Casually casting around for Memorial Day material? Here’s some meaningful meat

This essay is written by Stephen F. Banko III, author of the Cicero Speechwriting Awards Grand Award winner for 2009, about PTSD, and the horrors of war. —ed.

The day began with the same disappointment that started every day in Vietnam: another prayer had gone unanswered. I was not in a nightmare. I really was in a war. It also began with a surprise. I didn’t know it was Thursday, much less a holiday. So when I was summoned to the morning briefing and the captain greeted us with “Happy Thanksgiving” I wondered what, indeed, I had to be thankful for in 1968. The captain made it more than a mere greeting though when he told us that we would be eating our holiday dinner at the base camp in Quan Loi. We would just eat and head back into the jungle but even a respite that brief was a welcome break from the tension of living in the jungle. The fact that we would be eating on tables, off plates, and seated on chairs was a bonus. In Vietnam, the best pleasures were the simple ones.

As I packed my gear and prepared my men for the helicopter ride to the base, I marked my mental calendar: Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then four more weeks and my internship in Hell would be over. The mere thought of that happy day started me humming “Over the River and Through the Woods.” 

I loved the solitude of the chopper rides. The air was cool and the danger of the jungle was two thousand feet blow me. As the helicopter chased its shadow over the trees, the jungle bubbled up like tufted brocade of emerald velvet. In the chopper, I could think my own thoughts, free from the threat of instant death that lurked behind every tree and every bush down below. Walking through the jungle was like having a deranged parrot perched on your shoulder. It didn’t always go for your eye with its nasty beak, but you knew it could at any time.

I marveled at the notion that I’d endured ten months of this insanity. I’d lived in unspeakable terror and what might have been unbearable pain. I’d known the desperation of dying friends and the horror of killing enemies. I’d walked through days of endless fatigue and shivered through nights of endless terror. The end of the ordeal was in sight but I was equally focused on my doubts that I’d kept enough of who I used to be to begin a life without war.    

The doubts were magnified when we landed at Quan Loi. If I looked anything like my men, then we were in much worse shape than I thought. We were filthy and smelled it. We were weary, wary, and worn. We were tattered and torn and tired. I looked at men who had been kids only months before. Their eyes no longer looked alive. They had shrunk back in their heads as if in retreat from the horror they’d seen. They were black and flat as glass. Thanksgiving my ass, I thought as we formed up for the quarter mile walk to the mess hall. The rear echelon guys stood along our route and just stared in silence.

When we approached the mess hall, I saw through a window that they tried to make the mess hall a little more festive. The normally bare wooden tables were covered with red and white-checkered tablecloths in the finest vinyl the Army could buy. In the center of each table, a waxy Chianti bottle held a white candle. I mentally set the odds at 6 to 5 in favor of the notion that the corpulent mess sergeant had singlehandedly emptied all the Chianti bottles. The faces inside the mess hall looked happy. If I’d been able to bathe and change clothes, if I wasn’t carrying an M-16, if I wasn’t so bone tired, I might have actually thought this was a holiday. When my window-shopping went on too long, my gut told me there was a problem. I looked toward the door and saw our captain in an animated discussion with another officer. I went forward to see what was going on. I was too far away to hear anything but from the waving of arms and looks on the faces, I knew the discussion had nothing to do with menu. Before I got to the door, the battalion commander appeared in the doorway. As soon as the colonel’s arm went around our captain’s shoulders I knew we were going to get screwed. When the arm dropped suddenly and the captain’s heels locked, I knew we wouldn’t be kissed during the screwing. The young officer followed the battalion commander back into the mess hall, pausing long enough to cast a sneer at our captain. The captain looked like his favorite hunting dog had been run over on the four lane.

The captain stood in front of his dirty troops and said that the new plan was for us to return to the airstrip where our food would be delivered. Time wouldn’t allow us to actually eat that the tables like the other human beings. When I questioned him about it, he allowed as how the powers that were had decided that we were just a little too filthy to eat at the newly appointed Quan Loi “Dining” Hall.

The situation was rife for mutiny. We’d been beating the bush for forty-three days straight. We’d seen our friends die. We’d suffered from the heat, the fatigue, the loneliness and the wounds. We’d been living like animals and now, presented with our first chance in more than a month to eat under a roof, we were now made to feel like Cinderella facing her stepsisters. The utter lunacy and the sheer absurdity of the situation, though, made it impossible to be taken seriously. The universal wisdom of the infantry soldier in Vietnam was “screw it man—it don’t mean nothing” and it certainly applied in this case. I’m not sure who started laughing but it didn’t take long for all of us to join in. We laughed those deep, thundering laughs that start in your belly and spill out in hoots and howls and ends in tears. The irony was too perfect to be make one angry—even if most of the kids in the company had nary a notion of what irony was.

So we retreated to the chaos of the airstrip and, as promised, the food was delivered hot and plentiful. We had to lean over our plates to shield them from the debris that resulted from each arrival and departure and I swallowed more than a few twigs that Thanksgiving afternoon. But we ate and laughed and love each other in the way men who share life and death must laugh and love to keep sane. We burped and belched and laughed and ate some more, happy merely to be alive and to be sharing the intensity of friendship rooted in necessity but blossomed with its totality. When we were finished gorging ourselves, the bones from the turkeys made us look like a company of Neanderthals. We rose unsteadily under the weight of our gluttony, but calmed by the knowledge that we men of Delta Company shared everything that life and death and joy and fear had to offer.

The tears of my joy and my laughter were still wet when I led the company out the gates of Quan Loi and back into the maw of the beast that was the jungle. More than forty Thanksgivings have passed since then but none of them have come close to approximating the joy I felt on that absurd day in 1968.

There is an epilogue to this story. Less than a week after Thanksgiving Day, 1968, my company was ambushed following a helicopter assault. Outnumbered better than four to one and cut off from reinforcements, we barely survived annihilation at the hands of the 368th Viet Cong Battalion. We held out for more than five hours but in the end sustained more than 85% casualties.

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