I had gone to Qui Nhon with Chaplain Father Taddy to visit the men from our divisions that were in the hospital. Four men had been hit with a fragment grenade. As I talked to each one and had prayer with them, I began to believe I was in a war, not just a dream. When we returned to Camp Radcliff, we found out that four more men had been wounded when their jeep hit a land mine.

That evening when I was cleaning up my hooch, (a hooch is the home where you rest your head in a war zone) I was still in a daze from the day’s events and feeling like I was watching myself in a dream, someone knocked on the side of my tent.

"Knock, knock," said a soft, low voice.

"Come on in," I said.

"Hi,” came a voice that I recognized as Father Taddy’s. He was a very soft spoken and dedicated Catholic Chaplain. I had spent most of the day with him and was surprised to see him again so soon.

Turning around, I greeted him. "Hi, yourself. Did you stop by to get a little Baptist blessing?"

"I think I may need one."

"What's happening?” I asked.

"I came by to see if you would like to go with me to the morgue."

"It’s not my favorite place to visit. What's up?"

"Division called me. They brought in four LRRP’s (long-range reconnaissance patrols). They're the guys that go out into the jungle and spy on the VC and bring back reports about their movement. These men didn't make it back alive. Do you want to go with me?”

"I don't know about wanting to go, but sure, I'll go with you. Let me close up here and I'll be with you in a minute."

We walked toward the casualty branch office near the MASH unit. Father Taddy began to tell me how understaffed the Catholic's were in the division and how the two priests assigned to the fourth had to cover the whole division. I felt fortunate to have only a battalion to cover and the brigade to support when I was at base camp.

We came to the morgue, and a specialist met us at the door. "Hi Father, hi Chaplain. You're here to give the last rites to the guys they just brought in, right?"

"Yes," said Father Taddy very softly. I was too nervous to say anything. I remember thinking: These will be the first men I have seen that were killed in action. KIA. Looking across the room I saw four gurneys with long black bags, one on each gurney.

"Do you mind letting us take a look?" asked Father Taddy. The young man began to unzip the bags. Father Taddy began calmly to give the sacrament for the dead. I really didn't know what Protestant chaplains should do on an occasion like this. They never taught us about this situation in seminary.

I couldn't help but look at the faces of these young men, who were eighteen or nineteen years old, eyes closed in a restful, at-peace expression. Their faces were painted with camouflage in black and dark green streaks. Each had a bullet hole right between those closed unseeing eyes. The VC had found them sleeping and shot them once through the head, giving them the eerie appearance of having a third black eye between the two closed eyes.

The bodies were discovered together after they missed their radio contact, except for the one that was on watch. He was found about twenty-five feet farther in the jungle. He too, must have fallen asleep, never to be awakened on this earth again. I prayed to myself, "Lord God, what a tragic mess this war is. Please be with the families when they hear that their boys have been killed. Somehow help those loved ones make it through the days ahead."

That was a strange day for me. I was beginning to believe that casualties came in groups of four. Twenty-two days later, I was waiting on this lonely helipad for a helicopter to pick me up and fly me with the cache of supplies to the battalion firebase, called, "Firebase Warrior." Our battalion-fighting name was "Red Warriors."

Sitting on a helipad is a boring, hot, and sweaty part of a chaplain's duties. I was to find myself having many of my 8,240-plus Vietnam hours waiting as I attempted to fly out into the field to visit my troops and conduct worship services. I heard a jeep pull up behind me. I turned around and a major jumped out, grabbed his duffel bag, returned the salute of the driver and approached where I was sitting. I stood and started to salute, but he waved it off.

"Morning, Major," I said, dropping my hand.

"Hi, Chaplain. Are you on your way to the firebase?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. So am I." He reached out his hand and offered a handshake. "I'm Randy, the new Battalion Executive Officer (XO). I arrived in the country five days ago and I'm just now getting here."

"Welcome. I'm Don, the new Battalion Chaplain. I've been in the country a month now, but I just reported to the battalion last week. They put chaplains through a lot of crazy training before assigning them."

"This is my second tour, so I guess I didn't need the training. Besides, the XO I'm replacing has already gone home."

"Major Butler. I met him just before he left. He seemed happy to be getting out of Radcliff."

"Don't blame him. Once you're on your way out, you get anxious to leave before something happens. Have you met the new CO?" he asked me.

"No, I haven't met either one. LTC Anderson was in the field when I arrived and LTC Sterling came into HQ and was out at the firebase in an hour. This will be the first time for me to meet them both."

"I understand there are plans for a change of command tomorrow morning, with the Division Band on the firebase," commented Randy.

"I guess so; LTC Sterling sent word in that he wanted me there for the ceremony and for the dinner party tonight."

"Dinner party! I didn't hear anything about a party,” said the major. "Things have really changed since my last tour. Back then, in sixty-eight, there would be no parties on any firebase. The biggest party was the war party of Tet."

"Yeah, I've heard about that. The brigade sergeant who helped me to in-process told me that he was stationed in Pleiku when the VC overran the base, back then," I said.

The major appeared to be giving me the once over. I thought that I might have had my cross on crooked or something else was wrong with my uniform.

"Chaplain, can I ask you a personal question?"

"You just did, but go ahead, ask away." I laughed at my attempt at humor.

The major smiled, "What in the hell are you doing in Vietnam, anyway?"

"That's a good question. I've asked myself that question for a month now. I didn't have to join the army, but the young men in my church congregation were being drafted, and when the Chaplain's Office asked me to join, I felt it was like a draft notice. To answer your question, I'm here because you're here."

It was an answer that I would be giving over and over again in response to this most-asked question on my tour.

"Good answer," said the major and gave me a pat on my shoulder. "How long have you been waiting?”

I looked at my watch. "Just over an hour."

"Damn! I hope it won't be much longer." Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he said, "Jesus, I forgot how humid this country could get." Then he looked at me to see what my expression might be. "I'm sorry, Chaplain, I didn't mean to cuss."

I smiled. "I understand. I've been in the Army over four years, and I'm lucky I guess, no one has used my name in vain, yet. (Man, I hoped he had a sense of humor.) I just spent over two years in Okinawa so I'm sort of used to the military vocabulary as well as this humidity and muggy hot weather."

"You know, Chaplain, when I'm back in the world, I'm pretty straight. I go to the Methodist Church and for the most part, my language is usually clean. But the minute I arrived here, it was f### this and f### that and who gives a f###. I use God's name from time to time as well. It doesn't mean anything, it just seems to happen."

Just as he said that, there was, what became over the years, a familiar "whap-whap-whap" sound of the Huey Helicopter. They were the workhorses of the Vietnam War. Most often they were cleared of back seats so supplies could be easily thrown in and the Packs, referring to passengers, could just jump in and find a place to sit.

They called these Hueys, slicks. It's been over thirty years now since I spent those hours waiting for that sound of helicopters. Whenever one flies over the house, I can close my eyes, and I'm back in Nam, seeing those welcome buggies of supplies and replacements.

A GI appeared out of nowhere and began to throw in the supplies. The right door gunner jumped off and reported to the Major. He saluted and told the major to get in the front, that the CO was waiting for him at the firebase. I jumped into the back and found a space among the supplies. The left door gunner, grinning at me, gave the peace sign with his fingers in a V. Better than holding up only one finger, I thought to myself.

The other door gunner jumped in and took his place behind the 50-caliber, signaled the pilot with the all-clear sign and the chopper began to rev-up. The blades began to make an assertive whirling, whipping sound and we were off over the golf course and departing Radcliff.

For some reason, whenever I got into a helicopter I felt like I was floating, not flying. I can't explain the feeling; it was different from flying in a fixed wing. I remember walking in Saigon on my way to Japan for an R and R with a scout pilot who flew a fixed wing.

We went by a group of choppers in the compound and he said, "I just don't believe those damn things can get off the ground. They must do it with mirrors. God didn't make boxcars to fly straight up."

I was the only "Pack" to be going out, other than the major. So I was alone with my thoughts and the cokes, beer and ammo. I thought over the Major’s question that he had asked me, “Chaplain, what are you doing in Vietnam?” I thought of my family in Alameda, California.

Only four weeks ago I was with my wife, "back in the world," an expression often used by soldiers in Vietnam. I dug in my pack and took out my journal. I leaned back against the metal cargo wall and began to write.


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