Wars don’t end with the last bullet fired.   He had the habit of spinning the empty beer bottle he had just finished, dead soldier he called them, before lining it up next to its fallen comrades that we had polished off previously over the afternoon. When the waitress would look, two simply raised fingers indicated to her to bring us two more. In the southern balmy climate, it felt good to have a cold beer bottle in your hand, the frost on the neck melting into your fingertips.    Much of who I am today is due to him, even though we only knew each other a short time. He saw talents in me I did not know I had. He had probably been everything a parent wanted their son to be, a true believer when he was younger. He had graduated from The Citadel, personifying that military school’s motto “Duty, Honor, Respect.”  And it took him to Vietnam. Saigon, Tan Son Nhut Air Base, military intelligence.   Twelve hours on and twelve hours off, seven days a week, there is no such thing as time off. Most of the time it wasn’t so bad, kind of comfortable. There were times one could forget that you had left home, that you were in the middle of a war. Then an hour later you could find yourself in a Chinook landing in some rice field somewhere to pick up a prisoner to be interrogated.   He mentioned off-handedly, the way soldiers dismiss such things, about walking across a paddy towards a South Vietnamese officer, two guards, and their prisoner, a kid actually. At least that is how my friend remembers the prisoner’s face. He doesn’t remember the officer drawing the gun, just the noise, and the officer saying to him, “Well, I guess you came all this way for nothing.”   My friend would spin his empty beer bottle, his dead soldier, and give a smile that said he wished he could take back what he just said. He remembered the Agent Orange sunsets, that falling haze you could see at a distance as you headed home from such places. He remembered that strange feeling of wanting to jump a time or two. Then it was back to forgetting that this war was not just a game.   He remembered tinnies at the hotel and wonderful meals you could find in little sidewalk restaurants in Saigon. He remembered enjoying several of them with his bunkmates. He remembers enjoying their conversations about mindless topics that seem so important when you are young. He remembers the hand grenade that seemed to appear out of nowhere, how it took a second or two to realize what he had just seen. For the life of him, he cannot remember his friend’s name. He was sure that some psychiatrist would have a field day with that one. He could just call some people up who would know the name, but it never quite seemed worth it to him. He would spin another empty bottle, line another dead soldier up next to its fallen comrades.    God or maybe His absence appears in such little things. He used to like to spend what free time he had watching the helicopters come in and out. The crews seemed in such a rush, but sometimes everything was as causal as causal could be. He remembered the frantic activity. The little girl her face and body burnt to a crisp, from napalm. The medics were doing everything they could to save this child in what was a fruitless effort. It was everything that was right about America. A crewman helped her mother out onto the tarmac. My friend remembered thinking she looked ancient until he realized that she was younger than him.   He had been taught goodness and what is right in Sunday school and church, and just wanted to play his part in doing what is right. A few hours later he decided to visit their hospital room. He remembered the broken little body in the bed, the labored breathing, and the silence that seemed to last forever as he smiled at her mother.   We instinctually look into others faces for meaning, trying to find love, hate, anger or fear. All he found was a blank slate.  There wasn’t a wrinkle, a corner of the mouth, or a line in her face to provide him with a map of what he should say.  He was trying to figure out what Jesus would do, but those questions and answers could not be found in her eyes.   Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he reached into one of his pockets. Inside was a small box of Sugar Smacks from the mess. He offered it to her. She looked at his outstretched hand; then looked him in the eyes. There was nothing that could be said that was not spoken in that glance. She politely took the box and nodded. He unconsciously returned the nod.   She turned her head towards the burnt body of what was once her child. The little girl’s chest rose and fell, and he knew it was time to leave. In the deafening silence, his boots echoed down the busy corridor as nurses making a racket came in and out of rooms and doors.       He walked into the hospital chapel, thinking he would take a small moment for prayer. It was there he said he lost it.  He asked for a sign that he knew never was going to come. As he held his head in his hands, he noticed a basket of small crosses and he instinctually picked one of them up. He squeezed it tightly in his fist, a little too tightly, but he did not notice. He showed me his palm. Decades later a small, faint scar could still be seen on his hand.   He opened his hand and looked down at the cross. Written on the back were the words U.S. Army, the same thing above the pocket of his fatigues, about the place where his heart was supposed to be, and he knew the truth. Another dead soldier lined up. He looked at his watch, as if he suddenly remembered, and said to me, “We’re late for worship services.” I nod, flash two fingers at the bartender. We’ll get there eventually.
Wars don’t end with the last bullet fired.   He had the habit of spinning the empty beer bottle he had just finished, dead soldier he called them, before lining it up next to its fallen comrades that we had polished off previously over the afternoon. When the waitress would look, two simply raised fingers indicated to her to bring us two more. In the southern balmy climate, it felt good to have a cold beer bottle in your hand, the frost on the neck melting into your fingertips.    Much of who I am today is due to him, even though we only knew each other a short time. He saw talents in me I did not know I had. He had probably been everything a parent wanted their son to be, a true believer when he was younger. He had graduated from The Citadel, personifying that military school’s motto “Duty, Honor, Respect.”  And it took him to Vietnam. Saigon, Tan Son Nhut Air Base, military intelligence.   Twelve hours on and twelve hours off, seven days a week, there is no such thing as time off. Most of the time it wasn’t so bad, kind of comfortable. There were times one could forget that you had left home, that you were in the middle of a war. Then an hour later you could find yourself in a Chinook landing in some rice field somewhere to pick up a prisoner to be interrogated.   He mentioned off-handedly, the way soldiers dismiss such things, about walking across a paddy towards a South Vietnamese officer, two guards, and their prisoner, a kid actually. At least that is how my friend remembers the prisoner’s face. He doesn’t remember the officer drawing the gun, just the noise, and the officer saying to him, “Well, I guess you came all this way for nothing.”   My friend would spin his empty beer bottle, his dead soldier, and give a smile that said he wished he could take back what he just said. He remembered the Agent Orange sunsets, that falling haze you could see at a distance as you headed home from such places. He remembered that strange feeling of wanting to jump a time or two. Then it was back to forgetting that this war was not just a game.   He remembered tinnies at the hotel and wonderful meals you could find in little sidewalk restaurants in Saigon. He remembered enjoying several of them with his bunkmates. He remembers enjoying their conversations about mindless topics that seem so important when you are young. He remembers the hand grenade that seemed to appear out of nowhere, how it took a second or two to realize what he had just seen. For the life of him, he cannot remember his friend’s name. He was sure that some psychiatrist would have a field day with that one. He could just call some people up who would know the name, but it never quite seemed worth it to him. He would spin another empty bottle, line another dead soldier up next to its fallen comrades.    God or maybe His absence appears in such little things. He used to like to spend what free time he had watching the helicopters come in and out. The crews seemed in such a rush, but sometimes everything was as causal as causal could be. He remembered the frantic activity. The little girl her face and body burnt to a crisp, from napalm. The medics were doing everything they could to save this child in what was a fruitless effort. It was everything that was right about America. A crewman helped her mother out onto the tarmac. My friend remembered thinking she looked ancient until he realized that she was younger than him.   He had been taught goodness and what is right in Sunday school and church, and just wanted to play his part in doing what is right. A few hours later he decided to visit their hospital room. He remembered the broken little body in the bed, the labored breathing, and the silence that seemed to last forever as he smiled at her mother.   We instinctually look into others faces for meaning, trying to find love, hate, anger or fear. All he found was a blank slate.  There wasn’t a wrinkle, a corner of the mouth, or a line in her face to provide him with a map of what he should say.  He was trying to figure out what Jesus would do, but those questions and answers could not be found in her eyes.   Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he reached into one of his pockets. Inside was a small box of Sugar Smacks from the mess. He offered it to her. She looked at his outstretched hand; then looked him in the eyes. There was nothing that could be said that was not spoken in that glance. She politely took the box and nodded. He unconsciously returned the nod.   She turned her head towards the burnt body of what was once her child. The little girl’s chest rose and fell, and he knew it was time to leave. In the deafening silence, his boots echoed down the busy corridor as nurses making a racket came in and out of rooms and doors.       He walked into the hospital chapel, thinking he would take a small moment for prayer. It was there he said he lost it.  He asked for a sign that he knew never was going to come. As he held his head in his hands, he noticed a basket of small crosses and he instinctually picked one of them up. He squeezed it tightly in his fist, a little too tightly, but he did not notice. He showed me his palm. Decades later a small, faint scar could still be seen on his hand.   He opened his hand and looked down at the cross. Written on the back were the words U.S. Army, the same thing above the pocket of his fatigues, about the place where his heart was supposed to be, and he knew the truth. Another dead soldier lined up. He looked at his watch, as if he suddenly remembered, and said to me, “We’re late for worship services.” I nod, flash two fingers at the bartender. We’ll get there eventually.