While writing the short bio of our friend, Manno, it occurred to me that an interesting story of modern times, the participation of our brethren in the Vietnam War is not well known. The urge came for me to imagine what it was like to do a tour in that country. This is pure fiction and any resemblance to reality is mere coincidence.
Émilcar Guillemain awoke from his sleep when the announcer reminded the passengers that landing would take place soon and they needed to fasten their seat belts. He felt strange. For one thing, the 22-hour flight from Oakland, California, to Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base, a sprawling military installation, was tiring. The two stops in Alaska and Japan didn’t help make it any easier. Yet hurrying to get to the destination meant arriving at a place known to send back home plenty of body bags. Rumor had it that many of the corpses were of black and brown people. Those with connection were able to finagle a deferment for any number of reasons. He didn’t need to search far. Indeed, a lot of the faces in this flight were folks of the dark complexion. Foot soldiers doing the dirty work. Politicians back home talking the game of “honoring country,” made sure their sons were not in harm’s way.
Émilcar left Haiti barely a year ago, in June 1966. Thanks to the sponsorship of his brother, he was able to obtain a green card. He was 19, a factory worker barely able to speak English. His dream was to enroll in college to study electrical engineering. He was an ace in math. Basic training was a hardship. Of frail body, he didn’t exactly excel in physical activities. He wished he could have flunked so he could have been discharged for being unsuitable, but the drill sergeant would have none of this. He taught him again and again to the point that Émilcar began to enjoy doing push-ups, squats and jogging. That turnaround was a surprise to him. “Never say you can’t physically accomplish a task, young man. An ant can lift up to 10 times its own weight. I was once a weakling like you, and I learned to toughen up. There is a method to the madness,” the sergeant, now of a sinewy physique, kept repeating. So much so he had almost made a believer out of Émilcar. Now he had to face this.
The plane landed finally. Émilcar felt like going from the hot pot to the fire in more ways than one. A suffocating heat welcomed him as he stepped down the stairs from the plane. A blinding sun that makes one see stars and frets one’s comfort by the simmering heat waves from the pavement, greeted him. An unrelenting humidity added to the discomfort and his level of misery. Immediately his pores began to let loose sweats beads. He had no other way to describe his situation but a cauldron. The insulating socks that served their purpose so well in the cold weather were now scorching his feet. He couldn’t wait to remove his boots and his clothes for this matter. How he wished he didn’t have to emigrate to better his lot! He wouldn’t have to become a draftee or be part of a fight he had no vested interest in.
A lot of soldiers were moving in and out of the airport. Located on the outskirts of Saigon, the base functioned as an American oasis in Southeast Asia. The gamut of airlines in business at the time were present. Transporting soldiers must have been a lucrative undertaking. “The spoils of war,” he thought. Seemed like everybody not fighting was receiving a bounty off the soldiers. However, only the soldiers were exposing their lives and would not have much to show for this effort. If justice existed, he couldn’t see it.
“Here comes another Frenchie. How do you say your name? What’s the last four?” asked the receiving sergeant, a tall and husky fella, dark like charcoal. Ouch! This was another reminder that he was on foreign soil. Americans had a hard time pronouncing his last name. Tired of trying of repeating the syllables of his name, finally “G” became his name. Émilcar reached and remained in his temporary quarters, a half-a-mile walk from the terminal; that supposed short walk felt like a calvary as he kept shifting his duffel bag from one shoulder to the other and mopping his face. Ordinarily he tolerated the heat well back in his native country, but this one was just unbearable. His living accommodations at the staging area and all subsequent ones were spartan. A large hall, reminiscent of a hospital ward with a narrow alley separating beds on each side. No sooner did he arrive that a smart Alec launched “Hey corporal Frenchie! I hope your feet don’t smell!” as he was preparing to remove his boots and especially the insulating socks that had turned his feet into hot and burning sausages. With limited English, he didn’t have the ability to gainsay others’ statements and they profited to take advantage of that and make fun of him ad libitum. Privacy was a luxury. The empty space below the bed doubled as his storage unit. At least a large ceiling fan cooled the room temperature. He wondered if he would be able to sleep through the squeaky sound at night.
In quick order, Émilcar discovered that life in Vietnam revolved around a simple principle, “staying alive”. Literally speaking, death could occur anytime and in the most horrific manner. If this were a macabre play, villainous characters such as gnats, mosquitoes, sand flies, oppressive heat and humidity paled next to securing safe shelter from falling shells or buzzing bullets. An enemy always marshalling ways to surprise by his brazen methods as well the ingenuity of his traps. By the very nature of the conflict, he could be the vendor coming to the base to sell novelty items or an employee at a brothel known to cater to American soldiers. This unconventional warfare pitted a well-armed force against a wily adversary in his own territory in a reenactment of Americans fighting the British to establish a sovereign nation. He was always on high alert.
His first skirmish took place next to a paddy within 2 weeks of his assignment to a battalion of the “big 1” division in the delta region, south of Saigon. As a member of the infantry, during a reconnaissance survey, his unit fell under a hail of bullets from the Vietcong hiding in the field with an abruptness and intensity mimicking the speed of light. He first experienced the grizzly observation of a body of water normally of light turbid color transformed into red scarlet by human blood spilled in profusion. He witnessed the deafening roar of explosions followed by the stillness wrought by lifelessness. He became a spectator to maiming of different body parts, of sudden demise of comrades, of agonizing and slowly dying injured fellow soldiers not promptly evacuated by a chopper to a medical facility. He became engaged in a zero-sum game scenario where napalm bombs incinerated whole fields and human flesh of the enemies, while friendly fire would wreak havoc on combatants of the same camp.
Each day upon awaking, Émilcar had to face the hardship yet to come. Torrid rains during the monsoon season lasting whole days, accelerating the population of mosquitoes that seemed to feast on his blood was an experience he would never want to go through again in life. As luck would have it, he became a casualty. Caught in a crossfire, he fell unconscious to a gunshot wound that tore his left thigh.
“Wifout, sa se yon gwo maleng!” (Dang, what a nasty gash!) Émilcar heard these familiar words while he was on a stretcher being carried into the ER of a field hospital. He was in the so-called between and betwixt state of mind. He was submerged halfway between drowsy and wakeful, almost like the flickering candle of life struggling to remain lit, against a lethal dark chamber bereft of oxygen.
“Pa kite m mouri souple.” (Don’t let me die, please). He remembered besieging the person and the next time he regained full consciousness, he was in a hospital and a young physician was looking at his thigh with a nurse. He had different IVs going into both of his arms. A searing pain in the thigh while the physician was working on it made him grimace, “Woy manman mwen ala soufrans sou la tè beni.” (Ouch! That’s an awful lot of pain to suffer on earth.)
“Ou pa bezwen pè gason. Ou nan bon men.” (Don’t be afraid bro. You are in good hands.) The young physician was indeed a compatriot. He had to interrupt 3 years into his training in Surgery at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, a big city hospital nationally known as a great training center where a lot of cases are seen and where one develops good skills.
Émilcar had a quizzical look on his face when he looked at the doctor’s name and rank. It said Roger Andrew, MD. Andrew was not a French name. Yet the doctor spoke flawless Kreyol. The gold leaf on his lapel identified him as a major.
Sensing his patient’s bewilderment, “Granpè m te jamayiken,” (My grandpa was Jamaican) the physician informed him. His grandfather’s flight from his native land was part of an almost daily narrative he shared with strangers puzzled by his Anglo name. The real story that he only confided to close ones is that his grandpa had to flee Montego Bay after whipping and causing spinal injury to a British constable over a racial slur. This was in keeping with the accepted fact that the fiercest maroons in the New World were to be found in Haiti and Jamaica.
Elated, Émilcar for a minute forgot about his lancinating pain. Remembering that he is supposed to address a superior officer properly, “Thank you major Andrew. Thank you, sir.” He couldn’t help himself and he formed a portmanteau, “Thank you ‘docsir.’” In his native culture, the title of “doc” would outrank “sir”. Just as well in his native culture, when in doubt, improvise.
Flattered and tickled, Major Andrew struggled to maintain an unflappable stance. Hence, he only said in a tongue-in-cheek manner to the nurse, “He is a funny fella.” Major Andrew felt flattered because someone was showing him some appreciation. That very day earlier in the AM at the officers’ section in the mess hall, he had to straighten out a surly lieutenant.
“Can you believe that we have a darkie as doctor? The Army has lost its way to allow such a thing to happen. Next step he will consider himself our equal.” Major Andrew happened to have overheard the crude remark and true to form with his ancestral genes, he quickly stepped up to the plate, especially after identifying the offender’s name and rank.
“Lieutenant Smith!” He barked with a loud tone to attract everyone’s attention.
The lieutenant sprang up, clasped his heels together and saluted “Yes sir!”
“I heard and I demand a full apology in front of everybody or I report you to the JAG officer and recommend that you be court-martialed under section 3AB of the Army field manual for insulting a commanding officer.”
A beefy-red junior officer replied, “I am sorry sir, I apologize, and I retract my statement.”
Major Andrew turned around, and to punctuate the lieutenant’s embarrassment, he pounced, “Look it here sarge! Did you hear lieutenant Smith?” This time his tone of voice left no doubt about who was in charge and wearing the pants.
“No, sir!” he replied.
Lieutenant Smith repeated his apology loud and clear so everyone could hear it. By so doing, Major Andrew earned the respect and the scorn of these flawed individuals. By standing up and being so vocal about it, he pierced the bubble of “white privilege” whereby an individual needs not respect a black person, just because. At the same time, his reaction by members of this mindset would be seen as an act of belligerence, coming from an uppity Negro. A black officer scolding a white lieutenant publicly in the military in the mid sixties was considered crossing a fault line. A culture clash was in vivid display. A telling silence followed this incident. People voted with their feet about their discontent. Major Andrew from now on always sat at an empty table because he would be shunned.
He forever had a bull’s-eye target on his back. A dark secret about servicemen is that the rank and file not infrequently “fries” a superior officer in retribution over imaginary or real slights. Not infrequently an injury sustained and classified as war injury generically originated not from the enemy but as a result of being “fried.” It’s debatable if the situation has changed any nowadays. As a countermeasure to the resentment that some GIs may hold against their superiors, an unwritten rule was to encourage fraternization between the two groups.
By happenstance or kinship, Major Andrew included Émilcar in that circle. During his convalescence, each morning while making rounds, they would shoot breeze for a bit. This was a therapeutic relaxation for Major Andrew. Being a social pariah was a position that gnawed at his ego over time. Yet he made sure he kept an upbeat disposition.
Bit by bit they learned about each other and the fact they shared quite a few things in common. For example, they both hailed from the southern part of the country, Émilcar from Jérémie and Major Andrew from Les Cayes. They traveled on the same plane from Oakland, California. After 2 weeks, Émilcar’s improvement was satisfactory and he was transferred to Cam Rahn Bay for rehab, another vast expanse of military habitat, but by the sea. A few days after his departure, Major Andrew’s turn to be a casualty came. In what some described as a “deep-fry,” he suffered some serious injuries, including the right hand in an explosion. The extent of his injuries was such he had to be flown to Japan to a specialized unit to have extensive hand surgery followed by just as extensive rehabilitation.
Uncle Sam decorated both with a purple heart, but their lives were never the same again after the extensive wounds. Dr. Andrew left the military due to his injury and as a right-handed person had lost his dexterity so sorely needed in a surgeon. Instead, he had to abandon Surgery as a specialty and retrain as a Neurologist. He excelled in it and held no bitterness but never forgot the pain and suffering he endured.
Émilcar was able to go to college under the GI bill and did study electrical engineering. They met again decades later when Haitians from all walks of life held a march from the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall in Manhattan to protest their inclusion as a risk group for HIV.
Their stories represent a dust mote in the ocean of narratives of young men of color sent to fight an enemy sometime foreign and sometime local.
Reynald Altéma, MD.