Last Man Standing

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic

In the mist of the fading wisps of smoke that drapes the darkening expanse of jungles and swamps along the desolate road to hell, he stands alone, grasping his M-16, depleted of rounds and hot to the touch. He is alone. The last man standing. The man with the golden key to anywhere but here.


By Al Garcia

In the mist of the fading wisps of smoke that drapes the darkening expanse of jungles and swamps along the desolate road to hell, he stands alone, grasping his M-16, depleted of rounds and hot to the touch.  He is alone.  The last man standing.  The man with the golden key to anywhere but here.

Drenched in sweat and mud and blood.  Afraid to move beyond the stilled bodies that surrounded him.  Afraid to breath the air that reeked of pain and death.  Trapped in the silence and the stillness of the night.  Watching the rising ghosts of slayed young warriors, faltering and stumbling toward the light that arose in the moonless night.  Or was it simply the imagination that sought to sooth and temper the beating heart that pounded inside his heaving and throbbing chest? 

Was it his wondering mind that saw and heard and felt what really wasn’t there?  Was it his beating heart that felt the weight of time descend, before it faded away like a whisper or a whimper in the night?  It was his glistening eyes, he recalls, that betrayed the tears that found their way to the crimson stains that soaked into his body and his soul. 

I wrote those words, because I saw and felt the pain, as a young boy, no more than 20 years of age, describing what it was like to stand in the smoldering aftermath of a firefight.  I was writing about a soldier about my age, his friends now gone.  He was exhausted.  Consumed with fear.  Relieved when the silence came.  And frozen in time, as the sounds and sights and sensations of life began to overtake his shattered, fragile frame.  These were words I had written before so many times, but with different characters, different times, and different places – yet each instance and each emotion identical to the last.

This is what I did in war, I wrote about the private moments that I shared with ordinary young men, describing experiences and emotions never felt or shared before.  Wanting to forget, yet pushing myself to relive every moment and feel every bullet that ended a human life.  It was hard to listen and to watch a boy expose his most intimate of emotions, having just returned as the last man standing of a small patrol of boys and young men, who were supposed to live forever.  And I wondered what he was keeping from me, or what he would never reveal to anyone about that night.  A secret forever buried.  Visions and sounds of war that would forever haunt him.  Twenty years old, and already feeling the burden of guilt and self-reproach for having been the lucky one to walk away.

The stories never ended.  My encounters with human tragedy and misery suffered and endured by soldiers and civilians, day-in-and-day-out, overwhelmed me and at times left me numb and dazed.  Soldiers wanted to talk to someone.  They needed to talk to someone – if only to unburden themselves -- mostly of guilt, but also of shame, remorse, and most of all sorrow and regret. 

There were also those times when the night brought reflection and deep contemplation by some soldiers.  I remember listening to stories of their lives, as they recounted people and places back home.  Their words heavy and downhearted.  I cannot count the number of embittered and disillusioned young soldiers I spoke with who brought up religion, faith and God.For far too many, the war had changed them.  They had experienced life-altering moments of life and death, seen the carnage and devastation of war on bodies and minds, and felt the anguish and despair of loneliness and solitude, for some all in a matter of weeks and months after their arrival in Vietnam.  Most, I learned, had lost faith and hope.  Some no longer dreamed of tomorrows.  Instead, they closed their eyes and the nightmare and terror of becoming a casualty of war consumed them.  And sometimes, even during a hot and humid day, their nightmares would invade the only respite they had from the shadows and the terrors of the night. 

I travelled up and down the Mekong.  I visited small outposts on deserted mountain tops.  I traveled up the Mekong River on Navy patrol boats on midnight missions with Special Force teams and Navy Seals.  I flew on helicopters with daring young pilots eager to feel the wind on their face and see the green sea of jungles and forests and valleys below -- unafraid to ride the wind that blew across a nightmare below. 

I was a soldier, not a warrior.  Yet I saw and felt and heard the silent cries of war everywhere I went.  A combat journalist finds refuge and solace in being able to connect, if only for a brief interval, with soldiers in the field.  It was their words, their emotions, their pain and their courage that gave me the fortitude to venture beyond the ordinary story, to discover the extraordinary depth of character, passion and conviction each solider had, despite the circumstance and risk surrounding them.  I grew up.  I matured.  And at the age of twenty, I felt too old inside for my age, yet I knew I was too young to die and fade away.  It wasn’t easy being a solider, a warrior or a survivor at any age. 

I remember many conversations I had with soldiers during my tenure in Vietnam.  However, the one that is seared in my mind is the one about the boy who found himself alone one dark and dreary night while on a patrol down a desolate road running along a darkening expanse of jungles and swamps. 

He told me a story of war that frightened me.  His voice betrayed the courageous shield he hid behind, and his glistening eyes as he spoke, said more than any words could convey.  And after so many years have elapsed, I can still see his face, hear his trembling words, and feel the depth of his regret and guilt at having been the last man standing.

I cannot begin to imagine how such an experience would affect me or haunt me.  I can only write the words that describe one moment in a war that killed so many dreams, and left unending nightmares to be relived in the damaged and injured minds of those that walked away.

I guess in a way, after all these years, there are many of us who may feel like the last man standing.  And now we wait for the nightmares to end. 

Submitted: May 24, 2021

© Copyright 2021 A.Garcia. All rights reserved.

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