In Uncle Sam’s Concrete Jungle
by panist and Vietnam veteran Dalton Narine
Remembering Vietnam Buddies under Fire
When World War II began, the Venezuelan military was badly in need of modernization, and the United States was eager to help in return for Venezuela’s support in the war.
My grandfather, Federico Gonzales, volunteered and headed straight to France where he joined forces in the Trenches.
Trenches were long, narrow ditches dug into the ground where soldiers lived. They were muddy and uncomfortable. The toilets overflowed. Conditions that caused medical problems such as trench foot. Yet Federico soldiered on, finding ways to live and kill until he developed an infection of the feet.
Men stood for hours on end in waterlogged trenches without being able to remove wet socks or boots.
In the middle of warfare was no man’s land, Federico crossed with his buddies to attack the other side, then wallowed back into the trenches to bunker down.
My grandfather took in with swelling, pain and sensory damage to the blood vessels, nerves, skin, and muscle.
Grandfather was flown back to Venezuela, and later Trinidad, where they named Gonzales, Belmont, after him. Rudolph Charles [“Charlo”] insisted that I was born on the Laventille Hill. Little did he know I was born in Gonzales, a ritual for all our families. Charlo must have meant conceived, not born.
Anyway, in Vietnam, I was in the trenches, too — defensive perimeters made up of wire, mines, machine guns, sandbags and bunkers. I spoke to Grandfather one night when my company was expecting the Viet Cong (VC) to roll in. These night devils would disrupt your sleep in a minute. So I meditated with him as if he were prayers sent by the Almighty. I felt relieved.
On the battlefield, we played a game of survival, young uninformed Trini-American soldiers.
There were the foxholes, customized for shelter against enemy fire. And C-rations, sleepless nights, waking up in a cold sweat, dodging the bullets of fifty years ago.
The eye and the brain won’t ever forget how we were deliberately and mentally wounded by the Viet Cong. Though we carry physical and psychological scars, many of us have improved our lives and built futures, so it’s difficult to lay waste lethal memories of NAM.
Still, on the anniversary of the Vietnam War, a few wounded troops and veterans wallow in sorry facilities amid insufferable bureaucracy. That’s why Veterans Hospitals execute another U-turn. We had already sounded our own war cry in the boonies. The rat-a-tat-a-tat-at of the M60 guns and their sidekicks, the pigs.
My M60 dangled from helicopter doorways when I volunteered for Door Gunner duty, or stood guard on bunkers.
It became the “Hog” or the “Pig” to American soldiers because it sounded like the grunt of a barnyard hog. I called it the Pig because it treated me like one. It was the single most iconic weapon of the War.
Talking about Pig, In 1971, I met Pete at a Veterans Administration hospital in New York City. He’d left his legs in a booby trap in Vietnam. They doped him up to alleviate chronic pain. When doctors stopped the meds, a friend on the ward helped out with heroin. Pete got hooked. And life returned as a figment of hell in the Nam.
To maintain orbit, Pete went into business, buying the stuff wholesale with VA [Veterans Affairs] disability payments and peddling it to amputees at the hospital. No one on the staff knew, or cared – until Pete got hepatitis from an infected needle. The soldier from the 25th Infantry Div. joined 71 other addicts in a Methodone program. How strange that this new anti-dope dope had brought order to a rambunctious ward! It was the best the VA could do. In a sense, Pete was at ease.
I left Pete, still tumbling in space, for an initial appointment with a VA psychiatrist two floors below. I was having flashbacks that came on strong and real, especially at night. The pilot was taking hits from Viet Cong dug into the tree line in the Hobo Woods. He spun the chopper around, making an arc like the curve of the earth, the ship pulling back into the LZ (landing zone) like a boomerang.
As I lay on the couch in the Spartan office, I remembered the machine guns making a racket, too, the bullets chattering as fast as the barrel could discharge them, then whistling as they stripped the bark off trees in the tree line.
I remembered the pilot doing his best to jam the bird into the trees to insert the squad. And I won’t ever forget the doctor trying to squeeze out my last (six) days in Vietnam. But all he would get was a strained version of my buddies being blown to bits on a LZ by our own bombs in a communications foul-up. Just the night before, I had backed out of the mission on a premonition that we’d lose troops as well as my own soul.
Troops in the hooch rushed up to my bed and regurgitated to me the nightmare that I had. “What my unit on the LZ would encounter at dawn. ” I didn’t admit that. I was asleep.
What the hell would they know about premonitions? Everybody dreams.
Six days left. I was so short I couldn’t see above the tip of my boots. But they were friends, thick and thin. And, thin as a ghost, I’d slipped away from them. As with Pete, it would be hell to pay. Life on dope, as in five hundred milligrams prescribed to a young veteran who’d never done drugs or booze.
No way the VA could have diagnosed my condition as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) anymore. That new term would turn up in 1980. Until then, I suffered from combat fatigue, the pills pulling me into a zombie, away from family, friends. It took spiritual and mental energy to toss bad karma over the shoulder. Else, I’d be on skid row.
The main contributor to my trauma, friendly fire usually occurs when there’s no coordination between units. Not limited to the battlefield, it happened once when a high-explosive bomb dropped on Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., which took in military personnel wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. The blast wave rippled far and wide.
Word from the field says the government had been figuratively leaving ‘heal thyself bouquets’ at various military and veterans hospitals for those who gave bravura performances on the Front. And then there was the bureaucracy bunker to address, the hurry-up-and-wait routine for veterans pressing for medical care and disability rewards; even VA appointments. Moreover, reports of insects in rooms, of the best and the strongest left to soak in urine and feces; and, closer to home, a Veteran friend straitjacketed by nurses for collaring a VA employee who had insulted him.
When the Walter Reed news broke on Capitol Hill, the Commander-in-Chief, machine gun at the hip, spat out a full belt on the state of affairs of our wounded troops as well as veterans nursing all manner of psychological and physical scars.
Like Vietnamese wind chimes, everybody was venting. As for veterans, it isn’t as if we had been as silent as dog tags wrapped in black tape during patrols. It’s not like we had been whispering in the night about the inadequacies of the system. Hell, you’d have caught us yelling in the pharmacy line that snuk quite a ways down the hallway and closer to the front doors. Lordy, Meds were in abundance, you hear.
Overwhelmed by the Vietnam War, it would take years for a VA turnaround.
(Years later, it would be burdened by casualties of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.)
By then, I would already have relocated to Miami.
In 2006, the Miami VA Healthcare System would receive the Department of Veterans Affairs highest award for Performance Excellence.
Such footing had returned the facility to the rightful cadence of Veterans’ lives.
The rhythm had been way off. I mean, in 1993, when they’d diagnosed me as HIV positive, their voice came across like a VC rocket fizzing overhead, then crashing and waiting for the world around me to blow apart. I was hearing taps already, then the burial. Hmm!
But I knew they’d made a mistake, yet they didn’t admit error at the time. I had to fight for my rights to be retested and tested again and again, so much so, I was about to dive headlong into a narrow river streaming by the VA and gurgling southbound through Hell.
Three negatives and weeks later, doctors admitted the error. But, why complain? My friends got wasted in Nam and I wasn’t there. The Brass had told me then, not to worry. It was the fault of two aircraft that arrived late and dropped the bombs on our own troops, mistaking them for VC. Phew! I was exonerated.
At the VA, where the day is cut back to the small stuff, where wounded and sick veterans in customized wheelchairs congregate in sunshine to rest and swap stories, there are eyes that speak and a voice that hears.
It was in a hallway that I met Stevenson Williams, Chief of Medical Administration Service. In a bullhorn voice, he was redirecting a stranger who got lost on the labyrinthine ground floor.
“Here’s my card,” I overheard Williams telling the man. “Call if you need to get things done (at the VA).”
Williams could have been speaking to me. In two minutes, I was in his office reviewing with him a year-old problem. Williams spearheads a host of volunteers, greeters and employees, who, by and large, treat veterans with dignity.
And now that the ammo has cooked off after the attacks on Walter Reed Hospital, we’ll see how and when the Administration will make things more secure for wounded troops and veterans alike to sleep better at night.
I pay respect to all who served and still serve, just as I do with PAN orchestras and the genius of arrangers.
We were warriors once and young, in serious danger at death’s door. Memorial Day is an occasion to decorate the graves of our war dead.
It’s not like the ancient Egyptians who annually took dinner to the graveyard.
Still, I’ve never ever visited the graves of several buddies in the United States military cemetery in Arlington, Washington, D.C.
The shock will be too damn electric.
However, May my No.1 Trini buddy, the late Medic Ken Edwards, rest in peace.
Don’t know when, but I’ll be there with you, Bro. Sooner or later.
Dalton Narine is a disabled Vietnam Veteran who won writing awards for The Village Voice (New York), The Miami Herald and Ebony Magazine.