War Stories

The Grunt

by Father Kevin Devine-Chaplain 4


I am a shirt from a common pool of clean laundry. man of few heroes. I put very few individuals on a pedestal. And even of the few idols I have worshipped at one time or another, most have crumbled or dissolved into dust. At times it seems I have no one left on a pedestal except: Snoopy, of course. (Why it is we all agree Snoopy is the greatest-I will never know.) And along with Snoopy-Well, I am a New Yorker whose enthusiasm for baseball died when the Giants and Dodgers left the Big City. But now it has been rekindled-for I too rave about those Amazing Mets. Yes. Snoopy and the Mets, certainly. And recently I have come to worship another hero-a man I have come to know during these past 16 months.

His name? I've never learned it. There is never any insignia on his uniform. And if there is a name tag on his shirt, you can be sure it is not his name, for, after all, he grabbed it from a pile.

Even among his buddies, he has no last name. At best he is Bill-but more often he is simply Brooklyn or Short Round or Cool Breeze.

He is of varied background: he is the freckled faced Irish kid from the streets of Chicago. He is the husky Black-with a keen sense of humor-from Los Angeles. He is the Puerto Rican who can speak two languages fluently from New York.

In a word, he is a PFC and Spec4 - the unsung hero of Viet Nam.

Appearance wise, he does not show too much. Despite all the SOPs and ARs and personal admonitions from his Commanders, he does not shave absolutely every day-but why should he-when he can hardly scrounge up enough water for a morning cup of coffee-should he waste half of it on his chin? His fatigues are torn and tattered. His boots have never felt the touch of Kiwi boot polish, but they have soaked in the puddles of monsoon mud, and they do bear the scars of unbroken humps through the jungles.

His helmet is his diary: it announces each of his firebases-Blackhawk-the Big O -it advertises his loved ones: Joan and Mario-and it clicks off his months in country: June is about to be crossed off-and it reaffirms his faith: God is my point man."

Not that he wears his helmet all the time. Despite all the admonitions -- when nobody is looking --away it goes and out comes the booney hat.

A battered ripe rosary often dangles from his neck-and at times a peace symbol is prominently displayed, a symbol fashioned from shrapnel removed from his leg.

In his pocket there's always a P-38 - a church key-and a small pocket Bible.

And on his back is a rucksack that weighs twice as much as him but which he carries gladly-because in that sack is all the ammo that will keep him alive.

His language when he is angry, would make a water buffalo blush-yet he can be most tender, even with words: his letters to his wife always bear the reminder SWAK. And he can find just the words to keep his buddy smiling while they wait for a dust-off, joking about his million-dollar wound. His compound is over flowing with monkeys and dogs and kittens, all mighty popular because pets are apparently the only civilians allowed on-post housing. In his wallet is always the photo of his wife or girlfriend-and he has a way with children. Language is no problem when he works at his Medcaps in the village.

He has a vocabulary all his own: Higher, Higher Celestial Six, The Dragon, Bikini Bird, Redleg, I have got my sierra in lima.

His hospitality knows no bounds: always room for one more in a bunker. He never hesitates to break open another case of Cs for a friend. He will always share even his last cold beer with a visitor. And when a package arrives from the States, everyone has to share his mothers fruitcake and his wifes home cooking.

He yearns passionately for peace-for he and his buddies must bear the brunt of war: in a fierce contact recently has bullets and mortars and B-40s were popping in every direction, he shook his head and whispered to me: This is a hell of a way to settle an argument. When he sees his buddies killed or wounded around him, he can become gripped by a blind irrational hatred. Sometimes he will take it out on the enemy-on occasions he will rage momentarily against the whole system. But generally he has a deep respect for his Commanders-he knows they have been shot out farther more times than he, that they have put their lives on the line many a time, and when the chips are down, his Commanders, he knows, will back him with everything they have got. He even has a grudging respect for the enemy: what else can he feel when three NVA have set up an ambush and taken on a whole company: and he rejoices over Vietnamization for he feels now is the time for our a ARVN comrades to prove by their courage on the battlefield that they appreciate all the sacrifices that the Americans have made for them.

Since he is the low man in a big organization, he does not often get preferential treatment. In fact, often he feels he is getting the raw end of the deal. Unpleasant incidents often stick in his mind: the day he waited hours in line for the big sale on tape recorders at the PX only to see the more senior men walk ahead of him without waiting a second-the afternoon he returned from the 17th field hospital still limping from shrapnel-only to find himself pulling bunker guard that evening. But usually it is not the dramatic crisis-just the day-to-day living at the bottom of the heap: he gets ice when it's melted. He receives the Stars and Stripes when they are three days old. Even his copy of Playboy arrived recently with the Centerfold missing. It is he who sits on the pad for days-waiting for chopper space. It is he who stands outside and shakes Miss Glamour Girls hand after she has been lunched at the Officers Club.

His job does not seem so special to him even though he does it well-yet sometimes he feels he is the only indispensable man as he works all day and pulls guard half the night, while he hears of more senior men who lock their doors at 5:30 every evening.

And truly he is the indispensable man. More senior men draw up the strategy and issue the orders and supervise the operation- but it is he who gets the job done. It is he who drives the trucks, loads the choppers, mans the tanks. It is he who CAs in to hot LZs, marches down hostile trails, searches out the enemy bunkers. It is he who pulls the SRPs, tracks blood trails and repels from choppers. And ultimately it is he who shoots and get shot, who kills and gets killed. Without him there would be no Army and for that matter there would be no America.

He has been eulogized by Douglas MacArthur. He has been praised by General Westmoreland as the finest fighting man ever to march on the battlefield.

Time magazine, speaking of him recently, grudgingly admitted his acts of heroism are not the extraordinary but the ordinary, the everyday occurrence in Vietnam.

As for myself-who have served him these 16 months in the field-recently a friend remarked: if Snoopy is your hero and the Mets are your heroes-then Snoopy in a Mets uniform would be your greatest hero!

Not quite: He is second to the American fighting man: 11Bravo - PFC.

Chaplain Kevin Devine
Vietnam 1969-1970