A P.O.W. We are moving through heavy jungle this morning and it is really thick. I can do no more than follow the man in front of me who follows the man in front of him, looking about as a security precaution useless. We can see no more than a few feet in any direction. Up at the front of the file, Larry Armstrong walks point and I feel sorry for him. If I can’t see back here, what can he see up front? Probably nothing as he pushes his way through the tangle and he is hung out to dry if he stumbles upon anything. He’ll never see it. We are all morose and unenthusiastic today anyhow. Last night, as we set up our NDP (Night Defensive Position), the LT got a call on his radio alerting us to be ready to be extracted this morning. This operation is being cut short and we are being shifted to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) in support of the South Vietnamese invasion of Laos. We are scared. The DMZ is a no-shit battle zone, the enemy there being regular NVA with artillery and tanks and we do not know what to expect except probably heavy combat and that is something most of us have never had. Up until now, it’s been mostly small unit stuff, ambushes, snipers, booby traps. We have had two men killed and some wounded in the last few weeks and that’s bad enough. What will happen up there? We can’t know, but we are all worried and worried badly. Even our leaders are tense, uncommunicative and irritated. If they, most of whom are professional soldiers, are scared, what should I be? We move haltingly in this brush, walk awhile, stop awhile. Armstrong must be having trouble negotiating the landscape up there or the LT and Platoon Sergeant are arguing again over which route to take. We may even be lost, it’s happened before, as recently as yesterday. This jungle here is so intense that we have difficulty knowing where we are except by dead reckoning and that’s a pretty inexact science. In fact, we had to stop yesterday to get our bearing and two guys, "Slim" Straven’s and SFC Musquez went ahead to reconnoiter and came back escorting two prisoner’s. They are back there behind me now, somewhere in the file, drooping along with their hands tied behind their backs. They don’t look too happy. We start to move again, stop, move again. It’s been like this all morning and it is beginning to get very hot underneath this canopy. Days here in Dragon Valley are an ordeal of heat, hills, leeches, moisture and pain. We are all exhausted and have lost a lot of blood to the mosquito’s and leeches. I ache all over from carrying the 25 pound machinegun up and down these awful, steep hills and mountains. By the end of the day, I’m unable to take another step and when we stop, Ching and I sometimes don’t even bother to set up a tent. It’s just more effort than we can muster. It is so physically demanding here that we’ve decided to switch off the gun every other day. Today, he has it and I’m the assistant gunner. Tomorrow, I will get it back. That way, we share the load and I’m glad he agreed. Move forward a few paces. Stop. Move forward again. I know Armstrong can’t help it, but this inch worming along is really difficult back here in the file. It’s so much easier when we move at a steady pace and I can establish a rhythm. Can’t do that now and the effort of re-starting every few feet with all this shit on my back is debilitating and is wearing me out fast. We are on our way down into the lowlands to secure an LZ for extraction and I hope we get there soon. Move forward. Stop. Now, though, there is some rustling about up front and some shouting. Something’s wrong and I instantly become as tense as a barbed wire fence, the anticipation singing in my ears. More yelling, then quite. Ching, who is in front of me, receives a message from the man in front of him and turns around to repeat it to me. "Dinks," is all he says. I pass it back and then begin to shake. Dinks. Here in this heavy bush. We have no idea what is going on up front and can only imagine what Armstrong has found, but we hear no shooting, so that’s at least something to hang a hope on. Ching turns and passes back a message to be alert and be quite. I pass it back with a dry mouth which barely works. A firefight here in this stuff would be awful. We move forward again, fingers on the triggers, but this time, we don’t stop until we come to a clearing underneath the overhead. SFC Musquez stands beside the trail and points Ching and I to move on down it a little ways, which we do. I feel a little better because Musquez is not lying down taking cover. Whatever happened up here, they must have it under control. As we enter the little clearing, which is not uncovered to the sky, I see a little grass shack off to my left with a VC sitting against the wall being covered by Armstrong. There’s another man over there lying on the ground and someone is covering him too. We pass by and meet someone guarding a woman who is squatting near the base of a tree. I glance hurriedly about but don’t see anything else. Ching and I move on down the trail a little ways and set up the gun covering where the trail comes up the hill and into the forest. Just beyond, we can see daylight. This little clearing and shack would be totally invisible from the air and we could have walked right by it un-noticed had Armstrong not stumbled directly into it. It’s not camouflaged or anything like that, just perfectly situated in the jungle to avoid detection. Man, these VC are sure good at that. I ask around to try and figure out what happened. Musquez tells me that Armstrong and he just sort of walked up on these three. One was sitting there doing nothing and the other man had just knocked the woman down over something when they got the drop on them. Others are searching the place now for their weapons. Ching and I turn our attention to the trail and scan about. These three may not be the only ones around. Time passes and it gets hotter and hotter, sweat saturating our clothes and it’s not even noon yet. The jungle is not very nice. We can’t see what’s going on back there behind us around the little shack, but it’s safe to assume that the prisoner’s are being questioned and tied up. Eventually, I smell smoke and the rest of the platoon comes filing down the trail escorting our new prisoner’s plus the other two. We have five now, not a bad day’s work. As they pass by, someone, Musquez I think, tells me to watch one of the prisoner’s until we get to the LZ. OK, no problem. He points out my captive and I fall in behind him, rifle tucked up underneath my arm and finger on the trigger. Behind, I can see the shack burning. We move out of the jungle into the light, down the trail to the lowlands. There are already GI’s there and we have a sort of reunion with the other platoons. The guy I’m guarding doesn’t appear to be much of a threat right now. He’s the one which was sitting against the wall of the shack when Armstrong got them. He’s short and stocky, with broad shoulders for a Vietnamese. Probably in his thirties or forties and bow legged. He walks almost like a sailor, shifting from side to side and is very fast. I had to caution him a couple of times to slow down. He’s also smoking a huge joint, puffing away with perfect abandon while he walks, chugging along like a steam engine. The joint looks like a cigar, wrapped in leaves instead of paper and since his hands are tied, he’s holding it in his teeth and shifting it back and forth in his mouth. It makes him appear to be grinning and he may be since he’s so obviously stoned that he’s probably unaware that he’s been captured. It’s comical, really, but then again a guy high on dope may do anything. We reach the LZ, which is an old, unused and unworked rice paddy between some hills and I park him with the other prisoners. They squat there, the Vietnamese preferred position, one smiling and smoking, the others looking worried and scared. Their days have all just gone to hell and they have little to look forward to except imprisonment and probably death. The South Vietnamese don’t trifle with these people; they are deadly serious and are not squeamish about torture. I walk over to visit with a friend from another platoon and find that they have a prisoner too, although he isn’t being kept with the others. It’s a little kid they picked up this morning, about five years old and nearly naked except for a pair of short pants. He’s mugging for someone’s camera right now and he’s wearing one of our helmet’s, which is almost as big as he is. Other guys are gathered around to watch and to just reach out and touch the little guy. He’s adorable and GI’s always love kids. I ask my friend where they got him and he says they picked him up walking down a trail all by himself. He’s told them that he carries messages for the VC and that they are holding his parents up in the hills near here. He’s cheerful and obliging. He’s too young to have any idea what he’s doing or what’s about to happen to him and it break’s all of our hearts, he’s just so cute and his situation is so bleak. Poor little guy, he’ll never see Mom and Dad again, but he doesn’t realize that, not yet. Right now, he’s having fun. We mill around for awhile and finally, someone calls for me and tells me to take my prisoner out there into the LZ and guard him until the helicopters arrive. The others are being moved out into the paddy too and scattered about. I motion for mine to come on and he obliges willingly. Still smoking and still smiling, I point to where I want him to go out on one of the paddy dikes and we move off away from the others, me following him. We walk a little ways out into the open and I whistle at him. He turns and I motion for him to sit down right there, with his feet in the paddy, which he does. I also sit on the paddy several feet away from him; just far enough that he can’t spring up and reach me in one step. His hands are tied behind his back, but I can’t see them and must be prepared in case he gets free. He’s still chomping on his joint and grinning. I make him show me his back occasionally just to see if his hands are still tied, but whoever did it, did a good job of securing him. As he sits there, I study him. He’s the first VC I’ve been close enough to to really look at. My enemy doesn’t appear to be much different than me, but I know he is. He’s a little more hardcore than me and probably a lot more experienced. This guy is old enough that he could have fought the French back in the fifties. If he’s survived this long, he’s doubtless pretty savvy and tough and the more I watch him, the more I don’t like him. I’ve never really been able to hate the enemy, though I’ve tried. Most of them, I think, are just draftees like me and only want to go home alive, just like me. This guy, though, is too old for that or maybe not. I don’t know a whole lot about how they recruit, but it’s possible his story may be something like the little kids, who knows? I don’t, and I don’t care. This guy would kill me if he got the chance, there’s no doubt about that. Wonder how many American’s he’s killed already? His joint has gone out and he stares at me, sort of flicking his head up, asking for a light. Suddenly, I’m on guard. He wants me to come close to him. Maybe it’s legitimate, maybe he really does want his joint re-lit, but maybe not. I make him stand up and turn around, facing the other way. From here, his hands still look tied, so I point my rifle at him and walk slowly up behind him. If he turns or moves, I’ll shoot him. He probably knows that, or should, and he stands perfectly still while I tug on his wrist ties. They’re tight. Still pointing my rifle at the back of his head, I take him by the shoulder and sit him back down. My rifle is hanging over my shoulder on a sling. We alter how the sling attaches to the rifle so that it will hang right side up underneath our armpit. I can carry it this way, point it where I want and still have my finger on the trigger, all with one hand. I point the rifle at him from only a few inches away, fish out my Zippo and hold it to his joint. He puffs for a second, spouts a huge puff of smoke and grins again. I move away and sit back down. While I sit there watching this guy smoke, I’m suddenly overcome with an intense desire to kill him. He’s disgusting, sitting there oblivious to his surroundings, grinning his stupid face off and all the while, that little kid over there has had his life ruined by the likes of this bastard. Look at him, so totally at ease and unconcerned, like we don’t matter a damn to him, smug bastard. I glance about to see if anyone is watching us. No, they all seem to be busy with something else and we’re several meter’s out into the paddy by ourselves, in plain view, but far enough away that nobody’s noticing. I could shoot this son of a bitch and if anyone was watching, they wouldn’t say anything, just another dead dink. In any case, I could say he attacked me or tried to run away. No one would question that. I look again at him, my muscles taut and my face grim. He looks over at me and freezes in place; the grin plastered to his face and set in stone. The puffing stops. I’ve risen just a little off the dike and am pointing the rifle right at him and I think I’m grinning too. Whatever he sees in me, it scares him and I like that, like it a lot. Go ahead and sweat, asshole, go ahead. My finger tightens some more on the trigger. A fraction of an inch more and it will fire. I can easily imagine the bullets ripping into him, shredding his body and throwing globs of flesh and blood around the paddy behind him and I like the idea. It’s just what he deserves. He’s not even breathing now, just intently eyeing me and I’m happy at the thought of scaring this bastard to death. My finger tightens a little more. He shakes with fear. Wait! What am I doing? I can’t just haul off and kill this guy, he’s a prisoner. So what? He’s a dink, a VC, the Goddamn enemy and he needs to be dead. I feel sort of like one of those cartoon characters with an Angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other and I don’t know which one is winning right now. My blood lust is up and I want to kill him right now so badly that it’s a wonder the rifle hasn’t fired on its own purely from my will power alone. I’m trembling too, with excitement and anticipation! Kill him! Kill him! Something comes over me, the hand of God I suppose and all the hate flows out of me as suddenly as it had started. I can’t be a murderer and that’s what I’ll be if I shoot him. A murderer. Can I live with that? Can I look myself in the mirror if I kill him for no reason other than that I can? No, I can’t do that, can’t kill him no matter how much I want to. He’s out of the fight; no longer a threat and I have no excuse for killing him. Damn him. If he’d just try to run away! He’s still frozen in place there, still watching me and I can feel the hate building again. Kill him, right now. He shakes and has dropped the joint, the muscles in his mouth no longer able to hold. Good! Freak out jackass, go ahead, piss your pants. We eye each other and I know I’m close, very close to the line and it’s a line I know I really don’t want to cross, can’t cross and stay sane. With tremendous willpower and self-control, I ease back down onto the paddy dike and relax my grip on the trigger. I must maintain control of myself, can’t let this happen. He sees my shift and relaxes some too, but he’s still very wary and alarmed. Damn him again. All of it drains out of me again, this time for good I can tell. It’s over, the hate and anger and pain all gone and I feel very tired and ashamed. How could this have happened? What could make me feel such evil in my heart? I truly am a horrid monster, a murderer, cold blooded killer and even the fact that I didn’t do it this time doesn’t mean it’s not there. It is and I’m really scared of myself now. What is this place doing to me? What has it already done? What else will it do to me that may make me my own worst enemy? If I’m capable of coming this close to murder, what evil can I not do? I’m disgusted with myself and angry, angry at the Army, at the war, at me. I’m not angry at God, though, because I know in my heart that He’s the only thing that prevented something terrible from happening just now and I thank Him, thank Him sincerely. The prisoner relaxes now, can see that he’s out of danger. He motions with his head, asking me if I’ll pick up his joint for him. No, I shake in reply. Fuck you. Don’t press your luck and he seems to understand as he doesn’t ask again. I’m sick, physically sick to my stomach for what I just nearly did. I may throw up. Shaking and trembling, I try to get a handle on my emotions, but they are running wild. Anger, guilt, rage, hate, disgust with myself for being too weak to kill him. I’m a basket case right now and unsure what to expect of me, now or in the future. What a feeling! Fortunately, I’m saved when the choppers come in to get us. I load him onto a helicopter and then go board another one. I don’t want to look at him any more, he reminds me of too much. When we land at Tam Ky, we turn all our prisoner’s over to the South Vietnamese and he’s led away. I’ve never seen him again and don’t want to. Oh, but I remember him, alright. Remember how his presence brought me to the brink of madness; remember that awful, cold, murderous feeling I had in my heart that day and I break out in chills recalling how close I came to ruining my life that morning. How close I was to giving in to the beast and I’m sure, very sure, that if I had, I would have never returned. Perhaps I haven’t, perhaps I never will. Perhaps the beast is still there, still waiting for the right circumstance to come out again and maybe next time, I’ll give in, go ahead and do it and that frightens me more than you know.