“Are you sure you have to go?” I stopped packing for a moment to glance to the side, seeing my 10 year-old younger brother standing there with a frown. “Why can’t you stay?” He still didn’t quite understand; it wasn’t really a choice I could make. I’m 24 years old-- just young enough to still be enlisted into the draft. I wished I could somehow get out of it, but my options were pretty limited. I had never gotten into college, which was just about my only feasible landline. Overall, it didn’t take me very long to accept my fate. Besides, it was a duty I had to do as a citizen.
I crouched down a bit to my brother’s level. “I have to go bud,” I replied.
He looked down at his feet. “But… You’ll be back soon right?”
I couldn’t lie. “I’m not sure. I hope I’ll be back soon.”
“Why do you have to leave too? Sis had to go already, I’ll be all alone.” I had forgotten. Robin, my sister who’s older than me by two years, had already been with the army as a field nurse.
“I know,” I said. “But she’s visited before. Maybe we’ll both come down one of these days for a little while.”
“Do you promise?”
I swallowed. I didn’t want to ensure him I would return, yet again, I still didn’t want to instil him with false hope. I nodded slowly with a long exhale. “Okay, I promise.”
“I promise. You will be fine. It’s a small wound.” I stayed kneeled beside my fellow soldier as I scanned the dark and rainy terrain for wherever one of our medics were. We had been thrown into a sudden ambush by the Viet Cong in the middle of the night during semi-heavy rain?perfect weather for a gun fight. I had watched Adam fall through the cold water after a bullet struck his arm. I knew the man in high school, and one thing I always remembered about him is that he had this crippling fear of getting shot. I wasn’t a medic, but the least I could do was to reassure him that he would be okay.
After what seemed like forever, one of our few medics with us finally made his way over to him. Adam looked relieved. Since he was now in good hands, I ran back into the heat of the battle.
Gunshots from each side fired rapidly at the opposing side. It was pretty difficult to see through the crappy, Vietnam downpour, but through the years, I’ve learned a thing or two about adapting to the country’s swampy climate.
On days like these, you couldn’t rely on staying dead silent and listening to every branch crack and bird chirp in case one of those normal sounds would suddenly turn into the piercing screech of a bullet striking one of your men. Since the ears are overwhelmed in a battle like this, there’s really only one thing you can pay close attention to: silhouettes. You’re not entirely blind in the rain I’ve come to discover; you just have to know what to look out for.
“You see that?” Thomas Crell pointed a long stick he found on the ground towards the depths of the forest. He was laying on the ground with his legs propped up against a rock, the rest of us sitting a few feet away. I scanned around with narrowed eyes. The lush, green trees seemed to stretch on forever as far as any of us could tell. They all stood still with only the occasional breeze weaving delicately amongst the branches; sometimes in the corner of my eye I could have sworn I saw the bushes rustling. The jungle was still--surprisingly calm almost. Yet I couldn’t seem to pinpoint exactly what “that” was.
“See what? There’s nothing here.”
“Precisely,” Thomas responded, crossing his arms. Unlike most of us, Tom was a willing volunteer in the war. He was still in his late twenties, but was a lot wiser than the rest of us. He was an overall pretty trusty looking guy, yet, he always came across as a bit delusional at times, causing us to not take most of the stuff he said seriously. “Nothing moves.”
He turned towards me, eyes surprisingly serious. “Listen here pal, I know we haven't been here very long, but trust me when I say that these woods are impossible to maneuver through, especially through all of the disgusting weather. When you look at the trees, they don’t ever move.”
“Well what about the wind?” I retorted.
“Not the branches, the trunks don’t move. They stay standing even in the rain.”
“But trees can get knocked over in storms.”
Thomas pinched the bridge of his nose. “Okay if you’re gonna be a smartass I’m not going to help you.”
“I’d like to know please.” I turned to my left, seeing one of the others had moved forward to join the conversation. Specifically it was Craig Samuels. Craig was always enthusiastic about knowing new information like the nerd he was; he once read an entire dictionary in two days. He was a smart guy, but he came from a poor family and couldn’t get into college. The reason I knew this was because he had been my best friend since 2nd grade. He was always very collected and passive, but he tended to worry about everything which made me worry about him; after all, this was the war, and we were all vulnerable.
Thomas looked at him with a raised eyebrow, then glanced back towards me, then back again. “Alright fine. As I was saying, the trees don’t move-- but people do. If you can see how the silhouettes of the trees are still, you can see the silhouettes of the things that move. That’s how you now there are people there.” Craig nodded his head as he listened intently while I rolled my eyes. “You also want to know how to maneuver through the rain or mud without slipping or falling into the water. ”
He went on and on, giving us advice. I found it surprisingly helpful, but I never thought of him as less crazy. But I’ve come to realize that crazy is definitely knowledge to him. The things he said, though irrational most days, have saved my life on more than one occasion.
I would have missed three people hiding behind a tree if I hadn’t been paying attention to the movement. I took action against them before weaving through the woods in the downpour. I kept my hands against the wet bark of thick tree trunks and inched my way around the forest, since I could start to feel my boots sink each time I took a step. Paying attention to those “walking through mud” lessons really did come in handy, as much as I hated to admit so.
One larger tree in particular I took cover behind while I occasionally glanced around. The ground was a bit more solid at my feet there. I tried to identify the soldiers that were currently nearby: one of the medics, a few of the heavier men who were skillfully trained, two snipers-- who were both named John for some reason-- and Craig, whom I could see crouched behind a tree next to mine. I watched him for awhile; his eyes were full of fear as his head whipped from side to side in panic. I found a clear moment and rolled over to where he was. He looked surprised to see me there.
“What the- Matt! Get your own tree!” He barked, sliding over as much as he could to allow both of us coverage.
“Why are you just sitting here? You were frozen for about five whole minutes.”
Craig frowned and curled up slightly. He shook his head and held his gun in an overly clenched fist. “I.. don’t know what to do…” I was surprised I could hear his quiet tone against the battle cries and viscous pops of bullets striking the trees.
“What are you even talking about?” I yelled over the noise. “You were trained for a long time, how do you not know what to do? I mean, sure, you’re not the best shot, but it’s not rocket science.”
He stayed silent, keeping his eyes squeezed shut as if he wanted to imagine he was somewhere else. Finally I could hear him in the same borderline whisper as before. “Thomas is dead.”
This caught me off guard. “What?”
“I saw him get shot right by me…”
“Right through the skull…”
“I don't understand. He knew so much, yet he still didn't make it.”
We didn't have time for this. “Craig he wasn't like a celestial being. He didn't know everything,” I said.
“I know but he taught me a lot, gave me advice. If someone as skilled as him can die, I don't
stand a chance.” Did I miss something? I'm pretty sure I didn't see Thomas change water into wine in the middle of training. I felt bad of course, but there were more urgent matters to worry about.
“Craig, Thomas would want you to move on….” I said like a stereotypical movie character in the face of crisis. Craig didn't say anything. I rolled my eyes and sat down. “Look, if you haven't noticed, we’re in the middle of a war, so I don't have time for a ‘heart to heart.’ But you don't need Thomas here for you to do great things. He may not be here now, but I’m here at least, and I’ll help you too. You're my best friend, remember?”
“Yeah I remember.”
“And I’m cooler than Thomas.”
“You’re really not.”
Ouch. I rolled my eyes and stood back up in a crouch. “All I’m saying is that you will be okay. And if he's not here to give you advice, I’ll give you some: Don't worry about what you can't fix. Remember what you learned and make him proud, alright?”
“Okay, good talk. If I wasn't in the war I would be the best therapist the world has ever seen. Now get up.” I joked with a pat on his shoulder. Finally he did and grabbed his gun and stood up.
“Yeah no problem. Now seriously don’t freeze up like that in battle. And before you say anything, yes I did learn that from Thomas.”
He smiled and nodded. “Alright. Now find your own tree.” Good, he was starting to sound like the old Craig. I nodded and rolled back over to the one I was at before. I stood with my back to it, occasionally glancing around it. I guess it didn't surprise me that Craig thought Thomas was cool. He was just as crazy as he was. Pity I could barely remember anything he taught. Maybe I shouldn't have been as stubborn and I would have actually learned a lot.
As I stood at the tree, I tried to recall the advice he gave. If not from him directly, from Craig.
“Thomas said not to hold your gun like that. The recoil from shooting will hurt you.” I moved my hand so it would rest more towards my shoulder then by my chest. “Thomas said you should crouch more like this so you don't sink in the mud.” I shifted my position so my center of weight was distributed evenly. “Thomas said you should stop complaining about water getting in your shoes because there's nothing you can do about it.” Gee thanks, now I noticed it again.
“Move forward! Move forward!” My thoughts were broken when I heard someone shout. We were causing the enemy to fall back. Were we actually winning? I weaved around the trees as the rest of our troops pushed forward. I was determined now. We were really doing it.
We were emerging from the thick forested area, into the more open land. I crouched low as we all moved onward. The rain had began to lighten slightly so it was easier to see. Just then, I felt something rush past me. I shifted my gaze from the sight of my gun to the figure that ran past. “Craig? What are you doing?”
“I remembered that Thomas wouldn't hide, he always threw himself into the action.” He responded confidently.
My eyes widened in panic. “Craig no! Thomas had more experience than you! You have no idea what you’re doing!”
“But he taught me everything he knew. He’ll be proud of me”
“CRAIG YOU IDIOT!” I sprinted after him. “You’re exposed out here! Get down! You won’t make him proud by doing something so reckless!” He refused to listen. I ran faster and faster until I was finally catching up to him. I knocked into him, causing him to fall. “I told you to get dow-” There was a sharp pain in my stomach, causing me to stumble backwards backwards. It suddenly became hard to breathe as warm sensation stung my abdomen; it wasn’t a comforting warmth either. I collapsed onto the ground, clutching the wound as rain poured down on my face. I couldn't hear anything except muffled sounds of the people around me, rattling gunshots, and Craig’s horrified shouts.
Even though my sister Robin was in Vietnam doing related business as me, I hadn’t seen her face once since the day I arrived. She was a nurse, but worked with an entirely different unit. However, I got some guys to pull a few strings for me to go and visit her. It was one of the nicer days to my surprise when I went. It was one of the simple reunions, with the “I havn’t seen you in forever!” and the “So how have you been?”After that, we just talked like normal people--the way we used to talk all the time before the war.
“Was training hard?” Robin asked in curiosity.
“Most days. Back breaking labor I’d say,” I responded, listing a few things we always did. “I suppose you have it just as hard, right?”
“Finally someone gets that,” she chuckled. “You field forces always say our jobs are nothing compared to what you guys see on the battlegrounds. They tend to forget who sees the mutilated bodies when they come to us after major injury. Glad you understand.”
“Of course. Seems like hard work.”
“I had to work with a couple of stubborn 19 year-olds one lucky day when we got the joy of teaching them self rescue. Four hours of sarcastic questions to serious topics.” Robin said with a shake of her head. I felt a little bad since I realized I did the same thing to Thomas. But she got me thinking then.
“We were never taught much about medicine, let alone self rescue.”
“Shame,” she said. “I would have much rather taught you and Craig how to do things then the others.” She was silent for a moment, before adding, “You know, I could teach you while you’re here. Consider it a gift for coming up to visit.”
I nodded my head. “Sounds like a plan. So, what do I need to know then?”
“Let’s start with bullet wounds,” Robin began. “First thing’s first, you’ll need to stop the bleeding.”
“Stop the bleeding, right,” I repeated, starting to feel distant all of a sudden.
“You should usually use something absorbent, but anything you can get ahold of that can limit blood flow should be good.” Her voice was becoming hazy.
I ripped off my sleeve and pressed it hard onto the bullet wound. The memory had shattered, but I could still hear Robin’s voice on repeat about stopping blood flow. Craig was by me and started to hold it down when my arms went limp. Everything around me went silent. When I woke up, it wasn't raining. There were no gunshots, there were no shouts, there was no pain. Well, there was a little bit, but not as much as I remembered. I was inside some place that I recognized to be the hospital. I looked around, feeling panicked without knowing the results of the fight. I tried to sit up, but a gentle voice told me not to. A nurse. It wasn’t my sister though, just a nurse.
“Do you remember anything from the night you were shot?” She asked. I struggled to remember. I all could recall was a haze of broken memories. All I could see was the figure of Craig in my mind and hear my own voice shouting at him.
“I remember… Craig and- Is he alright?”
“Is who alright?”
The nurse tapped her pen on a clipboard as she looked at the ceiling. “Samuels.. The name sounds familiar. I believe we had a man by the name come in around the same time as you.” My heart started pounding in fear.
.”Is he okay?” I demanded.
“He’s alive. He was shot in the arm, but he’s okay.” Another nurse spoke. The voice was familiar. I turned towards the source of it.
“Robin?” I questioned.
“Hello,” she greeted warmly. “I’m glad you’re alright. You were out for a long time and it really scared me... You’re okay, but you’ll need to recover for quite awhile.” I felt relief for multiple reasons: to hear a familiar voice, to know Craig was alive, and to know for the moment I was going to be okay too.
“Is he here?”
“He’s on the far side of the room actually,” Robin responded, gesturing towards another hospital bed surrounded by a curtain. As she spoke, the white sheets were disturbed as a figure emerged. I felt mixed feelings seeing Craig there: part of me was happy to see him there, but the other half of me felt horrible knowing he was injured. His expression made me realize he felt the same way.
“Matt! You’re awake!” He bounded over while using his good arm to keep his bandaged one steady with his movement. “Matt I am so sorry…” his voice lowered. “What I did was stupid.”
“Yeah it was,” I agreed somewhat bitterly. “You could have gotten yourself killed.”
“I could have gotten you killed…” Craig took a seat on the edge of my hospital bed. “You were right. Thomas wouldn’t be proud of me. I just thought if I did it I would finally make something of myself besides a child. I was never ready for this war.”
“Hey bud, none of us were ready,” my voice was softer now. “It’s not like we chose to be drafted.”
“I should have been shot worse for what I did. I should be dead…”
I sat up slowly and carefully as to not hurt myself more. I reached out a hand to gently pat his back. “Craig please don’t say that. You were an idiot, but at least your heart was in the right place. The important thing is that we’re both alive to see another day, right?”
“I guess… I just wish I wouldn’t have….”
“Then that means you’ve learned from your mistakes; I’ve made a hell of a lot of them since day one. Thomas would be proud of you for that.” I was a two time therapist now, what are the odds?
Craig finally smiled somewhat forcefully, but his eyes were hopeful. “Hey Matt? Remember when I said you weren’t as cool as Thomas?”
“You still aren’t as cool as him, but you’ll always be my best friend. Even through this blood bath, I take time to remember there’s someone who cares about me out here.”
“Hey, it’s what I do,” I quipped, and laid back down, feeling a bit drowsy. “And don’t you ever forget that okay? Because I promise that that will never change.” I turned my attention towards Robin now. “Any chance we’ll be back out there?”
Robin gave a little shrug. “Craig will be back in a day or so with a minor injury. You on the other hand we may have to wait and see. Since that bullet bounced around a bit, it did quite a bit of abdominal damage. We’ll just have to play it by ear. If all else fails, you may have to head back home, which shouldn’t be that bad right?”
Craig sat up straight with a dawning expression at my sister’s words. “Speaking of!” He stood up and quickly went back to his hospital bed for a few moments only to return with a set of two letters in his good hand. “I got a little something here.”
“What are they?”
“Letters from home,” my interest peaked as Craig spoke. “Robin gave me them to hold onto while you were recovering. This one belongs to you.” He carefully slid a small enclosed letter over to where I could grab it. Robin, who was standing there still, let out a warm chuckle.
“I think it may help with your recovery,” she said. I c***ed an eyebrow in curiosity before opening it up. Inside was a handwritten note. I knew the writing anywhere.
I didn’t know when this would get to you, but I wanted to write you a letter. Your friend Craig’s family wrote him a letter so I wanted to write one too. They sent it with his stuff, so I hope he gives this to you. I hope you’re doing okay and I hope to see you soon! Tell Robin I said hi.
Ps, I know you promised you would visit, but I understand you’re busy now. You can come whenever you can. I can wait.
I wasn’t one for the lovey stuff, but it was probably the closest I came to crying for awhile. Between Robin, Craig, and now this, I was beginning to evolve into a bit of an emotional wreck; maybe it was just all of this war business though. Regardless on what it was, the scribbly ink on the wrinkled paper made me remember the most important thing: not how to find silhouettes, not how to walk in mud, but how I made a promise. These promises-- both for Craig and my little brother-- were things that needed to be kept. “Do you have a pen and piece of paper on hand by any chance Robin?”