Whap whap, the chopper blades bailed up the red dust as I ran into the rear of the CH-46 just before it lifted off, taking me away from Khe Sanh for the last time. The bird was chock-full of scrawny Marines in worn, red-mud-stained utilities, helmets with stained covers, stained rifle stocks, a look in their eyes like they’d seen the angel of death, or something worse. I wanted to sit down but something inside my gut sloshed venom into my brain every time I started to put my butt on one of the web seats against the chopper’s bulkhead. My muscles prickled with the imagined smash of AK-47 bullets busting through the chopper’s skin, into my back, knocking me halfway across the deck where I would bleed to death.
So I stood and fidgeted and chewed my fingernails until they bled and kept peering out the bird’s portholes to uncover who was out there. After escaping the bomb-crater-scarred red ground of Khe Sanh, all I saw was a lush green landscape that could have passed for a version of the Garden of Eden. Yes, lush, thick, triple-canopied forests—a rich and lusty green—swept on and on, a fabulous hiding place for bamboo vipers, Indochinese tigers, kraits, enemy snipers and quad 14.5 millimeter anti-aircraft guns. I kept moving around the helicopter’s metal deck, as if that might negate any chance I had of getting my foot blown off. But nothing happened, except for the chopper crew chief who stared at me, then looked away with a wry smirk on his face.
We landed at Dong Ha and when I stepped out onto the ground, I would have dropped down to kiss the earth but I thought it unseemly for a Marine. As the other men hustled off to the transient barracks for a hot shower and some hot chow, I stood and gawked up at the green line of hills off to the east where I thought Khe Sanh must be. Right then, I thought to myself, I can’t believe I lived through that. What were my odds of not getting vaporized by incoming, or being struck by a sniper bullet right through my temple? What were the odds . . .
I thought, there’s a story, here. One that must be told. My story. I mentally pointed up towards the hills and thought, their story. But when I got to the States, no one wanted to hear our story. When I started talking about incoming 151s and red mud, bayonet charges, flame throwers cooking enemy flesh, my family, my friends, my lovers looked away from me like they were trying to snatch the arrival of an angel, or anything to save them from having to talk about killing.
For years I remained mum, and then I wrote poems and stories. I even wrote a novel about Khe Sanh (which remains unfinished), but the thick skin of my dissatisfaction and the depth of story required more telling, and yet more telling. And now Betty and I are making a documentary and maybe I can store all the memories in their proper compartment. Maybe I can adequately tell this story.
The funny thing about all this movie-making, especially the interviews, is how a lot of the memories I witnessed and later doubted have been proven to be true, even when I’d come to believe they were figments of my own creation: battlefield executions, torture of North Vietnamese. And before we all begin to point indignant fingers, I’d like to smack down a caveat about those actions: They were done within the context of savagery, and though savage, I cannot condemn them. We were all savages when we needed to be. Other things we were: hungry, brutal, aggressive, frightened, frustrated, loving, frightened, frightened.
After interviewing five more Khe Sanh survivors while on our long trip—8000 miles, 38 days, 18 states plus DC—I can still smell the specter of all that fear in the air, for them and for me, and, too, for the nine men we interviewed in San Antonio at the annual Khe Sanh Veterans reunion.
I won’t go into a litany of the problems that have hopefully been recognized by the military as long-term disabilities resulting from all that fear of death.
Yet despite recognition by society, the fear of PTSD’s recognition by its victims seems to be one of the major hindrances to having it taken care of. Who, me? Not me. Nothing wrong with me! Don’t ask me again or I’ll forearm-shiver your nose, and poke your eye out.
Traveling around meeting with these men, talking to them, what I see sitting there in the interviewees’ chairs is wary men, still nervous about who is behind their back, who is outside in the privet bushes, what that other sound is, not the drip of fog off the eaves, but those faint footsteps on the patio. The whisper caught in the wind. The whisper of savagery.
Yet despite our handicaps, we contribute to the good of our societies, and move forward. We hold jobs, help create and raise families, create art, go to our shrinks, meet with other Vietnam veterans and talk about what we possess in common. Holding a long view of the horrors of combat, we reach out to help the men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. We fund scholarships in the name of the dead for the benefit of the living.
Next we will interview Dr. David Walker, a military historian who teaches military history at Boise State University. Dr. Walker is a former Jarhead, so he knows some of the ins and outs of MarineCorpsdom.
We will be moving into our post-production phase and that will take more money. Please consider donating to our cause so that the story of Bravo! gets told. We will soon have a way for you to make donations on our website or you could send a check to Bravo! The Project, P. O. Box 1224, Eagle, ID 83616. We have filed with the IRS for 501 (c) 3 non-profit status. You can also find Bravo!theproject on Facebook.
Update: Bravo!theproject—Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines