the short story project




I entered the crowded Tan Son Nhut Airport. I was just released from the military hospital and awaiting my flight to the U.S. The terminal was a crush of humanity engulfed in suffocating heat and humidity. My head throbbed, my abdomen was in pain, and my uniform wet from sweat. I was too weak to stand and could not leave. The MPs found me unconscious on the floor. I awoke in the hospital ward.
The tour of duty in Vietnam was one year, and I was still present after 14 months. My destiny was not to going to have me remain in Vietnam until I required a headstone.
The military worked on the honor system. When a soldier moved to a new assignment, he carried his military records. Among these papers were the medical files. This folder now rested at the nurse’s station.
Vietnam burned me out. I was demoralized and gutted. The hospital, the Army, and Vietnam disgusted me. It was time to leave – a simple decision for a sergeant who commanded a Special Ops team. I was not going to wait for the neurosurgeon and psychiatrist to authorize my release a second time. I dressed, pilfered my medical files from the empty nurse’s station, extracted my duffle from the locker room, and left. The bus to Tan Son Nhut Airport took an hour. I knew the procedure from the first go around, presented the original set of departure orders, and booked out for the next day.
My side ached, and my stomach was in terrible shape. I spent the night reclining against my duffle under the canopy of the holding shed. The search and destroy missions I conducted provided harder and rougher mattresses so, the flat concrete slab was fine. At least it was level. In combat situations, one learned to appreciate the little things usually taken for granted.
An explosion awoke me. Charcoal-grey smoke billowed from the engines of a passenger jet across the tarmac. Screaming men, sirens, and the roar of Cobra Gunships, UH-1D helicopters with 50-caliber machine guns, ambulances, and all kinds of vehicles blared across the airfield.  I was supposed to be on that flight. Later that day, the orderly at the check-in counter assumed I was one of the passengers and rebooked my departure the following morning. Unfortunately, dinner at the “Last Chance Saloon” did not go well. My head was in the toilet bowl, vomiting up blood immediately after I swallowed the first mouthful of hamburger.
My decision to leave the hospital without permission omitted a small detail: I needed medication. I scolded myself for not thinking out the mission. Drill Sgt. Greeley said on more than one occasion: “You will always see the big stuff, but it’s the little details that will kill you.” I had suffered worse pain. What was some discomfort against living the dream of walking into mom’s kitchen to find her cooking dinner? The fantasy was always more significant than the truth, especially when the reality over the past year included enough horror and depravity to last a lifetime. 
I felt worse in the morning, but I bordered the plane nonetheless and took my seat among the other returning soldiers. I was sick the entire flight and returned to the bathroom to wretch out my empty gut until my throat was raw. The Asian stewardesses changed to Caucasians at the stopover in Japan. I do not remember when I passed out, but my eyes were open when the plane touched down at Ft. Lewis, Washington. After in-processing, I was given a new set of orders, along with clean Army uniforms and a seat on a plane departing to New York the next day. 
I thought of visiting the Ft. Lewis Medical Center as a terrible idea. I probably disobeyed any number of Army regulations when I walked away from Saigon’s medical facility without authorization. They may have reported me AWOL. Nevertheless, I was on U.S. soil, and the consequences of my actions did not concern me. After all, I escaped a series of court-martials leading directly to Leavenworth. The general for whom I worked saved me by depositing the complaining litigation into a void. At this stage, very little was ever going to put a scare into me.
I purchased over-the-counter meds at the PX and swallowed enough pills to put a farm animal out of its misery. My condition on the flight to New York was not good, but the drugs made a difference; they anesthetized the discomfort and reduced the number of times I threw up. 
At JFK in New York, I stepped into the washroom. My uniform was disheveled, the pants displayed stains of vomit, and my face was the shade of ghost-grey. When I looked in the mirror, I saw dark rings under my eyes, colorless lips, and sunken cheeks. I told the image facing me, “Ranger, you look like a zombie.” In my mind’s ear, I heard Oliver Hardy lamenting to Stan Laurel, “This is another fine kettle of fish you’ve gotten us into this time!” There was no one to blame but myself.  
Several men entered the washroom and began changing from their military uniforms into civilian clothing. “What are you guys doing?” I asked.
“We don’t want to be spit on or attacked by any protesters. We heard it’s bad out there.”
Even to this day, more than a half-century later, I remember this incident clearly as looking into a stream of fresh water bubbling over smooth rocks. I never considered such a possibility. To be spit upon, attacked by fellow Americans for carrying out the duty assigned to us by our country was inconceivable. They were overthinking the problem. But what did I know? 
Regardless of what occurred, I do not regret my military service. On the contrary, I am proud to have served my country. Neither do I harbor resentment to those who avoided the draft or protested the war. I gave up that negative karma a long time ago, but there are some things I will not forgive. The visit to North Vietnam by actress Jane Fonda in 1973 is one. She fraternized with the enemy, yucking it up for the photographers. I condemn her disgraceful behavior of fraternization as a punishable act of treason.
As I walked the corridor from the washroom to the baggage area, my body told me something was wrong. My legs were unsteady, and I was suffering vertigo. I approached two MP’s standing in the terminal hall to get my bearings.
“What’s wrong with you?” The taller MP asked.                   
 “Wrong with me?”
He pointed to my right side. “Yeah, you’re covered in blood.”
I looked down, and indeed blood was oozing from the pant leg. I fainted before my next thought materialized into speech. The following day, a nurse woke me in the ward of a VA hospital. The stitches across the wound ripped open, and my internal organs were shifting. The surgeon operated and placed me into observation. After a week, I pleaded to be released. 
“You know, you could have died from that wound. So, you’re lucky you got here when you did,” the intense doctor stated. 
He was right, but it made no difference. I still begged permission to leave. Finally, after two weeks, the doctor showed mercy, surrendered to my requests, and authorized the discharge form. I walked away with enough medication to return me into the coma from which I awoke. I never called home because I did not want to alarm my parents about New York’s hospitalization. 
The Army never updated my parents on the status of my injury. The first communication they received mentioned I was MIA. The second changed my ranking to that of being injured. From that time forward, another report was not forthcoming. Dad contacted the VA, but nothing happened. I believed my parents were expecting my return, when in fact, for all they knew, I was returning in a casket. 
When the taxi pulled up to my parent’s home, my dad was taking out the garbage. He did not see me exit the vehicle or hear me approach. “Pop,” I said. He looked up and stared at me as if I was an apparition. “Pop. It’s me.” He dropped the garbage and began running to notify my mother. Halfway there, he turned around and came running back. When he almost reached me, he turned again and began hurrying back to the house. I dropped the duffle and took him in my arms. “Pop. It’s okay. It’s okay. Let’s go tell momma together.”
“Helen!” my father cried out from the open door. “Come! We have a guest! Come see who is here!”
My mother stepped through the kitchen’s archway to the living room, providing a full view of the entrance hall. She carried a wooden spoon in one hand and a ladle in the other. She froze in place at the sight of me. “Ma-” I began to say. She dropped the utensils and fell to her knees. Her hands rose to cover her face. The muffled sobs filtered between her trembling fingers. I lifted her into my arms and placed a long warm kiss on her forehead. I was so happy to hold her. “Ma, it’s okay. I’m home, ma. I’m home.”