First Patrol

by Jim Cooley

"Our objective," the platoon sergeant said,
"Is to deny the enemy—"
I squatted with the rest and listened, 
knuckles white around the black stock of my M-16.
I was the newbie, happy as hell I'd
been assigned to headquarters squad.
Isn't war like chess?  Don't they always
protect the king?  I thought they did,
felt more secure, second in file
behind the RTO.  I was under no illusions,
though.  I was just a PFC, a "pig-fucking chucklehead,"
this was a rough AO, no cover in the paddies,
and we were going on a long, pool-table walk
through Indian country.

Nothing happened.  We didn't see them, they
didn't shoot at us.  Just a three-day stroll in the park 
—provided you define stroll 
as 25 miles a day humping 70
pounds of ammo, explosives and camping 
gear in 105 degree heat and 100%
humidity, ass deep in shit, leeches
burrowing into your balls.  
All of which was fine by me, if
I didn't get shot at, let alone shot.
I'd take that stroll any day,
plus 362 more to DEROS 
and a wake-up.

We were almost home.  The sergeant raised his
arm, the column stopped.  Far out across the 
paddies, a single Vietnamese walked behind 
a water buffalo, studiously ignoring us.
I thought she was a woman. I don't know
why.  They all looked effeminate to me—
short, slight, hairless.  Their young 
soldiers even held hands 
on the streets of Saigon.

The sergeant turned.  "LT, ain't this a
free fire zone?"  LT turned to the RTO, and in
his best game-show voice proclaimed, "The
envelope, please."  The radioman passed him 
the map.  The lieutenant, rifle
poised on one hip, shook the map open
until it hung from his hand.  Held it at
arm's length, his wrist limp, looking
for all the world like that bronze
faggot in front of the Green Beret 
Museum at Ft. Bragg, minus the beret.  The LT
said, "Precisely, my dear Watson.  You
have apprised the sitrep perfectly."
He couldn't read the map at that
distance, but he was a good lieutenant,
dying to please.  They were fragging by
then.  He was short.  All he wanted 
was to crap in peace—in ONE piece—
until his own DEROS, only two weeks away.

The sergeant smiled, gave a smart salute, 
flipped up his battle sights.  "I'd say
800 meters," the LT said.  "Yep,"
replied the sergeant, shouldering his weapon.
He fired one shot.  A second later the Vietnamese 
looked up, must have heard the crack as 
the bullet passed over, then turned suddenly 
toward us as the report reached her.  
A tiny splash appeared 200 meters beyond the target.  
"Hmm," the sergeant said.  "Small dink."  
"Small buff," corrected the LT.  Them
art-school college boys get special training 
in the mysteries of perspective.
The sergeant adjusted his sights.  The small
figure began to hurry the buffalo along.
The sergeant fired a burst.  The buffalo ran.
Heavy weapons squad was right behind us.  The
first M-60 began to chug.  Red 7.62x54
reached out in front of the fleeing 
animal.  He turned, ran back the other way,
knocked the Vietnamese down,
just as the second M-60 and the rest of the
platoon opened up.  

Why hump all that fucking
ammo back to the firebase, anyway?  
There was plenty
more where that came from.  

The buffalo went down.  The Vietnamese 
disappeared as the paddy erupted 
into a thousand points of white.

We didn't go over to check the kill.  There wasn't
any weapon to retrieve.  The LT knew 
we'd already walked a long way.  
Why get fragged over a dead buff
and a Swiss-cheese dink chick 
who may not be dead anyway?  Who cares?
We'd had our fun, and demonstrated, 
a platoon packing 35 automatic weapons, 
that we could shoot reasonably straight.

When we got to the crest of 
the next paddy dike half a mile 
along, a funny look 
passed across the LT's face.  Sergeant began to
fidget, too.  "Spread 'em out,
keep your intervals," the NCO called.
"Map, corporal," LT barked to the RTO.
This time he didn't dangle it at arm's length.
This time he studied it closely.
"Compass!" he ordered, before realizing
he had it in his pocket.  All business now.
From the top of that dike I could see
the observation towers of our firebase
to the north, a communications relay tower 
across the paddies to the east.
The LT shot azimuths on both, penciled
lines on the map.  Did it again.
Evidence unmistakable: The fucker 
was way off course.  He paled a little,
cleared his throat, said to the sergeant:
"Uh ... looks like we're a little
closer to home than I thought."  No shit.  Like maybe
three miles closer.  "Well," the sergeant said,
"What are you going to do?"  
"What can we do?" the LT said.  "At least
there weren't any witnesses.  Let's call it
two dinks, 800 meters, Charlie with the weapon 
got away."  He patted his binoculars.  
"That's why they give me these, right?  
So I can see things."

"Move out!" the sergeant yelled,
waving his arm.  "Keep your intervals."
As we jigged down the far slope of the 
dike, the LT paused, fished out his compass,
stared at it, then chucked it into 
the shit-stinking muck.
"Hey, sarge," he called, laughing now.  
"I think we've lost our compass."  
"Yes, sir," the sergeant yelled back.  
"An American tragedy.  Must have got
sucked into this quagmire."

"Roger that," LT said.  "Besides, 
what's the worst they can do?  
Send us to Vietnam?"

© 2003 by Jim Cooley. All rights reserved.