Real Soldiers Don’t Cry
By Elvis Bray
The jungles below looked inviting from a thousand feet in the air, but that was an illusion. Tigers, cobras, bamboo vipers and the Viet Cong made them a dangerous place to venture. A wounded American solider was down there and it was our job to go get him out. We were somewhere between Saigon and Cam Ronh Bay in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive of 1969.
So much blood covered the floor of our UH-1H Dustoff Helicopter that my boots were sticking to it. I’d lost count of how many extractions we’d made that day. Hopefully this would be our last. We hadn’t shut the engine down in the last sixteen hours and I could barely keep my eyes open. I wondered how the pilots were able to keep flying.
The river below ran westward in a deep valley. It was the only river I had ever seen in Vietnam with clear water. All the rest were a brown muddy color and smelled like sewage.
Short on light, we wanted to make the evacuation quickly before it was too dark to see. The sun had already set in the western sky. We spotted smoke on the south bank of the river and the pilot confirmed the smoke thrown was yellow. The jungle was so thick we couldn’t see the ground. The only place to put the helicopter down was in the river. The water was swift and we couldn’t tell how deep it was. Soldiers lay in the prone position pointing their rifles toward the opposite bank in case we started taking fire.
The pilot put the skids in the water with the nose pointed upstream. He maneuvered the helicopter as close to the bank as possible without hitting the overhanging trees with the rotor blades. Several men carried a stretcher out to the waters edge. Other troops locked arms, forming a human chain and started wading out into the swift water. It took about a dozen men to reach the helicopter. The first guy to reach us wrapped his arm around the skid to keep from being washed away. The pilot struggled to keep the helicopter steady in the current as the belly of the chopper slowly filled with water.
Four men lifted the stretcher onto their shoulders and waded into the swift current. The only thing keeping them from being washed downstream was the human chain of men already in the cold water. They had to be careful to keep from slipping on the rocks and dumping the patient into the river. Harvey and I grabbed the stretcher as soon as we could reach it. If we lifted it too high, the wounded soldier would slide off the back. The pilot lowered the helicopter deeper into the river and we pulled him safely inside.
As soon as we had our patient secured, another soldier was brought to the helicopter. Two soldiers held him by his arms and walked him into the water. I couldn’t see any wounds or blood on him but he looked like he could hardly stand up. When he got to the helicopter, they helped him inside and he sat in the jump seat on the side of the chopper. This is where we put patients with minor injuries so they wouldn’t be in our way while we’re treating the seriously wounded.
When the second soldier was secure, I shut the door and we lifted out of the water. The pilot hovered for a few moments letting the water drain out of the bottom of the helicopter. It was almost completely dark by the time we were airborne.
As we rose into the night sky, I felt sorry for the soldiers we left behind, knowing they had a very cold night ahead of them. As soon as we gained altitude, the medic turned on the overhead red light so he could treat our patients.
One look and we both knew the one at our feet was already dead. He had a small hole in the center of his forehead and there was brain matter on the litter behind him. Harvey spoke into the intercom. “This guy’s dead and has been for a long time.”
The pilot glanced back at us. “Why in the hell would they have us risk our lives for a dead guy?”
“Hell if I know, Sir. He’s shot right between the eyes and died instantly,” Harvey said.
The pilot shook his head and turned back towards the front of the cockpit.
“See what’s wrong with the other guy,” Harvey said.
I went to the side compartment to check on him. He was staring straight out into the darkness. “Are you all right?” I yelled.
He didn’t answer me. I yelled a little louder, “Hey buddy, are you okay?” He still didn’t answer me. I moved closer and reached out and touched his arm. He jerked his head around and stared straight through me. It was the strangest look I had ever seen in anyone’s eyes. Dark, blank, cold and empty. He just stared at me as if he were looking right into my soul. We stared at each other for a few moments. I asked again, “Are you wounded?” He held the stare for a few more moments and then slowly shook his head no. He never blinked.
Turning his head, he stared into the darkness. I moved back into the center area of the helicopter. “He’s not wounded.”
Harvey scooted over to the center of the helicopter and looked back at the guy and then at me. “What the hell’s going on here? We risk our ass for a dead man and some jerk that’s not even wounded.”
Harvey was right. It didn’t make sense. We would never risk four men and helicopter to evacuate a dead man. We would normally wait until we had a secured landing zone. The pilot and co-pilot were glancing back at us. Everyone was pissed.
I studied the face of the dead soldier for a long time. He looked to be about nineteen years old and in good shape. He could easily have been one of my football teammates. The small round hole in his forehead and the scrambled eggs on the litter next to him was the only sign of injury. It looked as if he were sleeping peacefully. Keeling down, I closed his eyes.
His family was going about their daily business unaware that their son or brother or husband had been killed. I wondered how long it would take before someone showed up on their front porch with the bad news. I felt sorry for them whoever they were. A recurring thought crept into my mind. I had thought of it many times during the year and a half I’d spent in Vietnam. Once again blood stained these eyes of war. I was tired and saddened.
The guy sitting in the jump seat hadn’t moved. He just sat there staring out into the darkness. He was also about my age and he could have been one of my football teammates as well. I couldn’t help wondering what the hell he was doing in my helicopter. Anger swelled up inside me. For a moment, I thought about going back there and throwing his ass out. The more I thought about him the madder I got. I couldn’t believe we had risked our helicopter and our lives for that piece of shit. I was too tired to think about him any longer. I laid back and closed my eyes.
We landed at the field hospital at Camp Betty on the outskirts of Phan Theit. Doctors and nurses rushed out to unload the patients. We slid the litter towards them. They grabbed it and carried the dead man away first. The black guy in the jump seat just sat there. A nurse offered him her hand but he didn’t act as if he even saw her. I started moving to the back to throw him out. By the time I got there, a doctor had grabbed his arm and was helping him down. The last I saw of him, he was being guided into the hospital. I spat on the ground and closed the door.
After fueling the helicopter, we flew to our landing pad and the pilot shut it down. As soon as I had the blades tied, I went to my bunk. The rest of the crew was already asleep. We were too tired to eat.
It was mid morning before I woke. I sat up and noticed blood on my clothes and boots. Thankful we hadn’t been called out again last night I stood up. I’d never been so tired in my life. I went to the mess hall, grabbed some breakfast and drank a gallon of coffee.
Sufficiently caffeinated, I went to the helicopter where Harvey was pouring bottles of hydrogen peroxide on the floor. Six inches of pink foam leaked out of the chopper. “Can you believe this shit, Bray?”
I shook my head. “We’ve never had that much blood before. I’m going to have to pull the panels and clean them.”
I retrieved several buckets of water and flushed the foam out of the helicopter. A pink river ran off the landing pad onto the dirt and down the flight line. Harvey went to the hospital to get more medical supplies.
I checked the helicopter and found a small hole in the tail-boom and another one in a rotor blade. I hadn’t even known we had been hit.
When Harvey returned, I told him about the bullet holes. He didn’t act surprised or concerned.
“Did you ever find out what was wrong with that black guy we brought in last night? I asked.
“Hell no. Probably had jungle rot or something. I didn’t see anything wrong with the bastard.”
I was still pissed from the night before. “They already knew the other guy was dead before they called us in.”
“Yeah, that was bullshit.”
“I’m going to the hospital and find out why we risked our ass for that prick.”
“I’ll go with you and kick his ass.”
“He better have a good reason for being here or we might just do that.”
We were both, hot, tired and hell-bent looking for answers. We checked the hospital and couldn’t find the guy. We went into the infirmary. The doctor who had helped the guy off the chopper was just finishing wrapping up some guy’s foot.
“Hey Doc. What was the deal with that asshole we brought in last night?” I asked.
“Which guy are you talking about?”
“That black guy who came in with the dead guy on our last load.” “The guy without any injuries,” Harvey said.
I could tell by the expression on the Doc’s face, he didn’t appreciate our comments. He poured himself a cup of coffee. “He was wounded alright. You just couldn’t see the wounds.”
“What are talking about, Doc? He didn’t have a scratch on him,” Harvey said.
Doc rubbed his chin and took a drink. “Those men had been out in the field for three weeks. They camped by the river last night so no one could sneak up behind them. They’d dug their foxholes and were trying to get a bite to eat when they started taking sniper fire. They both ran to their foxhole and jumped in. When they landed, the black guy’s M-16 discharged hitting the other guy in the forehead. They were only a foot apart at the time.”
The doctor took a deep breath. “The two guys you brought in last night were best friends from high school. They played football together. When the white guy got his draft notice, his friend joined up with him on the buddy plan so they could look after one another.”
It took a few moments for the information to sink in. “So, he was in shock,” said Harvey. Shaking his head, he walked away without saying another word.
“Where is he, Doc?” I asked.
“We shipped him out this morning. He’s on suicide watch.”
I now knew why they had called us in. It wasn’t for the dead guy but for his best friend. We just couldn’t see the injuries to his soul. I felt terrible for misjudging the man and the situation. “Once again blood stained these eyes of war.”
“What?” The Doctor asked.
“Oh, nothing, Doc.” I walked away forcing back the tears. Real soldiers don’t cry.
Elvis Bray served as a crew chief for the 7th/1st Air Cav. Blackhawks at Vin Long, Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. He served another year with the 247th Med. Det. (Dustoff) at Vung Tau and Phang Rang. He is retired after spending 35 years in law enforcement in Arizona. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook.