The thick jungles of Vietnam, once lush with emerald cloth gracing the tops of the russet stalks, were now stained a permanent shade of crimson. Above the treetops, the constant flutter of a helicopter broke the ostensible peace, and Sgt. Renshaw hollered through a radio, “First battalion en route, ETA twelve hundred hours!” The sergeant sat back down on the cold metal bench, recognizing that this would probably be his last ride on the black hawk AA-12 that he had come to know. His infantry battalion consisted of six hundred men, most of whom knew, just as the sergeant did, that they were heading for certain peril. Private first class Elliot Salem sat in that same army helicopter with the most sorrowful feeling a man can have in the abyss of his soul. Elliot had been a carefree eighteen-year-old living in New York City. He was a guitarist, playing at a bar downtown every Wednesday. He was delivered the recruitment letter exactly two months ago, and hadn’t left his apartment for a week and a half. His roommate had then dragged him to the recruitment center, and on that fateful day, he had been given the death sentence of front line infantry. He recognized that he would be lucky if he lived a week from when his feet touched Vietnamese soil. So here he found himself, five minutes away from the hellish nightmare he had dreaded since he opened his letter from Uncle Sam. The sudden jolt of the helicopter landing awakened Elliot. Sgt. Renshaw barked orders at the crew, “second and third platoon flank left! All the rest, come with me!” It had been not five minutes and Elliot had seen three men he knew by name gunned down by carefully concealed Vietcong. Advancing, the company was depleted, with only one squadron left. These eight soldiers delved further into the jungle and stumbled into some tall grass. Elliot, now scared witless, turned in circles in an attempt to locate a soldier. A splash to the right of him in the shallow water by his feet told him that something had fallen. He made a split second decision and dived to the left. A boom let him know that his instincts were right, but his vision started to fade. He woke up in a hot, dank, and musty room. He couldn’t lift his head, and he started to feel lightheaded again. He fell into a deep sleep and woke up what he suspected to be around six hours later. It was now dark outside, and he was bleeding from a gash in his head. He felt around his imprisonment for the dimensions of the box. He estimated that one side was about 5 feet, since he was 6’ 1”. It wasn’t a perfect square, and, most surprisingly, Pfc. Salem found another warm body in the makeshift prison. He shook this person awake, and heard a grumble in response. After some time of rigorous shaking, he heard a sarcastically gruff voice ask him, “What the hell, soldier, you want me to cuddle you or something?” Elliot jumped when he heard this, “Sarge, is that you?” Sgt. Renshaw responded, “So it’s you they put me with, eh Salem?” After this meeting, both men, wounded and tired, slept until morning. The next day, they were brought out of their prison and questioned. Elliot was scared, and nearly gave in after an hour or so of water torture, but they found him of no use. He was badly lashed and beaten, and returned to the hellhole. A few hours later, Sgt. Renshaw returned to the box. Even in the dim light, Elliot could tell he was badly bleeding, probably because he gave his torturers lip. The men sat in silence and eventually drifted off to sleep. This repeated for a large amount of time, Elliot had lost track of time, days, even weeks. After about a month, Elliot felt like death warmed up. He had no will to live and was seriously considering suicide. He told the sergeant, who responded, “Buck up soldier, fight through it.” Although he was calm on the surface, Sgt. Renshaw had the same thoughts. He thought about the situation he was in. With a man who once had been his underling, these two soldiers once defined simply by their rank, now just two emaciated and sick men on the brink of death. After another week, the sergeant let Salem know that if he still wanted to kill himself, he had stolen a shiv during a torture session. For hours, a heavy hush fell over the men. Pfc. Salem finally replied to the sergeant’s proposal with, “Okay sarge, bleed me out.” The morbidity and conciseness of Salem’s words showed his fragile mental state. Sgt. Renshaw said he would slice his gut, so he would have enough strength to deliver the gift of death in return. These two brave men were now so delicate that they had to precisely place the blows of the bamboo point so as to keep the other one living long enough to think about the world they left behind. Each man sat there, the pain numbed by relief, silently reflecting on their lives, loved ones, and the day they touched down in Vietnam.
O Sergeant, My Sergeant
May 2, 2009