MORGANTOWN, WVA OCTOBER 1979 – BALLOON DAY.
It was one of those cool dry fall days when you get the first breath of winter. It was almost still, just a very light breeze. He stopped for a minute and looked across the town. He inhaled the cool air. The trees were just starting to think about turning brown. The Balloons were rising above Morgantown. He tried to make out the names of the sponsors of each Balloon, but they were too high and too far away. He was calling a marching cadence in his head, then he was doing his pace-count. 54 left-steps to a hundred yards. Then, the vision crept came into his head again. It followed him everywhere. It made him sick, he would swallow, lose his appetite, hope it would go away and that he could feel better if only for a moment. He couldn’t scream, he couldn’t share it with anyone, he couldn’t talk about it. Nobody understood who wasn’t there.
He was a senior at WVU. Soon he would be graduating and receiving his commission from ROTC. The economy was horrible and everything was going to hell, but at least he had the Army to look forward to, to keep him employed. He had visions of cruising down the Autobahn in the cool German air at high speed between Nuremberg and Munich enroute to doing some partying for Fasching. Stopping at a road side gas station for Fruhstuck.
At 27, he was a bit of an older student. He had started in ’76 at the age of 24. Vietnam had interrupted his life. He had spent his entire 18th and 19th years in-country between September 1970 and August 1972 watching as a war that no-one cared about anymore slowly disappear and become meaningless as vast numbers of troops were withdrawn. In 1974, At 22 he was back on the streets of Braddock, Pennsylvania working as a night security guard at a train engine plant with no future and no motivation.
It was so far away now. The War was over, the draft was over. No cowards had to fear wearing the uniform again. The Squirrel Hill mothers could stop worrying about sacrificing their sons to the green machine. Didn’t seem to bother them so much in WWII he thought to himself. He was embarrassed by his own people for whom the Army had sacrificed so much in Europe.
He was glad he had served, glad he was a pariah on Murray Avenue. Glad he was an anti-hero as he shopped for his incense in Lou’s Virgo Shop or as he checked out waterbeds and hookahs at Heads Together. Now political hippies had turned into weed-roaking freaks. ‘Please Come to Chicago’ was replaced by ‘Smoke on the Water’ on the AM Radio. Nobody cared. And why should they? Who the f*ck was he, anyway?
By April 1973, the entire country forgot Vietnam like it was a bad dream. He tried to forget it too. No-one welcomed him home, no-one cared. He came back on a Trailways Bus in September ’72 after he out-processed from Ft. Leavenworth. The bus came into the Pittsburgh Greyhound Station at 2AM. He was greeted by shitty derelicts trying to bum a square. He didn’t tell anyone in his family or his friends when he was coming in. He sat at Ritter’s Diner in the middle of the dark early morning in his class A’s, eating his eggs and roaking a square.
It was still dark as he crisscrossed the streets of the city on foot trying to find a streetcar to catch across town to get back to Braddock. He walked through the streets of Squirrel Hill, past all of the synagogues where he had never fit in because he didn’t look Jewish. He was too big and too fair complected despite Jewish ancestry of every great-great-grandparent.
His contemporaries didn’t join the Army but instead protested the War. The ones who did were considered an aberration and were largely ignored by the community. Only the other Veterans and holocaust survivors ever shook his hand. They understood the value of the Thin Green Line that stood between them and certain death.
He didn’t care. Everyone was roaking the schmiee, listening to good music like Three Dog Night, Jim Croce, Stealer’s Wheel and Billy Preston. All he wanted to do was buy reel-to-reel, massive speakers, albums and a VW Van. On Forbes Avenue, by the cemetery, He caught the first outbound bus of the morning to Braddock. He and some mill shift workers were on it. No-one noticed him. No-one said ‘Welcome Home’.
He woke from the reverie. While he was flashing back, he had made his way to class in a stupor. He sat down in the front-right corner of a giant ski-slope classroom. He was going to meet his girl, Laura, later and go to dinner. Laura was from a good family in Shaker Heights. Her family all respected him. Especially the old man who had been in the Acorn Division at the Bulge in World War II. They were the real Veterans. What in the hell was Martin? He was a soldier from the hated generation. Maybe Chicken was right-“don’t mean sheeit”.
Laura always wanted him to go to temple, but he couldn’t stand it. He was a true believer, but he felt uncomfortable in temple. To him the bible was fact, a history of his people’s relationship with God, but the current generation of his people annoyed the hell out of him. He saw them as self-involved, bearded weirdos who were corrupting society and who only protested the war because they were too cowardly to go and fight for a country that sent men to die for them just 25 years before.
Class started on time. The professor was discussing some engineering technique for road-bed construction. The class was suddenly quiet. Martin felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked up. There were three men. One of them was a man in a blue suit. The other was a Morgantown Police officer and the third was a U.S. Army military policeman. The Morgantown officer wore jump wings on his cop’s uniform. The cop was a gruff man, but he looked down at the ground, dejected, his eyes moist.
“Are you Martin Lebensraum?”
“You are under arrest for Capital murder under the laws of the United States and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”
Martin looked the cop square in the eye.
“Oh well, it was only a matter of time.”
He put his hands behind his back.
The Morgantown cop handcuffed him.
“I’m sorry brother. I hope you get out of this shit. I’m sorry man.”
Martin turned around to the cop.
“Hey bro’ it’s your job, don’t ever be sorry about doing your job, man. I have to pay my own fare in the world.”
He turned to the girl who had been sitting next to him.
“Can you pick up my stuff and get it to my brother?”
“Martin, what the hell is going on?”
“I did a bad thing a long time ago, Vickie. Don’t tell Laura.”
“What should I tell her?”
“Tell her I had to go back to the Army for a little while.”
The professor came over.
“What in the world is going on Martin?”
The officer motioned the professor back.
“Couldn’t you have found a better way to do this, for God’s sake?”
The professor asked.
“Martin what is this about?”
“It was a very bad mistake, no it was not a mistake. I did something very bad…it very bad, a long time ago when I was in Vietnam.”
The cop led him up the stairs. The entire class watched in silence.
BRADDOCK, PA SEPTEMBER 1970
Martin graduated early from High School. He was almost 18 now. He had signed up for the Army when he was 17. He volunteered. Everyone in the Mon Valley did. Mon Valley people didn’t wait to be drafted. They did their duty, then they went to work in the Mill. It was always that way. Since the Civil War. You just did it. He was back fom basic training and he had his first set of orders.
“Do you have any idea what the hell you are doing?”
His father asked him.
It was late at night in the Fall of 1970. It was well after 1 AM and he and his dad were sitting in the kitchen in the house next to the river in Braddock. The sounds from the mills were audible even with the windows closed. His dad was cooking French toast and eggs. The kitchen smelled good. He would miss it.
“I have to do it Dad. Everyone else has already gone.”
The old man looked tired and he was wiping sweat off his brow.
“Son, it’s legalized murder. If your mother was alive she would never let you do it.”
His father had never spoken of the War before but he did now.
“I was at Schmidt 26 years ago with the Bloody Bucket. I was at Wiltz Castle. I don’t want you to go through what I did. I never wanted that for my children. It was very bad and I never thought I’d be back here. I don’t want to lose you. Mom was just a young girl back then. I tried to write her every day, but after Schmidt, I stopped writing for a long, long time. I just don’t want you to go.”
“Dad, I just can’t stay here and say I never went. I need that patch. The war is almost over and I need that patch.”
“No one will judge you for it. If they do, they don’t understand. I really wish you wouldn’t do it. Please don’t do it. Don’t die for a little piece of cloth. I lost a child once. Before the War. He was just a little baby, but I can’t go through that again. I just can’t.”
May 8th, 1972 Coastal Vietnam
Thanh Giang Gong Dao was a tiny village on a little cove on the coast of central Vietnam with pristine beaches abutting blue water. It had probably looked the same for an eternity. Ancient temples and stone carvings were hidden in the jungle at the far end of the village. The GIs couldn’t pronounce it, so they called it Chin-Chin-Dow-Dow.
The Air Force Forward Air Controller Sergeant came up to him. They crouched together behind giant rocks on the beach. The breeze was nice. It could have been any beach back in the States.
Over across the dunes was a civilian reporter cleaning his camera lenses.
The Forward Air Controller leaned into Martin with a map-board.
“Hey man, what do you know?”
“I don’t know much, Chicken.”
“Are the hamlets clear?”
Martin exhaled painfully and turned to Chicken.
“There are four of them. Four hamlets. I keep walking through, and each time there are fewer and fewer people, but the last walk through they were all gone. ARVN is supposed to be helping but I don’t know where the fuc* they went. Bastards.”
Chicken shook his head.
“I see people streaming back in, man. We only have the Fighters for so long and then the mission will get scrubbed. HQ really wants Charlie Cong out of these villages.”
“Well we can’t burn people just to make HQ happy.”
“Hey kid you do what you want to do, but I got my orders and this is getting to be the last chance to light shit up.”
“Let me go back through one more time, Chicken and take a look.”
Chicken took a long roak on a Cigaretthieu.
“You FNG, you fuc*ing kid, you don’t know shit you fuc*ing FO Redleg bastard. I’ve done four tours in this nasty shit. I did a tour in Korea. I am gonna be 40 years old blay. I was one of the first Mexican-Irish-Negro-brothers to call in Airstrikes in Korea. But now, I’m gonna’ be a psychedelic, universal, hippie, peace and love mother*cker like Richie Havens or some shit. Go and do your walk-through, but if you aren’t out in zero-thirty mikes you are gonna get napalmed, young blay.”
“Listen Chicken, I did a tour before, 70-71. I was on the Americal Division FSCOORD team. I volunteered to do back-to-back tours. I wanted to be a real FO. And besides the point, we ARE following orders, please let’s clear the fuc*ing village.”
“Now, blay, I’m gonna sit here and roak this fat schmiee, this fuc*ing roach, this ‘Dry Satan’ Hawaiian blend shit. Look at this giant f*cking roach, baby. I been saving it for my last mission and this is it, then I’m going back to the fuc*ing world and I’m taking my 20 and I’m gonna roak fat schpliff and take Peyote and bang quiff and Uncle Sam can come and light one up in my psychedelic fuc*ing hootch up in the mountains, blay and you will be there as my one young disciple. I will teach you how to bang old chicks. These young girls are no good for a young borther like you. They will stress you out. Get an oldie-goldie man, no less than 45. Bitches be ripe!”
“I will be right there with you man, but let’s do the job right.”
“The whole world can kiss my motherfuc*ing ass you god*amned FNG, rear-echelon FSCOORD son of a bitch.”
Said Chicken, smiling and pulling out his reefer-stick and lit it up.
“Hey Marty, be careful out there blay, you’re just a kid, man, don’t get schmoaked for this shit, man don’t be the last motherfuc*er to die in Vietnam, baby.”
He gave a long complicated extended handshake to Martin.
They both looked over at the reporter who was still sitting on some rocks like a Raven on a pedestal. He was about a hundred feet away from them. The reporter was from some big-name newspaper in Washington. He had long hair and psychedelic glasses. He wore a slant-pocket army-issue jungle shirt and blue jeans. He was a Korea Vet, just like Chicken and a pretty cool dude. The reporter was always arranging his camera and lenses. The reporter was quiet. He shadowed them.
Martin stepped through the elephant grass and walked into the village. It was spooky, no-one was around anywhere, no people, no livestock. He worried that maybe Charlie was watching. He held his M-16 at the ready, weapon on auto. Then he walked through the next hamlet and the next.
It had been twenty minutes walking. The breeze from the ocean was blocked by thick vegetation. The humidity was crushing. He could hear the insects. The flak jacket hung heavy on his shoulders. He stopped and cocked his head. He closed his eyes. He heard voices in Vietnamese. He got down on his stomach.
He high-crawled and then low-crawled through the sand and grass. He saw a man in black pajamas with a coolie hat. He was dressed in Charlie Cong’s official outfit. This was the closest he had ever been to Charlie. He got in the good, prone unsupported firing position and he got a good site picture on Charlie.
Just over the front site post he could see a family of villagers milling around behind Charlie. It seemed like Charlie was motioning the people back into the village. The people seemed afraid. An old man argued with Charlie, but Charles was very sincere and convincing. Marty saw Charlie leave. Marty crept back to head the people off. They walked in a close group back into the hamlet on his right.
He met the family at the edge of the hamlet. He fumbled through his 1924 French-Vietnamese Dictionary on the way.
“Di di mau! Di di mau! bị nạn, lâm vào cảnh nguy hiểm! You have to go now! tàu bay! Napalm!”
The villagers looked very frightened. There was an old man, an old woman, a few young women and about six teenagers, including a very pretty young girl. He made eye contact with her for a minute. She was maybe seventeen. They turned and walked about 500 hundred yards away to the edge of the village.
Marty went back to the position in the sand. He peered through the grass again. It was another Viet Cong commander telling the people it was OK to go back into the village.
For an hour the cat and mouse game continued. He told the people to leave, then Charlie Cong told them it was OK to go back in. He was fed up. This time he fired a shot at Charlie Cong from the reeds and hit him square in his shin-bone. Charlie screamed and fell to the ground and the people scattered. He fired again and again striking the prone Charles until he stopped moving.
“Taste that Carlos! Taste the chicken! Taste the fuc*ing chicken you scumbag!”
He was met with a barrage of tracer fire from the jungle 300 yards away. He got very low to the ground.
The squelch on his PRC-77 was broken:
“Oscar-One-Foxtrot, this is Charlie-Two-Bravo, What the Mother-F___ Blay? Over?”
Martin keyed the mike with his right hand, but continued to fire with his left as gunshots echoed from the tall grass to his front. Ejecting shells burned as they hit him in the face.
“Chicken-Bomb, this is Organic Farmer, Charlie is telling the people to go back in I was telling them to leave, now I’m in the shit. Tell HQ not to do the mission. I repeat for God’s sake, call off the mission. Check Fire!”
“They’re on their way, man, I’m coming to get you blay. I can’t leave you there man.”
“DO NOT COME here Chicken-Bomb there’s a dozen of them and you will get schmoaked. Just stay there for God’s sake!”
“No man, I can’t leave you there blay, you’re just a kid, I’m an old Mother.”
The radio went quiet. The fire fight continued to Martin’s left and front. He had to keep reloading 20 rounds mags.
“Chicken-Bomb, this is Organic Farmer, come in man.”
“Chicken-Bomb, this is Organic Farmer, come in.”
“Chicken-Bomb, key the mike or something man for fu*k’s sake, where are you?”
Martin got up and ran back towards the beach. At the end of the trail, just before the sand, the Air Force Sergeant lay face down dead.
“Goddammit Chicken, Goddammit. You were short, blay, you were fu*king short.”
Martin dragged him to the water’s edge by the rocks.
He reached for his mike, but it was gone. Chicken’s radio was shot through. He switched mikes and he couldn’t get the mike onto the radio. The seal was too tight. He oiled it with spit but it still wouldn’t screw on to the contacts.
“Charlie-Two-Bravo this is Tits-Up, Charlie-Two-Bravo this is Tits-Up, are we clear?”
It was the jets. He had no way to call them off.
He heard the fast-movers come in and he ran out to the highway. It was too late. The strike had started. A massive explosion of burning flame poured down on the villages. He hoped in vain that the firefight had scared the people away. He stood now in the middle of the coastal highway, exposed, peering down the road. He saw the reporter standing next to him taking shot after shot.
And then he saw them, it was the children, naked, running, burning, trying to tear off their clothes. The girl he saw in the village ran right towards him. Their eyes met again, as she ran past him. Martin stood transfixed as a giant plume of orange and black fire rose from the hamlets.
She fell to the ground almost at Martin’s feet.
He saw where the napalm has struck her back.
He pulled off his bayonet and he frantically scraped off the ugly jelly from her skin.
It was a scream of sheer terror and ultimate agony.
And she screamed and she screamed and she screamed.
Someone’s beautiful little girl, someone’s daughter.
And it was his fault.
And he had done this to her.
All his dreams of being the good guy, a G.I. Joe American Hero like his dad were washed away by the little girl’s screams.
Martin was a monster, a child’s nightmare boogeyman in the dark.
The ARVN helicopters landed and picked up the little girl.
Then they flew away, leaving Martin on his knees in the middle of the road.
He believed, that in that terrible moment, he had disgraced his uniform, failed his mission and shamed his country.
FT. LEAVENWORTH KANSAS, US DISCIPLINARY BARRACKS
Ft. Leavenworth. Home of the 1st/235th Rocket Artillery. The place he had left for Vietnam as a young forward observer. It was beautiful, pristine, old, more like an elite country club on the front end, but hidden in the back end was the cold stone U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, the Army’s home for the worst offenders.
There was a knock at the cell door.
“Yes” Yelled Martin.
The Guard opened the little portal on the door.
“Hey Farmer, I was f*cking there man. I was in Quang Tri in ’72 man, 1121st MP Company attached to the 101st.”
“This is all bullshit man, It’s all bullshit. Every single one of the guards here is pulling for you man.”
“Thanks Jack, I appreciate it. Tell them I appreciate it.”
“We all signed a letter to President Nixon and said that this is bullshit.”
“Hope you don’t get into any trouble.”
“Ah f*ck that man. It’s a f*cking volunteer Army they ain’t gonna throw us out!”
“Tell your boys thank you and let them know I won’t give them any trouble.”