Lieutenant is dedicated to the memory of Lt. Thomas G. Dineen jr. killed in Vietnam. He was a close friend. Tom was beloved by the men he led. There is a hill in Vietnam named in his honor . The incidents and characters recounted in this story are purely fictional.

 

Lieutenant

By

William Snyder

 

 

Vietnam - 1968

 

Nam could be beautiful at dawn.  Sunlight shimmering off the wet jungle gave it a gleam like a morning jewel. The lieutenant stood outside the communications hut watching orange flames rise from the hills blackening in the distance.  Two days ago the hills had been green and wet.  Yesterday’s napalm shower had dried out the hills but the lieutenant couldn’t remember what it felt like to be dry.

The phone rang inside the hut.  Corporal Crawford answered. 

“For you.  Captain Scheuter.” 

He walked into the hut and put the handset to his ear.

“How’s it goin’ over there, Lieutenant?”

The static was heavy.  

 “Just another beautiful day out here in Malibu, sir.” 

“Glad to hear it, cause you’ve got some surfin’ to do.  Bravo Company’s been hit hard in a village to the south.  We’re sending a chopper on a medevac.  You’ll need to take some men to provide cover.” 

“Yes, sir. Give me 15 minutes.” 

The lieutenant forgot his skin fungus as he made a mental list of the grunts he’d take along.

“Good luck.” 

Scheuter hung up. 

Outside, a whistle grew louder. 

“That’s coming pretty fuckin’ close.” 

Shoving his helmet on, he stuck his head into the ground. Among others an alabaster face with crystal blue eyes bending over an infant flashed by for an instant.  The artillery rocket exploded in the mound 10 yards from the hut. 

“You OK?” 

“Yeah, sir.  That was weird.” 

Crawford had the look of a puzzling puppy.

”Yeah.  Get Sullivan and Nance over to the chopper area, right away.  I need them for cover for a medevac.”

“Do I have time to wipe the shit off my pants first?” 

The corporal had soiled himself the first time death came as close as it just had.

“No.”

Crawford left the hut laughing. The lieutenant took off his helmet and checked for dents; it didn’t matter whether there were any or not it was a ritual he copied from the war movies he watched as a kid.  Following another ritual he fixed his pistol in his belt, picked up his M-16, and made the Sign of the Cross.  Sullivan and Nance were already in the chopper area when he arrived.  The chopper blades whirled a wet vortex into the dense greenery. 

“We’ve got to pick up some guys in trouble.  You know what to do.”  

He yelled to them over the sound of the engine.  They both nodded and clambered inside the long green insect where two medics were checking to make sure they had enough first-aid stuff.  The medics nodded as he made his way to the cockpit. 

“You know where you’re goin’, Morales?” 

They’d never met so he asked the pilot’s nametag.

“Yes, sir.  Twenty clicks north, twelve west.”

“We’re ready.  Let’s go.” 

He gave thumbs up and returned to the cargo area.   They lifted off and left behind a mass of twirling foliage.  Twenty clicks north and twelve west was twenty-three kilometers. It would take between five and ten minutes for their green flying bug to get to the LZ.

“Sullivan, when we get there, you take the left, Nance you got the right, and I’ll take center field.”  

He looked them in the eyes. 

“Yes, sir,” 

“Right.” 

It was not their words, it was the shot-to-kill stare of the 2 grunts who had been in Nam a while that told him they had it straight.  Flying over patches of dense green wetness they reached an open meadow of elephant grass; the pilot took the chopper down into blowing waves of yellow-tipped ribbon.

“There they are, forty degrees to the right.”  Morales shouted over the engine noise veering toward five grunts huddled together by a dirt mound.  Two of them were wounded writhing on their backs.  He lowered the chopper.  One grunt pointed to the other side of the mound. His pointing became more frantic as the green bug hovered.  The lieutenant looked in the direction he was pointing.  A NVA V gook stood in the grass dead-aiming a rocket-launcher.  Moving his M-16 to firing position he squeezed and felt the thud against his shoulder a second before a red stream of blood spurted from the NVA’s neck.  Some grass flattened under the weight.

They edged in closer. A ground grunt turned and fired as Sullivan fired on the same spot.  The grass repeated its burial ritual over a second NVA.   The medics reeled in the stretcher with a howling PFC spurting blood from a gaping thigh wound.  The medics lifted him from the stretcher and lowered it for the other wounded grunt, dropping a hoist for the others.  One medic administered morphine while the other wrapped a tourniquet around the thigh.  The next grunt on the stretcher was hit in the lower leg.  The lieutenant could see how bad it was from the misshapen mess of boot dangling at the end of what had been an athlete’s limb. The three other ground grunts clambered aboard.

“Let’s get outta here,” one of the medics shouted.  Morales piloted their ascent with the sound of the engine drowning out the moans of the wounded.

“Thanks, I didn’t like it down there much,” an unwounded ground grunt grinned.

“Thank him.  No way we’d have gotten ya outta there without ‘em.” The morphine-administering medic nodded toward the pilot in the cockpit.

 “He’s right.  Taxi driver held this motha steady.” Sullivan agreed.

“What’s his name?” The ground grunt sergeant who had pointed out the NVA’s position spoke for the first time. 

 “Morales,”  the lieutenant answered with a nod to the cockpit.

“Mucho gracias, hombre,” the sergeant yelled.

“De nada,” Morales yelled back.

They touched down at the field hospital where the wounded were taken inside.  The lieutenant trudged back to the communications hut with no elation for what might be called a victory.  The empty feeling in his stomach had to do with two wounded US Marines and two NVA dead.

“Sir, Battalion ordered the platoon to do a sweep tomorrow morning.  Captain Schueter said be at HQ at 0700 and get outta here till then.” Crawford looked up from Playboy.

“Okay,” the lieutenant said and left the hut.

 

As he crossed the clearing he stopped for a moment before entering his tent.  Mick Jagger was screeching, "Hey you, get offa my cloud." Maureen and baby Brian were the lieutenant’s clouds.  Maureen was three months pregnant when he left for Nam and he had seen the baby in photographs only. He had come to free the people from communism but his political ideology had no place in Nam; freedom in the rice paddies was more often attained by the dying than the living.

Inside his tent he dozed off.  When he woke he re-read the ending of Maureen’s last letter: 

I call your name, but you’re not there. 

Don’t you know I can’t sleep at night?

But just the same I never weep at night

I call your name.

He began his answer.

I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day 

And when it’s cold outside I’ve got the month of May 

I guess you’ll say what can make me feel this way?

My girl, I’m talkin’ about my girl. 

 

My Wild Irish Girl:

How’s Brian?  Is he walking yet?  He’s almost four months now and the great Irish warriors are usually walking by then.  Give him a hug and a kiss for me.  The last pictures were great; you’re getting good with the camera.  It’s been nine months but from those pictures I can tell you’ve gotten your figure back.  I want to hold you in my arms again.  How I miss your smile, your beautiful blue eyes, and the feel of your body next to me.  You and Brian are more important to me than anything.  I can’t wait to be with you again.

Love, Tom.

 

With the usual exchange of song lyrics he never told her how it really felt in Nam. It was one moment of grace under pressure after another. Hemingway knew what he was talking about. When that 107MM shell came he felt intensely alive thinking his life was going to end.  Maureen, Brian, Mom, Dad, and his brother Frank were all images flashing through his mind’s eye.  He would go out seeing Maureen’s smile but never having held or seen his infant son.  Nam was one day after another walking a high wire balanced with fear.

 

The platoon assembled in front of him a few minutes later. He looked at each one of them.

“We have to be at battalion at 0700 tomorrow.  Got a sweep.  We’ll probably be gone all day if things go as usual. Be ready to go by 0630.  Get some sleep tonight.  See you in the morning.” 

There had been no questions because they had been there almost nine months. It was the Fucking New Guys who always had questions and made mistakes. The lieutenant had lived through some hellish times and had learned the best way to survive was to expect not to.  He reached a point where he didn’t care; he expected to die, did what he knew he had to, and didn’t think about it.  Seventy-eight days and he’d be going home.  Why was it that the highest number of casualties occurred in the first ninety days and the last ninety days?  After nine months in-country a soldier should not be making mistakes that put him in a body bag.  It didn’t make sense that so many short-timers were killed in the 3 months before they were going home. But once a soldier had less than ninety days to serve in-country he could taste home.  It affected how he acted, how he thought, how he slept.  Now more than ever the lieutenant didn’t want to die.    He’d proven to himself and his men that he was no coward.  But now he was scared as hell that he was going to fuck up and get himself killed.  What a waste to have done his time here, and then not ever see his son and hold his wife in his arms again. 

Back in the tent, he began telling himself to be careful and look out for mines, look out for Charlie, look out for…he didn’t think that way before becoming a short-timer. Before, he had been conscious of the mines, the snipers, the NVA, the VC; they were part of the job.  He just concentrated on what he had to do. Now he was trying to avoid consequences because he was so close to going home.  He had stopped being a natural soldier. 

 

---

 

Moving forward quickly, their point man spotted a clearing; something looked suspicious.  Captain Schueter signaled the lieutenant to come forward. “Take your men and check the perimeter of the clearing for a tunnel.”

“Yes, sir.” The lieutenant signaled for the platoon to circle counter clockwise.  When they had cut three quarters of their way around the clearing, the lead signaled.  The lieutenant motioned to his tunnel rat.  The corporal was five foot six and had been tunnel rat on all sweeps.  The smallest guys were always designated tunnel rats.  They would go down with a flashlight and a .45 to root out whatever was down there.  If they took a live VC, Battalion would interrogate them.  The lieutenant had recommended his corporal for the Distinguished Service Medal after he killed three tunnel gooks on the last sweep.

“Okay, do your thing.” The lieutenant pointed at the opening in the ground and looked at the corporal. 

The corporal's face was not what he expected.  There was fear in his brown Italian eyes. “Sir, can somebody else do it for once?”

“I’m the only other guy that’s small enough.  I’d do it but it’s not for me to do.”

He waited for the corporal to follow his order for what seemed like minutes.  The corporal stood motionless, his eyes darting from corner to corner.  The lieutenant reached out and held him by the shoulders - the rims of their helmets touched.  There was nowhere for the corporal to look; the lieutenant spoke softly, “Pull yourself together and get down there. You’ve done it before. You want to get outta here in one piece; so do I...we will.”

Gradually the corporal's darting eyes slowed.

“I’m all right, sir.” He crawled into a hole that went straight down for about four feet before turning to the left.  Light from the flashlight disappeared when he turned into the tunnel.  The lieutenant worried.  He was the executioner if the corporal didn’t come back.  About five minutes passed before he heard the sound of boots in the dirt.

“Hold yer fire.  I’m comin’ back up.  Got a buddy with me.” The voice had a casual sound, like the Smokey Robinson sound the lieutenant loved. He relaxed. The corporal emerged belly-down feet first from the tunnel followed face-to-face with a dirt-covered Vietnamese boy around ten years old.  Their faces were only six inches apart, separated by a forty-five-caliber pistol that the corporal held pointed between the kid’s eyes.

“I found him asleep down there near the guns and ammo.  It’s about 100 meters from here.  Guess he’s the guard.  Didn’t look for anybody else.” Brushing mud from the front of his fatigues the corporal put his .45 back in his belt.

“Good job.  He can probably tell us something about how many of them are around here.  Let’s head over to command.  The rest of you guys stay here.” 

The corporal kept poking the kid in the ribs with his M-16 as they worked toward Schueter. The congratulatory pat on the back felt weird to the lieutenant but it was better than a kick in the ass or a salute when Schueter said, “Take him to Battalion for questioning.  You earned an early ride back.  We’ll call for a chopper.  Go on ahead; I’ll put your men with another platoon to finish the sweep.  We’ll get the guns and ammo.” 

But the lieutenant didn’t leave. It was one of those things he learned early in-country. Counting on somebody else to be thorough could lead to being quick and dead. He waited to hear what Battalion said about the chopper on the phone. If arrivals weren’t timed properly, they could become target practice for an NVA sniper. When the radioman reached Battalion the lieutenant took the phone. He scheduled the pick-up for 11:45.

It took them forty-five minutes to get to the LZ. Once they knew the LZ was clean, they positioned on the perimeter and waited. The corporal opened his C-rations and offered the kid a can of spaghetti and meatballs.  The kid ate it ravenously.  They heard the chopper approach. At 11:45 on the nose, a chopper swooped into the clearing. The corporal ran out and waved while the lieutenant stayed with the kid. The chopper hovered dropping a hoist. The lieutenant motioned to the kid to move out. The kid’s face was full of fear. Jabbing the kid’s ribs again, he got him moving. The kid hesitated.  Pushing harder with his rifle, the lieutenant yelled at him, “Go, go, go.” 

The kid finally moved. The corporal waited with the cable, secured the kid and grabbed on himself.  They were hoisted into the chopper.  The hoist came back down.  The lieutenant grabbed it and clambered into the opening in the chopper.

A Barry Sadler face with blond close-cropped hair and sculpted features yelled over the noise of the blades, “We got another pickup to make before we head home.” 

“Okay,” The lieutenant answered.

Having just traded a tunnel of death for a bird of destruction, the kid was terrified.  A wet stain spread across his crotch. The lieutenant sat down looking straight ahead. As they swooped away from the LZ, the kid started to slide across the floor. The lieutenant and the corporal grabbed him.   

“How fuckin’ old dya think he is?” The sergeant asked.

“I’m not good at guessing their age … about twelve’s my guess,” the corporal said.

“Old enough to kill or be killed.  Seen more and more of ‘em like him lately.” 

The sergeant checked out the hoist for the next pick-up. In ten minutes they were on their descent. The sound of gunfire grew louder as they approached.

“No sweat, the LZ’s not hot but there’s some shit happenin’ about five clicks from here. They got themselves somebody.  You guys stay with him unless I need ya, OK?”  The sergeant looked over his shoulder.

“Just let us know if you need us,” the lieuteneant said.  “Hold on to him.”  

“Yes, sir.”  The corporal's grip tightened on the cloth of the kid’s shirt. The sergeant lowered the hoist.  The chopper hovered as the sergeant reeled the cable in with two new guests.  A Special Forces Captain held a pistol to the head of a NVA officer.  They sat on the floor opposite him.  The Captain jammed his forearm against his prisoner’s throat.

“Don’t move or you’re dead,”  the Captain sneered in Vietnamese to his captive, then spoke English. “Motherfuckers ambushed us.  Lost three men.  What’s up with you and him, lieutenant?”

“Doin’ a sweep we found him hidin’ in one of the tunnels. We’re taking him back to Battalion.” The lieutenant answered through the spreading smell of urine.

“I know how to get answers from these motherfuckers. Kid doesn’t know shit.  Throw him out.  My guy will tell us what we want to know after that.” The Captain had a crazed stare.

“That’s not my style, sir.  I’m taking him back to battalion for interrogation.” The lieutenant looked away from the stare.

“No you’re not.  This is about results.  I’ve been through this before.  These guys only talk when they’re scared shitless and your kid ain’t gonna know nothin’ worth listening to anyway.  If you won’t toss him I’ll order the Corporal to.”

How far would he go to save this kid? It was more than just about the kid. It was about his honor as a warrior. The lieutenant sat up and kept a hold on the kid’s shoulder. “Do what you want with yours; I’ll take care of mine.” 

 “Corporal! Throw that kid out the door!”

 “This is between me and the Captain, corporal. Disregard that order!” The lieutenant tightened his grip as the corporal tried to pull the kid toward him.

The Captain came toward them with the NVA in a headlock and his pistol pointed dead center on his forehead. “You stupid fuck!  Do what I tell you or I’ll blow him away right here.”  The Captain pointed his pistol at the kid.

The lieutenant got up and grabbed the Captain’s gun hand as the sergeant came from behind, grabbing the NVA around the waist. They went into an awkward four man waltz toward the cargo door. Suddenly the chopper dipped and they were sliding across the floor then falling through the air. The corporal and the kid watched as they disappeared into the green trees below.

 

 

 

Philadelphia - 1970

 

Maureen opened the door. She had gotten out of the habit of wearing stylish clothes but tonight she looked better than she had in a long while. She wore bell-bottoms and a white blouse with red and yellow embroidery bordering a bee’s nest neckline.  Her curly hair was permed in an Afro.  She could have been a billboard ad for the counter-culture if the counter-culture had billboard ads.

“Hey sis, you look great.  This is Carl and Charlie.” The lieutenant’s brother, Frank, smiled the introduction to his sister-in-law. Carl and Charlie shook her hand.

“Where’s my man? C’mon Brian.” Frank listened for the sound of his nephew’s footsteps.

“He’s at my Mom’s.  I need a dinner without him.  Maybe it’s the wine I need.  Where is it?” 

Frank shook his head at his forgetfulness. “I left it in the car.  I’ll get it.”

“I’ll go with you to get the wine.” Carl offered.

“No, that’s OK.” Frank walked to the car mulling over Maureen’s new look. She hadn’t shown her rebellious side in his 2 years as surrogate father to Brian.  But he should have known she had one. Rebellion for Irish Catholic girls was common in the 60's. When he returned with the straw-wrapped Chianti bottle they were standing in the kitchen.

“Carl was in Nam during the Tet offensive.”  Maureen turned to Frank.

“That was when Tom was reported MIA.” Frank put the bottle on the table.

“I told him.”  She turned back to slicing a tomato.

Carl sat at the kitchen table and said, “I don’t like to think about that time, we lost a lot of guys.” 

Frank thought he saw a touch of sadness in Charlie’s eyes. “We don’t either.  Before it started they were telling us that the war would be over soon.  After the Tet they couldn’t lie about North Viet Nam’s will to win.” 

Maureen finished tossing the salad. The Fifth Dimension were singing “The Age of Aquarius” in the background as they began to eat.

“Have you seen “Hair”?”  Carl held out his glass as Frank poured.

“I’ve wanted to, but I haven’t been able to get a weekend to go to New York.”  Maureen answered Carl’s question.

“Maybe we can all go over the holidays,”  Frank said, passing her a glass of wine.

Maureen’s eyes widened. “Are you kidding?  Tickets for Hair over the holidays are impossible.” 

“I’ve got an old friend…a dancer. She might be able to get you some. Let me know when you want to go and I’ll see what I can do. In the play “Aquarius” is two different songs.” Carl led the dinner conversation.  He was knowledgeable about art, rock n roll, jazz, literature and politics.  Frank thought to himself SDS didn’t know what they had in Carl. He was an articulate Vietnam vet who could speak out against the war. As the editor of SDS’ Ramparts he made a mental note to ask Carl to write something about Nam. 

When they were finished eating Frank carried a silver percolator and cups into the living room while Maureen went back into the kitchen.  She joined them with a New York cheesecake that she set on the table. Carl leaned forward looking intently first at Maureen, then Frank.

“I have something to tell you; it’s been on my mind for a while.  When I found out the lieutenant was reported MIA I joined SDS. I needed to make sure the lieutenant was your husband and brother before I came here for dinner.  I was the lieutenant's corporal and tunnel rat in Nam.”

Suddenly the room seemed filled with the sounds of the war. 

“When?”

Maureen's question welled from need not inquisitiveness.

“When he was lost we were together.  They haven’t told you what they know about that day.”Carl told them what had happened. He didn’t think that the lieutenant, the other two or anyone for that matter could have survived the fall. Maureen wept uncontrollably. Tears held back for two years flooded her crystal blue eyes like diamond rivulets. “I’m not worried about having what I’ve told you being repeated to anyone. I told the truth in Nam when it happened. I didn’t know what they did with it, because I got out of the army very soon after. I only found out that the lieutenant was reported MIA when I read your letter to Nixon in the SDS magazine asking for more information, Frank. I know how much this hurts you. But there has been some good that came out of all this. After I was discharged I went back to Nam and got Charlie outta there. The VC had killed his family. He wants to tell you something.” 

Carl nodded to Charlie.

“Pardon. English not too good. I am soooey. Lieutent good man. I be Choolie. I catlic now. Nex week confumashun. I take new name…Toomas.”