Stranger In Their Midst

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic

Obviously, men in combat form a special bond – one necessitated by circumstances and by the need for human interaction -- the need to hear a human voice, feel a human touch, and sense a modicum of human compassion. Vietnam was no exception.

STRANGER IN THEIR MIDST

By Al Garcia

Obviously, men in combat form a special bond – one necessitated by circumstances and by the need for human interaction -- the need to hear a human voice, feel a human touch, and sense a modicum of human compassion.  Vietnam was no exception.

And as I travelled across the Mekong Delta, I got a first hand look at a society of American men, isolated and abandoned, attempting to replicate a semblance of a life they had left behind.  Each outpost, however remote, was its own community.  A stranger in their midst was a time to celebrate.  A time to retell the stories that everyone in camp had already heard a thousand times.  A time to hear about what was going on in the real world from an “outsider.”  I was that “stranger in their midst.”  I was the “outsider.”  I was the visitor with the camera, the tape recorder and writing pad who wanted to hear their stories.  I was the guy who would soon be leaving on a helicopter out of their nightmare.  Something they could only dream about on quiet nights, when the in-coming would stop.  I was their reminder that there was a world outside their perimeter. 

Unlike civilian journalists in Vietnam, I had access to anyone I wanted to speak with, since I was military.  I was also able to go anywhere in the compound or outpost, and was even able to get someone to drive me outside the compound during the day to see the surrounding area, if things were quiet and no reports of “Charlie” had been received.  The men got a chance to talk, show off their outpost or compound, introduce me to their buddies, and I got stories and pictures.  It was a win-win situation. 

However, sometimes I got a lot more than I bargained for.  Sometimes I connected with the young guys and even older soldiers in these outposts.  And, it is those moments that remain so vivid and ever present in my mind.  It was during those wordless instances, when I looked into the faces and the eyes of the brave young men around me, and I saw the pain and anger, and the fear and uncertainty that their silence conveyed, and their unblinking stares revealed.  With each place I visited, and with each person I spoke to, I felt somewhat diminished and exhausted emotionally.  And I was only 20 years old.  Sometimes it felt like a lifetime had rushed past me in the blink of an eye.  It was strange, considering how only months earlier I had felt inadequate and unprepared for this assignment.  Now, in a matter of months, I felt I had been here a lifetime or more.  I could feel the essence of each man that I spoke to, and I could relate only too well.  And I thought to myself that just maybe, I was becoming that combat journalist I had wondered about not long before.  Strange how circumstances can quickly change a person, inside and out.

Returning to my office in Can Tho was my emotional recharging station.  This was the place where I would sit down and write and think, and sometimes even shed a tear or two, in a private moment, for what I had seen or heard in the days before.  The presence of my colleagues seemed to restore and replenish my energy, and the strength I never knew I possessed.  I knew I was growing up.  I saw the war around me and how it was affecting the boys and men who seemed sometimes dazed and sometimes robotic.  I also saw how it was affecting me.  Sometimes I would see uncaring, free-spirited individuals, smoking, drinking, singing, dancing, as if they were at a tailgate party before a game.  And then, just as suddenly, these same party boys would seem to fall into a stupor and walk away by themselves as if in a trance.  As if for an instance, a recollection or a memory of something, someone, some word, snapped them out of their reverie and returned them to the reality that was war.  Those were strange moments to see and to be a part of. 

My education in human interaction and psychology went beyond my journalist expectations.  I learned about how men (and boys) living under stress 24/7 acted and reacted, and how some could tolerate and even seemed to savor the moment, while others seemed lost and just going through the motions to make it to tomorrow.  And I wondered which I had become. 

But like most soldiers in Vietnam, I found my own remedy and therapy for the times, and even the days, that I felt depressed, dejected and alone.  I found I needed a “time out” from war sometimes.  And it was then that I would seek out my colleagues in the Public Information Office who were doing exactly what I was, and experiencing exactly what I was.  It was those times with them, and those unscripted moments with them, that made living in the middle of madness tolerable and endurable.  It was their words, their actions, their friendship, and yes, even the occasional neck rub one of them would sometimes give me, while I sat at my desk, that made one day pass more easily and quickly into the next, and then the next.

So, in a small way I began to realize that maybe I was the “remedy” or “therapy” for some of the boys and men I met out in the boonies and outposts throughout the Mekong Delta.  My visit with them maybe gave them a respite from the numbness of the war around them, and made them remember their life back home, and the people back home, if only for a few moments.  But it was those stolen moments away from the reality of death and destruction, and possible finality, that maybe like me, re-energized them, recharged them, for another day in hell, and brought them another day closer to returning to the real world, and their real life.

I was a stranger in their midst, yet I felt connected and a part of what they were going through.  After a day or so, I would get on a helicopter and fly off to my next story, my next “adventure,” while these poor boys and men endured endless days and nights just dreaming, hoping, praying, for their own helicopter ride out of the abyss of their hell on earth.

War is hell.  A different and personal kind of hell for each and every soldier.  Even with my job and my ability to move about, I had my own hell inside my mind.  The emotional trauma of war was no stranger to me, even though I was a stranger in their midst. 


Submitted: June 18, 2021

© Copyright 2021 A.Garcia. All rights reserved.

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