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I WASN'T A GRUNT  by Gary Lillie - Seabee MCB-3, Chu Lai, Republic of Vietnam 1966

  "Hot" I answered

  They always ask it
 "What was it like in Vietnam?"

 

"Hot"
  I said again
Only this time I'm talking to myself
  because they're no longer there
    and neither am I
I'm 11,000 miles
  and months, years away
   but it was yesterday
    or a few hours ago
 or last night

 

  The heat hit you like a wall
It was the first thing you felt
   as you unloaded from the plane
That and the dust
    the dust!
It seemed ankle deep
  red
   clinging
    swirling...
it covered everything
  stuck to everything
   got into everything
    impregnated everything
except where there was sand
  white
   blinding
    reflecting
     sand
reflecting the heat

 

"You're lucky it wasn’t humid
  like in Michigan'
"Michigan!
 - Michigan is an arid desert"
“Then how did you take it?”
  You just look at them and think
name the choice

 

And then they ask
  "See any action?'
(that's always next)

 

A swirl of memories
  fill your mind
   like the red
    swirling dust
Flashbacks?

   

No, that's what grunts have
  (thank God, I wasn't a grunt)
and the medics
  and nurses
   and doctors
    and anyone else
who ever saw
   bodies torn apart
without a head
  inside out
   shot full of holes
    like Swiss cheese
     twisted in embarrassing positions
(are the dead ever embarrassed?)

 

Then...
  maybe it is flashbacks

 

Again you see the grunts
  red-dusty
   red-dirty
    sweaty
     sweat stained
weeks old sweat
  on their torn
   filthy
    worn-out
     fatigues
 
‘Greens’ they were called
   but the color of sweat stains
    faded near-white
by the omnipotent sun

 

It wasn't just the greens
  that were worn
The eyes...
  they too
   were almost used up
old and far away
  when was the last time
   they smiled?
at least at something
  people in The World
   would understand
How could they understand this?

 

Grunts go out on patrol
  while we watch them walk past
 loaded down with gear

   

Weapons:
  an M-14 rifle
   rusted orange
 
"How do you get the rust off ?"
  "Hit it on a stump."
 
"But your life depends on it."
 
   He gives you a look
This is living?

 

The medics were issued 45s
   but most of them carried
    extra field dressings instead
 
“You go out unarmed?"
 
 
"When I need a weapon
  I'm too busy to use one
   and when I really need one
don't worry
  there's plenty laying around
I can take my pick"

 

Some grunts
  carried their M-14s
   slung over their shoulders
and a pump shotgun
   in their hands…
they walked up front  
 
 
Packs
  canteens
   ammo
plenty of ammo
  water
plenty of water
  grenades, fragmentation
   grenades, concussion
    grenades, smoke
3.5 rocket launcher rounds
  for some
mortar rounds
  for others

 

Unless they actually carried
  the 3.5
   or the mortar
    or its base plate
      or the M-60
('hog' they called it)
or its ammo

     

"How much do you carry?"
  "The pack's 65 pounds
    but it's over 100
by the time you add
  everything else"
 
"How do you do it?"
  The look again

 

We work in their camp
  while some of them
lay around
  and try to sleep
in the day's heat
  because tonight
they go to work

 

Ambush!
  into the jungle
thank God
  I don't have to go
   into the jungle
Thank God
  I sleep on a cot tonight
   did I say it?
In case I haven't lately
  thank you God because
I'm not a grunt
  I don't have to go
   out into the jungle
    and because
I sleep on a cot tonight
  under a tin roof
   because
I'm not a grunt
 
And please, God
  watch over the grunts tonight
because tonight they work

 

In the morning
  we drive by the helicopter pads
      Operation!
we look in silence
   dozens of dark-green choppers
in the pre-dawn

 

Dirty
 oily
   shaking
    as they run up their engines
the old Sikorskis

     

Whining
  whopping
   gliding along
    a foot above the ground
getting in position
  as if in anticipation
The sleek Hueys

 

They wait for their cargo
  of 19 year old boys
    pushing 50
hoping to see 20

 

Standing alone
  in groups
 silently staring
     at their boots
Nervous laughter
  loaded packs
   and weapons
    stacked nearby…
waiting for their destiny

 

We drive by
  wondering
what they're thinking
  knowing
what they're thinking
 
While we work
 the sun screams at us

 

We hear
  the Hueys
whop,whop,whop
  skirt the ground
whop,whop,whop
  lift over tree lines
whop,whop,whop
  rush to the shore
whop,whop,whop
  over the shore
whop,whop,whop
  past the shore
whop,whop,whop
  to the white ship sitting
just this side of
  the horizon
with the red cross on its side

       

A frantic landing
  on the ship's deck
   too far away
    to see the scramble
men and women
  grab the stretcher
   or the limp body
slumped in a poncho
 
  It lifts off
whop,whop,whop
  lowers its nose
whop,whop,whop
  and heads back for more
whop,whop,whop
  always more
whop, whop
  all day long
whop
  chopper after chopper
carrying their precious
  groaning
   screaming
    moaning
     still
cargo
  to the glistening white ship
   that sits in the tropical sea
    under the tropical sun
off the tropical beach
  of this tropical land
inhabited by tropical people
  with blank faces
and SKSs

 

We ride to our job
  along the coastal plains
   past the coastal hills
where gunships
  blast a hillside
   with rockets and Gatlings
artillery pounds a slope
  with Willy Peter
Marines sweep paddies
  patrols head out
   grunts flush snipers
    from the spider traps
"Fire in the hole!"
  tanks belch fire
   from their snouts
and the ground burns.

         

You see
  the three white contrails
   high in the sky
    and the B-52s
(BUFFS-Big Ugly Flying Fuckers)
  shorten some hills
while the ground trembles
  beneath you
and the pounding
  thumping
sound reaches you
  and the hills turn to dust
for two miles

 

"Did you see any action?"
  they ask again
Your mind snaps back
    "No”

 

They're disappointed
  They hoped
   you could tell them war stories
but all you could tell them
  is you had it easy
   compared to others
"I wasn't a grunt"
 
"I just built things" 
 
"What'd you build?"
  "Things out of wood
    sometimes concrete
     sometimes steel
But I worked with wood and concrete"
  "Was it important stuff?"
"I guess it was all important"

 

"Hold it"
  says the young marine
'Damn, this is dehumanizing'
  you think..
"Damn, this is dehumanizing."
  you say out loud
and the big black marine
  sits down next to you
   in the four-hole out house
    and answers with a grunt
You look at him
  out of the corner of your eye
'At least I can shower tonight,'
  you think
   and put on my clean pants'
He hasn't done either
  in about six weeks
   by his looks and his smell
He's a grunt
  Thank God
I'm not a grunt

 

The back door slams as they slide
  the cut-off 50-gallon drum
   out from under you
    with its load of slop
     fuel oil and feces
"Three more to go - hold it!"
  the two grunts say again

 

"Anything to read in here?"
  the black marine asks
"Stars and Stripes over here"
  I answer
   and hand it to him
The two young marines
  slide the four refills under you
"OK, go ahead"
 
"Man, I can't wait to get
  outta this fuckin' place
and back to civilization"

 

The black marine
  takes the filthy copy
   of the Stars and Stripes
    that I offer
"Le's see if they got anythin' in here
  'bout the war…
    see how we're doin"'
"it says we're winning"
   I answer
"Someone better tell Chuck"
he mutters

 

Yea, I built those four-holers
  shit-burners
they and those who worked on them
  were called...
but I helped my battalion
  build a 10,000 foot runway, too
   and warehouses and
    1400+ hootches
and drainage systems
  and galleys
  and a firebase
   and a hospital (stretching the word)
The hospital...

 

Sharon Lane was killed in it
  two years later in 1968
   during an NVA rocket attack
    as she lay across a wounded
Vietnamese civilian protecting him...
  from the rockets
 
We built every day
  we built
during the monsoons
  and our clothes and skin
were never dry
  and our skin turned white
and wrinkled
  and the mud
was over the tops of our boots
  which never dried out
and our feet rotted
  and we were walking sores
   and rashes
and rot

 

We built
  before the monsoons
   under the angry sun
One day it was 138
  while we nailed steel roofs
but mostly it was
  only in the 110s
   or 120s...
it was just that one 10-day stretch
  in the 130s
A few times it was merely
  in the 90s
and one night I caught a cold
  and couldn't shake it for a week
   because it dropped down
to 85 degrees

 

It was
  as if Sol
   who's rays build life
    was saying he didn't like
what we were doing with the napalm
  and the bombs
and the Agent Orange

 

"Did you ever get exposed to it?"
  "What, the Agent Orange?
Yea, but it didn't do anything
  to me."

 

How was I to know
  they were connected?
The time I woke up
  and my skivies
   were full of blood
    from bleeding
through my penis
  a few days
   after we were sprayed
They said it wouldn't hurt us

 

"I hear it gives you cancer."
  "it does,
but I've been lucky"

 

Lucky I didn't have kids
  with the birth defects
   that can last
seven generations

 

"Was it pretty?"
  "What?"
"Vietnam."
  "Under any other circumstances
it was beautiful."

 

you remember

 

Time to go to work
  the sky's growing light
the horizon's streaked
  a brilliant red
the fishermen paddle
  their round
woven palm boats
  out to sea
(how do they go in a straight line
  in a round boat
   while paddling from just one side?)
  past the navy ships
anchored off shore

 

"Is the white ship out there?"
  “No"

 

Thank God
  at least around here
the grunts are safe
  for today
… relatively speaking

 

It's beautiful
  Vietnam is
looking across the mouth
  of the river
up the beach
  under the palm trees
heading north
  along the sea
Where does it go?

 

up there along the beach
  of the South China Sea
and into the dark
  of the enemy-controlled island
right there across the river

 

At night
  the island spews tracers at us
for days,
  weeks
trying to touch off
  the pallets of napalm
and 250-pounders
  and 500-pounders
and artillery rounds
  unloaded from LSTs
that pull up
  right here
on our side of the river

 

The bombs and ammo
  are stacked
next to our camp
  and the marines fire back
and our tracers go back
  to their side of the river
and the bombs and ammo sit
  and never go off
and we go back to sleep
  and eventually we think it's stopped,
the machine gun duels
  until we pull night bunker watch
   and find out
we've only been sleeping through it
  and the tracers
   still visit each other
every night
  green in
   red out
and the choppers
  still roar
   100' over our heads
every night

 

Exhaustion will do that
  make you think
that the war has stopped

 

We load in our trucks
  for another day's work
   it'll be hot again
Don't set your tools down
  in the sun
or they'll blister your hands
  when you pick them up
and don't take too long
  nailing down the steel roof
or the heat
  will burn your feet
   through the soles
of your boots

 

The squad leader growls
  "is the water in the truck?
Then let's roll."

 

"Man, I hate this place."
  But, thank you God
   ‘cause, I'm not a grunt
And please God
  take care of them
today, at least
  they're all so young
but, if you do
  see them coming
God
  take them to you
'cause, they've earned it

 

"What about it?
  "What?"
 
"How do you feel?
   about the war
and what you did."

 

I shake my mind
  force it to think
   in today time
I'm back now
  it's today again
   it's here now
I'm back with this person
  in this time
   in this place
and they want to know
 
I simply answer
  "I just thank God
I wasn't a grunt"

     

In memory of 58,000+ named on The Wall whose memory saved my life when, in shame I realized that what I had, they lost.