Jack, my co-pilot, sleeps in the passenger seat. His chin rests on my upper leg. The car in front of us wears two Support Our Troops ribbons. One is yellow; the other red, white and blue. Both are made in China. On the rear bumper is a faded black MIA sticker. That driver probably means well, but by now I’ve seen too many ribbons. While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq kill and maim, I think of how they are also shaping the future of returning veterans. Many of these men and women will come home and go missing, and you won’t even know it. Returning from a war is more than getting off an airplane and putting on civvies. Combat changes a person. It changed me.
I’m driving angry.
I want to tell the guy in front of me: You want to support the troops? Get them the hell out of the line of fire. Or, if you think this war is so necessary, get over there yourself. If you’re too old, pull your kids or grandkids out of college and send them.
I’m driving sad.
You want to support our troops? Give the man some space when he gets home. Give the woman a job. Don’t say how you would have been there if you could have and reel off excuses why you weren’t. He may be quieter than you’re used to and kind of keep to himself. She might be missing an arm; he could be in a wheelchair, knowing he’ll never again chase his kids down a beach. Both may drink a bit. She may smoke pot, dress wild and date around. She might play music loud. He could go to the movies for hours and come home and cry for no reason you can see. Don’t lecture them. Don’t tell them to forget about the war — they can’t. Don’t try to tell her how she’s escaping reality. She’s had all the reality she can stomach. He may carry what you call an attitude. She might have a low tolerance for shenanigans and a quirky sense of humor. If you touch her when she doesn’t want to be touched, she could very well turn around and bust you in your chops.
If you’ve never hunted humans, if you’ve never been hunted, if you haven’t been shot at on a regular basis, just try to appreciate what this person has been through. Then get down on your knees and thank your lucky stars it wasn’t you.
I’m driving lost.
It’s Vietnam, 1968, Quang Nam province. I work up a spit of bleeding gums, saliva and bug juice and spit into cow-cropped dry grass. Rolling my shoulders, keeping the radio man in sight, I wonder about the skeletons we passed an hour ago. No way to tell who they were or how it happened. Three sets of bones, picked and bleached, partly clothed in faded, rain-flattened tatters. Outside four fighting holes, two of the skeletons lie mostly intact, arms reaching, legs cocked as if trying to crawl back to their open graves. The third had no skull. Bones lie everywhere in the parched, knee-high, wheat-colored grass.
Concentrating on the ground, on where to put my feet, I breathe in shallow drafts and scan the hot, windless valley. Alone under my helmet, wet under my flak jacket, the sweat rolls like marbles down my legs. Single-file I follow Valdez, the radio man. Where Valdez steps, I step. I feel more than see the forward progress of Koster, the point man. Then Frenchy, Davis, Stillman, Billy Mac. Hearing Barberra behind me I’m aware of Duke and Ski like a snake knows its tail.
Packed inside myself I’m scared. The rifle angles down to the left across my body. On full auto my finger’s hooked outside the trigger guard. Feeling the sun steam through the damp towel around my neck, I want to turn a canteen upside down behind my head. Not enough water left in the canteens for that. Damn windless heat thumps me through the flak jacket.
We cross an open field of cracked earth and yellowed grass that crunches beneath my boots. Toes cracked and bleeding, heels aching, my swollen feet fester in the canvas and leather as heat worms up through my soles. Twin belts of gun ammo cross my chest, triple canteens hang off the back of my belt. An M-16 bandoleer is slung over my shoulder, and the magazines inside clink gently. Two grenades, like giant steel eggs, hang smooth and round off my flak-jacket pockets. C-ration cans clink against the sticks of C-4 explosive in my trouser kangaroo pockets. I hate being in the open like this.
Breathing shallow to keep the burn out of my lungs. My big leg artery pulses with fear; my crotch is laced up tighter than my jungle boots. My eyes sting as I scan the valley left to right, right to left. One foot in front of the other. The sun crouches up there like a big animal with its jaws open and growling.
Too scared to let my mind wander, I do anyway. I remember a girl back in the World — her face, the way she looked at me when we ate ice cream. Heat and water loss scramble my thinking, makes my tongue thick. Stay here, don’t drift, I tell myself. Easy to get sun drunk. Easy to sleep walk. Shake it off, bite your lip. I do and taste how the bitter bug juice mixes with the sweet copper of bleeding gums and the salt that drips off my nose.
I talk to myself. Mumble is more like it. Watch where you put your feet, look for movement, for a wire, a vine, stick and stone signs, a slight depression, for geometry — a straight line, circle, triangle, for what doesn’t belong. Don’t stare, you’ll get hypnotized. Scan. Doing it without thinking, repeating the movements like an endless rosary, my Marine squad stretches a hundred meters single-file along the floor of Happy Valley.
I’m driving home.
The car with the ribbons turns off. I go straight. Rolling down the windows, I crank up the radio and scratch Jack between his ears. He likes his window all the way open. He moves to put his face in the breeze. You want to do something for our troops? Bring them home.
George Masters is a freelance writers and teacher in Charleston, S.C.