A Culpable Innocence
Chapter 4: Landing Zone Tiger (pg. 67)
They continued at this uneven pace for about an hour before Erickson suddenly stopped. Crouching, he motioned for the others to join up behind him. Silently, he pointed to a trip wire his gun barrel had uncovered and directed their attention to some other danger ahead until they each nodded their recognition. With two fingers he steered two of his men to the right and two to the left. Then he pulled Regis close and whispered, “a bouncing betty here and a likely minefield over there across that clearing.” Regis had no idea what danger a euphemistic “bouncing betty” threatened, but “minefield” registered at once. Erickson squinted, taking in the scene before him. Whispering to Regis, he explained, “We’re close to something Charlie doesn’t want us to see. This is his ‘unwelcome’ sign. Stay close. We’re going to move in together.” (Continue on pg. 68) . . . Finally, he (Erickson) pulled a hand grenade from his belt and started running towards a raised portion of land directly in front of them. Regis watched his approach, but it was not until Erickson had entered the small clearing that Regis saw it: partially concealed in the shrubbery across from the clearing was a hole, no larger than a man’s girth. Erickson sprung the pin on the grenade and tossed it into the hole. Racing back to Regis’ position, he threw himself on the ground just as the grenade exploded. Smoke and dust rose from the suspected cave entrance. Erickson quickly readied himself in a firing position. Like the other men in the row facing the clearing, Regis aimed his rifle straight ahead. He could hear the blood rushing through his temples. His mouth was dry, although he was neither aware of it nor able to differentiate the sound in his temples from the landscape before him. His head and the clearing were pulsing together in one rhythmic pounding. Then there was a rustling beyond the clearing and the bombed-out hole. First one Vietnamese appeared. Then others quickly followed. They were scurrying out of another concealed cave entrance, wearing little more than loin coverings. Some were carrying weapons. Erickson opened fire. The rest of the squad followed his lead. They rose in unison and advanced together, firing their weapons at will. Regis did not fire his M-14. He was paralyzed partly by fear and the moment’s sudden intensity and, perhaps equally, by his lack of training. His non-participation was fortunate for his fellow soldiers, since he had fallen behind the others who were now in his line of fire. In truth, Regis was not really aware of his failure to maintain a proper position in a fire fight; and his instincts were not honed by any experience he might call upon. He held his rifle forward with his finger on the trigger, but did nothing other than tag along behind Erickson and the others. By the time they had covered the ground between them and the second cave entrance, the firing had ceased. Erickson tossed another grenade into this opening and hollered, “fire in the hole.” Everybody else hit the deck; but before Regis could react, Erickson swirled and slammed into him, driving him to the ground. The grenade exploded, sending vibrations through Regis body and momentarily blunting his awareness with its concussive force. Smoke and dust billowed from the cave entrance.
“Shiiiit!” Erickson exclaimed, his full weight bearing heavily on Regis. “I sure as hell didn’t expect you to be on my ass.” He leaped up and began to take stock of the situation. “Anybody hit?” There had been some sporadic return fire. But nobody had been hit. “Check out their casualties. Watch out for fakers and booby traps. There are probably other approaches they’ve mined.” Erickson turned to Regis who was still lying on the ground. He extended a hand. As he lifted Regis to his feet, he smiled and said, “Well, at least you didn’t shoot one of us. You did OK. It’s different for everyone you know—I mean, the first time in combat. This was your first time, right?”
Regis dusted himself off with his jungle hat. “Yeah, first time,” he replied.
(Continue on pg. 70) . . . Washington nudged Regis in the back. ”Forget him, He’s dead, man. Shortimer finished him with a burst. He don’t know he’s done for . . . not worth another bullet anyhow.”
Regis compelled his body forward, but his mind was stuck on the dying enemy soldier. Just as a beautiful scene arrests the mind into awestruck silence, this man’s slow death dumbfounded Regis. Nature, in either life or death, confounds whenever it is directly confronted. It is only in recollection that the humble organism of the brain attempts to describe or otherwise make sense of a reality that defies words. And so Regis’ body mimicked the movement of his comrades in arms while his mind hovered over the image of the dying man. What had this man been doing when the first grenade exploded? He might have been sitting on his cot and cleaning his rifle in preparation for an ambush of unsuspecting GIs. Or maybe he was writing a letter to his girlfriend or wife. His shirt pockets had been unbuttoned. Had Shortimer found anything in them? Maybe he had a picture of a loved one or a letter from home folded neatly next to his heart. How long had he been away from home? Regis like all other American soldiers was committed to this war for a single tour of duty—twelve months—unlike previous wars fought by the U.S. But this soldier had been prepared to fight for the duration or until he was eliminated from combat. Regis wondered whether he had been conscripted for service or volunteered. And if conscripted, did he have any occupational choices like those that presented themselves to Regis? These were questions that could not be answered. What Regis did know about this man was that he was an enemy soldier, an identity they shared.