Morning At Ben Gat
When I went into the Army one of the first forms they give you to fill out is a sheet of paper with questions about your life history. Two of the questions were, do you like to hunt and camp out in the woods, another was, do you like to play team sports.
Months later while going through to a class at an NCO Academy I found out the reasons they ask those two questions. The Sargent giving the class said” all you suckers are here because you answered one of two questions in the affirmative, either you like team sports or you like to hunt and camp out. All you football players have been brainwashed into doing anything the coach tells you to, it’s all for the good of the team, and all that bull. Football players are taught from an early age to be infantry gun fodder. Now you hunters, you’ve already learned how to kill and use a weapon. Your job will be, keep the football players alive long enough so they can teach you how to be part of the team. Then, you need to teach them how to kill as well as you do. Now we already have in this bright eyed group before me, Killers and followers. What you’re all here in this class for is to learn to be the Coach and lead the team.”
I guess I answered the questions wrong, about two months later I found myself on-an all expense pay trip to beautiful Southeast Asia, courtesy of my Uncle Sam. With multiple chances to camp out in the woods and watch nature. Several months after that I found myself loading my infantry squad into the back of a truck in the early morning Vietnamese light.
The sun was hot, coming up over the Vietnam jungle, as we left our base camp at Di An. Instead of a Huey airlift this morning we went by duce and a half truck. The distance to our destination was short, and we needed the advantage of surprise on our side.
We were going to a small village named Ben Gat, located just down the road from Di An. The early morning raid had been planned because Ben Gat was a known hangout for VC sympathizers. It was reported there were people in the village supplying illegal drugs to US troops and also doing a black market business in US dollars. Then they would use the US dollars to buy supplies on the black market for the Viet Cong.
It was obvious our coming to the village was going to be no surprise as we moved along the road outside the village in the early morning light, we found people lined up waiting our arrival. As we passed they would wave at our trucks and call out, hi G I. I remember a small girl that came running out to wave as we passed . She looked no more than five years old and was waving at us with a live hand grenade in each hand as we went past. People back in the world wonder how a soldier can shoot a child, to stay alive is how. The bullet that kills doesn’t care if the person that sent it on its way is five or forty. Either way it kills just as well.
Our Company encircled the village to keep anyone from sneaking out undetected, then teams went in and moved all the people out to a holding area. After the village was empty of its residents, a small team of which I was part, moved into the emptied village to do a house by house search for any hidden people and caches of drugs.
The shadows of afternoon were getting longer as I moved between two houses my M16 rifle held at the ready, safety off, the hackles standing up on the back of my neck, expecting my life might end at any moment. When from the corner of my eye I saw a door fly open and the dark shadow of a body lunging from the door in my direction. I spun leveled my M16 and my brain told me I pulled the trigger three times. Then the blur of the moment cleared and I saw the shadow jumping at me was only a young boy, about eight years of age.
The boy ran on past me dressed in black pants, white shirt and carrying a small bag in his hand. He went to an older woman who was standing among the villagers, handing her the small bag he carried. I found out later the bag held medicine they had forgotten when they were removed from their home earlier that morning. The older woman had sent him back into the village to retrieve the medicine, it almost cost his life.
My rifle had not fired, my body had reacted to its training, my mind was screaming survive and yet, my finger had not pulled the trigger.
Each War has its unanswered questions and leaves each person with more questions of their own.
Mine? What twist of fate, held my trigger finger and kept my weapon from firing that day. What would have become of me, if instead of watching him run away, I had found a small boy lying dead at my feet? What destiny did this small boy have in-store, that his life was saved and in a sense mine also?
That morning in a small village in Vietnam called Ben Gat, that stands as bright in my memory as if it happened yesterday not thirty five years ago.