Easter In The War

Not everything in my life is consumed or influenced by Vietnam but there are moments that come to me or dates, when forty five years ago seems like yesterday. They’re anniversary dates my wife says, usually moments when boys died or were wounded. Easter is one of those anniversary dates for me. When I was nineteen I lived with ten other Marines, a Navy Corpsman and an armed cadre of Vietnamese Villagers, called Popular Force soldiers. They carried antiquated WWII rifles, rusted hand guns and even a cross bow.  We were part of a Combined Action Platoon that lived in two hamlets referred to as Ti Lon I and Ti Lon II. We trained the PF’s to fight with us against local Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers that traveled down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam.

Our CAP was part of a program developed in 1965 called “Winning Hearts and Minds.” I volunteered for CAP because it sounded good and it would give me an opportunity to know the Vietnamese and perhaps understand what the war was about. I also thought it would be easier than climbing up mountains in the jungle where the only Vietnamese we saw were the ones we killed. Secretly I thought it might be safer. It was not. 

The CAP program was very successful, from a military standpoint – our enemy body counts were high – but also quite dangerous. Some reports say that of the 5000 Marines and Corpsmen that participated in the six years CAP existed, over 50% were killed and of the remaining Marines, 70% were wounded. It was a mobile CAP so we moved every day and night. 

The mornings and days were spent near the Hamlets, sometimes protecting the villagers during rice harvest, or helping repair the school house or footbridges. Each day we also held MED CAPS, where we would help the Corpsman treat the villagers for their ailments. It could be anything from stomach disorders to malaria or gunshot wounds. Early one earl morning an old woman was brought in while it was my turn to be on Med CAP. She had been hit the night before from enemy firing into her grass hut. She had a gaping hole in her thigh and the bone had broken through. There was a crude tourniquet made out of rope and a stick, tied tight enough to stop the bleeding. The wound was not remarkable. I had seen much worse, what was amazing were the woman’s eyes, and how fearless she seemed, and yet with all that pain she must have had, there was not even a whimper. The Doc did the best he could. He patched her up, hooked up an IV and sent her to our command post, hoping they would get her treatment.

There were a lot of things to like about CAP. The hamlets were  surrounded by rice paddies, so patrolling was physically much easier than hacking our way through the jungle. Another thing I liked was my little “boy” Frenchie. He was maybe ten and smoked all the time. A lot of the kids did. He would come to our CAP location everyday and offer to wash clothes, fetch us warm cokes from a nearby village or sell us tiny bananas and small round sweet cookies.  I also enjoyed the river and watching the Vietnamese in their conical hats, fish from their sampans. It was peaceful, during the day. It was at night when we usually got hit, or enemy would run into our ambushes. Firefights at night are the worse. Especially when the moon is gone and someone is shot and screaming.

I am a Christian and tomorrow is Easter Sunday, when we celebrate the Promise with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But Easter has always bothered me because of what happened so long ago. Our CAP had an uneventful night and on Easter morning we were settled in, next to a graveyard. The PF’s, as was their custom, returned to their homes. We didn’t realize it was Easter until we received a call on our radio saying the Chaplain was coming to visit our CAP. He was trucked in with additional guards and gave his service at the edge of the graveyard. He was dressed for combat, wore a cross and carried a bible. Some of us took communion, while others guarded the perimeter. It was unreal and.spiritually confusing. The irony seared my memory.

After he left we grabbed our packs and rifles and moved to another location to set in until dark.  I was at the front of the column as we wound our way over rice dikes, through paddies and on to a dirt path that paralleled the river. Suddenly we received some fire from somewhere. Then I saw a tall, thin Viet Cong, dressed in black pajamas running with a rifle toward the river. As he reached the bank and started his dive I fired. I emptied a magazine as he dove under the water. My squad leader screamed, “Frag em’.” Then I ran forward, took out a grenade, tossed it and watched it explode in the water. The rest of the squad reached us but it was over. No one was hit. We waited for the body to rise, but it did not.

Thirty years later I was in church on Easter morning and that moment came back to me. Before on that anniversary date I would just try not to think about it. I’d get lost in my kids, searching our backyard for eggs. But that morning in church it all came crashing back. I could not contain myself. All the evil I had thought about myself that I had tried to suppress, exploded. Had I committed a mortal sin for killing my enemy on the day Christ has risen? Did he have a rifle? Who were his children? Would God ever forgive me? I cried that Easter morning – like I am now – but by revealing, I eased the pain of my concealing.