I stood at attention, like the good little soldier I was – hands down by my side, eyes 15 degrees above the horizon, feet 45 degrees apart, back straight, guts in and chest out. For the past 12 weeks, this had been my life. Each and every aspect of my body corrected and criticised, until what was needed from me had been drilled into my brain.
A bead of sweat rolled onto my lips, I could taste the salt as I tried to keep my composure in the sweltering heat.
Private L. Patterson, service number RA3-7-9-757, 1st Battalion, Infantry Division. This is who I am now, what I was 12 months ago is no more. That Liam is dead.
Sergeant Barr gave me a brief inspection, and for once he wasn’t angry.
“Good to see you finally learned how to iron your fucking pants, Patterson – only took you what? A year?” he said, followed by a sly wink. Such a simple gesture, but one I would never forget.
“Thank you, Sergeant!” I immediately responded.
Sergeant Barr was in all honesty, a God among men. I remember my first encounter with him – he’d punched me in the stomach for smirking whilst at attention. This violence was supposedly the military’s best teaching aid.
Barr was a man of habit, he always clipped his enormous ring of keys to his second belt loop, his hat was always firmly starched flat, his uniform neatly pressed and his medals always clean and aligned. His red mustache was always a topic of interest, topped with his red, neatly trimmed haircut, accompanied by thick, regulation sideburns. He somehow had an aura of respect, like his presence demanded it. There was an atmosphere that followed him and every one of us longed for it.
“Private… uh, Patterson!” Lieutenant Colonel Hurford boomed, I quickly switched on, “Sir!”, I marched directly up to his podium and he shook my hand.
“You did damn good here son, I’ll see you in Hell”.
If it were anyone else, they may’ve been offended by this, but I knew what he meant by ‘Hell’ – he was referencing the pit in Vietnam we’d be sharing for the next 18 months… he was trying to comfort me.
Once the rest of my intake had been up to Hurford to be congratulated for passing basic, we all changed our clothes from the neat khaki green ceremonial dress into our camouflage greens. There would be no celebration. At 2300hrs that night, we shipped out for what would be the most horrific experience of our young lives.
Time flew for me, and I know it did for a few other men in the platoon as we silently thought about our parents, brothers and sisters back home. For me, my fiancé was all I could think about. She hated being ‘left behind’ as she called it. I think it was made even more painful through the fact she was now pregnant.
She’d written me a letter the day I left for the Army, which I’d read dozens of times over now. It always seemed to calm me down, helped me collect my thoughts and relax. Now seemed like the perfect time to read it. I reached for my breast pocket to grab the letter, but it was too late.
“Form up! I want Alpha and Bravo Companies on that ramp on 60 seconds – Captain Scheffield, make it happen!” It was Hurford, I could see him watching over us, and I could see the sadness in his eyes. We all knew what he thought of this war, and he knew he wouldn’t see a lot of our faces again after tonight.
“Aye Sir!” the Captain acknowledged. He was always strangely passive, many of us thought he’d come to terms with death, and was just waiting for his moment. He’d killed his wife 3 years ago, along with his 2 children in a fatal car accident. What did he have left to keep moving for? My platoon would always try to take him out for drinks during our down time, but no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t penetrate his cold exterior. I noticed he would often talk to me more than the others, I felt like somehow I’d earned his trust. However, he was a shell of a man and many of us dreaded becoming like him, as much as we did respect him.
I grabbed my packs and shuffled into place in Alpha company’s ranks. It was a cold night, a welcome change. The crisp air bit at my lips, and I shivered as I realised this might be the last time I ever see some of my friends again, let alone this country. Right there I prayed, for the first time in my life, to a god I barely knew – I prayed.
I remember being flown into the base in a Huey. The base itself was huge, spanning over a few hectares, I had no idea how I would learn to navigate around it. There were lines of tanks, and different sized tents stuck up everywhere. I could see soldiers sitting around smoking, or lying under vehicles, trying to repair what they could and making the most of what they had. The chopper got closer to the ground and I could see the grass and trees around the landing zone sway, growing more and more violent the closer we got. We hit the ground and I stepped out, my boot hitting the soft dirt for the first time. This would be my new home.
I’d been in Vietnam for only 2 weeks before I lost a friend.
I was talking to a guy called Jeremy, we leaned against one of the tanks as we spoke. He was a Lance Corporal who’d arrived at about the same time as me, he was telling me about his family, about his two little girls – Josie and Delilah. He was mid-sentence, telling me about how the were both doing ballet back home when a 45. caliber bullet went straight through his forehead. He was so proud of his daughters.
There was no time to react, I hit the dirt, tears welling in my eyes. I hadn’t known this guy for more than an hour, and I’d already lost him.
A medic rushed over to us and took Jeremy away as quick as possible, as if to hide the body from the others. This happened a lot and these deaths took a huge toll on our morale.
As I went to go wash the blood of my hands and face, I took a path that followed the perimeter of the base. I didn’t notice until about halfway to the latrines that there were body bags lined along the fence. Hundreds upon hundreds, running along the barbed wire fence as far as you could see. I was in shock.
I spun around to face the meanest looking Warrant Officer I’d ever seen in my life
‘How the hell does he know my name? Oh shit’ I thought.
His skin was wrinkled and dry and it cracked at the corners of his mouth, despite his attempts to moisten it with his tongue. His eyebrows – which shifted as he spoke – were ruffled and streaked with grey, as was his hair. He had the nose of a boar and the voice to match. His gut stuck out in front of him so far he wouldn’t even be able to see his own toes, and you could smell his breath for yards away.
“A word please, son” He beckoned for me to walk with him.
“We’re putting together a team, an extraction team. About a week ago we lost Delta Squad in the green zone, and we need to orchestrate a search and rescue team to recover what’s left of them” he explained.
“Sir, with all due respect, why me? I’ve had no experience outside the wire” I questioned “You’re expendable, kid, simple as that” he answered.
I was stunned, ‘expendable’? What the hell was that?
I have a family! A life, dreams, aspirations… and I’m expendable?
“Sir, when would this operation be taking place?”
“That’s the thing, son… you’d be leaving tomorrow” he said, sheepishly – we both knew what that meant. A mission planned so hastily was bound to have flaws, big flaws.
“I guess I don’t really have a choice then do I, Sir?”
“Not really, son, no”
“Welcome to Hell” I said quietly, under my breath.
The Warrant Officer gave me an odd look, I guess he’d heard me, but I didn’t really care anymore and he went about his business.
I had no sleep that night, and on top of that, it rained so heavily that moving around base was made impossible. Everything turned to mud, our tanks started to sink into the ground and the racket the rain made as it hit the tarpaulin roof was not at all soothing to say the least.
All I could think about was my unborn child, would I ever see her? Will she grow up without her father? How will her mother cope?
These questions wouldn’t leave me be, I felt like I was drowning. Literally and metaphorically.
The rain finally settled early that morning. I decided to try to take my mind off everything by going for a walk. This proved far from helpful. All I saw were more body bags, the sight ran rampant in my mind. How could one man cope with such an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness?
I clambered up on top of one of the half-sunken tanks and looked around. The men working around the base were running at full capacity. It seemed the base was on a level of high readiness, I assumed the news of the search and rescue operation had got around.
Several hours felt like mere minutes as the day grew old. I went back to my tent and collected my equipment. I adjusted the straps on my pack, tightened my boots, and rubbed my eyes. This would be a long afternoon.
I went to the latrines and washed my face. I caught myself staring in to the mirror, trying to predict what my daughter might look like, hoping she got her mother’s eyes. I’d always loved them.
“Private Patterson?” I heard the voice of a young man, he sounded like a child,
“Yes?” I said cautiously, as I turned to face him. He looked like he was maybe just 16 years old, ‘what was he doing here?’ I wondered to myself, but I didn’t have the effort to ask him this.
“You’re wanted, it’s almost 1900hrs, the mission is about to start” he explained,
I grabbed my rifle, put on my pack and marched over to the briefing area.
I was shocked when I saw Captain Scheffield giving the briefing, I hadn’t realised he was here. He winked at me as he spoke.
“Okay gentlemen, as you know we lost Delta last week and now our mission is simple – recover whatever you can, and get the fuck out. You will not open fire unless fired upon first, and communication will be strictly hand signals. No verbal comms, I want radio silence. I don’t need you boys getting ambushed because you’re complaining about how cold the rain is. Good luck out there.. any questions, queries, death threats, marriage proposals or unexpected pregnancies?”
The squad laughed
“Good, now move out like you’ve got a purpose!” He barked.
The squad consisted of about 12 men, some of whom had familiar faces, but I stress the use of the word ‘some’. Our boots hit the ground in time with an in-syncopated beat as we marched into the dark jungle that surrounded the base.
It was so eerie, I could never fully explain it. It was as if thousand eyes were watching you, but you couldn’t even see the man standing 5 meters away from you.
We walked for about an hour, the rain would start and stop every 15 minutes, and I think we all started to get the idea that we weren’t ever going to find Delta. At that moment I felt something. A sharp pain in the left side of my chest. I thought I was having a heart attack, but when I looked down there was a hole in my shirt, which was now saturated in my own blood.
I’d been hit.
I stumbled for a moment and then fell backwards, I heard someone yell out ‘Contact!’ and the firefight began.
Captain Scheffield ran over to me and screamed for a medic. I saw a tear in his eye as I began to close mine. Apparently I’d had more of an impact on him than I knew… that’s when I began to cry too, not out of pain or fear, but joy. As petty as it may have seemed, I was happy that I’d broken through his exterior, and made a friend. My attempts to get close to him had worked. Even if I hadn’t known until just now, I was content.
But then I thought of my family; my parents, my wife, my daughter. And the tears turned to sadness. I could feel myself going cold and noticed the men around me fell down too, in the exact same manner I had. The sound of the bullets faded for me at least, although the fight was still visibly raging. The Captain yelled in my face, he told me to get up, he told me to keep my eyes open, but I knew it was my time now.
I grabbed his collar and pulled him closer – he was listening.
“Don’t blame yourself for what happened, Sir.. your family loved you” I whispered.
He stayed quiet, careful not to interrupt what we both knew were my final words. I pulled out a piece of paper with my a set of my dog tags wrapped around it and forced it into his hands,
“Please…” I was coughing up blood, which made it hard for me to speak clearly,
“Give the note to my wife, and my…” I winced with pain “tags to my daughter…”. I shut my eyes, and felt my heart slow.
Captain Scheffield shook my limp body violently, he tried CPR and mouth-to-mouth, he hit me in the face,
“God damn it Liam! You’ve never given up on anything in your life, now fight! Right now! Fight! Fight… fight” he sobbed.
The rain poured harder than ever and Captain Scheffield used the radio on my shoulder to call in an airstrike on the area. He dragged my body as far as he could, so as to keep it safe from the falling bombs. I’d been through enough. He called out for help, but no one answered, the whole squad was gone.
He promised me he’d get me out, but at that moment, I lost my fight.
At 2100hrs on the 12th of August 1965, Private Liam Patterson, RA3-7-9-757 of the 1st Battalion’s Infantry Division was dead.
I was finally at peace.
A story written by my son Ben who is 15. You might need tissues with this .. it also has a couple of ‘f’ words in it ..