- Historic Sites
How a patch of ground forged a man’s future, stole a part of his soul, and gave it back to him 30 years later
June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
We waited outside Mr. Hen’s hooch while Mr. Chinh and the minder zipped away on motorbikes. When they returned, Mr. Chinh reported that we had permission to go on. We roared along the path, winding, climbing, dropping, and 30 minutes later emerged at the center of the valley, amid a sweeping patchwork of terraced rice paddies that gave way occasionally to fields of sugar cane. Only a quarter-mile or so away, there it was, the hill, rising like a top hat out of the fields, broad, round, jungle growth covering its southern edge, neat rows of sugar cane dressing up the middle, and scruffy foliage to the north. Behind it, Le Kiem Mountain. From this new perspective I recognized it clearly. I could even trace the route of Charlie Company’s descent from LZ West to the valley, across its northeastern floor, and up to the hill. Mr. Chinh and I examined the map; the topography matched perfectly. We had done it. We were within walking distance of Hill 102.
Meanwhile, a new minder had replaced the first. He was also young but rougher-looking and surlier. We walked north toward the hill. How high and steep it looked as we grew closer! I snapped two or three photos with my 35-millimeter Nikon, and the minder spoke sharply to Mr. Chinh. By the time we reached the foot of the hill, my heart was pounding. I told Mr. Chinh and Patty that I must go up the slope, I must see more. The minder said we could go up for only a few minutes, we couldn’t take the camera, and not everyone could go. Julie volunteered to stay behind. After our six-hour march through rice paddies, fields, and jungle terrain, her gesture was profoundly generous. I accepted it. She could protect the camera and its film, I hoped, and perhaps distract the minder on this last hour of my journey.
As I walked, I vowed to ignore the minder’s orders that we stop at the crest. I knew one thing: I had to keep going. Our narrow path winding upward, I spotted it: an artillery crater. I took out my little Elph pocket camera and snapped discreetly. Mr. Chinh looked back; the minder was asleep. We came to another crater, this one from a 500-pound bomb. Then another, filled with water. I pointed to the third crater. “These could have been made by the artillery and air strikes I called in.” Then it hit me. There was a pattern to the craters. They were part of a big circle, a ring. In the center of that ring might be what I had come to find.
“Just a little farther, please, Mr. Chinh. I have to keep going.” I saw that he was eager too. My quest had become his.
We followed the path upward along a sugar cane field on one side and thickets of bamboo on the other. Several hundred feet farther on, the thickets opened up. I paused and looked to the north. There was a clearing. The ground was perfectly flat, as if graded, and was planted with manioc, a kind of sweet potato. I saw the dropoff of a ravine at the far edge. I stepped into the space, and I knew instantly.
“This is it!” I yelled.
I was trembling. I realized I’d never known what it meant really to tremble, shaking uncontrollably as the memories flooded through all my senses. “Yes, this is it! I know it! I recognize it!”
Mr. Chinh was crying now. “You will bring your son here someday,” he said. “I will bring my son.”
“The building sat here,” I told him. “The NVA came up through that ravine and into the building. Past those trees up on the mountainside is where the helicopter went down, and down the hill over there is where they dragged us on our ponchos for the medevac to take us out.”
Now I knew why I’d needed to come back. For 31 years I had been trying to reconstruct that day, that evening, that moment. I had never realized how much of it I had carried with me through the decades. Veterans of combat often suppress the reality of what they have experienced. They can’t be sure of what really happened. Trauma plays long-term tricks on the memory. I had believed that I’d had a handle on it. But I had fooled myself.
The questions had roiled around endlessly in the recesses of my mind—self-doubts, many of them. Was it really the way I remembered it? Was I embellishing what had happened so I could be a hero? Was I understating it to diminish myself? Had it been necessary to hold the flashlight, or had it been stupid? Did I leave my fellow soldiers unprotected by getting wounded early in the battle? Could I have done something different, or smarter? Why had I been embarrassed that I had left Vietnam before my 12 months were up?