I don't know why I decided to become a reporter during a conflict like Vietnam. I just knew I didn't want to fight. It was the only way out for me. And in the end, I guess I was technically in the fight'just not the one holding a gun. I just spread propaganda. A crime just as bad. But it doesn't matter now anyway. I ended up in Vietnam through the random set of coincidences we call life and made it out with a little help from Lady Luck.
It started when I was born in the woods of New Hampshire. An only child and a far stretch to the hot jungles of Vietnam. I lived in the woods for most of my life before that. Just a medium sized home located at the top of a long drive on a tall hill. School was never too hard, but it always seemed to be lacking in the end; it might have been why I qualified as a reporter. When the war began, everyone thought it would be over in a year or two. They were 'just fighting farmers' the town often joked to itself. But then it just kept going. And then the draft came. My best friend went first, and he came home in a box only three weeks after he arrived in country. Shortly after, I got my letter: fight in the 23rd Infantry Division, and in little text at the bottom, 'or apply for special programs.' I made my choice.
I chose to hold a camera over a gun. So, I was shipped off in the middle of the war and found myself landing in Saigon. I was technically a freelance war reporter, but I was under contract with the US Army to collect stories and images to be sent back to the US in an attempt to turn the opinion of the war back to something the federal government could work with. I didn't believe it would work, but what choice did I really have back then? I was so new. Regardless, they issued me a camera, a notebook, five pencils, a blue rather shitty sharpener, and a freelance reporter clearance card. It had my name printed in bold letters next to a picture of me grinning. I always hated that picture; it never really represented me while I was there. To provide further contrast to that smile, I even ended up purchasing a knife from a local vendor. He claimed it was from the bases reserves and he was authorized to sell, but I was skeptical. Lots of US equipment, and people, went missing during that war.
My first mission was to hitch a ride on a Huey out to jungle outpost and record some of the stories out there. I did what I was told and when I arrived a rather scruffy Sergeant led me to the barracks where I was to be staying. As soon as he opened his mouth, I knew he from somewhere down South. He had that drawl you hear so much down there and the mannerisms to boot. I guessed he had to be at least 26, making him young for his rank. But he directed me along with a clear purpose, and when finished went on his way to 'go tend to some of the other issues ya'll have been causing me.'
After squaring my clothes and extraneous gear away, I went out to what appeared to be a common area in the base. Seeing two soldiers playing cards, I approached with a bit of caution as I still didn't know what to expect from these men.
'Do you guys have time for a picture?' I asked, making my way up to the two soldiers who seemed to be in the middle of what I'd guess to be a form of Poker.
The larger one, wearing an olive drab t-shirt as well as standard issue pants and boots, looked up from the game long enough to reply curtly, 'Maybe we've got time, how do you want it?'
'I need you to look tough, we need something inspiring,' I told them giving my best 'I Belong Here Smile' and pulling out the camera from my leather bag. 'Plus, I can give you both a copy if you want. Just make sure it looks good.'
'We don't need to try,' the smaller soldier said putting his apparently water damaged cigarette out on the table near the pile of bills in the center of the table. He pointed to the larger soldier and continued, 'Radzevich has the biggest balls in the platoon. Not to mention his arms. They say the VC run in fear when he flexes.' And after losing a hand carried on, 'But ya, you can take the shot.'
The soldiers then both raised themselves from their stools and posed for the picture. Both flexed and showed their teeth to the Army-issue camera. It turned out the story about the VC might as well be true'Radzevich's bicep was nearly as big as my head.
I handed the extra polaroids to Radzevich, and a large explosion sounded in the near distance. We all dived to the dirt. I was so afraid. But I could see the smaller soldier laughing, while Radzevich just looked at me silently'until a shout of 'CORPSMAN!' washed past over us. The smaller soldier turned his head to look at Radzevich and the two men jumped to their feet. Grabbing their M16s off the card table, they ran towards where the call had come from. As they ran, I heard Radzevich say back, 'Thanks.'
I don't know why, but I needed to follow them. I wanted to lay there, but I just couldn't. Maybe it was the call of the void, or maybe it was just that they were the first people to talk to me in this strange place like I was an actual human being. I don't know, but I went after them. I stayed low, kept my camera out, and tried to stay out of people's way as I ran to where they disappeared around a hastily constructed bunker and towards the trench line. There was the first time I saw a man die. But it certainly wasn't the last.
The man didn't die clean. He had taken the brunt of a hand grenade. A VC was in the woods nearby, I head one of the soldiers shouting. I saw Radzevich leaning over the man trying to stop the bleeding while the smaller soldier aimed his rifle into the jungle jumping back and forth. Radzevich's expression never changed. He just did his work without emotion. I wondered how long he had been here. I took a picture.
I tried to move closer, but as I began to move past a line of sand bags toward the trench line, the smaller soldier began firing his weapon. As he jumped into the trench, Radzevich threw himself down onto the Sergeant. Then someone shouted over the gun fire, 'GET DOWN! TORCH UP!' Then a stream of fire shot out from the makeshift bunker strafing the underbrush beyond the trench line. The fire was just above Radzevich and his friend.
As quickly as it started, the roar stopped, and the flames stopped flying. I sat watching. I couldn't move. Radzevich picked himself up and looked at the man on the ground. He was no longer coughing. I picked myself off the ground using the sandbags for support and made my way to Radzevich who stood expressionless. I saw the man was dead. It wasn't even his wounds that killed him; not directly anyway. He had bled out. Right under Radzevich. I looked up to the man, with the smaller soldier now looking over his shoulder.
'That's a shame,' the smaller soldier said pulling out what I now know to be a body bag from his pocket. Radzevich took it, and with the help of the smaller soldier, managed to put the man inside. His expression never changed. I took another picture; I'm pretty sure this one never got published. When they were done, the two men began to walk back to their card game.
Again, I followed. As they sat down, they took up the same positions I had found them in. It was like some cruel record that just repeated itself. Over and over. Never stopping. Just reaching the end and skipping back to the beginning again. Same thing to happen the next day, or even the next hour. It was insanity. It was what I had to document.
I asked the two men if I could sit and play. They obliged, and that's where I truly began to understand that war.
Here Radzevich and the smaller soldier, who I learned was named Lewis, began to tell me about their lives in the jungle until the light became dim. They told of traps in the jungle, wild animals hunting their squad mates, and the myth of Salt and Pepper who were supposed to be Soviet Advisors come to oversee the war effort. They said one was black and the other was white, leading to the names. Allegedly they would be seen sometimes watching the battles from behind the frontline directing soldiers. All with their gold hammer and sickle patches on their shoulders. Some even said they were escorted by Spetsnaz, though apparently no one knew if it was true.
Taken by the stories, I went to light another cigarette. Immediately, Lewis hit my hand down and the Zippo clattered to the table still open. He then looked me dead in the eyes and explained, 'Can't do that when the moon's coming out. There's a sniper watching the camp at night.' As quickly as his hand extended, it went back to the table near his cards. Not a sweat broken. Not a care in the world.
I sat quietly for a time as they kept playing cards. I don't know how long I sat there with a single thought in my head: I could have just died. Gone. A simple mistake. A simple flick of the thumb. And bang. I'd have been dead. A soviet bullet straight through my head and probably out the other side. The bullet would have no regrets, and neither would I, my mind destroyed. And these men have lived this reality. They've lived it for months. Almost a year. Yet here they were. I wondered to myself who the lucky ones really were: the dead, or those left to remember.
As I fell deeper into my crisis of mind, Radzevich put his hand on my shoulder. I looked at him and his still expressionless face. 'Your eyes are looking a bit glassy,' he said, 'Time for bed?'
'Yes.' They collected the cards and we all headed back to the barracks. It turned out we all lived in the same one. Perhaps this was by the dead Sergeants design? I supposed we could never find out now.
I sat in bed, still contemplating my first day really in the field. It wasn't even 12 hours and I had seen a man die. And almost died myself. It was chaos. Pure and simple ordered chaos. I had seen the plans of some of the high command when I took their photos, and it looked so cut and dry there. Simple: send troops here, block this road, napalm this area. But zooming in, sitting here with just one of the tiny pins in the map, I really began to understand it. This was no war. This was organized anarchy. No one could stop anyone from running into the jungle. And no one could stop that same man from dying out here. An officer could be 'fragged' at any time. Killed off by his brothers for putting them in what they saw as undue danger. Even if the officer had no choice in the action. Even if he was just told where to go by someone upstairs.
A VC soldier could jump from a spider pit or take aim from a high tree, and cut a man down before he even knew what had happened. A crying, burned, woman could hand you what appeared to be a baby, only to have that baby really be loaded with explosives, and moments later, have it rip you apart. It was chaos. It was anarchy. And it truly was Hell.
It was there, in that jungle barracks surrounded by soldiers, kids, who were volunteered and drafted to fight in these rice patties and these jungles, that I decided what I needed to do. I was going to show the world what this war really was. I wasn't going to sugar coat it. No. I was going to show the terror and the fear. The blood and the gore. The napalm and the bullets. Everything. I finally agreed with the old saying: war is hell. I had been here less than 12 hours and I would be here many more, I realized, before I could try to crawl my way back out.