Vietnam was called the land that God forgot. I sure saw the truth of that, serving as a combat medic in the late 1960s. My first nine months of duty were spent taking care of casualties choppered in to Landing Zone Sally, a base north of Hue. At 20 I'd seen more suffering and death than I'd ever imagined possible. A man's life had no meaning here. How could I still believe in a God who cared about us, a God who cared about me?
In October 1968, I was transferred from LZ Sally to the First Cavalry Division headquarters at An Khe in the central highlands. An Khe was a huge base camp with an airfield, post exchanges, a commissary and clubs for officers and enlisted men—a far cry from the Spartan existence at LZ Sally, where we'd lived in underground bunkers. The war was still everywhere around us.
But at An Khe I felt more like a human being again.
My company patrolled outside the base in the daytime, searching for mortar tubes, rounds and rockets. At night we pulled guard duty on the perimeter. There were machine guns on towers at different intervals, and sandbagged foxholes in between. We were reinforced with more troops and a Quad 50—four .50-caliber machine guns mounted on a flatbed truck. The crew fired rounds into the field to discourage ground assaults from the Vietcong. It seemed we were no closer to peace than the moment we'd arrived.
I spent my free time at the enlisted men's club on base. One night I walked in, and there was this all-American guy standing on a chair, lip-synching to a song on the jukebox about losing his girl. He was so into it I had to laugh. "That's Tom," one of the GIs clued me in.
Later a buddy introduced us, and Tom and I hit it off right from the start. He showed me a picture of his girl back home. "We're getting married," he said proudly. Then he grinned, pulling more pictures of pretty women from his wallet. "Now what'll I do with all these?" he asked. "Just a joke, kid," Tom said. "I finally found love, and it beats all."
Tom had a free spirit that seemed to rise above the grim reality around us. "When this is over, I want you to come meet my folks," he said once, throwing his arm around my shoulder like a brother. Tom made me feel good about life again. We hung out at the club, where Tom would lip-synch till the crowd went wild. "Go, Tom!" we'd yell. No matter what we'd been through out on the perimeter, Tom's antics never failed to cheer us up.
Tom was only two years older than me, already a seasoned grunt. He'd spent time in another line unit before coming to An Khe. One night I saw him in action. Our company was on the perimeter, and it was really bad. The Vietcong were out in force. Enemy tracers bounced off a bunker about 100 yards to our left. The Quad 50 was nowhere in sight. We returned fire. Tom manned an M-60 machine gun. I handled the M-79 grenade launcher.
Nothing seemed to stop the advance of the Vietcong. "We need air support!" Tom yelled. He was totally focused, rounds blazing from his M-60. The sight of him filled me with confidence. We were fighting for our lives, all of us together. I had to do what I could to help. God, don't let me make a mistake. I grabbed the radio. I shouted into the mouthpiece for air support. In minutes, there was a roaring whoop-whoop-whoop overhead, and two Cobra assault helicopters appeared. Machine gun and rocket fire streamed from the two choppers, strafing the enemy. Thunderous cheers erupted. The Cong were routed.
Seven months later the entire division was deployed to another tactical zone. Our rifle company was disbanded, and all grunts were reassigned to other units. I was going to finish my tour of duty with a medical company in Phuoc Vinh, north of Saigon. A gang of us got together at the club to say good-bye. Tom was his usual happy-go-lucky self, but he'd been assigned to the thick of combat. I told him I was worried. He brushed it aside. "This is the kid," he shouted to everyone, smiling in my direction, "and the kid is going home!"
At the clinic in Phuoc Vinh I took care of casualties coming in from the field. Every day I worried about Tom. I dreaded unzipping body bags, fearing I might see his face. Whenever I got a letter from him, I breathed a sigh of relief. "Keep smiling, kid," he'd write. Or, "Counting the days till we're both back home." But after a couple months, his letters stopped coming.
In July 1969 I was choppered down to the airbase at Bien Hoa to process out. Standing in line for my papers, I spotted a buddy from the old rifle company. We chatted for a bit. Then he mentioned Tom. "He sure was a great guy," he said. I backed away, stunned. Was? I don't believe it. I had to find out for myself. I went to the warehouses where personnel records were kept.
"I want to see the killed-in-action list," I said to a GI at the desk. "Sure," the soldier said. "Who you lookin' for?"
I spelled out Tom's name, and in moments the GI pulled out a 3x5 card. "Here you go," he said. I stopped breathing. Not Tom. Not Tom. I left the soldier holding the index card, and stumbled out, lost in the land that God forgot.
I don't know how long I wandered around the base, but I found myself in an empty parking lot, telephone poles lying flat on the ground to designate spaces for military vehicles. I sank down on one of the poles. My heart was heavy, my mind filled with memories of my buddy Tom. "You're family," he'd said, hugging me close. Tom had everything to live for. What did I have? All the hope he'd given me seemed to have died with him out there on the battlefield.
Taking a deep breath, I raised my head and wiped tears from my eyes. I was startled to see a figure moving toward me. In seconds he was standing in front of me. Other figures appeared to my left and right, wearing flowing robes. Some of them sat alongside me on the telephone pole.
The figure in front of me knelt, putting his hand on mine. The others put their arms around my shoulders, just as my comrade Tom once had. But who were these comforters? My body relaxed, and I no longer felt as if I carried the weight of my sorrow by myself. Then I realized what was happening. Angels. I grasped the hand of the one in front of me and looked around at the others. Their concern for my well-being, their sadness for my loss and for the horrors of Vietnam were almost palpable.
"Thank you," I whispered, slowly rising to my feet. The angels vanished as suddenly as they'd appeared, but I knew God had not forgotten this land torn by war, any more than he'd forgotten me.
The angels he sent that day are with me still. I'm not saying that life has been easy for me in the years since I returned home. But when things seem their worst, I remember how much God has given me. He sent Tom to give me hope during wartime, then angels to give me hope for a lifetime.
'Comrades in Arms' by Michael Herrera reprinted with permission from Angels on Earth Magazine. Copyright © 2007 by Guideposts, Carmel, New York 10512. All rights reserved.
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