Reunion triggers memories of Vietnam War
King City resident John Soliz served as a medic
(King City resident John Soliz left high school to join the Army and served as a medic for 1 Â½ years in Vietnam in 1968-69 during the height of the U.S. involvement in the 1955-1975 war. Soliz earned a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and a Combat Medic Badge.
Back home from the war, he spent most of his career working at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Portland, and only in the mid-1990s did memories from the war that he had suppressed for 25 years come to the surface, and he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.)
One after the other on a muggy Sunday morning in 1993, 20 buses filled with old veterans and families caravanned through the main gate of Fort Knox Kentucky. The base commander, high-ranking officers and dignitaries in polished military sedans joined the parade.
Soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder lining both sides of Main Street. Some held tall wooden staffs topped with bright company flags waving as they caught a breeze.
The young soldiers outside our windows had begun preparations for this event a year earlier. They invited our association, the 11th Armored Calvary Regiment of Vietnam, to attend a special presentation - a memorial dedicated to our fallen 767 soldiers.
The museum on wheels moved slowly, giving the young soldiers time to examine the relics from a long ago war. I caught the eyes of a soldier staring at me. Some people say the eyes are the doorways to the soul, and in that moment I saw his.
What was it like, old man? he wondered. How did it feel? Could I do it? He grew up playing soldiers in the backyard with his brothers and friends. His toy soldiers filled boxes sitting in the closet or laid scattered on the floor waiting for their next battle. He fantasized about heroic adventures and courageous deeds.
We were strangers. But I knew exactly what he was thinking because a lifetime ago I was him.
Soldiers and flags marked our way up to the doors of the Army Training Center for Armor Warfare. It was here where most of the excited voices sitting around me learned to live and fight in armored vehicles.
"Wow, look at that," someone blurted. Centered on the side of the largest building was a painting of the Blackhorse, our unit's patch. Chills and pride ran through all of us just like the first time we wore it.
Another voice said, "Remember that instructor with red hair and no freckles? What was his name?"
Behind me came, "Sgt. O'Hara. I remember him. He doesn't know it, but I'm here today because of a few tricks he taught me."
Hearing them talk reminded me of the desperate times I wished I had trained here. One of those moments surfaced and took me back into time
The fight began just before the sun was overhead and finished in the long shadows of late afternoon. We found a large enemy base camp, big enough for several hundred soldiers. But on this day, most of them were out on a mission, probably looking for us.
Thirty or 40 of their comrades guarding the camp fought hard and brave, but in the end they all died. Broken bunkers and enemy soldiers crushed or blown into parts lay all around. Our captain was positive their comrades were near, maybe watching.
He asked for volunteers: "I need a tank to stay here for the night to draw out the enemy." My buddy, tank commander Sgt. Dikes, stepped forward, "We'll do it, Sir," which I'm sure made his driver and gunner very happy. I couldn't let him do it without me. I was the medic. From my lips came, "I'll stay too."
We watched the company disappear into the jungle and prepared ourselves for a very long night. Our eyes peeled and strained through the blackness when it came. Our ears sharpened, listening for the sounds of silent foot steps. The only things moving were our breaths and the rising stench from bodies all around.
Light finally came, and we were still alive. The radio crackled. "One two, this is Six over," the captain said.
He sounded disappointed the enemy had not take the bait. We were ordered to return to his location. Great, we thought, until he added,"No escort, maybe they'll hit you on the way back. We'll be ready to respond."
"Roger that," Sgt. Dikes replied. What else could he say? We were still bait.
There were several trails through the jungle leading back to the company but using them was deadly. Charlie was an expert at planting mines and booby traps. A few days earlier, one of our armored personal carriers made the mistake of taking the easy way using an old trail.
The enemy strung fishing line in the trees across the path to a series of hidden hand grenades and mines. An armored personnel carrier is open on top and everyone rides with their heads and shoulders exposed. When they unknowingly cut the line, the trap exploded and four of them lost their heads.
We busted through the jungle making our own trail. Completely exhausted from fear and lack of sleep, my mind began playing games. I could feel ghosts and soldiers chasing us through the jungle. I sat in the gunner's seat, sweating and breathing hard, waiting for the moment I knew would come.
A rocket exploding through our protection sending chunks of hot metal ricocheting through my body. Or maybe one of them presses a button just as we pass over a mine connected to his remote control, and I die. "Come on faster, go faster," I said. No one heard me over our 12-cylinder diesel engine.
Suddenly, we came to an abrupt halt, "Hell, we threw a track," Sarge said. Running over a tree stump, the left track jumped off its rear sprocket. Usually, it was the loader's job to get out and make the repair, but this wasn't usual. If we were attacked, there was no time for him to climb back aboard and load the guns. The driver couldn't leave his post, and our tank commander needed to stay in the turret.
Without a word, I climbed out to do something I had never been trained to do fix a broken tank. We were smothered in jungle. It was a struggle. Every movement I made was a personal battle between the jungle and me. I knew the basics of what needed to happen. I had seen it done countless times.
Place a log or branch across the inside of the track, have the driver slowly move forward, and the log traps in the teeth of the sprocket, helping lift the tack back into place. That's what I did, and it worked. But mind-shattering fear pained my every movement.
I could sense the enemy. They were close enough I could feel his breath. Every second I expected to feel the piercing thrust of a long, cold bayonet plunging into my back. I wanted to scream
"Wow, this place has really changed," someone near me blurted. His excitement brought me back to the moment. Sweat from an unexpected nightmare oozed from my forehead. Yeah, there were times I wished I had graduated from here.
The sun glistened off trumpets and drums playing as we unloaded onto a blacktop surrounded by hundreds of soldiers standing in formations. Dozens of long tables covered in red-and-white patriotic table cloths with ice chests brimming with plastic bottles of water and sodas waited. Sharing the tables were round trays and bowls loaded with snacks and fruit.
Brochures and photographs about the training center and our modern Army lay in neat piles. After refreshments, we gathered into small groups with escorts and set out to explore the center.
Hours passed, and finally we found ourselves among the dogwoods with millions of pink-and-white flowers circling a peaceful clearing. In the center, rising upwards off a lush carpet of Kentucky blue grass, stood a column of white stone and polished marble. On top, an iron black stallion stood guard over 767 names cleaved in stone.
There were chairs for everyone, and of course, a podium for generals and dignitaries to take turns praising the 11th Armored Calvary. The base chaplain finally christened the solemn sanctuary with a prayer; a pause, and then a lone bugler standing in the shadows played taps.
When it was over, we began searching for names we knew. I worked my way up through the crowd. A cold shiver bolted up my spine looking at hundred and hundreds of names. Someone's hand next to me began trembling, running his fingers over three names laying one below the other. He wept finding his buddies. I put one arm around his shoulders just in time to feel his legs weaken.
He said, "These were my best friends. They died because of a stupid test." His words grabbed and squeezed my heart. It was difficult, but I had to ask, "What do you mean, stupid test?"
He replied, "We all volunteered to test a new tank. But they only needed three, and I drew the short stick."
Hoping on the slim chance I was wrong, I asked, "What company were they from?" He answered, "D Company." Suddenly, it was his turn to feel my legs weaken. Three men from D Company, he said, a new tank, and all part of a stupid test.
I blurted, "I was there. I was their medic!" But it didn't make sense, I thought. They were alive when I put them on the chopper. I remember it all as if it was yesterday.
We woke tired and dirty just like every morning in the jungle, and like every morning, I made my rounds.
"Hey, doc, my hemorrhoid's killing me" Burris said. "OK, you know what to do - drop 'em and bend over, let's take a look," I said.
Frenchie caught my attention, "Yo, Doc, got some more Tetracycline? It still burns when I pee." I couldn't help chuckling and not because of his situation. Every time I saw him, I thought he looked like a beaver. His short stocky body was pelted with thick prickly hair with a rump that followed him like a tale. The final evidence were his monster teeth, which were obviously made for building dams. I handed him a few more pills and moved on.
"Good morning, Sgt. Dikes, let me see those cuts," I said. Yesterday, breaking through the jungle, a branch covered in ants scrapped across his face. It would be a few days before he would look normal again. I said, "No infection or swelling. Let's clean you up with peroxide and a little ointment. Can't do much about those swollen lips."
The platoon was into its morning routine. Drivers busy checking fluid levels, tightening wheels and nuts. Loaders making sure guns and ammo were ready. Tank commanders looking over maps, planning strategy, and ensuring their crews and tanks were ready for the day's hunt.
I headed back to my tank and doubled-checked my medic's bag. In the big pocket were large adnominal pads to keep guts from falling out and smaller ones to plug up bullets holes or to protect flesh wounds. In the side pocket, I kept a small roll of wire mesh for making splints, tourniquets for missing limbs, a good pair of scissors for cutting away uniforms, and hemostats to clamp off arteries.
And in the small pocket were salt tabs to treat shock, a ball point pen used for improvised tracheotomies, a scalpo, and Vaseline gauze and ointments for burns. All other medical supplies were kept on the tank.
Just as everyone was ready to start looking for the enemy, our orders changed. We had to build a firing range in the jungle with fake bunkers. A new and improved tank was on its way to our location for testing and evaluation.
Didn't make sense to build bunkers in an area that had real enemy bunkers. It was extremely stupid, but at least it kept us from going out on a real mission.
Seven men piled on a tank volunteering for the job. I needed to go with my men so I was the eighth. It was quick, losing sight of the company, leaving it behind. Criss-crossing and meandering all around were trails and paths we had carved out of the jungle looking for the enemy in the past few days.
We followed one for 100 meters. It curved and after going around, we stopped and began building. The incentive of knowing someone out in the trees is itching to kill you helped us get the job done fast.
After returning to the platoon, it wasn't long before we heard it struggle out of the jungle and burst into our position. They called it a Sheridan Tank. It was half the weight and size of our tanks. Its main gun was short and stout but fired a larger and more powerful shell. Its design was more angular, which improved the chances a projectile would ricochet off its turret, exploding elsewhere. The biggest innovation, however, was its main gun; after firing, it ejected no shell casing. It disintegrated in the tube, resulting in needing only a three-man crew.
I watched it pass. The driver's head was above his hatch; after all, this was only a test, no need to button up. Standing up through the open turret was a square-jawed tank commander in need of a shave. His right hand pressing the communication button on his helmet while his eyes swept side to side in a trained search. His left hand wrapped the heavy handle on his machine gun that could cut trees in half.
It disappeared into the jungle followed by two tanks loaded with observers. The first carried a general who stood balancing himself - one hand holding onto the turret, the other pretentiously fixed to his web belt that tightened around a clean, starched uniform.
He had the air of a West Pointer, privileged, well-educated, with a nose that pointed up and forward. Around him were the typical officers who follow generals like pigeons, eager to please, waiting for any scraps he might throw their way
His skin was pale and too clean. He was a desk jockey, getting a little jungle time. He thought it would be a safe forage, but that was about to change. A third tank followed with reporters hoping to snap the photo good enough to make front page of Stars and Stripes with the caption, "GENERAL COURAGEOUSLY LEADS MEN INTO THE HEART OF DARKNESS." The thought left a bitter taste in my mouth.
In a few minutes we heard the test begin. The first boom made me angry. I hated this faÃ§ade - a general putting on a show for the cameras. Another bark but this time it was joined by the rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun. My stomach knotted, visualizing glory swirling around and around in the general's fabricated fantasy of leading men in combat.
Another loud explosion, but this one was different, a double explosion. My instincts and experience told me to go. I jumped off my tank running towards the billowing black smoke escaping through the tress. Something had gone wrong, which always, at the very least, meant someone was hurt.
Only a few months ago, in high school, I was one of the slowest. But here, where only the strong survive, I had become an athlete who ran and leaped like an antelope chased by hungry lions. The trail was dotted with pointed bamboo stalks and pushed-over trees with branches sticking up like arms flaying. Long spindly vines weaving everything together created a waist-high web covering a world of angry red ants, bugs with wings, and spiders big enough you could see them blink. And snakes as long as tanks that swallowed animals, or tiny snakes with a bite that kills before you take your next step made running impossible. I had to hop, step over and push my way up the trail.
From around the curve came two tanks charging in reverse. I jumped out of their way, wondering what happened. Is anyone hurt? Why are you running away? And you, Mr. Hero, with your flushed face, frantic eyes and blithering commands, yelling, "Faster, faster, get me out of here!"
Where's that proud stature now, General? Shrink any more, and that clean starched uniform will end up sliding down around your feet. Where's your glory now, General? You make me sick. The revulsion in the pit of my stomach knotted as they left me behind, alone. Somewhere up ahead people needed help.
Working as a combat medic under unthinkable conditions, I learned to accept the idea I was already dead. This enabled me to move forward under any circumstance, no matter how deadly or horrific. Because like they say, "It don't mean nothin'." Up ahead was the curve and beyond that was the unknown.
Making the turn, everything was shrouded in hues of yellows and golds under thick black curling smoke hanging in the air. Tank on fire! A moment of absolute terror - especially seeing three soldiers side by side, lifeless, strung across the jungle floor. The only things moving were lazy whiffs of gray smoke rising from smoldering flesh and orange flames licking up out of the tank. I buried the idea it would explode any second. I buried the idea snipers were waiting for me.
They lay 2 feet from the tank on the tangled jungle floor. In one movement I went to my knees. My left hand began suffocating glowing embers eating away at tattered uniforms and burning skin. The right hand unsnapped and opened the aide bag strapped around my waist while I surveyed injuries. No profuse bleeding, no loss of limbs, and they're breathing. Good. Check pupils. All looked the same - fixed and dilated netted in cooked capillaries. My gag reflex wanted to react to the stench of burnt flesh.
It was impossible to tell who was who. I couldn't even tell which one was the square-jawed tank commander.
Don't do it, I thought. Don't feel anything, you're a stone, just do the job. They're in shock. Work faster! But I'm human, and sorrow and sadness touched my spirit, and then something bizarre happened. I saw their mothers. They wore black, wailing for their sons. I saw lots of mothers crying for lots of sons. They seemed to talk to me, begging for their boys lives to be there so they wouldn't be alone. It happened all the time. I think they even cried for me.
They need fluids. I grabed my canteen, dropped in a handful of salt tabs. One by one, I carefully slid my hand beneath their heads gently lifting it to the canteen.
"Come on, man, take a sip, just swallow," I begged, but all they could do was breathe. "I love you, brothers, I'm here, you're not alone."
In the surreal world of life and death in combat, time stands still. It stops the moment you enter. I didn't know if I was there a minute, five minutes or even an hour before the sounds of my platoon coming to our aid started the hands of time.
We worked together like clockwork. Some helped carry the suffering soldiers back to the clearing, where others worked fervently preparing a landing zone. I stayed with the wounded.
"You'll be OK, you're going to be fine," I said, even though there was no response. My platoon didn't fail me or the wounded. They didn't freeze when they saw the burning time bomb. Those men were what that general would never be - real combat soldiers, no pretense, just guts. I touched the last soldier in a final farewell as he was loaded in the chopper. It lifted off quickly, becoming smaller and smaller...
I came back to reality, and it was the old man's turn to feel my legs weaken. My fingers slowly touched each letter in their names, trying to make some kind of contact. With an astounded look on his face and tears falling, he said, "They died a few days later."
Together we touched their names, hugged each other and in it all, I knew their mothers were there with us. I'd like to believe they found some comfort knowing I was there, and their sons weren't alone.
I was never told in medic school the price I might pay for saving lives. I was just a kid and wouldn't have believed it or even cared. Most likely I would of thought Man, you're crazy.
Copyright 2012 by John Soliz