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by Robert Von Villas

I offer the below memory of an incident that occurred in Vietnam, not to demonstrate the horrors of war, but to hopefully assist other veterans from making the same mistake I did so many years ago. I attempted to bury this memory deep in the recesses of my mind, to be forgotten. I was mostly successful for over 40 years; until the events that caused the memory unexpectedly forced their way to the surface one day.

It was the summer of 2009, a hot day, not a cloud in the sky. I could feel the heat of the sun coming through my tee shirt. I was on the track at Substance Abuse and Treatment Facility (SATF), in Corcoran, California. I had just completed my tenth lap when I heard a disturbingly familiar sound from my past. It was faint at first, but I could hear it coming closer. I looked up in the sky and, in the distance, saw four dark objects coming toward me. I stood frozen when I recognized these four objects as Huey gunships. They were flying in formation, two on the bottom with the other two a little higher on the right. They were flying at about 1200 feet. I could see the pilots’ faces and the M60 machine guns in the doorways of each aircraft. Memories came flooding back and I felt a knot in my stomach. Then they were gone.

I do not know how long I stood there. I remember this old guy came up to me and said, “You were shaking like a scared child.” I told him he was crazy. He said I needed to see a psych. Turns out he was a Vietnam veteran, too, and knew that I had problems. Between the sleepless nights that followed and him bugging me to seek help, I finally agreed to see the psychologist. When I did, the psychologist broke me down in less than an hour.

It turns out I was not only attempting to suppress the event, but also my perceived failure as a sergeant to return the body of a soldier in my care to his loved ones. With the psychological help I received, and the use of several GOGI [Getting Out by Going In] tools I later learned, I am and will remain in control of that memory. It will always remain crystal clear, but I am now safe from its harm. Belly breathing was one of the first tools I was taught, though I did not know at the time it was a GOGI tool. I had several bad anxiety attacks before learning how to belly breathe. Since then, I have applied parts of Let Go and Forgive to my arsenal of weapons to protect myself from harm. I do not want to forget what occurred. I have learned to live with it. I did not know that I should talk to someone about what I saw and felt that day, so I buried it and years later paid the price. I still have a hard time talking about it, but I do so now to hopefully help others.

This is what happened that day so long ago: While conducting field operations on 12 July 1969, my company located an enemy base camp. Prisoners were taken and a cache of weapons were found. Shortly thereafter, I was ordered to secure a landing zone (LZ) for an incoming helicopter. I took what men I had and attempted to secure the LZ. The area I was to secure was an open field with three-foot-tall grass just outside the tree line of the captured enemy base camp. I only had six men and another sergeant with me. A seventh soldier showed up as the chopper made its approach. I did not know the soldier, but saw red hair under his helmet. With a smile on his face he said that he was “going home.”

As the helicopter was landing the prop blast flattened the tall grass, which exposed a large tree stump directly beneath the aircraft. At this point, the chopper was about eight feet off the ground and 30 feet in front of me. I could see the left-side door gunner signaling to the pilot to move to another position. The other sergeant was standing next to me on my left, and the red-haired soldier was approximately 20 feet to my right. As the chopper gained altitude to about 12 feet and started to move to left, a soldier jumped from it. He hit the ground, got up, and started running toward the red-haired soldier. At the same time, I saw a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) come from a bushy area approximately 300 meters to the right and in front of me. I fired a burst from my M-16 as I watched the RPG round head for the chopper. I know it was only a matter of seconds, but it seemed like a lifetime as it streaked over the grass and impacted the helicopter’s rotor-blade control area. The pilot fought to keep his aircraft aloft as it pitched violently back and forth. But he could not regain control and the chopper dipped toward me. I dropped into a ball and closed my eyes.

When I opened my eyes, the chopper was on its side with its nose just above my head. The sergeant next to me appeared to be unconscious. I believe the nose of the chopper struck him. I rolled to my right side and put my hand on the ground to get up. I felt something soft under my hand. I looked and saw it was a man’s forearm from the wrist to just below the elbow. Close to the forearm was a helmet sitting upside-down with what appeared to be brain matter inside. The helmet had a deep gash in it. The right side of my face and uniform were covered in blood, yet I felt no pain. I could find no wounds, so the blood apparently belonged to someone else.

In the background I could hear the high-pitched whine of the helicopter’s engine. I saw one of the door gunners still alive, trapped under part of the helicopter. I immediately climbed into the cockpit and attempted to shut down the engine. My initial attempt was unsuccessful, but with the assistance of the pilot, whom I found nearby, the fuel was cut and the engine shut down. The pilot was injured with a hole the size of a dime in the back of his neck. The second door gunner and another soldier freed the first door gunner who I believe sustained a broken arm. I assisted in getting the injured away from the helicopter. I then found the bottom halves of two soldiers lying side by side. From this point on I was alone with the two partial bodies. All the soldiers in the area were gone, and I do not remember any more shooting or other sounds of war.

The first soldier I saw had dark skin and his uniform was made of fire retardant material. The second soldier’s uniform was the same as mine. His skin was white as snow. I was amazed at the lack of blood on each soldier. I studied the body of the second soldier to figure out who he was. All that remained of him and the other soldier were their legs and pelvic areas. I remember how white the pelvic bone was in contrast with the few puddles of blood sitting in the hollowed-out bone areas. The waistband of the soldier’s pants was gone. All that remained were the shredded threads of where the waistband had been. There was no stomach, intestines, or any other internal organs anywhere around the body. All that remained was his penis and red pubic hair. It was the red-haired soldier who had been waiting to get on the helicopter to go home. I then realized the other body, in the same condition as the red-haired soldier, was that of the soldier who jumped from the helicopter. I believe he was a Vietnamese interpreter sent to assist with the captured prisoners. Both soldiers must have been side-by-side when the blades of the helicopter ripped through them. It was their blood that covered me.

My captain advised me that a chopper was en-route to pick up the bodies. I was left alone and all I had was a poncho to place their bodies in. I picked up the leg of the red-haired soldier, and his other leg just trailed in a straight line. I put his legs together and placed him gently on the poncho. I did the same for the Vietnamese interpreter. I then spent as much time as I could to find the upper halves of their bodies in the tall grass. I placed the forearm in the poncho, but failed to find the remaining body parts before the second helicopter arrived. It was a single pilot light observation helicopter (LOH). The chopper landed and I placed the poncho in the space behind the pilot. The pilot looked at me and without a word took off. I watched until he was out of sight.

To this day I cannot remember what happened next or anything else about the day. I do know it was my responsibility to make sure the red-haired soldier was returned home, and I failed. I do not know if his body was ever properly identified, or if his remains were ever located. I think about it all the time, and have relived that day many times over the past 47 years.

Republished from “Perspectives from the Cell Block: An Anthology of Prisoner Writings” – edited by Joan Parkin in collaboration with incarcerated people from Mule Creek State Prison.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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