Casualties of War
BY: Robert Nylen
I wish I could say something eloquent or intimately revealing about my fallen mates.
The truth is I don't remember them very well. I should, I know, I know, I know. After all, I sent them to their deaths. No, I didn't kill them. Instead, I mean I wasresponsible
for them: The orders I gave them were the proximate causes of their fates.
I made Bear walk point, out in front of the rest of the company, leading us into dangerous territory atop a mountain a few kilometers from Laos above the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I shouldn't have done that. He was a short-timer due to return to the States in a couple of weeks. Why did I do it? Why did I ignore his pleas? Foolishly, I wanted to believe a patently false myth: Native Americans had talismanic, mystical warrior talents, or so we hoped. (Our red brothers could see enemy troops in jungles where white, brown, or black Americans saw only impenetrable foliage.) Bear argued with me, he fretted, he complained, he told me how wrong I was. He was just a regular guy off the Rez, he said, with no special tracking skills, but I told him he had to walk point because we all knew he was so good at this stuff and there were bad people out there.
He sensed something terrible was going to happen. He may not have been able to see through triple-layer canopy, but his perception was clearer than mine.
He did his job anyway.
For his conscientiousness, he was shot many, many times. He had foreseen and dreaded this very ambush, but he was powerless to prevent it. His gifts were not really gifts at all. They were jujus, phantasmagoria, and the residue of superstitious, silly, wishful thinking. Everyone in my platoon believed in those gifts but Bear.
He died in minutes.
The second man in line, squad leader Shaefer, was shot through five of his joints--both knees, a wrist, an elbow, a hip; and as a special savage bonus, he was hit in the gut too. He was alive when we got to him. We medevaced him and the next two guys in line. The third man was shot in his right foot. His wound was bad enough to get him out of that bad place but not nearly so bad as to be life threatening. The fourth man was shot in his left buttock, which meant a nice, fat scar and a joyful trip home.
Fifth in line: me. I was unscathed.
Days later, though, I too was shot. After surgery, I awoke next to poor Shaefer. He was still in intensive care, suffering mightily. I don't know to this day if he survived. Maybe he should be on this list of honored dead.
I hope not. Shaefer had argued with me not to put Bear on point. Poor bastards, both of them.