She squatted, rocking on her heels in front of her lost children’s tomb for two days and two nights, neither eating, drinking or sleeping. Her deep seated Buddhist teachings, which had guided her life, were in conflict with the anger, rage, agony… HATE that was trying to consume her soul. She recited prayer after prayer to quell her grief but to no avail. Her grief was too big to feel all at once. Her grief did not fit into her soul. She was hardly a philosopher but she knew that she was very, very conflicted. What could be worse? She was to find out…
The village regiment returned. Tu went to meet them, to tell Quy of the tragedy, to lose herself in his strong arms for a moment. But Quy did not march with them. As her friends passed they avoided her gaze. Finally, two men, Quy’s brothers, came up the trail carrying a litter. On it was Quy. Alive but barely. His head was bandaged. One of the brothers told Tu the tale:
Their company was moving away from an American outpost after a harassing attack. Their spirits were high as they had stung the Americans and had not lost anybody. Perhaps in their euphoria they got sloppy. They chose to cross a wide, open field of tall grass rather than skirt the clearing by trekking through the dense bush. When they were halfway across they heard the spine chilling, mind numbing, sphincter loosening sound of the “whup-whup” of a dreaded Huey helicopter gunship. They stood frozen to the spot, the Huey popped up over the trees and the gunners, gleefully, opened fire with their M-60 machine guns on the “target rich environment” of the clearing. 650 rounds per minute at 2,800 feet per second. A red tracer followed by four ball rounds of 7.62 mm of 147 grains of hot Hell that can pierce a man like butter or tear a limb clean off.
Five of their fellows fell almost instantly. Then… PANIC! RUN! Those still alive bolted toward the nearest tree line mindlessly scrambling like roaches when the light is turned on them; but this was no light; this was Death From Above! This was Hell; this was the Great Evil reaching out with hot, red claws of steel to take their souls or their limbs! Bladders and bowels emptied as the thin veneer of humanity was torn away and the terrified animal emerged. 200,000 years of evolution were stripped away as the reptile brain took over with one single minded command. RUN! RUN!! RUN!!! No one tried to return fire lest they draw the attention of the crew of the flying dragon to themselves.
The lack of return fire emboldened the pilots. They dropped down to grass top level and the co-pilot opened his window and fired his .45 out the window at the scurrying, frantic, terrified men. Quy ran and he ran, fighting the clinging, whipping grass. He looked over his shoulder and saw the helicopter wheel and turn. He saw the gunner swing his M-60 in his direction. He saw the stream of red tracers bullets reaching out for him like a dragon’s talons. A explosive flash. A burst of searing PAIN!!! Then… nothing. Mercifully, nothing…
His brothers saw him fall. The younger, Bon, barely in his teens, and Ngoc did not hesitate. They broke cover and raced to Quy’s side. Bon wanted to vomit when he saw his brothers ruined face. His left eye was gone, his cheekbone, shattered and exposed and his ear a bloody mess. They saw the chopper wheeling around for another deadly pass. There was no time for gentleness. Bon took his brother’s legs while Ngoc lifted his shoulders, the bloody head hanging limp. They raced to the dark, welcoming shelter of the trees, as if the dark leaves could even slow down the rain of death from the gunship. But out of sight is out of mind… and they hunkered like frightened rodents until a welcomed silence fell with the receding “whup whup” of the helicopter.
Finally, the attack ended. The deadly helicopter turned for home. Twelve of their company had fallen, never to rise, again. The crew of the helicopter reported 45 enemy KIA. They were given medals.
The shattered company of broken men slowly reformed as the survivors made their way to the makeshift rally point. Damned near everyone showed red. There were twelve of their number lying still in the open field. Eleven bodies were retrieved to be washed, mourned and interred by family, friends and monks. The twelfth, a Political Officer, was left to the bugs and the Earth. He was not one of them. He was not family.
As the peasant-fighters tended each others wounds, one small man with black, black eyes, staggered into the gathering. He had been hit in the left foot, leg and had four, ominous holes in his torso, yet, miraculously, he had not suffered a fatal hit. He was weak from loss of blood but he was still strong, fueled by a fire that would burn for decades. Part of his foot would be lost but he would fight for another 7 years. He managed to have his bleeding staunched by bandages and a poultice of herbs, moss and leaves coincidentally prepared by Tu before the mission. He staggered back to the village using his black rifle as a crutch.
(Author’s Note: Lan and I were at a wedding for one of Uncle Bon’s daughters. She had married a young, handsome Captain of Infantry serving in the People’s Army. We were Honored Guests. (I’ll explain later) At Bon’s home after the formal reception, I was approached by a small man with black, black eyes and a shuffling gait. He came up to me with a mixture of trepidation, anxiety and simmering anger. In pidgin English, a smattering of French and some pantomime, he plunged directly into his story as if he had been holding it in until he could no longer contain it. He neither gave his name nor asked mine. He related the events described above. During our “conversation”, I could see his agitation growing. He barely came up to my breast bone but I put my arm around his thin, bony shoulder and whispered “Xin Loi” in his ear. I was not implying that I was sorry for America or even apologizing for his being a casualty of war but I was sorry that ANYONE, ANY human being, should suffer so. That broke the floodgates. He wrapped his arms around me and buried his face in my chest and cried like a feverish baby might cry on its mother’s breast. I put my arms around him and made comforting noises for a few moments then I looked around the room and saw that every eye was on us. More than a few glistened with tears, barely held back. Some of the grizzled old men caught my eye and barely nodded and I knew that they had seen battle. They were affirming the silent bond that we grunts have, the bond that those that never fired a shot in anger, or heard the whisper of death whiz by their ear or felt the sting of hot steel in muscle and bone or watched a comrade fall, could ever comprehend. In those moments, more than just we two shed the invisible but, oh, so real, bag of hot, hot rocks that we had been carrying for four decades… or at least lightened the load a little. In no less a miracle than the transformation of water into wine, in that moment four decades of hate became love. Enemies became Brothers. Now, when Lan and I go to the village and word gets out that “ông mỹ“, “The Man from America”, was there, the little man with the black, black eyes and shuffling gait, walks for three hours over the mountain, with two of his comrades in tow, to sit on our veranda, gaze out across the green, wet rice fields of our valley home that had been nurtured with the blood of friend and foe, alike, and drink tea or coffee or beer or whiskey and remember the guns and blood and the fire and the fury, so long past yet so very fresh… We recall friends no longer able to join us but who are forever with us in spirit. I pity the fool who would try to do me harm in that village. We are brothers.)
After a time, while Quy was still as in death in a merciful coma, Tu related the tragic event to her brothers-in-law. They rallied the villagers and while preparing their dead for burial, build an empty, symbolic tomb for the lost children. Tu stayed by Quy’s side as if to guard against his soul escaping when she wasn’t looking. It was another week before Quy would stir and, yet, another before he would awaken. Tu, as gently as she could, told him. He was stunned to silence then he embraced her, silently. No more was said of it but every few weeks, a small fire of symbolic funerary paper money, children’s clothes and bright paper toys, could be seen on the side of the mountain… to this day!
Tu and her sister-in-law, Mi, were subsequently recruited to work as maids at an American base. Forged papers had been, expertly, prepared and a sympathizer in the local police had verified them. They worked as house maids, cleaning the soldiers hooches, making their bunks and polishing boots, all the while counting the steps between buildings to make maps and noting the pre-mission activities so they could predict when the Americans would be leaving the safe confines of their compound and venture into the green hell of the enemy.
Tu and Mi, occasionally, stole a grenade or a magazine of ammo that the soldiers might carelessly leave out in the open. Tu was instructed on how to switch the fuses from a smoke grenade, which was very fast, with the fuse on a fragmentation grenade so that it would explode shortly after leaving the throwers hand…
One day, as the two were leaving work, Tu was found to have taken a paper from the garbage. A Company First Sergeant had ordered Tu to burn some papers. Tu knew that papers destined for burning might be informative. She took one. It was the American Unit’s Table of Organization and Equipment, which gave her handlers details of strength, organization, ranks and names. She had no idea what the paper was. She could read the weather in the Sun and the Moon and read a cow’s time for birthing and when to plant and when to reap but the written word, especially in English, was quite beyond her capabilities. But she had been told to steal any papers that she could and turn them over to the experts. The unit’s First Sergeant, a most unpleasant man named Kennedy, who smelled of sweat and whiskey and was loathe to leave his air conditioned office, was busted to private E-nothing for failing to properly oversee the disposal of secure documents. His Captain, quickly, confiscated the air conditioner which had been won in a card game with Navy SeeBees and had it installed in his quarters. He became very popular with the DoNut Dollies and Nurses…
Tu and her sister-in-law were turned over to local Military Intelligence “interrogators”. There were three locals and two American advisors. The interrogation was not gentle. Tu had water forced down her throat then punched in the belly until she vomited it out, only to have it repeated. Tu insisted that she thought that the paper was just garbage that she would use to start her cook fire. One of the interrogators decided to have some “fun” and began to pull at her clothing. She fought like a tiger and screamed like a banshee until one of her guards struck her on the head with his rifle butt to silence her. He opened a gash from the front of her scalp to the back of her head. Fortunately, not everyone was an animal. The American Captain who was the Military Intelligence advisor was a good man. He would not tolerate such brutality. The guards, local and American, knew that they had crossed a line and if their superior found out, the repercussions would be harsh. Besides losing stripes they could well end up walking point on the nightly perimeter patrols which were a favorite target of the local VC fighters.
Rule #1: Never leave marks on female prisoners. It probably saved Tu and Mi’s lives. They were bundled up and hustled out of the compound with a story about Tu falling and hitting her head and wanting to go see a local healer. Today, when Tu is outside and the wind blows, her wispy silver white hair will part and the still angry red scar can be seen. Her sister-in-law was not so lucky. Tu had to prepare a purgative just in case she was with child at the hands of her interrogator.
After that, Tu and Mi began traveling with the villagers on their missions of harassment and sabotage. Often, she would be tasked to carry messages to other units working in the area. She carried an American grenade. She would not be taken again. Her own life was not important. Her joy of living was done.
Tu was, primarily a nurse, tending to the wounded and the sick. Her prodigious knowledge of the natural world was invaluable and her reputation as someone special grew. Sometimes at night when the unit was resting, Tu and Mi would sing or perform short skits for the amusement of their fellow soldiers. For a few moments, there was no war. For a few moments there was laughter.
But sometimes, even though she and Mi were left in the rear, she had her black rifle and in the chaos and confusion of war, one just never knew…