Monday, September 19, 2011
Who Am I To Judge?
I only broke down and cried twice in Vietnam. The second and last time was after my fellow interrogator, Jim, was wheeled out of the ER at the hospital in Chu Lai, briefly came to and said, “Yeager, I’m glad it was me who went instead of you.” He had been shot in the gut and it wasn’t the kind of wound that one surgery could fix. As he drifted back out of consciousness, I hurried outside, sat down on a wooden bench, put my head in my hands and sobbed. It should have been me lying on that gurney all shot up. It was my mission.
Earlier that day I was interrogating a young VC (Viet Cong) woman. She told me the location of a large weapons cache and I reported it to my superiors. It just so happened that one of our battalions was launching a mission into the exact same area that evening. I was told by “L.T.” (our lieutenant) to get my interpreter and the VC woman and mount up, battalion was sending over a helicopter to pick us up in less than an hour.
At the time, I was getting “short”. I had less than a month before going home. And as my time “in country” shortened, I was becoming increasingly paranoid. I was one of the seasoned interrogators. Part of the job was accompanying the infantry on their mission if we found out any vital information from a detainee, such as the location of a weapons cache. We also screened villagers in the field, if we suspected there was enemy activity in the area. Evidently someone higher up in the ranks liked the idea of us interrogators working directly with the units in the field. Rumors were circulating that our Interrogation team might be broken up and each of us assigned to a different battalion in the field. In other words they would turn us into grunts(Infantrymen). This whole prospect worried the hell out of me. I had heard of too many guys getting killed on their last days in country. I wanted to go home alive and with all my working parts.
Our unit put together the latest intelligence maps, so I knew this mission would drop me right smack in the middle of a big NVA (North Vietnamese Army) buildup. It was starting to get dark outside. I thought it would be suicide to attempt to lead the soldiers to this weapons cache in the dark and in the middle of hostile territory. I flat out didn’t want to go, but I had to. It was my job.
As I was suiting up, Jim approached me and asked if he could go in my place. Without a moment’s hesitation I said, “It’s all right with me, as long as you run it by L.T.” Jim and Steve had come into our unit at the same time. They were new replacements for some of the guys who’d already gone home. Both were smart and capable, but they were “newbies” and hadn’t been tested by fire yet. L.T. gave Jim the OK. I watched as the chopper briefly touched down on the heli-pad and Jim, the VC detainee and my interpreter, Chang, climbed into the Huey and flew off to NVA country.
Jim was excited about going out on his first mission. I remembered that feeling, it was exhilarating. I too was full of it when I first got in country. But it was totally gone within a few months. This was a seriously dangerous mission. An FNG like Jim shouldn’t have been the one going. But I didn’t allow any of these thoughts to occupy much space in my mind. My thoughts at the time followed a different path, more along the lines of: He wants to go on this mission and I don’t, so why shouldn’t he. He’s got to learn sometime and it might as well be now. Besides, I’m too short to give a rat’s ass.
That evening we were sitting on our bunks, having a few beers, probably passing around a joint. OD was playing his guitar and as we sang along to some popular song, I heard a jeep drive up to the entrance of our hooch. The brakes squealed and it stopped right in front of the door. The driver yelled, “Is Yeager in there?” My heart sank. I knew it had to be bad news. I opened the hooch door and an MP, not bothering to get out of the jeep, simply said. “Your guy’s up in the hospital, he’s been shot.”
I grabbed my rifle and helmet and hurried down to the motor pool to get a jeep. I drove alone up Highway 1 to the Americal Division Headquarters hospital. Thinking back, that was a crazy thing to do, but at the time, if I had been ambushed, I would have thought, I’m just getting what I deserve. I was an expert at pushing away my feelings. We all were, but as I followed the headlights up the dirt highway in the black of night, I was consumed with a sense of dread and guilt. God please don’t let him die.
Sitting outside the operating room on the wooden bench with my back against the wall, the guilt turned to shame. I can vividly recall how humid the night was. Above my head swung a bare light bulb on a wire, causing shadows to circle around my feet. I composed myself and walked back into the recovery area. Jim was awake and recounted for me what had happened. “I was walking point.” He said with some effort.
Those fucking grunts should not have allowed him to walk point. But, who was I to judge?
“II rounded a bend and thought I saw someone lying on the trail up ahead. Suddenly I recognized it was an NVA soldier, but before I could lift my rifle, he sat up and shot me, then all hell broke loose. I lay there feeling like I was going to pass out. Somebody dragged me off the trail and I stayed there in the brush listening to the others fighting for their lives.” He was eager to tell me everything that happened. I stood at the side of the gurney listening, trying not to pass out myself.
Jim told me he had to crawl to an area where a soldier hoisted him over his shoulder and carried him to a small open field. He said he lay in the field for what seemed like only seconds but it was probably longer, “My mind was going in and out ”, when a medivac chopper arrived.
Jim survived. I saw him that next year in Texas . I was still in the Army stationed at Fort Hood where he looked me up. We met in Temple, Tx. at a Mexican restaurant. He walked in with the help of a cane. I thought maybe he wanted to forgive me, let me off the hook, like he did the night he was shot, but that didn’t happen. Instead he told me in great detail about his many operations and how much of a struggle everyday things were for him now. I felt sorry for him. Then he looked me right in the eyes as we munched on our chips and salsa, and said, “You know Yeager, you’re the reason I’m all fucked up. It should have been you on that mission not me.”.
That was the last time I saw him, but I’ve thought about him a lot over the years. I’d like to think I’d do things differently if I got the chance, but the hard reality is, I probably wouldn’t.