Death By Chance
The Washington Post carried an article yesterday about the capriciousness of death in the Iraq war. The story centers around a well-liked platoon sergeant accidentally killed by his own men during combat. As in all aspects of life, events are often a matter of chance and fortune but combat creates life and death situations daily. If you are lucky, you miss deadly events or are not the one injured or killed. I recall the experience well from Vietnam.
Combat for me was intermittent violence punctuated by occasional accidents. Either we’d hit the NVA/VC (our mission) or they would hit us (more likely). In between we killed and injured ourselves with our weaponry and equipment. Two guys from another platoon blew themselves up with their own mines. Deacon fell out of a chopper. Feemster was shot by his own platoon. Charlie Brown’s eardrums were blown out when a claymore mine exploded in a dry season wildfire . All that explosive in a tense environment. Accidents waiting to happen.
Actual combat was equally random. My company never Hit the Shit (direct engagement) when I was in the field. But the danger was most definitely out there. All the other rifle companies in our battalion were bloodied badly at one time or another. Maybe Alpha Compny was just better led. We certainly did not have a lieutenant lead us right into a reinforced NVA bunker complex and lose six guys (the LT included) like Bravo Company. Charlie and Delta Companies lost about 10 guys total in two separate ambushes. Most of this violence missed me. Alpha Company was nearby when Bravo hit the shit. I heard the small arms, artillery and aircraft as we waited for orders to go to their relief. We never did. Another company choppered in. When a small patrol from my platoon was ambushed, the men chosen to go to their relief ended with the man next to me in the company perimeter. He was wounded when that patrol, too, was ambushed. He never returned.
The pattern continued after I became company clerk mid way through my tour. A mortar attack as Alpha Company pulled out of a landing zone on its way to stand down. During the attack, a lieutenant fired a grenade that landed short, adding to our casualties. The guys who wandered to the edge of the perimeter to smoke pot for the ride out were the majority of non-wounded;they secured the area and directed the medical evacuation. A good friend won a Bronze Star that day.
All luck. Sheer luck. As a kid in the 50's I used to wonder how our fathers had survived the hail of lead and shrapnel that was my image of World War II. I found out when I saw combat on my own. It wasn’t the murderous thunder that I had imagined but rather the random explosion of periodic violence that fortuitously never injured me. But in between was the potential, the always lurking threat, not just from a determined foe but also from my buddies and even myself. I’m lucky to be alive; 58,000 of my comrades aren’t.
The randomness of death and injury in combat has stayed with me since Vietnam. Shit happens. I saw it. Somehow I survived it. It’s still there, waiting to happen. Just ask anyone who was anywhere near the Pentagon and World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 or in the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995 or any parent of a murdered child. Perhaps the risks are less in civilian life but I know that I am never totally safe. In that respect I am still on patrol, hoping nothing will happen but entirely aware of the potential.