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We’re All Heroes Now

     The event that I’m about to describe has haunted a dark corner of my mind since the night it occurred.

Some may find it disturbing.

I still do.


  It was a Saturday evening in 1986.  I was a young lieutenant recently assigned to the 10th Mountain Division.

    All of the Division’s officers had convened in the banquet hall at the Officer’s Club on Fort Drum for a formal “Dining In”.  We all wore dress blues. The Colonels and Generals were heavily decorated with wartime medals and campaign ribbons.  They were all Vietnam combat vets.  Several of the most senior there had seen action in Korea.

     At some point during the evening’s festivities, a talisman appeared.  I am not certain from whence it came, or from whom.

      I could hear the crowd murmur as the item made its way amongst the tables of distinguished officers in the room.  There was a somber wave of whispers, knowing glances, and nods. 

     Eventually, the talisman made its way to my table. I finally got a closer look at what was causing the commotion.  I was seated next to a grizzled Major heavily decorated with combat ribbons of his own.  The talisman made its way to his hand.

     It was some sort of necklace, adorned with what looked like small dried up banana slices.

     The Major held it up with some deference, leaned over, and murmured in my ear:

   “Know what those are Lieutenant?”

   I confessed ignorance.

 “North Vietnamese ears.”

I sat in stunned silence. I did not know what to say.

The talisman continued down the line and eventually disappeared.

  A string of dried human ears.  Someone’s souvenir from the Vietnam War.  That experience has remained with me to this day and was the inspiration for the story that follows.

     I penned this piece while still serving as an officer with the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum.

  The tale is fiction. 

The experience that inspired it is true.


We’re All Heroes Now

                                                      I awoke with a start; instinctively shouldering the rifle that had become my pillow in the short time since I’d entered the war.  A voice pierced the silence.  I was immediately alert.

     “Your watch, kid.  It’s 0300.  Platoon Sergeant was here – be ready to move.  Challenge and password is Gamble-Dozen.  Wake me in an hour.  Gonna kick some ass,  kid.  Stay loose.”

     “Yes Sergeant.” I whispered, repeating the order:

“Gamble-Dozen.  Wake you in an hour.  Stay loose.”

     The night was dark; that stifling blackness that makes a man watch more with his ears than his eyes.  They say that if you’ve lived long enough in the bush, you sense the enemy before you see him.  I hoped it was true.

     I’d been assigned to the platoon as a replacement, after they’d lost ten men in an ambush, somewhere to the north.  After several weeks in the rear, we’d received new orders.  Our unit had been on patrol for nearly a week. My initiation. My first time in the bush.

     Our patrol base was tucked into a small patch of jungle, about halfway up the side of a long, steep ridge.  The platoon broke down into squads during the day, reconnoitering the area and sweeping the trails, tracking the enemy.  We set up ambushes at night, to eliminate the enemy before he ambushed us.

     I glanced at my watch.  Its luminous dial was too faded to read.  My team leader breathed heavily in the shallow depression behind our position.  He’d gagged himself with a kerchief before going to sleep, to keep from snoring.  We all did that.  You got used to it after a while.  You got used to a lot of things in the bush.

     There was no breeze.  I felt the ground in front of our position.  It was still soft from the rain that had fallen earlier.  My fatigues were damp; rank with the filth of mud and sweat.  I shivered as I watched.  I didn’t dare use my poncho, better cold than dead.

     I’d learned not to stare in any one direction, instead scanning the darkness from the corners of my eyes.  Sergeant Burroughs said it was easier to sense movement that way.  If he said it, I believed it.  He was the Platoon Sergeant.  He’d been fighting this war forever.

     I wrestled my eyelids.  “The sleep monster scouts for the Devil,” Sergeant Burroughs would warn.  I didn’t know if the Platoon Sergeant slept.  He’d seen the Devil so many times that I could see its image burning in his eyes.  I shivered again.                                                  

     I dug into my pocket, clasping a crumpled envelope between my fingers.  My sister had written almost two months earlier.  I’d gotten the letter only three days ago, when a chopper came in for re-supply.  I couldn’t wait to read the letter again.  Again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that; every day until the next letter came.

     My sister had started the eleventh grade.  She said a lot of the boys talked about dropping out to join the Army.  I was their hero.  It made me feel proud.

     Mom and Dad said “Hi”.  Johnny Brown, my best friend, was on a ship, in the Navy.  Dad had finally bought a new truck.  I knew the letter by heart, but each time I read it, new images filled my head.  I clung to them with my heart, guarding them with my rifle, and my fear.

     I heard a slow, deliberate movement off to my left.  Four quick tugs jerked the line tied to a root under my left arm.  I knew who it was.  I shifted quietly around to the left, pointing my rifle, just in case.  I could sense the huge form crouched in the darkness.

     “Who goes there?” I whispered.

     “Mary had a little lamb.”

     It was Sergeant Burroughs.  I lowered my rifle.  The Platoon Sergeant crept up next to me and squatted behind the tree covering my position.  He whispered quietly into my left ear.  I could smell the tobacco in his cheek.  His breath warmed my neck.

     “Hey kid, it’s 0408 and all’s quiet on the western front.”

     “Relax, kid.  I just got a call from the CO.  The Devil’s just over the next hill.  About a klick away and we’re gonna get ‘im.  We’ll be eatin’ hell’s guts for breakfast this mornin’.”

     “Wake yer boss at 0430 and have him meet me at my CP.  Keep yer finger on the trigger, kid.  Can’t kill the Devil with yer pecker in yer hand.”

     The Sergeant slid out of my position as quietly as he’d slipped in.  My heart was racing.  I’d heard others talking about fire fights they’d survived. Devil’s dances. Some were chance contacts- some were big.  This sounded big.

     At 0430 I nudged my team leader awake.  I whispered the Platoon Sergeant’s instructions in his ear, then returned to my position.  The sky was a little lighter, outlining silent, wooden sentinels that only an hour before had been enemy soldiers crawling to kill me.

     My team leader returned about twenty minutes later.  He quickly relayed the plan.  Intelligence from HQ reported that the enemy was planning an aerial re-supply in a small clearing less than a kilometer from our position.  Apparently, they didn’t know we were here.  Second and third squad were already in position.  They’d linked up and moved out sometime earlier.  The re-supply would occur at first light – food, ammo and medical supplies for a small enemy force.  Probably one chopper, maybe two.

     We would link up with second squad at a trail junction near the clearing.  We’d set up an ambush to cut off reinforcements.  We had thirty minutes to cover almost six hundred meters.  We’d have to move fast.

     We moved out in single file.  It was quicker and gave us less chance of running into an ambush along the way.  I was third in line, behind the Squad Leader.  I carried the squad radio and a belt of M-60 ammo.  The weight dug into my back, but my adrenaline was pumping too fast for it to matter.                                                                  

     We left three men to guard the patrol base.  There were eight men left in the squad: one machine gun, two grenade launchers, a recoilless rifle, the squad leader, two other M-16 riflemen, and me.

     I carried the radio handset fastened inside my chin strap.  The handset made my helmet sit awkwardly on my head, but it left my hands free to fire quickly if I had to.

     The Platoon Sergeant had already moved out with his headquarters and a small security element to conduct a link-up with the other squads.  We’d moved about three hundred meters when voices crackled over the radio.

     “Charlie Two-Niner; this is Charlie Eight-One.  Hammer, over.”

     “Charlie Eight-One; this is Two-Niner.  Hammer, out.”

     The Platoon Sergeant had linked up.  Everything was cool.  I relayed the information to my squad leader.  We picked up the pace and moved another two hundred meters.  It was almost first light.

     The squad leader clenched his fist above his head.  We automatically stepped out and got down, alternating left and right.  Two of us moved forward with the squad leader, to link up with second squad.  We crossed a small stream and started up another ridge, paralleling the one we’d just left.  We’d moved about fifty meters when a figure stepped out from behind some brush.  We quickly retrieved the rest of the squad and moved into position.  I’d seen footprints in the mud near the stream.  The enemy had been there. Recently too.

     Second and third squads would make the attack.  The open area was about a hundred meters to our right, out on the edge of the ridge line.  We’d hear the helicopters coming.  Second squad would call if something went wrong, otherwise- silence.  First light quietly descended upon us. It was 0615.

     Our squad was set up in a linear ambush, just off the road.  The machine gun was on the right side, closest to the road junction.  I was in the center with the squad leader.  I hid the radio behind a rotting log.  I could hear my heart beating in my ears.  We waited.

     Lying in ambush was the most frustrating thing I could think of.  The enemy rarely went where we wanted him to go.  For that matter, he rarely showed up at all.  I laid there, afraid to move lest our position be compromised.  The smallest thing could give us away.

     A deer moved slowly along the far side of the trail, about thirty meters away, browsing on the underbrush.  I watched the animal cross the trail and move towards the far end of the squad, unaware of our presence.

  I thought of the venison we’d had at home the previous winter.  I’d killed an eight pointer, up by the lake.  My father helped drag it back to the cabin, where he showed me how to field dress it.  We used a hacksaw to cut off the antlers.  They hung on the wall in my bedroom at home.  I was proud of my trophy.

     I glanced at my watch. 0715.  Full daylight now. Still nothing.  We chased phantom enemies based on intelligence reports from HQ. I wondered. “Who was in HQ generating those reports, sending us here? And where was the Devil?” My stomach churned. I shook my head clear.

     Finally, a voice buzzed over the radio.  One of second squad’s men had spotted enemy moving on the far side of the clearing.  We hadn’t been compromised yet.  We’d wait fifteen minutes more; if no helicopter showed, second squad would initiate the attack on whatever was there.  Our squad was to hold tight.  We waited some more.  

     The minutes got longer.  My left leg fell asleep.  I tried flexing the muscles, but the tingling persisted.  We’d been lying there for an hour that stretched into eternity.  I couldn’t wait for our attack to begin.

      My ears perked up. A low, rhythmic “Thumpthumpthumpthumpthump” became audible in the distance.  Helicopters; definitely more than one, hugging the valley on the other side of the ridge.

     We couldn’t see the choppers from our position.  Suddenly, heavy machine gun fire churned the air. The acrid smoke of spent ammo and burning petrol rose through the trees.   The radio burst to life.

     “Charlie Eight-One, this is Charlie Six-Eight, Eight-One, this is Six-Eight!  These ain’t re-supply birds!  I say again – NOT re-supply!  They’re full of enemy reinforcements! Over!”

     Sergeant Burroughs’ voice came up on the radio, calm and clear.  “Roger, Six-Eight.  What’s your status?  I’m swinging third squad in from the right.  We’ll catch them in a crossfire; over.”

     “Roger, Eight-One.  One bird’s on the ground, smokin’ bad.  The other’s veering off – We’re taking fire – Over.”

     There was no response.  We picked up and moved towards the gunfire.  No need for a compass.  We ran through the woods and took up a position on a small rise overlooking the clearing.

     One helicopter sat smoking, its fuselage raked with holes.  I could see several figures sprawled on the ground.  Some were firing towards the wood line.  Others looked dead. 

Our machine gun opened up, spewing hot lead out across the field.  Mortar rounds began impacting on the far side of the clearing.  The familiar “THOOOMP!”  told me it was 81mm; battalion mortars.  I was glad to hear them.  It was over pretty quickly.  Whatever was left of the enemy seemed to melt into the bush, saving their fight for another day. 

     “Cease fire!  Cease Fire!”

     I saw three men run out to the chopper and begin searching bodies.  The medic came out, calling for a litter.  A green flare went up; the signal for everyone to pull out.  I hadn’t seen the demolition team move in, but I heard “Fire in the hole!” as we crashed through the brush.  We immediately swung south, taking a different route back to the patrol base.  A tremendous explosion erupted behind us.

     “Two-Niner, this is Eight-One.  Pick up you gear and move out – we’ll meet you at the link up.  Eight dead- none ours.  One WIA – theirs.  His stomach’s scrambled eggs – ain’t gonna make it. We’re movin’- out.”

     I was sweating and breathing hard.  I hadn’t even fired my weapon but was still shaking with excitement.  I heard more firing in the distance, off to our left.  I heard over the radio that the enemy had ambushed third squad.  They had two men wounded and were calling for the mortars to cover their escape.  My squad leader grabbed the handset and called for instructions.  He looked at me.  I could see fear in his eyes.  I was glad I wasn’t the only one afraid.

     I heard the mortars again.  Third squad had managed to break contact with the enemy.  They had a helo inbound to evac their wounded.  We kept moving.

     I was drenched with sweat.  Images of smoke, gunfire, and choppers filled my head.  My breath came in gulps.

     We halted briefly to catch our breath.  I emptied my canteen.  I thought of my family and friends at home.  I couldn’t wait to write to my sister about what we’d done.

     Sergeant Burroughs was at the patrol base when we arrived.  As I moved to pick up my gear, he came over and knelt beside me.  He was breathing evenly, but his eyes were on fire.  He touched my shoulder and held out his hand. 

I felt something soft and sticky drop into mine.  I looked down.  There was blood on my fingertips, dripping from a dark, mangled human ear.  A queasy sickness churned in my gut.  I dropped the torn flesh, trying not to wretch.

     Sergeant Burroughs just smiled.

  “A souvenir, kid.”

  “We’re all heroes now.”


Until Our Trails Cross Again: