A few weeks ago, Minstrel Boy wrote about “his cherry”, Timmy, an earnest young man who served with him in Vietnam. That got me thinking about my own cherry days and the idea of cherryhood. Cherry was the near universal name given to fresh arrivals in Vietnam. Another term was “fucking new guy” also known as FNG. Neither appellation was particularly welcoming. In the field, the general attitude toward new guys was wariness because they would either: a) do something stupid that would get someone else killed or b) do something stupid that would get themselves killed and fuck up everyone else’s day. Either way, cherries were a liability until they proved their ability to stay alive and contribute to the primary mission, staying alive. I believe the mission also said something somewhere about fighting Communism and defending America but, in my unit, it came down to everyone staying alive long enough to go home.
If you do not know already, the term cherry refers to the part of female anatomy that is lost during first intercourse. New guys were “virgins” until they proved themselves in some way. Minstrel Boy’s unit had a fairly clear definition: a first kill or return after being wounded and evacuated. I gather from his stories, either opportunity came quickly. By that definition, I was a cherry my entire tour. I never killed anyone nor was I wounded. My unit’s definition was less rigorous: you were a cherry until the next new guys came in and you could apply that name to someone else. I was among the last new guys my unit saw for about nine months. The US was withdrawing forces in 1971 so instead of brand new cherries from the States, our replacements were rotated in from the departing units. They had about as much time in-country as I did. If they were cherries, so was I. After a few months, it didn’t make much difference.
The concept and terminology is part of ritual harassment in the military. In basic training, you are a “trainee”, a “maggot”, subject to abuse from just about everyone. Not quite so much in infantry training but still way low in the pecking order. A new guy arriving In Vietnam, faced indifference and wariness, at best, and, typically, constant reminders that others were far closer to returning home. The effect, for me was resentment and a desire to “escape” the harassment/indifference by deflecting it to someone even worse off (more time left in-country).
It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, all too human and not unique to the military. But very much part of the military culture. I had enough people harassing me during my first six months in the Army that I wanted some revenge, which could only be exacted on those below me. Despite my feelings, I skipped that opportunity. That’s never been part of my temperament. When I was in position to abuse others, as company clerk, I was more interested in fucking with the system and helping fellow grunts get by than harassing anyone. I guess that was my revenge. Toward the end of my tour, I was excited by my impending departure but that was more from sheer joy and relief than any desire to harass those who had more time left.
Minstrel Boy’s unit took a much better approach to training cherries than did mine. Their new guys were assigned to veterans who would show them the ropes and, hopefully, get them past their first kill (preferable) or wound (less preferable). My unit did not have anything quite so formal. Cherries were the responsibility of the squad and the squad leader who provided some guidance, but not a lot. No one showed me how to load a pack or explained much of anything to me. It was more like. “Here’s your equipment. Don’t fuck up.” At least that’s how I remember it. Maybe I was so scared, dumb or both that I just didn’t see what was actually happening. All I knew was that I had to follow the guy in front of me and just do whatever he did and not fuck up. That the guy in front of me was sometimes also a cherry made no difference--somewhere up the line was a veteran who provided the example that would percolate back to me. My squad leader was reasonably good about answering questions but in that deadly, fearsome environment I didn’t always know what questions to ask.
I must have learned enough. I didn’t get killed in a firefight but that was mostly luck since I was never in a real one. My company didn’t walk into deadly ambushes like all the other companies in the battalion. Nor did I make some fatal mistake and get myself and others killed in an accident, which was the most likely way to die in Alpha Company. I would have appreciated a mentor like Minstrel Boy and hope that I would have had sense enough to follow his lead. Of course, that didn’t do Timmy much good in the end. Not only did he have an experienced guide; he also wanted to understand and learn. He still ended up dead. Somehow that doesn’t seem right, especially when a doofus like me survived.
My unit finally got real, just-in-from-The-World cherries in September and October. Within a few weeks about a half dozen of them were wounded, never to return, in a mortar attack on a landing zone. What all this tells me is that combat is a matter of skill, luck and timing. Skill will keep you alive. So will luck. Until your luck runs out. Then you’re time is up. When that happens, you’re fucked, no matter how good you are or how long you’ve been in-country.