A Culpable Innocence

Chapter 15: Chu Lai Encounter (pg. 206)


“God, Antwaan, were you fragged?”

“No, I just messed up. I always led patrols because I was so good at spotting mines and booby traps. But this one was old and weathered too well into the background. I should have guessed it might be there simply by the placement. You know you’re walking in a minefield wherever you go in My Lai. After a while, you start to think just like Charlie. I mean, I could almost always tell where he would place the buggers, just where you would have to step for footing. But you never can be absolutely sure. That’s the thing that wears on you: the uncertainty. With every step you can be critically injured or just somewhat maimed. Man, it’s like life or death every day. You’d never know until you returned to base camp safe and sound. Then at night you had to stand watch for 82mm. rounds dropped on your head before you could crawl into a corner for any rest. I guess I’m glad to leave ‘Nam period. I can only imagine what I’ll feel when I’m on that plane outta here.”

“I don’t know if I could have dealt with what you’ve been through. I’ve just seen glimpses of the war. And I don’t think I’ve handled the experience very well.”

“Reggie, what are you involved with? I know about your MOS, STRATCOM, and Battalion Operations. But there’s more isn’t there? This guy, Chief Warrant Officer Karnow, comes to see me and asks these dumb questions about you. I’m no fool. I can see he’s military intelligence. So what does he want with you?”

“It’s nothing, really. He thinks I met a VC spy in Saigon. But he’s wrong. Her uncle deals with some unsavory characters, but he does so with the knowledge of MACV and the U.S. Embassy. He’s some kind of negotiator. Karnow is just a buffoon; he’s got things all misconstrued.”

Regis’ answer gave Antwaan much to consider. He furled his brow and squinted in an attempt to see past his friend’s words. “I don’t like what I’m hearing. You’re suspected by military intelligence of conversing with a VC spy. And it’s a she? This is not good, Reggie. Are you involved with this woman?”

Regis bowed his head and answered rather sheepishly. “I care for her . . .  as a friend. She and her uncle have really been very good to me.”

“Reggie, there’s more than friendship, isn’t there?” Regis stared ahead and felt unable to respond. Antwaan rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “Reggie, Reggie, you did it, didn’t you?” Regis looked away. “Boy, did you fuck up!”

“It looks bad, but I can put it all behind me.” Regis was looking at the ceiling as if he was praying. “Really, she’s not a spy. And I do love Sharon. It’s just this whole Vietnam thing. It makes you re-evaluate everything. And sometimes you just react.”

Antwaan studied the pain he saw on Regis’ face. “You’re a great guy, buddy. I love ‘ya. Maybe you just had too much of a good thing before you came into the Army: great job, career, beautiful girl, apartment practically on the Bay. You had it made until you got drafted. Maybe now you’ve realized what you didn’t have.” Antwaan bowed his head and focused on the foot that was only partially there.

He continued in a low voice, as if he were talking to himself. “There’s ways this place can change you—ugly ways. I think you might be one of the lucky ones: you could change for the better. I mean, I believe in you. When I was out there in the bush, I saw things, really bad things. Yeah, I know, you’re thinking I mean the casualties. Sure, there were the mangled bodies, torn to the bone, screaming young men begging for morphine. You look away, can’t take it in really. At some point, you go numb inside. I’m sure I’ll never forget . . . some things are burnt into my mind . . . but there were other things that will haunt my very soul. I guess you’d call it ‘man’s inhumanity to man,’ what we did to villagers because they harbored or supported VC . . . napalm, mortars, 155mm. howitzers, air strikes . . . wasting teenage boys and girls carrying AK-47s. I tried to limit . . . tried to control . . . the slaughter. But it’s fuckin’ insane, this shitty war; and it makes you feel filthy inside.” There was anger in Antwaan’s voice and something more. “That’s the really ugly part I’m afraid I may never shed.” Antwaan’s voice broke with these last words.

Regis held his friend close as Antwaan quietly wept on his shoulder.

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