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  • By the third month in Vietnam, I'd lost count of the things that frightened me. Fear was a state of being; the rule, not the exception. Death was a fact of life as well. Of the original nine sailors who had landed with me in Da Nang, three had already been shipped home in body bags. At eighteen years old, I was convinced that death was a viable alternative to life. Funny how your mind can create some form of rationale of out the most insane circumstances.

    We were on patrol deep in enemy territory, and we were scared. It wasn't the first time we had been above the DMZ on river patrol. It wasn't even our first time in combat. But being in combat before doesn't make it any less terrifying.

    The thick, humid air hung about us like a heavy curtain in the night. Mosquitoes and gnats and bugs we had no name for buzzed about us. The river was calm, reflecting nothing but the dark, moonless sky. Every now and then a screech or skitter or roar would come out of the jungle, causing everyone to turn in its direction cautiously. After a moment, we'd all return to our solemn silence and continue to stare out at the blackness.

    We'd come up river two days ago, two squads of Navy SEALs below decks. Our assignment was to deliver them to a point above the DMZ, where they would go inland to accomplish a mission, and wait two days for their return. We weren't told what their mission was. It was probably best we didn't know.

    The transit up river was easy enough. We encountered three Vietnamese boats with cargo heading south. We did the usual, stopped them, searched them for weapons and contraband, asked them for their papers. All three of them checked out. We called in for instructions. The instructions were always the same. Put the occupants on the shore. Sink the boat. If anyone resisted, shoot them. No one resisted.

    After fourteen hours, we arrived at the location. The SEALs left silently as soon as we arrived. Another three hours to camouflage the boats and set the perimeter. Two sailors from each boat were stationed as lookouts about fifty yards away, in case an enemy patrol got too close. Our boat was on one shore, the other across the river. I sat behind the .50 caliber machine gun, my counterpart was almost directly across from me. Claymore mines were placed about 20 yards beyond the lookouts in case the enemy got too close. During the day, I could just make out the other boat. At night, I couldn't see them, except for an occasional quick flash of light when someone lit a cigarette or a joint. Either way, it was a quick flash and gone almost immediately.

    The chief kept looking at his watch. It was nearly time to leave and we hadn't heard from the SEAL team. Then the radio came to life and we heard one word. “Inbound.” He looked around at us and indicated to get ready to be gone as soon as they arrived. I could feel the shudder of the diesels as they roared to life. Our sentry was back on our boat within a minute. We started to clear away the branches and leaves from the camouflage nets, ready to leave as soon as our passengers arrived.

    As the first of our SEALs arrived, I looked at the opposite shore in time to see the muzzle flash and hear the gunfire. The second team was being pursued. The enemy had opened fire. I aimed in the direction of the flash and started firing the machine gun. Two crewmen on the opposite shore also returned fire. Their sentry triggered the claymores, and the backlight of the explosion outlined at least six enemy soldiers making their way toward the boat.

    Our SEALs were on board, and the chief gunned the engines and pulled away from the shore. As he started the arc, I ceased fire momentarily to swivel my weapon to the opposite side, then opened fire as soon as the shoreline was in view. As we began to draw fire from the enemy, the second boat also returned fire.

    From that point on, I remember the sounds of weapons and men yelling, some giving orders and others screaming in agony. There were several explosions from mortars or grenades, and a barrage of bullets hitting the side of the boat and a few bouncing loudly off the spatter shield of the .50. As soon as the second boat pulled away from the shore and was around us, the chief gunned our engines and within a few moments, we were out of range and headed back to the DMZ.

    On the way back, we encountered another boat. As we passed, I looked at the chief. He looked back with a nod. It only took a short burst to sink the vessel. We didn't wait around to see if they made it to shore.

    One dead, shot in the back before he could make it to the boat, his body hauled aboard by two members of his team. Three wounded, one seriously, the others grazed by rifle fire. Everyone on our boat and team were good. Luck of the draw, I guess. Could have been us on the that side of the river.

    I think I slept for fourteen hours when we got back. In the debriefing, intelligence reported the boat we sank on the way back had five people on board. Civilians. A man, his brother, and their three sons. They didn't make it to shore. They didn't make it off the boat. All five died as a result of .50 caliber rounds passing through their bodies. Wrong place, wrong time. Nothing more was said.

    Somewhere in my mind, it occurred to me what I had become. I wasn't a sailor serving my country, or an innocent bystander caught up in the chaos. I had become the enemy.


    While based on events, this story is a compilation and not an actual reporting of facts.
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