Nerve Endings of Fire

Ever since that hot summer day of 1966 in the Republic of South Vietnam, I have had issues with my nerves. I am not a PTSD candidate nor am I unable to conduct myself in a manner that allows me to partake in the ordinary functions of the everyday citizen. I have been employed full-time since my discharge from the armed forces in 1967, have been married to the same woman for 40 years and have raised three children, all college graduates and also have two grandsons. Not bad, eh? So, even I’d have to say that I have managed to pull off this act, you know, the normal family guy thing. Having said that, I will admit it hasn’t been easy. It’s about the nerves. See, I believe that on that day, June 23rd, 1966 to be exact, my nerves were frayed to the point of being uncovered, exposed if you will. How’d that happen you ask? Well, I, or I should say we spent many hours pinned down by an enemy machine-gun. Making the situation even more intense the designed firing pattern of the enemy gunner’s trajectory stopped only inches from my head as the blanket of hot lead swept from left to right. Unable to dig in or find cover, I lay prone at the mercy of the enemy gunner who knew not that by picking up the gun and moving it only a few inches to his right, the uncaring projectiles would have taken my head off, or a few feet more and he would have eliminated half of our position. I’m grateful for his taking a position and sticking to it. No flip-flopping here. Expended cartridges from our M-60 machine-gun, to my immediate left, flew by my head into unorganized mess of shiny hot, hollow cylinders only to be blasted into even more of a mess by our North Vietnamese tormentor. These empty shells peppered by the NVA rounds would fly up and about, making a tingling percussive sound while airborne and crash harmlessly into the ever green lush jungle. I actually started to believe that the enemies fixed field of fire may possibly spare my large head that was only covered by my helmet and bony left hand. My right hand clutched my ever faithful M-16. The hours we lay there at their mercy, seemed like an eternity, and then some. I will not go into detail as to how some of our brave souls ultimately dispatched the gun, but suffice it to say that it did not occur without cost. One of the most maddening things about this entire episode is that it didn’t have to happen. Only minutes before this stalemate with the enemy machine-gun, a dear friend of mine, Frank Bishop and I had just neutralized this exact position of a well-planned enemy Lshaped ambush. I’d like to take credit for the elimination of the two NVA that manned this position but to be honest, I was just back-up. Frank not only spotted the ambush position but he eliminated the immediate threat by firing into the fox hole and killing the two NVA gunners, thus saving the entire platoon from possible annihilation. Monkey see-monkey do, that’s kind of what my role was. He pointed, I fired. He threw a grenade, I threw a grenade. We both fired into the position, he shot bad guys and I shot trees and limbs. On cue, that being a full fusillade of withering angry fire from the other NVA, we di di mau’d l back down the trail to join up with the rest of our platoon. As fast as our young conditioned bodies were, we were no match for the speeding bullets that were in hot pursuit. Dirt kicked up in front of us, in back of us and to our

sides. The foliage on our flanks shattered as the large caliber rounds intended to penetrate us, miraculously missed us but did a fair amount of environmental damage. Up to this point, the action had been a rush; an adrenaline high. To out-run hostile bullets in a zigzag fashion in an almost prone position, was exciting as long as no one got hit. That unforgettable sound of rounds whizzing by you head, between your legs, and grazing your clothing made for an extreme high. I mean, after all, we were young, lived a life of danger and flirted with it on a constant. It was in our DNA. We were paratroopers. Problem is, anything that intense has the ability and probability to spin out of control. Things soon went down-hill, and fast. As a result, lives were lost, casualties were many and any excitement soon became frustration coupled with fear. In the pre-planning of the reconnaissance mission, we’d been informed of a large NVA presence, possibly a battalion. Much to our chagrin, it became apparent that we were In the midst of said group. Forgive me for attempting some old military humor here. Out-numbered and out gunned 10 to 1, we had ‘em right where we wanted ‘em. Air-support was requested and in no time the helicopter gun-ships arrived and rained down heavy rocket fire. Well intentioned as it was, a short round landed smack dab in the middle the platoon. Three men were wounded and a brand new sergeant from the states took a huge piece of the rocket in to his chest. The rest of us were tossed around like a salad. Clearing our heads as we waited for our ears to stop ringing, we came to the realization that we now had a KIA and WIA as well. Excitement turned to survival as we sensed the enemy attempting to surround us in spite of the withering air cover. Our troubles were only beginning. Second squad now had the ill-fated duty of going back up that trail Frank and I had only recently been on. They too were met with intense enemy fire losing two men in a matter of seconds. The NVA probed us from all sides now and only because they didn’t know how few of us there actually were, they never followed through in an attempt to overrun us. I do believe we also helped discourage those thoughts by fighting for our lives like proverbial dogs. Now, we were finally saved by a non-jumping battalion, 2/7 Cav. I was never so happy to see anyone in my life, period. They linked up with us at dusk after fighting their way up the hill. En-route to the rendezvous point, that being me at the trail head. The 2/7 Cav killed a number of NVA in their life-saving mission. This too was not without cost. To say thanks is hardly sufficient. I mean, what can you say? Gentlemen, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I started this writing in regard to the nerves issue but got sidetracked, so, please forgive me. I like to think of it as” nerve ending on fire” or “of fire. “ I get hot. That day in June of 66 my life was spared but something happened to my nerve endings. Not in a physical sense but in a psychological manner. For every minute that I was pinned down by the NVA machine-gun, with no place to run, hide, or duck, my nerves took a shellacking. The actual bullets had no ill-intentions for me, unlike the North Vietnamese gunner, but their overall effect seems to have worn down my ability to ward off some un-pleasantries later in life such as loud noises, sudden moves in my direction or rude remarks vocalized at myself.

I do my best not to “blow –up” but I’m not always successful. Back in “the world”, post-Vietnam, things were different. Something changed and it was me. I now dealt with rage, contempt and an anger that boiled up in me for a million different reasons, but all, or most, had to do with the war and its aftermath. The reasons are plentiful but there is no need to try to explain them, just to deal with them. However, the older I get, the less number of these episodes visit me. I count to ten a lot. Sometimes though, my explosions are involuntary. They just happen. I wish they didn’t, but they do. I’m working on it but like an alcoholic or heroin junkie, I’ll never be cured. I do my best to avoid any situation that would lead to a flare up but life can be unpredictable and you never know what’s going to come at you. In the case of an unexpected loud noise, there is no way to avoid it. I don’t” hit the deck,” but my heart comes close to exploding. I must admit that I do a fairly good job of not letting those sorts of incidents upset my cool demeanor. I appear to remain calm but inside, I’m afire. Just like back in Vietnam in a difficult situation, I’d get excited, stop and collect myself and say, “Duke ,calm down, be cool and see just what the hell’s going on here.” By doing that I was able to survey the situation and make the best call. It’s called survival. At times, almost all of the time, I dig deep into my being and and pull out my nerve endings to douse the flame so as not to cause an explosion. If I don’t, trouble lies ahead. The nerve endings have to be cooled manually because the auto start is in a malfunction mode and have been since June of 66. I’m kind of of l baring my soul here, ain’t I? At this point in my life I fear not of a future employer reading my rant and thinking, this guy’s nuts. There’s no way we would ever hire him or a present employer thinking the same thing. Well, retirement is just around the corner, so who gives a flying F##$. OK? Ah, the wonders of combat. All in all, I realize that I’m one lucky son-of-a- bitch. I am most thankful for my life and the people in it, well, most of them. All right, all right, some of them. Now, if only I could get this nerve thing, i.e., temper, a wee bit more under control.

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