《 April, 1965, 2100hrs 》
The heat was unbearable, and even though the sun had set, the humidity left us sopping wet and ripe.
Some of the men had blistering on the soles of their feet from the excess friction and moisture, I had warned them to take precautions but they claimed I was smothering them, so I stayed mum when they found out the hard way. The Intel we received, stated the three scouts we were supposed to be retrieving, had been last seen in Ky Son.
We were about a mile south, while Brittany’s team approached from the east, the third team was supposed to be stealth dropped in and cross the Laos-Vietnam border west of the city.
The sounds of the night kept us on edge, and from experience we knew the Viet Cong soldiers had the skill to blend into the jungle, they knew this land best, it was the only thing we could see clearly. I had this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, a persistent pest since we left the ruins of Vinh. The pregnancy test, weigh heavy in my pocket, and the morning sickness hadn’t stopped, I just pray my period came late or something, it used to happen when I was younger.
I was too afraid to read the results, knowing what those results would mean, things would never be the same. It would be just my luck to drop a baby in the middle of a war, they’d dishonorably discharge me, probably Baxter too, for being the father, they might even attempt to kill him. I tried not to dwell as we climbed what seemed like another steep hill, suppressing a frustrated groan, as I marched on with the men, refusing to fall behind.
“Somethin ain’t right.. this place should be crawling with those slanty eyed bastards, there ain’t nobody out here.” Major Brutte commented, as were made our way closer to Ky Son, we had yet to run into anyone.
“Maybe they’ve exhausted their manpower, dealing with team Bravo and Cappa?” Mentioned one of the other soldiers, but the Major shook his head no, he was right, we would have heard the fighting.
“What if they both were taken out, so fast, there wasn’t even a battle to be heard.” I said, saying what was on everybody’s mind.
“That’s not possible.” He replied, but there was a halt in conversation as we all heard a clicking sound that had become all too familiar, someone had stepped on a landmine.
“Everybody get back!!” The Major commanded, causing us all to scatter like rats on the pantry. “Dammit Jenkins, not you, stay right where the fuck you are.. Move that foot and you’re a dead man.”
“I’d wager he’s already dead, sir.” Mentioned one of the other soldiers, as we looked on at our comrade in dire straits.
“Where the hell is our bomb specialist?!” Major Brutte asked the First Sergeant next to him, yet the man look like he was about to faint, that was when a young Hispanic man stepped forward.
He seem to say a silent prayer, before he stepped toward the younger man, who now had piss running down his leg. All the men watched on in silence, but I couldn’t stand to see this, yet even as I try to look away, my gaze kept drifting back. The bomb specialist, who’s name I later found out to be Ricardo, was crouched down low, examining the contact point between the kid’s foot and the mine.
“Jenkins, Dios debe amar a usted, I think I can get you out..”
“I don’t know what the heck you said, but thank you man, than..!”
The praise was cut short by the sharp pierce of a bullet to the head, from where I stood I could see straight through Jenkins head, to the other side, where the bushes rustled as people approached with an unnerving speed. It was as if time went in slow motion, as Jenkins body slowly crumpled to the floor, there was no time for Ricardo to move as the incipient explosion brought me roaring back into the moment, we were under attack. The recoil from the blast had knocked most of us off our feet, but the Major stood tall commanding us to get up and run for our lives, this was an ambush.
My lungs burned, my feet ached, my thighs and calves throbbed with pain, all three threatening to give out. We’d been running non stop for about three quarters of a mile, and the fifty pound bag strapped to my back wasn’t helping, though the bullets still firing behinds us were a constant motivation. Sweat trickled down from my brow and burned my eyes, but there was no time to stop, no time for excuses if I wanted to live.
Through blurry vision, I kept my sights focused on the Major, just a few feet ahead of me, the First Sergeant was a couple paces behind. Our numbers had dwindled severely, leaving us with barely half the men we started with, most among the trail of corpses that lay behind in our tracks. Just when we finally put some distance between us and the enemy, we came to a shallow stream, that’s the moment one of the remaining soldiers pointed skyward. It was one of our planes, but something was different, the airman was flying way too low.
“Shit! We need to move.. it’s a goddamn Trail Dust Operation!” The Major yelled, sounding panic stricken for the first time, most of us looked at him with no clue to what he was talking about.
“They’re about to spray the area with Agent Orange.. the shit in the barrel with the orange stripes we told you idiots to stay away from, it’s for mass deforestation, it’ll eat the skin off your bones!” He screamed, looking at our clueless faces in astonishment, some of us didn’t need any more explanation than that and started to run for the river bank.
As we splashed our way to the other side, I could hear the chopper as it got closer, dread coursing through me as I thought about what they were really doing to the countryside. The powers that be, willing to scorch the earth to win a war of shallow principles. I had made it to the thick brush of the jungle, running on pure adrenaline as the chopper flew over three men unable to make it into cover in time.
The sounds of their screams, matched with the sizzling of their flesh were almost to much to bear, I hunched over and emptied my stomach on the floor. The soldiers laid there groaning, moaning, and howling from the excruciating pain they were in, I stepped forward to go help them the Major pulled me back by my arm sharply.
Looking to him for explanation, I only received a shake of the head, it was clear he meant to abandon them. He started to trek further into the jungle and pulled me along with him, I wasn’t even sure how he knew where we were going at this point, but then I remembered the river was to the east of our route. There was gunfire and screaming coming from the distance ahead of us, followed by an explosion, that rocked the ground beneath our feet.
“That has to be Bravo team, they’re not that far away.” It was the feint-hearted Sergeant, he was finally coming back around, and had surprisingly managed to survive.
“Sounds like a massacre.” I said, looking at the black smoke trialling in the sky, from a source closer than I would have liked. “We should give them aid, I don’t think any of you would argue that we’re stronger in numbers.”
“We continue towards Ky Son and we complete our mission.. There was a reason they sent multiple teams, mass casualties were to be expected.”
Those of us left looked to the Major, in a mixture of shock and anger, but you had to admire the man’s brutal honesty. He knew from the beginning, that this was a suicide mission and he was probably the only man that could complete the mission and get out of enemy territory alive.
“We need to head north west, and follow that river straight to Ky Son.” Major Brutte commanded, with determination in his eyes, but the First Sergeant was quick to voice what we all were thinking.
“Every memo I read on Agent Orange listed the chemical hazardous, comparable to radioactive waste, we shouldn’t be going anywhere near the river!”
“He’s right, exposure could have devastating effects.” I cosigned, vaguely recalling the one memo I received, telling of a new ‘insecticide’ in our arsenal being introduced into the war, there was a warning listing it as an extreme biohazard.
Our reservations failed to sway his determination, and the burly brute lead us on anyway, a path parallel to the scorched toxic earth. Thankfully he didn’t bring us too close, but we could smell the faint burning aroma of the chemical, I pray there were no sudden gusts of wind heading east, as the smell made me want to gag.
We trekked along, following the Major for another mile or two before I noticed the unnatural silence. The sun had set, and normally the sounds of the jungle would amplify as the creatures of the night inherit the earth, yet an eerie silence was all that could be heard.
There was the sudden feeling of being watched, from all sides it seemed, sending chills of instinctual warning through my body. We were deep into enemy territory, about a mile from Ky Son, elevated higher than most of the northern Vietnamese landscape. It was so dark in the thick brush of the jungle, that the luminance of a full moon did little to pierce the darkness that surrounded us. There was a break in the tree line just ahead, revealing a wide dirt road that looked heavily used, evident by several car tracks leading north.
“Wait.. You guys hear that?” One of the others said, causing us to come to a slow stop, from the noise it was clear someone was heading our way through the trees and they were approaching fast.
“Everybody get low to the ground, the grass should be tall enough to conceal us.” Brutte ordered, and we all immediately dropped to the ground, after a few moments two people came bursting out of the trees.
It was Brittany and another soldier, a ginger with long sideburns, they both looked tired and exhausted. The man came to an abrupt stop, hunching over and breathing hard, the girl turned around to urge him on but he was too out of breath. I was about to yell out for her, but the Major put a dirty calloused hand over my mouth, quickly shutting me up.
He gave me a deathly glare that demanded silence, and looked to the First Sergeant, giving him a sharp nod of the head. The younger man pulled out a small flashlight, he blinked it on and off a few times, creating a rhythmic flash of light to catch their eye. A smile crept to my lips when I saw how quick the girl noticed our signal, she grabbed her companion’s arm and dragged him in our direction, she was a woman with the will to live and such an admiral soldier to refuse to leave a man behind.
“Co, giet chung!” Screamed a Viet Cong soldier, as a group of a dozen men came running out of the jungle, some with automatic rifles, others with long hatchets already stained with blood.
A single shot was fired, catching the carroty haired soldier in the shoulder, he stumbled, and somehow brought Britt crashing to the ground with him. The men slowly walked toward them, as they struggled to get up, Brittany had hit her head hard on the ground and the wounded male happened to get up first.
To my surprise, when he got to his feet, he started to run as fast he could, leaving the girl who had aided him in the dust he kicked up behind him. A short lean man chased him down like a panther in the night, he lunged and tackled the fleeing soldier to the ground, and started hacking at the man’s legs with his machete.
I held in the vomit that threatened to rise, and hot tears burned down my cheeks, as I saw Brittany struggle to stand to her feet. My hand inched closer to my gun, but the Major placed his knife to my throat, and grip tight to the back of my neck, causing all the muscles in my body to tense. He had already drawn blood from the blades sharpness against my skin, but the wound was just a superficial warning.
All I could do was cry silently as the men taunted the poor girl, and from the look in their libidinous eyes, It was clear what was about to happen. I could see it, she could see it, we all could.. yet we didn’t do a thing to help her.
The five of us just sat there in silence, not moving an inch, not making a sound, just watching. Her eyes darted to where we were, but her gaze didn’t linger, she turned to the men who had now began to form a circle around her. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the horrific scene before me, I felt frozen cold even though it was probably ninety eight degrees out here, my heart quickened as she reached for her pistol. They jumped back, until they noticed she put it to her own head, a riotous laughter bellowed from the lot of them, while nothing but determination could be seen on the young woman’s face.
For the first time, I closed my eyes and tried to block it all out, the guilt that plagued me was something fierce. We could have saved her, she was one of us, she was a soldier. The rapt silence took me off guard, so much so, that I thought I may have fainted, the roar of a single bullet cut through any inkling of the thought.
I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing heavily down my face, my throat seized and choked back my sobs, so I wouldn’t make a sound but that’s when I heard the snap of a twig, right behind us. Before I could turn around to see, my ears were flooded with the sounds of yelling, followed by the harrowed screams coming from two of our fellow soldiers as they were hacked to bloody bits.
Another group of Viet Cong had slithered up behind us, delivering a deadly surprise strike, sending blood splattering as they cut with abandon into flesh and bone. The three of us left alive, tried to run, but there was no where to go. The Major, First Sergeant, and I split up, each going in a separate direction. The hammering thud of my heartbeat, overwhelmed my ears, blocking out the taunting hoots and hollers of the men that chase me. The adrenaline pumping through my body, made me feel as if I were having a heart attack, lighting my muscles and nerves on fire.
I don’t know how long I was running, nor which way I was going, the thick jungle tree tops blocking any trickle of moonlight that tried to make it through to guide me. The wicked laughter of my pursuers, seem to get closer and closer, lord only knows what they had planned for me. There was nothing more dangerous, than being a woman in the middle of warfare, subject to the savage and brutal whims of man.
When I broke free of the tree line, I almost choked, as noxious fumes filled my nostrils. Dammit, I had circled back to the river, and the bank was still burning and simmering, from the remnants of Agent Orange’s devastating effects. The earth beneath my feet was thick and sticky from the dead plant life, making my sprint slow to a stiff haggard march, but I continued to press on.
As I pushed through the rapid water of the river, I felt light headed all of a sudden, the fogginess gradually escalated into a migraine. I held a firm hand to my forehead, applying pressure to the frontal lobe, dulling the sensation momentarily. I burst into the jungle trees just as the men behind me started to shoot, a bullet skimmed my shoulder and ricochet off the tree to my left, sweat ran into my eyes as I ran faster than I’d ever had in my life. I got about a quarter mile lead on them, and I slowed my pace a bit, till the burning in my chest had started to ease. I drew in a short breath of surprise, as my eye caught a swift movement to the right of me, a figure in the darkness running parallel to me.
It took moments for my eyes to adjust, and I immediately recognized the Major, he was injured. I started to stop, but he shook his head ‘No’, so I just matched his pace. We went on for another twenty minutes, yet the effort seemed to be futile, the Viet Cong seem to be on all sides. The Major hadn’t let me tend to his wound, so we no doubt we’re leaving a trail of blood in our tracks. I knew that if we could just get to Laos, we would be in the clear, still dangerous territory, but our boys were out there. I knew the Major knew this, even though we were no where close to the border, we had to get to it, the mission was a failure.
“Granni, stop, stop.. I can’t. I think I’m done.. I don’t think I’m gonna make it.” The Major had slowed to a stop, and hunched over as if he hurt more then he let on, I wonder if he had a broken or bruised rib to go with the gunshot wound pouring blood from his shoulder.
“What?! I don’t believe you!” I yelled at him, not able to fathom the man quitting anything, he was the seasoned warrior here. “You’re a survivor.. You don’t know what it means to die, you have a way out of everything. I won’t accept a lie like that, with all due respect sir, I know better than to believe that crock of shit.”
Then, in the blink of an eye, his face and entire demeanor changed, it went from wounded to wrathful as he lunged for me with his knife. The blade sliced my forearm as I block it from slashing my face, he grabbed my shirt and kicked my leg out from under me.
My head slammed hard to the ground, before the rest of my one hundred and twenty five pound frame came crashing after. I saw stars even though I couldn’t truly see the sky, and I started to black out, I could hear one enemy getting closer in the distance, as another began to make false tracks before he climbed atop the tallest tree nearby. I tried my hardest to rise, my body was stubborn and uncooperative, my head was pounding as my vision filled with dizziness. They had torches that illuminated their faces, and their scouts knew the Major was near but they couldn’t seem to find him when he was literally right there.
I could just make out his cold and squinty eyes in the darkness, looking down upon me, as I was unable to do anything but accept my fate, I was grateful to God when the darkness took hold of me.
I seem to dip in and out of consciousness but I knew I was being carried, the light from the torches were bright, hurting my eyes and making them a chore to keep open. There was moments of darkness that took me, but I tried to stay awake, I needed to fight, I wanted to live.
There was a stinging slap to my face, that sent me on a roller coaster ride, I didn’t know what was up or down. The guard that hit me, screamed some more as I threw up on his shoes, causing him to curse and swear in his native tongue. When they stopped, I was tossed to the ground like a doll, slipping into another intermission of darkness.
“Get up! I said get up you American whore!” A man screamed, in highly accented English, I looked up but could barely see his reddish tone face from the blurriness in my vision.
I was pulled to my feet, and they grab hold to my clothes, ripping my shirt to reveal my bra underneath. I struggle to free myself, and received another slap, the rings he wore knocked painfully against my teeth causing me to spit blood. He went to strike me again, but another man spoke up, he said something in Vietnamese before he continued in English.
“No, she belongs to Sarin now.”
My assailant objected but the man clearly outranked him, ordering him to have me moved to the back of a truck. There was already someone in the rear caddy of the old, and ironically american made, vehicle. The woman didn’t look up, but I’d recognize her anywhere, sitting there beaten, broken, bruised, and tied up was Madeleine Astor. Her usually pristine and perfectly styled red hair, was ragged and chopped on one side, she was roughed up but they hadn’t punished her too bad.
“Madeline, it’s me.. Mads, it’s me Gail!” She didn’t answer, nor did the girl register I was even there, tears just continue to fall as her gaze remain cast to the side.
There was a sudden groan from the floor bed, and I noticed that what I thought was a rolled up carpet, was actually a man. He was a soldier from Madeline’s team, and he was beat pretty bad, blood leaked from a purple knot on his forehead that contrasted nastily with his otherwise decent olive complexion. I worry his brain was swelling, but there was nothing I could do for him tied up like I was.
It was hard enough not to bounce around as we traveled up the road, I felt another wave of dizziness, and the urge to vomit. I held it in, but my head still felt light and airy, like I was drifting away. The sensation soon spread, numbing every part of my body, as it finally gave out.