By John Samuel Tieman
It’s official — I am an American hero. Not long ago, an R. O. T. C. outfit wanted to make a display featuring local veterans. I can’t turn down fellow teachers – that and I just like these folks – so I gave them my photo and my medals, my “rack”, for their display. I finally saw the display yesterday. There I am, under the heading “An American Hero”.
I sometimes think that the first duty of every war veteran is forgive him- or herself.
There is another awkward moment known to most Vietnam veterans. In my case, a student asks, “Dr. Tieman, did you ever kill anyone? You write about war all the time. Something bad must have happened.”
I used to equivocate. Make a joke. Change the subject. Or just lie.
The honest answer is, “Yes.” Once. By accident, sort of. But there are two stories. The second one ends with an accidental death. The first one begins with murder.
I’ll tell you what I remember, what I think I remember, what I heard, what I learned.
I was a musician. A parade soldier. Clarinet and saxophone. To this day, I love a rousing Sousa march. I didn’t have a dangerous job. Indeed, if I had only spent my service in the States, I’d look back on it all this with some degree of fondness. But, during the last part of my active duty, I went to Vietnam. The 4th Infantry Division Band. True, I did not have a dangerous job. But it was a dangerous time, the Cambodian Invasion, in a very dangerous place, the Central Highlands. In the States, my job was often fun. In The Nam, I was in over a hundred rocket and ground attacks. Some attacks simply annoyed us, a single rocket in the middle of the night. Other times, my friends died.
Then there were times when we were our own enemy.
Late summer, early evening, 1970. I was twenty years old. I remember (curious that I’d remember this) it was cloudy. I was walking up a dirt road that ran in front of our hooch. I passed these three fellows. Two were trying to calm the guy in the middle. The guy in the middle said nothing. He was seething, Even at that moment, his rage was remarkable, the subsequent events notwithstanding. It is worth noting this, because being angry in The Nam normally didn’t merit notice.
I learned decades later, from our piano player, Dick Bittner, that this guy had been to see the chaplain. The chaplain had refused to see him. Dick Bittner is of the opinion that subsequent events could have been avoided if the chaplain would have shown more compassion. Who knows? When I saw him, he was indeed coming from the direction of the chaplain’s quarters. He was heading for Charlie Company, an infantry unit catty-corner across this field, an old rice paddy, from the band. When Charlie Company was in from the bush, I used to smoke dope with those guys in that dried up paddy.
Perhaps an hour later, after sunset anyway, I was talking with Parsons and Novak. They were the chaplain’s assistants, “The God Squad”. Nice guys. I sometimes bunked with Parsons. They did mention the angry guy. But mostly we just sat around chatting about this and that. I was sitting on the ground.
Then there was a quick burst of M-16. Maybe three or four rounds. Close. Real close. Meters from here. We froze, stared at each other. Then a lot of shots.
I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t brave. I didn’t feel anything. I switched that part of me off.
I didn’t go into action so much as I switched on the automatic part of me.
I leapt to my feet. The others remained in the hooch, more stunned than anything else. Perhaps they were still having the feelings I had turned off. I got my helmet, locked and loaded my M-16. I took a position behind a sand bag wall slightly above and to the east of the field.
That’s where I saw him.
I heard later two stories. In The Nam, I heard that the guy, the angry guy, killed four people, including the two I saw with him. Years later, Dick Bittner told me that he murdered his 1st sergeant. These two versions are not mutually exclusive. In any case, murder.
Then he retreated to the field, the old rice paddy. Right in front of me.
I could see exactly where he was, despite the blackness, the moonless cloudy night. I saw his muzzle flashes. I was slightly more than ninety degrees to his right, and, as I said, slightly above him, behind a sand bag wall. Perhaps a hundred or so meters away. I doubt if he even knew I was there.
I was an Expert Rifleman. This was an easy shot.
I wanted to shoot. I was ready to shoot. I withheld my fire. The angry guy was firing into the night, and it was clear that other grunts, very close by, were hunting him. But I wasn’t sure where they were. No sooner did I have this thought when I saw a grunt in the dark, not five meters in front of the angry guy, open up. Full automatic. Virtually point blank.
The whole incident, from first shot to last, took a few minutes.
I learned something about myself that night. A lot of folks wonder if they could shoot someone. I’m not one of those folks.
I spent the next three decades wanting to not know that about myself.
Some time later, I’m not sure how long, weeks, I was on guard. I had two weapons, my M-16 and an M-79. I was still pretty new to The Nam, and somewhat unaccustomed to the M-79 grenade launcher, having only fired it a few times. The ground in front of our guard tower was a free fire zone. Meaning I could shoot anything anytime I wanted. Our standing orders were, “If it moves, shoot it.” A lot of guys took target practice there. That and firing randomly kept the enemy sappers, who infiltrated from the nearby village, An Khe, uncertain as to any pattern of fire. I decided to give myself some target practice.
Years later, I told the whole story in a poem.
After I got out of The Nam
I made up some tales, some
mostly jokes —
One time we’re tokin’ —
One time the whores —
because nobody made any movies
about how we’re heroes.
So now I’m told
You’re a good guy, John,
Welcome Home, Pal!
So now I’ll tell one
last story. One night
I’m the new guy so
I decide I’d try my M-79.
Now an M-79 launches a grenade
a little farther than you can
hit a good home run.
I aim for this field.
Bingo — a good shoot.
But the wind figures
in different, a freak
drifts the hit
into this village.
Where it kills this kid.
Except for the scream
that’s the unadorned story.
Nothing ever came of this incident. I believe it was counted as a “confirmed kill”, thus turning an accident into a dead Viet Cong. In truth, in that area, most of the locals were Viet Cong or Viet Cong sympathizers. Not that any of that matters to me now.
I spent the next thirty years begging God to forgive me. Only to realize finally that it was not God who was withholding forgiveness. I sometimes wished I had killed either no one at all, or a thousand people. Because one man has a face, a family, a history and a scream.
These two incidents, these lives, these deaths, live on in me. They search for some resolution I know I will never find. Yet search I will.
In therapy, I learned, finally, that despite all the tall tales, all the jokes, despite all the “You wouldn’t believe what I saw this one night in The Nam …”, I will never recall Vietnam and not, in the quiet that follows, be sad.
The years and the therapy have helped. I don’t hear the scream anymore. But now and then, between newspaper stories on Saturday morning, or driving down Forest Park Parkway, or, like now, staring at a computer screen and wondering what I’ll write next, now and then I see those muzzle flashes. And I take aim.
“War Story” first appeared in the Cimarron Review of the University Of Oklahoma, and was reprinted in two chapbooks, Morning Prayers, published by The Pittsburgh Quarterly OnLine, and A Concise Biography Of Original Sin, published by BkMk Press of the University Of Missouri At Kansas City.