One afternoon after we reached Vietnam, we circled high up in the air, seated apprehensively in our choppers. We called this circular flying pattern eagle flights. They flew special combat troops above the areas where combat action might take place. Our airborne Ranger troops would wait to rapidly descend as a quick reaction force where and when they were needed.
There was an uneasy feeling in my stomach that something sinister was about to happen. Sure enough, as we rapidly descended toward a small clearing in the jungle, I knew this was going to be bad, real bad. Unfortunately, it was worse than anything I could have imagined!
As we landed in a small grassy clearing, we saw a horrifying sight as a medic screamed at us. There, sprawled out before us, were bodies of several Americans. They were not even in body bags yet. The gunfire and the explosion of enemy mortars was deafening, and the confusion was frightening! Pieces of jagged steel flew at us with such velocity that many of our rifle stocks were splintered. Shrapnel was flying all around us.
We were rapidly losing men. Some of them were instantly killed. Many others were lying in the brush with gaping wounds. The enemy gunfire was so intense it mowed down the grass in which we were so desperately trying to hide. And it was so loud that we could scream at other soldiers less than three feet away and they couldn't hear us.
It seemed like we were progressing only a few feet at a time, as the enemy gunfire prevented us from rapidly moving to a safer area. But we finally made it to the edge of the clearing and into some heavy foliage we could use for cover. Suddenly, the fighting stopped.
Our unit realized that we had stumbled into an enemy outdoor field hospital. North Vietnamese doctors were performing major surgery right out in the open. The only things the hospital was missing were walls and a roof! Our men had fought our way to where actual surgery was taking place. We captured over 70 large containers of surgical equipment.
Ron and I helped one of our wounded back to the clearing where we had landed. On the way back, the trees thinned out and we stepped over a narrow brook that was red with blood. It was a horrifying sight! For a brief moment I hesitated, thinking about how senseless this all was. Back in sixth grade, I remembered reading Stephen Crane's book about the civil war called The Red Badge of Courage. In the book, it told about a creek that was brown with soldiers' blood. This was no different. I realized that all wars were the same.
But this was no time to stop and ponder. We rushed this man back to the landing zone because he was rapidly losing blood. When we arrived, a special medevac chopper was hovering three feet off the ground, waiting to receive some of our severely wounded men. When they were put onboard, the chopper lifted off and sped away, taking the wounded back to the closest M.A.S.H. hospital.
Ron and I didn't wait around. We started walking back to where our forward troops were still gathering up surgical equipment. Our medics had even evacuated some of the severely wounded North Vietnamese prisoners so they could also receive treatment.
We had just entered the woods with a few others in our platoon when, unexpectedly, the whole woods exploded with gunfire! Our unit had previously plowed through the area so fast just to capture their outdoor hospital that we had unknowingly left several North Vietnamese snipers camouflaged up in the trees. They had been waiting for just this moment to catch us off guard before opening up with everything they had.
PING! A sniper's shot rang out just above me. Ron had been walking right next to me and he looked at me with a glassy, faraway look. But he was dead even before he turned his head toward me.
The sniper's bullet had hit him right between the eyes. As his body slumped to the ground, I instinctively sprayed the tree above me with automatic fire. The sniper's body actually fell on top of my head, knocking me off my feet. Immediately, I recovered my balance and grabbed Ron's limp body.
“RON! RON! RON!” I screamed. “Thank you for showing my parents around back at Fort Benning. I'm sorry I never thanked you!”
But it was too late. Ron had been killed instantly.
Without even realizing it, the firing had stopped. I began running through the foliage toward our forward lines. I was unaware of anything else going on around me, though, because I had temporarily lost my senses. All I could think of was the opportunity I had missed to give Ron the thanks and appreciation I had owed him. Why had I not thanked him at the time back at Fort Benning? Why had I let the horrors of combat cloud out my appreciation for what he had done for my folks?
At that moment, I was so distraught that I lashed out at one of our prisoners in a way that I will never forget. I gave a direct order to have him stripped naked to be searched. What for? There was no reason. There he stood, passive, naked and confused. A couple moments later another platoon leader ran over and put his hand on my shoulder. He told me to get a hold of myself. I ordered the prisoner to be dressed again, then staggered a few feet behind a tree and began sobbing!
Somehow, my men knew what was happening. Under their watchful eyes, they permitted this prisoner to walk over behind the tree. He quietly put his hand on my shoulder. I turned around and hugged him. We both cried and went to pieces. I told him how sorry I was. He babbled back in a language I couldn't understand. Somehow, though, think we both knew what the other was trying to say.
What happened that terrifying day was to go down in history as one of the most savage battles fought in Vietnam. They even produced a movie, We Were Soldiers, about what happened there in the Ia Drang Valley. To those of us who were there, this battle was simply referred to as “the hospital.”
On that day, during those trying moments, I learned a valuable lesson about life. It was too late to give my friend, Ron, my thanks and appreciation. It was not too late, though, to use in the future what I had learned. I firmly resolved to immediately thank others, to give them the sincere compliment they have coming, before it is too late. May you do the same.