January 5, 2002
One comes across the phrase "conquering fear," implying that fear is a foe that can be vanquished somehow, and once beaten is subjugated. I only wish this were so. Many of us are unable to conquer fear; the best I have been able to do is to try and learn how to cope with it.
From the day that I arrived in Vietnam until the day I left, I was afraid. I went to bed with the fear at night and woke up with the taste of it in my mouth in the morning. It followed me like a shadow, and unlike Peter Pan, I was never able to lose it. Whether I was flying in a Seawolf attack helicopter on a fire support mission, riding in a PBR on the river, or asleep on the ship in my own cabin with the door locked and a loaded .38 under my pillow, it never left me.
I take that back. I recall three instances that I felt something so much stronger, that fear receded into the background and I was not conscious of it for a while. The first of these was a time in the Co Chien River when the ship came under heavy machine-gun fire from an enemy position on the South bank. I was on the bridge and had the conn. I saw the tracers whizzing by, and I remember being overcome with an intense feeling of outrage and anger. How dare these unseen bastards shoot at my ship and my crew. I vaguely recall turning the ship to head towards the source of the hostile fire and ordering rapid continuous return fire from the ship's 40 mm batteries. The river bank erupted into flying trees and disintegrating shrubbery, and it was fascinating. If my exec, as fine an officer as one could hope to serve with, had not said to me in a forceful way, "Captain, I think it is time to turn away now." I think I may have lost myself in target fixation and run the ship hard aground, guns still blazing.
The second time I was distracted enough to momentarily forget to be afraid, the ship was anchored in the Bassac River off a small Vietnamese village. A sampan made its way out toward the ship from the shore. After being checked out by the picket boat, it was allowed to come alongside the accommodation ladder. In it were an old man who was operating the boat, and a young woman with a baby in her arms. I happened to be standing on the quarterdeck, and as she made her way up the accommodation ladder. I could see that the infant was wounded and bleeding through a crude bandage made of cloth. The ship's hospital corpsman was summoned to the quarterdeck and he quickly sized up the situation. He said, " Captain, can I treat this? For all we know they could be Vietcong." I remember saying, "Doc (all Navy corpsmen are called doc), there are no VC babies." In that moment my sense of shame and of sadness pushed fear right off the stage, and all I could think was, "My God, what are we doing here."
I was on my way back to the ship from a commander's conference at the CTF-116 headquarters in Binh Thuy, hitching a ride in one of the Seawolf helos, and idly listening to the chatter on the tactical radio circuit when the pitch of the voices went up noticeably and it became evident that a firefight had broken out somewhere below. Soon there was the all too familiar call for a dustoff helo (dustoff was the voice radio call for a medical evacuation helicopter). It so happened that there were no slicks nearby (slicks are huey helos with their weapons stripped off so they can carry extra passengers or cargo), and no one else was as close as we were to the action. I looked at the pilot; he communicated without saying a word, and we dropped in. A couple of US Army Rangers carried a wounded trooper into the clearing and put him in the helo. I could see that he had taken a single round to the head, just behind the right temple. Another trooper, who was evidently his buddy, got on with him. We lifted off and the door gunner started an IV.
The back of a huey is an intimate space. Four of us filled it up pretty completely. There was no way I could miss a single detail of that terrible ride. At first the wounded trooper, who was barely if at all out of his teens, was responding to his buddy who gripped his hand and talked to him continuously. His eyes moved and he mumbled a few words in response. As we made progress toward the nearest field hospital, I had a front row seat and watched in impotent silence while this young man's humanity dribbled out of his skull through that bloody hole. As the seconds ticked away the eyes went empty and the grip went slack. When we touched down again there were still four bodies in the back of that huey, all breathing in and out with hearts beating, but the number of human beings had been reduced by one. I don't know what happened to that lad, and I don't want to. For his sake and mine, I pray that he died. During that endless helo ride, my own fear became irrelevant and disappeared into an overwhelming sense of loss.
I learned more than I cared to about fear that year. I discovered that I was afraid of many things, and most of them had little to do with dying. I was afraid that I might be captured and put in one of those POW camps in North Vietnam to be tortured and broken. I was afraid that I would not hold up under the pressures of a combat command and would fail myself, my crew, my service, and my country. I was afraid I would be wounded like that poor trooper, and end up a vegetable, hopelessly dependent on machines and attendants for the most rudimentary of life functions. I was afraid that the constant company of my fear and the certain knowledge that I had caused the death of other human beings would rob me of my humanity, just as surely as that round to the head had taken it from the trooper. Death, my friend, was among the least of my worries.
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