I never wanted to visit the Wall. For years Vietnam veterans had only each other; as a memorial the Wall seemed too little, too late. Besides, there were so many names — so many memories. I often dream of one night in August, 1968.
All was black. I rubbed sweat from my eyes. Under the wavering light of a parachute flare squat bunkers and tangles of concertina wire emerged. I smelled blood, hot weapons, burned powder. My back was against a sandbag wall. Someone hunkered down beside me.
“Hey, Teach, I hear the bastards got a piece of you.” It was Doc Wills, platoon medic. He drew a knife and slit my trouser leg. “Hold still.”
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere. Hurts like all hell when I move.”
“Don’t move then. Damn, Teach. I gotta get a tourniquet on this.”
My head ached. Gingerly I checked it out. Warm blood coated my fingers. “What about my head, Doc?”
He glanced up. “Later. That one ain’t gonna kill you.”
A dull roar filled my head. I drifted into a black tunnel. Sharp pain drew me back.
Wills let go of my shirt. “Don’t drop out on me, man!”
I tried to concentrate. “How bad — we get hit?”
“Danforth took a direct hit from an RPG. Lieutenant Burns got killed. Riley. Miller.”
“Miller? Jesus, he was about to go home.”
“Yeah. Ain’t that the shits?”
Riley was in my platoon. Doc moved my leg. I jerked. “Jesus Christ! That hurts!”
He grinned. “You got one fucked up leg. Surgeons will fix you right up.” He started rigging a blood bag. “I’ll give you some morphine when I get this going.”
I gripped his arm. “I don’t wanna die, Doc.”
“You ain’t gonna die.” He shoved me back against the sandbags. “Get that through your thick head. I ain’t gonna let you die.”
He wiped blood off my face and scalp. “Just a nick, Teach.” Deft fingers secured a bandage. “Relax. Evac choppers are inbound.”
The pain seemed less. He must have injected morphine when I wasn’t looking. “I ain’t gonna die?”
“You ain’t gonna die. Okay? Concentrate on one fucking thing: Doc Wills says I ain’t gonna die.”
Next thing I remember was looking up at the interior of a Huey. A door gunner knelt over me. He held a bag of blood.
“Doc Wills says I ain’t gonna die.”
“Sounds like a good fucking deal.” Dark splotches stained the gunner’s flight suit. He handed the blood bag to a wounded man sitting on a web seat. “Don’t fucking drop it.”
The guy clutched the bag to his chest. “I got it, Teach.” I didn’t recognize him. A field dressing covered half his face.
Engines screamed. Door gunners raked the slope as we took off. Rotor blades pounded a frantic beat. I faded into the dark and awoke to find a man who looked as if he hadn’t slept in a month standing over me.
“Doc Wills promised I wouldn’t die.”
He glanced at me then went back to reading a tag tied to my shirt. “Hold on to that thought.”
They saved my leg, but the muscle damage was permanent. I didn’t see Doc again.
In 2008 my wife persuaded me to attend a unit reunion. In the process of swapping lies, I met the guy who held my blood bag. Hansen was his name. He was a rifleman in third platoon. He told me about Doc Wills.
“I was back with the company about a month after you were hit,” he said. “They gave me a squad.” He paused to sip his beer. “A few weeks later we got into it with an NVA regiment. On the second day we were in a treeline exchanging fire with some bad guys in an abandoned village. You know how it was.”
I did know.
“We started taking mortar fire. One of the new guys got hit. Doc headed down that way. Four or five more rounds came in.” Hansen paused and stared down at the bar. He rubbed the palms of his hands on his jeans. “Doc was kneeling beside the wounded guy. A round hit a couple feet away. He was killed instantly.”
“Damn.” For a long moment we sat in silence.
Hansen coughed. “The reunion committee worked up a list of unit KIA.” He handed me two printed pages. The list had Wall panel numbers beside each name.
A few months later my wife and I went to Washington for a week and toured the usual sites for five days. The morning of the sixth day she handed me the creased casualty list. “We leave tomorrow. If you want to visit the Wall…”
It was time to confront those tall black panels — and all those names. Doc Wills. Riley. I owed them that much. “Yeah. I been thinking about it.” I opened my suitcase. “Couple things I got to take.”
Half a dozen gray-haired men moved along the path below me. Two wore faded boonie hats. One had on an equally worn field jacket. The others wore black Vietnam Veteran caps. For the first time in over forty years I felt out of uniform.
My wife joined two women standing near some statues. Black granite drew me down into the shadows of my past. Panel height increased as I descended the path. A dark weight lodged in my chest.
The panel I sought was near the lowest part of the Wall. High up on the slab I found Burns, Danforth, Miller, and Riley. Doc’s name occupied part of a line halfway down. I touched it, reliving our last conversation.
People leave things at the Wall. Flowers, letters, medals, guilt. I placed a unit patch and one of my dog tags at the base of the slab. “Thanks, Doc.”
Stepping back, I saluted smartly. My old drill sergeant would have been proud.
Then my wife came down and held me while I cried.
JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.