to get our chow. The menu never changed! It was always pork-roast, mashed potatoes, a vegetable and a slice of bread. It was so much better than C-rations, that nobody complained about the lack of variety. There was always plenty of it too. So, “hot chow” was considered a treat.
I had just settled in and taken a few bites when a shot rang out from somewhere down the trail. I had been in the bush long enough now that I could recognize the sound of all our weapons. Anything different, specially if not proceeded by somebody yelling “fire in the hole,” was likely to be enemy fire. I quickly put my plate aside. Allowing my adrenaline to preside over my hunger, I joined Vic quickly with an additional two hundred rounds, in case we had to move-out with the gun. We waited for a “sit-rep” (situation report) from our squad leader. We finally got word that a VC sniper had taken out one of our guys. Instantly, my thoughts were of Kirby. “Who was it?” Yelled Vic, “One of the Cherries,” came the response.
My heart sank. I sat back dumbfounded, and in shock. It just couldn’t be true. Vic turned to me and asked the name of the new guy I was trying to get into the platoon. “Kirby,” I choked, “Gerald Kirby.”
We stayed put. Vic resumed his meal. Not knowing yet the fate of my buddy, I had lost my appetite. Finally, the complete report got up our way. “PFC Kirby, KIA, headshot, dust-off is on the way.” It seems that he was eating his meal with a couple of others at his position, but he was the only one that had removed his helmet. The sniper obviously chose him as his target for that reason; a clean, almost certain, kill.
It wasn’t mandatory that you have your helmet on at all times, except when on patrol. The thing was heavy so it was always nice to give your neck a little break once in a while. Everyone knew a steel-pot could not stop a bullet, but it could deflect it enough to save your life. In this case, it would have made Kirby a less than ideal target. A VC sniper hardly ever took a shot unless it was a good one, knowing that his chances of getting away were lower if he missed his mark.
Kirby’s death devastated me. I had lost my buddy. We never got that chance to laugh together again, and talk about how we were doing with our platoon assignments. All of a sudden, I wasn’t so confident that I would survive my tour either. And to be honest, at this point, I really didn’t care. I was really angry. Why did he take his helmet off? Why did the other two guys let him? Didn’t they know about snipers? It just wasn’t fair! I’ll always remember you buddy! I must go on, but there is now way I can say “it don’t mean nothin.”
My steel-pot will stay on my head in the bush, OK? Believing Kirby was listening to my comments from somewhere in the heavens. Guess they were right Kirby, seems that old warning about not having a buddy was good advice after all. Of course I know you didn’t mean for it to happen, but man, how am I gonna make it without you? Hey, maybe I’ll go just as quickly someday. Who knows? Oh yea, I guess “He” knows. He knows everything. Well, take care buddy. It was great getting to know you!
For a long time after Kirby’s death, it seemed only right that I die on the battlefield as well. Some would argue that I was trying to get killed, but I didn’t have a death wish, and I was definitely not suicidal. I never did foolish things or took risks for the soul purpose of getting killed. A death preference would best describe my attitude. I just hoped things would work out that way. However, as if surrounded by an elite team of Guardian Angels, death eluded me. More than once I was certain it was check-out time, only to be surprised by my miraculous survival. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the reason I survived was God’s grace. And, I have a sneaky suspicion that Kirby was involved in some way.
That lonely trip home was avoided by volunteering for a second tour of duty, doing something I dreamed of since the that very first chopper ride out to the bush. You guessed it, I became a helicopter door gunner.
It was every bit as exciting as I imagined it would be. Unfortunately, more friends were lost, but not another buddy. Eventually, I too became a “casualty of war,” not as I had expected though, as if there was anything about my life that was predictable. Plagued by repeated nightmares of burning alive in a helicopter crash, (something I feared constantly) and painful migraine headaches, my fighting days came to an end about five months into my second tour.
I was diagnosed to have “Situational Combat Fatigue,” today called PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) was not a glorious injury, and definitely not anything to brag about. This was pathetic, not only could I not get killed honorably, I couldn’t even get a respectable battle wound. Purple Hearts aren’t given for wounds to the human psyche.
Although sentenced to live a life plagued with painful memories, and my share of survivor’s guilt, I determined to live in a way that would honor Kirby’s death. To this day, Kirby has never left my thoughts, and I still find myself wondering why my story is not his to tell.
Some twenty years later, I paid my respects to Kirby by finding him at the Vietnam Memorial Traveling Wall Panel 51 West — – Line 34.
PFC — E3 — Army Regular
101st Airborne Division
18 year old Single, Caucasian, Male
Born on Aug 28, 1949
From HOUSTON TEXAS
Length of service 1 year
Tour of duty began on Jun 25, 1968
Casualty was on Jul 22, 1968
in THUA THIEN, SOUTH VIETNAM
Hostile, died of wounds
GUN, SMALL ARMS FIRE
Body was recovered
Lutheran & Missouri Synod
At the base of the panel I left a card. Upon it I explained to any visitor that might choose to read it, who Kirby was, how he died, and what he had meant to me. Kirby did not live long enough to be awarded the Combat Infantry Badge, but I felt he had earned one.
I pinned my CIB to the card, stood at attention, and gave a final salute.
See you soon, short-timer
About the author:
September 18, 1949, Los Angeles, CA
Several little boys were born that day at Queen of Angels Hospital, one of them was me. I grew up as a “street kid” on the tough inner city streets of LA., raised by an alcoholic mother that had divorced my father before I got to know him. In and out of Foster Homes about as often as my mom would find a new bar was the way my young life went. The only time mom took me to church was when she was desperate for food. Many are my memories of a loving pastor and his wife providing bags of groceries for us.
Without much guidance or discipline, and with growing contempt for my impoverished life I began to strike out at life by lighting fires. Fortunately, I was caught and placed in juvenile detention at age twelve before I could do any serious damage. It was there that God stepped into my life by way of a promise and a challenge given to me by the chaplain. He encouraged me by telling me I had a father in heaven that loved me more than any earthly father could, and challenged me to believe what God had to say about his great love by memorizing a Bible verse. “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16 He also reminded me that Foster parents were not likely to take in a child arrested for arson, so my stay in Juvenile Hall could be a long one.
In November of 1967, at the peak of the Vietnam conflict, I joined the United States Army, enlisting as a paratrooper for Airborne Infantry. While my “Jump Wings” were pinned upon my chest, my assignment to the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam was announced over the public address. For a High School drop-out, this was a giant personal accomplishment for me! My final spiritual preparation before leaving to war was to be baptized, and so it happened, I was baptized and received a US Army Certificate of Baptism from the base Chaplain.
I made it through my first tour in Vietnam and then re-inlisted to be a door gunner – beginning my second tour without leaving the country. The loss of friends in battle and the trauma of combat eventually took their toll as I began to suffer migraines and repeated nightmares of crashing and burning alive in my helicopter. Diagnosed with “Situational Combat Fatigue” (now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD) I was medically removed from flight duty.
No longer fit for battle, my trust in God had failed and I slipped into deep depression with suicidal tendencies, overdosing once and attempting to kill a fellow soldier that mocked my sickness. After some time in the stockade, I was reassigned to another unit where I met a young paratrooper, Rupert Harrell, aka “Preacher”. Rupert encouraged and prayed for me, helping me survive my last months in Vietnam.
A few years later, now married and father of four, my crisis of faith that was Vietnam kept me from going to church. In November of 1978, a full week of TV news was dominated by the horrific tragedy of the Jim Jones massacre of 918 innocent American citizens, men, women and over 300 children in the distant jungle commune of Guyana. One evening as I watched the news, my thoughts returned to Vietnam, and a particular time that I had found myself not wanting to expose myself from cover during a firefight with the Viet Cong. Knowing that If I was not in the fight by firing my machine gun, I was helping the enemy. That realization caused me to take the necessary risk of injury or death and get my gun in a position where I could return suppressing fire.
The Jonestown tragedy had jolted me awake to the reality of the spiritual war that exists between the forces of evil and good. The Devil had just used a charismatic, but very sick, evil man to destroy whole families that honestly sought God, but took their eyes off Jesus and put them on a man.
Conviction over my contempt against God’s apparent desertion overwhelmed me. As long as I lived for my self, doing what I wanted, not what God wanted, I was helping the Devil; the blood of all those innocents was on my head as well, for I was not in the fight against evil. A verse from the Bible would eventually help me understand where I was spiritually and why I felt as bad as I did; Jesus said, “He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters.” Luke 11:23
That very next Sunday, gathering the family together we traveled the full two blocks to a small Christian church down the street. At the close of the sermon, the preacher gave an alter call, and I believe I was weeping before I got there. I grieved deeply for the victims, repented of my selfish behavior and rededicated my life to God, experiencing what I came to know as a filling of the Holy Spirit. For weeks I could not get enough of God, and I couldn’t help telling others about Him. Some years later, I began ministering to Vietnam combat vets like myself as an Outpost leader with Point Man International Ministries.
Today, as a Staff Sergeant in the California State Military Reserves I serve as a Chaplains Assistant, and continue to volunteer as chaplain for my local post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Two years of study at the Assemblies of God School of Ministry earned me my Ministry Credentials. My volunteer work has expanded to ministering to the terminally ill as a Hospice Volunteer. July 22nd of 2013 God put it on my heart to start a ministry to war vets suffering from PTSD, with the hope that I could help others receive the healing I did. “Search and Restore” has been a ministry name that I have carried for many years, now, finally it is being used! This ministry is an outreach of my church, Grace Community Assembly of God, Whittier, CA.
To learn more about Rev. Rick Bergquist and his “Search and Restore – War Vets Ministry” please visit his website at: http://www.SARvets.com
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