Our platoon marched in file through the thick brush. The air was thick, hot, and so humid I could barely breathe. Mosquitoes had chewed every inch of my body, and my feet rubbed raw in my boots. We were looking for rest, three of our men were stricken by malaria, and we were marching toward a clearing where the airlift would be tomorrow morning.
The village appeared in the distance, a few huts surrounded by rice fields. The Red River curled lazily by the hovels.
We went into the grass huts and found a few cooking fires still burning. Bowls of rotten food lay on the table, filling the air with the smell of dead fish.
After searching through the houses and not finding any Viet Cong, Sergeant Banks ordered us to burn the houses down. I held lit torches to the buildings, and watched as the fires engulfed them, dirty black smoke curling into the sky.
Banks lead the platoon to a clearing near the river. The airlift would be there in the morning to take the sick. I would still have to march on, burning village after village to the ground, interrogating the few farmers we found on finding the VC. Short amounts of fretful sleep broken by the sounds of gunfire.
I wanted to go home. I wanted to see Bobbi again, her hair the color of sunshine and her skirt short enough to see heaven at the right angles. Now I marched through hell instead.
The sun sank below the tree line, leaving us in inky blackness. They assigned Private Nelson and me watch duty that night. The last few nights had been hot and miserable but quiet. We made camp, and I set up my rifle and prepared for a long few hours of guard duty.
Nelson and I took shifts. I went first, watching the river. The heat and the exhaustion lulled me to sleep—the sound of distant gunfire cut through the buzz of summer insects.
My eyelids snapped open, and my heart beat faster. I quickly glanced around to find Nelson snoring nearby. I checked my watch, 0300. It was well over Nelson’s turn for the night watch. As I nudged him awake, I heard a rustle in the nearby vegetation.
Nelson shot awake as well, aiming his rifle in the darkness. The Red River was ink-black in the evening, and we saw what looked like a raft floating on it.
“Sh,” said Nelson, putting his fingers to his lips.
I nodded as we saw the raft head toward the other side of the river—the shadow disappearing into the darkness.
“VC?” I asked.
“I’m going to scout it out,” he said.
“Are you sure that’s safe?”
“Nothin’ here is safe. I’ll take my chances.”
He got up to leave. I kept my post until I heard a blood-curdling scream cut through the night. It was Nelson. Running toward’s them, his howls growing louder and louder.
“Watch out for the hole, Cox!”
I looked down and saw that Nelson was at the bottom of a pit. Sharp punji sticks carved out of bamboo skewered through him. The smell of blood cut through the acrid smell of the jungle.
“Nelson!” I screamed.
“Tell mama I love her. I want my mom. Mom,” he whimpered through tears.
“I will,” I said. Aiming my rifle carefully, I put Nelson out of his misery.
Screaming, I ran toward the river and saw the mysterious raft on the water. Just as it was about to slink off into the night, I fired my rifle into the darkness. A tall shadow on the raft slumped over before splashing into the water.
“Cox!” screamed Sergeant Banks as he tackled me to the ground.
“Man down, we have a man down,” Banks screamed into his radio. “Friendly Fire.”
The raft belonged to a neighboring platoon across the river. Another soldier was scouting the area for VC. I would return home with the sick on the Jolly Green Giant tomorrow and await my court-martial.
Another man of circumstance, just like me. Another mother would get the news that I killed her son. Another girl left, cold and alone. Another father without a son to carry his legacy, another brother went. I had made a terrible mistake not burning my draft ticket.