February 1969-July 1969
“Everybody was nervous. We knew there was a possibility of getting hit unlike being back at some base camp. We knew it was dangerous but nothing really happened that night. They woke me up for guard duty and there was a Hispanic kid on the ACAV, Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicle, and I said, ‘How’s it going?’ and he said, ‘Quiet. Everything’s quiet.’ I said, ‘OK. I’m coming up.’ I go up on the front of the ACAV and he opened up. I have no idea why. He wasn’t angry at me-it was not that kind of situation. Actually, we were friends. I don’t know if his finger slipped. I have no explanation-it’s just crazy.
It blew me backwards and I was unconscious. I woke up and the pain was unspeakable. I’d go off and come back, off and back. One guy that came up to me told me I’d taken five rounds which was wrong and then he goes, ‘You’re going to be all right.’ And I just thought, ‘Fuck, man. I don’t want to die with this guy. I don’t want to die with this bullshit.’ I said, ‘Sarge, please go. I’ve got to have a pure moment here. This is no time for shit.’
A lot of things happened actually in that period of time. The most important was that I thought, ‘You can’t put it off any longer. Do you believe in God? It’s not an academic question.’ And I thought about it: No, I didn’t believe. Nothing has been revealed to me, so I’m not going to go out crawling and I’m not going to go out lying. There are people I love and I believe in that. That’s as much as I’ve got.
A lot of people have said the same thing: that you get to a point and there’s a decision about whether you want to live or not. First off, you’re scared shitless because you exist and then you’re not going to exist-scary. But then you get to a point where you’re not fearful at all. Maybe you live and maybe you don’t live but everything is fine. It really is fine. Then it’s just a matter of whether you did what you had to or didn’t. And I just had this feeling that I hadn’t had a child, hadn’t had a son. A son! I didn’t even have a girlfriend. I just went, ‘Can’t die yet.’ So everything flowed from that moment, I believe.
Then there’s this other Hispanic guy and he didn’t say a word. Just held my hand and that was what I needed, because that was truth-he felt for me and I knew it. He held my hand through the whole thing. And then they loaded me on the chopper. Since it was a chest wound they didn’t want to depress my breathing so that meant nothing for the pain. The only way I can give you insight into how bad it was-I was a young guy, full of life, and I can remember feeling that it hurt so badly that if I did die, it wouldn’t be all bad because it would quit hurting. So that’s bad.
I got to this field hospital and they were doing this, that and the other to me and there was a nurse there and a doctor who had no experience. I was like his first case or something-you could just tell. It was scary because you want him to know what’s going on. The nurse had been there for a while. They put a tube in my back to drain this stuff out and every once in a while they’d have to roll me over and I can’t tell you how much that hurt. And I yelled, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ!’ And this nurse said, ‘Watch your language. Can’t you control yourself?’ And they’d roll me back and I screamed, ‘Oh God! Jesus Christ!’ And then the nurse says to the doctor, ‘Doctor, can’t you make him stop saying those words?’ And the doctor says to me, ‘You’re in the presence of a lady!’ It was the craziest thing I ever heard. I’m not bitching. When I look at the scar, it’s slipshod and it looks like they cut it open with a garden shears but it was enough. It got me through. I’ve got no hard feelings…
Twenty years later I did go back to Vietnam and I got a chance to experience the country and the people from an utterly different perspective. For me it was not any kind of pilgrimage. I just travel a lot. I love Southeast Asia. You can rent a car with other veterans and share the expenses and have a driver-it’s the best way to see the country.
We went up the coast and met a guy who was a Vietnam veteran. I could tell there was something quite extraordinary about the scene because the guy was sitting there-he had screwed up arms, screwed up legs. He’d hit a mine or something-he was in bad shape. But he was surrounded by these Vietnamese people and it was almost palpable-you could feel the love. It was just coming in on this guy. He had a little kid on his lap; girls were sitting around; old guys sitting there. You could tell they loved this guy. I started talking to him and he said, ‘I got home and I was bitter, angry and for years and years and years I was just pissed off all the time. I’ve come back here and now I’m working on this project where we’re putting solar energy in this hospital in My Lai. And I feel at peace here.’ And he said, ‘Look, I don’t know if it’s doing any good really.’
But I thought, ‘Man, I don’t know if you’re making any electricity but you are doing the job; you are binding up the wounds. You’re a hero because I can smell that you are bringing people back together. You replaced hate with love.’
And we talked and talked and talked through the night and finally the thing was breaking up and he said, ‘Where are you going tomorrow?’ And I said, ‘We’re going up north to the DMZ.’ He said, ‘I got one suggestion: Go to My Lai.’
The next day we were driving in the van. There’s really only one good road that goes up the spine of Vietnam. There was a dirt road that teed off and our driver stopped and said, ‘My Lai is down that way about twenty klicks.’ And there were five of us and two said they wanted to go and two said they didn’t want to go and so I was it-I was the deciding vote. I don’t go for old battle sites-I don’t have enough imagination or something so I know I wouldn’t have gone but I respected that fellow’s opinion. So I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’
So we drove there and got to the place and we walked in through this arch and the whole area was covered with flowers someone had planted. It was just a field of flowers. And I didn’t even know I had all that sadness in me because I broke down, uncontrollably, just seeing all those flowers. I really didn’t think I needed any resolution but I guess I must have and I was glad for that. And whoever planted those flowers, I salute them, because that’s what you have to do.”