There are never any heroes in war, there are only survivors. History always remembers the battle and forgets the blood. In the crimson aftermath of battle, selfless acts of courage are hastily forgotten as weary survivors gather name tags, and render aid to the wounded. How they survived the battle is remembered when time etches itself upon the faces of soldiers who fought desperately to stay alive, and to somehow make it home.
They are genderless people, who are myriad in color, ethnicity and background, and they span the tapestry of every political ideology and religious faith. They are the soldiers and civilians who reached into the crucible of the soul, in the heat of battle, to grasp the courage to act bravely, even though it often cost them their own lives.
The following is a short story depicting one of those soldiers who made it home, battle weary and broken, he slowly returned to create some semblance of the life he left behind....but he never forgot the price paid so that he could come home, and he never forgot the soldier that paid that price so many years before.
It was one of those nights along the California coast where you can continuously feel the light mist caressing your face, your hair and your hands. The kind of mist that gradually soaks you to the bone, but so slowly that you don't notice how drenched you are until its too late and you find yourself dripping wet. Richard was laying on a chase lounge on the back deck of his home that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. The patio umbrella provided some protection from the light falling rain.
The trees swayed and moaned in the wind and resembled lonely sentinels of the night standing watch for the coming storm but knowing that there was no stopping it. Their efforts were futile at best.
He gazed into the night and saw whitecaps frothing with a mesmerizing luminosity. The coming storm whipped them up and drove them toward the beach like a frightened herd of cattle. The cold rain, the turbulent sea, the trees dancing wildly before him and the angry wind, drew him into a whirlpool of the past.
He tightened his grip on the rail with one hand, and gazed out at the misty obsidian night, filled with rain mixed with the salty spray of the ocean. He clung to the rail with whitened knuckles, seeking to steady himself for what he knew was coming that he had little control over. Images of the past filled his mind once again with a swirling kaleidoscope of flickering light and painfully familiar sounds.
It was during this period of his life, while in Vietnam, that he almost slipped over the edge of what the human mind and spirit can endure without shattering the man who was living there beneath the uniform. It happened to Richard when he had been the closest to stepping between reality and insanity and finding that for a time, they had become one. For some soldiers there was no way back. Not from this.
In time you became a chameleon in the world of war; ever adapting, changing, and eventually, a shadow in any situation that you were in. In the end, faceless and nameless soldiers emerged from a sea of mud and blood and terror, and you wept when you discovered that you were amongst them and that somehow you had survived. In time the how you survived would become more important than the fact that on this night you were alive, and had been given a second chance to live because of someone else's sacrifice.
Distant lightening would create a strobe light effect where momentarily, amidst the sheen of the wet jungle, the shadow of imaginary garish forms with faces that appeared haunted and afraid, leered out at them like demonic evil soldiers of the dead. There was a sense that on nights like these, the jungle was a living thing, disturbed and angry at their presence. The wind made the jungle foliage whip and sway with branches twisting, in an eerie dance, creating shrieking sounds that mimicked unholy moans of pain and anguish.
Capt. Richard Connors edged forward cautiously and whispered, "Stewart, take point." He could not be sure, but there was a sixth sense that combat soldiers have that signals when danger is near.
Once again, he and his unit were on another reconnaissance mission. The squad were moving cautiously into an unmarked sector with coordinates along the 17th Parallel. They were investigating a previously undiscovered pathway that intersected with the Ho Chi Mien Trail that snaked out of China, for 2000 miles and edged an unmarked boundary between Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. They were in an uncharted and highly dangerous part of the jungle.
He edged up behind Swanson and became, Point of the Spear.
There was no warning to protect them from danger this night, only instinct. There wasn't a metallic sound or the flash of reflected light from a rifle or knife blade that alerted Richard; some kind of animal instinct that was always there on the periphery of his psyche, screamed a warning in his mind.
Suddenly, gunnery sergeant Rick Swanson who was kneeling behind Eric, stood up slowly, turned around and stared at Richard. He had a look of confusion on his boyish face. Then a trickle of blood ran down the left side of his neck, and Swanson's eyes rolled back in his head and he began to crumple to the ground.
Even before Swanson hit the ground, Richard had signaled his unit to drop and take cover. Before any could respond to his order, there was a thunderous uneven roar, like the sound of a vengeful swarm of angry hornets; his unit had come under intense enemy fire. There are few experiences that are more terrifying and disorientating as a jungle firefight at close quarters, especially on a windy rain swept night in the dense jungles of Vietnam. Everything became nightmarish and horrific, where the senses could not register clearly, what was real and what was a terrifying dream.
Richard had responded instinctively by dropping to the jungle floor, and scrambling behind a fallen tree. He rattled off a volley of short bursts from his silenced M-16. He sighted, moving his rifle decisively and smoothly, firing at any muzzle flash from the enemy. He saw several of the enemy snipers fall, but could not track any sounds of a hit amidst the vicious barrage of fire all around him. He stopped suddenly, and to his horror, he saw his men spinning like drunken marionettes, jerking spasmodically with the impact of shells riddling their bodies. It was the perfect ambush. Only a few of his men had managed to get off a few shots before they were cut down.
Suddenly, Richard saw a Viet Cong lean around a fallen tree and draw a bead on him. He could not respond quickly enough to prevent the inevitable. Just seconds before he was about to die, Eric Stewart stood up and shot the soldier between the eyes, spinning him backwards just as he was about to take Richard out. Then Eric was cut down having stepped from the safety of cover. He took the bullet meant for Richard and paid for it with his life. There was another short barrage of fire, and then it stopped as quickly as it had begun.
Richard crawled through the mud and wet tangled bushes to help any of his men who were wounded. Two of his squad died just as he was attempting to render aid as they were hit with more sniper fire. He himself had been wounded at least twice but could feel no pain. The discipline of a soldier was engaged and the pain centers of the brain were shut down. Then there was silence again. Alpha Two was dead. All but he had been shot numerous times, and with wounds pouring out their life's blood, they had slowly died on the rat infested jungle floor.
A cold wave of ice flowed through Richards body. He covered his face with the wet blood stained mud of this sacred altar. This was a holy place now, and he was the priest, only it was not absolution that he offered; only death. He must survive. He began to stalk his prey. He circled the Vietcong that were surrounding his unit. He could smell them amidst the cordite smoke of the massacre.
He knew the enemy would plunder and mutilate the dead soldiers. It was the unspoken message of jungle warfare. The bodies of the dead soldiers would be displayed in such a horrific and grotesque way, that when a squad came upon this staged scene, minds could not comprehend, could not register what they were seeing. Then suddenly, the realization would set in, but by then the mind had taken a toxic picture of what it had seen. It would fester, and stalk one's mind until you leaped screaming from your bed, weeping like a small child. The sight of such a massacre and degradation stayed with a soldier forever. It terrified the bravest and broke the most courageous.
With rain pouring down, and sporadic lightening flashing hypnotically far away, he experienced no fear as he drew near the enemy. One by one, he took them out before any of them knew that he was there. His movements were silent and his outrage was intense. Richard became the trained killer that he was fashioned to be. His knife glistened, wet with the kill. When the price was paid, he bent low and, covered in mud and the blood of the Viet Cong, and went back to his men.
Tears of rage coursed down his face as he checked each one, whispered an oath and took their tags. He gathered whatever ammo he could carry and gave one last glance at his men. If he buried them, they would never return home. He hoped one of the Special Forces reconnaissance units would come to find out what had happened to them and call for transport to take his men back to camp before Charlie came back for them.
The only body he had not found was Eric's. He covered his face once more with the sour feted mud from the pathway. Silently he crawled back to where Eric was last seen when he was at point. After a a few moments it had become clear to Richard that he was alone. As he crouched low, he studied what little sign or tracks were left on the pathway. Of one thing he was certain; Eric was nowhere to be found. There was an inner awareness that he had either gotten away or had been captured by the Vietcong. Richard knew that Erik was alive.
Already the rain had begun to wash away whatever tracks were left. Richard could see that there had been a fierce struggle and then there were the unmistakable grooves in the mud where Eric had been dragged away. Richard slipped the 45 caliber pistol from its holster, attached the silencer and began to track his prey. He would not return back along this pathway without Eric. Of this there was no doubt. He looked back over his shoulder and
saluted his men grimly.
One moment he was there and then he was gone. As the lightening flashed, he had vanished into the writhing storm drenched jungle; a ghost in the night.
He had found Eric two days later. Richard had heard Eric's voice, calling out his name over and over in the night. Eric Stewart was wounded and near death, and he was struggling to stay alive in a rat infested bamboo trap where he was submerged to his neck in the stinking brackish river. He was still bleeding from the a bullet wound to the chest. It was rancid from the rotting animals floating nearby along with a few dead Vietcong. Charlie would be back.
Richard broke the crude lock on his cage and together they slipped into the water, and found a large fallen tree drifting lazily in an eddy nearby. They pushed it into the rushing yellow water and floated with the current of the Mekong River toward the Delta. Richard gripped Eric's belt to keep him out of the water. They were spotted the next day and rescued by an HH-3 Jolly Green Giant helicopter. Eric was critically wounded and might not survive. Eric had been shipped stateside due to his injuries and Richard had been debriefed and reassigned to Special Operations at HQ in Saigon to finish up his tour of duty. That had been many years ago.
The storm had engulfed his home like Neptune's fist. Richard had returned to his bed from the deck late in the night. He was sopping wet and shivering from the cold rain that now fell heavily. He had stripped naked, lay on the bed and fell into a dark and fitful sleep. He was awakened not from another nightmare, but from a sound that was not coming from the storm.
Then he heard it again,"Captain," said a voice muffled by the storm. "Captain Connors" The wind blew upon the house and it was buffeted with heavy sheets of rain. Richard sat up and cocked his head to listen more intently when the voice called out again. "Captain Connors. Don't leave me out here!"
It was Eric's voice, calling out to him from his bamboo cage. His voice was edged upon Richards mind indelibly, and had called out to him in nightmares for years. Somehow he knew that his captain would come for him, and he had been right. Then, shaking his head, Richard sat up quickly, awake with his senses poised to respond to any danger, and bolted from his bed. Yanking on a dry pair of jeans, he padded out of his bedroom, and down the stairs to the back door. He listened. There was only the sound of the storm outside. Richard opened the door and stepped back with an involuntary gasp and said,
"Eric? Is that you? My God," he sobbed, "Eric!"
The man that stood there carried the weariness and strain of a vet who had still not come home from Vietnam, even though he had been on American soil for over 30 years. His eyes were misted with tears and his hands were shaking as he reached out to Richard. Richard noted oddly that Eric was not wet and shivering but warm and dry. He must not have heard his vehicle when he drove up.
They threw their arms around each other and both were overcome with shared joy and sorrow. It was always this way when a vet reconnected with a member of his old unit, especially if time and circumstance had unexpectedly separated them after the war. Richard had lost track of Eric Stewart, even though he had searched earnestly to find him. He was Richards hero who had taken a deadly bullet and had been tortured mercilessly in his place as a vicarious substitute.
They sat down on the deck and chose not to talk about Nam. Conversation at times, seemed unnecessary. There was just the comfort of comradery, the silence of shared brotherhood that soldiers have. The storm subsided unexpectedly, and the night sky had cleared and was sprinkled with an array of stars. The wind had settled down, allowing them to enjoy the soothing sounds of the ocean as it lazily caressed the cliff face of Castle Rock. As the sunrise lit the morning sky with hues of amber and crimson, Eric seemed to become restless, and he whispered quietly that he had to move on.
Eric said he would contact him again when he got settled. Sadly, Richard had never seen him again after that day.
As winter began to settle in along the California coast, he discovered that when the dark storms swept down upon his home from the north, he was not awakened in terror and cloaked in a mantle of survivor guilt. Since Eric's visit, the terrible dreams about his experiences in Vietnam had virtually dissipated like the foggy mist does upon the rising of the morning sun.
In early spring, Richard tried to look Eric up and invite him back for a longer visit. Without Eric taking that bullet for him, Richard would never have been given the life that he had lived. After checking with military records, vital statistics and even writing his company commander, Colonial Alexander Morgan, he received troubling notification that sergeant Eric Stewart had been killed in a skirmish in Saigon on the very day he was to return home to the states. The evacuation station that he was brought to had been hit by a brief but vicious attack. Several wounded vets, a few nurses and non-commissioned medical personnel were killed. Eric had been badly wounded again, yet had held off the attackers with a rifle he took off a fallen soldier, until reinforcements had arrived and decimated the enemy mercilessly. Eric had been mortally wounded in the skirmish and was dying, When doctors and nurses knelt over him, they called him a hero. He held up his bloodied hand and whispered,
"There are no heroes in war." Then he breathed deeply and said,"There are only survivors, everyone is a hero." Then he died.
The documentation was flawless and the information he had received about Eric had later been confirmed by Colonial Morgan. Eric had been dead for years now.
The day that Richard had found out what had really happened to Eric, he hung up the phone and stepped out on the deck where he and Eric has visited so long ago. He leaned on the railing and looked far out to sea. The sun had set, but the crimson traces of its presence were still painted across the horizon.
He shook his head slowly, unable to fully take it all in, took a deep breath and said quietly, "Thank you my friend. Go with God."
It was a brass 6.32 caliber bullet, the cartridge used by the Vietcong with their Russian made AK 47's. He picked it up, and with tears coursing down his cheeks, walked into the house. He was determined to continue to cherish the gift of life Eric Stewart had given him.
Richard knelt next to his bed and his knees touched the pathway to The Quiet Place. He wept as he sought God's forgiveness, grace and inner healing. The nightmares and inner anguish were slowly replaced with God's inner peace, found only through the Lord Jesus Christ. Richard later learned that Christ is the Prince of Peace, because He paid the Price of Peace. Like Eric, but with eternal ramifications, Jesus had also died a vicarious death for him, and had sacrificed his life for Richard. He had much to learn and a grateful lifetime to learn it.
"Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest....and you will find rest for your souls" Matthew 11:27-30