When you’re short,
when your DEROS is thirteen and a wake-up,
you can’t stop dreaming.
You dream of hopping on a Freedom Bird
leaving behind bouncing Bettys
for round-eyed Bridget Bardots;
leaving behind beans-and-motherfuckers in the rain
for a T-bone,
taking your last ride
on a fucking red bird.
A fucking red bird brought you here.
You were the FNG.
The guys who’d been in-country for a lifetime
called you cherry.
They insisted that mama had to sign for you,
but they also watched your six.
It was bad luck to carry back an FNG KBA
on his first patrol.
Patrols, especially the cluster fucks and boondoggles,
that is if your recon
is lucky enough
to make it out of the killing zone.
On recon, the sky shits MG fire
while you read funny papers in the rain,
frantically searching the Z for a blue feature,
but not finding it.
Another MI team FUBAR.
Charlie damned upriver last spring
and the Z is now elephant grass.
Elephant grass. That’s where Charlie hides.
He hides until the Hueys climb from a dust-off,
laden with peanuts and expectants
destined for the Glad bags.
Then Charlie fires and the birds spiral down,
down, down, crash and burn,
sending up smoke
Cries of help from the crispy critters
rip through you like frag.
First you lay chilly, then go dinky dau
and try to hump back to help,
but Sarge grabs your clutch belt
and drags you back.
He shakes his head.
All you can do is watch.
Charlie is on ’em
like maggots on meat.
Meat, burning meat. The LZ burns hot.
Radio man calls FAC for an air cav.
You try not to listen to the cries
while you wait for the gunships
to swoop in and cool the zone
so another MEDEVAC can come in,
this time for a Mas-Cal.
then break into tremors.
Tremors often wake you,
not from malaria—
you took your Monday pills to avoid that.
But you dream you didn’t make it.
You see the CG pinning on a PH,
not on your chest;
but on the steel pot on your casket.
You see your old lady weeping,
with some jody by her side.
Her Dear John arrived
two days before you croaked.
Two days. At two days before your rotation,
you awake to the sound of the Caribou landing
and look out the window.
Your gung ho turtle clutches his 201
as he disembarks into Nam’s H&H.
But instead of greeting him,
you hide inside the barracks,
on your rack, feigning sleep.
Because you know when he asks,
“How’s it going?”
you won’t be able to look him in the eyes.
Glossary of Military Terms
Rotation—date to return to the U.S. at the end of a tour in Vietnam
DEROS—acronym for date of expected return from overseas.
Wake-up—as in “13 and a wake-up,” the last day of a soldier’s Vietnam tour
Freedom Bird—the plane that took soldiers from Vietnam back to the World
CONUS—acronym for continental United States
Bouncing Bettys—antipersonnel mine with two charges: the first propels the explosive charge upward,
and the other is set to explode at about waist level
Round-eyed Bridget Bardots—well-built Western woman as opposed to Asian woman
Beans and motherfuckers—military C-ration lima beans and ham
Red bird—a Cobra helicopter
FNG—acronym for fucking new guy
Cherry—slang term for youth and inexperience; a virgin
Watched your six—watched your back
KBA—acronym for killed by artillery
Cluster fucks—any attempted operations which went bad; disorganized
Boondoggles—poorly thought out military operation; an operation that is absurd or useless
Recon—reconnaissance. Going into the jungle to observe for the purpose of identifying enemy activity
Killing zone—the area within an ambush where everyone is either killed or wounded
MG fire—machine gun fire
Funny papers—topographic maps
Z—zone, area, territory
Blue feature—any water feature, river, lake, etc.
MI Team—military intelligence team
FUBAR— acronym for Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition
Elephant grass—tall, razor-edged tropical plant indigenous to certain parts of Vietnam
Charlie—Viet Cong; the enemy
Huey—nickname for the UH-1 series helicopters
Dust-off—medical evacuation by helicopter
Peanuts—wounded in action
Expectants—casualties who are expected to die
Glad bags—slang term for body bags
Crispy critters—burn victims
Lay chilly—to freeze; to stop all motion
Dinky dau—to be crazy
Hump—to perform any arduous task
Clutch belt—cartridge belt worn by Marines
Hot—area under fire
FAC—forward air controller; a person who coordinates air strikes
Air cav—air cavalry; helicopter-borne infantry; helicopter gunship assault teams
Zone—area or territory, especially where a fight is taking place
MEDEVAC—medical evacuation from the field by helicopter
Tremors—shakes caused by fear or malaria
Monday pills—anti-malarial pills taken once a week
PH—a purple heart medal
Steel pot—the standard U.S. Army helmet
Old lady—girlfriend or wife
Dear John—letter from a woman to a man, especially a serviceman, terminating a personal relationship
Jody—the person who wins your lover or spouse away while you are in the Nam
Caribou—small transport plane for moving men and material
Turtle—new replacements; called turtles because it took so long for them to arrive
201—a U.S. Army personnel file
Nam—short for Vietnam
H&H—heat and humidity
Rack—bed or cot
In the early 1970s, Diane Marshall attended high school on a military base in the Philippines. She has never forgotten the anxious faces and stories of the young GIs who passed through the base as they rotated in and out of Vietnam. A journalist for thirty years, she now writes poetry and fiction to give voice to those young men and others.